HC Deb 12 July 2002 vol 388 cc1217-24

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

2.30 pm
Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue in the House. I also thank the Minister for responding on behalf of the Government. He will be aware that yesterday, I sent him a summary of my speech in order to ensure that party politics takes a back seat in our discussions of this important issue and to give him some time to consider his response.

In my constituency of Billericay and district, we are very concerned about the various threats to our green belt and green fields. One of the growing dangers is the illegal development of greenfield land, especially by the travelling community, which buys land and then, very quickly, often in only a few days, develops it without planning permission. The council has tried to combat the problem, but without success. I believe that local authorities are hampered by the law, and during the next 10 minutes or so, I should like to put forward proposals for the Government to consider as to how the law could be updated.

However, I should like first briefly to describe the problem. I shall start by making one thing very clear: my constituents are simply seeking fairness for all under the law, but it is only fair that all those who live in a community should abide by the same set of laws. No one is seeking to discriminate against a minority. Partly because of our historic links with the pilgrim fathers and the Mayflower, as a community we recognise more than most that the mark of a civilised society is the extent to which minority interests are respected.

For example, in Basildon district alone, there are more than 100 authorised sites for the travelling and gypsy communities, while some districts have none at all. Indeed, many of us believe that it was wrong that in 1994, the statutory duty on local authorities to provide authorised sites was removed. As a society, we should provide an adequate number of sites with proper amenities, for which the travellers should pay costs; otherwise, taxpayers would be encouraging people to pursue a nomadic way of life and the settled community would be discriminated against.

In short, we have long accepted this way of life. Residents have no problem with the law-abiding traveller and gypsy communities. However, for some reason that I cannot explain, there is an increasing number of cases in which travellers who are new to the area are buying land, speedily developing it without planning permission and subsequently not living in harmony with their neighbours. That is causing much concern and anger not only in the settled community, but among the more established gypsy communities.

A recent example at Sadlers farm roundabout in Bowers Gifford involved travellers buying the land and then, on a Friday, digging a 6 ft bank around the perimeter of the field before laying hardcore over the centre and bringing in caravans over the weekend. By the time the council reacted some three weeks later with enforcement and stop notices, it was far too late. Needless to say, the enforcement notice is now being held in abeyance because an appeal has been lodged by the travellers, while the court hearing regarding the stop notice has been adjourned over a technicality.

Consequently, we have now entered a lengthy planning and appeals process, which could take years. Meanwhile, the illegal development continues. Similar situations have occurred in Hovefields in Wickford and Oak road in Crays Hill. Typically, what happens is that the lives of neighbouring residents are made a misery. Many residents, have complained of the local area and ditches being swamped with refuse, rubbish and excrement, which has caused flooding; of intimidation to the point of people being fearful to leave their home, with crime generally on the increase; and of nearby narrow lanes being plagued by under-age youngsters driving recklessly, or by noisy lorries, often during the early hours of the morning.

As the Minister can well imagine, I have received many letters about the issue, as feelings are running high. If the House will forgive me, I shall quote from just a few of them, although the names have been withheld because of fear of intimidation.

A lady in Wickford said: Here in Wickford a well organised group of travellers has bought various areas of greenbelt, moved in with JCBs and totally decimated the entire areas covering them with tonnes of building, rubble". Another lady in Wickford added that the situation is already causing problems with flooding to the local area, congestion on what is an unmade road. There are no drainage facilities which raises environmental concerns. A resident of Crays Hill wrote that, as we walked through the Spinney in Oak Avenue, we came across two very unpleasant heaps on the path along with paper, flies etc. There was also about 50 empty beer cans and evidence of drug taking. Another resident of Bowers Gifford wrote: I would like to use the Human Rights Act to ensure my right to a secure and settled family life but fear that if I did, as soon as this action became public knowledge I might not have a home, family or even a life.

Many residents point to the local Labour-run council as the culprit, but I believe that the law needs updating. I have solicited views from the Government, Basildon district council, the police, various research and environmental bodies, the House of Commons Library, residents, gypsies and councillors—and at this point, I would like to pay particular thanks to Councillor David Dadds, Mark Pinner, Councillor Malcolm Buckley and Julie Stainton.

I do not believe that the council could have stopped the illegal development of Sadlers Farm roundabout in the early days as, by law, it had to take account of the personal circumstances of the travellers and ensure accurate drafting of notices for fear of the financial implications of adverse court rulings. A further factor that delays councils is the Human Rights Act 1998.

The Minister knows that I raised the issue with his Department by letter on the 24 April. In his response, after describing the enforcement powers available to councils, the Minister said that the enforcement powers will only deter unauthorised development if local planning authorities implement these powers in a determined and decisive fashion. In other words, it is up to the council. I have written again, asking the Minister to reconsider his position.

We may be making progress. The Government recently issued a press release, dated 5 July, entitled "A New Approach to Tackling Unauthorised Traveller Camps", which appears to accept that councils cannot deal with the issue alone. The initiative will apparently produce new guidance on managing unauthorised camping, and provide police with increased powers to move on unauthorised traveller encampments. [Interruption.]

However, it appears that the increased powers will apply only in cases of trespass. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? If so, the new guidelines will not help my constituency. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. There appears to be a problem with the sound system, which means that we have no recording for official purposes. I shall therefore suspend the sitting for five minutes.

2.44 pm

On resuming

Mr. Baron

I understand that guidelines will be issued in the autumn, and, with this time scale in mind, I would like to suggest three changes to the law. The first involves retrospective planning applications; the second, stop notices; and the third, injunctions. All are aimed at stopping illegal development early, as soon as it first occurs or is about to occur.

With regard to the first proposal, retrospective planning applications should be restricted where it could be shown that significant harm is about to be, or has been, caused to the greenfield site in question. The council would have discretion whether to act following guidance from the Secretary of State as to what constitutes "significant harm".

Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, planning permission is required for the carrying out of any development. However, as we know, a retrospective planning application can be made where development has already been carried out without permission. When a retrospective planning application has been received, any pending or proposed enforcement action is suspended until the application has proceeded through the planning system and/or the courts. In other words, serious and costly delays can occur during the appeals process, and in some cases it can take up to six years, or even longer, before the processes are exhausted. Meanwhile, the unauthorised development remains. In refusing retrospective planning applications, a strong message would be sent out that speedy unauthorised development of greenfield land would not be worthwhile and would not be tolerated. Enforcement action could be immediately carried out in the knowledge that retrospective planning could not be allowed as a ground for appeal.

There is little doubt that the current enforcement system is unduly complex and cumbersome, but the measure would prevent those who seek to deliberately evade or abuse the planning system from doing so. The term "significant harm", as opposed to just "harm", would be appropriate, to ensure that any such amendment complies with the Human Rights Act 1998 and that minor contraventions of planning law were not necessarily penalised by the council.

The second proposal would involve no costs or penalties being awarded against councils who issue a stop notice in relation to any development where planning permission has not been granted. Currently, in part due to the Human Rights Act, inspectors' enforcement decisions regarding unauthorised traveller sites are increasingly being decided against local authorities, with hefty costs or damages being awarded.

That danger considerably discourages councils from using stop notices, or at least delays the issuing of those notices while councils prepare lengthy paperwork, during which time much damage can be done to the greenfield in question. If that danger were removed by preventing costs from being awarded against councils, it would provide a big incentive towards allowing councils speedily to enforce their planning powers where necessary by issuing a stop notice. Again, councils would have final discretion in that.

The third proposal involves injunctions. A letter from my local council says: Injunctions, to have any effect, must be served on the named perpetrators and this is fraught with difficulties when dealing with unco-operative travellers of no fixed address. This, therefore, has the effect of making injunctive action ineffective in most cases. Councils should be made better aware by Government that they can issue injunctions against a person whose identity is unknown—in simple terms, an injunction can be served on the land. Councils would therefore be better aware that they can issue injunctions quickly and stop any unauthorised development in its tracks immediately, subject to the appeals process.

An additional problem is that, often, court sentences for contravening an injunction and for non-payment of fines are too lenient. Penalties available to the courts are limited and they do not act as a deterrent. That also needs to be put right by the Government.

In conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is a real problem in my constituency, and it is causing much distress and anger. Whereas section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 can deal with trespass, the existing law is essentially ineffective against determined and unco-operative people who buy land and then speedily and illegally develop it.

That problem is getting worse, and it could escalate significantly. Local residents cannot sell their properties or land because of the location of many of those illegal sites, and greenfield land is being sold at knockdown prices to that new wave of travelling communities.

Clarification is required as to whether the Government's latest initiative deals only with trespass. I am also aware that the planning Green Paper has announced that enforcement powers and procedures are being scrutinised. We shall hear more in the autumn.

In the lead-up to the announcements, I urge the Government to consider those three proposals, which aim to put an end to the generally perceived view that there is a two-tier planning system operating in this country. There may be technical issues to address, but these should not get in the way of what I believe are common-sense policies, which, if sufficient political will exists, would tackle the problems.

These proposals would give councils the power to act quickly against the illegal development of land owned by the perpetrators, whether traveller or not, and would therefore create fairness for all. I await the Government's response with interest.

2.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on securing this debate. It is an important matter and I sympathise with much of what he said in terms of the effect of illegal and semi-legal camps on his constituency. It is an issue that most of us have had to deal with on a constituency basis.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comment about this being essentially a minority pursuit among the travelling community in the context of more than 100 authorised sites within the Billericay, Basildon and surrounding district. I am grateful that this week's debate—I seem to have one a week, nowadays—is outside party politics and talk of conspiracy about changes. The hon. Gentleman's constituents and the issue deserve better than that.

There are essentially two issues here. The first is the breach of planning control that occurs through the use of land for development which does not have the benefit of planning permission. The second is the fact that the unlawful use is taking place on greenfield land that may also have metropolitan greenbelt status.

The hon. Gentleman said that councils were hampered by the law, and I will return to much of what he said in relation to the unauthorised encampments guidance that has just been issued for consultation. I am grateful for his comments and their context, because they underpin much of what the Department is trying to do. We start from a premise of fairness for all, rights for all and—clearly within that—responsibilities for all. Neither the settled community nor the travelling community has been afforded a status above the law. That is the balance that we are trying to get into the system. All should abide by the law. As the hon. Gentleman said, respect for minority interests is a measure of our civilisation.

Day-to-day policy on development control is the responsibility of local planning authorities. If there has been a breach of planning control in the district, Basildon council has the option of taking enforcement action to bring the unlawful use to an end and to require the offenders to apply formally for planning permission. The planning system provides for appeals to be made against enforcement notices, as well as against refusals of planning permissions. Appeals are considered on their merits and determined in accordance with the development plan for the area, unless material considerations dictate otherwise.

The merits of using greenfield land for development are a matter for the determination of the local planning authority in the first instance, and for the inspector or my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister when considering appeals. The Government are committed to maximising the re-use of previously developed land and empty properties and the conversion of non-residential buildings for new housing, in order both to promote regeneration and to minimise the amount of greenfield land being taken for development. We have more than met those targets in the past.

That means giving priority to re-using such land within urban areas, bringing empty homes back into use and converting existing buildings. That is preferable to the development of greenfield sites. In a planning context, that is the background against which we consider illegal developments and the illegal use of greenfield land. However, not all development can take place within urban areas and, where it has to be located elsewhere, we are looking to the local planning authorities to utilise the most sustainable option. Policies and guidance on greenfield and open land are the next step on from use of brownfield and urban centres.

The Government recognise that gypsies have a right to pursue their own lifestyle. We are committed to ensuring that the planning system treats members of that community as fairly as everyone else. Gypsies make up a tiny proportion of the population of this country, but their land use requirements must be met. That is what much of the new guidance will be about.

Planning policies relating to the provision of suitable locations for gypsy sites, whether provided by the local authority or privately, are set out in the then Department of the Environment circular 1/94 "Gypsy Sites and Planning". That advice is now eight years old but remains the legal framework in which planning and other matters are dealt with. The circular places gypsies on the same footing as others in relation to the planning system, while recognising their special accommodation needs, and the desire of many gypsies to buy their own sites to develop and manage. Gypsy sites constitute development, and therefore require planning permission.

The circular emphasises the importance of local authorities and gypsies working together to identify suitable sites, and encourages gypsies to consult local authorities before buying land on which they intend to camp and for which planning permission would be required. Effective liaison is essential if disputes are to be avoided. The lack of availability of alternative sites can be a consideration when appeals against enforcement notices are determined.

It is the responsibility of local planning authorities to judge how they frame their policies, and these of course are open to public scrutiny and comments at inquiry. Development plans must take account of local circumstances. For example, gypsy sites are not among the uses of land that are usually appropriate for greenbelt land, areas of special scientific interest and places of open land where development is severely restricted.

The onus is on the applicant to prove very special circumstances that overcome the harm by reason of inappropriateness. In gypsy cases, special circumstances often include health and educational needs, and those may be human rights considerations. I have participated in two or three debates on this subject, but I am still unclear about the allusions to human rights law. One case revolved around a technicality, with the judge going beyond his brief. We shall explore that further and get back to the hon. Gentleman. We also need to add to what the guidance says about unauthorised sites. We are dealing with three or four different strands of policy, of which the guidance will be one and planning is another.

A difficulty that we have nationally is that there has been little quantitative and sustainable research on the demand for the provision of sites. We are not minded—although this may change as a result of the research—to return to the pre-1994 position in which every local authority had to provide a site of some description.

We have organised a body of research, which we hope will report during the summer, to try to get not just a feel of how many sites there are, their nature and their general upkeep, but a wider picture of demand and the need for temporary or transitory provision. Building on that research, we have said in the guidance that local authorities and the police should devise strategies to deal with travellers in their areas. That will be through a mix of existing sites and provision for emergency or temporary sites, which can often overcome difficulties in some areas.

As a quid pro quo, if local councils devise such strategies, we will provide a stream of funding for those temporary or transitory sites. We have diverted some of the funds from our three-year gypsy site refurbishment grant for that purpose. As a further quid pro quo, the enforcement powers and the ability to move unauthorised encampments in those areas will be far stronger. It is about getting the balance back into the equation: recognising the need for sites and the responsibility to provide them while giving the police greater powers to move people on.

Mr. Baron

Do the enhanced powers apply to cases in which travellers own the land that they have illegally developed?

Mr. McNulty

I will get back to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong, but I understand that in the context of the guidance "unauthorised" means unauthorised in the context of the planning framework. Whether the person owns the land or not, if there is inappropriate land use or development that has not been authorised through planning permission, the ownership of the land is irrelevant.

In the first instance, it is for the local planning authority to determine planning applications against the new backdrop of the guidance. There are of course other elements of the legislative nexus, such as the Children Act 1989—if children are involved—and social services. All that is taken into account in the guidance that we have issued, and the balance, hopefully, has been restruck.

The fact that gypsies own their land does not mean that planning permission need not be applied for. It should be obtained before development takes place and before the land is occupied. I think—but I will write to the hon. Gentleman in more detail—that there cannot be a qualified position on the principle of retrospective planning. As the hon. Gentleman said, retrospective planning applications should be restricted where it can be shown that significant harm could be done to the land in question, but retrospective planning applications and subsequent provisions are dealt with in exactly the same planning framework. If an existing application came in for a greenfield development that would mean inappropriate use of that greenfield open site, it should not be allowed as a future application. Those are the rules that prevailed for previous applications. We cannot lock qualifications on to retrospective planning; either we have retrospective planning applications in principle or we do not.

The other important principle is established use, meaning that approval for an application for land that has been used for that purpose for 50 years is fairly automatic because it is determined under the older rather than the new framework. Anything from now on should be dealt with, albeit retrospectively, in the context of whatever the framework is at the time. I cannot envisage many cases in which action that would either cause significant harm or be counter to what the General Development Procedure Order and planning policy guidance currently say about greenfield and green-belt developments would be permitted simply because it was retrospective.

Mr. Baron

Will the Minister clarify his last statement? Increasingly, people buy land and then quickly develop it, knowing that they will subsequently put in a retrospective planning application. That has the effect of instigating the appeals process, and everything else—including enforcement action—is held in abeyance. If we restricted retrospective planning applications, such people—whoever they may he—would know that they could not act in that way. It would constitute a major deterrent.

Mr. McNulty

With respect, that could be described as tackling things the wrong way round. The hon. Gentleman probably wanted me to clarify the relationship between the planning process—whether retrospective or otherwise—enforcement notices, and what starts and what stops, what is suspended and what is not suspended. We are trying to speed up the enforcement process and to make it more flexible: that is part of our response to consultations on the planning Green Paper. I will get back in touch with the hon. Gentleman on that. However, I do not think that shackling or restricting powers at that end—I mean retrospective planning applications—is necessarily the right way in which to deal with the relationship between planning application and enforcement or stop notices and difficulties.

We want to streamline the system. I am not sure why, but stop notices are used less and less and injunctions more and more. I do not know whether that is because they are a clumsy weapon, or simply because they are no longer appropriate. Happily, I am not a lawyer. I do not know the ins and outs of it, but I should not think it appropriate to lose the notion, for public authorities or others, of costs to prevent malicious or capricious use of the law.

There may be some other way to do it. I will certainly investigate the notion of serving the injunction on the land rather than the title owner; I had not heard of it before and I had the great pleasure, perverse or otherwise, to be on a planning committee for 11 years. I will have a look at that and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

We need to get to a position where everyone who lives in Crays Hill, Wickford and Billericay lives in peace without fear of molestation or antisocial behaviour, whether from the traveller community or the settled community.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Three o'clock.