HC Deb 11 November 1980 vol 992 cc356-65

Lords amendment: No. 85, in page 66, line 42, at end insert— (2A) The Secretary of State may by regulations make such provision as he thinks fit for the payment to him of a fee of the prescribed amount in respect of an application for planning permission which is deemed to be made to him under the planning enactments.

Mr. Fox

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 86 to 89.

Mr. Fox

When the House considered clause 76, hon. Members on both sides expressed unease at the proposal to take powers to charge for planning appeals. We made it clear then that we had taken no final decision on whether to impose charges for appeals. We were well aware that there were issues involved in charging for appeals wider than those raised by charges for planning applications. We were anxious that these issues be discussed fully before we took the final decision. The decision that we took was that the balance of argument weighed against charging for appeals, and in another place the Government accepted amendment No. 86.

However, amendment No. 86 taken alone has the further effect that a person who proceeds with development without planning permission, but subsequently obtains from the Secretary of State the permission that he needs on an enforcement or established use certificate appeal, can successfully avoid payment of the planning application fee which he should have paid at the outset to the local planning authority. Amendment No. 85 remedies this defect by enabling the Secretary of State to charge the appropriate fee in such cases.

The remaining amendments are technical drafting amendments consequential on the first two.

Mr. Graham

I should like to press the Minister a little further on the precise moment at which the Government decided not to proceed with the legislative proposals to make a charge for planning appeals.

When we discussed these matters in Committee and in the House—I have read the proceedings very carefully—the hon. Gentleman always distinguished between the intention and the manner in which the House would need to approve the charges for planning applications and appeals.

This is yet another illustration of the extent to which parliamentary time and money has been expended, not least the considerable agitation that has been caused throughout the country, because the Government, in their haste to pack as much as they could into the Bill, have now decided that there may come a time when they will want to make a charge for planning appeals. The Government, in pursuit of their all-embracing agglomerate, as the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) said, have incurred a great deal of wrath throughout the country.

I speak for my own locality, ratepayers' associations and many other local organisations. The Government should be ashamed of the slipshod manner in which they have sought to ensure that all eventualities are taken into account. They have set in train agitation and concern for many people.

The Greater London Council, when it looked at this matter, fully subscribed to the broad intention of the Government of raising money. The GLC, at the appropriate time, said that it certainly supported the concept of encouraging the development of alternative sources of income in a period of financial restraint. That was the peg upon which the Government hung this matter, and they said that they looked forward to a recoupment, or non-payment in the rate support grant, of about £ 30 million. That sum was based on an assessment of what they thought they would raise from charging for planning applications and of what they might be able to recoup from appeals. To be fair, when the matter was discussed, we were given the precise amounts that the Government thought they would charge for applications and, again to be fair, they were broadly in line with the figures given by the Minister in Committee.

I should like the Minister not merely to say that the Government have dropped the proposal but to give the House what it has not been given at any stage, which is the case for charging for planning appeals.

The Minister said that he had listened carefully to all the representations on the matter, especially those in another place. I believe that the change of mind has come about following pure, mature reflection on the enormous damage which charging for planning appeals would do to the very concept of equity and fair play in our planning legislation.

Before the Minister is allowed to get away with yet another modest Government U-turn, I hope that we shall be told the Government's thinking on the matter. We have already seen their change of mind about the ability of local authorities and municipal undertakings to spend the profits made from their own undertakings for their own good. The Government are extremely adept at deciding when to listen to the other place and when not to. Later, when we come to the provisions dealing with new towns, we shall have yet another illustration of the way that the Government decide selectively to listen to the will of the other place. On that occasion, they were beaten twice. They decided to have another bite at the cherry upstairs but to let one of the new town amendments come down here.

The Minister has a duty to tell the House what motivated him and the Government in the first place in deciding that it was proper to swell the Exchequer or to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement by £10 million or £15 million rather than telling us that he had been persuaded by the arguments in the other place. What was the case, if there every was a case, for charging for planning appeals?

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) has been a little unfair towards my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. I welcome Lords amendments Nos. 85 and 86.

I say only that I have been critical for some months about certain aspects of the proposal to charge for the submission of planning applications. My view has always been that the charge should be only on the planning permission, because in certain cases local planning authorities might reject planning applications with which they agreed in order to encourage revised applications.

My arguments have not persuaded my hon. Friend, of course, but he has come part of the way by not going ahead with the proposal to charge for planning appeals.

Mr. Graham

Inadvertently, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) illustrated the nub of the Opposition's resistance to charging for planning applications. The hon. Member referred to planning permissions. The charges are not for planning permissions. Any such proposal would be heinous. But, inadvertently, the hon. Member said that, and, in the minds of many people, they will be paying for planning permissions.

Mr. Chapman

I did not say it inadvertently. I said it deliberately. My point was that I believed that the charge should be on the planning permission, and not at the time of the submission of the planning application.

My hon. Friend turned down that request because he felt that some people might think they were buying planning permissions. Given that, my hon. Friend has listened to powerful arguments and rejected the original intention in the Bill to charge for planning appeals.

If a local planning authority turns down a planning application to encourage a revised one and get more revenue—and I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the Exchequer dealing with that aspect—and if the applicant feels aggrieved, he can go to a planning appeal without having to pay a fee. I see this as part of a more comprehensive approach by the Government, and, in reply to a written question answered today, the Secretary of State announced that he intended to put forward a general development (amendment) order, the purpose of which would be to remove more minor applications from the need for planning permission. I hope that that will help speed up the dealing, not only with planning applications, but with planning appeals. I see this as part of the jigsaw. I welcome amendments Nos. 85 and 86, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. They have been put down not as a result of pressure from the other place but because my hon. Friend has listened to the arguments which may have been made in Committee by the Opposition but which have certainly been made, to my knowledge, by my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Latham), and other Conservative Members. I welcome the fact that the Government have seen fit to agree to these amendments.

11.15 pm
Mr. Hattersley

Will the hon. Gentleman explain what he said a moment ago? Is he really saying that during the day on which we have been debating the charges and changes of procedure for planning applications he received a written answer from the Minister setting out new procedures?

Mr. Chapman

I have long been pressing for an amendment to the general development order. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that his right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), put forward a general development (amendment) order when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, which he withdrew. I have been pressing for an amendment to that order, and I put down a question yesterday to which I received an answer today. It will doubtless appear in the Official Report tomorrow.

Mr. Hattersley

People who respect this House will discover in astonishment that written questions put down yesterday are now answered today. Not all hon. Members are able to enjoy that remarkable privilege. It must be enormously embarrassing for the Under Secretary of State to take part in a debate on behalf of the Government and find that information on the same subject is being passed to the House in a different direction. That simply reinforces what my hon. Friends and I have been saying throughout the proceedings on this Bill. The Government treat the House with scant courtesy in these matters. If they had treated the House with anything approaching respect, instead of an answer being communicated in that way we would have been given it properly. I am happy to sit down so that the Minister can apologise for the conduct of his colleagues.

Mr. Chapman

I must correct one point. In the reply to my written question, the Secretary of State said that he intends to put forward a general development (amendment) order. In his reply to my question he gave more detail about the amendment. That has been a subject of discussion over the weeks and months. I see nothing improper in that, and I take exception to the suggestion that I have been part of a conspiracy to cover up something. If that had been the case, I would hardly have mentioned it.

Mr. Rippon

I congratulate the Government on having changed their mind with regard to their original intention to charge for planning appeals. That is wise and we should express appreciation that the point has been taken.

I still regret the determination to maintain charges for planning applications. Although these amendments appear to go some way towards remedying some of the anomalies which we considered in earlier proceedings, there might in certain circumstances—apart from the danger of appearing to buy planning permission—be more logic in charging for the planning permission, in the sense of charging for the development that will take place. Some people are afraid that they may have to pay over and over again as they put forward various amended applications to try to meet the local authority's wishes.

I welcome amendment No. 85 inasmuch as it enables the Secretary of State to make provisions for payment to him of a fee in respect of an application for planning permission which is deemed to have been made to him. I appreciate that it is designed to catch some of those who might find an alternative way of establishing planning permission without making the appropriate planning application and attracting the fee. But this applies only to two rather special cases—where there is an enforcement appeal or an established use certificate appeal.

I suggest that the amendment still does nothing to reduce the incentive which will exist concerning smaller developments, in that they are not covered by the somewhat unexpectedly controversial suggestion that there may be an amendment to the general development order. There will still be some incentive not to apply for planning permission, in the hope that action will not be taken.

It may also work unduly harshly, for if the appeal which amendment No. 85 covers is based on other grounds apart from the ground that planning permission ought to be granted, and then succeeds, the Government may still be committed to charging a fee. If an appeal succeeds on the ground that no planning permission at all is required, the fee will still be charged. That seems to be a little harsh.

I still feel some anxieties about giving to any Secretary of State such a wide power to vary and make charges at his discretion, subject only to the affirmative resolutions, which we know do not always give rise to full opportunities to debate the merits of proposals.

Looking at the provisions as they stand, I would continue to take the view—it was expressed by others in the other place, including Lord Boyd-Carpenter—that it is wrong in principle to make these charges.

I can find only two justifications for them. One was in a speech that the Secretary of State made on 13 September 1979 to the Royal Town Planning Institute summer school, when he said: I see no reason why prospective developers should not pay for the service which their demands create. I am not so sure that it is right to describe planning as a service to the developer. It is a constraint upon the developer and, perhaps too infrequently, a service to the Community.

As the Under-Secretary of State said, I find it difficult to accept the argument that somehow the general taxpayer should pay for the improvement to someone else's property or whatever. The person who gains is the person who puts in the application."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 17 April 1980; c. 2198.] But no one, as I see it, is suggesting that the general taxpayer should pay for the improvement to anyone's property. The persons who are supposed to gain by the improvement to the general amenities which the developer brings about—otherwise he would not get the planning permission—are the public.

It would perhaps be more honest if we acknowledged that the real purpose of the provision is to raise money. The Minister in another place was quite frank when he talked of the need to get £30 million revenue as "the basic fundamental point". It might have been better to say that "There is not much principle on which we can stand but we shall raise a considerable amount of money."

Will the Minister reveal just how much he thinks that collecting the fees will cost? I recall that when the Department of the Environment was considering charging fees for building regulations control it said that it would increase local authority expenditure by £2¼ million, even—a quite important proviso—if there were no new staff required.

I understand that there was a reference in the other place to the Birmingham city council having estimated that at least 25 per cent. of the new fees that will be collected under the new Bill will go into the employment of extra staff. If that were true, it would appear to make a great deal of sense at the present time, but perhaps the Minister can give us an assurance that those estimates of the costs of collecting these fees are rather inflated, and he may be able to give better and lower ones.

Mr. Graham

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman comment on this situation? Not only will the increased charges have to be found for the additional staff, but also, at the same time, developers and individuals are having to pay for building regulation costs as well. By the time that those two are added, will not this be part of a twist to the inflationary spiral?

Mr. Rippon

I think that there is controversy over the new building regulations. Added to the cost of development, this is something that we ought to consider very seriously. It is really a way of raising taxation from people who are very often bearing a heavy burden.

Mr. Fox

By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall respond to one or two of the points raised.

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) asked at what point the decision was taken not to charge for appeals. Originally, we started out on the basis that, having accepted that the exercise was to offset public expenditure—let us be truthful; every Government Department has been involved in this exercise—it seemed that within our responsibility was a legitimate area in which to recoup some of the cost of the development control system. Various pressures were put upon us, and we realised that only some £ 4 million or £ 5 million of the £ 30 million came from appeals. That also has a bearing on it.

Many people had a part to play in influencing us in this decision. In Committee and on Report it became obvious that, although there was no charging for planning applications, there was no certainty that the House would accept carrying that further into appeals. Indeed, the Council on Tribunals also expressed some anxiety about the principle.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) said, having charged once for a planning application it would be adding insult to injury for someone to have to get justice by going to appeal and having to pay again.

It was a combination of factors that drove us to this conclusion. It would be fair to say that our minds were made up and it was obvious that in the other place there was the opportunity to make it quite clear that we were not going to take that decision. As the hon. Member for Edmonton said, even in Committee we made it quite clear that we were open to discuss this matter and that nothing had been finalised.

The feigned anger of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) at what he had heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet regarding the general development order is surprising. In Committee we made it clear that this was a move to come at another time. Obviously it had nothing to do with this Bill, other than to remove a certain number of planning applications from the system. The right hon. Gentleman must know that a consultation paper has been published on this amendment. The hon. Member for Edmonton will wait with bated breath, because I can tell him now that we have made certain concessions which will please him enormously. Along with, I think. 99 colleagues to whom I have written in the normal course of my work, he will be getting a letter to let him know at the first opportunity what we have done. I do not see anything underhand in this. I should have thought that hon. Members would be delighted that we are acting with such speed.

I am grateful for the observations of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon). Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all, in terms of the cost of collection. I wonder why it is that, whenever local government is put in a position of collecting fees or doing some such thing, automatically people talk about increased manpower. We said in Committee and we have constantly repeated that if we keep this as a simple procedure, under which everyone knows exactly what the fee will be for a planning application, it should be a very simple matter to open an envelope in the planning department of the town hall and extract a cheque which ought to match up with the fee. In no circumstances do we see the growth of bureaucracy that certain people are casting around as being the consequence of our actions.

To deal with the point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham about charging for an enforcement appeal which succeeds, I can tell him that there is every intention to refund the charge in those circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments 86 to 89 agreed to. [Special Entry.]

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