HC Deb 18 December 1995 vol 268 cc1323-8

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

10.2 pm

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of great importance to my constituents who live in Yiewsley and West Drayton—the unauthorised and non-conforming industrial activity taking place on a 22-acre site in the metropolitan green belt.

I wish to declare an outside interest in that I am president of the London Green Belt Council, a voluntary association of residents' associations around London. My position is honorary and unpaid.

The site to which I refer is known locally as The Lizzards. Access to it is via Tavistock road and Trout road, Yiewsley. The activity about which my constituents have complained is the reprocessing of waste materials and the crushing of concrete. I am advised on good authority that much of the waste material is being imported from other contractors by a company known as Towerway Ltd.

The waste apparently includes earth, blocks of concrete reinforced with steel and similar material which is thought to come from motorway construction works. My information is that Towerway Ltd. makes a charge for receiving this material and is engaged in its resale. I am advised that Towerway claims to occupy the land under licence from a company known as Guinea Enterprises Ltd., which is registered in the Isle of Man. The directors are Isle of Man residents and are not known to the local planning authority.

The use of The Lizzards for this industrial activity came to my attention in the spring. A number of my constituents living in Tavistock road became aware of an unusually large number of heavy lorries using their road. The lorries were loaded with soil and concrete and entering the site by means of a makeshift road, which had been bulldozed across open land and given a temporary tarmac surface to enable entry. People living in Trout road also reported increased heavy lorry traffic. They have complained to me about a misuse of green belt land and an intolerable increase in heavy traffic along a residential road.

I immediately raised the matter with officers of Hillingdon council planning department, the local planning authority, who confirmed that they had informed Towerway Ltd. that its activity was non-conforming. As a result, on 24 April this year, the company applied for retrospective planning permission. Although, on 4 July, Hillingdon council rejected the application, the company disregarded the planning control and continued its activities. As a result, during the long hot summer that followed, my constituents continued to suffer from the noise of an unending procession of heavy lorries thundering past their homes from as early as 6.30 am, with an accompanying spillage of soil and other material on the public highway.

My constituents also suffered the loss of the amenity constituted by the green belt land, which is part of the Colne Valley park and intended for the public's general enjoyment. I inspected the site several times during the summer months and was saddened to see how large piles of soil had formed a large bank adjoining the bridleway, trees had been crushed, and an amenity that has been enjoyed for many years by local people who like to walk their dogs and enjoy the open landscape had been spoilt.

In spite of local planning officers' efforts, that company continues an unauthorised and objectionable activity in defiance of our planning laws. May I tell the House about the traffic volume? On Friday 15 December, no fewer than 107 vehicles travelled up and down Tavistock road between 6.30 am and 5 pm. On Saturday, the traffic started at 6.40 am and continued until just after 3 pm. Today, the traffic started at 6.40 am and, by mid morning, 23 lorries had gone up and down the road. How are my constituents to sleep, given the noise from those heavy lorries? It is an intolerable level of traffic on a quiet, mainly residential street.

The reprocessing activity is unlicensed and does not conform to regulations made by the London Waste Regulation Authority in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which deal with transporting and recycling waste. I am advised that the authority has threatened prosecution. As a result of my interest in the matter, I received a letter from the planning and property consultants acting for Towerway Ltd. It claims that the company is engaged in a major restoration job by restoring the land to agricultural use without recourse to public funds and that residents should acknowledge that they live on historically commercial access roads and that lawful traffic and commercial activities share their right to be there.

From the inquiries that I have made, I can demonstrate that that is not a lawful activity and that Towerway Ltd. has no right to be there. The site in question was originally owned by the Henry Boyer trust. It was transferred to Guinea Enterprises Ltd. in the recent past but no transfer has been registered at the Land Registry. Before 1947, part of the site was filled or overfilled with a variety of types of refuse, including tyres, concrete and scrap metal. In 1947, the former Middlesex county council gave permission for gravel winning and excavation. There was also a requirement for the treatment of the filled land, not all of which may have been carried out.

In 1964, there was a consent by the Middlesex county council for the clearance of tip refuse, and that material has been extracted since then for road construction. I am advised that Towerway is not removing tipped refuse alone, but is engaged in reprocessing and tipping, for which planning permission is required. As I have mentioned, no such planning permission has been granted, so now we have an unauthorised activity on land that, until earlier this year, was valuable open space, acting as an important lung in the green belt.

Many of the activities of Towerway are, I am told, not new to the local planning authority, which has already had to cope with similar activity on green belt land at several sites, including Bungalow farm off the Bath road at Longford in the south of the borough. As a result of that case, there was a public inquiry and an appeal by the company was dismissed. Enforcement proceedings are now in progress. Hillingdon council is taking appropriate enforcement action in the case of Towerway's use of The Lizzards. However, that is a lengthy process and meanwhile the non-conforming use continues, to the detriment of local residents. I have suggested to my hon. Friend the Minister—this is one of my principal reasons for mentioning the matter in the House—that the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 are inadequate to solve the problem of non-conforming users who completely disregard the established planning controls. It is difficult for planning authorities to cope with well-informed operators who know how to play the system. If they are registered offshore, they can attempt to avoid control by simply changing their name when action is taken. They are what I can only describe as "chameleon companies".

I shall explain to the House the way in which those companies avoid control. When an enforcement notice is issued, there is a right of appeal, which takes 12 months or more to be heard. Meanwhile, the offending activity continues. The stop notice procedure was intended to be an effective emergency remedy in such circumstances, but is inadequate because a local planning officer cannot effectively enforce the notice on the operator, who usually keeps a low profile and is not easy to identify or to find on the site.

It is no use trying to enforce a notice against a lorry driver entering or leaving the site. The stop notice must be effective against the operator in person. Such people make it their business not to be available for that purpose. It can be difficult to demonstrate in a criminal court that they have acted in breach of a notice if they control activities off site.

If the operator is on site, how does the enforcement officer tackle him? He is armed with little more than his pen and his personality. He has no power of arrest. He would have to be accompanied by a police officer. As we all know, police time is valuable; an officer is not always easily available for that purpose.

At Bungalow farm, Longford, where a stop notice was served at 7 am, another lorry entered the site shortly afterwards. The driver was cautioned, but then he vanished and the unauthorised activity continued. If the driver could have been arrested by a police officer, it would have been a huge deterrent. He might have been subject to a fine of £20,000 in a magistrates court and an unlimited fine in the Crown court. However, the offence was not an arrestable offence.

I wonder, therefore, whether my hon. Friend the Minister will consider discussing with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary the possibility of making such persistent and flagrant disregard of a stop notice subject to a custodial sentence. Another possibility might be to give a local authority power to take physical steps to stop the breach, perhaps by confiscating equipment or preventing access to the site in question by installing structures or barriers to the site off the public highway.

Knowing my hon. Friend the Minister as I do, I hope that he will give his careful consideration to the difficulties that are being experienced by my constituents, and which I have described tonight. I hope that he will use all of his influence to support the local authority and, if he can, help to bring relief to my beleaguered constituents in Yiewsley and West Drayton.

10.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) for raising this particular difficulty. I understand from his description the difficulties experienced by his constituents who live anywhere near the sites. They are inevitably affected by the heavy lorry movements, the noise, dust and disturbance. It is particularly annoying for them when they believe that those activities are not within the law, as no planning permission was applied for.

My hon. Friend will know that I cannot comment on the merits of the allegedly unauthorised activities that are taking place on the sites, or on the planning enforcement action that the council is taking now or may take in the future. It is possible that the matters may be the subject of some form of appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learnt. We suspect that so-called cowboys have set out to ride roughshod over the planning control regime. In 1989, the planning enforcement regime was reviewed thoroughly. That review was quickly followed up by the Government, and the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 was enacted as a result.

Authorities have a versatile and effective tool kit for dealing with the whole range of unauthorised development and I encourage local authorities—particularly this one—to utilise that to the full. I suspect that the local authorities may be able to go a little further in certain areas.

One of the most important provisions in the 1991 Act is that enabling authorities to counter a particularly harmful breach of control. They may seek an enforcement injunction in the High Court or the county court. If the courts grant an injunction, it will be directed at named individuals, or at companies, who will be required to stop the activity involved in the alleged breach of control. An injunction can also be sought if an authority anticipates that a breach of control is about to take place. Anyone named in an injunction who does not observe its requirements will usually be in contempt of the court. Continuing contempt may result in a term of imprisonment.

To make it easier to obtain that type of injunction, a special procedure enables an authority to obtain an injunction against someone whose identity is unknown. That can assist authorities greatly if they are dealing with a fly-by-night operator who presents a false identity or who is adept at changing his or his company's name. I can remember a local authority resorting to long-range camera photography in order to nail certain individuals.

An authority may issue an enforcement notice and reinforce its effect with a stop notice. There is no right of appeal to the Secretary of State against a stop notice, so it can effectively prohibit an unauthorised activity almost immediately. The maximum summary penalty on conviction of not complying with the prohibition in the notice was increased from £2,000 to £20,000 by the 1991 Act.

We sometimes hear criticism that planning authorities are reluctant to use a stop notice because it may result in their having to pay financial compensation to the person whose activities are prohibited by the stop notice if that person succeeds in an accompanying enforcement appeal to the Secretary of State. In fact, compensation would not be payable if the enforcement appeal succeeded on the grounds that planning permission should be granted. If the appeal succeeds on one of the other legal grounds in section 174(2) of the 1990 Act, some compensation may be payable, depending on the particular circumstances.

I believe that planning authorities do not need to fear having to pay compensation if they draft their enforcement notices correctly in relation to planning law and the facts of the alleged breach. We know that enacting planning legislation is not enough. The Government's policy and procedural guidance to planning authorities also play a part. My Department's planning policy guidance note 18, entitled "Enforcing Planning Control", emphasises that the Government do not condone any wilful breach of planning control and that they encourage vigorous enforcement action to stop or remedy unacceptable unauthorised development.

Earlier this year, consultants appointed by my Department completed a review of the effectiveness of the enforcement amendments in the 1991 Act and a copy of their report is in the Library of the House. The consultants concluded:

This review of the use and effectiveness of the enforcement system indicates that the new and amended provisions introduced by the 1990/1991 Planning Acts are largely working well and that significant legislative change is not required". That is generally reassuring. In the first instance, perhaps my hon. Friend should look to his local authority to take some of the hints and suggestions that have been made and be a little more forward in attacking the problem.

Nevertheless, my hon. Friend has related such a tale of horror that I shall look again at the matter to see whether we can learn anything from it. We shall keep the enforcement procedure under close review. I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend and I wish him well in his bid to rid his constituents of the difficulties that he has related to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Ten o'clock.