HC Deb 01 February 1989 vol 146 cc338-408 6.14 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (Norfolk, South-West)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to secure fuller, more effective and more consistent public involvement in the development control process.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that there is mounting concern about all aspects of planning and development control, whether it is about the green belt, so-called bad neighbour development, including dumping, misunderstandings about private property owners' rights, perceived inconsistencies in . planning decisions and the appeal process. In the words of the District Planning Officers Society: Third party interest is here to stay and understandably so.

The third party interest and concern are shared by those responsible for taking planning decisions. Planners feel besieged by critics, including the ombudsman, described by one planning officer as having crucified every small fault and failing of the authorities, who set out with best of intentions. There is no lack of legislation to guide planning authorities in England and Wales on consultation and notification in certain spheres. Their duties to consult and notify are clearly defined for certain kinds of development, with certain public bodies and in certain kinds of location. Developments defined as bad neighbours include scrapyards, refuse dumps, mineral workings and cemeteries. In such cases the applicant is required to advertise his proposal, usually by site notice, and the planning authority has to advertise by press or site notice, or both, under section 26 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. The same Act, in section 25, lists public bodies such as highway authorities and the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, which have to be consulted in certain circumstances.

Planning authorities also have to advertise applications for developments in conservation areas for listed buildings, and in other prescribed areas set out in the Act. They must notify parish councils if those councils so wish. In all these areas, therefore, planning authorities—in the main, district councils—know what is required of them by law and the public are protected, by recourse either to the law or to the ombudsman.

But there is another area where the public of England and Wales are not protected by planning law, although their Scottish and Irish counterparts are. Moreover, it is precisely in this area that there is the greatest public concern, according to the ombudsman and the District Planning Officers Society, which says: Next-door neighbour complaints are easily the largest planning postbag of the Ombudsman. Most complaints look to the planning authority to inform them of neighbour proposals to build, say, an extension. It is the issue of neighbour notice, already grasped by Government action for the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland, that I wish to address in the Bill by proposing that planning authorities are required by law to have a code of practice for neighbour notification, drawn up by themselves in accordance with local needs.

Many people are astonished to find that, in England and Wales, planning authorities are not required to notify or inform neighbours of proposed developments affecting their properties. In practice, many district councils have a code of practice for neighbour notification, which may be a site notice, a letter, an advertisement in the local press or simply a list of proposed plans in the local free sheet. Others, because of difficulties with the ombudsman, have no code of practice on the ground that, as one of them put it, he would expect them to observe it. Either way, there is no consistency of practice. Such practice as there is may not be understood by the public; indeed, they may be unaware of its existence. All hon. Members will be familiar with complaints from constituents that the first they knew of a neighbouring development was when the bulldozers arrived next door.

The Government have clearly accepted in principle that there is a problem, since they have acted in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the principle of neighbour notification was first introduced under the General Development Order 1981, amended by the General Development Order 1984.

The applicant is required to notify owners, occupiers and lessees on neighbouring land, which is defined in guidelines, and to accompany his application with a certificate listing the names and addresses of those parties having a notifiable interest. The list is scrutinised by the authority, and if the applicant has been unable to identify all the neighbours, the authority must advertise the proposal in a local newspaper, the applicant paying the cost.

In Northern Ireland, the same principle of neighbour notification is being applied, although on a non-statutory trial basis. The Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland has laid upon itself the task of notifying in writing occupiers of buildings on land adjoining the application site. Surveys in Scotland and Northern Ireland reveal support for neighbour notification in principle, which planners consider has increased the public's awareness of the planning system; but the systems in force in those parts of the British Isles are costly in personnel and time, and because the public believe that the purpose of planning is to protect individual property interests, they do not always give satisfaction.

In England and Wales, the Association of District Councils, which has discussed this issue many times, is opposed to an extension, for example, of the Scottish system to England and Wales. Some of its members oppose entirely the direct notification of neighbours by any means on grounds of cost and raising false hopes. Others favour some notification, to be undertaken by the applicant, on a non-statutory basis.

This diversity of approach is confusing for the public, as within one county or even one constituency, such as mine, adjoining councils may have widely differing practices. The borough council of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk has a good code of practice, clearly expressed, while Breckland district council prefers to consult only at the discretion of the officer involved.

The District Planning Officers Society is rightly concerned on two counts—because of the volume of complaints received by the ombudsman on neighbour notification, and because it feels that such complaints damage its relationship with the public. It has identified the best practice, while emphasising that local circumstances must be taken into account. It stresses also that renotification of material amendments to submitted plans is an important issue which must be addressed.

The view of the Department of the Environment as expressed in a letter from the then Under-Secretary of State, in May 1987, is: There is no substitute for a properly thought out strategy by each local planning authority in accordance with local needs. I agree, but unless this strategy is made a statutory requirement, it will remain meaningless.

We must remember that public interest in planning matters can only increase, that members of the public have no right of appeal against planning conditions which may intimately affect them and their families and that the least people in England and Wales can expect is a consistently applied code of practice which will give them protection, wherever they live, even if not so elaborate and costly as Government legislation has already provided for people in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Bill seeks to require planning authorities to have a code of practice for neighbour notification, to be drawn up by themselves in accordance with local circumstances, widely publicised and subject to scrutiny by the Secretary of State. It is a modest measure designed to be consonant with Government aims of local autonomy and containing public expenditure. It would be a step towards bringing the same rights of information to people in England and Wales as are already enjoyed by their Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts, and I hope that it will gain the support of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Gillian Shephard, Sir Rhodes Boyson, Mr. Peter Thurnham, Mr. Tim Boswell, Mr. Robert G. Hughes, Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mr. Malcolm Moss, Mr. David Evans, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Timothy Kirkhope, Mr. Ian Taylor and Sir Geoffrey Finsberg.

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