HL Deb 26 October 1982 vol 435 cc409-12

3.26 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Cowrie) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th July be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the main purpose of this order is to bring the system of enforcing planning control in Northern Ireland further into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. In addition, it reflects changes in the planning code which were introduced in England and Wales by the Local Government Planning and Land Act 1980 and by the Local Government and Planning (Amendment) Act 1981.

As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland has already explained in another place, the order is intended simply to reduce delay and improve flexibility in the planning enforcement process. One of the principal changes (contained in Articles 8 and 10) is to transfer the responsibility for dealing with appeals against enforcement notices and against listed building enforcement notices from the magistrates' courts to the Planning Appeals Commission. Under the existing system an unauthorised developer in Northern Ireland can oppose an enforcement notice by submitting a planning application, appealing the refusal to the Planning Appeals Commission and then appealing to the courts against the enforcement notice itself. This double appeal system can enable a developer to continue with an unauthorised activity, which may have a very damaging effect upon the amenity of an area, for some considerable time. There has also been some considerable confusion as to the responsibilities of the two appellate bodies.

It was to resolve this problem that enforcement appeals were removed from the courts in Great Britain. Under the new procedure, an enforcement appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission would he deemed to include a planning application, so that planning merits could be fully considered. Any current appeal against a refusal of planning permission in respect of the same development would be dealt with at the same time. This change would bring Northern Ireland towards the situation in Great Britain, where appeals against both planning decisions and enforcement notices lie to the same authority, the Secretary of State.

The draft order proposes a number of other changes with respect to listed buildings, one example being the requirement, placed by Article 6 upon the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland as planning authority, to consider the effect of a proposed development, not only on the listed building itself but also on its setting. I would remind the House that Northern Ireland is one of the most beautiful parts of the kingdom and one of the most beautiful parts of the island of Ireland; it has many splendid buildings, and we want to look after them.

The draft order (at Article 15) also contains an important proposal to enable the department to take out a summons within three years of the commission of certain offences, instead of within six months, as at present. This would deal with a problem which arises out of Article 19 of the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which prohibits proceedings being initiated in the magistrates' court more than six months after the end of the period specified for compliance with a planning enforcement notice. The six months' rule no longer applies in England and Wales to any offence which is subject to either summary trial in the magistrates' court or subject to an indictment. The order also provides (through Article 3) for a new right of appeal. Where the department has refused any consent required by a condition imposed on a planning permission, the applicant will be able to appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission. There is no right of appeal at present. Such consents normally relate to matters such as the layout of a car park or the use of premises at unsocial hours.

Lastly, my Lords, I should mention Article 11, which would provide for the enforcement of duties as to the replacement of trees. The department will be authorised to serve notices requiring trees to be planted within a specific period, to enforce the replacement of trees where a condition to this effect has been attached to a consent to fell trees covered by a tree preservation order. My Lords, I commend these proposals to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th July be approved.—(The Earl of Gowrie.)

3.31 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful for the Minister's explanation of this brief but important order. As he points out, the order makes various amendments to the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order, 1972. I have studied the order and compared it with previous legislation. I should like to raise one or two points and to ask the Minister questions on them. First, I would welcome the order as a step forward in this matter. The main amendments have several welcome features, including the transfer of the appeals against enforcement orders from the courts of summary jurisdiction to the Planning Appeals Commission. There appear to be some advantages in this in so far as it will ease the case loads of the courts who deal not only with planning matters. I may be right in thinking that planning appeals commissions will be specialised and, I hope, will allow a degree of informality and continuity in decisions and policy matters. If so, this is to the good.

It is also a help that despite the specialised character of the appeals commissions, there will be a certain informality to make it easier for laymen and others presenting their case to do so without undue difficulty. If appellants can appear before them without undue formality and without undue professional advice and other costs, I am sure that it will be to their advantage. Can the Minister say a little more about these aspects, and also concerning the membership and general composition of the appeals commissions?

On the other aspects that he has mentioned, the strengthening of planning controls to protect listed buildings and trees in conservation areas is also welcome. We need to protect and preserve such buildings and trees; so often, as we all know, it pays to allow buildings to fall into decay or disrepair and to use the site for other purposes. On the other hand, to maintain a building's character and to restore it can be very costly. It would be helpful if the Minister could say something about any financial or other help which will be available to those who have the responsibility for listed buildings. In that. I have a special interest, not only in Northern Ireland but in this country; so that one is aware of the liabilities that are incurred often quite willingly. It would appear that any decisions are final. May I ask whether the Minister is satisfied that appellants and others affected have proper representation? Is there no appeal to, say, the Minister himself?

Finally, my Lords, I think the review is timely and the revisions mentioned in the order in relation to planning, listed buildings, development and planning will be welcome. I note that the Historic Buildings Council and the district councils are also involved in this matter. I think it might be helpful if the Minister could indicate what consultations have taken place with all the authorities, both statutory and otherwise, concerned. I should imagine that that has happened and I anticipate that they would have been pleased with the outcome of this order.

Lord Foot

My Lords, may I, too, thank the Minister for his explanation of this order. It is a highly technical subject on which I should hesitate to embark, but I am very much relieved to know from the Minister that this order is being asked for approval on the basic principle that it is going to bring the planning law of Northern Ireland more into line with the law which prevails in England and Wales. That is a principle which my noble friends and I strongly support and about which I should like to say a few words on the next order when the Minister produces it. I do not have any questions of the noble Earl and am very grateful to him that this order is to be brought before us.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, may I follow my noble friend Lord Foot and say that anything which brings legislation, planning or otherwise, in the Province into line with that on the mainland is to be welcomed. I should like to know whether the noble Earl can tell us what more remains to be done. What are the differences outstanding? If this is a complicated problem then a letter perhaps would be better than an answer at the Dispatch Box; but it is a matter of interest.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, in welcoming the order may I make particular reference to historic buildings preservation because I think that in this branch of the department we have an excellent team. I have an interest to declare in that I have a listed building. Throughout their work, they are particularly helpful to everybody no matter whether it is the smallest cottage that is preserved or a large mansion such as that of my noble friend. They are absolute experts, they are architects; and the whole team works extremely well. If willingness to carry out the tasks the Government set them is any guide they will certainly do it well.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which the House has received this order. I can say to the noble Lord opposite that the Planning Appeals Commission comprises 10 members, five of whom are full-time professional commissioners and five part-time lay commissioners. All are appointed by the Secretary of State and they are charged, as an independent body, with the hearing of planning appeals. The position, therefore, is not identical to that in the rest of the United Kingdom, where the ultimate court of appeal, so to speak, is the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Northern Ireland must have institutions which are appropriate to its special needs and difficulties. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, that our view is that this independent Planning Appeals Commission is widely acceptable in Northern Ireland and I do not think that we will have trouble about it. Consultations were taken in forming it. With the passage of this order, Northern Ireland law will be broadly in line with that in Great Britain, and no further changes are proposed.

On the subject of listed buildings, I enjoyed my noble friend Lord Brookeborough's casting himself as the poor man at the gate of the castle of my noble friend Lord Abercorn. I am glad to say that the cottage at the gate is listed as well as the castle. Buildings considered to be of architectural or historic merit are listed by the Department of the Environment on the advice of the Historic Buildings Council. No works can be undertaken to a listed building without the consent of the department, and grants are available from that department's budget for the repair and maintenance of listed buildings. I do not think at this point that I can say much more than that. Again, I welcome the way in which the House has received the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.