HL Deb 04 April 1985 vol 462 cc361-6
Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Elton, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

The subject of this Bill has been described as, an arcane byway of planning legislation", as, very complicated, if not obscure", and as, of great complexity". Perhaps I may be allowed to add my own description: a tortuous maze for the understudy. Nevertheless, as the discussions in this House have shown, it is a Bill with some important practical implications. It is gratifying that there has been almost total acceptance of the need for the Bill, and relatively little disagreement with its detailed provisions. I am grateful for the helpful and constructive manner in which has been approached on all sides of the House. It is in these conditions that your Lordships' House comes into its own.

The main purpose of the Bill is to remove the right to compensation under Section 169 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 for the rejection of planning applications to extend to blocks of flats in existence on 1st July 1948. As originally drafted, it was aimed specifically at cases where the extension has the effect of creating additional units—the situation in the Peaktop Properties case. However, there was general agreement both in this House and in another place that the Bill would better fulfil its primary purpose if it were extended to cover extensions which had the effect of enlarging any individual unit by more than 10 per cent. My noble friend Lord Avon referred to this point in introducing the Bill to your Lordships, and the amendments which he subsequently put down were welcomed on all sides.

As the House will know, the Bill has another purpose. This is to limit the right to compensation under Section 165 of the 1971 Act for adverse decisions following the revocation or modification of a development order. Under the Bill compensation is no longer payable unless the planning application was made within 12 months of the withdrawal of the development order permission.

This two-pronged task was the complete rationale behind the Bill. After Second Reading, and exhaustive discussions, however, it was clear that your Lordships were much more concerned about what was not in the Bill; and amendments were considered both at the Committee and Report stages to widen the Bill to cover among other things development associated with agriculture, landscape areas, special development orders, and compensation rights in conservation areas.

I do not intend to rehearse the arguments today. Suffice it to say that when I was unexpectedly thrust into prominence last week I was able to make two important commitments. The first is that the Government will now undertake an urgent review of compensation provisions in the 1971 Act. We fully intend to issue a consultation paper by the summer to enable all the relevant issues to be fully debated. I f, as a result of their review, the Government conclude that further amending legislation is indeed required, perhaps coupled with appropriate amendments to the general development order, the necessary Bill will then be introduced at the earliest opportunity. By proceeding in this way, I would hope that we can find a balance between the various interests which commands widespread acceptance.

At the same time, we can look at some of the other technical problems which have been raised during the passage of this Bill, such as the fear that a landowner may be able to obtain compensation more than once for the refusal of what is essentially the same scheme, and the interaction between Schedule 8 and the right to serve a purchase notice under Section 170 of the 1971 Act. In carrying out this review we shall give careful thought to the examples of potential or actual problems which noble Lords have given, and in particular to the special needs of conservation areas, which rightly concern my noble friend Lord Montagu. If any legislative proposals should need to include a retrospective element because of further abuse, I feel confident that your Lordships would again overcome your normal dislike of such legislation and give it your blessing.

The other undertaking relates to the adequacy of the 12-months' period of grace under section 165. We have come under pressure both ways in relation to this provision. On the one hand, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has said that there should be no compensation liability at all in these circumstances. I recognise that any provision of this kind is capable of abuse. Nevertheless, it is required to safeguard the position of a person who has begun to incur expenditure on the basis of the development order permission, only to find it taken away from him before the development can acutally begin. On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, and my noble friend Lord Mottistone have both argued for a longer period, particularly in the case of development with a long lead time. We believe that this would increase the risk of abuse to an unacceptable extent. Nevertheless, there may be situations where 12 months is too short a period, and I have therefore given an undertaking that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will have regard to the compensation implications when he is considering what should be the operative date of an amendment to the GDO which restricts permitted development rights.

In conclusion, I would again like to thank your Lordships for the constructive manner in which the proceedings on this Bill have been conducted. It was intended as a Bill to deal with a specific and limited problem, and I am grateful to the House for its speedy passage. At the same time, it has provided an opportunity to open up some much wider issues, and the Government will certainly bear in mind the points that have been made and the problems that have been identified in undertaking the further review that I have promised. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Skelmersdale.)

12.33 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, may I first of all apologise to the Minister and to the House for only having arrived when the Minister was on his feet. I thought that the Films Bill would take longer than in fact it did. This Bill has had very much wider "mauling", if I may use that word, in this House than it received in another place, where it whizzed through almost like a hot knife through ice cream without very much deliberation. I should like to say immediately from these Benches that we appreciate very much the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was thrown into the middle of the Bill at a fairly vigorous Report stage. We recognise the difficulties he probably had. I should like also to take this opportunity to say how sorry we are that his noble friend Lord Avon is ill and to wish him a speedy recovery. I think we should all be grateful if that message could be passed on to him.

As regards the way in which the Bill has gone through, I think many of us are extremely disappointed on a number of counts. We are of course pleased that there will be a consultation paper by the summer and that a Bill, if necessary, will be introduced at the earliest opportunity. But I must point out that even so, considering the way the time factor has been worked out, I fear it could hardly be less than two-and-a-half years before anything at all happens; and during that period many unlisted buildings in conservation areas are going to be in great peril.

This is a great pity about this Bill. This was not the point at which the noble Lord came in, but it is a policy decision and so I do not think it would have made any difference. We were given very encouraging sounds from the noble Earl on Second Reading and again on Committee. It was quite clear that other interests—those interests which the noble Lord has now said he hopes will be reconciled—I am afraid have prevailed over the conservation interests and unfortunately. have won the day. It is a great pity, because the vote that was taken on the amendment in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, and myself was lost by only four votes; so the feeling in the House was extremely strong as regards the conservation areas. I think we all feel a great deal of regret about that and we are very concerned about the impossibility of being able to repair the real damage that will be done during this intervening period.

In regard to the compensation liability, the noble Lord was quite right to refer to the amendment that I moved to do away with even a year's compensation liability. This does not mean that if there are legitimate expenses involved in planning or in a planning application these cannot be met, and met by other means. This was explained very carefully and in a more legalistic way by the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, who is himself a lawyer. This is an historic thing and we are stuck with this compensation liability. The only hope—rather a forlorn one, though I hope I am proved wrong—is that the Minister has now said that the Government, in looking at these things and also, I hope, in the consultation document, will have regard to compensation issues.

There is no doubt that this is something which ought to be looked at with a new and keen eye. We ought not to be wedded all the time, as we are, to this history of compensation to which people are automatically entitled. I hope the noble Lord will take on board that the real expenses incurred can be recouped in other ways. You do not have to have an automatic year's compensation which is, let us face it, a provision which is very often abused. That is quite wrong.

With those words of disappointment but also of appreciation to the Minister for his courtesy and the way in which he has dealt with his end of the Bill, I do not think there is any more we can say from these Benches, except that we would like to be sure, as he has said, that some speed will be given to the consultation document and that the Government will consider this to be a serious enough issue—it may sound a small one as compared with other areas of government, but it is a very important one to people as well as for buildings—so that any necessary legislation will be brought forward at a very early opportunity.

12.39 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, may I also apologise for not being in my place when the noble Lord started his speech. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, I thought that the previous business would go on for far longer than happily it did. I should like also to join with her in congratulating the noble Lord the Minister on the way in which he has dealt with these difficult problems, having arrived in the proceedings of this Bill at such short notice. I also join with the noble Baroness in hoping that the noble Earl, Lord Avon, will soon be completely recovered from his most unhappy illness.

I should like also to express, quite briefly, my own disappointment that certain provisions protecting agricultural interests have not so far been included in the Bill in the way that I had presented them to the House. They were amendments that were spoken to by many members of the party opposite who had agricultural interests. Of course spurious claims for compensation must be avoided, but there is considerable anxiety that genuine agricultural interests may be affected by this Bill. However, I do not want to press these matters any further on Third Reading. I shall read the report of what the noble Lord the Minister has said. Earlier in these proceedings the noble Earl, Lord Avon, made some suggestions which he and the Government felt might be helpful to the agricultural interests, and I understand that the noble Lord the Minister has given certain undertakings and assurances in regard to these matters. With that, I shall leave the agriculture aside.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, I was also disappointed about the failure in being able to persuade the Government to accept the amendment in relation to conservation matters which, as she said, was narrowly defeated. I thank the noble Lord the Minister again for his courtesy and I hope that the other place may be able to do something for the farmers in relation to these matters.

Viscount Craigavon

My Lords, I had not intended to intervene at this stage of the Bill; but, having taken part in all the other stages, may I briefly welcome something which the noble Lord the Minister mentioned in his opening speech which was to do with retrospection? If I heard him aright, it is very good that he has put on the record that if necessary he is prepared to recommend to the House that there could be an element of retrospection in legislation which might be proposed if there is flagrant abuse of potential loopholes to which we were drawing attention at the previous stage. Anyone who is thinking of trying to abuse any possible loopholes should be aware that this has been said in your Lordships' House and is on the record, and that there are many noble Lords who would support any attempt to introduce retrospection in cases of flagrant abuse of the present system.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am grateful to the three noble Lords who have spoken. I should not like to let this opportunity go without recording my thanks for the way in which the House has treated the changeover on this Bill. I shall of course forward all the remarks that have been made today straight to my noble friend Lord Avon who I understand is currently in France.

The various points that have been made really boil down into one. I have indeed repeated the important commitments that I made at Report stage last week. However, I should not like anybody to go away with the impression that I have definitely asserted that there will be retrospective legislation. If I may repeat at a slightly slower speed what I said earlier: if any legislation proposals should need to include a retrospective element because of further abuse, I feel confident that your Lordships would again overcome your normal dislike of such legislation and give it your blessing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, mentioned the speed at which legislation can be brought forward and then rather negated what she had just said by saying that she did not expect any legislation to come for another two-and-a-half years. Perhaps I may be allowed to remind her that from First Reading to today there have been two short months for this legislation, and therefore there is no need for it to take as long as she has suggested, should it be decided to be necessary—

Baroness Birk

My Lords, may I put that right? I was adding together the time taken to get the consultation paper out, for the consultation paper to receive responses and for the Government to consider them, and perhaps to introduce legislation. I find that this is the general time scale which is accepted by most people and not just by me.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I obviously do not fit into the generality, do I? Another point which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, mentioned, and to which I ought to refer, is that of limiting compensation to genuine cases, or perhaps a more accurate description would be the genuine parts of cases. We did try to work out a different way, but we came to the conclusion after a great deal of thought that a 12-month limitation was the best way to deal with the problem.

But, quite obviously, this will be part of the consultation process. Agricultural interests, conservation interests and landscape area interests are all matters that have to be weighed in the balance, as indeed have the views of landowners and other people both in the urban situation and in the countryside, and this is what we fully intend to do. With those few words, I thank the House once again.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

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