HC Deb 26 February 1993 vol 219 cc1200-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacKay.]

2.44 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this important subject in an Adjournment debate, and delighted that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is to reply.

I am privileged to represent Eastbourne, along with Willingdon and Polegate. In large measure due to the foresight of successive Dukes of Devonshire, Eastbourne is an elegant and gracious resort which has retained its distinctive character and charm up to the present day. The seventh Duke, in particular, had a great influence on the planned development of the town.

Eastbourne has truly been described as conceived by a gentleman for gentlemen", and as the Empress of Watering Places". It was voted top resort only a couple of years ago, and in 1992 attracted some 2.;25 million visitor nights and 1.35 visitor day visits. Total visitor spending was £95 million. It was rightly described recently by my hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage as one of the country's premier tourist resorts". The purpose of this debate is to highlight a problem that affects a great number of resorts in this country. In some places, it has already had a major effect. As I have already made clear, Eastbourne is a quality resort. The local council, my constituents and I intend to keep it that way.

Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, any material change in the use of buildings or land is deemed to be "development", which must be preceded by a grant of permission. However, that requirement may be eliminated in certain cases by the Secretary of State for the Environment. He is authorised by that Act to issue a statutory instrument, known as a class use order, which defines certain classes of use of buildings and land. Thereafter, if a landlord proposes to change the use of a property, but the proposed use falls within the same class of use as the existing use, the change is deemed not to constitute "development" and is accordingly exempted from the need to obtain planning permission from the local authority.

In simple terms, the order has the effect of streamlining the operation of the planning legislation where a specific change in use leaves the use class unaltered. The implication is, according to the Department of the Environment circular 13/1986, that the change is unlikely to have planning impact". A few years ago, the Government expressed their intention to broaden certain use classes to reduce the number of classes to a minimum, while retaining specific control over changes of use that substantially affect the environment or other uses, or that damage amenity. Under the resulting Town and Country Planning Use Classes Order 1987 (SI 1764) there are two categories relevant to this debate:

C1—HOTELS AND HOSTELS: Use as an hotel, boarding or guest house, or as an hostel where, in each case, no significant element of care is provided.

C2—RESIDENTIAL INSTITUTIONS: Use for the provision of residential accommodation and care to people in need of care … Use as a hospital or nursing home. Use as a residential school, college or training centre. Thus, the use classes distinguish between a hostel without a significant amount of care and a hostel with a significant amount of care, rather than between a hotel and a hostel.

The previous legislation was the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1972—SI 1385. The relevant classes in that order were as follows:

CLASS XI Use as a boarding or guest house, or an hotel providing sleeping accommodation.

CLASS XIV Use as a home or institution providing for the boarding, care and maintenance of children, old people or persons under disability", —and so on.

In planning law, the definition of the word "hotel" normally includes the notion of a transient population. As was stated in the case of Mayflower Cambridge v Secretary of State for the Environment in 1975 The basic feature of a hotel, as the word is used in the English language, is that it contains a transient population because it is there to serve people travelling who require short stays only.

On the other hand, a hostel has been taken to mean a building in which people either live or stay and which provides communal facilities. I cite the case of Commercial and Residential Property Development Co. v Secretary of State for the Environment and Kensington and Chelsea Royal Borough 1982. There can be little doubt from a legal point of view that use as a hotel has consistently been regarded as different from use as a hostel. Under the previous rules—that is, prior to 1987—planning permission was certainly required. It must follow that class C1 includes within its ambit a range of different uses of particular properties.

The practical problem is that since the introduction of class C1 a significant number of resorts throughout the country have been powerless to prevent what they regarded as wholly unsuitable conversions of hotel accommodation into hostels. This may occur for more than one reason. A landlord, particularly in recessionary times, may feel that he will be better off by converting his hotel or guest house into a hostel, and seeking DSS residents. At least, he may consider that his income will be guaranteed by the welfare state. Sometimes a hotel is obliged to close and is then bought by a charity or similar organisation for conversion into a hostel for people with a range of social difficulties.

The British Resorts Association has been at the forefront of raising this problem. I can do no better than quote from a recent letter written to me by Mrs. Linda Jones, the BRA's administrator: Whilst unemployment in many resorts is already at a high level, the use of tourist accommodation to house the homeless, especially the homeless from other areas, reduces the availability of good class tourist accommodation and downgrades the amenities of the Resort, thus leading to greater unemployment … this is a serious problem, as a continual raising of the numbers of unemployed in a resort area merely creates a downward spiral for a resort in that it discourages holiday makers thus making even more people redundant. I can only endorse those sentiments. The "downward spiral" of which Mrs. Jones speaks is already painfully evident in some resorts around our country. The BRA has kindly provided me with correspondence showing that a considerable number of resorts are worried about this problem, including Margate, Blackpool, Bridlington, Great Yarmouth, Newquay, Ilfracombe, Weston-super-Mare and Weymouth, to name but a few.

The town of Margate and Thanet district council have been particularly energetic in bringing to light the inadequacies of the use classes order. Last August, they produced an excellent report on the problem, called "B & B Alert".

I shall describe two recent cases in my constituency, and I can provide my hon. Friend with full particulars should he so wish. In one of the cases, a pleasant street with some successful hotels along its length is located in a "tourist accommodation area", as designated in the draft borough plan. By way of parenthesis, I should remark that the purpose of designating areas of Eastbourne in this way was to reduce the loss of financially viable tourist accommodation in the town. In a previous appeal, the Secretary of State also recognised that this street provides tourist accommodation which is well related to the seaside, recreation facilities and conference centres, and that such accommodation should be retained.

Two hotels in the street were found on investigation by the council to provide permanent accommodation. The majority of tenants in the properties were in receipt of state benefits. It was felt that absentee landlords provided inadequate management, and in one of the properties the owners had appointed one of the tenants as their "manager". The council received many complaints from local residents about the activities of the tenants in the two properties. Their activities included loud music and shouting, often at unsocial hours, anti-social behaviour including making threatening and insulting comments to residents and tourists, and a deterioration in the appearance of the properties. The council's officers and the local police became frequent visitors to these hostels. Local residents and businesses banded together to form an association to combat what they called the "deteriorating quality of life" in the street.

Naturally, council officers had to draw the relevant committee's attention to the provisions of class C1 and the failure to distinguish between hotels and hostels. In due course, enforcement notices were served on the owners of the properties, both of whom have appealed to the Secretary of State.

The other case I shall recite concerns a pleasant, small street just off the sea front. Many of the properties are small hotels and guest houses, pretty and well maintained, with owners who work hard to give a good service at a reasonable price. The dominant property in the street is a hotel which unfortunately had to close down. It remained empty for some time. It was then bought by the Carr Gomm Society, an apparently reputable and well-run charity. It intends to reopen it as a hostel. It is perhaps instructive to quote from the society's allocation policy: Applicants will be suffering loneliness and may have lost or never had their own homes. They may have suffered from psychiatric or addictive illness; from physical or mental handicap or from other personal problems; some may be ex-offenders. The local residents were horrified and complained both to the local council and to me. Council officers investigated the matter, and particularly the extent of care that would be provided for the residents. Apart from a resident support worker, it appeared that there would not be a significant element of care. The council concluded that the proposed hostel came within class C1 and that no planning permission was required. In other words, it was powerless to act. This is so even though the proposed use is clearly contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the draft borough plan.

I have met the local residents affected. They are neither narrow-minded nor selfish. This is not a question of NIMBYism. The aims and objectives of the charity involved are worthy and important, but that is far from being the point at issue here. I have already mentioned that the site concerned is the dominant site in this particular small road. It is bound to affect the character of this pleasant little community. There are other locations in the area where the hostel would be less obtrusive.

I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will have received many representations not only from the BRA, but from individual resorts around the country. Some of them may feel reticent about raising the matter too publicly, fearing some effect on their local tourist industry. Therefore, it is perhaps appropriate that I should raise the matter on behalf of Eastbourne, which I am pleased to say has not yet been affected to anything like the degree that other resorts have. The matter is undoubtedly one of wide concern.

We have had well over five years in which to monitor the effectiveness or otherwise of the use classes order. That is ample time to be able to get a fair assessment of whether class C1 is working, and I have to say that there is mounting evidence that it is not working. There can be no doubt that in reality there is a significant difference between a hotel and a hostel, and that can and should be recognised in planning law. A sub-division should be established of C1a and C1b.

Are there other ways in which to address the same problem? It is true that local authorities have powers to control houses in multiple occupation—HMOs—including the setting up of registration schemes under section 346 of the Housing Act 1985. Eastbourne borough council has operated an informatory and regulatory HMO registration scheme since 1988. The council also applies HMO management regulations where appropriate. However, neither of these legal devices is appropriate for true holiday accommodation. If they were applied to true hotels, they would irrevocably convert the land use from holiday accommodation to houses in multiple occupation. This is the very result which councils such as my own wish to avoid.

As a final fall-back position, it has been suggested by the authorities that this is really a question about the identity of residents, which cannot be a planning matter. However, I firmly believe that the problem of including hostels with guest houses and hotels directly relates to land use. The existing C1 class allows land use for holiday accommodation to become converted into land use for properties in multiple occupation. By definition, holiday guests are transient, having a permanent address elsewhere. Tenants of HMOs are permanent with no other home. I shall be very interested to hear the comments of my hon. Friend, who, I know, takes a close and informed interest in such matters. I hope very much that he will institute a full review into the working of the use classes order 1987, with a view to bringing such changes of use fully into the planning process.

2.59 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) has expressed his concerns and those of his constituents about the effects on the character of Eastbourne of the establishment of certain hostels and the increasing use of hotels by housing benefit claimants.

My hon. Friend clearly believes that those concerns can best be met through changes in the planning system. It may help if I make it clear that the purpose of the planning system is to regulate the use and development of land in the public interest. Many uses of land are interchangeable, because their impact on the local environment and amenity are broadly similar.

The use classes order groups together comparable uses and confers the freedom to change between them without planning permission. The order in general is designed to help relieve local planning authorities of the burden of having to determine a large number of unnecessary applications by excluding from the statutory definition of "development"—and hence from the need for planning control—changes of use within the same class.

The order is essentially an instrument of flexibility which enables the planning system to respond to changing patterns of demand for land uses. It helps to minimise the burden on property owners and planning authorities alike and is at the vanguard of deregulation of planning controls. It is, as my hon. Friend made clear, a device for ensuring that we can streamline planning.

Class C1 comprises use as a hotel, boarding or guest house, or as a hostel where no element of care is provided. Hostels include probation and bail hostels. The flexibility that enables hotels to become hostels without the need for planning applications is particularly beneficial to small hoteliers because it allows them to adapt more readily to changing market trends.

The introduction of the present order in 1987 followed extensive consultations about changes needed to reflect a different environment since the predecessor order of 1972. It is important to note, however, that the changes to what is now class C1 were minimal. Other than to define what was meant by "care", so as to distinguish between classes C1—hotels and hostels—and C2—residential institutions —the grouping remained the same as in 1972. Hotels and hostels have been within the same use class—and there has not been a requirement for planning permission in respect of a proposed change of use from a hotel to a hostel—for a quarter of a century.

Mr. Waterson

When I checked this very point with my borough council's chief planning officer this morning, he assured me that, before 1987, the borough council required a planning application to be made and adjudicated upon in respect of any proposed change of use from a hotel to a hostel and that he understood that that was also the practice of other authorities. What is more, if that were not the case, one wonders why it was necessary to change the rules to exclude unnecessary applications.

Mr. Baldry

As that point goes to the nub of my hon. Friend's concerns, let me deal with it. The use class orders generally were updated; it was not just the C1 class. Clearly, some use class orders were changed more than others. As regards the C1 order, what was done by way of clarification was to define what was meant by "care", which was clearly important. Otherwise, there was no change in the order. If any local authorities were requiring planning applications in respect of the conversion of a hotel to a hostel before 1987, on the face of it, that would have been ultra vires. Certainly, looking at the 1972 order and the present order, it is clear that they remain the same. Hotels and hostels were within the same use class and no change was brought about by the new order in 1987.

The use classes order is concerned only with considerations material to planning. It is the nature of the use of the land which is relevant. Land use is not about social, ethical or moral issues. The age, occupation and social background of residents are not material planning considerations. It would serve no useful purpose in land use terms to require a property owner to apply for planning permission in order to accommodate residents of a particular status. There could be no justification for differentiating between different sorts of people who find themselves living in hostels. To insist that hoteliers make a planning application before accommodating certain clients would place an undue burden on attempts to market rooms flexibly.

As I said earlier, it is the Government's view that hotel and hostel uses have essentially similar effects in land use terms. It is also worth bearing in mind that the provisions of the use classes order in their present form allow those premises that have changed to hostel accommodation to revert to use as a hotel without further consent when there are changes in demand.

The effects of the use classes order were the subject of a report commissioned by my Department from independent researchers, Wooton Jeffreys Consultants, which was published in 1991. The researchers found that, in general, planning authorities welcomed the clarification that the 1987 order brought. They also made a revealing comment about the C1 class, noting that in traditional resort towns the hotel trade has been affected by changing patterns in holidays, with a decline in visitor numbers for other than short stay trips. Where traditional locations are no longer popular holiday destinations, hoteliers will clearly want to consider and seek new markets. I appreciate the concerns of local residents about preserving the character of family holiday resorts. My hon. Friend has put that point extremely well.

In principle, applications for new hotels are the same as any other development proposals and are subject to the same development control procedures as any other planning application. It is, therefore, open to local planning authorities to consider whether to impose conditions regulating the development or use of any new hotel or hostel. But, in doing so, they must guard against placing unjustifiable burdens on the applicant.

The guidance issued by my Department makes it quite clear that, in order to be acceptable, conditions must be necessary, relevant to planning and the development in question, enforceable, precise and reasonable. The identity of the persons who will occupy premises is rarely a planning consideration. Conditions restricting occupancy to a particular person or people who meet certain criteria should therefore be used only when special planning considerations can be clearly demonstrated.

Occasionally, it may be acceptable to limit the use of land for a particular purpose to certain seasons of the year, but, in general, conditions of that sort will be acceptable only if they apply to premises or sites that are clearly unsuitable for permanent occupation.

Alternatively, it may be reasonable to impose a condition specifying that certain buildings may be used only as holiday accommodation. Again, that is likely to be acceptable only in exceptional cases, for example, where there is a need to reconcile the demands of the holiday market with policies to protect the countryside.

I turn to my hon. Friend's concerns about benefit claimants in bed-and-breakfast accommodation because that is part of the thrust of his concerns. The Government have made it clear for some time that local authorities should seek to minimise the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That is why, in our revised code of guidance to local authorities on homelessness legislation, my Department advises: It is essential that authorities should explore all alternatives to bed and breakfast hotels or other specialised bed and breakfast establishments, and use this type of accommodation only as a last resort". Local authorities have made some real progress in reducing their use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Latest available figures for England show a fall of 23 per cent. I am glad to say that, instead, authorities are making greater use of other forms of temporary accommodation —in particular, housing on lease or licence from the private sector. So I reassure my hon. Friend that we are keen that everything should be done to reduce to the absolute minimum the use by any local authority of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. It is an expensive and ineffective way of meeting the needs of the statutory homeless.

For housing benefit purposes, it makes no difference whether a customer lives in a hotel, hostel or any other form of rented accommodation. The important factor is the amount of rent that is paid and the personal and financial circumstances of the recipient. I am aware that some people are worried that housing benefit is meeting excessive rents for sub-standard accommodation.

I am aware that some seaside hoteliers and guest house owners are letting their accommodation out to recipients of benefit on a long-term basis and that there are worries that the anti-social behaviour of some occupants is damaging the tourist trade. My hon. Friend has expressed those anxieties today. I appreciate those concerns, but I am sure that my hon. Friend and others would agree that it would be wrong to force people to live in certain places or certain types of accommodation. To do so would restrict freedom of movement, which forms an essential component of the labour market.

However, we have a duty to ensure that the social security system is not exploited. So local authorities, which administer the housing benefit scheme, have powers to prevent abuse. Benefit may be refused if it is felt that a tenancy has been created with the express intention of taking advantage of the housing benefit scheme. Local authorities also have powers to restrict the level of rent on which benefit is calculated if people occupy accommodation that is either larger or more expensive than is required. Vulnerable groups such as the elderly or families with responsibility for dependent children are exempt from this restriction unless it is reasonable to expect them to move to suitable alternative accommodation.

Local authorities are, naturally, best placed to know their local housing market and to assess benefit levels, taking into account individual circumstances. We encourage local authorities to take a positive attitude and fully to exercise their judgment in the matters in which they have the most scope to do so, with the twin aim of avoiding excessive benefit spending, while ensuring that help is available to those people who have genuine difficulties in paying their rent.

The other group that may have caused anxiety to, if not my hon. Friend, other Members for resort towns, is occupants of bail and probation hostels. I can understand that local residents may be worried about the change of use of an hotel to an approved bail or probation hostel. The purpose of approved hostels is to provide an enhanced level of supervision to enable certain bailees and offenders to remain under supervision in the community.

Hostels are placed in ordinary communities so that residents can maintain their contacts within the community and with their families. Hostel residents are also encouraged to continue or seek employment, or to attend training courses or treatment facilities in the community. There are some 113 bail hostels and probation hostels in England and Wales.

Under recently issued standards for the supervision of offenders in the community, hostels are required to provide a "structured and supportive environment". This includes promoting a responsible and law-abiding lifestyle, including respect for others; encouraging and enabling residents to use facilities available in the local community and, in doing so, to develop their ability to become self-reliant; and establishing and maintaining good relations with neighbours and the community in general. Indeed, if someone on bail behaved in an anti-social way, that would almost certainly put him in breach of his bail conditions and he could be brought back before the court. Approved hostels provide a supportive and structured environment within which residents can be supervised effectively. If there are concerns about them, they are more management concerns than planning concerns.

We have undertaken to look at the use classes order again in the coming years. I assure my hon. Friend that his anxieties and those of other hon. Members who represent resort towns will be fully considered, although they will have to relate to planning matters in terms of the nature and use of land.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Three o'clock.