HC Deb 12 December 1983 vol 50 cc783-6

12.6 am

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 5, line 15, leave out subsections (1) and (2) and insert— '(1) A local planning authority or, in Scotland, a planning authority in whose area Crown Land is situated may direct that subsection (2) below shall apply to such use or such building or works as is or are specified in such direction, being a use resulting from a material change made or proposed to be made by the Crown in the use of the land or being a building or works constructed or proposed to be constructed by, on behalf of or for use by the Crown. (2) Where a direction is made under subsection (1) above in respect of any land, then if at any time—

  1. (a) in the case of the use the land ceases to be used by the Crown for the purpose specified in a direction; or
  2. (b) in the case of a building or works any person acquires a private interest in the land
the resumption of that use as a private use or the retention of that building or those works by a person having a private interest, as the case may be, shall, for the purposes of the Act of 1971 or, in Scotland the Act 1972, be taken to involve development of the land.'.

The Chairman

I suggest that it would be for the convenience of the Committee to discuss at the same time the following amendments:

No. 5, in page 5, line 29, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'direction'.

No. 6, in page 5, line 32, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'direction'.

No. 7, in page 5, line 34, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'direction'.

No. 8 in page 5, line 35, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'direction'.

No. 9, in page 5, line 40, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'direction'.

No. 10, in page 5, line 41, leave out 'agreement' and insert 'direction'.

No. 11, in page 5, line 46, at end add:— '(6) A copy of any direction may under subsection (1) above shall as soon as may be after it has been made be served upon the appropriate authority and upon any other person who appears to the local planning authority or, in Scotland, the planning authority, to have a private interest which is materially affected by the direction.'.

Dr. Clark

These are probing amendments. The clause in essence deals with the situation where, following an agreement between the Crown and a local authority, planning permission is required for a change of use when an establishment passes from the Crown to another body. In our view, that agreement should not be permissive but mandatory and therefore should be a direction, and several of the amendments in the group are drafting amendments to implement that.

We feel that to restrict planning permission, even by agreement, to change of use is too restrictive and narrow. Will the Government, either here or in another place, consider extending that provision to any building? The Crown may establish, say, an engineering works— it might be associated with the armaments industry—and sell that establishment to a third party. I understand that, under the clause as drafted, planning permission would not be required so long as the factory was used for engineering purposes. We say that in the name of good planning, it would be helpful to local authorities if they were required to give planning permission in respect of all buildings, and not only for a change of use.

Amendment No. 11 would cause there to be more publicity so that people would know what had been achieved following a direction or agreement. This group of amendments is designed to make the Bill more meaningful and provide for better planning at the local level.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I am anxious to help the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) because he has given much thought to this point. Indeed, we touched on it on Second Reading. I know that he understands that I am anxious to ensure that the Bill is right in every sense before it goes to another place. The hon. Gentleman raised certain points, on which we may be able to help somewhere along the line.

The difficulty with the amendment is that it calls into question, even though in only one respect, the principle that development by the Crown is not subject to planning control. As I explained to the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading, it is our clear and firm intention that the Bill should not undermine the Crown's position in that way. At present, the Crown can make a material change in the use of the premises it occupies—in other words, from a hotel to offices—without the need to obtain planning permission. The amendment would enable a local planning authority to require the use to be discontinued when the Crown ceases to occupy those premises.

If planning permission for a change of use of non-Crown premises were always made personal to the particular occupier, there might be a case for letting the amendment through. However, that is not the case. Planning is about the use of land, not about the person who happens to be the occupier of the land at a particular time. Normally, once a change of use has been permitted, it can continue indefinitely, regardless of who occupies the premises. It is only in exceptional circumstances that either we or the local planning authority would regard it as appropriate to impose a condition that a use should cease when the occupant changes. We are, therefore, talking not about a routine condition, but about a substantial power for local authorities with significant implications. Moreover, as the amendment is drafted, the Crown would not just be in the same position as a private person in those circumstances but in a worse position, since no right of appeal has been provided against the local planning authority's direction.

There is a well-tried procedure by which Government Departments consult local planning authorities about their proposals for development, including material changes in the use of premises. This procedure is set out in Department of the Environment circular 7/77 and its Scottish and Welsh equivalents. The procedure is similar to that for a planning application except that, when there is an objection by the local planning authority, instead of the authority refusing the application the matter is automatically referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment or for Scotland or Wales as the case may be. He considers representations from all concerned and may order a non-statutory inquiry to be held. This procedure gives ample opportunity for a planning authority to argue that, if the Crown is to make a material change in the use of premises which it occupies, that change should be personal to the Crown and discontinued when some other person takes over the premises. Clause 4 provides a procedure by which this can be done by agreement, and I am confident that Crown authorities will be willing to enter into such agreements when the case for doing so is made out.

Amendment 4 would also enable a planning authority to direct that planning permission, and that would be required for the retention of a building erected by the Crown after the Crown ceased to be the occupier. In effect, such a building might have to be pulled down, even though it was intended as a permanent building. We can see no justification for giving the local planning authorities such a power. It is most unusual for permission for the erection of a building to be temporary. I must resist amendments Nos. 5 to 10 on the same grounds.

I have some sympathy with the thinking behind amendment No. 11. As the hon. Member for South Shields has explained, it will ensure that a third party with an interest in land occupied by the Crown—for exmaple, a freeholder—is made aware of an agreement made under clause 4 to prevent a material change of use begun by the Crown from being continued by another occupier without the grant of planning permission.

The drafting of the amendment needs to be tidied up, but I am certainly willing to accept the theme of what the hon. Member for South Shields said. Will he, therefore, agree to withdraw the earlier amendments? It would be my wish to proceed with the matter in another place, and to ensure that we get the drafting right.

12.15 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Would the extent of the material change govern, for example, a change between land owned by the Crown and used for farming and land owned by the Crown and used for defence purposes? I think that the public would be concerned that a local authority should have an entitlement to adjudicate upon such a substantial change. It is possible that it would not be easy to arrive at an agreement on such a change. I think that considerations of that nature prompted the amendment that has been moved by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). A change of the kind that I have postulated would challenge the entitlement of the Crown to escape normal planning procedures, which has been a presumption of planning since 1947. The general feeling on Second Reading seemed to be that that presumption was due for reconsideration. Does the Minister accept that there is proper concern that there may not be agreement in the more controversial areas, such as the one that I have outlined? There are others that might be less dramatic but extensive in terms of land area and change of use.

Mr. Macfarlane

These are matters that must be considered by means of case-by-case analysis. I cannot give a definition to the hon. Gentleman here and now. Every case is examined and there is a set of procedures that we have to follow. Clause 4 provides a procedure by which this can be done by agreement. I am confident that the Crown authorities will be willing to enter into such agreements. It is the spirit that lies behind the amendment that leads me to accept some of the suggestions of the hon. Member for South Shields while rejecting others.

Mr. Hughes

Is the Minister saying that the Crown would be willing to accept the view of the local authority if, in a particular instance, the local authority was resistant to a change of such a material nature as that which I have outlined? An agreement would require the consent of both sides. The Minister may be able to envisage a hypothetical case of the kind that I proposed, where there might be substantial resistance by a planning authority to a material change — for example, a change from agricultural to defence use. Such a change would not necessarily lead to a local authority's agreement.

Mr. Macfarlane

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when I said earlier that there is a well-tried procedure by which all Government Departments consult local planning authorities on their proposals for development, including material changes of premises. That procedure, as I said earlier, was set out in the Department of the Environment's circular 7/77 and the Scottish and Welsh equivalents. I have said that clearly, and it is in Hansard. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was present when I said it.

Dr. David Clark

The Minister having given an assurance that he will consider the wording of amendment No. 11, that he agrees with the sentiments that it expresses and that he will ascertain whether it is possible to introduce an amendment in another place, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 5 and 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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