HC Deb 02 March 1990 vol 168 cc494-559

Order for Second Reading read.

9.37 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Having had no more luck in 14 years of parliamentary ballots for private Member's Bills than I have had in premium bond draws, I wasted no emotional energy on hoping to get a Bill on to the statute book and I harboured no preconceptions about a desirable subject for private Member's legislation when, surprisingly, my name popped out of the hat at the beginning of this Session.

The many unsolicited suggestions that I received were almost all for major Bills. Some were highly controversial and, moved by Member No. 6 in the order of precedence, stood no chance of reaching the statute book in the limited time available. The Bills proposed to me by the Government Whips seemed either so bland and banal as to offer no appreciable benefit to my constituents or to be legislative afterthoughts which it was really the duty of the Government to enact, rather than a private Member in probably his sole chance of a lifetime.

Wearied by a surfeit of juggernaut Bills in Government time, I sought a short and simple measure whose object would be clearly defined in its title, whose guiding principle would be widely supported by the general public and whose philosophy was traditionally shared by my party. The measure should secure the backing of Members of all parties in the House; above all, it should accord with the publicly proclaimed policies of Her Majesty's Government. At that point, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) generously proposed that I promote his admirable one-clause Bill to make it obligatory to apply for planning permission before demolishing a dwelling house, and I readily agreed.

Having been introduced formally by my hon. Friend in two earlier Parliaments, the Bill is by now well known to the Department of the Environment and has enjoyed favourable press comment. There has been ample time for it to be considered, not only by the Government but by all interested parties.

My hon. Friend's list of sponsors impressed me: they were all Conservative Members with impeccable parliamentary credentials, the sum of whose total political experience was, in my view, at least a match for that of Ministers in the Department of the Environment. These Back Benchers had a proven record of distinguished service to constituents and party alike, and their collective judgment could only be regarded as sound. When it comes to private Members' Bills, by their sponsors shall ye know them.

When I adopted the Bill, I believed that many of the arguments in favour of it would be self-evident—that they would virtually speak for themselves. Certainly I hope that neither I nor other hon. Members need detain the House with long speeches on Second Reading. The clear purpose behind the Bill accords entirely with the Government's much-vaunted desire to protect the environment—a desire that is earnestly shared on both sides of the House, and in the country as a whole—although its detailed and technical practicalities can be fully tested only in Committee. While I do not pretend to be a planning boffin, I believe that it represents the views of people up and down the country. I make no bold prescriptive claims on its behalf, but I can assert that it meets an urgent need that should be addressed immediately.

The 1987 Conservative election manifesto contains a section on planning and the environment, which puts the Bill in its political context. It begins: Conservatives are by instinct conservationists—committed to preserve all that is best of our country's past. We are determined to maintain our national heritage of countryside and architecture … Wherever possible we want to encourage large-scale developments to take place on unused and neglected land in our towns and cities rather than in the countryside.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the magnificent service that he is doing to the country? The number of Conservative Members who are present this morning illustrates the concern that is felt by them, and by the planning group of which I, like my hon. Friend, am an active member.

May I make two points? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have been slow to do something about the thousands of acres of vacant public land lying dormant and surplus to requirements? Should they not dispose of that eyesore and build on land that is being stored by public organisations, rather than on green-field sites? Secondly, as regards my hon. Friend's Bill—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Would not the hon. Gentleman's comments be made more appropriately in a speech later?

Mr. Steen

Yes, they would, Mr. Speaker, but I shall not be making a speech this morning.

Mr. Speaker

That is what was worrying me.

Mr. Steen

May I finish my short intervention, Mr. Speaker? It is in the spirit of the Bill.

Secondly, does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill, although well measured and well thought out, is likely to give rise to enormous planning bureaucracy? Will not more and more time—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am terribly sorry, but I still think that the hon. Gentleman's remarks would be more appropriate as part of a speech. I know that his constituency is a long way away, and I shall try to get him in nice and early.

Mr. Wilkinson

I appreciate my hon. Friend's intervention, and defer to his considerable experience, which goes back many years and has done our party a singular service. I hope that he will be lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and will make an appropriate intervention later on the specific subject of the extra bureaucracy to which the Bill may or may not lead.

The manifesto continues: We want to improve on our performance in 1986, when nearly half of all new development took place on reused land. The overriding impression of existing planning law is that confusion reigns supreme, that inexplicable anomalies abound and that, when it comes to protecting the citizen's residential environment, current legislation is gravely deficient. The definition of what constitutes development is itself ambiguous, being—I quote from section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971the carrying out of building, engineering, mining or other operations in, on, over or under land, or the making of any material change in the use of any buildings or other land. Development, of course, requires prior planning permission. Although to the layman the wording of that provision in that 1971 Act would seem to preclude demolition of a dwelling house without prior planning permission—as demolishing a house must, by making it uninhabitable, constitute a change of use—local authorities have assumed demolition to be outside the ambit of planning control, an assumption that has not been challenged successfully in the courts.

The man in the street cannot comprehend why planning permission should be required before a householder can initiate relatively minor changes to the size and structure of his home, which impinge very little on the amenity of his neighbours or the environment of the area, while to turn that home into a wasteground by means of demolition is unrestrainedly permissible.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

My hon. Friend said that the proposition that demolition was not development had not been challenged successfully in the courts. Will he not go further and point out that it has been challenged unsuccessfully—in the case of nissen huts, for instance? Why has he not attempted to expand the definition of development to include demolition, which would surely be a rather simpler way of achieving what he wishes to achieve?

Mr. Wilkinson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful and thoughtful intervention. I was seeking to make the Bill as simple as possible; the expansion of its legislative proposals to make them more thorough and effective could readily be accomplished in Committee. That is why the Bill should go to Committee, and that is why I commend it for Second Reading today.

No amount of willowherb in July or blackberries in autumn on a bomb site can compensate for the loss of quality of life or drop in property values of those who live around and beside sites of such legalised neighbourhood vandalism. The contrast between the necessity for prior planning permission for relatively small changes to a dwelling house and the lack of such a requirement to sanction its demolition is tantamount to granting a residential landscape greater legal protection against minor alteration than against its destruction.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Does my hon. Friend envisage that there will be an appeals procedure in the Bill? If there was such a procedure, would it not lead to blight, which might be even more deleterious to the environment than the waste land to which he has referred?

Mr. Wilkinson

That argument is ideally suited for Standing Committee. By instinct I am inclined towards such an appeals procedure, but the arguments to the contrary advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East may be telling.

Sadly, the abuses that I have described seldom come singularly. If two or three adjacent properties can be acquired and flattened, the unscrupulous can present to a local authority a case for redevelopment in an area which otherwise would undoubtedly have been protected by a refusal of planning permission. Although, over the years, a specific and effective system of protecting listed dwellings and homes in conservation areas from demolition without the strictest and most exceptional prior planning permission has been in place, and has been universally welcomed, the lack of a clear legal control of demolition has long caused deep public anxiety.

The report by Mr. G. Dobry QC which was published in 1974 on the control of demolition gave clear practical reasons for a generalised extension of planning control over demolition and those reasons remain equally valid 16 years on. His first reason related to the aftermath of demolition. Barren sites, inadequately fenced, often become a dumping ground causing general deterioration of the neighbourhood. Secondly, demolition as a fait accompli can he used by developers to force the granting of planning permission. Finally premature demolition and vacancy of residential accommodation in anticipation of development causes public disquiet.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

I entirely support the admirable measure, and hope that it receives its Second Reading today. However, I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware of a further dimension to the problem. In areas of south suburban London such as mine, when houses are demolished gratuitously, it is almost an invitation for local gipsies, didicois and tinkers to come in and occupy those sites with their caravans, causing enormous annoyance to local residents and considerable law and order hazards.

Mr. Wilkinson

My hon. Friend has made a very wise observation; he has greatly reinforced and amplified the arguments.

By enacting this Bill, the Government and the House could at last rectify the error of not implementing the recommendation in Mr. Dobry's report, which the Department of the Environment sponsored. The Committee stage of this Bill would usefully constitute the process of public consultation, as all interested parties would undoubtedly make representations once legislation became imminent rather than merely hypothetical.

If the Department of the Environment were to promote its own planning Bill next Session, as has been suggested to me by Ministers—there is no certainty that it will be able to do that in current foreseeable electoral circumstances—my Bill, if enacted, could be consolidated later into the new Bill. That would save valuable legislative time in what must be the last full Session before the next general election.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

Is my hon. Friend aware that certain planning officers, particularly in my borough of Richmond upon Thames, have suggested to me that the Government are planning a consolidation of planning legislation whether or not there is a new law? Therefore, would my hon. Friend's Bill not be ideal for consolidation in the foreseeable future?

Mr. Wilkinson

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right; I am grateful to him for that additional information from a specialist professional source.

The Bill is not, as some would wrongly describe it, a surburban dwellers' charter or a Bill to address a problem which confronts London and the home counties alone. I remember, when I represented Bradford, West in 1970, that the same unprincipled practices of demolition were used in Bradford to force out elderly people and break up happy communities in inner-city streets of basically sound houses to make space for high rise flats and other blots on an urban residential landscape which deserved to be cherished, not bulldozed.

The protection afforded by listing buildings and conservation areas is not enough. Most people do not live in homes of outstanding architectural or historic interest or in neighbourhoods of obvious natural beauty. However, their homes and those of their neighbours and friends represent a treasured quality of life for them and their children for which the law, in all equity, should provide comparable safeguards. Just because people do not live in conservation areas or listed dwellings should not, by virtue of the insouciance of Government, make them vulnerable to depredations upon their environment of the demolition men.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will, I am sure, profess sympathy for the Bill. If so, I welcome it. However, he should also remember that the public will see the Government's reaction to the Bill as a touchstone of their environmental credentials.

People will be looking to see the Government's sympathetic rhetoric matched by prompt and urgent action. I offer the Government an incomparable legislative opportunity to redress a manifest abuse. Those whose neighbourhoods are at risk from the men with the ball and chain expect action from the Government now.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environnent has all the right instincts. He is courteous, sensitive, civilised, well-read and intelligent. He should do what the Labour Government did for the late Duncan Sandys's Civic Amenities Bill in 1967 which designated conservation areas—we should give this Bill a fair wind into Committee and beyond to the statute book.

As for the number of extra planning posts that the Bill might require on implementation, I can say only that, as with the enforcement of the poll tax, the Government cart will the means if they so wish. The Government hitherto have said that they will try to have the Bill talked out. I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench that loyalty should operate both ways. We must secure from Government the enactment of legislative proposals from their supporters, like this brief but constructive Bill, just as much as they demand unquestioning backing for Government legislation whose merits are, candidly, often not immediately apparent.

I warn the House that parliamentary stratagems such as having a Bill talked out may seem the height of political sophistry to their would-be perpetrators—I have witnesses that that action has been prepared—but before it is put into action, I advise my colleagues that outside the House it will appear to be parliamentary sabotage not just of this modest but deserving legislation, but of the important Bill which lies second on today's Order Paper.

Mr. Leigh

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wilkinson

No. I have nearly finished.

Before coming to the House, I did my right hon. and hon. Friends, other than Ministers and their Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the courtesy of soliciting by letter their views on my proposed legislation. Of those with prior political engagements elsewhere this day, 42 were in favour of the Bill. One was in favour, with reservations which he said that I could doubtless remove if we were to talk. One was at the Council of Europe. Two were otherwise abroad. One kept his options open by leaving both parts of the form unmarked. Another said that he could not declare himself, let alone be present, because he would have to chair the Standing Committee if the Bill received a Second Reading. A further nine declared their support for the Bill in writing and their determination to attend the debate.

Only one of my right hon. and hon. Friends expressed any opposition to the Bill. We will plan ourselves into perdition, he wrote, if we are not careful. I hope that the Government are careful with the Bill and do not side with the odd man out. Therein lies total isolation and the road to political perdition. However, I have faith that the collective wisdom of hon. Members will prevail to see this little Bill safely through the House and to grant it a Second Reading this day.

10 am

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on his good luck in the ballot and on introducing a Bill that will have some merit if the Standing Committee business is targeted at resolving some inherent problems in the present planning procedure. There must be procedures to ensure that permission to demolish houses is not as forthcoming as it is at present. Therefore, there is merit in considering this brief Bill.

Reference has been made to appeals procedures. In any democracy, the individual must have the right to appeal against any decision that is taken by a local planning authority. The appeals procedure must apply in this case, as it does in other planning cases. It is important that the demolition appeals procedure is so constructed that there are no outstanding lengthy appeals as there are in other planning matters. If the Bill is granted a Second Reading, the appeals procedure will be an important topic in Committee. The appeals inspectorate must be strengthened and all aspects of planning procedures must be speeded up. Further, we must include in the legislation a provision requiring consistency in any planning proposals and decisions.

The hon. Gentleman referred to subsidence. Mining subsidence has caused the demolition of property in many constituencies. Hon. Members must direct attention at demolition problems that are caused by mining subsidence. There must be close co-operation and discussions with British Coal when mine workings are planned in high-density residential areas. Mining subsidence problems should be considered before any demolition takes place. That may include the planning of workings in urban and rural areas where great suffering takes place because of mining subsidence.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I confess that I did not expect the debate to turn into a mining debate. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why it seems that the Labour party's policy has changed since it rejected Mr. Dobry's report in 1974? I shall be interested to hear his reply.

Mr. O'Brien

I did not intend the debate to develop into a mining debate. I was just replying to a point that was made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood. He referred to subsidence. The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) is trying to introduce a wider debate on mining procedures. I am prepared to do that, because I am a mining man, but I know that you would stop me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I have a view, too, and I would not permit it.

Mr. O'Brien

I do not wish to intrude on your stewardship this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford wishes to raise that issue, perhaps he could do so in Committee.

Reference has been made to the Town and Country Planning Bill now in another place. I hope that we will discuss planning procedures during the consolidation of the legislation. This brief Bill would help to strengthen the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, which has been in existence for many years and needs consolidating.

Opposition Members will not oppose the Bill. Given the proposals that have been outlined by its promoter, I support the application that the Bill should be referred to a Standing Committee. I hope that the Minister will accept the merits of the Bill and allow it to proceed to Committee.

10.7 am

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because it gives me the opportunity to pay a warm tribute to the promoter of the Bill, my hon. and good Friend and colleague the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for his work in taking this modest measure a step further, in the crucial habit and custom—which resembles winning the treble chance except that one does not get any money—known as the ballot for private Members Bills. Even to be No. 6 has enormous potential—it is never as good as No. 1, but it is said that half way between one and 12 is pretty good.

My hon. Friend could have chosen a number of extremely beguiling measures, such as those produced from independent intellectual thought and those coming from the Government's labours. Sometimes, interesting Government Bills can be taken up by hon. Members. Instead, my hon. Friend chose this proposal. I am most grateful to him for that and also for adhering to the original text, which was drafted with the usual consummate skill by the Public Bill Office. Lest my hon. Friend the Minister suggest that there is any deficiency in the text, I must state that it is pristine—a gem of a Bill —as I am sure he will agree if he is allowed to say what he really feels, which I know that he will be tempted to do because he is a humane man.

Mr. Forman

He is human, too.

Mr. Dykes

Yes, he is human, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood quoted several of the respondents to whom he wrote his impressive letter asking for support. I have also received some correspondence because people know that I have been associated with my hon. Friend's initiative. Although I cannot give the name, I have with me a letter from a member of the Government Whips Office. Paragraph two of that striking letter states: Obviously I cannot join your delegation as a Government Whip"— referring to one of our visits to the Department— though I will most certainly be with you in spirit. In recent months I had become disillusioned with the Government monolith and had been thinking that there was no end to Cabinet-only rule, and that no consideration was given to alternative ideas. Perhaps it is down to one individual now and even the Cabinet only gets a little look in. Because I was demoralised by those developments, that letter gave me new hope because I knew that my parliamentary colleagues in the Government were human beings, too, and that they would listen to cogent arguments. Those cogent arguments were advanced magisterially and non-histrionically by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood.

As both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien)—to whom we are grateful for his support—have said, the Bill may felicitously and practically be included in later consolidation if, as has been rumoured, a Government planning Bill is introduced in the autumn. It is thus not an attempt mischieviously to anticipate or to distort any future objectives. Although I should not dream of identifying them, officials in the Department have hinted that they and the Government have never really liked private Members Bills suggesting planning proposals. They are always uneasy about that and prefer it to be a departmental and official initiative. I can understand that to some extent because of the complexities of our planning laws and the underlying rules and regulations. However, the Department was moving towards an understanding of the concept of the Bill despite worries about the dangers of an increase in the bureaucracy and the expense of legitimate planning applications and their resolutions. I share that anxiety.

Although I do not presume to be a substitute promoter for the Bill and am merely a loyal supporter of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, nevertheless, as he so kindly said, I was the original designer of the proposal when it was launched and promulgated through the ordinary presentation procedure. However, with all the emphasis that I can command today, I stress that the Bill is not in any way an anti-property developer measure. That would be manifestly absurd for Conservative Members who strongly believe in legitimate private enterprise activity, private industry and private effort in industrial and commercial achievements. That applies to the important sector of property developers, estate developers, house builders and all those involved in the general industry. Incidentally, compared with other European countries that sector is highly developed and highly sophisticated in Britain.

I pay tribute to the many decent property developers who, although they cannot say so publicly because presumably they have to support their federation and trade associations, have expressed a degree of support for the measure privately to me and, I believe, to a number of my colleagues. They have witnessed the vandalism that has been launched by the indecent, illegitimate and over-ruthless property developers who do not have the same regard for the general good as the vast number of decent property developers. The latter category are concerned about the need to provide lower-cost housing in the more expensive southern areas and in the greater London conurbation rather than doing as the more ruthless property developers wish and concentrating on the expensive end of the market, building £300,000 retirement flats for elderly people who no longer need a mortgage and can indulge in a cash-only deal. The decent tribe of property developers reject that because their priority and wish is to provide socially useful housing—with a reasonable profit for themselves, of course—but they are often prevented from doing that by the activities of the indecent minority.

Although the Bill is brief and seems modest, it is crucial because it removes an outdated anomaly. The more I think about it, the more astonishing it seems, that in 1990 there is no local control over the first crucial stage of the redevelopment process on any given site. This applies both in conurbations and in rural areas. Incidentally, we are glad to have the support of our rural colleagues from all parties. The problem affects both north and south, and it will afflict the north more and more unless we deal with it now. As I have said, there is no local control over the first crucial stage of planning and development activity, which is the demolition of an existing building or buildings.

The rapacious minority of property developers are not concerned with the public good. My own constituency saw the notorious case in which one half of a pair of 1930s semi-detached dwellings was pulled down without the inhabitants of the adjoining house having any control or say, or even being notified. That scandal has been mentioned in the press, and it was referred to again this week in the Evening Standard.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Spicer)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I will certainly return some compliments about him when I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have seen reports of the case to which he has just referred—indeed, a trade magazine recently carried a lengthy report of it —but how widespread is that type of case? I keep hearing about that one instance. I should genuinely like to know whether my hon. Friend has any evidence of the problem being more widespread.

Mr. Dykes

That case triggered my attention to this amazing situation for the first time. There are no controls over the first step in the planning process although there are fully developed controls over all the rest—the redevelopment and the rebuilding. Nevertheless developers seem to have a growing tendency no longer to pull down first one dwelling but to say, "Because my super-normal profits can come only from ever larger scale developments in the face of ferocious competition from my rapacious property developer friends, whom I know intimately because we all play golf together, I must do this on an ever larger scale and pull down not one unit, but clusters of houses."

I have heard from witnesses not only in my constituency but elsewhere, and I have with me a file containing just one twentieth of the examples that I have received from all over the country and from many colleagues, to whom I am grateful for sending me that information. Some developers pull down six, 10 or 12 houses, only to find that one awkward old lady has the cheek not to wish to leave her home. That is utter heresy and entirely unacceptable to the developers, so she has to be bribed, winkled or harrassed out.

The phenomenon will recur in greater measure in the future. After all, to whom do the banks most wish to provide finance? It must be to the property industry, which is one of the best securities of all, notwithstanding the present recession. That is why we must deal with these problems. In answer to my hon. Friend the Minister. those examples are widespread and of crucial importance, I repeat that that horrific case was the trigger for me. Mr. and Mrs. Williams of Harrow Weald responded with a civilised restraint which still astonishes me, bearing in mind what they have suffered. That case triggered me into paying further attention to the present extraordinary anomaly.

Mr. O'Brien

Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Minister to visit the Docklands developments, because if he wants to see instances of developers demolishing residential properties by their tens, twenties and hundreds, the evidence is there. Good properties are being demolished without consultation with anyone. That is happening not only in the London Docklands area, but in other urban development corporation areas. The evidence exists and the hon. Gentleman should remind his hon. Friend about it.

Mr. Dykes

That interesting thought shows once again that this issue is not simply an indulgence of outer London suburban Members of Parliament wishing to deal with a pet problem. It is a national matter, affecting urban and rural areas, north and south.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dykes

No, I shall not give way for a moment because I may run into the danger of speaking too long and I wish to conclude with some crucial points.

A legitimate objection to the proposals would be the fear of excessive bureaucracy and additional expense. Although I accept that point, I am convinced that that would not occur because we already regard the necessity for planning controls in the crucial first stage of any redevelopment activity—the discretionary demolition of a building—as totally normal for a conservation area or a listed building. In other, continental, countries one has to have permission for demolition.

It is crucial that the Bill goes into Committee so that we can discuss the modalities in detail and the procedural planning administration points. If it is organised properly, the implication of having to obtain permission for demolition, dealt with either as part of the substantive planning application in one package, dealt with rapidly at stage one—notwithstanding the fears of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood about vandalism of a site which is left untended for too long and his desire that developers should look after vacant sites—or dealt with at stage 2 of the original planning application for the new buildings, the implication will be that permission for a reasonable development will be much more easily obtainable. The incidence weight and enormous bureaucratic expense of the appeals procedure will thereby be reduced.

Mr. Patrick Ground (Felton and Heston)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dykes

I shall give way if I have time. I am watching the clock and trying to make my points. I must be fair to my other hon. Friends. I know my hon. Friend's interest in planning matters and in the legal aspects.

The great weight of bureaucratic expense is now at the other end of the procedure. Appeals are not launched occasionally by developers but as an automatic part of the planning process. Developers know that the local committee of elected councillors will wish, respectably and legitimately, to look after the interests of local residents and electors. To say that that is illegitimate is absurd. Planning applications are often turned down for those reasons. That will not happen under this procedure, whereby the attractions of first stage approval would reverberate right through the process. It would reduce the incidence of unnecessary appeals.

Developers now automatically put in a new plan and appeal before the current appeal—which is automatically applied for—is done away with. They can easily carry the expenses of appeals whereas the local community cannot, because the expenses are usually borne by the local authority.

Mr. Ground

I have followed my hon. Friend's arguments closely as I did those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). One of the principal fears about the Bill is that a site may be left derelict and unattractive and become a source of vandalism and trespass for a long period. Will my hon. Friend explain how, simply by passing this measure, we do anything to prevent a site from being left vacant and in that condition?

Mr. Dykes

More resources, both human and financial, must be put into planning matters. The Government's planning Bill next autumn will presumably deal with those matters. I know that the process has become unfair and too slow for legitimate applications by legitimate developers, whether individuals, property companies or local authorities applying for a development in another local authority area. The requirement for sites to be properly looked after and husbanded between demolition and redevelopment is already manifest and is made even more so by the proposals. Because a developer will have to obtain permission for demolition, a greater moral and legal responsibility will be placed on the person obtaining permission for demolition in the first stage to proceed with haste to the second stage. Discretion is given to split the process or to deal with it in one package.

I now come to my last two points. I hope that I have not taken up too much time. Others may suggest that there is a recession in property now and that the pressure has gone. They suggest that the boom was merely a temporary manifestation, particularly in the sophisticated, expensive outer-London suburbs, in the south and elsewhere and it did not affect the north I reject that completely. Even if that were half true at the margin, surely the physical fact of the recession provides an opportunity for us to make this important legislative adjustment. That would be better than waiting for the next boom when it will be too late, whenever that boom may come. When the boom will come is also a matter for fascinating conjecture. Presumably it is mixed up with the equally fascinating argument of when the next general election will be.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, the Bill needs to go into Committee. That will be the opportunity for the Minister of State with his legitimate anxieties to come along with his colleagues and his intelligent and highly educated officials and put forward complicated procedural points about administration. That will be the time for him, as a responsible Minister must do on these occasions, to listen and cater for the anxieties of both Conservative and Opposition Members.

The classic reaction of Governments of all parties has been to regard private Members' Bills as a tedious matter. This is a chance for the Government to show that they are green, imaginative and humane. That is important for the Government. They will also have the chance to show that they respect the will of Parliament.

10.24 am
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I am grateful for the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on his good fortune in the ballot and on introducing this interesting, important and timely measure. My hon. Friend and I have the pleasure of representing neighbouring constituencies. Therefore, we share a common interest in the preservation of the environment in the borough of Hillingdon.

The Bill is timely because it deals with a problem which is becoming steadily more evident and which urgently needs to he addressed. The Bill is useful. It complements the Town and Country Amenities Act 1974, which I had the good fortune to promote as a private Member and which was also supported by the Labour party. I am pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) that the Labour party supports my hon. Friend's Bill, too.

The Bill deals with the problem of infilling. It also deals with the nasty problem of the gaps which are beginning to appear in streets and crescents throughout urban areas in Greater London, Middlesex and other parts of the country. My attention was drawn to the problem only a month or two ago by a case which arose in my constituency of Uxbridge. It involved a planning application to demolish a house and garage and to erect a two-story building containing five studio flats, several two-bedroomed flats and associated car parking.

The proposed development was strongly resisted by my constituents in Cowley near Uxbridge. They wrote to me drawing my attention to the fact that it was a desirable house which formed part of the character of the area and that they did not wish to see it replaced by a block of flats. When the application went to the planning committee of the borough of Hillingdon, it was refused.

The director of planning for Hillingdon wrote to me: The proposal would represent unacceptable overdevelopment of the site which would be detrimental to the character and amenity of the area. I stress those words because they are important in this case. The would-be developer, a major national insurance company, applied for permission to demolish and to construct a block of flats in place of a much-loved local house. However, there was no reason why that developer had to apply for planning permission.

The director of planning went on to say: There was a significant level of objection to the demolition of this house and garage. However, the property is not a listed building nor is it in a conservation area and does not therefore need planning permission for demolition. While it is considered to be an attractive property, it is unlikely that the Department of Environment would agree to list a house of this age and interest. That raises another important point. In our country are many pleasant houses which are attractive and form part of the neighbourhood. They cannot be listed because many were built in the 1920s, the 1930s, or the 1950s. They are the normal, ordinary kind of houses in which, probably, most hon. Members live. Today, because of the pressure for development in suburban areas, there is a tremendous temptation for some developers—not all by any means —to demolish a property and then to apply for planning permission to construct in place of a single dwelling-house a small block of flats to house five to 10 people.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

Does my hon. Friend agree that his concern is already covered by section 58 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971? Under that section, if it appears that a building of special architectural or historic interest is in danger of demolition or alteration, the local planning authority may serve a building preservation notice.

Mr. Shersby

My anxiety is not covered, because the building concerned may not be of special historic or architectural interest—it may simply be an attractive property, which forms part of the urban landscape. When I introduced the Town and Country Amenities Bill in 1974, it had all-party support and it dealt with enhancing conservation areas. During our discussions on it we argued that it is the familiar townscape that for the particular character of our environment and which are at risk when demolition takes place without planning permission.

We are not dealing necessarily with houses of special architectural or historic interest; we are dealing with the ordinary dwelling house, which forms part of a street, crescent or square, whose removal damages the quality of those areas.

Mr. Dykes

It is interesting to reflect that the planning departments of many local authorities are greatly in favour of the proposals in the Bill.

Mr. Shersby

My hon. Friend is right.

There is a gap in the armoury of planning controls, but there has been no attempt to fill it; it has been left to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood to remedy the situation.

Another problem that needs to be addressed is that of back-land development in urban areas. The houses in Ruislip-Northwood, and in Uxbridge, as well as in adjoining constituencies, are either detached or semidetached and have long gardens of about 240 or 250 feet. They were built in the 1920s or 1930s; I was born and grew up in such a house. Today there is a temptation for some developers to gain access to the attractive back land by acquiring and demolishing those houses, which then enables them to drive a road through and to develop another row of houses on that land.

For many years, decent developers have applied for planning permission to demolish a property, but there is no obligation on them to do so. Consequently, it is open to the cowboy developer to acquire a property, demolish it and then to apply for planning permission for access to the back land. When a local authority planning department is faced with that problem, it is difficult for it to refuse permission, as the house that would have prevented access has already been demolished. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood has drawn attention to that problem, and I strongly endorse what he said. It is something to which the Government should address themselves.

My hon. Friend the Minister represents a pleasant constituency in Worcestershire. I am sure that he is familiar with the urban areas of that county as well as with those of greater London and those of other great towns and cities. The threat to the character of the environment lies principally in those areas, because there are some unprincipled developers who will use any tactic to gain access to development land. It is well known that many developers survey an area by helicopter to pick out the patches of green land. They then knock on the doors of my constituents and urge them to sell so that they can gain access. It only takes one or two people to sell for demolition to take place and access to be granted. Once that happens, however, the character of an area is changed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) mentioned houses of special architectural or historic interest, but we are talking about the houses of suburban England and that is why I support the Bill. It is well for the House to remember that, from the 1920s to the 1950s, or even later, many excellent developments were built in and around London, Birmingham, Manchester and many of our other great cities. Those developments are the heritage which people regard as extremely important today. They form the familiar townscape that people want to retain. My constituents, and I am sure those of many of my hon. Friends, do not want to live in a street where the line of the carefully planned development of the 1920s or 1930s is interrupted by a sudden gap—just like a gap in a row of teeth—which is then refilled with a nasty block, an amalgam, of small flats offered to first-time buyers at a large price.

We are dealing not simply with planning control, but with the character of the environment, which our constituents hold dear. I hope that the Government will take careful account of that when deciding how to respond to the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow raised an important point about houses of special architectural or historic interest. One of my relatives lives in a beautiful old lath and plaster house, which is 250 years old. I spoke to him on the telephone last night and he confirmed that his house is not listed. Therefore, it could be demolished unless the planning control to which my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow drew attention was invoked. According to my relative and to others to whom I have spoken, it is not unknown, unfortunately, for old houses to collapse during refurbishment. When that happens, no planning control exercised by the local authority can possibly restore that house.

One house, which was not listed, but was certainly 250 years old, was in the process of restoration when it collapsed during the night. When the local authority officials went to look at it, they found new window frames, new bricks and other materials in the garden all ready for the construction of the new house intended to replace the old property. Strange things can happen to old buildings during the night, and the best planning controls in the world cannot prevent the determined cowboy developer who wants to get hold of a particular site.

I commend the Bill to the House. If there is a Division, I hope that it receives a substantial majority. It will then go into the Committee and we shall have the opportunity to consider in detail some of the planning considerations that will undoubtedly be raised by other colleagues this morning.

10.38 am
Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

It is not only a pleasure but an honour to support my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) in the excellent Bill he has introduced. I am not only one of the named sponsors to the Bill, but was a sponsor of two previous Bills introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes).

The Bill is one of the most sensible small measures to be presented to the House in a long time. The more I have studied the issue, the more surprised I am that it has not already been a part of planning legislation. I have read copious amounts on the background information to this Bill, including the Dobry report, which was published in February 1975. It contains virtually no mention of demolition. It was the shorter report, published the year before, which contained some evidence that demolition was a serious problem that should be covered by planning legislation.

In paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, I should say that, when I was first elected to the constituency of Richmond and Barnes, he was then a resident there, and I was a resident in his constituency of Ruislip-Northwood. I can well remember the joy with which we greeted each other, having given each other a vote in 1983. My hon. Friend still carries the badge that says, "I was one of the 74"—my majority was only 74 in those days. In 1987, we had both moved and he now votes for himself and I vote for myself, but that does not give me a pleasure as great as that when I voted for him. Therefore, I shall vote for him today, should the need arise.

As my hon. Friend knows Richmond so well, he knows the problem as it affects my constituency and he knows that demolition is a scourge and an act of vandalism. It occurs more often than perhaps the Minister would care to say. Avenues have been constructed in this century, such as Kew road, which borders Kew gardens and Castelnau in Barnes which are long, tree-lined avenues that make an attractive town landscape. In Richmond we are lucky: we call it the place where the countryside comes to town. The tree-lined avenues make living in a built-up urban area bearable.

What is so sad is that the harmonious development that created those roads is not just disturbed but ruined by demolition. In my constituency, notable houses in Kew road and Castelnau and many other streets have disappeared almost overnight. Recently, one house in Castelnau was demolished over a weekend. Those are not necessarily conservation areas. I have it on good authority from the planning department at my local council of Richmond-upon-Thames, that many councils create conservation areas specifically to protect buildings from being demolished, when in fact they may not want to create full-blown conservation areas. Councils are doing so when they should not, specifically to protect local residents' houses from impending demolition.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that he required evidence that demolition was causing trouble, but I find that statement strange. One of the major arguments against the Bill is that it would cause massive bureaucracy. If there is a lot of evidence of demolition, perhaps one would agree that bureaucracy might be created. However, there are not as many examples as might cause a large bureaucracy, but there are sufficient numbers to give rise to grave concern, particularly on the outskirts of London. If I am misinterpreting my hon. Friend's words, no doubt he will take me up later.

I do not believe that we will, as has been said, almost double the number of planning consents that will be required. That is like saying that the number of marriages will be doubled if the bride and groom are counted separately. It does not make sense, because there is no demolition unless there is construction. There should be no reason why a demolition should be allowed if a construction was not following hard on its heels, otherwise, we would have exactly the problems we have heard about, of sites becoming tips.

When I looked at the evidence showing that demolition should be part of planning controls, I found that the argument about whether demolition should constitute development was a fascinating one. It has already been said that there is some legal uncertainty about the matter, and local authorities have typically assumed that demolition is outside the ambit of development control. However, there are extensive powers within planning legislation to prevent the demolition of buildings of historic or architectural quality.

I have already mentioned conservation areas, and the Town and Country Amenities Act 1974 brought the demolition of buildings in conservation areas under control. Therefore, some demolition features in planning control, and it is surprising that the subject is not more comprehensively dealt with in current practice.

Mr. Shersby

My hon. Friend referred to the Act that I promoted in 1974. Is he aware that in that Act I made specific provision so that a local authority could not give itself permission for the demolition of a listed building? That permission could be given only by the Secretary of State so that the right of the local authority to act as judge and jury in its own area was abolished. In promoting that change, I received support from both sides of the House. That was an important move, and it is relevant to the point that my hon. Friend makes.

Mr. Hanley

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, I ask his forgiveness for not granting him the parenthood of that Act, which has stood the test of time.

My hon. Friend will no doubt remember that one of the reasons for the Dobry report was parliamentary pressure. There was amazing parliamentary pressure in the early 1970s, which was why George Dobry QC, was asked to produce the report, which has also stood the test of time. He concluded that there were several "persuasive" arguments—I use his word—in favour of subjecting demolition to control. He said that, first, there is a good deal of concern that the planning system should permit town centre and residential development that is sometimes strikingly out of scale or sympathy with the area affected. That is the point that I was making about the tree-lined avenues—that which replaces what has gone can often be out of sympathy and out of scale, and certainly ruin the amenity value of properties for other local residents.

Dobry continued by saying that, secondly, there was "genuine uncertainty" as to the law, which was bad for all of us. He also said, thirdly, that there was "inconsistency". Here, the argument, curiously, is that, although there are powers to control the demolition of certain buildings, there is no overall system. It is unsatisfactory to pick at certain points, rather than deal with the demolition in the round.

He said that, fourthly, and most importantly, there are the four practical reasons to extend control over demolition. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood mentioned three of them. Dobry spoke of the aftermath of demolition and described graphically the inadequately fenced barren sites and the dumping grounds that we have all seen on those sites. The Dobry report mentioned the broken bottles, dumped cars and paraphernalia of vandalism and disorder—an excellent description. My hon. Friend also mentioned one of Dobry's conclusions, that demolition, as a fait accompli, cannot be allowed.

Developers have a slightly dirty name; perhaps that is sometimes deserved, but not all developers are professionals. A developer can be a person who has bought a house in, say Barnes or Kew, and has decided that he wants to pull down what was perhaps a desirable residence in the 1920s and make it into what is regarded as a modern desirable property. A developer can be an ordinary person who is possibly overstretched on his loans and suffering from high rates of interest. He wants to get the job done quickly, so that the loans are not outstanding for too long. He may very well want to sell and move on soon after he has built what he may claim to local residents is his dream house.

The developer may have put in four, five or six planning applications. They may have been turned down by the local council. Certainly many local councils turn down such applications; people then appeal to the Secretary of State. Local councillors may not want to take the political risk of accepting a planning application, so they pass the buck to the Secretary of State and the independent inspectors appointed by him.

The developer whose five or six applications have been turned down may have been frustrated by a local council which, after all, is trying to act in the interests of local residents. But the developer knows full well that, once he has pulled down a property, the local council will be more likely to accept one of his plans, because it is better to have something in place than nothing. The fait accompli argument is a powerful one and it applies most frequently in my constituency—people pull down properties because then the council has to accept development, rather than refuse what might be regarded as reasonable or minor improvements or alterations to a property.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Does my hon. Friend accept that that result might be achieved in another way, even if this Bill were passed? A developer applies for planning permission to build a house on the basis of very low density, then demolishes the house on the site and fails to build the house that he has applied for planning permission to build.

Mr. Hanley

I do not claim that the Bill will make all demolition and planning legislation perfect. I agree that some people may fail to develop a site after demolition, but I also believe that the Government have a duty to deal with waste land, private or public. We know that the Government are taking great steps to reduce the area of derelict land under their control and to try to encourage local authorities to use derelict land that is under their control. Recently, a number of orders have required local authorities to use derelict land. I see no reason on earth why a local council cannot be given permission to take over land after demolition if it remains derelict for an excessively long time.

The point remains that assurances would have been given in the application for demolition in the first place. The local authority could then use those assurances compulsorily to purchase the site, if necessary. As I said, the fait accompli problem caused by demolition is the one that affects my constituency most—the developer who puts a gun at the head of the planning department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood also talked about premature demolition of houses and vacancies in residential accommodation in anticipation of development, which causes disquiet among local people. That can help to spread blight, but there is, as Dobry said, a need to preserve commercial and community use, and the premature demolition of shops in a redevelopment area is clearly harmful to the local economy and amenities.

Many people believe that preventing the demolition of useful residential buildings, theatres and cinemas is equally important. There is such a head of steam behind this issue that I am surprised that the Government give every sign of being unwilling to accept this memorable little Bill.

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that it was a Conservative Government who commissioned the Dobry report, at a time when the property market was booming. By the time the report was completed, the property boom had collapsed and a Labour Government were in power. They published their proposals for what they called community land legislation. Cullingworth's "Town and Country Planning In Britain" an excellent tome that I invite all my right hon. and hon. Friends to read, says: In short, the planning scene had changed fundamentally. In purely administrative terms, 'authorities concerned with distinguishing between applications for exempt development, excepted development designated relevant development, and non-designated relevant development could not also be expected to distinguish between class A and class B applications, and between outline illustrative, detailed and guideline applications'. Government decisions on the Dobry report were set out in their circular in 1975 and all the recommendations for change in the system were rejected—even though it was stressed that the objectives could be achieved if local authorities adopted what was called "the most efficient working methods".

Dobry's view was that it is not so much the system that is wrong as the way in which it is used. That was endorsed by the Government—even though they rejected many of the recommendations—who commended the report to students of our planning system as an invaluable compendium of information about the working of the existing development control process, and to local authorities and developers as a source of advice on the best way to operate within it. So Dobry had it right; but a Labour Government were responsible for its rejection and now, ironically, a different Government have rejected the excellent legislation proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East on two occasions.

I have set out as comprehensively as I can the real problem that affects my constituency and others. It is not a vast problem: there are not masses of demolitions, but when they happen they can take place in extremely sensitive places and greatly affect local people.

There is no logic in allowing a person under our planning laws not to make a planning application to alter a property by less than 10 per cent. when we also allow a person not to make a planning application when he alters his property by 100 per cent. —by pulling it down. Where is the logic in making a person put in a planning application if he alters his house by between 100 per cent. and 10 per cent., but not if he alters it by less than 10 per cent. or by more than 100 per cent? The entire removal of a property presents the strongest possible need for an application for development.

Planning applications are required by law, because planning affects other local people besides the person altering the property. We have planning applications because we recognise local concerns about the environment. It is therefore ridiculous that no planning application is necessary when a person pulls a whole property down. I recommend this excellent Bill to the House.

Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask your guidance as to whether the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said that he intends to come to the House this morning to make a statement on the House of Fraser affair. I would not ask such a question on a Friday were it not for the devious behaviour of the Secretary of State yesterday, when he announced that the Serious Fraud Office would not be prosecuting but he will have failed to provide until next Wednesday the report on which that decision was partially based.

May I ask, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, if we do not have a statement today, we shall at least have one next Wednesday, because this is a Westland-type affair in which both the honesty and integrity of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) and the Prime Minister have been called into question?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I have had no application for a statement to be made, but no doubt what has been said will have been heard by the Patronage Secretary who is in his place.

10.59 am
Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

I welcome this short Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and which is supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley). They expressed the hope that the Government will accept the Bill as a touchstone of the Government's concern for the environment.

In the opinion polls one looks for issues about which people are concerned and finds that they are concerned about this issue. I have no worries about the next general election, but I hope that before the time comes the Government will remember what people are thinking about. They are thinking about the preservation of the environment, and not just the green environment, smokeless zones and the burning of old boots, but about people having decent places in which to live. Such matters will influence how people will vote. I shall be shocked and horrified if the Government do not accept this Bill with acclaim, because it will reduce much suffering.

It is amazing that houses can be knocked down without permission. I do not know how anybody could oppose the Bill because it is such obvious common sense. Houses are part of Britain's social capital. They cost tens of thousands or hundreds or thousands to build and before they are knocked down a decision should be made that something better should replace them. If such a decision is not made, the houses should be left alone. We do not want the whole of Britain being made into a conservation area, but if that would stop such demolition I should even go that far.

As my hon. Friends have said, buildings are usually knocked down and replaced by something that will make more profit more quickly. That usually means that good family houses are demolished and generations of families are broken. The houses are replaced by tiny flats, reminiscent of a doll's house society, with window boxes the only place where there is anything growing. We call this the century of improvement, but people in the next century will laugh at us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) has left the Chamber. I live in his constituency and he and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East know that three houses from where I live a big old house was knocked down for redevelopment. A planning application was turned down by the council and was passed to the Department. In one of its wiser moods the Department turned it down. Although we cannot always rely on the Department being wise—

Mr. Hanley


Sir Rhodes Boyson

I shall give way in a moment when I have finished my sentence, otherwise I shall forget where I have got to.

The application was turned down by the council for the second time. The matter was spread over five or six years and it cost local residents thousands of pounds to fight the issue. The council in Harrow is Conservative, but this is a problem with all parties. Permission has now been given by the Council for a block of flats, which will change the whole area. The effect will be like leprosy and good houses in which family after family have been brought up will be replaced by tiny boxes. I trust that the Bill will have all-party support.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) referred, is a sponsor of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) is unable to speak to the Bill because he assists the Minister.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

I felt that I was speaking for my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) and I am sure that he would have endorsed what I have said. I am sure that the Minister will be delighted that his Parliamentary Private Secretary has been assisted in that way. I thought that it was my duty to involve him in everything that I said, and I am sorry that he was not here to acclaim the phrases that I used.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East knows about big store development, which is a menance. Superstores should be outside cities. They should not be near main roads where traffic is held up, and should not involve knocking down good houses. The Kenton road bridges my constituency and the constituency of Harrow, East. One of the great store firms has been trying to build a superstore here and that will mean the demolition of superb houses. It will also mean that traffic will not be able to move and people will be playing chess on the way to work. Traffic on the Kenton road does not move now for three hours in the morning and for three hours at night. People will soon have to leave for work at 2 am or go by parachute or helicopter.

The plans were called in by the Department, whose prayers were answered by the Almighty in the right way, because the plans were turned down. They were turned down a second time by the council, but now the store firm is trying for a third time and is buying up houses. About 20 or 30 three and four-bedroon houses, the basis of family life, have been bought. They were built in the 1930s and 1940s and would normally last longer than some houses that are being built today. I am not saying that they will be knocked down, but I suspect that that will happen because the houses are being bought up at above the market price. A road could be built there and perhaps one could get through on a bicycle on a good day. The houses could be knocked down at any time and more family houses will have gone.

The Bill is long overdue. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West has arrived. I referred to certain events in his constituency and he would have supported me with acclaim if he had been here. I know that he will regret for the rest of his life that he was not here.

I hope that next year we shall see a consolidation measure for planning. That is desperately needed and if the Government want to revive themselves—and I should like to see some resuscitation from time to time—such an environment measure would help tremendously and would show that at last some sense is coming back to us. I have the greatest respect for the Minister and I trust that at the end of the debate I shall respect him even more, because I hope that he will assure us that if the Bill does not go through, the Government will deal with three other matters. It would be nice to hear what a consolidation Bill will contain.

The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) spoke about appeals. At present there is no natural justice on appeals. A developer can appeal, but people who live in an area and whose environment will be destroyed cannot. There should be an appeal system against developers. The system should work both ways and natural justice is long overdue. Secondly, no one should be able to apply for planning permission unless he owns the houses that will be affected or has written permission from the people who live in them.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Hear, hear.

Sir Rhodes Boyson

My hon. Friend took me by surprise with his naval "Hear, hear". Only we two who were in the Navy are able to recognise the strength of that acclamation. I am glad that I did not serve under my hon. Friend because I would have been afeard at such a tierce turn of phrase. I am grateful for his support.

Blackmail comes into this matter. People buy houses and apply for planning permission. They then say to a little lady that she will be the only one left and had better sell. I know of a case where permission was sought for development affecting 700 houses and the prospective developer did not own one of them. Even the lampposts had signs on them. Hundreds of people living there were terrified because they felt that somehow they were being threatened.

My final point concerns the preservation of the green belt of suburbia. Green belts in the countryside are all very well, but most people do not have the time to enjoy them. They want to enjoy the green belt that is provided by their gardens, rather than suffer back-garden development. The same applies in respect of playing fields and public open spaces. Two are currently under threat in my own constituency, including Westfield college sports field. In my constituency, sports field after sports field has disappeared, so less sport will be played in the future than in the past. Fortunately, the plan concerning the one now under threat has been called in by the Department of the Environment. Although I cannot influence its decision, I may say that it is greatly desired by my constituents that both applications should be rejected and that the two sports fields be kept open.

As to back-garden development, reference has been made to the use of helicopters in photographing potential development sites. A man knocked on my door offering me an aerial photograph of my house. He explained that a helicopter had been used to fly over the area to identify potential development sites, and thought that I should like to buy a copy of the photograph. I did not know what to do with him. Was one to attack him, have him arrested, or reward him for his initiative? I was amazed that he had the effrontery not only to assist in destroying my neighbourhood but to try to sell me copies of his photographs as well.

I do not suggest that the Bill can deal with such a situation, but the problem of back-garden development certainly exists in my constituency—particularly in Tudor gardens, about which I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister again only this week. The Bill itself, the size of the attendance by my hon. Friends, and the support of the hon. Member for Normanton show the amount of public concern for environmental protection. It is wrong that houses can be so easily knocked down. The existing appeals system is also wrong.

I look forward to the Bill receiving its Second Reading, and to receiving an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the Bills for consideration next Session will include one that covers the right of appeal by the public against development, the obtaining of written consent from the owners of all the houses involved in a development before a planning application is made, and additional measures to guard against back-garden and playing field development. I entirely support the Bill.

11.12 am
Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

I declare an interest, in that I have been practising at the planning Bar for more than 20 years. The Bill will undoubtedly give rise to many planning appeals, which will no doubt be very beneficial to the planning Bar. Therefore, I have a clear interest in favour of the passing of the Bill.

I have a number of reservations about the Bill as drafted, and suggest that a number of its aspects require further thought. I acknowledge the popular concern, to which my hon. Friends have referred, relating to the demolition of large houses with large gardens and their replacement by developments of an over-high density that are inappropriate to the surrounding area and very often contrary to the provisions of the local plan and development plan. Such concern is widespread in the constituency that I represent and that in which I live. There is a need for policy consideration and a strong case for more intervention by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in local plans and the implementation of planning controls.

Local authorities are often to blame for developments that take place on their own land, which aspect requires even more urgent consideration. I wholly support the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) about sports fields and gardens. The erosion of sports and public open spaces, and of private open spaces, in London—particularly west London—is a matter of considerable concern that ought to be occupying the attention of the Department of the Environment. It is no accident that the existing legislation is as it is, and that there is an absence of any controls on demolition other than where it constitutes an engineering operation, or where the building is listed or is in a conservation area. The absence of any controls where no engineering operation is involved dates from the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which was passed by the post-war Labour Government.

During the debate, my hon. Friends referred to a number of sound Conservative principles, but I suggest that a number of sound Conservative principles were enacted by the post-war Labour Government—such as the assumption that an owner should be free to do as he wishes with his property and should be allowed to do so, provided that it is not objectionable on grounds of land use or planning policy. That is a key principle in current legislation, which relies on the premise that the self-interest of the landowner is not to keep his land empty and non-productive and that there will be a strong motivation for him to develop it whenever that is possible.

One must question whether such a Bill is really needed. Would its objectives be better achieved by the use of existing powers or by modifying existing policies? Should we not be careful about imposing more controls than are needed? Any new controls should also be certain of achieving their stated purpose.

The principal objective of the Bill that I discern from the speeches of my hon. Friends is that of preventing sympathetic buildings, often located in large gardens, from being demolished when the sites are either likely to be left derelict for some time and become an eyesore, or be replaced by a development that is out of keeping with the area or at too high a density—or perhaps both.

If the Bill is passed, on what criteria would permission to demolish be given or withheld? One is talking of houses that are not of special architectural or historical interest or in a conservation area.

Mr. Wilkinson

But my hon. and learned Friend will agree that they are nice to live in, and that the people who do so appreciate them.

Mr. Ground

Permission to demolish such properties cannot be refused on the grounds of historical or architectural interest. Perhaps such properties should be in a conservation area, but by definition they are not, so the matters that could be relied on to prevent or to restrict redevelopment in a conservation area are not applicable.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Given my hon. and learned Friend's considerable expertise, I am listening to him with much interest. Is he saying that, even if the Bill were passed, there would be no planning grounds to refuse permission to demolish a house that was neither listed nor in a conservation area?

Mr. Ground

I am not saying that there would be no grounds; I am asking the House to consider what the grounds would be for refusing consent. My hon. Friends have assumed that planning permission for redevelopment or for new building on such a site would be forthcoming from the planning authority or from the Secretary of State. If planning permission were forthcoming from the local authority, under existing practice there could be no justifiable planning reason for refusing consent. If consent were refused by the local authority, under existing law and practice the Secretary of State may make an order for costs against it.

Our current practice may need revision, and perhaps the fact that a house is nice to live in should be incorporated in legislation, but without the introduction of some new concept, I can see no valid reason for refusing planning consent.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my hon. and learned Friend explain why in certain residential areas, in which there are neither listed buildings nor conservation areas, permission must be requested to cut down trees on which preservation orders have been placed, yet houses require no such permission to be demolished? I find that perplexing. Will my hon. and learned Friend turn his legal mind to that?

Mr. Ground

I should not wish to detain the House with an exposition on tree preservation orders, but the planning policy in the local plan could encourage the retention of existing housing and discourage its replacement by new housing.

For buildings developed some years ago, which have generous accommodation and space and which, although not of historic interest or in a conservation area, are valuable and should be retained, it is perfectly possible to achieve that end under local planning policy, which should he strong enough, if attacked on appeal, to prevent the granting of planning permission. That would be an effective remedy to achieve my hon. Friend's objective, but the simple requirement to obtain planning permission for demolition without a change of policy, would not do so.

The Bill would be ineffective in reducing the risk of dereliction. The planning Acts contain no positive measures to compel a developer to proceed with a development. If he is required to obtain planning permission before being allowed to demolish, there is nothing to prevent him from applying for another planning permission, because there is no limit on the number of planning permissions that can validly exist for a site. The freedom to carry out any one of those developments is in the hands of the developer, provided he has not lost the benefit of one of the planning permissions by taking some thoroughly inconsistent step that makes them impossible to implement.

I do not believe that the Bill would achieve the objective of reducing dereliction, and it may impose an additional bureaucratic requirement, which could add to the period required for redevelopment. Instead of leaving a site derelict, it could lead to properties being left empty while permission was sought.

From my experience as a resident and as a Member. I am sympathetic to the objectives of the Bill. I should like to see them achieved by local and, if necessary, national policy changes. But I doubt the wisdom of making that additional requirement without corresponding changes in law and practice to make it effective.

11.26 am
Mr. Ian Stewart (Hertfordshire, North)

The speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham arid Heston (Mr. Ground) was important, because it raised for the first time some of the Bill's practical implications.

I am very sympathetic—I may go so far as to say extremely sympathetic—to the concept that led my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Dykes) arid for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) to introduce the Bill, and I congratulate them on doing so. There is no doubt that the random demolition of buildings has caused many difficulties—not only for the environment but for transport and many other things in urban areas.

With the exception of the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), hon. Members who have spoken represent London constituencies or constituencies close to London. I should like to make a few comments as someone who represents what is basically a rural area. North Hertfordshire is between 30 and 50 miles from London, but it is sufficiently far away not to be affected by the same considerations as those raised by my hon. Friends.

My constituency covers about 150 square miles, and there are four separate towns—one ancient market town of some size, Hitchin, two smaller towns, Baldock and Royston, and Letchworth, the first garden city in the world. The planning considerations that affect them are very different for each. They are also rather different from the planning considerations that affect the London area, about which we have heard so far.

I want to consider the practical implications in the planning process and the redevelopment process in those areas of my constituency if the Bill were to reach the statute book. I am open-minded at this stage, but I am a bit sceptical about the practical implications of the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be able to give us more insight into the Government's thinking and into what legislation may be in train which, whatever the fate of the Bill, may incorporate some recognition of the need to tackle the problems caused by demolition and by the relative lack of control over demolition at present.

The most difficult question is what is the interest of the community, as represented by the planning authority, as opposed to the interest of the current and future occupants of the properties concerned. I was interested in the comments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston about which factors would be taken into account in considering the demolition aspects of planning permission under such a system. I have three main areas of concern, and I hope that, later in the debate, some light may be thrown on them.

I comment in passing—this is no reflection on the Chair —that it is in some ways a pity to have so many contributions from sponsors of the Bill coming first, because fewer of them are left to respond to the queries and concerns of other hon. Members.

I have listened carefully to earlier contributions. There are some gaps in the argument for the Bill, which is in a rather bare form. One could argue that, by adding many new clauses and accompanying the Bill with a considerable back-up of guidance or regulation about the way in which such a system will work, one could formulate a new system which would enable planning procedures to cover demolition as effectively as building. However, I must confess, without having any grudge against the Bill—I have some enthusiasm for the underlying idea that demolition has now become a considerable problem which needs attention—that I am not convinced by the arguments I have heard this morning that its aims could be achieved.

My first point is not my main one. As some of my hon. Friends have already said, we should not lose sight of the fact that local authorities are not necessarily reliable in their opinion of what should or should not be demolished. Part of my early political experience was working in the borough of Lewisham, and the first constituency that I contested at a general election was Hammersmith, North. In both cases, the local authorities committed widespread demolition of what would now be regarded as very attractive houses which were built perhaps 100 years ago. Many were in need of modernisation and perhaps some extension, but their demolition has left great areas in those boroughs deprived of older-fashioned housing of a type that is now more popular.

The boroughs replaced those houses with some monstrosities. Tower blocks not only generate terrific winds but provide no suitable play areas equivalent to the gardens which the houses used to have. People who live on the upper floors, especially those with young families, have a difficult and hazardous occupation.

I remind the House of that episode, which happened mainly in the 1960s, to point out that one cannot assume automatically that local authorities possess a reliable wisdom about which areas of urban landscape can be done away with and replaced by some residential or other building. Abuse by local authorities can manifest itself in other ways.

I have the misfortune to represent a constituency that has Stevenage on its borders. About 20 years ago, Stevenage was within the constituency, but it grew so fast that it had to be taken out when the boundaries were redrawn. It is a great post-war new town and is laid out on such extravagant lines that there is a vast amount of wasted space for accommodation and other building within its boundaries. Yet the borough council has relentlessly refused to encourage infilling and development within its boundaries.

To my astonishment and dismay, it has succeeded in persuading the Secretary of State that its requirement for extra housing should be achieved by pushing out its boundaries. It is already far too big geographically for an urban area in the middle of one of the home countries. The solution has been that its boundaries should be developed further, and they are creeping into my constituency, although there is a great deal of wasted space within Stevenage. That is a direct result of the planning policy of Stevenage borough council, in which I have no confidence.

I will forbear pointing out to hon. Members the political complexion of Stevenage borough council, because it is possible that councils of other political complexions may have ideas about the way in which the locality should develop which are unacceptable in the long term, which may conflict strongly with the individual views of people who live in or near that area and which may not take their interests properly into account. It is an important, although not a central, point that we should recognise that planning authorities will not necessarily operate in the long-term interests of people in the area on demolition and reconstruction.

My second point is more important and serious. Will a procedure such as that in the Bill slow down what is already a rather arthritic process? Planning applications are considered by planning officers, then by planning sub-committees and then by the whole council, after which they may go to appeal. The system is already pretty protracted. In my constituency, there has been considerable pressure for extra accommodation. One cause is that the whole planning process takes a long time to complete. We must accept that, with the population pressures in the south-east, further dwelling units—a horrible phrase, but it is the jargon—must be provided on a considerable scale. Figures from the Department of the Environment show that, in the last 14 years of the century, there will be almost 1 million extra households in the south-east.

The reason is not that people are moving in from other parts of the country. Indeed, people are tending to move out of the area, which is not surprising in view of house prices. The reason is that family units are becoming smaller, and that people are getting married younger and wanting to be in their own accommodation. People want to live near their families and in the area in which they were brought up, so there is a need for more units than there were before. That can be achieved only by increased density, by expanding the boundaries of urban areas or, in some cases, by replacing older accommodation with new accommodation which contains more separate units.

There is a strong economic and social motivation— which, in itself, is not objectionable—for replacing some larger, older properties with new, more separate accommodation units. That is happening in, for instance, Hitchin, Baldock and Royston. In my area, the problem has been dealt with partly through expansion of the areas over which development is carried out and partly through some infilling, but also through the replacement of older properties. I fear that the Bill could slow down the process.

That leads me to my third major worry, which reflects what my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) has said. If I were a member of the relevant sub-committee of North Hertfordshire district council, or of the planning officer's department, I am not sure what recomendation I could possibly make for or against the demolition of specific buildings: surely I would not have to say, "It is perfectly acceptable to knock down any or all of the houses in Acacia avenue, but none must be knocked down in Willow crescent."

One of my hon. Friends observed earlier that a homogeneous row of houses, of uniform and attractive appearance, would become very unattractive if a gaping hole suddenly appeared because one of the houses had been knocked down to be replaced by a building containing perhaps half a dozen flats. None of the Bill's sponsors, and none of those who have spoken most passionately in its favour, has addressed the further question of how to devise a remotely fair or reasonable system for deciding which property should receive such treatment.

The present presumption is that development may take place provided that it conforms to the existing criteria, which include the local plan and requirements relating to access, traffic, density and infrastructure. Clearly the criteria will be heavily influenced by the supply, or lack of supply, of housing in the area; they will also take into account such matters as design and aesthetics, although not to any major extent.

The argument advanced this morning, however, is based principally on less tangible factors such as appearance and the general environmental impact on a particular collection of houses built in a certain period and style. Of course residents will become used to the appearance of a locality: some of the towns and villages in my constituency are very attractive, and I would be the last to want them to change. It is, however, exceptionally difficult to quantify or codify such factors in a form that would operate effectively in the appeal system and would enable councils to deal fairly and consistently with the collective interests of local people.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Does my hon. Friend envisage a two-tier system whereby some buildings, although not considered to possess enough intrinsic merit to warrant their being listed or forming part of a conservation area, would nevertheless be refused demolition, for no obvious reason?

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend must be a mind-reader: I was coming to that point. We already have procedures to allow the listing of individual buildings, and the designation of groups of buildings as a conservation area. The Bill, I believe, would create, if not a universal urban listed-building or conservation-area designation, at least the presumption of a third tier, which could be invoked to prevent or discourage development that could only lead to demolition.

Mr. Ground

Is my hon. Friend aware that an informal third category already exists in a number of areas? It is variously described, but is sometimes referred to as "buildings of townscape value".

Mr. Stewart

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his helpful intervention. It seems to me almost inevitable that such a concept will develop if the Bill is enacted, and arguably it should do so regardless. My constituents seem much more concerned about planning applications nowadays: they worry not only about what may appear on a particular site, but about the possible loss of what they regard as an attractive prospect or a social amenity.

It would be dangerous to enact such legislation without a much clearer idea of how it will work in practice, and whether the presumptions about demolition and development will change. The argument that demolition would in itself damage or remove a building or buildings of aesthetic value or general public amenity could act as a focus for those opposed to all development: it could be used not for the purpose that lies behind the Bill, but as an obstruction to development that is, as far as I can see, unavoidable in my constituency and those of a number of London Members.

I say that not because I am an expert on planning, but merely because, like all hon. Members, I receive a good deal of constituency feedback on planning matters, both from those who want more accommodation built to ease the housing pressure and from those who oppose a change in the appearance of their locality. I suspect—although I am willing to be disabused—that, if the legislation were enforced without careful consideration of the criteria for and against demolition, planning permission procedures would be much lengthier and more complicated, and also more difficult to implement.

We would also become confused about the purpose of a restriction on demolition. I do not want to finish on a carping note, nor do I disagree with the Bill's principle. I do not believe that wanton and random demolition, often in the worst interests of commercial development, should be allowed to continue. We must achieve greater control over such demolition. However, I believe that the issues are not nearly as straightforward as they appear in this two clause Bill.

I want to end with a point which might apply whether or not demolition is addressed by his Bill or in any other way, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will consider this. I have been struck by the difficulties facing pedestrians, traffic and the general public as a result of the redevelopment of urban sites.

Many traffic delays occur because people park in the wrong places and often because of natural congestion. However, many of the problems are caused by the intolerable intrusion on to our highways of work around building sites, where land is fenced off and lorries may be parked in inconvenient places. What constraints exist on people who want to demolish and redevelop property? What costs must they bear to compensate for the nuisance to the immediate local community and for the vast amount of man hours that are wasted as a result of traffic delays? I hope that that factor will weigh more strongly in decisions to allow demolition to replace buildings, particularly in the most crowded areas of our towns arid cities.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood for giving us this opportunity to discuss a very important matter. Whatever happens to this Bill, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment will take seriously the concerns that have been expressed by all hon. Members about the potential abuses in demolition, however best my colleagues decide to resolve the problems.

11.52 am
Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)

There is a common feeling in the House today that we all accept the need for a measure to stop the capricious demolition of houses by people who do that for reasons that are not in the interests of the local community. However, the Bill highlights wider problems than those that it attempts to address directly. It raises problems in our planning laws, which are long overdue for review and perhaps systematic reform. There are many abuses of the planning system, in addition to that described in the Bill.

We have heard some very well argued and cogent reasons why the Bill may be technically flawed. However, we must consider reasons, which may not be within the legal framework, why buildings are demolished prior to the granting of planning permission for their replacement. We must consider why that happens, because if we understand the reasons we shall be better able to tackle the problem.

Mr. Dykes

Does my hon. Friend agree that the description of the Bill as technically flawed in its present form on Second Reading is not correct because it is quite normal for private Member's Bills and others to have additional technical clauses drafted to them in Committee to take care of the technicalities? The Bill has a positive advantage in that it is a two-clause Bill with a basic principle built into it.

Mr. Carrington

I agree with much of that. However, the point has been made cogently that the problem ranges wider than the issue addressed in the Bill. Consequently, the knock-on effects—for want of a better description—of the changes that the Bill would introduce into the planning system must be considered when we take account of the necessary legislative changes. Obviously the Bill can be amended in Committee to address those problems, but the problems are substantial.

I want now to consider the reasons why buildings are demolished prior to the granting of planning permission. No one who owns a building would want to demolish it and leave the site vacant and not producing an income. No one would want investment in a property to become a hole in which to sink more money instead of something that might produce income or serve as a home. It is very unlikely that it will be in the interests of a developer—for want of a better expression—to knock down a building prior to having an alternative use for that site with which he or she proposes to go ahead.

Our present planning laws create circumstances in which it is in the interests of developers to demolish property without prior planning permission. Many of the reasons for that arise largely from frustrations with the planning system.

There are delays in the planning system at present. If one makes an application to develop a site in most of the London boroughs—and certainly in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham—that planning permission may take up to six months to reach the first stage in the process. One also faces the expectation that the local planning decision will be taken for reasons that may be seen as capricious. It may not be taken for reasons that are designed purely to reflect the planning needs of the site.

That leads to an automatic appeals process straight to the Department of the Environment. That process is supposed to protect both sides, to ensure that local decisions are taken in the interests of the community and in the interests of the developer. However, I believe that there are serious problems with the appeals process at the DOE. A specialist inspector makes a career of sitting on planning inquiries, either public inquiries or written-in inquiries. He will take evidence and then make a decision.

Mr. Arbuthnot

My hon. Friend said that the appeals process is intended to protect both sides. Does he accept that there is no appeal against the granting of planning permission, but there is appeal only against its refusal?

Mr. Carrington

I agree with my hon. Friend and I intended to consider that point later.

We are seeing increasing abuses of the planning system by local authorities, which grant themselves planning permission on their own sites for developments that are considerably in excess of any that they would grant for a third party. The objectors cannot appeal against the council granting its own planning permission. That is the greatest abuse of the lack of appeal once planning permission has been granted.

I believe that the inspector's role is inherently unsatisfactory. An inspector may or may not take a decision based upon an objective view of the evidence. No doubt he will take a decision that is strictly in accordance with the legal requirements. However, as in any planning decision, a considerable amount of subjective evidence must be assessed by the inspector. On legal grounds, his decision could go either way. All hon. Members have seen examples in their constituencies of when an inspector's decision was controversial and reflected his own prejudices.

We have a somewhat capricious appeals system that does not work satisfactorily. It was never intended to work in that way. Certainly, in many London areas, it is effectively a planning process of first call. Having waited for their statutory eight weeks, developers will automatically appeal. Instead of a local authority bringing local considerations to bear on planning applications, it will now consider automatically opposing an appeal to the inspector. The inspector effectively takes the decision of first call in any planning application. That system is inherently unsatisfactory, and the appeals system was never designed to cope effectively, nor does it cope effectively.

Developers end up with considerable frustration with the planning system, and that leads to the demolition of buildings. It forces a decision on to the planning process. The local authority and the inspector are forced into a decision when a site causes considerable local aggravation because it is an eyesore, because it is being squatted on by people in caravans, or purely because of weeds. That produces pressure for the granting of planning permission, which would not otherwise exist.

There is another effect on developers. In inner London, developers increasingly find themselves subject to a section 52 agreement—especially in respect of large developments —to provide what is somewhat laughingly called planning gain to the community for a development. In principle, there is nothing wrong with a section 52 agreement. In practice, a local authority often sells planning permission to a developer in return for what is perceived to be an asset, whether in the form of cash or housing built elsewhere in the community. The local authority grants planning permission that it would not otherwise have granted, and the process rapidly becomes an abuse of the planning system. Developers will resist a section 52 agreement by applying any pressure that they can. By pre-emptive demolition of an existing building, they strengthen their own hand when negotiating their section 52 agreements. The other reason for demolition, which I suspect applies in particular to well-established urban areas, is pre-emptive strike against the listing of a building.

For a great many buildings in this country—fortunately, fewer since we reviewed the statutory lists of buildings of historical interest—if they had been brought to the attention of the authorities in time, they would unquestionably have been listed. If they were not listed when initially brought to the attention of the authorities, given enough time and the changing perceptions of the desirability of retaining buildings, they would be listed then. Ten years ago, there was a perception that buildings that were built in the 1930s were only occasionally of a sufficient quality to be listed. There is now a growing conviction in conservation and architectural circles that many buildings from the 1930s should be statutorily listed —far more than have been statutorily listed. There are now more listed buildings from the 1950s than anyone who was brought up at that time would reasonably consider possible. There are fashion changes in listing requirements.

There will always be gaps in statutory listing, which can be filled only when the gaps are pointed out. A gap is frequently pointed out when there is an application to redevelop a building. The developer, knowing full well that there is a possibility that the building that he wishes to demolish will be statutorily listed, will pre-emptively demolish the building overnight. Some spectacular examples have hit the national press—for example, the Hoover building on the Great West road some years ago, and Kensington town hall about seven years ago. Many smaller examples do not fit into the same category. The problem can be tackled by establishing conservation areas. However, it must be recognised that many buildings are inherently desirable, but they are not in places where we would wish to create conservation areas. They may be isolated within a modern development or they may be in a shopping area where one would not wish to go through all the necessary planning problems that are inherent in a conservation area. There is no doubt that there is a strong case for controlling the demolition of buildings prior to planning permission being granted.

Mr. Arbuthnot

My hon. Friend spoke about the Hoover building and Kensington town hall. I was a local councillor in Kensington and I was vaguely involved in the demolition of the building. Does my hon. Friend accept that the Bill would not address those buildings because it refers only to dwelling houses?

Mr. Carrington

I certainly recognise that point. That is one reason why I expressed concern about the extent of the Bill. I used those two examples to illustrate a well-publicised facet of the problem with dwelling houses. Many dwelling houses have the same statutory problems. I do not criticise the demolition of Kensington town hall —there were good reasons for it. I have been a long-standing resident of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and I am well aware of the problems that existed. There was a strong argument that the potential listing of Kensington town hall was done by the Greater London Council for reasons other than conservation. That is another matter. The fact remains that the demolition was done to avoid statutory listing.

Mr. Ground

Does my hon. Friend's answer mean that, in principle, he would support consent being required for the demolition of any building? What is the basis for confining protection to residential purposes? As he has pointed out, commercial buildings often occupy large areas and give rise to large-scale problems.

Mr. Carrington

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. It is unreal in planning regulations to make a pernicious distinction between domestic dwellings and commercial developments. The attraction of a building to a community lies in its design and nature, not in the use to which it is put. In other words, an attractive, well-designed and historically interesting building could have a variety of uses within its lifetime. We have only to look at the uses to which redundant churches are put to see how true that can be. A building can start as an ecclesiastical building, become a domestic dwelling, and end up as an office block, all within the lifetime of the same structure. The same artistic and conservation problems are inherent in such a building, although the different pressures to allow change of use may be inherent in the use of the building rather than in its architectural design.

The problem is how to achieve the necessary control. We can end up with a situation in which the undoubted rights of a property owner to enjoy his property free from any outside constraint are completely out of balance with his neighbours' rights to maintain the amenity of their properties. We must achieve a balance in planning law between the rights of the person who owns the property to enjoy that property and the rights of the local community, including the neighbours or, increasingly, the rights of the rest of the community, to preserve the overall aspect of their area. In urban planning terms, that can mean a community's right to maintain the streetscape. That is an important balance.

There are several basic problems with the Bill. One is that an appeal process would have to be allowed for any application to demolish that is not connected to an application to redevelop. Obviously, an appeal process would present difficulties because a local authority could refuse an application in the knowledge that the appeal process could be so stretched out as to make any reasonable application to demolish a useless tool for the developer who could not then make proper use of his own land. Therefore, in my view, if after a certain period—perhaps just a few weeks—no objection about the demolition was made to the local authority permission to demolish should be deemed to have been granted. That would mean that permission could not be withheld without an extremely good reason.

We must also find means of stopping the unreasonable delays in the planning process. I cannot believe that we should willingly add the problems of an appeal on the application process to the burdens that the planners or the local authorities already face without addressing the reasons for those great delays. The local authorities and the appeal process must be required to ensure that planning permission is granted within a reasonable time.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the Bill, which fills a great gap in our planning laws. However, it is just one aspect of the now absolutely necessary overall review of our planning laws. We must urgently address the conflict relating to the powers of the local planners, granted by the Department of the Environment which, as I mentioned when discussing the role of inspectors and the appeal processes, have now got out of line. The use of the section 52 agreement is now a major scandal, which also needs to be addressed urgently. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) said, there is a great problem with the objector's right to appeal on a planning permission that has been granted by a council, especially in relation to its own land.

I hope that the Bill progresses further today. However, if it does not manage to achieve its Second Reading today —for whatever reason—I hope that the Government will bear in mind the very real problems that it attempts to address and that in the new planning Bill, which is being trailed for the next Session, they will ensure that those problems are corrected. I hope that a way will be found to ensure that the abuses about which we have heard today are brought to an end.

12.13 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Spicer)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) began his important speech by talking about a common desire to protect the environment. He was being over-generous, because the total absence of any Opposition Members from this debate seems to suggest that the "environmental credentials"—to use one of my hon. Friend's phrases—of the Labour party have evaporated into thin air. So far there have been only two contributions from Labour Members—perhaps there will be more later—one of which related to Harrods. It seems bizarre that the future of Harrods can be of greater importance today than the future of the environment.

The House is undoubtedly indebted to my hon. Friend for giving it its first chance for many months to debate planning matters. The debate has properly ranged over a wide variety of planning issues, not the least important of which has just been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington). My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood made a cogent and well-argued case for including the demolition of houses in planning legislation. He was ably supported by the Bill's sponsors, and most notably by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), to whom the whole House is indebted for his hard work on this issue over some time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood put it, the case a persuasive one. Opportunistic developers buy large houses and demolish them, leaving the site vacant, thus exerting pressure on both neighbouring property owners to sell and on local authorities to give planning permission for the redevelopment. That is a persuasive scenario.

My hon. Friend's warnings relate to the threat of town cramming and to housing development of an inappropriate density. Like others, my hon. Friend has also expressed understandable concern for the future of unlisted but "interesting" buildings, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) has called them, such as Victorian and Edwardian houses. The Government accept that those anxieties need to be seriously considered afresh and with an open mind. However, in so doing we are bound to take into consideration the other perspectives from which many people see those issues. Some of those perspectives were described from a position of great knowledge by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Teston (Mr. Ground), by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Stewart) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham.

Some of those different perspectives include the rights of private property owners within the planning system. We have to consider whether it is right to restrict an owner from demolishing his own building when it is in a poor state of repair, when it requires a great deal of work to bring it up to modern standards or where the demolition of the building could improve the environment—as indeed it might. There must at least be compelling reasons for interfering with the freedom and rights of ownership.

What is more, as several of my hon. Friends have said, the Government have been trying to lift the burdens on business and on individuals wherever we can and to eliminate unnecessary central and local bureaucracy —

Mr. O'Brien

Before the Minister pours further cold water on the Bill, will he continue to address his remarks to the future of the environment? No Opposition Member has suggested that environmental interests should not be safeguarded in the Bill. The Minister is turning his argument against the principle of the Bill to try to destroy it. If he and the Government are so keen on supporting it, why does he not say so, so that we can get on with the conclusion of its Second Reading?

Mr. Spicer

The hon. Gentleman is doing a good job of trying to make out, perhaps for the benefit of the television cameras, that there is a lot of support from his party. He should have said that no Labour Member is present and sat down.

Mr. O'Brien

We want it in Committee.

Mr. Spicer

I have not yet come to any conclusion. In my own time, I shall come to a conclusion, but I wish to make my speech in my own time. There is not much support on the Labour Benches, judging by today's debate. Except for this moment, when there are a few Labour Members present, the Labour Benches have been completely empty.

Mr. Arbuthnot

In view of that intervention, will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that the Labour Government had an opportunity to enact the Dobry report? They decided not to. Perhaps that is the reason for the complete lack of support on the Labour Benches.

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend is correct. As I recollect, Anthony Crosland turned down the recommendations of that report. He said that there might come a day when some of the recommendations might be enacted. He gave good reasons of bureaucracy and clogging up the entire planning system for turning the report down. My hon. Friend is right to say that it was a Labour Government who turned down that report. We are being given synthetic stuff from the other side. Only one Labour Member has spoken except the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam), who spoke about Harrods.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

We have not been waffling on like you.

Mr. Spicer

I have only just started, so the hon. Gentleman has more to come.

Mr. Forman

My hon. Friend was addressing the philosophical point of the rights of owners. Does he accept that there is an important distinction between owner-occupiers who intend to redevelop their own property because they live there and want to redevelop for some perfectly understandable, beneficial reason and owners of property companies—rapacious owners, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) referred to them —who involve themselves in demolition exercises simply to make a quick profit to the detriment of the local environment? Does he not see that important distinction?

Mr. Spicer

I see the distinction that my hon. Friend makes. A point that I shall make in a moment is that we shall have to address the extent of wrongdoing—if that is the right way of putting it—by people such as my hon. Friend mentioned.

The Government have tried to lift the burden on individuals and businesses and to eliminate unnecessary central and local government bureaucracy. I shall leave for a few moments my conclusions about the Bill, but one thing that cannot be denied is that it goes against the trend of deregulation and will increase the number of planning applications and appeals.

The hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) questioned what effect the Bill might have. The Bill would add to the number of planning applications and appeal procedures and to the burden on local planning authorities, many of which are heavily stretched. That is illustrated by recent figures, which show that fewer than 50 per cent. of planning consents are decided within eight weeks, compared to the target set by the Government of 80 per cent. within that period. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North called it an arthritic process, and there is some merit in describing it in that way.

There can be little doubt that a requirement to give separate consideration to applications to demolish dwelling houses would make matters worse. Nor can I overlook the impact on the planning inspectorate. Last year, more than 28,600 planning appeals were made to the Department, an increase of 27 per cent. over the preceding year. The number of appeals has more than doubled since 1983. This is a problem of success, in that it is no doubt closely related to the buoyancy of the national economy, but that is small comfort to those who have to wait several months before receiving a decision on their appeal.

Therefore, the Government have set out to reduce the burden of planning control where the type or scale of development does not warrant the need to make a planning application. For example, our reform of the Use Classes Order in 1987 has created a greater climate of certainty for commerce and enterprise. We have been prepared to maintain or increase the extent of control, in the interests of the environment and of local amenity, where there is solid evidence of widespread need for revision of controls.

Although the Government's general stance has been to deregulate the planning system, we are ready to increase planning controls where that is justified, but the case for doing so must be based on hard evidence, not mere anecdote.

My hon. Friends may ask what sort of evidence we need. It would be important for any Government to know whether the sort of problems my hon. Friends have described are widespread, or whether they are confined to outer London. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) said that there was plenty of evidence of demolition. I am sure that that is so but we have to decide and we need more evidence about the extent of the undesirability of that demolition and of the practices associated with it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East referred to the case of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Williams of Elms road, Stanmore. There was an article about it in the February/March edition of Housing and Planning Review. The story and the allegations as told in that article make sorry reading. I understand that my hon. Friend has raised the case in the House on previous occasions. We must know the extent of harassment, vacancy, and unsatisfactory redevelopment and the destruction of interesting and beautiful houses before we can take a considered view of the subject.

Mr. Jessel

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Spicer

I shall give way when I have finished this point. Demolition of itself is not wrong or evil. if for instance, it replaces the building with something better. Associated practices and the effect of the demolition may make it so unsatisfactory that we should prevent it.

Mr. Jessel

My hon. Friend mentioned the destruction of beautiful houses. Does it not seem to him nonsense that a local planning authority can say, "We like the look of that tree so you may not cut it down", whereas, unless a building is listed or is in a conservation area, it cannot say, "We like the look of that house, it is a nice old house which adds to the quality of the area. You may not knock down that house"? Is that not nonsense, about which we should do something quickly?

Mr. Spicer

That point was made earlier in the debate, but I do not believe there are any anomalies. There are listed houses and listed trees. There are also unlisted houses that cannot be demolished and other houses within conservation areas that cannot be demolished. The issue is whether we should greatly extend such controls.

Mr. Shersby

My hon. Friend will be aware that a tree in a conservation area cannot be lopped, topped, felled or otherwise uprooted without the permission of the local authority as a result of the Town and Country Amenities Act 1974, which I introduced. There is no similar protection, however, for a non-listed dwelling in a conservation area. Surely that is an anomaly.

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend will be aware that planning controls in conservation areas offer similar protection to that made available for listed properties and trees. I am sure that my hon. Friend is also aware, however, that such controls are restricted to conservation areas.

It would be irresponsible to contemplate national legislation without having national information. The first, step, therefore, must be for the Government to invite evidence from local authority associations, professional planning, heritage and conservation bodies and from house builders. The Department has had scarcely any unsolicited comment from any of those bodies on this subject.

Mr. Dykes

This comes from a Government who, we understand, introduced the community charge without universal evidence from up and down the country to demonstrate that it was a good idea. Be that as it may, I should emphasise that the Bill is not based on one esoteric, although horrifying, example in my constituency. I was thinking about this matter, along with many others, before that disreputable incident when one semi-detached house in a pair was pulled down without any warning to the other dweller.

This is a universal problem, albeit more common in the south than in the north. We need anticipatory action now before things get out of hand in the next property boom. That is why the Bill is universally supported—the Royal Town Planning Institute and other bodies have already expressed their unequivocal support.

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend believes that the problem is widespread and universal, but we need evidence to prove that. We simply have not had such evidence other than to prove that the problem occurs in isolated examples, such as that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Wilkinson

I have with me today more than 50 letters from right hon. and hon. Members who represent all parts of the country and who believe that there is a problem. I received just one letter against my Bill.

Mr. Spicer

I am in no doubt as to the importance of the debate, not only for airing the matter on the Floor of the House, but for enabling my hon. Friend to cite the examples and evidence that he has collected from colleagues who have not found it possible to take part in this debate.

The Government have an open mind about the issue. On closer investigation we might find that the problem is a slight one and that no action is required. Alternatively, such investigation might reveal that there was a national problem, which required a national solution. However, until today we have received few representations.

Another possibility is that the demolition of dwelling houses in the way in which my hon. Friends have described is confined to certain suburban areas and therefore invites a local solution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North made a reasonable point when he said that, apart from one other hon. Friend, all the other contributions were made by those representing London or its suburban areas. There is nothing wrong in my hon. Friends representing the interests of their constituents, but when we consider our response, we must be clear whether it is a local issue, which would merit a local solution, or a national problem that merits national action.

Mr. Forman

My hon. Friend was right to suggest that a local solution to the problem might be required, but does he accept that, at present, local councils do not have sufficient powers available to them to impose an effective local solution to prevent such demolitions?

Mr. Spicer

As I am about to deal with the Bill in detail, I hope that I shall be able to provide a direct answer to my hon. Friend.

We believe that it is not just a matter of going into Committee to sort out the problem; issues of principle are involved that have to be properly debated on Second Reading. If one accepts that there is a problem, however, there are at least half a dozen ways in which to deal with it—at least five are alternatives to my hon Friend's Bill.

I shall give five other ways in which the Government think that the problem could be addressed. One approach might be for local authorities to designate more conservation areas—this relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and was touched on by my Friend the hon. Member for Fulham. The criterion for designating a conservation area appears in section 277 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. That states that such areas must be of special architectural or historic interest the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance". I suspect that not all the residential areas which my hon. Friend's Bill seeks to protect would meet that criterion, although some may. Within a conservation area, demolition of a building requires conservation area consent.

Mr. Shersby

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. However, he will recall my earlier remarks, and those of other colleagues, that many of the houses that are being affected by such demolition are not in conservation areas because they are not of architectural and historic interest. We are talking about ordinary houses in which people live and which form an important part of the townscape.

Mr. Spicer

The point has been made during the debate that some of those areas may not be historic in the traditional sense, but nevertheless, because of their merits, they are nice places to live and should be preserved. One possibility would be to designate such areas, or parts of them, as conservation areas. I fully concede that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends might not want to press that option too hard for fear of diluting the concept of the conservation area. The Government may well not want to press local authorities to designate conservation areas merely to take advantage of control over demolition, especially as such designation would have further planning consequences.

A second, perhaps more promising approach, would be some sort of local or special development area selected by the local authority, within which planning permission might be required before a dwelling house could be demolished. That would leave the basic development control system unchanged, but give greater freedom of action to local planning authorites. It would require legislation. We could undertake to consider such a suggestion if it became clear, on closer examination, that there were serious problems in well-defined localities.

Mr. Wilkinson

This is a most important point. My right hon. and hon. Friends have simply said to the Minister that there are serious, interesting and important arguments such as those which he is adducing, but the proper place to advance them is in Committee, because the principle of this legislation is not in doubt. What are in doubt are the modalities of putting it into effect.

Mr. Spicer

There is some question about the Bill's principles. That was why I started my speech by directly addressing the matter of principle. I do not want to fudge it. I said that views involving matters of principle were put forward which were different from those promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a principle involved in property ownership, which is a fundamental principle of our sort of society? Where people have properties, which are not listed and which are therefore their properties to do with as they will, and as it is quite likely that what goes up on the site may be more attractive than what comes down, should we not mind our own business and leave people to decide for themselves what to do with their own property?

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend supports a view that I put forward at the beginning of my speech—that the Bill was strongly opposed on the basis of the rights of property. I made that point, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has underlined and underscored that principle.

Mr. Dykes

Owners can be harassed out of their properties by ruthless property developers, sometimes with a financial bribe, and my hon. Friend does not mind that. If property owners change more than 10 per cent. of the property, they have to apply for official planning permission to make that change. Why is that anomaly allowed, whereby if a property is demolished, no permission is required but if an owner wants to change more than 10 per cent. of a property, he or she has to seek planning permission? That is absurd.

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend makes the point that there is widespread abuse and that the present system can have evil effects. I have maintained consistently throughout the debate that the Government are seeking concrete evidence of that, and I shall suggest how we propose to seek it. I am not arguing with my hon. Friend: he may be right. I am merely saying that, before we plunge into this legislation, even as a matter of principle, we must balance alternative principles against the one enshrined in this Bill.

I am also suggesting that there are fundamentally different ways in which to approach the problem, should there he one. If we were to choose any of the approaches that I am suggesting, we would not put the Bill into Committee and tinker with it there; we should have a different Bill—or perhaps we should not need a Bill at all.

Mr. Ground

Might the special areas that my hon. Friend has described include such designations as "buildings of townscape value", or categories of that sort, which local authorities have included in their plans, so as to provide a measure of protection outside conservation areas for buildings that are not statutorily listed?

Mr. Spicer

In his interesting speech, my hon. and learned Friend raised the central issue that, when dealing with this matter, we shall have to think of new categories. He now adds the idea of localised special areas. If we followed that path, we would need planning guidance that involved new concepts of categorisation.

This suggested route would require legislation different from that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood. We could go along with such a suggestion if it became clear on close examination that there were serious problems within extremely well defined new categories of definition, and that such intermediate areas would not unnecessarily add severe complexity to the planning system. They would undoubtedly constitute another form of regulation, however, and we should have to consider them in that light.

A third possible option would be a prior notification system. Developers would be requested to give local authorities notice of their intention to demolish and redevelop. Such a practice could be adopted in selected areas, including those in outer London where the demolition of dwelling houses seems to have caused mos. problems. Without legislation, the only sanction would be adverse publicity, but even such a move would give local authorities the opportunity to say informally whether future development would be likely to receive planning permission. Those who support this Bill have not fully considered local authorities' sanctions on planning permission, should detrimental demolition take place.

Mr. Carrington

The weakness of my hon. Friend's argument at the moment is that the developer would immediately appeal to the Department of the Environment, with a good prospect of overturning the local planning decision.

Mr. Spicer

I understand that point, and the other point that has been made—that planning authorities may well find themselves under pressure once demolition has taken place and a nasty scar site is left. That notion, too, might require some legislative underpinning.

Mr. O'Brien

What length of time has the Minister in mind for notice? If the time is protracted, it will blight the area and that means that there is no merit in prior notice. The Bill lays down specific times and gives clear guidance. Why do we need prior notice?

Mr. Spicer

The hon. Gentleman may have a point, but I should like to suggest some options. One could set down a time limit on notice in order to avoid procrastination and eliminate the problem of blight. I concede that no one can say how effective such an arrangement would he. No doubt the vast majority of developers who operate in a straightforward and responsible way already keep local planning authorities informed about their plans and would willingly comply with prior notice requests. However, more opportunistic developers might prefer to keep their plans under wraps and might care less about a bad press, if that was the only sanction that we had. That is one reason why legislation, if we decided to take that route, might be required.

A fourth course of action is a code of practice. Such a code would require the endorsement of the Government, the local authority associations and the house-building industry. Although a code is an authoritative statement of practice, it offers guidance rather than imposing statutory requirements, so its provisions are not directly enforceable by legal proceedings. However, the existence of a code would be a powerful means of concentrating the minds of individual developers. Clearly, a code of practice would rely on co-operation, openness and good will between the parties in order to be fully effective, although, of course, it has not been unknown for codes of practice to be underpinned by legislation.

A fifth option is to strengthen the Department's planning policy advice. A draft planning policy guidance note on housing, which we issued for consultation last year, already gives advice on demolition, redevelopment and housing densities. It includes a clear statement that demolition of existing property creates no presumption that permission will be granted for more intensive redevelopment. I can tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) that planning guidance has been issued about, for example, back development.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister is replying to a debate in which all the hon. Members who have spoken support the Bill. The Minister has now been speaking for more than half an hour, and it is evident to some of us that he is stretching matters. I was about to use the word "filibuster", but you would not like that. Standing Order No. 35 deals with the matter of the Question being now put. It says: unless it shall appear to the chair that such motion is an abuse of the rules of the House, or an infringement of the rights of the minority, the question 'That the question be now put,' shall be put forthwith. No one has spoken against the Bill. The next Bill on today's agenda is about looking after people who are dying from cancer because they were in the vicinity of nuclear tests in the Pacific. It is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay).

The promoter of the present Bill has kindly suggested that the House should have a reasonable amount of time to discuss my hon. Friend's Bill. However, it is evident that the Minister is stretching things by dealing with matters that could be taken up in Committee. I now see that a couple of hon. Members have been brought in by the Government Whips in order to take up more time with speeches. I suggest that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, should look carefully at Standing Order No. 35. Let us get the Minister down and move on to the next business, so that we can satisfy the demands of many hon. Members.

Mrs. Gorman

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Some hon. Members who hold a minority view are waiting to speak on this matter. We are listening with great interest to the Minister before making our contribution, so that we do not duplicate what the Minister says.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

I am very much in the hands of the House, but even in the short time that I have been in the Chair, it has become evident to me from the list of prospective speakers that there is considerable interest in the Bill. Unless shorter speeches are made—I am not being critical of any particular right hon. or hon. Member—it will be exceedingly difficult for me to call all those who wish to speak before 2.30 pm.

Mr. Spicer

Talking about people who have not been around—

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Do you not agree that it is a tradition of the House that right hon. and hon. Members wanting to participate in a debate attempt to be present in the Chamber for most of the debate? It is a matter of concern that hon. Members entering the Chamber long after the debate has started, who have not listened to any of the opening speeches, should now seek to catch your eye.

Is not that clearly an abuse of the rules of the House and clear evidence that certain Conservative Members are determined to deny my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) the opportunity to present his Bill dealing with the serious subject of compensation for nuclear test veterans? I hope that you, Sir, will carefully consider which right hon. or hon. Members you call, and select only those who have been present in the Chamber for most of the debate.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Neither the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) nor the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) has been present in the Chamber for this morning's debate. I have, but those two hon Gentlemen would be unable to testify to that, because of their absence. A number of hon. Members who have made interventions, and I too hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in due course.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and I have not attempted to catch your eye is because we are satisfied with the Bill now before the House and want to vote on the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North as well.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair takes into account the length of time that a right hon. or hon. Member has spent in the Chamber. It is clear from the information available to me that a large number of hon. Members who have been present throughout the debate have yet to participate in it. As I said, unless shorter speeches are made from now on, some hon. Members will inevitably be disappointed.

Mr. Wilkinson

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if it would be to the convenience of the House, I intend, if the House gives me leave to do so, to sum up in three or five minutes the arguments that have been made. If my hon. Friend the Minister can bring his speech to an early conclusion, my right hon. and hon. Friends will be able to reach a decision as soon as possible.

Mr. Spicer

I have not strayed off course for one moment, but have sought only to answer directly the points made in this extremely important debate. It sticks in my craw that Labour Members have largely been absent for the whole debate, other than the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), and the Labour Whip, who has been trying to make a bit of noise on the pretence that the Labour party is interested in the subject. Suddenly, a whole lot of Labour Members have entered the Chamber and started complaining that a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends should not be allowed to speak, simply because they too have not attended the whole of the debate. That is quite wrong.

The fifth option that I suggest is the strengthening of the Department's planning policy advice. We could add the advice that local and unitary development plans should include policies such that, where redevelopment would have an adverse effect on the character of a neighbourhood, planning permission could be refused on that ground, taking into account all other material considerations. We could suggest also that local plans make it clear that an applicant would not improve his case for redevelopment by creating a vacant site.

We not only believe that matters of principle need to be tested against the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood quite properly and ably made, but that we must also consider a wide variety of alternative ways of addressing the problem. The Government believe that in so doing we must avoid unnecessary regulation.

Mrs. Gorman

I listened with interest to my hon. Friend's five points. I am surprised that he did not mention insurance, particularly of semi-detached properties. The Government should suggest that people insure semidetached houses in such a way that, should half the house be demolished, the owners of the other half can be heavily compensated. Will he consider the prospect of insurance as a means of coping with some of those identified problems?

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend raises an extremely interesting point, which we should consider seriously. That dimension has not been discussed so far.

The Government aim throughout their planning policy to achieve a balance between the needs of development and those of the environment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North rightly said that there is continuing strong demand for housing, particularly in the south. He rightly said that that is not imported demand but results from changing social trends, such as the break-up of families and various other factors. We must balance those needs against those of the environment.

We must also achieve a balance between the requirements to protect the green belt and the countryside and the need to avoid town cramming, to which Conservative members representing London constituencies have quite properly alluded.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood is understandably concerned to protect the suburban environment, which is typified by his constituency.

Mr. Wilkinson

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recall that in my speech I alluded to my previous experience in Bradford. This is as much an inner-city problem as an urban one. It is a nationwide problem.

Mr. Spicer

My hon. Friend may be right that this problem, which exists mainly in London suburbs, also exists in other suburbs and town centres. I do not deny that, but we need evidence of it. We must balance the objectives that he has put on behalf of those areas with the needs of the green belt and the other measures to protect the countryside, about which many of my right hon. and learned Friend's are concerned.

The Government have said that they are considering bringing forward a planning Bill to tackle those objectives in a comprehensive and balanced way. I therefore say to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood that we are not ready, even in principle, to accept the Bill. It is not just a question of details that can be ironed out in Committee.

I have already said that we shall carefully consider my hon. Friend's arguments and any evidence that we find to support them. I can now go further and say that I propose that the Department should prepare a consultation paper, which would set out the issue and invite views on the scale of the problem nationwide. It would also seek comments on the various options that I have briefly described, including the option suggested in the Bill. Such a paper would be ready for issue by April, and we could invite responses by June.

I can make no promises, but if the results of the consultation show that there is a severe and widespread problem, as discussed and defined in the debate, the Government would carefully consider the possibility of legislation.

We are certainly looking for an early opportunity to legislate on a variety of planning issues. I say that, of course, without prejudice to the Queen's Speech in the forthcoming Session. I make that offer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood in a constructive and positive spirit and I hope that my hon. Friend will receive it in that spirit. Meanwhile, for the reasons I have given, I must advise the House not to give the Bill a Second Reading.

12.59 pm
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on his success in the ballot and on the witty and persuasive way in which he opened the debate. Perhaps my hon. Friend can explain whether one finds, when one is high on the ballot, that one's heart leaps for joy or sinks with feelings of grim dissatisfaction. I know that it involves a good deal of work and that my hon. Friend has put a good deal of work into the Bill.

My hon. Friend referred to a surfeit of Government legislation. It might be fairer to recognise that there is too much of all legislation and that almost all legislation is a mistake. All too often we have to return with amendments to legislation the year after we have passed it and the year after that we have to produce amendments to the amendments. We must recognise that legislation in itself rarely makes things better, rarely makes people happier and can rarely be said to be a good thing. Any hon. Member who introduces legislation should be aware of the law of unintended consequences. In particular, if any new law is intended to produce A, it is likely to produce B. If it is intended to reduce an activity, it is likely to increase it. If it is intended to put a restriction on intelligent people, as the Bill is intended to do, they are likely to find some way, without too much difficulty, to get round it.

I must confess to some regret that we have a ballot for private Members' legislation as opposed to a ballot for private Members' repeals. The productivity of hon. Members should be based not on the number of new laws that they introduce, but on the number of old laws that they get rid of. The presumption should he against giving powers that did not exist before either to central or local government. There are various reasons for that. Government as such is a necessary, though unpleasant, evil, and should be curbed wherever possible. In addition, changing the law causes confusion, uncertainty, expense and delay, and in the long run, as a result of the confusion, there is a disregard for the law in general. We change the law far too much and no political party has been very good at it.

My next presumption is that we should be in favour of people having the liberty to do what they want without restriction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) put it, with her usual vividness, the presumption should be against interferences in liberty. The Bill is an interference in the liberty to do what one wants with one's own property. However, we must recognise that all planning legislation is an interference in that liberty and that it was introduced with open eyes. People realised that it would be an interference, but they thought that it would be better to have such interference.

The advantages of each interference in the liberty of the subject must be balanced carefully against the disadvantages, and, in my view, the benefits to be gained from such interference with people's freedoms should heavily outweigh the disadvantages.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Could not that point be argued just as effectively in Committee, so that those whose freedom has been interfered with by radioactivity poisoning could be satisfied that the House is considering the awarding of proper and adquate compensation through the Radiation Exposed Crown Employees (Benefits) Bill? That Bill is due to be considered next, but the hon. Gentleman seems intent on talking it out.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I have not been thinking about the Bill that is to follow. If we reach it in time, that is fine, but I do not consider that the principle of freedom could appropriately be discussed in Committee. The details of the Bill can be discussed then, but the principle is sufficiently important to be discussed on the Floor of the House. If the hon. Gentleman does not agree with that, one wonders what he is doing in the House.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

The hon. Gentleman has cast aspersions on my hon. Friend's feelings about freedom. Does the hon. Gentleman feel no loyalty to former service men who are dying of cancer as a result of being poisoned while carrying out their duties in Australia and elsewhere? Is he entirely happy for them and their widows to be deprived of their fair dos? He has plainly been set up as a stooge to talk the Bill out. Does not participating in such an exercise make him feel a little dirty?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I have heard Opposition Members muttering words such as "filibuster" during the past 20 minutes. I do not understand how the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) squares that with his attempt to drag such issues as Australia, service men and the next Bill on the Order Paper into our present debate. I am discussing the principle and the merit of this Bill, and I shall continue to do so. In my view, it curtails individual liberties and should not be passed.

If we are to change the law to curtail freedoms, we must be sure of three things. First, we must be sure that a problem exists; secondly, we must be sure that the proposed solution is the best possible; thirdly, we must be sure that the solution is a significant improvement on the position that it is intended to cure. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood really believe that the man in the street would be happy for local authorities to be given the power that the Bill would confer on them? Perhaps we all have a similar image of planners: perhaps we all see them as faceless local government bureaucrats.

Mr. Hanley

May I answer my hon. Friend's question to our hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson)? Yesterday, the chief planning officer for Richmond upon Thames borough council—the excellent Mr. Ted Latham—told me that he welcomed the powers granted by the Bill, and that he was very glad that we were discussing such a measure.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I am sure that that is so, but it does not answer the question that I asked. I asked whether the man in the street would want Mr. Latham to be given those powers.

I have received no letters in support of the Bill; moreover, although I spent nine years as a borough councillor, I have never received a request for the introduction of permission for the demolition of houses. If my hon. Friend's experience is different, I bow to it, but his constituency and mine are relatively similar, being in London but fairly suburban.

Mr. Hanley

When I issued a press release stating that I was a supporter of an earlier version of the Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), I received a deluge of letters from people saying that that was exactly what I should be doing.

Mr. Arbuthnot

My hon. Friend has obviously had a different experience from mine.

I want to consider the view of planners that I suspect most people share. We begin by thinking of planners as faceless local government bureaucrats. Then if a neighbour wants to erect an extension that overlooks our windows, we think of planners as potential saviours who do not have enough powers. Then if we want to put up an extension, the planners turn into petty-minded Hitlers who can only say no. At whatever stage in that process we may find ourselves, we do not believe that planners have produced a Britain that is generally more attractive.

One of the main problems with the Bill is that it betrays a philosophy that planners and committees of local councillors know best despite the diversity, colour and excitement that can be provided by many separate decisions taken by different people. This country has some glorious architecture and some abysmal architecture. It also has everything in between. I believe that the diversity of our architecture constitutes the richness of our heritage and that diversity has rarely been improved or increased by town planners.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said that he hoped to introduce a measure that was fully in line with Government policy and philosophy. Is it likely that this Administration would want to add to planning restrictions instead of removing them? My hon. Friend was right to say that Conservatives are conservationists by nature. However, we want to preserve what is best and most worth while rather than turn mediocre buildings into museums.

At the time of the greatest restrictions on planning, we did not have the planning restriction proposed in the Bill. There was nearly a change in the law in 1975 as a result of the Dobry report. I asked the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) why the Labour party has apparently changed its position about implementing the Dobry report. Answer, I am afraid, came there none. The hon. Gentleman simply talked about mining subsidence.

We must consider the arguments in favour of the Bill espoused by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood. He suggested that the Bill was necessary because it would stop owners demolishing a house to prevent it being listed. However, powers already exist to deal with that problem, including spot-listing as happened with Kensington town hall.

There are already extensive powers to control the demolition of buildings of intrinsic merit. The Bill must be aimed at buildings that are of less than intrinsic merit, and that point has been made clearly today. We could argue that spot-listing was of little use where local authorities or the Department of the Environment had no inkling of any intention to demolish. However, that is a relatively minor problem and does not happen very often. The Bill is too cumbersome an answer to that problem.

The main argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood produced in favour of the Bill was that at the moment developers can buy a house with a garden and demolish the house, intending to encourage the local authority to give planning permission for higher density building on that land and to include the garden. That is a difficult point to address and my hon. Friend and other hon. Members made it effectively.

A Department of the Environment document entitled "Planning Policy Guidance No. 3" specifically covers that point in paragraph 17. It states: The demolition of existing property does not in itself create any presumption that permission will be granted for more intensive redevelopment. Where the planning authority considers that existing densities in a particular area should not be exceeded, a statement to that effect in the local plan can help to deter the speculative demolition of sound housing. At this stage, any developer who tried to demolish a building before receiving planning permission to put up a new one would be taking an enormous risk. He would demolish a perfectly sound house without any certainty of being allowed even to put up the same house again, let alone another for higher density housing.

As a limb of the argument, it may be said that if one house in a row of identical houses is demolished, it would break up the theme of the road. Several hon. Members made that point. One of my hon. Friends said that it would look like a gap in a row of teeth. Tha may be true of the Nash terraces in Bath, because their importance lies in the intrinsic beauty of the buildings, but, by and large, the same could not be said of modern council estates, where row upon row of relatively similar little houses can be some of the most depressing sights in the country.

The hon. Member for Normanton said that there is evidence of the demolition of sound houses on a grand scale in London docklands. He did not seem to appreciate that special planning rules for London docklands were expressly granted to eliminate planning delays and to revive docklands. Those rules do not apply outside docklands. The special planning rules in docklands were astonishingly successful in the revival of docklands.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said also that one aim of the Bill is to bring into use land that is currently unused and neglected, rather than to build on green field sites. I am paraphrasing what my hon. Friend said. I apologise to him if I have got his words wrong.

Mr. Wilkinson

It would be better if my hon. Friend stuck to the facts of what I said, and stuck to them briefly. I was merely quoting from the 1987 Conservative party manifesto.

Mr. Arbuthnot

My hon. Friend obviously believes that his Bill would achieve what he quoted from the Conservative party manifesto. I must disagree. The Bill would discourage the demolition of buildings, and thus force developers on to green field sites. It would produce precisely the opposite effect from the one that he intends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr Dykes) suggested that, if the Bill is technically flawed, it could he amended in Committee and that that is what the Committee stage is for. I do not agree with my hon. Friend on that.

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood has much greater knowledge and experience of planning. My knowledge was gleaned on the planning committee of a local council. The Bill shows a misunderstanding of the planning system. A new development does not require planning permission, except in the sense that planning permission simply grants immunity from enforcement action. The Bill would require planning permission for demolition in a way that does not apply to construction and development. The scheme of planning permission and the scheme of planning legislation do not make any allowance for such a restriction because of the prohibition—

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will know that I have been in the Chamber all morning and that up to now I have not made any points or order or intervened. The last thing that I want to do is to hold up proceedings. However, as someone who is not a procedural expert, may I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) has now been speaking for 20 minutes, after many other long speeches, including one of 45 minutes from the Minister.

I should like to put it to you and, through you, to some Conservative Members, that many people outside the House will not understand these parliamentary games and that the British ex-servicemen and their families who had enormous hopes of the Bill that is to follow this Bill will be appalled if the House fails to pass that Bill, and even more appalled if there is not even the opportunity to discuss it and to have something put on the record. I listened carefully to what you said in response to earlier points of order but I urge you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to make whatever moves you can to help those who have come here today to listen to our discussions about a Bill to help people who are dying and who fear dying, who cannot wait another year, two years or 10 years for the legislation, and who should have an opportunity to be heard.

Mr. Wilkinson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hereby forgo any rights which, by the leave of the House, I may have to reply to the debate and I beg to move, That the Question be now put—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am not prepared to accept that motion.

Mr. Cryer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You may recall that a week last Monday we discussed a business motion on various recommendations made by the Select Committee on Procedure relating to the procedures in the House. When I was making a speech that was shorter than that made today by the Minister, the Government Chief Whip moved the closure in the middle of my speech when several hon. Members who are now present, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) who had been present throughout that debate, had indicated that they wanted to speak. On that occasion, the debate had run for only one hour although it had been undertaken for two hours on a previous occasion when I could not be present because I was in a Select Committee. I should have thought that that example provides a clear precedent because an hon. Member was on his feet, the closure motion was moved and it was accepted by the Chair. I hope that you will bear that in mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not questioning the judgment of the Chair. Situations vary greatly in this matter, all that I can say is that the closure was requested and has been refused. I call Mr. Arbuthnot.

Mr. Arbuthnot


Hon. Members

Stop filibustering.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are you taking into consideration the fact that it is the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) who has moved the closure and has asked that the Question now be put? If the hon. Gentleman is honourable enough to give my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) at least the opportunity to speak to his Bill—although we hope that it will receive its Second Reading today—should you not take the fact that the hon. Gentleman has made that gesture into account when considering whether to accept a closure motion?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would be very much better if we were to get on with the debate. Perhaps if we do so, we shall reach the second Bill on the Order Paper. I call Mr. Arbuthnot.

Mr. Arbuthnot


Mr. Boyes

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. From your long experience in the House, is it not absolutely clear that Conservative Members are trying to talk out the Bill? I do not doubt that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot), who was speaking, will stay on his feet for a considerable time, which makes things extremely difficult for my hon. Friends, especially in view of the importance of the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North is seeking to propose. Many people have been affected by the nuclear tests and we are simply trying to give them adequate compensation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Boyes

Stop the filibustering, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and allow the closure as moved by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would be wise if we were to get on with the debate. There is still over an hour to go. Points of order are only delaying matters and they are coming close to questioning the judgment of the Chair. I call Mr. Arbuthnot.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The scheme of planning legislation—

Mr. Rogers

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am prepared to accept your ruling from the Chair. However, I wish that you would give the House a little clarification of the reason why you made that ruling. There are adequate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has been here long enough to know that the Chair never gives reasons in this respect. I call Mr. Arbuthnot.

Mr. Cryer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, televison was brought into the Chamber by a majority vote for an experimental period. I wonder whether we should adjust our procedures in the light of that. Many millions of people are watching anxiously, waiting for the Radiation Exposed Crown Employees (Benefits) Bill to come before the House. That means that pressure is put on this place from outside to come to the second Bill, which would help people who are seriously injured and dying. In those circumstances and in view of the majority vote for television, it might be a good idea to think again.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is my job not to consider television or anything else but to consider the order of the House. We are debating the first Bill set down for discussion today. That is the reality of the matter. I call Mr. Arbuthnot.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Clearly, it would be wholly improper to question your judgment and discretion in matters of this nature. One of the tasks of the Chair is to protect Back Benchers from any abuse. As I understand it, one of the principles is that if a Bill has had a good run it is within the discretion of the Chair to accept a closure motion. As a matter of general principle, when the hon. Member promoting a Bill has decided that it is proper that a motion be made, is there not a case for saying that weight should be attached to that decision?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member started by saying that he did not question the judgment of the Chair. He went on to do just that. It would be wise to continue the debate. Points of order only delay matters. If we continue the debate there may be some time for the second Bill. I call Mr. Arbuthnot.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Under Standing Order No. 35 of the rules of the House, the Chair has the power in certain circumstances to accept the motion, that the Question be now put. You know that as well as I do, and the Clerks and the other authorities of the House know it. That applies in debates and it can apply after only one hour. The Chair has to make a decision. It is based on the rights of the majority and of the minority. If you have talked to Mr. Deputy Speaker who was in the Chair earlier you will know that hon. Members who spoke in the initial part of the debate were all in favour of the Bill. They wanted to get rid of the Bill. The promoter of the Bill has waived his right to reply to the debate. Everybody was in favour and then suddenly a couple of hon. Members—supposedly the minority—came from nowhere to filibuster.

You have a right to make sure that the procedures of the House under Standing Order No. 35 are carried out. Otherwise, people out there, especially the relatives of those who have died of cancer from serving in the Pacific and the ex-service men who are dying will wonder what is wrong with the procedures of the House of Commons. You have a duty to—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Skinner

I beg to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member and the whole House realise that attempts to bring pressure on the Chair are out of order.

Mr. Rogers

Who has put on the pressure?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Such attempts can only be counterproductive. The Chair has a difficult job in exercising judgment in cases of this nature. I have exercised my judgment. We must now continue with the debate. I call Mr. Arbuthnot.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When we debated the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, a closure motion was not accepted until about 2.20 pm. On that occasion I believe that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) did his best to frustrate any debate. It may be that some of my colleagues are learning from him.

Mr. Dykes

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Following the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), who arrived for this debate at about 1.15 pm, may I say with great respect for your functions and for the Chair, that the pressure exerted is against the will of the House, which wants to have a Division or to approve the Second Reading of the Bill? Virtually every speech in a long debate has been made in favour of the Bill. Even the Minister was understanding and accommodating about some aspects of it. Given that there is such an important Bill following, surely it is the will of the House that we should proceed to a decision.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I shall, of course, hear the points of order, but we cannot have a debate now on the way in which closure motions operate in the House. There is only an hour to go before 2.30 pm and we are cutting into valuable private Members' time by prolonging the points of order.

Mr. Hanley

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It would be quite wrong for the comments of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about those who have spoken in this debate having only recently come into the Chamber to go on record. Everyone who has spoken for or against the Bill has been here since the beginning of the day.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In exercising your discretion, which must, of course, always be a matter for the Chair on a Friday, there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who may well have cancelled constituency engagements in the hope of being present for the second Bill on the Order Paper. I hope that you will take this into account when making your decision.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Boyes

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I appeal to you to reconsider your decision. In a place that we cannot mention there are a number of service men and ex-service men who have a great interest in what is happening in the Chamber today. They must wonder what the hell is going on. We have an important Bill that is vital to soldiers, to their wives and to other people. Those soldiers served their country—among my papers I have a list of people who have died or suffered as a result of such service—and they must wonder why it is that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We cannot anticipate a debate that will arise if we reach the second Bill on the Order Paper. We must now continue with the debate on the first Bill. I call Mr. Arbuthnot.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Reverting once again to planning legislation, the scheme of planning legislation does not make any allowance for a restriction on demolition as the prohibition on demolishing listed buildings is possible only because of the much more detailed control otherwise exercised over listed buildings than is exercised over other buildings.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Be a man and wind up.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I have already said that I believe that the Bill is likely to be ineffective because a developer might well apply for permission to demolish a house to build a single unit, which would be granted almost automatically. He would demolish the existing house without building the new one and would then immediately apply to build what he wanted to build in the first place. If we come to that scenario, the Bill will have got us nowhere. It is wide open to abuse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) suggested that a council should be given permission to take over land that has been derelict for a long time. As a rule, councils do not have a good record on dealing with their properties and such powers would not deal with my central point—the intelligent manipulation of the system by developers. We would be likely to see an increased number of applications to demolish buildings as well as bogus applications to develop buildings. 'That combination would ensure that the entire planning system ground to a halt with the obvious damage consequent upon that. What would be the consequences of an overloaded system such as would be created? Councils would not be able to keep up, developers would therefore have to go on appeal to the Department of the Environment—

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When you assumed the Chair this afternoon I distinctly heard you admonish hon. Members to keep their speeches brief and to the point. It seems that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) is deliberately disobeying you. I merely draw the matter to your attention.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have no power at present to limit speeches, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) will bear it in mind that there are hon. Members who wish to speak.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Arbuthnot

The only effect of more appeals—

Mr. Boyes


Mr. Arbuthnot

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot do so too often because of the number of points that are being made by Opposition Members.

Mr. Boyes

Will the hon. Gentleman consider what the next Bill means, and end his speech so that people can hear the case for the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) wishes to introduce? I appeal to the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodforcl (Mr. Arbuthnot)—I do not usually appeal to Conservative Members—because I am concerned about the people who are suffering and need compensation, and want to take this chance of getting them that money. The hon. Gentleman is the only Member to have spoken against the Bill in this morning's debate. Therefore, I ask him to sit down now so that the closure motion may he put.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The hon. Gentleman may appreciate that I am not in a position to comment on the next Bill. My speech would have been considerably shorter if there had been fewer interruptions.

The only effect of the Bill would be bureaucracy, delay, forms, regulations and more civil servants. The Bill contains no suggestion for extra finance to produce those extra civil servants, forms and bureaucracy. No money would be available to local authorities to pay for the extra work that they had to do. No money could be introduced because this is a private Member's Bill.

Over the past few weeks probably all hon. Members have received representations from constituents who are local councillors to say that the Government keep shovelling duties on local government without providing extra money to perform those duties. That argument could certainly be applied to the Bill.

It is presumably intended that all the panoply of the appeals procedure to the Secretary of State, with public inquiries and everything else, should accompany this change. One point has not been sufficiently well made: the Bill does not change the planning grounds that would apply to developers. It would follow from existing planning guidelines that, if a person applied to demolish a house that was not listed, the planning authority would have to grant it or the Department of the Environment would have to allow an appeal. Therefore, I do not understand how the Bill would achieve its desired effect.

The Bill applies not only to any building that is a dwelling house, but to any building that has been used as a dwelling house. What does that mean? Does it mean, "has ever been used as a dwelling house"? How on earth is anybody supposed to know what has been used as a dwelling house?

Mr. Rogers


Mr. Arbuthnot

I shall not give way because so many points have been made about my taking too long.

If the principle of the Bill is correct, it should not be restricted to dwelling houses, but widened to cover the scope of buildings such as the Hoover building and Kensington town hall. I do not believe that the wrong decision was made about Kensington town hall. I declare an interest because I was a councillor in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea and was consulted about, and fully in support of, the decision to pre-empt a political decision made by the Greater London Council to list Kensington town hall, a building of no merit.

Would it become a matter for sanction if a house, rather than being demolished, was simply allowed to decay and fall down? That would have to follow from the principle behind the Bill. Perhaps a house could be encouraged, surreptitiously or otherwise, to fall down. That would certainly begin to happen. There would be explosions at dead of night and houses would suddenly collapse. The owner would say, "Well, honest, it wasn't me." But we could not believe him.

What will happen if part of a house is pulled down? What if it is pulled down room by room? I stand to be corrected if I am wrong—many hon. Members have more knowledge of this than I do—but I believe that a building, under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, includes part of a building, with the absurd result that any tiny change in a house would constitute its demolition. Taking that to extremes, one could suggest that the removal of a tap would amount to the demolition of a building.

I should find it very hard to support the Bill. I, too, represent a London surburban constituency, and my constituents have serious anxieties about planning—more directed towards what goes up than towards what comes down, however. They complain to me that people put up buildings without planning permission and then feel entitled to apply for retrospective permission. They complain about the permitted development in my constituency. They complain that people may build in the most insensitive way merely because they are increasing their property by less than 10 per cent. They complain not about permitted demolition, but about the number of appeals to the Department of the Environment—

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will recall that you appealed for brief speeches at the beginning of the debate. Have you taken account of the fact that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) is the Parliamentary Private Secretary to one of the Defence Ministers, who is very keen to stop the next debate? No Defence Minister has come in for the next debate. I suggest that it would be reasonable for you to appeal to the hon. Gentleman to make a brief speech, and if he persists in filibustering I hope that you will take that into account if the closure is moved soon.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair has no power at this stage to limit speeches, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) will take into account the fact that other hon. Members want to speak.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfounded and grossly unfair allegations have been made against my hon. Friend. Will you confirm that the next debate would be answered by a social security Minister, who has been listening to the debate and who knows the situation rather better than some Opposition Members who have not been in the Chamber?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is a matter for debate, not a point of order.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I should have finished by now if the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) had not intervened.

The number of appeals being granted by the Department of the Environment causes concern. Such matters are and should be addressed by the Secretary of State for the Environment in the planning Bill in the next Session of Parliament. The matters that I have discussed are what cause anxiety, not the matters dealt with in the Bill, which is why I cannot support it.

Mr. Wilkinson

I respectfully beg to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House proceeded to a Division

Mr. Boyes

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not hear any Noes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have put the Question, and I heard Ayes and Noes. We are now proceeding to a Division.

The House having divided: Ayes 81, Noes 3.

Division No. 100] [1.42 pm
Anderson, Donald Lamond, James
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Atkinson, David Livingstone, Ken
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Loyden, Eddie
Battle, John McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) McWilliam, John
Bidwell, Sydney Mahon, Mrs Alice
Boyes, Roland Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Morrison, Sir Charles
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley) Mullin, Chris
Carrington, Matthew O'Brien, William
Clay, Bob O'Neill, Martin
Corbyn, Jeremy Pike, Peter L.
Cousins, Jim Prescott, John
Crowther, Stan Redmond, Martin
Cummings, John Richardson, Jo
Dixon, Don Rogers, Allan
Dobson, Frank Ruddock, Joan
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth Sedgemore, Brian
Dykes, Hugh Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Shersby, Michael
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Short, Clare
Forman, Nigel Skinner, Dennis
French, Douglas Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend) Spearing, Nigel
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Stanbrook, Ivor
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney Strang, Gavin
Haynes, Frank Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Hinchliffe, David Waller, Gary
Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall) Wareing, Robert N.
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Watts, John
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Irvine, Michael
Jessel, Toby Tellers for the Ayes:
Johnston, Sir Russell Mr. John Wilkinson and Mr. Jeremy Hanley.
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Tellers for the Noes:
Janman, Tim Mr. John Marshall and Mr. Edward Leigh.
Summerson, Hugo

Whereupon MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 36 ( Majority for Closure).

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

1.53 pm
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on drawing the number that he did in the ballot, and on the way in which he introduced his measure. However, I have serious reservations about my hon. Friend's Bill. I shall begin by going back in time and examining the way in which a human settlement develops over the centuries.

I take as an example Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames. One can find evidence of a settlement there going back 2,000 years. The Romans used the same area for further building, and throughout the dark ages, the Norman conquest and mediaeval times—

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you clarify something for me? We have voted on the closure. Hon. Members who did not want the debate to continue voted for the closure. The other option was to vote for the debate to be continued. Is it in order for an hon. Member who did not vote for the debate to be continued to continue it after the vote has taken place?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

What is happening is perfectly in order. Perhaps it would be helpful if I reminded the House that for a closure motion to be carried, 100 hon. Members must vote for it, but 100 hon. Members did not vote for it, so it was decided in the negative. It follows automatically that the House, not the Chair, has decided that the debate should continue. What is happening is in order.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will know that, in these troubled times of hon. Members not declaring their interests, hon. Members will debate next week the important issue of an hon. Member failing to declare interests of about £80,000. Would you think it advisable, in a debate that would have dealt with those seeking compensation from the state—the widows of those who have died from cancer and those who are currently suffering from it—for a member of Lloyd's involved in the insurance market, who might well not be very keen on the state giving handouts, to declare his interest before making filibustering speeches against the Bill?

Will you examine the record to see whether the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) or any other hon. Member who has taken part in the debate, has declared his interest? There is no doubt that, if the state pays compensation, there will be less of a market for those in Lloyd's. I think that that needs examining.

Mr. Rogers

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) began his speech I did not hear him declare his interests—and neither did you, because I do not think that he did so. As I understand it, under the rules of the House, hon. Members are asked to declare their interests in the Register of Members' Interests and in debates. One Conservative Member has been investigated as a result of his breaching that Standing Order. The hon. Member for Walthamstow is speaking in a debate on property, property values and planning permission. He is a director of a property company and a chartered surveyor. I submit that he is in breach of the rules of the House and that you should bring him to order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The House knows well that hon. Members who have an interest should declare it in debate. That is well known in the House, and I am sure that every hon. Member will observe it. If any hon. Member believes that there has been a breach of that strong convention, the correct procedure is to write to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that if sufficient Labour Members had bothered to attend today we would not have had all these points of order because they would have been able to carry the closure motion.

Mr. Boyes

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall speak very honestly. What is making me sick this afternoon is that the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) was born in 1952 and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) was born in 1950. The people in a place that we cannot mention fought, and many died, so that people like those two hon. Gentlemen could come into this Chamber in a free democracy. Now they are taking advantage—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is speaking from the Front Bench and the Chair expects him to set a good example. His point is a perfectly legitimate point of debate, but it is not a point of order for the Chair. I call Mr. Summerson.

Mr. Summerson

I must defend myself against what has been said about declaring my interests. I see that in the third paragraph of my notes, I have put in brackets, "state CS". I was coming on to the fact—[Interruption.] Perhaps I should have declared my interest in my opening words but, as I understand the rules of the House—I am open to correction—

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not an expert on procedure. Some of the rules of the House baffle me and I find some irrelevant. However, we call each other hon. Members when addressing each other in debate. Is it honourable for an hon. Member who has been speaking for five minutes to say cynically, after it has been pointed out to him that he is in breach of the rules of the House, that a declaration of interest was in his notes?

I came here specially, on the very early train today, to represent a constituent, Clifford Hutchinson, who is an honourable man. He was on Christmas Island and now, every day of his life, is in pain—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must not anticipate the next debate. The hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am on my feet.

In this House, we are all hon. Members. Every hon. Member knows very well that the strong conventions are that if there is a direct interest in the subject under discussion, the hon. Member concerned must declare his interest. That is well known.

Mr. Livingstone

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) said that he was about to make a statement referring to the initials "CS". Does that stand for "crooked swindler"?

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Summerson

As I understand the rules of the House, hon. Members have to declare an interest. However, the rules do not state where in the course of his remarks an hon. Member is supposed to state that interest [Interruption.] If the House will give me the opportunity, I shall eventually come on to the part of my speech in which I declare that interest.

I was talking about the history of sites of human settlement—

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It was pointed out to you a short time ago that hon. Members are supposed to declare their interests in a speech. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) announced that he was about to declare his interest, but he has veered away from the subject again. May I ask him through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if he will now state exactly and explicitly what interests he has in insurance, property, banking or anything else which might have a bearing on the Bill—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) is free to make his own speech in his own way.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not in accordance with your ruling a few minutes ago and with the conventions of the House generally that an hon. Member who has to declare an interest should do so at the beginning of his speech so that hon. Members can judge what he is saying? Surely, if an hon. Member decided that he was not going to declare his interest until the end of his speech, much of that provision would be made void. I hope that you will urge the hon. Gentleman to make the declaration of interest which he said he was going to make, but which so far he has not made.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have the strong impression that the hon. Member for Walthamstow is about to clarify the position. I appeal to the House to exercise the sense of fairness that has always prevailed here, and allow him to do so.

Mr. Boyes

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I will not take another point of order until the hon. Member for Walthamstow has clarified the position.

Mr. Summerson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will certainly bow to your ruling and state that I am a chartered surveyor and also the director of a property company, from which I have drawn no remuneration since June 1987.

Mr. Livingstone

Which company?

Mr. Summerson

It is called Palatine Properties Ltd., and the hon. Gentleman can go to Companies house and look it up whenever he chooses.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the hon. Member for Palatine Properties give way?

Mr. Boyes

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not usually a reader of "Erskine May", but I have studied its ruling on this subject. On page 385, under the heading "Declaration of interests in debate", it is explicitly stated: A Member will normally declare his interest at the beginning of his remarks.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is for the hon. Member concerned to decide what is the appropriate moment for him to declare his interest. The passage that the hon. Gentleman has just quoted uses the word "normally"; the hon. Member for Walthamstow is a fairly new Member, and we all have to absorb experience. In any event, the hon. Member for Walthamstow has now clarified the position, and I feel that the House should accept that and allow him to get on with his speech.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) may at some stage have obeyed the advice in "Erskine May". Am I right in thinking, however, that an earlier speaker in this important debate failed to declare an interest? If so, would it be in order for him to repair the apparent omission, if he is present or returns to the Chamber?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I dealt with that earlier; perhaps the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was not in the Chamber at the time. If any hon. Member considers that there has been a breach of the conventions, customs and guidance contained in "Erskine May", his proper course is to take the matter up with the hon. Member concerned and/or the Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is true that I own a flat in the basement of my house, but I do not intend to demolish my house.

Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I too am a relatively new Member; I also happen to be an ex-service man. Is it in order for me to ask Conservative Members, through you, to refrain from their present disgraceful activity and stop filibustering? We should then have a chance, even at this late hour, of proceeding with a Bill that the people of this country want us to debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

My job is to ensure that the rules of order are observed. They are being observed, and the hon. Member for Walthamstow is in order.

Mr. Summerson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that the record will show that I have so far managed to get through about one twentieth of my speech, as I have to go back to the beginning every time I am interrupted.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I seek clarification of your most recent ruling on whether interests have been declared? Surely, as this is a Standing Order, it is a matter for you or Mr. Speaker and not for the adjudication of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair cannot possibly be a judge in this matter. That is one of the reasons why we have a Select Committee on Members' Interests. If any hon. Member—I have repeated this on several occasions already—feels that there has been a breach, he should put a case to the Select Committee on Members' Interests, which will of course examine the matter carefully and, if appropriate, report in due course to the House.

Mr. Boyes

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When I read out the relevant sentence from page 385 of "Erskine May", you stressed the word "normally". Your interpretation, Mr. Deputy Speaker, seems to mean that a declaration can be made at any time during an hon. Member's speech. If "normally" can be interpreted as any time between zero and half an hour before an interest is declared, should that not be referred to Mr. Speaker, and from him to the appropriate Select Committee, for clarification and further definition of the word "normally"? I am only asking—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. It is primarily for the hon. Member concerned to judge whether he has an interest to declare and, if so, when to declare it. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the rules need changing in any way, it is not for the Chair to change them. The Chair is the servant of the House. As I have said more than once, the hon. Gentleman should write to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests and ask him to consider the matter.

Mr. Summerson

In the light of what has been said, must also declare that I am the chairman of an insurance broking company. Since I took over the chairmanship of that company, I have drawn no remuneration from it.

If I may now continue with my speech—

Mr. Corbyn

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) has declared an interest in Palatine Properties Ltd. and in an insurance company, and he has told the House that he has received no income from them since he was elected to the House in 1987. I do not want to accuse the hon Gentleman of misleading the House, but he should explain the capital value of Palatine Properties Ltd. and what interest that company has in demolition—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Those are matters for debate, not points of order for the Chair.

Mr. Summerson

With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Islington. North (Mr. Corbyn) all about Palatine Properties. As its sole assets, that company has the freehold of six blocks of flats in Fulham. All the flats have been sold on long leases, and they produce an income by way of ground rent of £1,250 a year. The leases expire some time well into the next century.

Mr. Dobson

The hon. Gentleman will be going around with a hat in a minute.

Mr. Summerson

I am not sure whether my bank manager will be very happy with me baring the company's soul in public this way. The company has an overdraft of about £15,000 or £16,000. When we bought the freehold of the properties in December 1986, we paid £9,600 for them. Perhaps Opposition Members will now understand why I draw no income from the company and also why my bank manager frequently has nightmares.

Mr. Corbyn

This is fascinating, and reveals the depth of the hon. Gentleman's interest in high finance. However, he has not told us about the increased capital value of the blocks of flats since they were bought out or what interest he has in the demolition of those properties and how much he would stand to gain as the owner of the freehold should they be demolished.

Mr. Summerson

I can answer the hon. Gentleman very easily. The freeholders do not have the right to knock down the blocks. All the flats have been sold on long leases and I imagine that the leases probably begin to expire around 2070, when I do not expect to be around.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Does my hon. Friend agree—

Mr. Cryer

Where has the hon. Gentleman been all morning?

Mr. Stern

I have been listening to the debate.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the value of the reversion, about which Opposition Members are so jealous, is probably less than the original purchase price?

Mr. Summerson

In the present market, that is probably so. That is why, as I have already explained, I have taken no remuneration from the company.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not in the least interested in the hon. Gentleman's property interests—I am well aware that many Conservative Members are more representative of property interests than of their constituents—but is it not the case that, if the hon. Gentleman were to sit down and if other hon. Members were to remain seated, we could make progress on the Radiation Exposed Crown Employees (Benefits) Bill? That Bill concerns the health of ex-service men—people who have served this country well in the past. Is it not morally correct for Conservative Members to pass the Planning Permission (Demolition of Houses) Bill so that we may debate the next Bill?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That must be a matter for the hon. Member who has the floor. I call Mr. Summerson.

Mr. Summerson

The Bill has strong implications for housing and for housing the homeless. That is an important matter. My hon. Friends who cheered the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) have already had their say. I arrived in the Chamber at half past 9 this morning. I put my name into Mr. Speaker's Office last night. I have prepared my speech, and I intend to deliver it.

Mr. Dykes

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Summerson

I shall not give way to my hon. Friend.

I dislike this addition to planning law. Section 22(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 gives the famous definition of development: the carrying out of building, engineering, mining or other operations in, on, over or under land, or the making of any material change in the use of any buildings or other land. It is quite clear that those who drew up the legislation had in mind positive building activities. They did not envisage demolition coming within that definition of development.

I was going to declare my interest as a chartered surveyor and so on, but I have already done so at inordinate length. When I practised as a chartered surveyor, I gained some experience of planning matters. It was quite clear that many local authorities—the political complexion did not matter—had a fundamental opposition to people who wanted to carry out developments. I would often find that, although planning officers were perfectly constructive and helpful, when a matter got to the planning committee, at the least whiff of opposition from local people, the planning committee would turn tail and run. That was an abrogation of responsibility.

Now, of course, I understand that the committee members were worried about local opposition, and possibly opposition to their seats on the council, but they were given a duty to deal with planning applications. Many planning applications were ultimately for the benefit of their area.

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman's last comment is unfair to members of local authorities who serve on planning committees. Many councillors are fully aware of the circumstances in their wards. If they wish to use their experience, is it not right that they should oppose planning officers to defend the interests of the people they serve? Why does the hon. Gentleman deride members of local authorities in such a way?

Mr. Summerson

The hon. Gentleman is not being altogether fair. I never derided those councillors—I said that they should have a sharper sense of their own responsibilities. Simply because some people in their area might not like the idea of a development, councillors often say, "Oh well, we won't bother to pass it; we'll oppose it. We know perfectly well that the developers will get it on appeal. We also know perfectly well that the development is probably in the best interests of the area." Because of the local opposition, councillors are often not prepared to deal with these issues. That was my complaint.

Planning law is directly responsible for driving up property prices all over the country because it restricts the supply of land. That is the reason we have seen the rise of the pressure group SANE Planning, in this very place. It exists to protect the green belt and the countryside. I am sure that most people would agree with that. However, that process can be taken too far. If the supply of land is restricted, the price of that land will obviously increase. Therefore, the price of the buildings on that land will also increase. In turn, prices are driven up all over the country and young people, often setting out on their first job, cannot find anywhere to live.

That problem is not confined to country areas; the position is exactly the same in the towns and cities. For that very reason, property prices in my own constituency of Walthamstow have been driven up and up over the past 10 or 15 years and young people are finding that they cannot afford too buy. Those who were fortunate enough or clever enough not to buy at the height of the boom now have good opportunities and many are taking advantage of them. If we regard what is happening now as part of the cyclical downturn, to be followed at some time by the cyclical upturn, once again many young people will not be able to afford to buy a home.

Mr. Dykes

My hon. Friend's earlier comments about his property company sounded interesting, although perhaps it is not a particularly attractive investment. I have been having discussions with some of my hon. Friends. The worrying aspect of all this is whether, under the latest company laws, my hon. Friend is presiding over a property company that is insolvent or approaching insolvency. If so, as hon. Friends of our hon. Friend, we are all concerned about our hon. Friend's political welfare and, of course, we want to avoid a by-election. Perhaps my hon. Friend could give us some clarification.

Mr. Summerson

I wondered whether any of my colleagues would pick up that point. On the face of it, it sounds as though what my hon. Friend has said is the case. However, I can assure him that the present valuation of the properties and the present state of the overdraft are just about in step. As long as the income from the property continues to be paid to the bank and does not come into my pocket, all will be well.

Some of my hon. Friends have referred to the trouble in suburban areas, and I can fully understand their worries. However, we must bear in mind the fact that many of those suburban areas were developed in the 1920s and the 1930s on a spacious scale, when the demand for housing was very different and much less than it is today. We should also think about how those who were already living on the urban fringe must have been furious when a developer arrived on the scene and said, "I am going to build further out and spoil your view." To a large extent, what lies at the root of the problem is that people do not like having their areas "despoiled" as they would see it, which I can fully understand. However, they should understand that those houses were built all those years ago for a completely different life style and many must now make way for others, for the different life style of today.

That point goes back to what I said at the beginning about the history of human settlements in various places. Settlements and people's requirements change over the years. Many large Victorian houses, for example, have now been turned into flats. Local people are happy to see, at least from the outside, the house look exactly as it has always looked. Often the quality of the accommodation inside is not particularly high, because the houses were never designed to be turned into flats. As a result, problems arise—for example, of sound transmission through the walls or floors. That gives rise to considerable problems.

Some larger and older houses have outrun their span. They were put up for a particular purpose and have fulfilled that purpose well. But the demand today, particularly with the younger population, is not so much for large houses as for smaller flats, so much denigrated by both Conservative and Opposition Members. Young people have to start somewhere, and they want smaller flats. They want to know that their flats are solidly built. They do not want to be in intimate contact with their neighbours through listening willy-nilly to what their neighbours are up to on the other side of the wall.

If the Bill becomes law, there would be more deliberate neglect of properties. An unscrupulous developer may not wish to go through all the hassle of applying for planning permission. After doing his homework, he may find that the local council and residents are hostile to the plans. He may simply buy a house and deliberately neglect it. He may leave it open and empty.

The next thing that will probably happen is that squatters will come in. After that, there will probably be a fire or something of that nature. The owner will then be able to knock that house down without having to put any effort into the house. He may simply decide to take the roof off and let natural deterioration take its toll, to such an extent that the house must be demolished.

Do we really want to freeze all our houses in a time warp? That is the problem with the Bill. I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood is getting at—the anxieties of his constituents who support the Bill.

Mr. Clay

Does the hon. Gentleman feel easy with the fact that the Government will not have to say even a word in opposition to the Bill which will follow this one Frankly, they do not have a word or an argument to put forward. That is why they have put up people such as the hon. Member for Walthhamstow (Mr. Summerson) to talk to this Bill. Does he really feel comfortable with that? I ask him on the record whether he understands the feelings of the service men and their families who would be affected by the Bill that is to follow?

Mr. Summerson

I came to the House today to contribute to the debate. That is what I am doing. The hon. Gentleman may complain bitterly about me arid my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot), who spoke before me. Why did he not start to complain from 9.30 am onwards about other hon. Gentlemen who spoke?

Mr. Wilkinson

Because we made short speeches.

Mr. Summerson

My hon. Friend talks about short speeches. I began my speech at 2 pm, but I have had precious little time to deliver my remarks, with all the interruptions and interventions and points of order.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my hon. Friend agree that at least half his speech was full of interruptions and filibustering from Labour Members? Labour Members have prevented the second Bill from being debated this morning.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it not be wise to put on the record that the reason why there were so many interruptions in the hon. Gentleman's speech was his failure to declare his interest in his opening sentence?

Mr. Summerson

The hon. Gentleman's remark is open to question. I declared my interest, as the House demands. As far as I was aware, I had to declare it in the course of my speech, and I have done so.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unfortunate that we have not had time to hear from hon. Members who represent areas outside London who could have spoken about the severe difficulties faced by our constituents when trying to buy property in London. If they were successful, that would do a great deal to increase mobility of labour and reduce unemployment in the north. It is a great pity that we have not heard from hon. Members representing areas other than London.

Mr. Summerson

My hon. Friend is right and, in common with me, he has been here since 9.30 am. He has sat through the entire debate and I am afraid that he has not had the chance to make his own speech.

Mr. Boyes

I have just been outside to Central Lobby to talk to the nuclear veterans. They are disgusted at the performance of Conservative Members and find it an absolute disgrace. All those who have filibustered today should be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. Summerson

The hon. Gentleman may say that, but I have done no such thing. I have been on my feet for perhaps half an hour and—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

To be resumed on Friday 9 March.