HC Deb 20 May 1980 vol 985 cc462-74

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

12.36 am
Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to raise the subject of land speculation and the sale of leisure plots. I wish to draw the attention of the House to a situation which some might describe as scandalous. A few years ago that situation was confined largely to Kent, Surrey Sussex, Essex and the Home Counties in general. However, the problem has spread to the Midlands and has become of national concern. I know of places in Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire where such land speculation is prevalent.

The problem will multiply unless some positive planning solution is found. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Wakeham) is in the Chamber. I am not sure which hat he is wearing. Perhaps he is wearing the hat that he usually wears in the Chamber, namely, that of a Government Whip. However, he may be wearing the hat of a Member of Parliament for a constituency that is affected by this type of land speculation. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy first raised this issue in the House on 19 November 1975. He gave particular examples of the activities of leisure plot speculators who were then operating in Kent. I am also glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Faver-sham (Mr. Moate), for Gravesend (Mr. Brinton) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolf-son) are in the Chamber. They all have similar examples of this obnoxious form of land speculation in their constituencies.

I am advised that even in the plushest pastures of West Sussex and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson)—which he represents so assiduously—such speculation occurs. Since my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed)—now the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy—raised this issue in 1975, no constructive solutions have been found either by the previous Administration or by the present Government. As the Government are reaching the end of the Committee stage of the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill—part of which seeks to make planning procedures more positive and efficient, and to stamp out anomalies—the time would seem ripe to examine the problem again.

Land speculators buy up parcels of agricultural land. The land is usually grazing land that is deep in the heart of the countryside. It is usually of poor quality and is invariably in the green belt. They buy the land at almost knock-down agricultural prices. Depending on the area, they buy the land for between £500 and £2,000 an acre. In the guise of £100 companies that are controlled by nominee directors and that have £2 shares, the speculators parcel up the land into separate plots. The plots usually measure about 100ft by 40ft. In rare cases they may measure half an acre and in still rarer cases, an acre. They then advertise the plots in the "land for sale" columns of the popular weekly press at anything from £150 per plot to £1,000 a plot. Their profit margins are not too difficult to calculate, even at this rather late hour. At the minimum they are usually £3,000 an acre.

The poor buyer, usually a town dweller, to whom the prospect of a plot of land in the country is a chance of a lifetime, is left with a piece of land which, he is assured by carefully-worded advertisements and ambiguously-worded sales particulars, can be used only for gardening, leisure and related purposes, but which in reality is absolutely worthless and valueless. Because of planning restrictions, the land has no access by road and no sewerage or running water, and, because of its obscurity, the new owner is not even allowed to erect a fence to delineate his boundary.

The sales particulars read something like this: Cheap land (freehold). Your own leisure garden. Beat the falling pound and inflation. Invest in land for growing and leisure, from £195 full price. Plot sizes approximately 40ft. by 100ft. Larger plots, some with future building potential— Whatever that may mean also available on easy terms. Another set of particulars from which I shall quote, reads: The investment for everyone. If you are interested in securing your future with minimum trouble and maximum results, you should consider the case for land. Most of us save in a variety of ways ranging from the piggy bank via savings banks and unit trusts, silver and paintings, to the land and property investments of the big companies. In these times of inflation, which are here to stay, the piggy bank is a poor loser, and the land the outright winner. The effect of inflation is continually to erode the value of money; anything of enduring value therefore becomes more expensive. Land values increase at substantially more than the inflation rate because of the additional effects of expanding population and subsequent pressure for demand for land. It was first said last century— in fact I believe that it was said by Mark Twain— ' Put your money into land—they don't make it any more.' The sales particulars imply that possible future planning potential exists in this land. The particulars go on to say, under the heading of "Speculation": It is not possible to see what the long-term possibilities for development are for any specific area of land. It is certain that large areas must be released for development soon, in order to overcome the housing shortage. … When permission for any type of development is given on any land, the value increases enormously. For example, a small building plot for one house … is at present (1973) worth about £5,000, depending on location. The same size plot without planning consent can be obtained … for about £300. Even without out development, however, the value still continues to increase as always. Then, under the heading of "Growing for Profit", the pamphlet says: The land may be used for any form of agriculture or forestry—fir trees, fruit or decorative trees, shrubs, vines, market produce, such as your own fresh, chemical-free salads. Christmas trees, for example, require very little attention (a yearly visit with a small rotary cutter should suffice to clear between rows), can be planted at a density of 3,000 to 4,000 trees per acre and reach a saleable size in three to five years. Some varieties of strawberries have yielded about two tons per acre—very profitable, but they do need some attention. One can see how the poor buyer can easily be short-changed by the activities of these speculators using the English language in its most elastic and persuasive form. But it is not simply the poor buyers who suffer. The local authorities and local residents suffer too. In view of the approaches to most of these sites, there are often problems, especially at weekends when the plots are visited by large numbers of owners with their individual forms of transport. Furthermore, the sales of these plots of land generate a rash of small-scale development under article 3 of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1973, and, even where planning control is involved, there is always difficulty in exercising it and in taking timely enforcement action.

When the land is split up for recreational purposes, the permitted rights still persist. They are often abused. The site becomes an area of sporadic picnic sites, caravans, camps and other forms of buildings, which ruin the natural state of the area to the detriment of the local environment and the landscape.

Furthermore, the use of the land for leisure is often contrary to the policies of the development plan. The sites are usually in areas where it is intended that the uses for agriculture and forestry should not be disturbed. In many instances there is a loss of effective farming and productive agriculture land. Where the land is woodland, there is a threat to its preservation and management in accordance with the principles of good forestry. There is also a substantial fire risk through picnickers lighting fires and not being able to control them. I ask my hon. Friend to consider also refuse collection and the disposal of sewage, and the practical and environmental problems that they present. Those uses also cause injury to wildlife. Where the area is of special scientific interest, the specific fauna and flora may be seriously damaged.

I ask my hon. Friend to agree that the normal planning control measures are inadequate to deal with those problems, the primary cause of which is the physical division of the land into plots. Planning powers at present have no relevance to land ownership. I am advised that to use land in one's ownership for personal enjoyment such as picnics, camping, relaxation or cultivation does not constitute development within the meaning of section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. Furthermore, there is no planning control to deal with the consequent loss of effective farming and productive agricultural land or the threat to forestry caused through fragmentation of the land.

Will my hon. Friend also consider the problems of fire risk and the practical and economic difficulties of refuse collection and sewage disposal, which also cannot be dealt with by planning control. Neither planning nor highway and road traffic legislation can deal with the problem of increasing traffic using narrow approach roads that are public highways, particularly at weekends. Furthermore, I am advised that there is no planning method to prevent injury to wildlife and the flora that supports it.

Lastly, I come to a point that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary dwelt on in 1975. Article 4 directions are not wholly effective. They have to be made and approved by the Secretary of State before the permitted development takes place. The delay involved often lessens their effectiveness or even renders such directions useless. For the reasons that I have mentioned, and in regard to the uses that I have mentioned, such as picnics, camping, relaxation or cultivation, which do not constitute development, article 4 directions have no effect. They merely prevent development ancillary to the use. Furthermore, the liability for compensation in such cases seems an unfair burden on the local authority. The imposition of article 4 directions by the local planning authority does not protect the poor purchaser who has parted with his life savings, and does not help to control the development of the land. They are effective only after the land has been developed and the speculator has made off with his ill-gotten gains.

Even where article 4 directions have been made, the taking of enforcement action places a great burden on the local planning authority. The sites are often remote, and the plots are well hidden. Therefore, to detect and deal with contraventions and maintain control requires a large staff, involving considerable expenditure of time and money. At a time when we are endeavouring to identify waste and discover where economies can be made in local administration that must be questionable. I submit that the whole procedure of article 4 directions is not in accord with the Government's wishes to maintain a positive planning role. The planning enforcement procedures are too cumbersome to deal with the large numbers of small individual contraventions which, taken together, constitute a serious injury to the environment.

I believe that the Association of County Councils, the Association of District Councils, the National Farmers Union and other representative bodies share my view that positive steps should be taken to stop this undesirable practice spreading.

I believe that the Government should pursue the question of control under the Fair Trading Act 1973, and consider reinstating the sale of land under the Trade Descriptions Acts of 1968 and 1972. Most important, I commend to my hon. Friend that the Government should also adopt the suggestion put forward by Mr. George Dobry, QC, that a change of use from agricultural or forestry to leisure use is a material change of use—positively requiring planning permission, and in this respect I remind the House of what Mr. Dobry said in his report "Review of the Development Control System": I would like to make one specific recommendation. I have evidence of a recent practice of selling leisure plots on the assumption that planning permission is not required. This naturally leads to serious objection from the public, as in practical terms a weekend invasion results, and substantial intense cultivation of the use of land takes place. Clearly this should be made the subject of planning control. Section 22(3) of the 1971 Act should be amended to provide (for the avoidance of doubt) that a change in the use of a separate plot of land from agriculture to ' leisure use ' would constitute development. Furthermore, in order to assist the Fair Trading Act, I believe that the Town and Country Planning Act should be amended to require planning permission to be obtained for the sub-division of land, as well as for development, except possibly for the sub-division of land for agricultural purposes, purely and simply, as opposed to agricultural purposes involving leisure, horticulture or some other use. To strengthen this, the definition of agriculture should be that used in the Agriculture Act 1947—that is, agriculture pursued as a trade or business—and not that used in the Town and Country Planning Act—where it is only an activity which could merely be carried out on a profit and pleasure basis as a hobby. It might be better to specify sub-division of ownership of land as requiring planning permission, rather than to include it in the definition of ' development '.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for attending the House at this late hour—though it is not as late as it might have been—and trust that he will consider that now is the time to take positive steps to control the abuse which fosters speculation of the most undesirable kind, leaves purchasers penniless, causes the loss of productive land and the disruption of viable agricultural units, and so allows some dubious people to drive a coach-and-four through our planning Acts.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) for raising this subject. He had here to listen to him my hon. Friends the Members for Maldon (Mr. Wakeham), for Ashford (Mr. Speed), for Faversham (Mr. Moate), for Gravesend (Mr. Brinton), for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) and for Seven-oaks (Mr. Wolfson).

It is a subject which has concerned my hon. Friend for a long time and on which his knowledge is extensive. My Department has been grateful to him for the research that he has done on leisure plots and for providing a detailed dossier on leisure plot development.

I can well appreciate the reasons for my hon. Friend's concern. He illustrated graphically the situation of many people who have been misled—that is not too strong a wor\d—in this area. Leisure plot developments have caused anxiety to many who care about rural development, the amenity of unspoilt areas and the preservation of agricultural land. They have also caused great disappointment to many who have parted with money for something that proved not to be what they had hoped for.

In their farming policies, the Government are strongly committed to protecting the rural environment and safeguarding agricultural land from unnecessary development of whatever sort.

The increasing demand that we have seen for many years for leisure facilities in the countryside has added to the legitimate competing demands on scarce rural land. It is clear to us that my hon. Friend is right in saying that uncontrolled leisure plot development can have a destructive effect on the countryside. That is clearly something which our planning system, designed as it is to ensure a proper use of land, should be controlling. Yet it has not been easy to control. My hon. Friend asked me to do something about that, and I assure him that I shall certainly look carefully at the matter.

There has always been the risk that planning would come on the scene only after the damage had been done. My hon. Friend has made it quite plain that he does not think that the present system of planning control is a satisfactory method of preventing speculators from taking advantage of ordinary people who simply want to acquire a small plot of land in the countryside where they can spend some of their leisure time. My hon. Friend has raised this matter at Question Time, and I hope I have reassured him that my concern, like his, is for the people who are outwitted in this respect. The person who has disposed of the land escapes scot-free, and the buyer who has parted with his money is left with so little. I do not pretend that the present system is ideal in this respect, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that he underestimates what planning authorities can already achieve if they are sufficiently vigilant about the possible development of leisure plots.

I should like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the significance of the decisions taken by the previous Secretary of State in March last year on enforcement appeals involving leisure plots on land at the Blackwater Estuary Estate, near Maldon in Essex. My hon. Friend has expressed concern about the inadequacy of article IV directions for controlling that kind of development. The Black-water Estuary decisions showed that the article IV direction is strictly irrelevant to the question whether the creation of a leisure plot from former agricultural land is development within the meaning of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, and whether it is, therefore, subject to planning control.

The Secretary of State found on those appeals that the creation of those particular plots was a material change of use of the land from agriculture to leisure plots, and it amounted to development requiring planning permission. That does not mean that every leisure plot development will necessarily need planning permission because, as the House knows, every planning decision is given on the basis of the facts of the individual case. But at least it shows that there are some circumstances in which the creation of leisure plots has to be regarded as development and, therefore, requires planning permission before it can take place.

I am bound to add that there has been a challenge in the High Court to the previous Secretary of State's decision, and we may have to look again at this question when we eventually receive the court's judgment. But, for the time being at least, that is our view on the matter.

I know that there is still particular concern amongst planning authorities in the Home Counties about leisure plots, and nowhere has that concern been expresed more strongly than by Kent county council. I understand why the council has decided to include in its Bill, which is now in another place, a clause which is intended to control the use of land as leisure plots by means of a licensing system which would be operated by the district councils. When that clause is considered by the Committee, we shall explain fully why we have serious doubts as to whether this is the appropriate way in which to deal with what is admittedly a very difficult problem of planning control. I accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham probably sees this as the answer. But there are many problems involved, particularly when one considers what the Government are trying to do in the introduction of the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill which is now reaching its final stages in Committee. But, as I said, we shall return to the matter.

I shall not, therefore, try to anticipate now the consideration that will have to take place elsewhere. But I should like to point out that Kent county council's approach to this problem, however well-meaning, is bound to result in a system of control operating in parallel to planning control under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 and the general development order. It is bound to produce a great confusion for all concerned, not least for a prospective purchaser of leisure plots, who would find it very difficult indeed, even with good legal advice, to decide how these two systems in practice affected the land that he was interested in acquiring. There may well be occasions when land should be made available for this purpose.

In terms of what we are debating tonight, I accept the anxieties, but I make clear that in terms of leisure and the very desirable purpose for which some of these plots are bought, we must be very careful not to rule out altogether reasonable and responsible development. Hon. Members must not be led astray by the abuses which are being drawn to my attention tonight. I do not think that the approach that Kent county council has adopted is the right one in the circumstances, and I wonder whether it has properly considered the administrative consequences of its proposals, which seem to me to be little short of a bureaucratic nightmare, which none of my hon. Friends would really want.

What I have said so far will not provide great comfort to those who have paid for leisure plots on the basis of advertisements which have misled them. It seems to me comparatively rare now for advertisements to say directly that there is a possibility of planning permission for development, and hence a very large capital gain. But people are certainly led to assume that they will be able to fence off their patch of land and perhaps to park a caravan on it and use it for normal recreation purposes. Advertising for land is not subject to the Trade Descriptions Act. Reference was made to this by my hon. Friend. I do not want to stray into this subject, which is one for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade.

But in raising this debate, and in his other activities in this field, my hon. Friend performs the valuable service of calling public attention to the issue. By doing so he is increasing the public awareness of the risks of parting with money for these plots without proper awareness of the planning controls governing them. Equally, there is much to be gained from a wider awareness of the controls available to a planning authority if it is alive to developments in its area and reacts quickly.

My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to George Dobry's observations on this matter' in particular. We have been very grateful in Government for Mr. Dobry's advice on many other matters in the planning field, and in the Bill that is before Parliament at this stage we have, taken considerable note of what he has had to say.

Equally, I believe that by drawing people's attention to this we can avoid the damaging effects of the worst leisure plot developments that have taken place. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about all this, but I have to tell him that the solutions are not quite as easy to find. That does not mean to say that we are not looking for them, and I hope he will accept from me that all the remarks he has made to me tonight, plus the attendance of his hon Friends, impresses upon us that there is a need to do something. I hope that he will accept that in the spirit in which it is intended.

1.4 am

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

May I take advantage of these two minutes, left either deliberately, for which I thank the Minister, or inadvertently by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle), to say a few words on this very important subject?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative in raising the debate. It is a very helpful move to get the subject aired once again in the House. It is very frustrating that after many years still no solution has been found to it. It seems that there is a lack of desire by the officials in the Minister's Department to find a solution to this very real problem. Of course, one recognises that there are difficulties in legislation to deal with the problem, but one would have thought a solution could be found. He paid tribute to Mr. George Dobry for his work. Mr. Dobry in his report conclusively urged that there should be legislation to deal with the problem.

I was disappointed by the reply of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary which seemed to suggest, again, that the Government's response is "We understand the dilemma and we want to curb the problem but we are afraid that this particular solution put forward by Kent county council is not the answer and therefore the Government will oppose it". That was the essence of what my hon. Friend had to say.

I ask my hon. Friend to look again at the proposal from Kent county council and at the answer given by his officials to see whether there is not some solution in the method proposed by Kent.

I do not think that my hon. Friend's answers were convincing. He seemed to suggest, first, that he wants to protect a certain number of leisure plots. He seemed to think that there were some good leisure plots and that the buyers of those plots needed protection. It may be that somewhere there are some good, desirable leisure plots, but all I can say to my hon. Friend is that we have not experienced them in Kent and I have not heard of anyone in other areas saying that they were desirable developments.

Yet that seemed to be what my hon. Friend was saying. In almost every area where we have experienced them, in areas of outstanding natural beauty, in woodlands, coastal sites or agricultural land, they are a bad development and should be controlled.

I think that my hon. Friend's argument that somehow the Kent proposals would impose a licensing and bureaucratic system—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at six minutes past One o'clock.