HC Deb 15 May 1981 vol 4 cc1066-72

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

1.50 pm
Mr. Stephen Hastings (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The clause governs the schedule to come, and, since the real mechanics of the Bill are contained in that schedule, it may help the Committee to understand the changes proposed if I explain that the Bill is concerned with two important aspects of the statutory provisions for the enforcement of development control and of control of listed buildings.

The Bill consists of two short clauses, introducing and bringing it into effect, and a fairly lengthy schedule which affects amendments and some additions to the existing provisions in part V of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. This part of the Town and Country Planning Act may not seem to be of great importance, but in fact the quality of life which people experience in their immediate neighbourhood, and the way in which our listed buildings are looked after and maintained, may well depend upon the effectiveness of the provisions available to local planning authorities to ensure that people are not encouraged to carry out unlawful development or to make unlawful alterations to listed buildings in the knowledge that very little can be done to prevent them.

It may help the Committee to understand the changes in the Bill if I explain briefly how the system works at present. If someone carries out development without planning permission, or carries out works to a listed building without the local planning authority's prior approval, there is provision in the 1971 Act for the planning authority to serve a notice on the person concerned; and this "enforcement notice", as it is called, tells him precisely what unlawful development is alleged to have taken place and specifies what he must do to remedy it, within a time-limit which also has to be specified in the notice. But that is often not the end of the matter, because there is also provision for anyone who receives one of these enforcement notices to appeal against it to the Secretary of State for the Environment or, in Wales, the Secretary of State for Wales on any one of a number of grounds which are specified in the 1971 Act. All these provisions in the 1971 Act are fairly longstanding and some of them differ only slightly from the original provisions in the Town and Country Planing Act 1947. In the main, they work tolerably well, but practical experience during the last 10 years has shown that they can be improved without altering the basic framework. That is the purpose of the Bill.

It may help the Committee if I give some practical examples of what is involved when a planning authority is considering enforcement action. Quite frequently, enforcement action begins with a complaint from a neighbour, or someone else living in the immediate locality, who finds that his life is being made intolerable by some unexpected development or change of use in premises. For example, there might be a small garage or engineering workshop in a largely residential area in the suburbs of a town whose ownership changes hands and the new owner is determined to go in for bigger and better equipment or machinery and longer working hours. In these circumstances, the life of ordinary people in the neighbourhood may become very difficult, and the only effective remedy open to them is to get their local planning authority to serve an enforcement notice. Just the same kind of thing can happen in rural areas—as I know from my own experience. For example, a transport or haulage contractor may decide to acquire a disused farmyard and the buildings which go with it and turn them into a base for his business. The result can be that the whole nature of the immediate locality is changed because heavy vehicles and trailers start to operate along narrow country roads, which are incapable of accommodating them, so that local people may find it hazardous to use roads which were previously quite safe and ordinary farming or agricultural activities have to compete with a very different kind of business. If activities of this kind could take place without any effective means for the planning authority to take enforcement action against them, it would make a mockery of our system of development control.

The same sort of thing can happen with listed buildings, though the Bill does not deal with the problem of unlawful demolition. If a listed building is totally demolished, enforcement action requiring rebuilding is not appropriate because the replacement building would not be of true architectural or historic interest. There may be places, such as an historic terrace or square, where it is important to retain the impression of the original architecture, and planning permission would only be granted for a replica building or facade. Where enforcement action is most effective is where part of a building is demolished—perhaps the chimneys or stonework are taken down—or when features of the interior of the building are removed, sometimes through sheer ignorance of their architectural value.

There have been cases of the removal of chimney-pieces, carved or plaster ceilings, or panelling which are part of the history of the building or are the work of a particular craftsman or artist. If this comes to the notice of the local planning authority quickly enough, it can serve a listed building enforcement notice requiring the reinstatement of these features. Enforcement action is also useful when an owner removes external features of the building such as cast iron balconies, cornices and other decorative work rather than spend money to repair them. These features can contribute so much to the appearance of a building and their re-instatement as a result of an enforcement notice can restore the building almost to its former appearance.

Thus, the Bill deals with two aspects of the provisions for enforcement of control. First, it deals, in paragraphs 1 to 8 of the schedule, with the provisions for serving an enforcement notice. It does so by giving planning authorities wider powers to require certain steps to be taken to remedy a breach of control. Instead of being limited, as they are at present, to requiring the land to be restored to its previous conditions, these new provisions would enable authorities to require steps to be taken to make the development comply with the terms of any planning permission they have granted, or to require steps to be taken to remove or alleviate any injury to amenity which the unlawful development has caused. There are also a number of other procedural amendments which are intended to tidy up the present arrangements for serving enforcement notices and make them more effective.

Secondly, the Bill deals with the arrangements for an appeal to be made to the Secretary of State against any enforcement notice or listed building enforcement notice. It is right that the 1971 Act should make provision for a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. No one is arguing with that. But we have to recognise the two inherent disadvantages in this type of appeal, namely that the very act of appealing against a notice prevents it from taking effect as quickly as the authority intends and neighbours would usually like; and it tends to cause delay because certain statutory procedures must be properly observed, in the interests of natural justice, in deciding any appeal. The second aspect of these provisions is therefore concerned with speeding up the appeal arrangements and enabling them to operate more effectively.

The great difficulty about an enforcement appeal is that, unlike an ordinary planning appeal, there is usually no incentive for the appellant to make progress quickly. Indeed, the reverse is often the case. The only way to cure that defect is to give the Secretary of State adequate powers to be master of his own proceedings on an appeal to him. My right hon. Friend regards this as a matter of great importance because, without these powers, he is unable to fulfil properly the pledges he has made to speed up decisions on all appeals. The Bill also contains other amendments to the appeal provisions which would enable the Secretary of State to make more flexible and constructive use of the power he has to grant planning permission when determining an appeal.

The schedule contains a number of consequential amendments elsewhere in the 1971 Act and a quite important provision in paragraph 6 for setting up a register of enforcement notices and stop notices which every planning authority would have to keep. The advice I have been given by the Department of the Environmentnt is that the aggregate effect of these amendments would not be to require any additional staff for planning authorities because there would be gains and losses in functions which would broadly offset each other.

These are not strikingly original provisions but their practical effect should be real and thoroughly beneficial in any neighbourhood—whether in city or countryside—where the local planning authority and local people feel now that they are frustrated by the procedural and other shortcomings of the existing provisions for bringing about a quick end to intolerable nuisances. I therefore commend to the Committee this short Bill—the clause and the schedule which depends upon it.

Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

It gives the Opposition considerable satisfaction to be able to congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) on his ability to persuade the Government to see the wisdom of the Bill. I imagine, however, that the Government had a strong hand in formulating it.

I understand that in substance this provision was contained in the Local Government, Planning and Land Bill when it first appeared in another place. That Bill, because of pressure of time and weight of opinion, was subsequently dropped. In welcoming the clause, I ask the promoter or the Minister to explain why there have been changes from the Bill originally presented in another place.

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When any aspect of planning legislation has been experienced in practice over a number of years, there is toa general view that changes need tko be made. The Government have brought about changes designed to speed up decisions in other matters that we have not particularly welcomed, but I congratulate them on their determination to tidy up this aspect. There is no point in the House or the country believing that there is a framework of legislation with which law-abiding citizens must comply while at the same time recognising that—often accidentally, but sometimes maliciously—people may get round it. Either the enforcement powers are ignored or, as I experienced when I had the honour to be chairman of a planning committee, officers suggest that there is little point in serving an enforcement notice because by the time it became effective the villain would have moved on, or the car showroom that had sprouted up would be able to protract the proceedings by going to court and so on, so that it would be a waste of time. When the law degenerates to that extent, it must be tackled.

The promoter is right. The Bill provides the opportunity for sensible people to be more flexible while still trying to adhere to the proper planning concepts of protecting the environment. Planning is about good sense and not being too militant in seeking to ensure that one idea or another about how the environment should develop holds sway.

It is certainly an improvement that a planning committee will not be faced with the choice of asking its officers and a Minister to approve any change or to go back to square one and allow the building to be demolished. I cannot imagine that the Minister will lightly insist that, if there is a defect or a refusal to comply, one should in effect go back to square one. I welcome very much the fact that the planning officer will haves a further opportunity to exercise persuasion.

Last year, my own borough council of Enfield served 120 enforcement notices. Inquiries show that at least as many again could have been served, but were not because the officers had the good sense, the discretion and the power to discuss the matter with the offenders, to explain that if they persisted the council would have to engage in a great deal of time, expense and aggro, and thus persuaded them to desist. The flexibility provided by the Bill is therefore very useful.

I am, however, a little disturbed at one or two aspects of the provisions. For instance, when the legislation first appeared it was intended to increase the daily fines for non-compliance. At present, the daily fine is £50. It was intended in another place, subject to the discretion and decision of the courts, to increase that to £100. I should have thought that anything set at £50 10 years ago was certainly worth £100 now. Frankly, I believe that the more punitive the fine, the greater the chance of people complying with the law. I should therefore be grateful if we could be told about that.

I should also like more assurance about the resources implications, particularly with regard to the register. I can see very good sense in keeping a register which may be inspected not only by officers and councillors but by the general public. Again, however, on a number of occasions—for instance, when there was an increase from 10 per cent. to permitted 15 per cent. with regard to development—when we said that this would mean more people being employed for more time ensuring that everything complied, the Department said that there would be a redistribution of resources. It does not envisage any extra cash.

We were told that there was no resource implication of charges for planning applications. We now have something else that is good in itself, but I am worried if planning departments are being asked to do a number of things, such as keeping a register, when they are under severe pressure, not least from their finance committees, in turn under pressure from the Government, to try to cut down spending and staff.

I can see this legislation being very welcome in the borough of Enfield, which is in my constituency. I appreciate that the Bill is designed to deal with listed buildings as well as general environmental matters. In Enfield the listed buildings provisions will play a part, though it will not be as important as in some other parts of the country. The biggest detriment to the environment that aggravates my constituents is the normal one—the small business,— such as car repairing, that springs up in residential areas. A continuing festering sore is the use of industrial sewing machines. I have been on deputations to Labour Ministers and to the Under-Secretary's predecessor, all of whom were sympathetic. If I can be told that the daily fine for non-compliance with a planning refusal will be increased that will at least give some satisfaction to my constituents, in that the Bill will help deal with the aggravations in their midst.

I warmly welcome the whole Bill, but whatever we do here we are still at the mercy of councils. It depends on whether councillors are willing to issue enforcement notices. Sometimes it takes courage; sometimes they will be unpopular. We want councils and councillors that are prepared to say 'No matter who and no matter where—not only in the more salubrious parts of the borough, but in others—we want enforcement."

We are then still at the mercy of the courts and clever solicitors. That is why I welcome the Secretary of State's new power, on appeal, where there are errors in an enforcement notice, to vary its terms to make it valid rather than simply throw it out because it does not contain the precisely correct form of words.

The official Opposition believe that this is a useful addition to the armoury of legislation designed to protect our environment.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Giles Shaw)

I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings) on introducing the Bill. As the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) suggested, the Government see it as remedying an important omission when there was an important opportunity—the 1979 Local Government, Planning and Land Bill.

It would be right to tell the Committee why the Bill is in its present form. When we removed schedule 12 to the 1979 Bill, that was, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, because of the shortage of time in which to deal with it. We did not undertake that everything that the schedule contained would be reproduced and passed in its own right. However, we agreed to try to provide an opportunity to deal with those elements that had been omitted. Within the confines of a Private Member's Bill it is not possible to be as comprehensive as would have been possible in a Government Bill.

The hon. Gentleman raised in particular the question of penalties. I accept that there is a strong case for increasing them at least in line with inflation and, more appropriately, in line with the enormity of the offence. However, penalties are more appropriately dealt with in a Government measure. They should be revised in relation to the Town and Country Planning Act, of which the enforcement procedure that we are discussing is only a part. We should prefer to be able to take a view on the revision of all penalties and not deal with one section of penalties.

Mr. Graham

Is the Minister saying that that is not contained in the Bill because there is an intention, as soon as possible, to have a comprehensive measure that will deal with all penalties?

Mr. Shaw

That is our intention. But I must enter the caveat that we are not entirely our own masters in the Department. The subject of penalties will require consultation with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his Department. It may not be easy to say that we can deliver as soon as possible a Bill that will deal with this matter.

The hon. Member for Edmonton has made the point on penalties. I do not have a closed mind and will consider what he says to see whether we can move separately on Report in another place.

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that for those of us in London, especially in central London, the penalty is of great importance because of the amount of money that can be made out of activities on some premises? A daily fine of £50 is ludicrous in relation to the amusement arcade industry or the sex industry. Even a £100 fine is inadequate. I urge my hon. Friend of the need to look on this with great sympathy.

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend's contention is that London has more than its fair share of problems in relation to fines and the appropriateness of fines in certain industries. Let me be clear, we are considering enforcement. My hon. Friend has quite correctly mentioned fines in total in relation to planning legislation.

Those two strong points have been made. I owe it to the Committee to give serious consideration whether it would be appropriate for us to make a move on fines in this measure on Report in another place.

The hon. Member for Edmonton raised a question about the register and questioned the manpower and costs that might be involved in making the new register available. It is our view that there are many changes in the operations of the planning committees and planning authorities which counterbalance. He referred to the increase in the number of permitted developments available for domestic and small industrial users, but, as he will recall, that releases from the planning system a considerable number of applications—about 50,000 a year. There would probably be a release of manpower in local authorities as a result.

As a register already exists, we do not consider that, by requiring the addition of an enforcement register, we are seriously increasing local authority costs or manpower requirements. It is a cardinal requirement of Government policy that local authorities strictly control and, if possible, reduce their spending. If, in the operation of the register, we have strong representations from local authority interests that they are unable to operate it for satisfactory reasons, we may have to think again about it. Our intention is that the new register will be valuable, especially on the legal and conveyancing sides in handling matters where there is enforcement. For that reason, if for no other, that is an important part of the Bill.

Mr. Graham

Why was the provision in the earlier Bill, in relation to trees and wasteland and the tidying up of the enforcement procedures, dropped in this Bill?

Mr. Shaw

Once again, it is a question of time. Our advice to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire was that to enable him to process a Private Member's Bill it would be necessary to restrict its scope. There are many desirable things, of which that is one, which we might have seen fit to include.

I hope that the Committee will be satisfied and allow the Bill to proceed.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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