HC Deb 08 December 2003 vol 415 cc858-75

'After section 57 of the principal Act (planning permission required for development) there is inserted the following section—

"57A Planning permission for subdivision of agricultural holdings for purposes of sale

(1) Planning permission is required for—

  1. (a) the subdivision of an agricultural holding for the purpose of sale; and
  2. (b) the sale of an agricultural holding which has been subdivided since the appointed date other than for the purpose of sale.

(2) In this section—

  1. (a) 'subdivision' means land divided into one or more units of less than one hectare, and 'subdivided' shall be interpreted accordingly;
  2. (b) 'agricultural holding' has the same meaning as in the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986; and
  3. (c) 'the appointed date' means 1st July 1993.".'.—[Mr. Andrew Turner.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Andrew Turner

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 18—Failure to comply with notice to ensure proper maintenance of Green Belt land

After section 219 (Execution and cost of works required by a 215 notice) of the principal Act there is inserted the following section—

"Failure to comply with notice to ensure proper maintenance of Green Belt land

(1) This section applies when a notice has been served under section 215 in respect of land which is designated as Green Belt land.

(2) If, within the period specified in a notice under section 215 in accordance with subsection (2) of that section, or within such extended period as the local planning authority who served the notice may allow, any steps required by the notice to be taken have not been taken, the local authority may acquire the land compulsorily.

(3) Land which is compulsorily purchased under this section shall be made available for community use which is consistent with its Green Belt status.

(4) In this section "Green Belt land" shall have the same meaning as in the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938.".'.

Mr. Turner

Members who attended the proceedings of the Committee will be familiar with my argument on this new clause, so I will not detain the House indefinitely on the subject. I want to start, however, by quoting what the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), said at the end of the debate on what was then new clause 2 in Standing Committee A. I am glad to see her in her place, albeit with a cold, on which I sympathise with her. She undertook in Committee to write to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) on this clause but not more rapidly than on the subject of car boot sales, and I understand that she has written to him on the subject of car boot sales. She went on to say: Hon. Members must recognise that to deal with the problem"— the problem with which my new clause seeks to deal—

we need a solution that will work. Many of the solutions that have been offered, albeit in good faith, could lead to other problems or have difficulties attached".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 16 October 2003; c. 159.] She accepted that at the solution was provided in good faith, and I accept that it may lead to other problems, but that does not make it any less necessary that a solution be found to the problem of the division of agricultural land. As I said in Committee, that problem has arisen in my constituency and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), and the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), as well as in many others.

Agricultural land is a valuable asset, especially when it ceases to be agricultural. Many people find many ways of using agricultural land by avoiding the planning regulations and, in many cases, the planning process. Although ways have been found to address that, they have not been effective. Indeed, they have been slow and ponderous and have not given confidence to local people that the problem in their backyard or adjoining field—or, in my constituency, at a number of sites that have been widely advertised—will be remedied. I look forward to a remedy that will work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has previously brought the problem to the attention of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) has tabled a new clause that relates to greenfield land in particular. However, the mischief to which I refer takes place not only on greenfield land and areas of outstanding natural beauty, but in other parts of the country. One particular example in my constituency is Alverstone, where 10 acres of the east Yar flood plain have been split into 27 plots, ranging in size from 0.15 acres to 0.73 acres, and advertised on the internet by a firm called Gladwish Land Sales. The site is important for nature conservation and within an area of outstanding natural beauty. It borders what the Environment Agency defines as a main river—Scotchells brook—and Alverstone Mead, a local nature reserve. It is a natural relict fen wetland area with peat-based soil, expanding reed beds and typical fauna, including water voles. One caravan has already been sited on a plot, without planning permission, and within 1 m of the brook bank, despite the lack of sewage disposal points, mains water supply or rubbish disposal. The public water supply intake is situated in the River Yar about 200 m away. That is a brief picture of one area in which the problem has arisen, but it is not the only area even in my constituency.

In Committee, I said that Gladwish Land Sales advertised a wide range of sites around the country. People are persuaded to buy them, perhaps because they think that they will obtain some development value in the long term or because they want to situate a caravan there, perhaps to use for holidays. The problem is that planning applications seldom precede such subdivision of agricultural land. A summary of land available, which was taken off the internet in May 2001—I have no reason to believe that any less a quantity of land is available today—describes the availability of half a dozen plots in Ashmansworthy in Devon; two in Ashwater; one in Barnhurst, near Bexleyheath, which has been sold; 14 in Bellingdon; two in Bethersden in Kent; and several others in Lamberton wood near Bethersden. I could continue through the alphabet.

We have heard about the methods used to address this problem, but they are not working. The Minister made it clear that the amendment that I had tabled would not deal with the problem satisfactorily, but she did not table an amendment that would. I hope that she will give us some comfort on that point tonight, because the practice is spoiling rural areas. Agricultural land is being abused for financial gain. I have no objection to financial gain, but in this case it is being achieved by avoiding the relevant regulations.

I first heard of the practice when Barry Abraham, who is a councillor in my constituency, was quoted in the County Press as saying: I don't know if there is anything we can do through the LGA about this practice of people buying land on its 'hope value'. Despite references to the Local Government Association, no satisfactory conclusion has been reached for dealing with that mischief.

The National Farmers Union also agrees that the problem should be addressed. It wrote to me when the Bill was in Committee to say: We have seen with interest your new Clause 2▀¬The problems arising from the legal—but in our view objectionable—business of subdividing and selling plots of agricultural land, often to purchasers who perceive almost certainly incorrectly that their land will increase dramatically in value, have been around for a number of years. The first occasion on which I was aware of the problem being identified was back in 1992 when the proprietors of Gladwish were named in this Chamber as the perpetrators of this mischief. Here we are, 11 years later, and still no solution has been found.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will my hon. Friend clarify exactly what the mischief is that can be controlled by the planning process? It is not the mere process of subdividing the land, because people have the freedom to do what they wish with their land. Surely the mischief is that when the plots are subdivided, fences, walls, gates, roadways, caravans and other paraphernalia are necessary. Before the subdivision, the plot is a clear grass field, but afterwards it is a complete mess.

Mr. Turner

My hon. Friend is right. The mischief of subdivision, if we define it as development, could of course be dealt with under the planning Acts, but the mischief of the physical manifestation of subdivision amounts to development so it should already be covered by a requirement for planning permission. Obtrusive divisions such as the erection of fences, the positioning of caravans—even if they are occupied for only 28 days a year or less they are on the site for the whole year—the erection of patios or the planting of gardens can all transform a hitherto rural area into one that it would be generous to describe as suburban.

The problem does not manifest itself only in the physical division of land but in the division of ownership. Maintenance of agricultural value and maintenance of landscape are much more difficult to enforce, even in an area of outstanding natural beauty, where ownership is divided into penny packets, so that is another reason to deal with that mischief—[Interruption.] see that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is nodding.

No one has yet proposed a perfect solution, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that the issue needs to be taken seriously and dealt with urgently. In Committee, I received certain responses that indicated the difficulty of the issue so I have tabled the new clause so that, if possible, a solution might be found—I accept that it may be difficult—that is satisfactory and can be incorporated in the Bill before it leaves the other place.

I commend the new clause to the House.

8.30 pm
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con)

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I do not know whether it is relevant, but I declare an interest in that my wife has been engaged in successful litigation over a right of way on a piece of land that was originally sold by Gladwish Land Sales—in my view, in a deceptive way.

As my hon. Friend said, the matter is extremely complex. My new clause was tabled as a probing clause and I acknowledge the Minister's problem in coming up with a solution. In my judgment, there is no easy solution.My hon. Friend set out the problem clearly. It is a scam—no less, no more. Large, attractive pieces of land are bought at prices that verge on the agricultural rate. The fields are marked out with pegs and subdivided into small plots in a way that suggests to the gullible and unsuspecting that they can be developed. It has to be acknowledged that the people selling the land do not actually say, "You will get planning permission and get through the development barriers"; they say, "You may get planning permission". As the House knows, many political issues turn on the word "may". Like my hon. Friend and other colleagues in the Chamber, I have constituents who have found themselves subjected to such a scam.

Matthew Green

The hon. Gentleman is being generous to some of the companies that sell such plots. For a time, at least one such company suggested on its website that it was unethical for prospective purchasers to approach the local planning department to find out about the development potential of the land before completing their purchase. I understand that that statement has been removed, but it shows the lengths to which some companies will go.

Richard Ottaway

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The whole history of such cases shows us how close to the wind those people operate. We only need to consider the sums of money involved.

When I took the hon. Gentleman's admirable intervention, I was about to discuss a piece of land called Kenley pastures, which is next to Kenley house, a grade 2 listed building. There are not many such places inside the Greater London boundaries. The land is outstandingly attractive and the Greater London Authority has confirmed that it is not only in the green belt, but in a nature conservation site, so that gives some indication of its quality.

The 37-acre site was used by the local community for recreational purposes. Local families rented plots where they kept horses or ponies. The land was a centre for equestrian activity. It was sold for just over £250,000, which was just above the agricultural rate. It was split into a number of small plots of about a quarter of an acre and marketed at £20,000 to £22,000 an acre. To save hon. Members the task of working it out, if all the land were sold at that rate it would raise £3 million—purchased for £250,000, sold for £3 million. Of course, unsuspecting people are funding that scam.

It is said that a fool and his money are easily parted, and of course it is incumbent on anyone purchasing a piece of land to take legal advice. However, I understand that the companies tell people, "Don't worry, we will even pay your solicitors' fees for you. Better still, we will provide you with legal advice—you don't need to commission your own." Extraordinarily, people fall for that.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

My hon. Friend has great knowledge of the company in question. Does he know of anyone who has tried to complain to the local trading standards office about misleading information given out in relation to the sales?

Richard Ottaway

My hon. Friend pre-empts me. Inquiries have been made to the trading standards office, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Financial Services Authority. I shall deal with their replies shortly.

It is clear that planning permission will not be given and that there will be no development of the land. People find out the hard way that they have been ripped off. In consequence, they abandon the land and what was well-maintained recreational land falls into disuse. That is the problem, and the thrust of my new clause is that in such circumstances the local authority should have power to order that the land be maintained.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asks whether the trading standards authorities have been involved, or whether they have any powers or controls in this respect. The admirable Kenley greenbelt action group raised the matter with Croydon council, whose reply was that the matter is not covered by any legislation that Trading Standards enforces and claims about the sale of land is specifically exempt from the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. The council tried very hard—I take my hat off to it—to take up the case with the managing director of the company, who said that no one can definitively say whether planning permission for the land will ever be granted. That is an example of the way in which such people sail close to the wind: the implication is there, but it is not specifically stated that planning permission can be granted. The trading standards office said, regretfully, that it could not intervene, but suggested that we try the Advertising Standards Authority.

My diligent constituents in the action group took the matter up with the ASA. The advertisement in question is on the internet. The ASA replied: After careful consideration, the Advertising Standards Authority has defined online advertising that is subject to the British Code of Advertising …and decided that the Code should apply to online advertisements…advertisements in commercial e-mails and sales promotions but not to organisations' claims on their own websites. The ASA has decided that a website constitutes "passive advertising". People have to log on to the website and go to the advertisement; the advertisement is not being projected outwards. Although the internet allows people to communicate, they do so in a way that is not relevant as far as the ASA is concerned.

My ever resourceful constituents decided to take the matter up with the Financial Services Authority.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Before he moves on, will my hon. Friend provide some clarification? Is he actually saying that one can put any information one likes on one's own website and it is not subject to any form of control on misdescription from any authority?

Richard Ottaway

I would hate to make a definitive statement, but it seems that any information contained on a website in such a manner is not subject to the authority of the ASA as enshrined in the relevant legislation.

Reference was made to the Financial Services Authority to establish whether it had control over an investment in land. The FSA replied that investment in land was not within its jurisdiction and that it could not help either.

It seems that the activity is almost completely unregulated, with very little protection for the consumer. I give credit to the Government for the fact that the Government office for London issued an article 4 notice, which prohibits the fencing of the land in the way that was happening, so all the pegs and so on had to be removed. That was much appreciated.

I looked at the land the other day. It is beginning to get overgrown with weeds and ragwort. It is falling into disuse and people are being ripped off. As I said to the Minister at the outset, it is hard to legislate for circumstances in which people do not look after their own interests and do not recognise the doctrine of caveat emptor. When the hon. Lady replies to the debate, I shall be interested to hear what the Government's thinking is and whether she can see a way out of the mess.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

I am glad to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on an important and increasingly worrying planning issue. Both their new clauses would represent a considerable improvement on present planning legislation, and if either of them wishes to press his new clause to a Division, I shall be pleased to support him.

The new clauses do not go far enough. My hon. Friends mentioned cases in their constituencies. However, the process to which they referred has been carried far further in my constituency in the locality known as Deer's Leap in the parish of Hever near Edenbridge. I gave a full account of what had happened at Deer's Leap in the Adjournment debate that I held on 5 June. That situation has exposed in a blatantly clear way the inadequacy of both the judicial protection and the planning legislation protection against those engaged in a deliberate, gross, large-scale abuse of development control.

What happened at Deer's Leap was the division of green belt land into sub-plots. An application was made to the Secretary of State for article 4 directions. They were obtained but proved to be totally useless. A few days after the conclusion of the final land plot sale, what took place was nothing short of an invasion —an invasion of lorries carrying hardcore, fencing and then mobile homes on to the sub-plots.

The inadequacy of the courts was rapidly exposed. Although Sevenoaks district council went for an injunction, that takes a little time, and the legal system works in such a way that if an injunction is obtained—and one was successfully obtained by Sevenoaks district council—it does not require the land to be returned to the state in which it was before the abuse of development control took place. It merely stops the development at the date on which the injunction is issued. That creates a perverse incentive for those minded to carry out such gross abuses of development control to maximise the development, for which there is no planning permission whatever, until such time as the injunction is obtained.

Following that, the acute weaknesses of the existing planning system were exposed. As those in occupation put in a retrospective planning application —which, of course, was turned down—the local authority must now deal with the planning appeal. An enforcement notice was issued and appealed against, and the local authority is still waiting for an inquiry into the enforcement and planning appeals. We are nine months on from when the invasion took place and the local authority has already had to spend substantial sums of council tax payers' money to deal with the situation that has been created. As I said in the House on 5 June, if there is such a situation and companies, partnerships or individuals knowingly connive in, are associated with or give effect to major breaches of development control",—[Official Report, 5 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 380.] the only proper recourse and deterrent will be the criminal law.

8.45 pm

I have raised the matter with the Under-Secretary and was grateful for her latest letter to me dated 21 November. It was a pity that representatives of Sevenoaks district council were not invited to the meeting that took place in her Department on 31 October because their presence would have been valuable. I am glad that she has told me that she remains open-minded about the possibility of applying the criminal law in such cases. That is the only alternative left to deal with land speculation companies such as Parker Fields and others that follow in their wake by trying to obtain development rights by force.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will decide that applying the criminal law is necessary. Her letter said that we should focus on prevention rather than the penalties that might be applied. I, too, wish to focus on prevention, so I put it to her that the really worthwhile prevention would be the availability and application of criminal sanctions against such land speculation companies and those who set out blatantly to bust the planning control system. Such people are engaged in nothing short of robbery because achieving development rights by force is robbery and, like all forms of robbery, it must be met with a criminal sanction.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I shall detain the House only briefly. I add my support to new clause 7, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I also listened with interest when my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) spoke to new clause 18, which he tabled.

The problem is relatively new but very great. It has not been experienced in my constituency, where the metropolis meets the countryside—it is basically Suburbia—but it has affected Hertsmere, the constituency next door. The whole purpose of having unspoilt land is for it to remain unspoilt, and it should not remain unspoilt only for the enjoyment of those who live near it because townies as well as countrysiders should be able to access it. If there are deliberate attempts to visually ruin such land, I believe that we have the right to pass a measure to deal with that problem. I enter the caveat that new clause 7 refers to agricultural land, but the problem can apply to land in the countryside that is not necessarily agricultural.

I emphasise a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South. Seventeen years ago, the Select Committee on the Environment held an inquiry into the metropolitan green belt. At that time, the average cost of an acre of land for agricultural use was about £2,500. I apologise, but I cannot metrically adjust the figure at my age, so I hope that the House will make allowances.

If that land was subject to building or development permission, the price of £2,500 increased to about £250,000 an acre. Today, 17 years later, my guestimate is that on average the agricultural value of the land has decreased from £2,500 to £1,500. However, if that land is the subject of development permission, the value will probably have risen to £5 million an acre. The temptation for developers to take whatever action they can—it is usually long term—to change the land from agricultural to development is great.

Although this is not related directly to the new clause, one dodge in my constituency was to get a farm holding changed into a pig farm. That did not need any planning application because the change was from agricultural to agricultural. Unfortunately, it was on the windward side of part of my constituency so it was not long before many of my constituents complained about the smell. At the appropriate moment, a developer came in to try to get planning permission. Public opinion was evenly divided. I am told that, on the narrowest of cases, the Secretary of State, or the inspector appointed by him, decided to grant planning permission for a limited residential development. That had not been completed before the developer tried to enlarge his estate, but that was put paid to by the planning inspector turning down the subsequent application.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said in an eloquent intervention, that sort of thing is a gross violation of the development control system. As, by and large, that system is subject not to criminal law but to civil law, I think that there are already exceptional cases where such violations should be made a criminal offence.

I have read carefully the planning powers that are available to try to deal with these matters, either for the Secretary of State or the local planning authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South referred to an article 4 direction. That is not sufficient because it is limited and can be applied only in certain narrowly defined situations. There is a possible alternative course that I think I mentioned to the Minister in Committee: to use powers that local planning authorities have in certain circumstances to require an owner of land to tidy it up if it has fallen into gross disrepair or become an unsightly plot. However, I believe that that is insufficient. Under an article 4 direction, fences can be put up to define the imagined or hoped for plots, but not in every case. A site is made unsightly not only by the possibility of caravans, for example, coming on to it, but also by the ability of the potential owner to dig up the turf and put a few bricks on to the land, if not built bricks, and thoroughly despoil the area.

Even as a person who likes to think that we all fight for individual rights of freedom, I like to think that this is a case where the Government rightly should intervene to change the law to ensure that the practices that we have been talking about do not spread as they have in the recent past.

Matthew Green

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has done the House a service once again by tabling the new clause, but I suspect that the Minister will rightly say again that it is not the approach that will work. We are dealing with what is clearly a severe problem in many parts of the country. Indeed, 14 counties have had the problem. and it is spreading.

There are essentially three different problems and that is why this approach probably will not work. First, there is the problem that has been touched on of how these pieces of land are sold. That might be a matter for trading standards legislation, but it is not really a planning issue. Then there are two areas that are potentially planning issues. One is the physical subdivision of land—the putting up of fences —and the other is the degradation of the land within the fences. In a sense, they are two slightly different problems and probably cannot be dealt with in the same piece of legislation.

One problem is that all the routes open to local authorities leave the authority bearing some considerable cost, which in turn is borne by the local council tax payer. Fences can be compulsorily removed using an article 4 direction, but then the local authority has to pay compensation to the people affected, costing the local tax payer a considerable amount. There is the possibility of using a discontinuance order by virtue of section 102 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, but again there is a liability to pay compensation to the people concerned. Therefore, there is no easy way of getting the fences removed without it costing the council a considerable amount of money.

Degradation of the land is in many ways an even more serious problem. The council can issue an untidy land notice under section 215 of the 1990 Act, but that takes a considerable time, involves going to the magistrates court, places quite a cost burden on the local authority and is by no means a quick procedure. In some instances, particularly if the land involved was agricultural, change of land use enforcement notices can be used. Again, that is a slow procedure that involves considerable officer time and cost to the local authority. The only other option is compulsorily to purchase the land, for which there is a provision under section 226 of the 1990 Act if it is in the interests of proper planning in the area. Clearly, compulsory purchase will cost the local taxpayer considerable money. All those costs are forced on the local taxpayer by the profiteering of a handful of companies.

The solution of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is probably not the sensible way forward. The way to hurt the companies involved is by imposing a financial rather than a criminal sanction, although a financial penalty can be imposed in criminal cases. Where local authorities are being made to bear the costs of any of these methods we need some way to recover the costs from the people who have made the money out of the site, so reducing the attractiveness of taking such an approach.

One of the easiest routes open to the Minister would be to remove the right to compensation under the article 4 direction. That might reduce some of the costs, but it would not give councils the means to pursue the companies involved for financial recompense for the costs involved.

The hon. Gentleman has once again done the House a service in tabling the new clause, as has the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) in tabling new clause 18, but this is not a practical way of dealing with the matter. However, it has been forced up the agenda and I hope that the Minister will say that she will continue to look for ways to deal with it. I suspect that the removal of the compensation part of the article 4 direction will be the most immediate route to take.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has, not for the first time during proceedings on this Bill, done the House a service by raising the matter under discussion. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) has also done the House a service by drawing attention to problems in his constituency and to the possible route of serving a section 215 notice under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to ensure proper maintenance of green belt land.

9 pm

As my right hon Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) said, the real problem is that the planning system cannot react sufficiently quickly. One therefore has to consider solutions allowing local authorities to take quicker action to stop unauthorised development dead in its tracks and to require land to be reinstated. Not only the hon. Members who have spoken tonight, but other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who has made some proposals about this matter, and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), have experienced similar problems, and we must find a solution. If the Minister had any doubt that the problem that we are considering is serious, it has surely been well and truly drummed home tonight that action needs to be taken.

I can propose number of solutions. Following the excellent debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling on 5 June, I raised the same matter in Westminster Hall having received information from my cousin, Antony Clifton Brown, who sent me copies of his correspondence with the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) about the activities of Gladwish Land Sales in the parishes of Stisted and Greenstead Green in Essex. Eventually, as in the case raised by my right hon. Friend, the council issued an article 4 direction and obtained confirmation from the Secretary of State.

That is one method that the Minister could profitably consider, if she were listening to me. As I suggested in Committee, however, the presumption about an article 4 direction needs to be reversed. Currently, such a direction has to be confirmed by the Secretary of State once it has been issued by the local planning authority. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said in his debate that it had taken his local authority six months to obtain the Secretary of State's confirmation. If the presumption were reversed, so that the direction took effect immediately after the local planning authority had issued it, whether or not it would remain in force, but then had to be confirmed by the Secretary of State, the situation would be considerably altered.

Of course, compensation would be payable in such circumstances if the Secretary of State subsequently ruled that the direction had been applied unreasonably. In the cases raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling and other hon. Friends, however, the authorities would have issued directions in reasonable circumstances. The Secretary of State could, if necessary, take several months to confirm the directions, but the activities would have been stopped. That is one useful method that we could consider.

There is also a second method that we could consider. There is a requirement on change of use involving planning permission when agricultural land is converted into gardens or amenity land. If former agricultural land has been converted into quasi-suburban, derelict or discontinued land, or land of whatever classification is given after it has been subdivided, I can see no reason why planning permission should not have to be sought. A fairly simple change could he made in planning law in that regard. If an applicant applies for retrospective planning permission that is not granted, as would happen in the cases that I have mentioned, and also fails at appeal, the council could have a right to ensure that enforcement action begins immediately. Currently, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling has made clear, developers can string a local planning authority along in respect of such difficult developments for months, if not years. Their appeal against the retrospective planning application has to be followed by their appeal against the enforcement notice. Those hearings each take several months, by the end of which a year or so could have passed. There is no reason why a small change in the law could not be made to ensure that if a retrospective planning application is refused on appeal, an enforcement action can start immediately.

The problem is how to get the land reinstated. If the action is clearly in contravention of planning controls, a mechanism can be found to stop it immediately. Stop notices issued under section 188 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 might be useful, but require compensation. The mechanism adduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South—the section 215 notice—is fine, but it requires an appeal to a magistrate. That takes time, and even if the magistrate finds in favour of the local authority, the applicant receives only a level 3 fine. I have not had time to look up what that is—I shall probably be told that it is £3,000, which may be correct. That is inadequate, given that Gladwish Land Sales and others are making profits running into millions from the subdivision of fields.

I have often suggested to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling that it may become necessary to consider imposing criminal sanctions in certain exceptional cases. I say that with a heavy heart, because I am one of those who believe that criminal sanctions should be applied only in the most serious cases. There would have to be proper due process beforehand, because the threat of an indictable offence is a very serious one. An associated problem is that where criminal sanctions are involved, the burden of proof is increased to that of beyond reasonable doubt. It is not an entirely straightforward matter.

As the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) says. planning authorities can compulsorily acquire such land under a section 226 notice if it is in the interests of proper planning in their area. However, the problem is that the value of the compulsory purchase will be equivalent to the value of the land when the subdivision took place, so the local authority would have to pay the enhanced value, which it would find unacceptable.

Sir John Stanley

My hon. Friend refers to the increase in the burden of proof where criminal law is applied. Does he agree, however, that a gross use of development control is one of the most misuse easily demonstrable cases to prove in court? I have photographs of Deer's Leap as it was—a green belt meadow—and as it is today, covered with hardcore, fencing and mobile homes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is as lucid as always. His comments clearly demonstrate to the Minister the seriousness of such cases.

The only other mechanism that I have come across for stopping this procedure —we should explore all the mechanisms, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them all—is to issue an injunction under planning law against a person or persons unknown by posting a notice on the land. My local planning authority has done that. We have to deal with two problems—first, stopping the unauthorised development from getting worse; and secondly, reinstating the land to something akin to its former rural agricultural state.

In dealing with this problem, albeit only tangentially, the appropriate Department must examine the issue of how land sales are promoted on people's websites, although I accept that that might not involve the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. There seems to be a suggestion that the advertising code does not apply in such circumstances. I have here a letter—procured by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South—from one Beverley Gibbs, a complaints handler at the Advertising Standards Authority, dated 28 August 2003. She states quite clearly: The code does not apply to organisations' claims on their own website. I intervened earlier on my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South to suggest that anyone can put anything on their website, and that seems to be almost a fact. If that is the case, the Government need to address that large legal lacuna.

I hope that one or two of the methods that I have suggested to the Minister will find favour. This is a serious matter, and I hope that she will be able to give the House some comfort tonight. This issue will not go away, and it will affect more and more Members. If the Minister does nothing about it, we shall find ourselves having more debates of this kind, so I appeal to her to find a solution to the problem.

Yvette Cooper

As many hon. Members have pointed out, we have discussed these issues extensively in Committee. They have also been raised in Adjournment debates, in correspondence and in meetings between Ministers, hon. Members on both sides of the House, officials and local authorities. The Department is therefore giving them considerable thought, and I would like to set out for the House the point that we have reached in that regard.

I raised concerns on new clause 7 in Committee because the planning system is intended to decide what land should be used for and has nothing to do with the sale of land. Planning permission is not required for the subdivision of land for genuine agricultural reasons, and there is no problem with someone selling off a plot of land if it will remain in use as agricultural land. An issue involving the planning system will arise if the land is to be put to materially different use, in which case planning permission would be required.

Hon. Members have put forward evidence that the subdivision of agricultural land can be unsightly and can lead to even more harmful longer-term effects. For example, if a developer buys a plot of land and planning permission is not granted for the use that he had in mind, there is a danger that the plot could fall into disrepair or neglect. Other problems can arise when a subdivision of land becomes the trigger for a series of unauthorised developments. That could involve something as simple as unsightly fencing pegs or posts being put up, or something far more substantial involving significant intensive development over a short period of time.

Permitted development rights enable individual plots to be marked off by fencing pegs or posts without the need for planning permission. Local authorities can remove these rights by means of an article 4 direction, and the guidance sets out the circumstances in which such directions can be used. Many of the other examples to which hon. Members have referred involved cases in which permitted development rights would not apply because there was clearly unauthorised development and planning permission would be required.

Sir John Stanley

Would the hon. Lady agree, however, that even when the Deputy Prime Minister issues an article 4 direction—as happened in relation to Deer's Leap—if the land speculation company, possibly acting in conjunction with those about to carry out the development, chooses to ignore the direction, that direction is effectively torn up?

Yvette Cooper

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I cannot comment on individual cases, particularly those that are going through the planning system at the moment. However, I recognise that while there are cases in which article 4 directions can be appropriate and effective, and it is simply a question of introducing them in time, there are other cases in which people are simply determined to abuse the planning system and in which different issues arise. I shall come to that in a moment.

Officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have met representatives of local authorities to explore what more could be done in such circumstances, and to address the possible adverse environmental effects of subdivision and the sale of agricultural land. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) is right that there are different but related problems. Land may be sold off on its hope value, and the chances of planning permission for a change of use being granted may be misrepresented. Problems also arise if that land is later neglected because planning permission cannot be granted. There are problems involving the fencing, the pegs or the posts that may be erected under permitted development rights, and problems that occur when much more intensive and extensive development takes place, such as those related to the enforcement system, retrospective planning applications and so on.

9.15 pm
Mr. Clifton-Brown

In Committee way back in October, I suggested a mechanism to change the presumption on article 4 directions. I should be grateful if the Minister said something about that, because an article 4 direction will remove the permitted development rights, and could act as a brake on the erection of gates and fences.

Yvette Cooper

I shall set out the progress we have made so far and the issues that we are still considering and that we have yet to consider, and I shall come back to the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. The first thing we are considering is whether it is possible to introduce a cooling-off period in such circumstances. The seller of the land would have a duty to advise purchasers of that period, and would be required to notify the local planning authority of the proposed sale. The cooling-off period could enable the local planning authority to put in place any restrictions that it thought appropriate, and to ensure that the proposed buyer was aware of those restrictions, including article 4 directions. That would not apply to intensive development, but it might be a way of dealing with cases in which buyers of the land are deceived or have not understood the risk of failing to obtain planning permission. It also might be a way of ensuring that everyone has full information, and could prevent the purchase of subplots on their hope value, which are neglected when it is not possible to get planning permission. That may address one part of the problem.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said, the problem is that these things happen quickly. I suspect that by the time the local planning authority—or whatever Government agency would introduce the cooling-off period—was alert to the fact and was able to act, many of those plots would have been sold off and it would be difficult to reverse that process.

Yvette Cooper

We are trying to deal with a range of different problems. For example, there may be deliberate, rapid and unauthorised development. We are not sure of the extent of that problem, but we have anecdotal evidence that it exists. Those cases are at one extreme, while at the other are the cases in which no unauthorised development takes place, but there are unsightly consequences for the land—the erection of fencing and such like—because it is divided up and sold off in the expectation that planning permission may be granted and that there may be a change of use. Pieces of land may be bought in the hope that planning permission may be obtained, but are then neglected and left to deteriorate and to become unsightly to the local community. Different consequences arise in different cases, and there may be different solutions to different parts of the problem, some of which may be easier to solve than others. The proposal relating to the possible cooling-off period would not deal with all the problems raised by Members, but it might be one way of addressing some of them.

We also want to give further consideration to the proposal for article 4 directions to be served on site rather than in a newspaper, to bring them into effect more quickly. We are considering amendments to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 for that purpose. We are also considering other changes to the order. We are trying to establish, for example, whether it would be feasible to require prior approval from the local planning authority for the erection of fences on agricultural land. In some of the cases mentioned today, owners or others involved with the land are abiding by the planning system, but action is not speedy enough, or there are not sufficient warnings.

We are preparing a note to be sent to local authorities throughout England clarifying the issue and the powers that they have to deal with it. There is evidence that some authorities deal with such problems more swiftly and effectively than others.

The major difficulties arise in the event of unauthorised development. They may be triggered by the subdivision of land, but they may also occur when there is rapid, unauthorised development. Members have expressed doubts about the speed and effectiveness of the planning system in dealing with such development after it has taken place, and about the effectiveness of enforcement. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asked about the presumption relating to article 4, and the hon. Member for Ludlow referred to compensation.

A series of wider questions could be raised about the nature and speed of the enforcement system, and about the various powers involved. Some of those may be dealt with when we discuss later amendments. Much more difficult issues must be grappled with in this context. We are reviewing the enforcement system, and following what was said in Committee we have asked officials to prioritise matters relating to retrospective planning applications. We want to deal with that as quickly as possible, but I warn Members that these are particularly difficult problems.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The enforcement review was mentioned in Committee in October. Presumably it had been operating for some time by then. Can the Minister tell us when it began, when it is likely to end, and when we can expect some action from the Government?

Yvette Cooper

I cannot give the exact timetable, but originally the review was not expected to feed into the Bill's time. We have consulted extensively on the wide range of issues involved, and many representations have been made. We have asked officials to consider specific enforcement issues raised in Committee, and have asked for them to be made a priority in discussion of the review as a whole. They are complicated, however, and cannot be easily resolved. We are having to work out how the enforcement regime will cope when people are determined to abuse the system, and also how to ensure fair and proportionate consideration of other cases. For instance, some people may not realise that they must apply for planning permission. So there is a wide range of issues that needs to be considered further, and as I said, we are keen to prioritise the questions that Members raised in Committee.

New clause 18 aims to enable local planning authorities to purchase land compulsorily in a green belt where a section 215 notice requiring the remedying of land adversely affecting local amenity has not been complied with. Local authorities already have compulsory purchase powers to deal with derelict land, and to provide open space or community facilities in the public interest. The Secretary of State would normally expect any statutory procedures to remedy derelict or unsightly land, such as section 215 notices, to have been taken as far as possible before the local authority resorts to compulsory purchase. However, I recognise the principles behind the new clause, and as I said, we are keen to consider them further.

We are taking very seriously the points raised by Members on both sides of the House. I have set out the various ways in which we are trying to consider these issues further, in order to see what progress can be made. We will continue to do so, and to keep Members informed.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

If my reading of section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is correct, it is concerned not with compulsory purchase, but with the serving of notices by the local authority on land adversely affecting amenity of neighbourhood. It also provides for a 28-day period after which such a notice must take effect. Section 216 states: If any owner or occupier of the land on whom the notice was served fails to take steps required by the notice within the period specifiedߪhe shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale. That has nothing to do with compulsory purchase. Does the Minister think that new clause 18 has any merit?

Yvette Cooper

Our concern is that new clause 18 would not necessarily add anything to local authorities' powers to deal with the problem of land in the green belt not being properly maintained. The new clause attempts to deal, for example, with development that takes place under permitted development rights, and with land that has been largely neglected when, contrary to people's expectations, the issue of planning permission has not been addressed. But, in fact, the new clause would not satisfactorily address the real problem that we have been discussing. Local authorities already have powers to deal with such land.

There is a wider range of issues that we need to consider, but at this stage it would not be right to support the two new clauses, given that considerable work is already under way to address the problems to which they refer.

Mr. Andrew Turner

It would be fair to begin by thanking the Minister—I hope that I do her no damage in doing so—for her powerful response to the two new clauses. She has demonstrated that her Department is taking the matter seriously. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) referred to what is by far the worst example of which I have heard in dealing with such matters. There are a couple of issues that still concern me, one of which is that, whether an enforcement notice, an article 4 direction or—as in most cases—an injunction or compulsory purchase order is being served, it is necessary to know the owner of the land. As we discussed in Committee, where land has been divided into penny packets, the process by which ownership is discovered is both difficult and expensive.

I particularly commend to the Minister three measures, two of which were advanced by one of my colleagues. The first is to reverse the presumption on an article 4 direction, and the second is to make it possible to serve an injunction against a person or persons unknown in relation to land. I also wonder whether ignoring an article 4 direction might be made a criminal offence. That would certainly seem possible.

I warmly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, my hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman), for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) and for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), and the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) for their contributions.

We need to address the high costs that fall on local authorities—meaning, of course, local people—which have to be recovered somehow. I hope that the Minister will look at that matter in the enforcement review. She has demonstrated that a range of different possible solutions are being considered, and I hope that one, or perhaps more, will be found to be appropriate before the Bill completes its passage through the House.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave withdrawn.

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