HC Deb 14 June 1979 vol 968 cc761-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cope.]

10 p.m.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

I am most grateful to the Minister for attending to hear my exposition of an anomaly in planning procedures, which I hope to persuade him can be corrected relatively easily. I shall first digress in general terms, describe the problems that exist, and then suggest a solution.

The position at present, incredible though it may seem, is that any person may apply for planning permission to develop or change the use of a property regardless of whether he owns or occupies it. He may make the application without the owner or occupant being aware of the fact that the application has been made.

It requires no stretch of the imagination, once one is aware of the state of affairs, to consider the disadvantages that may arise from an abuse of this procedure. For example, a developer may have acquisitive designs on a property. He may think to himself that to cover a bid it would be prudent first to ascertain from the planning authority whether a change of use or development would be permitted. He may make the necessary application and go some way towards finding out whether such permission will be granted without the knowledge of the owner or occupier.

I cite one example. The owner of a flourishing and popular hotel in my constituency was concerned one morning to find his staff waiting at the door of his office to ask when they could expect to be dismissed, what were his plans and the conditions under which their employment would be terminated. To his great surprise he found that an application to turn his hotel into an old people's home had just been published. That was done entirely without his knowledge by someone who earlier had negotiated the possible purchase of the property. He had mischievously—I do not say maliciously—filed the application without the owner's knowledge. There are possibly more fan- tastic possibilities. There is scope for malice and unfair advantage.

The existing state of affairs is that an owner or tenant of land or property must complete a certificate which clarifies his ownership or tenancy status when he makes a planning application to a local planning authority. So far, so good. However, where an applicant does not own the relevant land or buildings, or have the requisite interest, he must complete certificate B and serve notice No. 1 on the land owner. In that way the land owner, or property owner, is made aware that an application is being made. The owner may make representations to the appropriate planning authority if he wishes to do so. But there is absolutely no way of making certain that this notice has been filed. The application can go forward, and there can be an assertion that the notice has been served or filed, but there is no way in which the planning authorities themselves can confirm that this is the case.

If I may suggest a solution, it is that no planning application should be processed without a certificate of awareness being filed at the same time. The applicant, whether or not he is the owner or occupier, should, simultaneously with his application, file a certificate signed by the owner or occupier saying that he is aware that the application has been made.

It could be argued—I hope that the Minister will not take this view—that a certificate of consent would be desirable, either as an alternative or as an addition to the certificate of awareness. I suggest, with great respect, that a certificate of consent is not so desirable because it might lead to pressure or inducement being brought to bear at an early stage on the owner or occupier, who might be old or infirm or not well acquainted with the law and procedures. The person making the application might succeed in getting consent by means which, if not improper, would perhaps not have worked were all the procedures to be open and above board.

All that is required is a certificate of awareness, without which the application cannot even be considered. This certificate, once it had been completed and signed by the owner or occupier, could then be followed up by the officers of the planning authority who could visit him or her, visit the property, and indulge in those other consultations which are laid down in the Act.

I hope very much that the Minister will see fit, in the fullness of time, to amend the existing provisions so that we shall not have further cases of abuse of this loophole which, although the case that I cited is relatively insignificant and minor, could well give to serious cases were it to be abused on a large scale at a later date.

10.7 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) for introducing this Adjournment debate. Like me, I think he fought an election on 3 May. One hopes that his majority, like mine, increased. One of the premises on which we fought the election was that planning procedures would be investigated—not just simplification and speeding up of the processes but the sort of anomaly to which he has drawn my attention.

I wish that I could be as erudite as my hon. Friend has been in the way that he presented his case, but I think it important that I should perhaps explain to him that, although I have sympathy with the feeling of his constituent in the circumstances that he has described, what is under attack is not really the planning system but, wittingly or unwittingly, the way in which it can be abused. I am not certain that the way out is as easy as he has suggested.

It is open to any person to submit a planning application in respect of any land provided he serves appropriate notice under section 27 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. This section provides that where the land is not wholly in the ownership of the applicant he must submit with his application a certificate stating that he has given notice to all owners of land to which the application relates, or that he has taken reasonable steps to ascertain who are the owners but has been unable to do so. In all fairness to my hon. Friend, I think that he explained that there were difficulties in this area. If the applicant has been unable to trace the owner he must certify that he has had notice of the application published in local papers cir- culating in the locality of the proposed development. The application cannot be determined in the absence of the relevant certificate under section 27.

Where the local planning authority receives an application which appears to be in order it will process that application in accordince with statutory procedures. It would be placing an unreasonable burden on local planning authorities to require them to investigate the accuracy of all section 27 certificates which are received with planning applications. My hon. Friend does not appear to agree, but if the process is to be speeded up it is unreasonable to expect that we should assume that all these applications are fraudulent.

Mr. Alan Clark

The section 27 procedure relates to cases where the applicant does not know, or allegedly does not know, the whereabouts or identity of the owner of the property. I am concerned with cases where the owner of the property is known but is not aware that the application has been made. The two cases are rather different.

Mr. Fox

I think that what I am about to say will answer my hon. Friend's point. An applicant who issues a certificate of this kind in a fraudulent application is open to considerable penalties. If information is misleading, on conviction there are considerable fines.

The law provides, therefore, that a local council should process a planning application when only it has been given a certificate stating that the owner has been notified, or, if not, that he is untraceable, with criminal sanctions against false statements. An application which is not accompanied by such a certificate is invalid and should not be processed. It is my view that these safeguards are good enough and that to take further steps would raise more problems than it would settle.

It has been suggested that an applicant should obtain a certificate of awareness signed by the owner of the land saying that he has received notice of the application. The idea behind this would be the same as that behind the present procedure under section 27 of the Planning Act, that is, to ensure that owners are aware of planning applications relating to their land. Although I can see the attraction of such a provision, I do not think that it would entirely solve the problem described by my hon. Friend, and might indeed cause additional complications and delays.

It is important to remember that development control is quite separate from land ownership, but a system of certificates of awareness might confuse this issue. A land owner might feel that he was being asked, in effect, to give approval in principle to the proposed development before he could be sure of any benefit that he might receive from it. He might well be reluctant to sign such a certificate if he thought that it could commit him to a particular course of action if planning permission were granted. In fairness to my hon. Friend, he did mention this point. It would also be difficult to implement this proosal in cases where ownership of the land could not readily be ascertained or the owner traced.

In addition, many applicants at the time of submitting an application are involved in complex negotiations in order to assemble land, and the additional re-requirement to obtain the owner's signature might serve to complicate these arrangements further or even bring them to a halt. A requirement for a certificate of awareness might also open the way to undesirable practices, such as owners of land requiring payment for their signatures.

I do not think that such a system would in any case prevent what my hon. Friend describes as "mischievous applications". If someone is prepared to fill in a section 27 certificate incorrectly, stating that he has notified the owner of the land of his planning application when in fact he has done no such thing, he may be prepared to submit a fraudulent certificate of awareness. I do not therefore think that my hon. Friend's suggestion would give owners much more in the way of greater safeguard in this matter than that which already exists under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's suggestions. If a planning authority feels unhappy about the adequacy of the provisions of section 27 it can notify the owner of the land that the application has been received. I understand that in the city of Plymouth certain matters have caused anxiety. My hon. Friend men- tioned in particular the owner of one hotel. The owner's name and address should be included in the present certificate. Therefore the planning authority will not be involved in finding out the information. But I shall look into the matter.

Such action would seem to ensure, so far as anyone reasonably can, that owners receive notice of applications. But I would be reluctant, in the absence of any indication that this is a widespread problem, to go further than a suggestion on those lines.

The making of a planning application is, in any case, no secret, since details of all applications, including plans and drawings, have to be entered in the planning register which each local planning authority is required by law to keep. That is the basic source of information to the public about planning applications and is open for inspection by the public during normal office hours. This means that information about all planning applications which are in the pipeline is available to the public. Where the responsibility of a local planning authority extends over a wide area, it is urged to maintain the planning register on an area basis and, in that way, to make it more convenient for local examination by interested bodies.

There are also specific statutory requirements for publicity relating to particular types of development. However, in addition, local planning authorities are perfectly at liberty to give additional publicity to applications if they wish and many do, in fact, make a practice of notifying neighbours and taking account of their views in deciding applications. This practice could extend to cover as a matter of course, if the local planning authority thought it necessary, all owners whose names and addresses are mentioned on the S27 certificate, but I am not convinced that this would be necessary generally.

The greatest safeguard, however, rests in the matter of land ownership. Although the local planning authority must determine the application on its planning merits and is not concerned with who owns the land, this in no way removes the requirement for the developer to obtain the consent of the land owner before starting work. I emphasise that to my hon. Friend. Planning is concerned with the use to which land is put and not with who puts it to that use.

Planning permission does not confer any right to develop land without the owner's consent, and only a person with sufficient control of the land can be in a position to implement planning permission granted in respect of it. A speculative or "mischievous" application—even if it followed or appeared to follow the necessary statutory requirements and subsequently received approval from the local planning authority—would be of no value to the applicant if he did not control the land to which the permission related or have the owner's consent to develop it.

The present system does appear to work well and there is no evidence to suggest that there is any general problem of failure to notify owners of proposed development. Although I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter—the case to which he referred must have caused distress to the owner of the hotel—I cannot believe that the present arrangements under the Town and Country Planning Act are inadequate. However, I promise him that I shall examine carefully the matters that he has drawn to my attention. I hope that the Government's proposals for planning will please him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Ten o'clock.