HC Deb 03 November 1986 vol 103 cc764-70

Lords amendment: No. 60, in page 27, line 25, leave out from "scheme" to end of line 35.

Mr. Tracey

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 61 to 71, 71A, 72 to 77, 213 and 214.

Mr. Tracey

These amendments are designed to clarify certain points in the drafting of the simplified planning zone provisions of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 63, 66 to 69, 71A and 72 to 77 are more substantive than the others in the group.

An amendment to new section 24B(6) of the Town and Country Planning Act, inserted by clause 13, was agreed by the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) was of great assistance to the Government when simplified zones were discussed in Committee. He raised the point about any unfinished development being completed, and this amendment requires that any unfinished development should be completed to the local planning authority's satisfaction within 12 months of the SPZ scheme expiring. While we accept that some arrangements are required to reduce the risk that partially completed developments might be left for several years and that extant planning permission might be prone to exploitation, we have looked at the possibility of something more flexible than a fixed period for completion and something which bites on specific developments rather than provision that applies in a blanket fashion.

These amendments, which also apply to Scotland, therefore propose that permissions given by SPZ schemes should be brought into line with ordinary planning permissions. Under section 44 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, a local planning authority which is of the opinion that a development that has begun will not be completed within a reasonable period may serve a completion notice specifying a period of not less than 12 months at the end of which the permission will cease to have effect if the development is not completed.

The period of completion will be flexible to fit each case as appropriate, thus allowing the developer a reasonable period in which to complete his project. These are more practical and flexible arrangements than those in the Bill as it stands.

Amendments Nos. 60 to 62 and 70 to 71 ensure that an SPZ scheme cannot be used to impose greater planning restrictions on an area than would normally apply—in particular, for example, nullifying freedoms given by the general development and use classes orders. These amendments ensure also that, conversely, any freedoms given by an SPZ scheme permission cannot be negated by the terms of any other type of planning permission.

Amendments Nos. 64 and 65 and 72 and 73 clarify the provisions for the coming into effect of alterations to an existing SPZ scheme. They make it clear that an alteration that withdraws or relaxes conditions or extends the permissions given by an SPZ scheme will take effect immediately if adopted by the local planning authority. However, an alteration that takes away permissions or imposes more restrictive conditions will not come into effect for 12 months.

Amendment No. 61 removes a superfluous reference in clause 13 to national parks authorities which will have no powers in relation to SPZs, and amendments Nos. 213 and 214 correct errors in the numbering of consequential provisions.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, who said that the amendments were designed to clarify the position of simplified planning zones. He will recall that on Second Reading I was concerned about the way in which the Bill was originally drafted in that it seemed to me to leave a giant hole into which planning development without adequate controls could be placed. While the amendments inserted by the Government and the other place go some way towards allaying fears, I am not completely satisfied that they go all that far. However, I thank the Government and the Opposition for agreeing to the changes that have been made.

In Lords amendment No. 62, new section 24AA(1)(b) refers to consent, agreement or approval of the local planning authority". Far from the clarification to which my hon. Friend referred, those words cause considerable unrest in Dorset and in my constituency and others like it. Notwithstanding the Bill, as amended, there seems to be some uncertainty about precisely what the Government are trying to do. There are to be simplified planning zones, but there now seems to be a clear conflict between this part of the Bill and current planning circulars which continue to push development where it is not needed — into the prosperous areas of the country — thus depriving rundown areas of the development and investment funds that they so desperately need.

All hon. Members are anxious that there should be more development in the inner cities, and we hope that the simplified planning zones will help to bring that about. However, I do not believe that they will have more than a slightly cosmetic impact on the problem unless and until the Government change their attitudes to planning. The current circulars are pushing development into areas where it is not needed — into prosperous areas — and simultaneously they are forcing environmentally unwanted housing and shopping developments into those prosperous areas where there is neither the need for the investment nor the desire for the development.

The Bill, as amended, should help to reduce the north-south disparity, but the planning laws and circulars as they now stand do not achieve that objective. Many of 'my constituents are perfectly willing to accept a slower rise in living standards if the environment in which they live can be protected.

In the last few days a controversial and, to me, welcome speech was made by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales about housing and planning policies. Lord Northfield a Labour peer, notwithstanding the fact that he is chairman of a company called Consortium Developments — has been extremely rude about the Prince of Wales' speech. He said that His Royal Highness had been hijacked by the Loony Green Brigade. If membership of the "Loony Green Brigade" is open to anyone who values the retention of the green fields of England above the profits of members of the House Builders Federation, I should not only be willing to apply for membership of the brigade but I might even be willing to allow my name to go forward to serve as an officer in the brigade.

There is that discrepancy between the current circulars and the object of this part of the Bill. The Government are being urged by not only Government opponents but by Government supporters seriously to look at the circulars that are being sent to local authorities so that the words of amendment No. 62— requiring the consent, agreement or approval of the local planning authority"— can mean something in practice. At the moment they are virtually meaningless in my constituency. If the local planning authority should decide that it does not wish developments to take place because they are unpopular and not needed, there have been far too many occasions in the last few years when the Department of the Environment has overturned its planning refusals.

I look forward to the Minister's success in clarifying the amendments. I hope that he will be bold and brave and that in due course he will take the next step and clarify the circulars so that planning law moves in the same direction as the Bill.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister go a little further to allay the fears expressed in another place where the Opposition pushed an amendment on this matter to a Division?

Great anxiety was expressed by their Lordships and on behalf of the Council for the Protection of Rural England about issues that were raised in Committee in this House concerning the control of development in a simplified planning zone scheme which is begun, in effect, in name only. Examples were given of developers coming on site in a simplified planning zone, which will not have as many planning restraints as other areas, digging a trench, counting that as the beginning of a development and being able to benefit from the less restrictive planning regime, even though it will have ended before the development is completed.

Amendment No. 63 says: The provisions of section 44(2) to (6) of this Act … apply to planning permission under a simplified planning zone scheme". Those provisions provide for the termination of planning permission if the completion of development is unreasonably delayed, but I hope that the Minister will go further and say that he and his colleagues will not condone any abuse of the advantages of simplified planning zones and that there will be monitoring to ensure that there is no abuse.

Developers in simplified planning zones must develop as the Act intends and not abuse their advantages and gain from increased land values. Throughout the south-east there has been a massive escalation in land values and we must provide all possible protection against abuse. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that his Department will not condone abuse but will help local authorities to prevent any abuse.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Like other hon. Members, I regard simplified planning zones as an exciting concept, though it is appropriate for some urban areas and not for others, most of which are set out as exceptions in new section 24C. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), I do not believe that the exceptions go far enough, because agricultural land that is not in a green belt or conservation area would not be excepted, as I should wish.

The amendments are important in planning terms. Amendment No. 62, dealing with conditions and limitations on planning permission, amendment No. 65, which excludes some land from simplified planning zones, and several others are an important step in distinguishing between one part of our environmental heritage and the rest of it. They say that we must have extremely fine equipment to distinguish between the developments that will be allowed in our inner cities and in other areas. That is an important principle which will have to be applied much more widely.

As the Minister knows, there is great worry about overdevelopment in the south of England and some anxiety that the restriction on simplified planning zones is insufficient. My hon. Friend confirmed last week that the Government are not trying to drive forward overdevelopment in the south. I judge the amendments by the extent to which they reflect the guidelines set out by my hon. Friend in his speech last week, and I ask him whether the rules for planning that we have will cater for simplified planning zones and bring them satisfactorily within the rules.

The circular, "Land For Housing", which my hon. Friend the Minister will know well, does not mention SPZs, and one would not expect it to do so, but it makes some distinctions between different types of land. I refer to the circular because it is the main instrument which officials in county councils use as their guidelines for the type of development that they will seek and that they expect the Government will allow. The circular is being used, and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and many others divine it to be the root cause of the overdevelopment that we are experiencing. I believe that the circular is out of date and that it will have to be amended to cater for SPZs.

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Secondly, the circular will have to do more to comply with the spirit of the amendments, which I am delighted to see before the House. We must have planning rules which distinguish much more finely in the future than in the past between different types of land — urban land and rural land—and can be applied firmly to back up the distinctions. Those rules must ensure that we do not suffer from the overdevelopment that is now going on in the south of England. In common with others, I look forward to what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say in reply.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I do not wish to detain the House unduly, because in a real sense, as my hon. Friend the Minister was kind enough to acknowledge, I was the instigator of the amendments before us when the Bill was being considered in Committee. I understand fully the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) and for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker). My reasoning is that the Government's intention is to try to circumvent to an intelligent and practical degree the necessary long-windedness of planning applications to encourage development, especially in some derelict urban areas. I do not think it is the intention to use the device of simplified planning zones to encourage development in the green field sites, which my hon. Friends have explained so eloquently is a cause of their concern.

If we had tried to define an urban area in Committee, we would have found it difficult to differentiate between that and what could be conceived as a rural area. There are certainly some rural derelict areas where the SPZ concept might be as favourably imposed as in urban areas. Therefore, I have to return to what I believe to be a possible loophole in the provision that we are considering, which I warmly welcome and recommend. Under the 1968 legislation a time limit was imposed on any planning permissions granted by local planning authorities under the town and country planning legislation.

The purpose of the SPZ concept, however, was to circumvent planning requirements in certain areas for a specified period. It was possible that a potential developer might come along with no intention of developing, but seeing an opportunity to obtain planning permission in a different way and so not be held to a time limit in which to execute the permission. As I understood the Bill as it was conceived, it provided that there was no time limit once planning permission was deemed to have been granted under the SPZ concept, and I moved amendments in Committee which were favourably received by my hon. Friend the Minister. In that context, I believe that the Minister and the Government have things exactly right.

Amendment No. 63 meets the wishes, or allays the anxieties, that I have expressed. I can only say to my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Dorset, North that I do not believe that their suspicions or worries will be in any way realised when the Bill becomes an Act.

Mr. Adley

We all listen with great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), because there can be few hon. Members who know more about these matters than he. However, I would like to give him one illustration of the reasons for concern. Clause 24C (d) refers to land identified in the development plan for the district as part of the green belt There are always arguments between developers and local authorities about what is or is not green belt and whether or not a local authority, having identified an area as green belt before it has been enshrined in statute, is entitled to say that that is green belt as identified in this particular subsection.

I make that point, because my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) and I are concerned about this matter. We are worried that in future local authorities might get ideas above their station—if I may put it that way — about an area that they want to see developed around some of the—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an intervention, not a speech.

Mr. Adley

I would like my hon. Friend to comment on that last point.

Mr. Chapman

I do not know the geography or environment of my hon. Friend's constituency in the way that I can claim to know my own. There are different interpretations of green belt. I would say that there is no such thing as established green belt around my hon. Friend's constituency. It is not established green belt as laid down by statute in the same way as the metropolitan green belt is laid down in statute.

The Bill, if enacted,—and I hope that it will be—will in no way prejudice my hon. Friend from making representations to the Minister, or, through his local planning authority, to bring to this House what he believes to be the dispute about the way that the Act is working. I say that with sincerity and a certain amount of logic. In matters relating to town and country planning the House cannot dot every "i" and cross every "t". It is a matter of the way in which planning law is interpreted, not least by local planning authorities. If my hon. Friend felt that this whole issue was being abused by the Government, or by a future Government, he would be in the vanguard and would have a great deal of sympathy and support from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I apologise for intervening at such length. I had intended that my remarks should be much shorter. As Back Benchers, we tend to complain when we think that the Government are getting it wrong. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for taking heed of what was said in Committee. As far as I can judge the issue—and I cannot state that I am right—he has got it just right and that should allay the fears that hon. Members on both sides expressed in Committee.

Mr. Tracey

I thought once or twice this evening that we were having a general planning and housing debate. There is nothing wrong with that in other circumstances. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Mr. Adley), for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) and I had a similar debate about 10 days ago; it was a fine debate. However, we are discussing simplified planning zones and the Lords amendment to the Bill.

Before I deal with what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Dorset, North, I want to deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who was concerned about the monitoring of the way in which the scheme was working out. In the first place, it will be for the local planning authority to monitor any of the abuses to which he rightly drew our attention by way of example. It will then be for the local planning authority to make any completion notice which it thinks fit and to submit it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Every care will be taken when considering such a completion notice. My right hon. Friend will confirm such a notice when he believes that it is right and proper to do so to prevent the kind of abuse that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned.

The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) in Standing Committee were useful and informative. My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I are grateful to him for paying us compliments. He said that we have moved in the right direction and have got it right. It is always nice for Ministers to be told that they have got something right.

My hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Dorset, North pointed to the best possible use of simplified planning zones in the more industrial areas rather than green fields. I accept what they said. Indeed, similar proposals were put to us several times during the passage of the Bill, both in this House and in another place. I understand their deeply held concern that simplified planning zones should not be set up in areas where no development stimulus is needed or wanted. The Government recognised that concern by accepting a n amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet to prevent simplified planning zones from being set up in truly defined sensitive areas such as national parks, green belts, conservation areas, sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty. The Minister of State and I were happy to agree with the amendment.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have power to make an order preventing simplified planning zones from being set up where they are obviously not suitable. He will be prepared to use that power where necessary. I make that clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North.

It would be too restrictive for the Bill to provide that SPZs may never be set up outside a closely defined industrial area. There may be occasions on which an SPZ scheme providing, perhaps, for mixed development would be appropriate. I hope that my hon. Friends will accept that the procedures for adopting SPZs are thorough and will ensure that attention is drawn to any unsuitable proposals which can be modified or, if necessary, stopped. That is certainly the intention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Adley

I am grateful for the remarks of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. It is important that the Secretary of State should have these powers and be prepared to use them. There is a town not a thousand miles from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North where there seems to be an inordinate number of developers, estate agents and similar people on the local authority. We are concerned about such areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 61 to 77 agreed to.

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