HC Deb 16 May 1991 vol 191 cc457-76

'.—(1) In section 55 of the principal Act (meaning of "development") after subsection (1) there is inserted— "(1A) For the purposes of this Act "building operations" includes—

  1. (a) demolition of buildings;
  2. (b) rebuilding;
  3. (c) structural alterations of or additions to buildings; and
  4. (d) other operations normally undertaken by a person carrying on business as a builder."
(2) In subsection (2) of that section after paragraph (f) there is inserted— (g) the demolition of any description of building specified in a direction given by the Secretary of State to local planning authorities generally or to a particular local planning authority. (3) After section 108(3) of that Act (compensation for refusal or conditional grant of planning permission formerly granted by development order) there is inserted— (4) Regulations made by virtue of this subsection may provide that subsection (1) shall not apply where planning permission granted by a development order for demolition of buildings or any description of buildings is withdrawn by the issue of directions under powers conferred by the order."' —[Mr. Yeo.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

I beg to move, that the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

With this it will be convenient to take the following: Government new clause 6—Demolition of buildings.

Government Amendment Nos. 42 to 45, 64 to 67, 54 and 78, 35, 79, 59, 32 to 34, 38 to 41, 46 to 49, 51 to 53, 56 to 58, 81 to 85, 87 to 90, 92 to 94, 36, 50, 55, 60, 37, 100, 102 and 103.

5.15 pm
Mr. Yeo

We have listened carefully to the arguments in the debates on demolition that have taken place in both Houses during the passage of the Bill. We have also taken account of the support for the legislation in the responses to our public consultation paper on demolition last year. We have considered the High Court's decision in January this year, in the case of Cambridge city council v. Secretary of State for the Environment and Milton Park Investment Ltd., which held that the demolition of certain semi-detached houses was development.

Amendments were withdrawn in Standing Committee when my hon. Friend the Minister of State promised consultations within Whitehall and a further statement on Report. We have now concluded that the time is right to introduce selective controls on demolition. In reaching that conclusion, I pay tribute to the arguments adduced by hon. Members, in particular to the advocacy of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), who cannot be here today but has been a vigorous and persuasive supporter of the changes. I believe that it was in his constituency that one half of a semi-detached house was demolished without permission. It was that kind of unacceptable and absurd incident that convinced us of the need to extend planning control to cover demolition.

The amendments may look complicated, but they represent the best way forward. Subsection (1) of the new clause brings the demolition of all building within the meaning of building operations and hence within the definition of development. The new clause also provides a direction-making power to enable the Secretary of State to direct that the demolition of any specified type of building does not involve development. That power will be used to exclude from planning control the demolition of all buildings that are not dwelling houses.

Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)

What will trigger the action that my hon. Friend has just outlined?

Mr. Yeo

Once the Bill has passed on to the statute book, the Secretary of State will use the direction-making power and issue a direction to that effect. In our judgment, the demolition of non-dwelling houses has, on the whole, not presented the same kind of difficulties as the demolition of dwelling houses. Generally, people do not demolish office blocks or industrial premises unless they already have permission to do something else with the site.

Dr. Godman

While I accept what the Minister says about non-residential buildings, there is often a problem with industrial buildings which might well be listed. In my constituency, Gourock ropeworks is a listed building which is literally falling apart and, for understandable reasons, the local authority might seek to demolish it. The proposed demolition of some industrial buildings can cause considerable controversy in local communities.

Mr. Yeo

Listed buildings are already subject to control; there is already a restriction on anyone who wants to demolish a listed building. A local authority which wanted to do so would have to undertake the necessary procedures to obtain permission. Anyone who wants to demolish a listed building, whether industrial or any other type, must follow procedures which are already quite restrictive.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I wish to make an innocent inquiry about whether the new provisions will deal with the following practical and recent example. The building next to the former Department of Health and Social Security offices at the Elephant and Castle, which is still used for offices, but not for Ministers' offices, was a listed office building. Apparently, it was of great significance in terms of 1930s architecture, although I did not find it as beautiful as other people did. It was knocked down after it had been identified as important and the request for its listing had been made. I have not had a chance to check, but I believe that listing was imminent. Certainly it was known that it was ready to be listed. Will that sort of building be protected after the changes have been made to this legislation?

Mr. Yeo

Not if the buildings are non-dwelling houses and unlisted. The protection available for listed buildings continues and will be unchanged by the new clause. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that some of the listings that have taken place have been somewhat eccentric. I do not think that the new clause is intended to address the problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred—demolition taking place when listing is imminent. That is a separate problem which would need a different solution.

The new clause deals with another problem related to dwelling houses. A detached house in a substantial plot in a suburban location could, at present, be demolished without permission and there could then be an application for planning permission for four or five houses on the same plot, thus producing an increase in the land value. I take note of the hon. Gentleman's concern.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I am grateful to the Minister and hope that he will address the issues in its widest form. If a formal request for listed building status has been submitted and been considered by the relevant authority, whether local authority or Government, we need proper protection so that people cannot come and knock down a building literally the day before it obtains listed building status. The whole issue of whether it would have gained listed status then becomes theoretical. The legislation should contain the principle to ensure that a developer or anyone else who knocks down a building which may be of important architectural significance—whether residential, commercial or industrial—is penalised pretty hard.

Mr. Yeo

Assuming that the new clause is accepted, any residential building will, in future, be capable of being protected. I acknowledge that a problem may still exist with non-residential buildings. It is not possible for us to deal with that problem during the passage of the Bill, but I recognise that there is, at least potentially, a problem. I shall reflect on that and write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that some dwelling houses are attached to offices and industrial buildings, particularly in older districts, and perhaps more often in the north than the south—certainly in parts of my constituency. Those buildings are not necessarily in conservation areas and I would not like my hon. Friend's exemptions to allow circumstances in which someone's home could be attached to something one day and next to a gap site the next. Will my hon. Friend look at that aspect of the proposed exemptions to ensure that such a problem will not arise?

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Before the Secretary of State makes a direction under the direction-making power, I will look at the matter to see whether there is a way to give the same protection to someone who lives in a semi-detached house adjacent to an office as to someone living in a semi-detached house adjacent to a dwelling house. We should examine that point sympathetically.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the situation that arose in Salcombe, Devon, could not happen again under the proposed legislation? In Salcombe, a lovely Victorian villa was on the point of being demolished because a developer had bought the land on which the villa was situated and realised that he could build a block of flats there. But for the fact that the local community got wind of the developer's plans, he could and would have knocked down the villa. Fortunately, the local authority, with the help of the Department of the Environment, managed to extend the conservation area to include the house.

It is not right to have to extend conservation areas to save buildings, as we shall end up with conservation areas all over the place where they should not be. Will my hon. Friend say something about people coming along and knocking down houses overnight which, under the new clause, will not be a criminal offence unless the building is listed or there is a tree on the land on which there is a tree preservation order?

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend is such a vigorous champion and exponent of tighter planning controls that I am amazed that anyone west of Bristol should dream of undertaking anything which might approach a breach of planning control. I can assure him that the new clause will deal directly with the circumstances to which he referred. It is intended to tackle precisely that situation.

We shall propose amendments to the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1988 to grant permitted development rights for the demolition of houses in most circumstances. That will reflect the fact that most demolitions are uncontroversial, but it would be possible to control the most damaging cases by excluding the demolition of semi-detached and terraced houses from permitted development rights.

The amendments to the general development order will be subject to public consultation. I cannot say at this stage exactly what those amendments will be, but our aim is to implement the measure as soon as possible. Of course, the consultation process will give us the chance to consider carefully the points that have been made today.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

Can the Minister explain how the measure will be given teeth because, by definition, it is quicker to knock something down than to build it? Does not the case for such control demonstrate the need for criminal penalties if people do not conform to the new planning controls? What penalties will be applied to people who demolish buildings despite the new controls?

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend may be attempting to introduce into our proceedings a discussion of the principle of criminalisation, with which the amendments and new clauses that have been called do not deal. I can assure my hon. Friend that, if a building or house is demolished in breach of planning control, the local authority will be able to enforce the construction of a replacement building as similar as possible to that which was demolished. Such a building must comply with building regulations and the relevant enforcement notice. That power should act as a strong deterrent to the speculative demolition which has caused concern.

I believe that if the owner of a house demolished it on spec, as it were, and then found that he faced a £100,000, £200,000 or £500,000 bill for reconstruction, that would represent a real deterrent, perhaps greater in financial terms than that envisaged by the advocates of criminalisation. The powers that we are now introducing will be an effective deterrent to such a problem which, although real, is not enormously widespread.

As a result of the amendments, it will for the first time be open to planning authorities to use article 4 directions to prevent the demolition of houses where the authorities see a particular risk or in areas that they regard as vulnerable to damage from speculative demolition. Demolition in conservation areas is already subject to control, but there may be other areas in which greater planning control is desirable. While it would not usually be appropriate to control the whole of a district, we should be prepared to consider sympathetically article 4 directions served on particular buildings or streets where there was a case for extending control for more than six months.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I imagine that article 4 directions are likely to be used on older buildings and those which are, in that sense, of more intrinsic value to the community. I was with the Minister up to the point where he said that any replacement that could be enforced would be required to conform to building regulations. The problem is that many wonderful old buildings, which are perhaps not in conservation areas and are not listed, get some of their charm from the fact that they do not conform to building regulations. What will happen if a replacement that meets that requirement is sufficiently ugly not to be a decent replacement?

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend poses a fascinating question, but such detail will properly be dealt with in the consultation process that I mentioned a moment ago. It is not appropriate to use the valuable time of the House to discuss it any more specifically than that. It should be possible for common sense to prevail. The local authority will be able to enforce the construction of a replacement building. It must be as similar as possible to the demolished building, but it must comply with building regulations. As my hon. Friend said, it is possible that, in some cases, those objectives may be incompatible, but there is a common-sense solution. Above all, the purpose of the measure is to provide a deterrent to people who demolish buildings on spec. It will be an effective deterrent and I should be surprised if there were many instances such as those to which my hon. Friend referred.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

I am concerned that the Minister is a little too sanguine in his reply. In some areas. especially in the west country, where land values are high and property is extremely valuable, fly-by-night merchants and cowboys are prepared to indulge in speculative demolition. What the Minister says about the local authority being a substantial deterrent is not the case, especially when enforcement officers are hard pressed. My constituency has the fifth or sixth highest volume of planning applications in the country. The officers cannot get around all the sites to enforce the regulations. Because of the high land values, there is a great incentive—greater than the deterrent, I fear—to indulge in such practices which the Minister is apparently seeking to shrug off. The only solution is not a fanciful deterrent, but criminalisation.

Mr. Yeo

I am tempted to go with the debate on criminalisation which was won comprehensively by the Government, who dispatched the advocates of criminalisation in all directions with some help from the Opposition. Although I am tempted to rehearse the arguments again, my hon. Friend is missing the point. Of course there is a significant temptation for people to indulge in what we could call speculative demolition. At present, there is everything to be gained and nothing much to be lost from creating a vacant site where there was previously a dwelling, and there is probably a good chance of getting planning permission for something that might be more valuable.

In the future, people will still have to get planning permission but, once they have made their application, it will be apparent to the local authority—whether its enforcement officers are hard pressed or not—that a breach of planning control has taken place and the speculative demolisher will face an enourmous bill to reconstruct the dwelling that was previously on that site. Therefore, when the new clause has been accepted, the problems will not be nearly so serious as some of my hon. Friends seem to fear.

Mr. Steen

I represent about a third of Torbay so I know what my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) is talking about. Is the Minister saying that under the new clause, if a developer knocked down a house he could be asked to rebuild it, but that he could then knock it down, having obtained planning permission to build something else?

Mr. Yeo

It would certainly be a step-by-step process. My hon. Friend is right to say that if someone knocks down a house without the necessary planning permission, the local authority has the power to make him reconstruct that house at great expense. If he subsequently wishes to apply for planning permission to do something else on that site, he would be free to do so, as anyone owning land or a building is free to do.

The amendments allow local planning authorities to control the worst excesses of demolition of dwelling houses without imposing any extra demand, in the majority of cases, on the developer or the local planning authorities. New clause 6 and amendments Nos. 64 to 67, Nos. 78 and 79, Nos. 81 to 85, Nos. 87 to 90, Nos. 92 to 94, No. 100, and Nos. 102 and 103 make similar provisions for Scotland by amending section 19 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 and by making equivalent consequential provisions. I commend the new clause to the House.

5.30 pm
Sir Anthony Durant

I represent in the House the National Federation of Demolition Contractors. It may help the House if another point of view is expressed. I must make it clear that the federation is a responsible body. It has high training standards and believes in conforming to the law. It accepts that there are demolition men who do not conform to the federation's high standards on training, on working with the unions and on doing all the right things. It is accepted that there are some cowboys. In general, the federation is not against the proposals, although it is concerned about them.

One concern is that there may be delay. A building may be ready for demolition, but it could be a long and drawn-out process before the demolition contractor gets permission to demolish. The federation is concerned about that because with the downturn in the economy, especially in the south, there is a lack of work.

The federation has asked me to raise the issue of dangerous buildings, which has already been touched on by Opposition Members. Sometimes a building is in such a bad state that the only safe thing to do is to demolish it. Is such a demolition badly affected by the new clause and amendments? The federation would like to know the Minister's views.

The federation is not against the thrust of the Bill and it understands that it has to conform to the law. Members of the federation would much prefer to work on a site when demolition has already been approved than be stopped half way through. They are not keen for such a situation to arise. The federation behaves in a responsible manner, and its only anxieties concern delay and dangerous buildings. I shall be interested to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I did not have the pleasure of serving on the Committee, but I think that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of a particular constituency problem. I hope that he will advise me whether the new clause and amendments will be helpful in this case, which is different from those raised in the debate so far. The residents would like demolition to occur, but the developer of the site is refusing to carry out demolition. It is a long-standing problem. The Harwood shopping precinct, which was built 25 years ago, has now been turned into a ghetto and the residents want it demolished, but the owner, who has planning permission to redevelop the site, has failed to do so and is dragging his feet. The council has failed to force him to do so and everyone is concerned.

I tabled new clause 4 to help solve the problem, but it has not been selected. Will the new clause or amendments help, or are there sufficient powers in existence to enable the council to take action against the developer and to force him to redevelop, or to enable the council compulsorily to purchase the site and sell it to another developer who will do so?

I received a letter today from Mrs. Sheila Turner, a constituent who lives near the precinct. She writes: I am extremely concerned at the state of the precinct and the fact that Mr. Horrocks"— the developer concerned— is thumbing his nose at the people of Harwood and being allowed to get away with it. The problem has persisted since 1984 and all the residents in the area are thoroughly fed up.

Mrs. Turner continues: Can nothing be done to force him to demolish the buildings? I moved here 30 years ago into a house built by Mr. Horrocks' firm on New Heys Way. He was a familiar figure, striding along New Heys Way, watching his investment grow. Now that he has allowed the precinct to deteriorate to such an extent that it would not be out of place in an inner city deprived area (complete with yobs) he is constantly 'unavailable' like some prima donna. I have written to Mr. Horrocks challenging him to take his grandchildren on a walk through the crumbling, disgusting, obscene grafitti daubed wreck and I hope he will feel the shame and embarrassment that the Harwood residents feel every day… It is not a very happy situation for Harwood residents. Mrs. Turner has written to the council about the matter. The council has been absolutely feeble and pathetic. It has said that it is unable to do anything and it has tried to shift the blame on to the Government. The council said: Central Government's view would be that the site is in private ownership and its existing planning permissions have been granted and it is up to the private sector, and Mr. Horrocks in particular, to achieve the necessary re-development. The residents feel that the council should act. Are the new clause and amendments relevant to the problem, or does section 226 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 give the council sufficient power to act now compulsorily to acquire the land? Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me whether the spirit and principle of the 1990 Act give the council the scope to exercise power of acquisition in a way that harnesses the resources and skills of a private developer in putting the site to effective use?

I have already shown my hon. Friend a cutting from the Bolton Evening News this week in which Mr. Earp, of Tonge Moor road, Bolton, says that I am the only person who is trying to do anything about the problem. Does the council have enough power to act? Does my hon. Friend feel that it should act? My hon. Friend is aware that all this week an enormous court case has gone on in the Strand, which was reported in the Bolton Evening News this week. Bolton council is in trouble for failing to enforce its powers with regard to a covenant. The residents want Barratt to demolish 10 houses that were built on land in contravention of a covenant that stated that there should be no building.

Mr. Allason

Does my hon. Friend agree that the ability and power of a local authority to act on enforcement notices is the key to all these matters? At present, local authorities, after the experience on Sunday trading, are reluctant to get involved in lengthy court proceedings which are enormously expensive and which will add an enormous burden to community charge or council taxpayers. Does my hon. Friend agree that the solution is not necessarily to provide powers for local authorities but to ensure that local authorities are willing to enforce the powers that they already have?

Mr. Thurnham

Indeed. It is no good for councillors to let themselves be walked over by developers. In some cases, there may be some political connotations. Councils may refuse to do their duty in certain areas because, for political reasons, they think that it may be wise to let the residents become unhappy. I am concerned about Bolton council's feebleness in such cases. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister will say whether there are sufficient powers already or whether there is a need for further legislation. If there are sufficient powers, why cannot the council use them?

Mr. Steen

It would be churlish of me not to congratulate the Government on moving some way towards meeting the robust arguments that I and other hon. Friends put in Committee, where I was privileged to serve. The Government wanted the Bill to complete its Committee stage in a day and to be seen as a little tidying-up measure. They wanted it then to be nodded through the House on the day of the Monmouth by-election. The Government chose a good day on which there might be as few hon. Members present as possible. However, in Committee the Government realised that the Bill was important, and that Conservative and Opposition Members saw it as the greatest opportunity for 20 years to put right some of the planning injustices. Unfortunately, the Government tried to make it a tidy Bill and they have been resistant to the idea of extending the Bill to deal with other injustices.

In Committee, I raised on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) the question of demolition. I want to pay tribute to the Government for listening to Conservative Members and for recognising that something needed to be done. I hope that there will be other moves this evening from the Government. I hope that they will be prepared to extend the Bill from being a tidy little measure into a more serious and important Bill which will put right some of the injustices of the planning system.

We have tried to make it more difficult for certain categories of building to be demolished. I am fearful that local authorities could use the Bill as an opportunity to slow down the planning process. I am concerned that, if a building is to be demolished, the developers should not have the additional cost of delay, which is one of the problems of our planning system. I am told that in France and Germany proper compensation is paid and things get done as a result. I hope that that is one problem which the Bill will redress.

My hon. Friend the Minister could also usefully say something about the consultation process. Will that last for months, or will it be completed by the end of July. so that by September or October the demolition clause will be in place?

Mr. Moate

Alas, I did not have the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee, but I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has just said. This is a serious and important Bill and the Government should be warmly congratulated on a number of its provisions, including new clause 2. I congratulate them on having endeavoured to close a gap that has caused much concern over the years. It is right that demolition should be brought within the scope of planning control. I hope that we do not do any damage to the legitimate interests represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir T. Durant).

I fear that once again we are giving duties to local planning authorities without giving them adequate powers of enforcement. We are raising expectations while still allowing those who abuse the law the opportunity to continue doing so. That point follows one dealt with in a number of interventions to which my hon. Friend courteously responded but with which he did not deal satisfactorily.

The law-abiding citizen has seldom posed a problem. In future, the law-abiding citizen will know that he has to obtain planning permission in order to demolish a dwelling house and the planning authority will have the power of enforcement. But the non-law-abiding citizen will pose a problem. If a house on a large site is demolished without planning permission—to quote the classic example of a large decaying villa on a large site—the person responsible could be required to rebuild it. But the practical consequence is that it is not logical to rebuild a large villa on such a site. In the end, logic will prevail and the planning authority will tell the cowboy that it obviously makes sense to put up a number of smaller homes on that site. In the end, the spec developer will win.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that even where houses have been built without planning permission—we can all think of such examples—there are few instances where such unlawful buildings are demolished because in the end it would be illogical to do so. Therefore, unfortunately, in such cases the developer will always win.

I accept that, as has been said, that leads back to criminalisation. The only way in which the measure can be given teeth is to have some criminal penalties. I suspect that that has been argued through. There are strong arguments for and against that, but at some stage specific penalties have to be imposed to deal with someone who wantonly and flagrantly disobeys planning laws. I welcome the control over demolition, but it is a fairly toothless proposal which will present many planning authorities with problems, not solutions.

Mr. Allason

My concern about new clause 2 is that it does not cover the difficulties experienced in the south-west. A few moments ago I mentioned high property values. South Devon has experienced numerous examples of appalling abuses of planning regulations. In my constituency there is a major controversy relating to the improvement or development, call it what one will, of the Cockington valley preservation area. On the fringes of that site there has been a long battle over where the boundaries are to be drawn. We have had classic examples of a footpath going straight through the living room of a house that has never been occupied because a mistake was made in drawing the boundaries. In no case, as far as I am aware, has an order been made for the demolition of such properties, which have been put up quickly by speculative builders. Often, when there is a threat of enforcement, the dwelling will be occupied, probably more quickly than usual, in order to get through another loophole.

5.45 pm

I am sure that a substantial proportion of hon. Members' mail is dominated by planning issues which are not our direct responsibility. However, we should be prepared to shoulder the burden of responsibility for planning regulations for the next 20 years. The past 20 years have identified numerous loopholes that have been exploited by the unscrupulous. We have an opportunity this evening to close some of those loopholes.

A moment ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) mentioned giving those responsibilities to local authorities without giving them the power of enforcement. The House has a tendency to give important responsibilities to local authorities without contemplating the costs involved or providing them with the resources necessary. I have already mentioned the cost of enforcement, but there are insufficient officers in the planning departments, certainly in Torbay, rigorously to enforce the existing regulations. Numerous other flaws have been exploited over the years. My great concern has always been development on green field sites, but in my constituency there are very few green field sites left because unscrupulous developers have concreted over every blade of grass around.

Enforcement is the key. The Minister has strong faith in local authorities' ability to enforce demolition orders where there has been improper development, but can he cite cases where such enforcement orders have been enforced? In my recollection, there have been few and invariably they have involved lengthy legal proceedings. At the end of the day the developer has only rarely been required to demolish a property that has been put up in contravention of the regulations.

I hope that my hon. Friend will consider this evening that he is not just pushing a Bill through the House of Commons; he will be affecting the lives of millions of people throughout Britain who will have to live with this legislation for many years to come. There is a tendancy known as NIMBY—not in my back yard. We have an opportunity now to legislate for the future in order to ensure that some of the loopholes that have been so blatently exploited in the past are finally closed.

I beg my hon. Friend to consider carefully what I have said. When the moment comes for him to retire to south Devon where I will welcome him as my constituent, he will not want unscrupulous developers building close to his retirement home.

Mr. Wilshire

I imagine that in Committee it became clear to my hon. Friend the Minister that I am not an enthusiast for extending the powers of planning committees over the lives of individuals. I have said on a number of occasions that I have reservations about the wisdom of bringing demolition within the remit of planning control, and I still do.

I say that against the background of my constituency being one of many with the sorts of problems that were discussed in Committee and which have been mentioned again today. The particular problem that my constituency seems to share with a number of others is the enthusiastic speculative developer who knocks down a large house and then negotiates on density afterwards. I am well aware of the consequences that that can have. Therefore, although I have reservations about the proposed approach, I keep an open mind.

I have throughout been against a blanket requirement, in all circumstances, for any demolition to be subject to planning permission. The suggested change to the general development order as a means of ensuring that blanket prohibition is not the order of the day offers a very neat solution, and one that commends itself to me.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not succumb to the temptation to allow many councils to withdraw permitted development rights—or in this case, permitted demolition rights—across large swathes of a local authority's area. That would be to fly in the face of the measure, which is meant to give protection where it is needed without taking away individual rights.

Mention has been made of the possible slowing down in the planning process that could occur. In Committee, I commended to my hon. Friend the Minister a change in the law that would make a deemed approval the order of the day if, after 12 weeks, a decision had not been taken. In the case of an application to demolish, it would not be unreasonable to expect any planning authority, under all circumstances, to reach a decision within that period of time. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will consider whether a deemed approval could be a way of avoiding delay.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) referred to dangerous buildings. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it crystal clear to planning authorities, inspectors, and courts if necessary, that the requirement to safeguard public safety would be adequate justification for not necessarily waiting for a decision in the case of a building that was structurally dangerous.

Replying to my intervention earlier, my hon. Friend the Minister said that a case could be made for leaving certain details to the common sense of the people involved. I implore him not to place too much store by common sense in the planning process. I chaired a planning committee for five years, and my experience of planning officers is that, often, they are not noted for displaying common sense in their approach to such issues—and I have yet to meet a developer who displays common sense when profit is dangled before him. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to tie up all the details, to make it clear what is meant by the provision and by the general development order. Despite my reservations, I believe that the overall solution is neat, and I shall take great pleasure in supporting it.

Dr. Godman

In speaking in support of new clause 6, I make no apology for touching briefly on a constituency matter. If one drives into my constituency from the east, along the River Clyde, one first sees the remarkably conserved Newark castle. Its superb condition is a tribute to successive administrations at the Scottish Office, Labour and Conservative, and to others involved in the conservation of Scotland's ancient buildings. Alongside that landmark, as the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland knows, is the busy, bustling little Ferguson shipyard.

The juxtaposition of that ancient castle and the shipyard is easy on the eye. However, just 50 or 80 yards further into my constituency is the most appalling, squalid, derelict and decaying cluster of buildings, which include the Gourock road works.

I acknowledge that that site represents a fine example of 19th century Scottish industrial architecture, and that alongside it are two Georgian houses. In an earlier intervention, the Minister pointed out that if those properties are listed buildings, action can be taken to protect them. However, that is an extremely long-winded process, and I regret that new clause 6 will be unable to deal with the circumstances in which my constituents find themselves.

Port Glasgow is ravaged by high unemployment. It is seeking to persuade industrialists, through the Locate in Scotland Bureau, to locate their operations there. However, if Japanese, American or Scandinavian business men drive into Port Glasgow, after they have been greeted by the agreeable vista of Newark castle they will be confronted by the Gourock road works. If that site and the buildings alongside it can be conserved, that should be done, but it is unfair to place on the people o7 Port Glasgow the burden of living with that distressing squalor. New clause 6 will not allow Inverclyde district council to deal with that problem expeditiously.

I mentioned that the buildings concerned might be conserved rather than abolished. The Scottish Office published a fine book on old buildings, which has a foreword by the former Secretary of State for Scotland, now the Secretary of State for Transport, in which he argued the case for conservation. However, despite the commitment that I have to preserving Scotland's historical architecture, both industrial and aristocratic, I believe that the moment has arrived for decisive action in respect of the appalling squalor of the Gourock road works and the adjoining buildings.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that representatives of his district council met me some time ago for a detailed discussion of the case to which he refers, and to ascertain whether the serving of a repairs notice on the property owner in question would be a good way forward. I undertake to give the hon. Gentleman a written account of the situation to date. We all share his interest in finding a way forward, bearing in mind the importance to industry and to the local community of a favourable decision being reached.

Dr. Godman

I am deeply grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for displaying his characteristic courtesy in that intervention. The councillors and officials who met him told me that he gave their case a fair-minded and courteous hearing, and I am pleased to learn of his continuing concern. The situation that I have described is a blight on the residents of Port Glasgow and could deter people from setting up homes and industries on the lower Clyde. There is no waterway in the whole of the United Kingdom more beautiful than the firth of Clyde. It is a disgrace, and a continuing scandal, that such squalor should be allowed to remain literally on its banks. I repeat my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for his gracious intervention, and I repeat that something must be done in the near future about the situation of which I have spoken.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

The best that I can say is that the Opposition give the new clause a low-key welcome. Let me add, however, that I greatly enjoy these debates; I am always impressed by the way in which right-wing Members from the south of England, confronted by the developers, suddenly abandon their commitment to Thatcherism and move so far to the left that they bypass democratic socialism and cross straight into authoritarian eastern European communism—of the old style, that is. They want to criminalise all the developers. Conservative Members such as the hon. Members for Torbay (Mr. Allason) and for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) want to create a criminal offence—or perhaps that does not apply to the hon. Member for Spelthorne.

Mr. Wilshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for correcting himself before I had a chance to correct him. I am not in favour of criminalisation

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Mr. Soley

I know that this does not relate to the substance of the debate, but it is important. I think that the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) inclined towards the idea of criminalisation. It is not the answer; the answer is enforcement. The hon. Member for Torbay mentioned this.

Criminalisation is not the answer for three reasons. First, it does not deter; secondly, it is not necessarily any quicker; thirdly, it is not a particularly effective method. Enforcement, however, means that the developer must put right what he has done wrong, and it is therefore more effective. The distinction is important, although I do not want us to engage in the "criminalisation" debate all over again. I understand the force of the argument about irreversible development; indeed, I have put that argument myself. In such circumstances, a developer would be unable to put right what had been done wrong. In other circumstances, however, the most effective deterrent will be the power of enforcement. It is criticisms of that kind that get the Government into difficulties with their Back Benchers when new clauses such as this are being debated.

Another problem is the way in which the Government legislate. I agree that something must be done about demolition, and that it must be covered by the planning rules. The Government, however, tend to favour secondary legislation, thus placing the Minister in a difficult position. He cannot answer his Back Benchers who present him with various types of case—not just specific cases—because the legislation is not spelt out in the detail that would enable us to know exactly what the law is. If I were asked to identify the main criticism of the Government's planning machinery, I would cite the lack of certainty.

Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

Throughout the relevant period, the law has been represented by the Town and Country Planning Act 1971— until the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. I am at a loss to know what changes in the law the hon. Gentleman means.

Mr. Soley

I am referring generally to the planning legislation introduced by the present Government. When legislating on planning and the issues surrounding it, they have tended to give the Secretary of State power to intervene. They have done the same in regard to affordable housing. It is a secondary power, rather than a clear power.

I should place on record my admiration for the courage of the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Durant). Surrounded by colleagues all of whom were berating the demolition industry, the hon. Gentleman simply stood up and said, "I represent, and speak for, the demolition industry." That must have been rather like walking into St. Paul's cathedral and saying, "I speak for Satan"—or, worse still, walking into St. Paul's cathedral without paying the entry fee, which I suspect is now an even worse crime.

There is a problem for the demolition industry; again, the problem is one of certainty. The industry has not consulted me, but I would guess that its representatives have complained to the hon. Member for Reading, West that they do not know where they stand. That is the problem which confronts the Minister. In my view, the legislation should have spelt matters out more clearly; the Government have relied less on guidance and secondary legislation. That would have introduced a little more certainty into the planning system, benefiting both local authority planners, who must make the decisions, and the demolition industry itself.

Having said that, I should add that I have no doubt that the measure represents a necessary part of the Bill in its present form. Although I do not like this type of legislation, I support its implications and the direction in which it is aimed.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

I rarely speak in environment debates. Before the Whips rush off to sound the alarm bells, let me assure my hon. Friends that I have no intention of moving an amendment to the Bill. I had intended to speak later about enforcement, but, as the subject has arisen during our current debate, it may be more convenient for me to say now what little I have to say.

I agree with the Government that it would have been wrong to criminalise the enforcement process, although I well understand the reasons given by some of my hon. Friends. We are looking for a deterrent. I have a suggestion which I hope the Government will consider and, if they deem it sensible, will introduce in another place.

On so many occasions, development companies or individuals flout the planning laws and do something that they know they should not be doing. They may, for instance, put a caravan in a field, knowing perfectly well that such an action requires permission. They hope that, by extending the enforcement process—by appealing, and using various delaying mechanisms—they will be able to leave the caravan there for a long time. With any luck, they will be allowed, if they are persistent enough, to continue to do what they have already done illegally.

Although I do not think that that should become a crime, I believe that the Bill would provide a deterrent if it provided that no council should be able to consider allowing planning permission to someone who had breached the planning law until he had stopped doing so. That would mean that no retrospective application for a caravan to be allowed to remain on a field—or a barn that had not been erected for agricultural purposes—could be even considered until the object in question had been removed.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

I have considerable sympathy with what my hon. Friend is saying. However, I was involved in such a case. It lasted for six years, and goodness knows how many letters were written to the Department. The trouble was that the ownership of the caravan changed every other week. It belonged to a travelling family: ownership switched from the old lady to the son, and so on. Trying to establish responsibility for it was a lawyer's nightmare.

Mr. Mates

Only rapid and forthright enforcement can solve problems like that. I am not talking about anything as blatant as my hon. Friend's example. There are people who will defy the law and go on doing it. Others, as a matter of policy, will dig footings without permission so that they can then say that they have started something Until those footings have been removed and the land has been restored, nothing should be allowed to be started retrospectively.

After several years—because of a change in the control of a council or planning authority, for instance—something that was known to be wrong when it was done becomes right. I do not believe that anyone should be able to negotiate with the planning authorities on that basis when they have themselves been in breach of the law.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

My hon. Friend's suggestion would obviate a problem that I have encountered. That problem has arisen when a breach of planning permission has been taken to court by the district council, and the court has refused to make a decision while planning permissions have not yet been decided.

Mr. Mates

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not want to go through all the possible examples; I am sure that every hon. Member will know of one that has affected him or her professionally. I am making a general point about the frustration experienced by local authorities when people have defied them, and then embarked on a process with which they must co-operate because of the present state of the law.

If we can change that, we need not go as far as creating a criminal offence. The deterrent will be provided: as long as the offending breach is there, no one—not the courts, not the local authorities—will consider regularising the position. Planners must start again, as does the honest citizen, by doing what is proper and applying to do something before they do it. I acknowledge that I am rather late in putting this suggestion to my hon. Friends. I went to the Department of the Environment some years ago with it, but at the time Ministers were not in the same listening mode as I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is in now. I hope that the Government will consider my suggestion if they think it appropriate and do something about it in the other place.

Mr. Yeo

This has been a formidable debate. Much more interest than I had imagined has been evinced in this humble new clause which we have tabled to deal with the problem in a way which we believe will be effective.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant), who acknowledged his interest in the matter at the start of his speech, will be aware—although the House may not be—that his predecessor in his role as parliamentary adviser to the National Federation of Demolition Contractors was none other than my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning. In view of the advancement of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) from the post of adviser to the federation to his present post in Government, I look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West to the Front Bench again shortly.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West confirm that the National Federation of Demolition Contractors is not against the aims of the new clause. I emphasise to him and to other of my hon. Friends who spoke in the debate that, where planning permission has been granted for a replacement building on a site, even if it is the site of a dwelling house, it is not necessary to seek specific permission to demolish the dwelling house. The fact of granting permission for a new building on the site which can be constructed only after the existing dwelling house has been demolished will remove the need to go through any further process.

Some of the anxieties which have been expressed about delays may prove to be misplaced. The majority of responsible developers and, after the new clause has been passed, even irresponsible developers will find it much quicker and more convenient to seek permission for the building or development with which they wish to replace an existing dwelling house before attempting to demolish it. Therefore, they will choose to seek planning permission. Once they have obtained permission, they will be free to press on with the demolition without further delay.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West spoke about dangerous buildings. It is an important point which I hope that we shall address when we consult about how the provisions that we are introducing will be implemented. There is a real issue at stake. I undertake to consider it carefully during the consultation.

Sir Anthony Durant

Bearing in mind my interest, will the Government issue a consultative document to the National Federation of Demolition Contractors so that it can express its views?

Mr. Yeo

Of course I shall ensure that the federation receives our consultation document.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) raised a constituency problem. He managed with some ingenuity to make a speech which it seemed had been prepared for the new clause which was not called. His speech gave the House a chance to recognise what a vigorous champion of his constituents' interests he is. I cannot comment on the specific cases that he raised. However, as he knows, I have written to him today to emphasise the powers that all local authorities have on compulsory purchase. Section 226 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 gives local authorities powers of compulsory acquisition where that acquisition would be in the interests of the better planning of the area. Such compulsory purchases must be confirmed by the Secretary of State.

I recognise the problem which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East identified. The powers that the local authority has can be used where the redevelopment would be carried out not by the local authority or any other statutory body but by a private developer. I hope that he will draw those powers to the attention of his local authority and ensure that if it is possible for it to use them in the cases to which he referred, it will do so, as it is so clearly in the interests of his constituents.

My hon. Friends the Members for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and for Torbay (Mr. Allason) raised several points which seemed in some respects similar to the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East. As I said, we shall consult local authorities. I am sure that they will advise us if they feel that their powers of enforcement are inadequate. However, existing enforcement powers are being put to good use already. There are plenty of examples of local authorities taking successful enforcement action to require the demolition of an unauthorised building.

In today's press, hon. Members may have seen that a building described by the developers as a cow shed which was constructed at a cost of £350,000 and contained windows and fireplaces—perhaps for fires to keep the lambs warm in their early months of life—was required to be demolished. It was an unlawful development and it has now been blown up. The developer has lost his £350,000 house as a result of the vigorous enforcement action taken by the relevant planning authority. There have been several other such examples. I shall not go through the whole list now, but the House should be assured that many local authorities are making effective use of existing powers, even before they have the benefit of the new clause.

6.15 pm

As hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee—of whom my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay was not one—will know, the Bill contains a fair number of additional enforcement powers which greatly strengthen the position of local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) suggested that the Government had hoped to put the Bill through its Standing Committee in a day. I assure the House, and hon. Members who served on the Committee will recognise, that there is no possibility of any Standing Committee on which my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams serves completing its proceedings in a day. A year would probably be nearer the mark. However, in the end my hon. Friend showed great restraint, as he did again in his speech today.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams for his congratulations to us on responding to the anxieties that people have expressed about demolition. I share his anxiety about the delay, but, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West, in practice, I do not believe that it will prove to be a major difficulty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) made an interesting suggestion of a 12-week limit within which local authorities should consider applications. Thereafter, applications would be deemed to have been approved. I shall reflect on that point. In practice, the vast majority of delays will arise on applications for redevelopment rather than specifically for demolition, so I hope that long delays in considering applications for demolition will not be a frequent problem. I shall certainly reflect on my hon. Friend's suggestion.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams asked about the consultation process. I cannot give him a precise date. We certainly wish to implement the proposals as soon as possible, so I hope that the consultation process will be completed during the summer. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) expressed his opposition to criminalisation. I was interested in his suggestion that local authorities should refuse to consider applications where some unlawful development has commenced. My initial thought is that it would be a sweeping measure. In some cases, a minor and technical breach of planning control occurs inadvertently when some new development takes place before planning permission has been granted. It might be rather sweeping to say that no application for any development can be even considered while the technical breach exists. However, I shall certainly reflect on my hon. Friend's suggestions.

Mr. Mates

I do not wish to be misunderstood. I do not suggest that, if a developer or individual makes a mistake and goes wrong after being given permission, the matter cannot be put right. I suggest that, if a developer sets off to do something without permission, he cannot do so inadvertently. If one digs footings for a house, one knows that one must have permission to do so. If one sets up a caravan park, one knows that one requires permission to do so. When a development is undertaken without permission ab initio and deliberately, we should say that the breach must stop before any planning application can be entertained. That is a similar principle to the Latin saying which I cannot recall—I cannot immediately see a lawyer in the Chamber. It is to the effect that, when one comes before justice, one must come with clean hands. Someone else could put that more eloquently than me, but that is what I mean.

Mr. Yeo

I appreciate the distinction that my hon. Friend draws. I shall reflect on his interesting suggestion and write to him.

Mr. Soley

In Committee, this matter was thrashed out to some extent in the context of the matter of enforcement I want to put to the Minister again a point that I put to him on that occasion. It is related to the point that has just been made by his hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). If a local authority had a general duty of enforcement, including the possibility of retrospective planning permission, it would be able to get round the problem. If a breach, whether intentional or unintentional, were very minor, the local authority might not want to create a big hassle. In such a case, the authority could give permission retrospectively, but would still have a general duty to enforce. Extreme cases such as have been mentioned by the hon. Member for East Hampshire would be caught, but the local authority could deal with minor indiscretions.

Mr. Yeo

I am not sure how that would fit in with the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). It seems to me that the granting of retrospective planning permission would be made impossible if my hon. Friend's suggestion were accepted. I understand the force of the argument that any unauthorised development must be reversed before an application is considered. Such a procedure would indeed be a major deterrent. People would have to be extremely careful, even if they were thinking of erecting only a garage. What the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) is suggesting is rather different. I do not think that the two suggestions go together.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith explained that he was not in favour of criminalisation. Perhaps, as he is a former probation officer, that is not surprising. He may not want to have to look after a lot of developers should he lose his seat in this House. But I do not believe that the problem of uncertainty is quite as great as he suggests. Indeed, I see some advantages in the use of secondary legislation. It would give the Government—indeed, any Government—some flexibility. If, after a number of years' experience, a review of practices were needed, it might be rather easier to change the law through secondary legislation than through a new Bill. Part of the problem relating to demolition arises from the case to which I referred when I opened this debate.

I hope that I have dealt with all the points that have been raised. If not, I shall gladly write to any hon. Member who feels aggrieved. I believe that the Government's case is clear, and I commend the new clause to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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