§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Howarth.]10.53 pm
§ Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)
This is the first Adjournment debate in which I have spoken, and if someone had predicted that it would be a debate concentrating on Wales, or, more accurately, on a particular part of Wales—the district authority area of Anglesey—that would have been difficult to believe.
I raise this issue on behalf of a constituent who wrote to me on 14 April. Tragically, two days later that gentleman died. However, I decided to go ahead, and, in a sense, this debate is in his memory. In his letter to me he said that he had written to a builder in north Wales asking for information about a building development—17 properties—taking place in the community of Cohen Wen, Llanfairpwll, Anglesey. I shall read the letter that my constituent received from the builder:Dear Mr. Lovell,Thank you for your letter dated 6th April, the contents of which are noted. We have pleasure in enclosing details of our development at Cohen Wen but should warn you at this stage that unless you are moving to Anglesey with your work, or you are retiring to the area having been born there, we would be unable to sell a property to you on that development. A condition of our planning consent was that we sold new homes only to existing residents of Gwynedd or those with relatives in the area, or those born in the area and returning to retire. If we can provide any further information please do not hesitate to contact us.Under the notice of decision within the section 52 planning agreement drawn up between the authority and the builder, the restraints imposed are even worse than the builder first thought. Paragraph 9 of that agreement states:The dwellings hereby approved shall only be occupied by a person currently residing or employed within the county of Gwynedd, including any dependants of such a person residing with him, or a widow or widower of such a person.My constituent, who fought for the United Kingdom in Malaya and Burma during the second world war, made the point that he always felt that he had been fighting for a free country—for a country in which there is freedom of movement, and in which a person has a right to buy a house in one part of the country, or sell one, move, and then buy a house in another part of that country. I am talking not about a wealthy man who is looking for a second home, but about a man who worked hard all his life in an industrial area—in south Essex—and who, on nearing the end of his working life, decided that he wanted to retire to a part of the United Kingdom that he liked, and where he wished to spend the last years of his life.
Although I accept that there is considerable concern in different parts of the United Kingdom—not just in Wales —that local people are not priced out of their local housing market, there are far more subtle ways of ensuring that that is achieved than by resorting to the blunderbuss used by Anglesey council. Although the provision of housing for local people is important, it is also important to remember the right of any United Kingdom citizen to live in any part of the United Kingdom.
Since receiving my constituent's letter, I have contacted the builder, who is the piggy in the middle of this sad affair. The builder is currently taking legal advice from the House Builders Federation, which I hope will be that the council acted unlawfully.
1068 Given that the caveats in question are contained within a section 52 agreement, they apply in perpetuity. However, the policy that they seek to pursue does not work in practice. Not so long ago, the builder had sold eight of the 17 properties on the development—presumably to local people who met the caveats specified in the section 52 agreement. However, seven of those eight purchasers, on learning that they themselves could only resell the properties to others who satisfied the council's caveats, cancelled their purchases. So the builder, because of the council's unreasonable attitude, is finding it difficult to sell the properties that it built.
§ Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)
Has the hon. Gentleman had the courtesy to contact Ynys Môn borough council about that matter? If he has, was he informed that there are 28,088 houses on the island, of which fewer than 200 are subject to any restriction of the type to which he refers, leaving any of the 99 per cent. of the remaining properties that may be on the market at any one time free to be purchased by his constituent?
Secondly, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the island has three designated growth areas on which there are no planning restrictions? They are at Amlwch, Holyhead and Llangefni. Thirdly, does he know, as a result of his consultation with the borough council, that these restrictions do not apply to a person who moves to the island as a result of employment? Fourthly, is he aware that the planning consent to which he refers has not yet been completed?
§ Mr. Janman
On the last point, there seems to be some confusion or lack of communication between the building company—which is taking legal advice from the House Builders Federation about the sort of nonsense that this council is pursuing—and the council. I have not spoken to the council, because of what it has laid out clearly in section 52 of the agreement, of which I have a copy. I remind the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) of what I have said. A person living in my constituency, or a person living in Caernarfon, Swansea, Fishguard or Cardiff, has the right to choose to live anywhere in the United Kingdom. By "anywhere", I mean any specific house, road, village or town in the country. This is not an English—Welsh issue. The sort of constraints put down clearly by this local authority impede the right of a citizen of the United Kingdom to choose to buy a certain residence in which he or she, as a resident of this country, wishes to live.
It is interesting that, since I did an interview on HTV television on Monday night, I have already had a letter of support for what I am saying from two residents of the county of Gwynedd. They fully agree with what I have been saying. The sales director of the company concerned has lived in Wales for 22 years. She has a Welsh-speaking son, yet she, for example, would not be permitted, under this section 52 agreement, to buy one of the properties that her own building company has built at this development.
It is not in the interests of the House for me to be over-dramatic about this affair. I emphasise that, perhaps unlike my constituent, who understandably got slightly the wrong end of the stick about what was happening, I do not see this as an English versus Welsh issue. We should not take a course whereby local authorities are legally able to put up an obstacle—in this case an Anglesey wall—against people coming into an area and being able to buy the 1069 house they wish. Such a situation could get out of control. Certain communities could react against what they saw other communities doing. The result could be a silly and dire situation.
I have used the opportunity tonight to bring this series of events to the attention of my hon. Friend. He can see that this situation caused a great deal of heartache to one of my constituents. It is tragic that, only two days after writing to me, he died suddenly. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider the ramifications of this case. I hope he will tell the House tonight that the Government will not support local authorities putting such tight restraints on housing developments.
Many housing developments are taking place in my constituency. The local authority provides for low-cost housing through the use of housing associations buying a percentage of properties in any one development. What has happened in this affair gave a bad impression to one of my constituents. I hope that the situation can be reviewed. If possible, I hope that regulations can be issued by the Welsh Office and used to ensure that local authorities cannot use section 52 agreements in this way.
§ 11.4 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist)
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It gives me an opportunity to clear the air on a matter about which there has been some confusion. Before I begin, may I express my condolences to the family of his constituent who raised this matter with him and who, as he said, died recently.
My hon. Friend will understand that responsibility for local development control rests with the local planning authorities. In this instance the planning authority is the Isle of Anglesey borough council, and the case is still in its hands. As I understand it, a formal decision on the application for planning permission to build houses at Collen Wen, Llanfairpwll, has not yet been announced, although the applicant has been given a clear indication that permission will be available subject to certain conditions.
§ Mr. Grist
Not at this point.
As there is a right of appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State against either a refusal of planning permission—although that seems not to be likely here—or conditions imposed on such a permission, it would not be right for me to make any detailed observations on this case, or indeed on any other particular case in Anglesey or north Wales. I can, however, attempt to clarify our policy on the use of conditions in planning permissions in a general sense, in the hope of putting my hon. Friend's mind at rest.
Jointly with the Department of the Environment, the Welsh Office issued a circular on the subject in 1985. This circular, 1/85 "The Use of Conditions in Planning Permission", makes it very clear that conditions should be imposed only where necessary and where reasonable. They must also be enforceable, precise and relevant both to planning and to the development to be permitted. The circular makes specific reference to the use of conditions to secure particular types of domestic occupancy, and puts very cogently the reasons why the practice should, except in exceptional circumstances, be avoided.
1070 Paragraph 77 of the annex to the circular states:if the development of a site for housing is an acceptable use of the land there will seldom be any good reason on land use planning grounds to restrict the occupancy of those houses to a particular type of person e.g. those already living or working in the area, or holidaymakers. To impose such a condition is to draw an artificial and unwarranted distinction between new houses or new conversions and existing houses that are not subject to such restrictions on occupancy or sale. It may deter house builders from providing homes for which there is local demand and building societies from providing mortgage finance. It may also impose hardship on owners who subsequently need to sell. It involves too detailed and onerous an application of development control and too great an interference in the rights of individual ownership. In the view of the Secretaries of State, such conditions should therefore not be imposed save in the most exceptional cases where there are clear and specific circumstances that warrant allowing an individual house or extension on a site where development would not normally be permitted.In other words, in Wales—as in England—a planning authority must, if challenged, be prepared to demonstrate land use issues to justify an occupancy condition. The most usual of those exceptional issues, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, is that which relates to the occupancy of dwellings erected for farmers and farm workers. Otherwise occupancy conditions are very much the exception rather than the rule. That is not to say, however, that it is never appropriate for local planning authorities to consider, and even give priority to, specific needs which they may have identified in their areas. Whereas it will never be right for the statutory planning system to be used to discriminate against any particular groups in the community, it can be used to respond sensitively to particular needs.
There are ways within the planning system in which such problems can be settled without the use of planning conditions, and it may be helpful if I touch on one of them. Although most planning policy and practice is common to both England and Wales—with varying degrees of emphasis, of course—at least one issue arises in Wales alone. My hon. Friend may be aware of concerns that have been expressed about the future of the Welsh language —particularly in areas such as Anglesey where a majority of the population speaks Welsh, but where a number of social and demographic factors have resulted in a decline in the language over the past decades. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken a number of positive steps to help the language. They include the issue in December last year of a circular clarifying the position of Welsh in relation to development plans and development control.
The circular explains that land use policies in structure and local plans can take into account, in appropriate circumstances, the implications of planning policies for the Welsh language. For development control decisions, the circular reminds planning authorities that when an application is made to them for planning permission they must have regard to the provisions of the development plan—as far as is material to the application—and to any other material considerations. The circular goes on to say that policies that relate to the needs of and interests of the Welsh language may properly be among those considerations, and makes it clear that that requirement bears equally on the Secretary of State and his inspectors in considering planning appeals.
Decisions in individual cases where the needs and interests of the Welsh language may be a material consideration, whether that consideration flows from 1071 policies in the development plan or elsewhere, must, as with all other planning applications, be based on planning grounds only and must be reasonable. While it has been held that material considerations can cover a wide field, they must be genuine planning considerations—that is, they must be related to the purpose of planning legislation, which is to regulate the development and use of land. In determining planning applications where the language is an issue, the Secretary of State and his inspectors expect local planning authorities to produce specific evidence of the land use planning considerations which have led to their decision.
My hon. Friend will note that the advice emphasises the need for planning decisions to be based on planning grounds only and to be reasonable. Local planning authorities in Wales will be aware that no encouragement is given by this advice for the use of planning conditions which we do not see as an appropriate mechanism for implementing local policies formulated under this advice.
The power to impose conditions on a planning permission can enable many development proposals to proceed where it would otherwise be necessary to refuse planning permission. Sensitive use of conditions can improve the quality of development control and enhance public confidence in the planning system. In considering whether a particular condition is necessary, one key test is whether planning permission would have to be refused if the condition were not to be imposed. If not, such a condition needs special and precise justification. The same criteria and tests are applied by my right hon. Friend and his inspectors in deciding whether a condition appealed against should be retained.
I need not remind my hon. Friend that the purpose of the planning system is to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest. Whether a proposal would affect the locality generally and unacceptably may be a legitimate public interest, and the planning authority may indeed feel that it has to protect it. At the end of the day, however, its powers under the planning Act are concerned with land use planning matters and it is to these that it must relate its decision whether to approve or to refuse or to apply conditions.
We are currently looking in Wales at ways in which some of the problems associated with the provision of low-cost housing for people living in rural areas can be tackled, and in particular whether the planning system has anything to offer.
I announced at this morning's sitting of the Welsh Grand Committee that I shall be seeking discussions between the Welsh Office and the relevant local authorities to examine this area of rural housing. It will be my intention, however, that any answers which we may find should be within clear planning guidelines, should be seen as fair as between different groups, and that any steps taken should result in real benefit to those in housing need. This is not of course an issue unique to Wales, and my hon. Friend will be aware of the policy of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in this regard. But in Wales we have our national and cultural setting to take account of and the discussions which we are putting in hand will be against that background as well.
It is clear that one of the options that we shall be exploring will concern itself with how the planning system 1072 might help both to provide affordable housing in rural areas and to ensure that houses thus provided remain available for that purpose despite changes of occupancy that may perforce have to take place. I shall, of course, have in mind my hon. Friend's strictures about occupancy conditions when we come to consider the results of these discussions in Wales.
§ Mr. Grist
I do not think that it would be suitable for me to do so at this moment.
Whether the planning policies in question deal with the Welsh language or any other issue, they are best expressed in an up-to-date and relevant development plan. Authorities should recognise that policies in approved development plans carry much more weight in places of dispute than informal policies expressed elsewhere, possibly without having been publicly aired.
Late last year my right hon. Friend, jointly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, published a planning policy guidance note on local plans. In that they urged the importance of local plans as the basis for sound and effective development control, especially in areas where there is much pressure for development—and that, as my hon. Friend will appreciate, often includes pleasant rural areas to which people wish to retire.
Some authorities still make a practice of using as a basis for control of development informal or bottom-drawer plans which have not been subject to the statutory procedures of public consultation and formal adoption. Others have chosen to do without any form of land use plan and have sought to deal with planning applications ad hoc as they come forward. Neither approach is a satisfactory alternative to the prescription and adoption of the statutory local plan. Informal plans carry less weight for development control purposes and provide less satisfactory guidance to developers and reassurance to local people about the future pattern of development than a properly prepared and adopted local plan. If there is no adopted local plan, local authorities can find it more difficult to justify refusing planning permission or to justify planning conditions and to support their reasons on appeal.
My hon. Friend will no doubt know that the Government plan changes to the development plan system. The district development plan—in effect a local plan for a whole district—will form the central feature of the new system. As that is the level at which the vast majority of planning applications are dealt with, district councils will be made responsible for preparing a comprehensive plan for the whole of their local authority area, setting out planning policies for land use which are to be applied in dealing with planning applications. That plan will, of course, have to be consistent with national and county policies and with any regional planning guidelines that may be issued in Wales. The aim is to obtain a single development plan, which every authority will be obliged to prepare within a given time scale. That will form a working tool to guide the district authority, the developer and the public alike. Legislation will be introduced to bring about those changes. But pending that, it is important that the preparation of local plans should move ahead briskly. The work done will not be lost 1073 in any new system of development plan since provision will be made to enable up-to-date local plans to be carried over into the new system.
The issue that my hon. Friend raised was about planning conditions and I hope that what I have said has, at least, made clear to him the Government's policy towards particular kinds of conditions in Wales and about the context in which planning policies in the Principality are set. At the end of the day, it is for the respective developer to decide whether to challenge a local decision by appealing to the Secretary of State. I am satisfied that the issues that have arisen during this debate are well understood by developers and planning authorities alike and that the Government's view on the use of planning conditions, by and large, is accepted.
The Government remain of the view that the present planning system provides the best mechanism available to use for securing the right balance between achieving much needed development and conserving the best in our natural and man-made environments. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that there is no cause in the operation of the system in Wales to doubt that that is so.
§ Mr. Janman
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's long exposition on planning in Wales. However, I want to make two brief points on which he will, perhaps, reply to me. First, unless I misheard my hon. Friend, he said that a decision was still awaited on planning permission for this particular development. However, when I spoke to the building company involved yesterday, it told me that the two show homes for the development were virtually completed—and would be completed in the next week—and that a further six homes were already under construction. I do not understand how construction can already have started on the development—obviously some time ago—if the final decision has not been taken on planning permission.
1074 Secondly, I do not understand how the Welsh language has any relevance to planning decisions, whether in Wales or elsewhere. If people come to a particular area, the number of people there increases and so does the number of people who may wish to take up the language. We are not talking here about people leaving Wales and taking their language with them. I have to say—[Interruption.] I would be pleased, Madam Deputy Speaker, if there were no such sedentary interventions—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Janman
However, of course, the Welsh language is an important part of our British heritage. We are not talking about trying to stop people leaving parts of Wales and about the language dying; we are talking about the opportunity for people to come into Wales. As a number of those moving in are taking the opportunity of retiring from England, Scotland or elsewhere in Wales and are going to live in parts of the Principality where the language is still strong, it is not inconceivable that some of those people would have quite a bit of spare time on their hands and might want to learn the language of that part of the United Kingdom.
My first specific point, which my hon. Friend the Minister may or may not wish to come back on, is why., if a planning decision has not yet been made, construction work has already started on eight of the properties, and is nearly completed on two. Secondly, given my comments, can my hon. Friend put a little more meat on the bones of why a planning decision has any relevance whatsoever to the Welsh language?
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Eleven o'clock.