HC Deb 20 March 2001 vol 365 cc20-40WH 10.59 am
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I express my appreciation for the opportunity to debate this issue. As might be suspected. I have a hidden agenda, although I am not using the debate as a ramp to raise issues relating to specific planning applications—there is a time and a place for that. However, much of what I shall say is inspired by my experiences in my constituency.

Planning procedure is not only an arcane but a difficult area for politicians. I was told recently that there is a parliamentary convention that MPs do not get involved in individual planning applications. That was news to me because for a quarter of a century my predecessor diligently intervened in every planning application that arose in my constituency, and my constituents expected me to follow in that tradition.

Planning procedure is difficult for another, more subtle, but important reason: the problem is at the interface between law and politics. Most local councils are engaged in what is sometimes referred to as a quasi-judicial process, Which few local people understand. They expect their councillors to respond to political pressures and do not understand that councillors are constrained by planning guidance and complex legal obligations. I appreciate that the Minister is bound by the same constraints, being both the guardian of the appeal process and the one who issues policy. One of the key policies that is germane to the debate is contained in planning guidance. Planning policy guidance 1, the predisposition to development, is probably the most important piece of guidance issued to my local authority, so conflict sometimes arises between policy and judicial constraints.

Before I embark on the essence of my speech, I shall take a slight detour while we are dealing with planning processes and appeals and ask the Minister for some clarification on a major departure in policy over the past few days. From reports in the press, I understand that the Minister for Housing and Planning has issued a new set of guidance relating to mobile phone masts. That will be of enormous interest to many hon. Members who have campaigned on that issue, either in general or in relation to specific applications. I shall be grateful if the Minister will clarify what will happen about that, given that I understand that no other ministerial statement on the subject will be made.

I understand that the scope of planning controls will be widened to encompass small masts of less than 15 m, which have hitherto been exempt from controls, and that public concern, presumably reflecting health considerations, will be taken into account. How important will public concern about health be in the new planning guidelines? Will that be a valid criterion for planning objections? If the balance has decisively shifted towards allowing public concern to weigh heavily in a planning decision, clearly, the Minister's desk will be flooded with appeals from developers in the mobile phone industry, which has invested massively in new technology. If the balance still lies with traditional planning constraints and if people may apply only on grounds of visual amenity, many people will be disappointed. I would be grateful for some clarification of where the balance will lie because it is germane to the sort of appeals that will be launched. Finally on mobile phones, an enormous number of applications have been accepted and many masts have been erected without planning permission as a result of the size limitation. I assume that the new ruling will have no retrospective effect, but should be grateful for confirmation because many masts have been erected close to schools and blocks of housing.

The essence of my argument is the way in which the planning appeal process operates in suburban contexts such as Twickenham. Some of the problems that I shall outline may be particular to Twickenham, but in many other suburban areas of London and other big cities there is tremendous pressure for what we would call overdevelopment, although that might not be an accurate, scientific description. The false dichotomy between brownfield and greenfield development misses the problems associated with suburban areas. Those areas have lower density and are under tremendous pressure to increase it and to develop.

Developers are often blocked from greenfield activity, but there is growing demand for houses and, frequently, they do not want to build blocks of housing in inner-city areas, so they concentrate their activities on the suburbs, which often have distinct planning problems. In Twickenham and, I am sure, in many similar areas, no more major pieces of land can be occupied by large developments. However, the Government have set very tough housing targets and I understand that local authorities have little discretion to refuse them. They are obliged to incorporate them in their unitary development plans.

My borough has a target of 240 new houses a year. over 20 years. That is a relaxation of the target of 300 that applied under the previous Government. Nevertheless, it is still a demanding target when there are no vacant sites. It means that developers buy bungalows and houses with large gardens. They do whatever is possible to pack more houses on to a piece of land. That often results in extreme tension.

I received an e-mail a couple of days ago from a group of residents in Hampton road in Teddington, in the middle of my constituency. A gentleman went out one morning and found someone walking around his property, photographing it and taking measurements. He asked, "Why are you in my garden? What are you doing?" and was told, "We have been sent by the developer. We are preparing to buy your house." His reply was that he did not want to sell his house, but was happy where he was. The developer's representative said, "I have already agreed with your neighbours to buy, and either you sell to us for a good price or we are going to make your life rather miserable, because a development is going to go up next door that you may not like." My constituent checked with his neighbours and found next door that a very frightened old lady had been, if not exactly threatened, certainly intimidated, into the clear understanding that she had little option but to sell.

The same thing is going on throughout the area. Everyone with a bungalow is being approached by developers and encouraged, sometimes politely, and sometimes less politely, to sell. The economics are plain. Someone who buys a bungalow with a large garden for £500,000—which is probably the current cost—and is able to obtain planning consent for a block of six or eight flats, which will be described is "exclusive" or "luxury", will be able to sell the site for 3£ million. There is a lot of money to be made. Under our tax system, there is no mechanism other than normal business taxation for taxing developers' profits.

There is an enormous amount at stake. Real pressures are being brought to bear and it is not overstating the case to describe what is now happening as a form of suburban Rachmanism. People are being winkled out of their property to enable such intensification of development to go on. Sometimes, it can be very unpleasant. A bitter conflict recently took place over a small infill development called Teddington Park. Following hostility between the developers and residents, the residents went out one night and found that their trees had been chopped down in an act of vandalism and malice. The police have not yet been able to track down precisely who did it, but clearly emotions are high and a lot of pressure is being brought to bear.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of another problem; I do not know how matters stand in his constituency. In my constituency, a problem arose over a covenant for non-development of a piece of land. In order to buy out that covenant, developers threw the telephone book at people. It came to silly money.

Dr. Cable

That is a helpful intervention. I am glad of confirmation that the problems that I have described occur elsewhere, albeit in a different context. The hon. Gentleman is right. A sophisticated industry is being developed by people who fully understand the legal loopholes through which they have to crawl, and are perfecting techniques to intimidate residents into complying with their wishes.

How does that feed into the planning proc`ess? Assuming that residents have been persuaded to sell their back gardens, their bungalows, or the little patch of land adjacent to them, an application will go to a local planning committee. Residents might object, perhaps because of the pressure on local infrastructure. A problem in my area is that schools are massively overcrowded. When new residents arrive and the demand for school places increases, there is no more land. In a typical, controversial case last week, a bit of playing field from one school had to be taken away to provide land for a new school.

There is pressure on infrastructure. There is pressure on streets. It would be desirable if everyone used public transport and pooled their cars, but they do not. A development of six or a dozen new houses brings six, 12 or 15 new cars into a street that is already choc-a-bloc with cars. It is difficult to see any social gain from that development.

It would be desirable for such developments to include affordable housing. I should like to see more. My council would certainly like to see more. We need a better housing mix; low-income working people should be able to have homes in the suburbs, but they are not. The Government's planning guidelines, which provide for developments of over 15 houses to include an affordable element, do not address the problem: the developments that I am describing are often deliberately under the 15 limit. There is a rash of applications for 14-house developments, so that they can be called "luxury and exclusive". Therefore, there is very little social benefit from those developments and many of them impose severe pressure on the local infrastructure. Local council committees consider them, knowing that they are under pressure from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to meet housing targets. There is a planning guideline, giving predisposition to development, and the councils are often on weak ground if they try to resist applications. The matter then becomes highly politicised.

The hottest political topic in my part of London is planning. It is about infill development. Local Conservatives-although it could be another party elsewhere in the country-denounce the local council for being hand in glove with the developers and for promoting infill development. Of course, when they were in government, they had even more demanding housing targets. It is entirely opportunistic. Nevertheless, the pressures are there and the tensions exist.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I cannot resist the bait that the hon. Gentleman was dangling before me. Is he aware that it is Conservative policy to abolish national house-building targets in the first week of the next Conservative Government?

Dr. Cable

I was not aware of that. I know that the Conservatives' manifesto is a rolling programme, but it is difficult to see how they would do that while accommodating the other pressures for housing, especially in the south-east of England. There is enormous demographic change. There is pressure for more housing units. I understand that the Conservatives have lined up in opposition to greenfield developments, so where will the houses go? If targets are to be abolished, by what mechanism will the houses be built? There seems to be a lack of clarity and logic, which the Conservative spokesman will, no doubt, explain in due course.

I would like some feedback from the Minister about how the planning process, and particularly the appeal process, might be modified in order to achieve a better balance. How can we avoid the phenomenon that I experienced—namely, that residents widely believe that all the aces are in the hands of the developer and that they have few legitimate grounds for objection to developments that damage the local community and put it under pressure?

I have several suggestions to make. First, there is an eight-week rule on planning applications, which pressures local authorities to complete their work within eight weeks. It arose because people who want a modest house extension or their loft converted should not have to wait months and months for local planning officials to clear their application. That should happen speedily and efficiently and I understand why the Government have set relevant targets. However, there is a distinction between modest home improvements, which should take place quickly and be subject to a demanding target of perhaps even six weeks, and controversial middle and large-scale developments, which have a wide impact, but cannot be handled within a short time scale. There is a cynical process by which developers submit applications in duplicate knowing that local authorities cannot cover the complexity of a major application such as a dozen houses within the time scale. They know that the local planning committee will not cover their application and that it will go to appeal, which sidelines the democratic process. I understand the origins of the eight-week rule and accept that the DETR must set efficiency targets for local government, but the process should be more sophisticated. There should be a more demanding target for house conversions and minor developments, which should be processed more quickly, and a relaxed target for substantial developments that have a wide impact on the community. Those are not unreasonable requests.

Secondly—I realise that this is better-travelled and perhaps more controversial ground—there is the issue of third-party appeals. A developer can currently appeal against a local council planning committee judgment. Indeed, some developers appeal time and again. Several developments in my area have involved a half dozen separate applications, all of which have gone to appeal. It may be that the process of resubmission and appeal produces a better application and I hope that that is the case. However, there is more than a suspicion that developers with deep pockets try to grind down the resistance of overstretched councils. The developers' motive is clear beck use enormous sums of money can be made out of building projects.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Another issue that I should like my hon. Friend to consider is the pressure exerted on planning authorities by planning officers who fear that members will overturn their recommendations. They argue that there will be punitive costs against the local authority should it lose an appeal. When a local elected member feels that there are good grounds for refusal, but planning officers have worked with a developer over a long period to cultivate an application that they consider to be acceptable, members are pushed into a no-win situation—refuse and be damned, which leaves the local authority with a huge bill of costs. or give way and back the officers' recommendation. Members are clearly subjected to unfair pressure.

Dr. Cable

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and he has eloquently described the process. A system of third-party appeals would introduce a better balance because it would relieve the pressure on council members. A resident who is currently concerned by pressure on local infrastructure, schools and traffic has no grounds for appeal. He or she could go to the ombudsman, but the ombudsman has a specific frame of reference focused on maladministration and cannot overturn a planning decision. He or she could go to judicial review, but that is complex and requires sophisticated legal advice. A better device would be to allow third parties to appeal under certain circumstances.

I appreciate that that could open the floodgates to many vexatious, trivial objections and I should not want the Minister's desk to be flooded by an enormous number of appeals. There would have to be a screening process to ensure that third-party appeals were not being abused, and preliminary tests to find out whether a genuine issue of principle was involved and whether there were major planning concerns, as opposed to trivial objections. The principle of the third-party appeal, if properly constrained in that way, would be a useful addition to the planning process and would introduce a much better balance.

My third suggestion concerns retrospective applications. I have found that large numbers of developments are proceeding without approval or outside the approval that they have been given, exceeding the norms. That sometimes happens with good reason. Many people involved in small developments do not understand planning law, do not know when they have to seek permission and make honest mistakes. They should not be penalised for that. Sometimes, if they get it terribly wrong, they suffer the penalty of having their property pulled down, which causes a lot of expense and misery.

Notwithstanding that, many developers are making increasingly cynical use of the existing process whereby every case of retrospective approval is treated in precisely the same way as a new application. They often ignore the rules altogether, calculating that a relatively small breach of the planning rules is unlikely to bring the wrath of the development control officers down on to their heads. Moreover, those officers are severely overstretched and enforcement involves costs and complexities. As a result, developers often get away with it, further sowing the increasing cynicism that residents feel about the planning process.

I want to throw a couple of larger ideas at the Minister. Underlying many of the difficulties is the ministerial guidance, with its predisposition to development. It might help if the DETR were to employ a subtle variation on that—a predisposition to sustainable development. That would encompass many of the concerns that residents have about amenity, pressure on infrastructure and overdevelopment. "Sustainability" is an amorphous word, but so is "development". We should build into the principle the concept that the environment matters and ensure that all the aces are not stacked in the hands of the developers. I should be grateful for some feedback on whether that idea is being actively considered and what it might mean in practice.

My final point relates to the way in which the debate about the quasi-judicial role of planning authorities is evolving in the light of the recent High Court ruling. I realise that that will eventually have to be resolved in the courts, but it is not premature to ask the Minister how far the human rights considerations that are being brought to bear on the planning process are affecting the way in which future planning appeals might be considered. I know that there is much debate about the Minister's role and that, in future, she may have to step aside from the planning process in order to comply with human rights legislation. Such matters may have to be dealt with by an environmental court rather than by ministerial intervention.

A similar debate is beginning to open up about the effects on the roles of democratically elected councils. Can they continue to operate in the twilight world of the quasi-judicial function? Should they act politically or legally? Should they be pulled in one way or the other? I believe that it is important for planning to remain within the process of democratic control; for the same reason, I support the Government's initiative in bringing licensing within the ambit of local councils. The issue needs to be reconciled with the new legal rulings of the High Court. It would be useful if the Minister gave some preliminary indications of how that will be achieved.

Mr. Drew

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a further problem in respect of the appeal process? The degree of legalistic knowledge that an ordinary member of the public needs to have in order to grasp what is going on during appeals seriously disadvantages them in trying to oppose a development or a developer.

Dr. Cable

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. That is why, as far as possible, we should try to keep the planning process within a democratic, rather than a purely legal, framework, and to build in safeguards such as those that I have described to enable objectors to have a proper say without the necessity for sophisticated and expensive advice.

11.24 am
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Hon. Members will be grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for securing the debate at such a relevant time. I echo many of the points that he made. which ranged through a veritable pot pourri of planning issues.

I begin by declaring an interest. I am a fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute, although 1 have not received any fees, or undertaken any work for some decades—I regard my duties in the House as a full-time occupation. I could even declare an inverse interest because I pay the institute more than £200 a year to remain a member.

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. to the hon. Member for Twickenham and to the Minister because I have a long-standing engagement with a constituent that will require me to leave just after 12 o'clock. That happens to hon. Members of all parties from time to time.

I turn to the High Court decision on the role of the Secretary of State in determining planning appeals. Even if the House of Lords says that the present system is not affected by human rights issues, I can envisage that someone would take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights when the procedures of national law had been exhausted.

I suggest to the Minister that the Government consider whether the time is coming to make the planning inspectorate totally independent of the Government. I feel that it might be better if the Secretary of State had no fingers in the pie. That is not to deny that, at present, he observes honourably the fact that planning appeals come to him as sub judice cases and deals with them accordingly.

The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned telecommunications masts. Will the Minister confirm that the proposal, on which there will be consultation, is not a material change in the law, but that planning authorities will have 56 days, rather than 28 or 42, to deal with applications? That is to allow better and fuller public consultation. It is also proposed that school governors will have to be consulted about applications near to their schools or colleges. Another proposed change intrigues me. The local planning authority will be able to turn down an application for a telecommunications mast if it violates amenity grounds— I think that that is the phrase that is used in the document. I echo the question of the hon. Member for Twickenham: does that mean health grounds, visual grounds, or both

The period for considering an application for a telecommunications mast is the same as that for a planning application. If such an application is turned down, will the applicant have the right of appeal?

Overdevelopment, or crowded development, in suburban areas is a problem in Chipping Barnet as well as in Twickenham. I do not oppose the policy of higher housing densities in certain areas. Housing can be well designed when its density is greater. However, I caution against overdevelopment, particularly in suburban areas—the late Sir John Betjeman referred to them as "Metroland" areas—which is destroying their suburban character.

Too many good Victorian family homes have been pulled down and replaced with characterless—I put it no less politely than that—blocks of flats. What is worse, in pulling down nice Victorian houses, for which there is great demand, developers too often put up blocks of flats and tarmacadam over the acre or so of green and pleasant back gardens that make an important contribution to such areas, simply because on-street parking is insufficient or is banned. We should have special measures and special powers to deal with applications that destroy the innate pleasant character of particular areas.

In talking about the need to develop brownfield sites or to recycle urban derelict land, we get into a numbers game that is typical of politicians. The watchword ought to be that we develop greenfield sites only as a last resort. We must concentrate on providing incentives to encourage the redevelopment of brownfield sites and that can be achieved only through significant tax incentives.

Section 106 agreements—in my younger days, they were section 52 agreements—enable local planning authorities to receive, before planning permission is granted, financial contributions to tackle infrastructure here or environmental improvement there that does not necessarily relate to the site in question. In this age of concern about sleaze or impropriety, that verges on the corrupt in that, if one hands over a bundle of money, one will get planning permission for something else.

I would far rather that the process were open. Where a greenfield site is developed as a last resort, a tax should be paid to meet the extra costs associated with decontaminating brownfield sites. It is essential that the Government give such incentives to get builders off greenfield sites and on to brownfield sites. The view has too often been taken that it does not matter if one cannot build on a brownfield site because greenfield site land is available. Perhaps local planning authorities should be required to permit building on greenfield sites only where no brownfield sites are available.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Barry Jones)

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman, who is a very experienced hon. Member, is about to discuss procedures for planning appeals.

Sir Sydney Chapman

Indeed. I was trying to point out—I shall cease from now on—that such issues will result in planning, appeals. As well as getting the procedures right, I suspect that the Minister would like to know why such issues might result in planning appeals. However I thank you for your comment, because I was beginning to run away with the subject.

So that the people of our country know where they stand, the policy of this Government, the next Government or any Government should be encapsulated in an easily understood slogan: "We ought to build as much as possible on brownfield sites, we ought to build as little as possible on greenfield sites, and we ought never to build on greenbelt land."

11.34 am
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on selecting for debate the interesting and topical subject of planning appeals and the problems associated with them. I should be in a bit of a mess if I followed the suggestion that Members of Parliament should not get involved in planning matters. Not a day goes by without someone in Portsmouth writing to me about one of the many planning applications that the city is considering.

I have been a member of Portsmouth city council for 30 years and was a member of Hampshire county council for 25. I have served on the planning authorities of both councils and was chairman of the city planning authority for some time. I therefore have a wealth of experience in dealing with both large and small planning applications. I remember meetings in which 100 planning applications had to be discussed. Such meetings could take 10 or 12 hours and sometimes spread over several days.

I was interested in the intervention of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) about Conservative policy. It is interesting to note that the Conservative policy for planning in Hampshire was not to have neighbour notification, not to support deputations to the planning committee and not to delegate by minority order, thereby allowing a planning application to be considered by one or two members before being taken to a larger group of members. All those policies went some way towards curbing the enthusiasm for planning appeals.

As a planning committee member, I had not only to exercise my responsibilities under the planning regulations, but to consider what was reasonable. I had to balance the planning responsibility against reasonableness. Would I want to live next door to, in front of, alongside, or down the street from a development that would inflict damage on my environment and life style, or that of my neighbours? I always tried to exercise that key element of reasonableness when considering planning applications.

There is now great pressure on members of planning authorities from developers who spend a long time talking to council officers to get their applications in good order. They do so not necessarily for the benefit of planning authority members, but to get the nod from planning officials such as the planning officer, the development control officer, the environmental health officer and the city engineer.

The members are then faced with a difficult decision. If the application is controversial, many will have been lobbied by the people who oppose to it. Their colleagues will put on pressure by speaking against an application, but members will be told repeatedly "The officers are recommending approval. The fact that you don't like it or think it is unreasonable is not sufficient ground to vote against it. We need good reasons."I have been in more than one planning meeting where members have voted against something and decided their reasons afterwards, in conjunction with the officers. They needed to prepare the groundwork for the appeal that would undoubtedly come.

In the past 10 years, the first suggestion or hint that members might vote against an application has been met with the legal officer saying, "Of course, without really strong grounds for refusal, we'll be on a sticky wicket in an appeal and there could be substantial costs. You know that this applicant has a track record of taking us on." I do not know whether that shows an officer's lack of confidence about winning, or whether he genuinely believes that members have made a bad decision. If we are giving local councillors responsibility, we must trust them to make decisions for the right reasons. They should be enthusiastic about an appeal because the democratic process allows such appeals to take place.

I shall deviate for a moment to refer to a couple of points that have been raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) talked about section 106 agreements as if they were immoral. A developer must pay—must be made to pay—if the development has a knock-on effect on the community. It should not be for local council tax payers, the Government or anyone else to pay for road infrastructure and alterations. The cost should be borne by the developers, whether the work required is within their development or half a mile up the road.

Section 106 agreements have been used to good effect in the main. In many instances, they are a mechanism to prevent planning appeals: the development might have been refused had the developer not signed the agreement. I do not view that as blackmail. The developer must understand that, in a planning process, to prevent an appeal, one must sometimes go a little further down the line and deal with parts of a site that are not directly involved with the application. In many cases, if the section 106 agreement is properly brought together, it can prevent planning appeals from taking place and achieve a better decision for an area.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I do not disagree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. He has raised the key issue: the procedure should be open and seen to be open, and it should be regularised.

Mr. Hancock

I have no problem with that. In 20 years of experience, I cannot remember a situation in which a section 106 agreement has not been openly displayed at the planning committee stage and, more important, as a public notice before it is discussed in the committee. There is a degree of transparency, which is a good thing. It helps during appeals if people's grounds for objections and the information that is required to put a planning application together are publicly available to anyone who wants to see them. That is to be welcomed.

I share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet about the need for the Government to be one step removed from the process. Like him, I have long held the view that we should have an independent planning inspectorate. When I led the largest local authority in Britain, we faced huge planning decisions on new towns and the redevelopment of a sizeable chunk of the south-east, including two big cities. Many good decisions were overturned by Government involvement.

The Library's note on the Human Rights Act 1998 and planning is interesting. Although it agrees that the Secretary of State does not have the power to get involved, a little further on it says that there is no choice but for him to exercise that role. If the Government are to deal with the issue of human rights and planning applications, they must find a mechanism for divorcing the Secretary of State from the situation. Under current legislation, the Secretary of State is bound to act as he or she chooses. Our judges should not be in a position to say that the Secretary of State was wrong to get involved, but that he had to do so because there was no alternative. That is not the way forward.

It is about time the Government got off the fence over the issue of phone masts. They should make phone masts, whatever their purpose, subject to the normal planning regulation and appeals procedure. A company should not simply have to notify a planning authority; we ought to have the opportunity to say no. I want to say no to a phone mast in my constituency. As a member of the city council, I believe that I have a democratic right to say that placing a mast there would be bad planning. If I believe that it is bad on health grounds, why should I, as an elected official, not have the right to say no? If the applicant wants to take that decision to appeal, let him fight it out and prove that phone masts and radio communication masts are not harmful to the environment or to the health of the individual. A planning appeal should take account of those factors. The Government should not tinker with the law, but make fundamental changes to the law governing phone masts. Many hon. Members have campaigned for such changes.

I have examined planning applications in my city over recent months and have found widespread objections to applications. One application was for a McDonald's drive-through, which was very controversial. It attracted local opposition and 58 letters of objection were received at the planning stage. The objectors were given neighbourhood notification and many were given the opportunity to speak against the application. The city council made it clear that it opposed the application, but it was allowed on appeal.

The problem is that, once an appeal is allowed, it is the end of the game for the objectors. As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said, the planning system is stacked heavily in favour of the developer and always has been. McDonald's, or whoever was fronting the application, appealed and won. The drive-through has been open for some time and nothing has changed. It is appalling for the local community to have to live with it. People are justified in feeling let down by the planning appeal procedure. They have to live next door to it, but that was never considered.

Another problem concerns an application for change of use to an amusement arcade, to which 494 people objected and about which 42 letters were sent. Local Conservatives in Portsmouth, South campaigned against it and the city council was unanimously opposed to it, but the decision was overturned on appeal and planning permission was granted. How can the planning system have any credibility when an application to which there is so much objection is allowed on appeal and the inspector fails to take account of objections? Reasonableness must be exercised in the planning appeal process, which, sadly, is deficient. It fails to grasp the real issue that local people must be given the same rights as developers.

Developers come armed with QCs and other expensive help to face perhaps half a dozen residents with no background knowledge of planning law to defend their rights. I sometimes wish that local authorities had the power to fund their case, or that the Government would allow opposition to developers to be publicly funded. There should be a legal aid system to allow local people to fight the supermarket giants and over-enthusiastic developers who want to rape our countryside and build on every piece of green space.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is moving closer to procedures for planning appeals.

Mr. Hancock

I thought that I was more than edging my way. I was suggesting significant changes to the Minister because a catalogue of issues must be dealt with.

I referred to the Conservative association in Portsmouth. It was suggested that councillors felt pressurised by the involvement of a political party and that they could have been in trouble under the code of conduct for local government, which the applicant could have used in his appeal. It is wrong that politicians cannot listen to the wider community and have a dialogue with developers; they should be given the opportunity to listen and to make judgments for themselves. Unfortunately, planning authorities are being pressurised by the way in which the appeal system currently operates, so bad planning applications are being granted. That cannot be in anyone's interests, least of all those of the local community, and it is unforgivable that Members of Parliament recognise that, but fail to do anything about it collectively. The Government will fail yet again if they do not deal with the matter.

I live in the second most densely populated city in Europe. It is highly overdeveloped in terms of the motor car, and it is now unreasonable for a planning application to be refused on car parking grounds. We have what is generally recognised as saturation car parking. Therefore, an issue that can be used in most planning appeals is no longer appropriate in Portsmouth because the city council has recognised that it has no solution to saturation car parking—either it turns down every application from now on or it does not exercise reasonableness. We want to try to exercise reasonableness.

A current application subject to a planning appeal is about a former club. It happened to be called the Landport Liberal club, but was nothing to do with the Liberal party. It went out of business, has been derelict for several years and is now in the hands of the receiver. There has been a spate of fires there, including a serious one last week at which I was on site. The divisional commander of the fire service told me that the building was so unsafe that he did not want his officers to go into it as that would put their lives at risk.

In such a case, one would make representations to the city council, as I did. I asked that the building be demolished. The response from the agent for the receiver was that the building would be knocked down if no reasonableness was exercised and the city council agreed to the planning application. Members of the council are being threatened and intimidated because the appeal process allows developers always to have the whip hand. That is unforgivable and unacceptable.

Later this week, the final Government decision on housing figures for the south-east will be brought into the public domain. It will probably be highly controversial and will undoubtedly lead to a number of appeals. I hope that the Minister will promise that the Government recognise flaws in the current system, whether on radio masts, on individual planning applications or on where development takes place. There must be changes. The one change that is crying out to be made is to take some of the power on planning applications away from developers and to give some of it to those who arc objecting. Unless that happens, the planning system will be totally discredited and will continue to cause a lot of annoyance, anger and unnecessary heartache.

11.52 am
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

It is a great pleasure to participate in the debate, which I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing. The subject is important and it is slightly surprising that more hon. Members from all parties have not clamoured to take part.

We worry a lot about falling voter participation in local government elections. There is one solid and proven way to increase it, which is to have a controversial planning application in a ward or division. We are all prone to the concerns of our constituents on such serious planning issues.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out the slight dichotomy between the quasi-judicial nature of planning committees and the fact that they are populated with politicians and so may be subject to political pressure He rightly touched on the current issue of mobile phone masts, as well as health concerns and changes in the planning system. I am delighted that, to some extent, the Government appear to have taken note of the Conservative campaign on the matter, in particular the way in which Conservative-controlled councils such as Kent county council have taken the issue by the scruff of the neck in the absence of clear guidance from the Government. Perhaps we will hear more about that in a moment. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), who is a fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute. We are all indebted to him for his experience and knowledge of these matters, and I am personally grateful for his guidance on the formulation of our planning policy. He rightly spoke about the role of the Secretary of State and how it had been brought into play by a recent High Court decision, to which I shall return.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) spoke with experience of the pressures on planning committees and reminded us of the sterling role played by the Portsmouth, South Conservatives in major planning matters in his area. His speech gave us a clue as to why his planning committees might have lasted 10 to 12 hours on occasion. None the less, he spoke with some authority.

The hon. Member for Twickenham rightly made the point that, in areas such as Twickenham, Eastbourne and Portsmouth, there are considerable pressures for overdevelopment. One of the major problems in planning is the retention of nation house-building targets. Although the Government have changed the description of the targets' purpose from "predict and provide" to "plan, monitor and manage", the reality on the ground is not much different.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the house-building targets for the south-east. The Government may well be trying to fudge the issue until after the next election, but those of us who represent constituencies in that region are dealing with the fall-out from an apparent insistence on anything up to 900,000 new houses in the region over the next few years. We can all point to examples in our constituencies of the consequences of that insistence. The hon. Gentleman mentioned 240 new houses for which space had to be found in Twickenham.

In my own area, on the border between Willingdon and Polegate, it is said that space will have to be found for 1,000 new houses. I find that difficult to support and have spoken against it at all levels. I already have a mailbag full of letters from people corn plaining that they cannot get their children into the school of their choice, that the roads are inadequate and that the local health service is under pressure. The question of how essential services will be provided to the people who live in those 1,000 new homes is a major issue in our area.

It is one of those typical situations, of which we have heard a number described today. The Government demand that space be found for the new houses, and the decision percolates through the system and translates into X new houses in a particular area or constituency. The local planning authority is under orders from the Secretary of State. The authority is in the process of drafting its new local plan. As someone who is an expert in these matters once said, there are only two sorts of local plan: those that are in preparation and those that are out of date. The shifting target for new housing in the area will somehow have to be fitted into the local plan.

I have heard no fewer than two Liberal Democrat Members speak this morning. Locally, the Liberal Democrats are talking tough on the threat to a large playing field and green space called Hindsland in my constituency. However, when the chips were down at a meeting of Serplan—the south-east regional planning committee—a few months ago, they voted with the Government for the higher target figures. That is an example of the pressures that are brought to bear because of planning applications.

One of the key issues to come out of the debate is the question of cross-appeals or third-party appeals. Conservative Members feel that that is a nettle that the Government have so far signally failed to grasp. There is no doubt that, sooner or later, under the human rights legislation and something called the Aarhus declaration, the system will have to recognise third-party appeals. The Government have already fallen foul of that problem in the High Court; the case has already been mentioned. The Minister should update us today on that case. I believe that the Government are appealing to the House of Lords. It would be interesting to hear when they expect the matter to be heard.

The role of the Secretary of State in the planning appeal system has already been brought into question because of human rights legislation. The Opposition are several steps ahead of the Government and, by definition, even more steps ahead of the Liberal Democrats in our planning policy. We believe that cross-appeals or third-party appeals are inevitable, so why do the Government not recognise the fact and allow them?

Other hon. Members have eloquently set out the apparent injustice to those who are not planning specialists of allowing wealthy, powerful developers to appeal against decisions, but not allowing local residents to appeal against the granting of what they consider to be wholly inappropriate planning applications. It is a familiar experience for those who serve on planning committees to be told by planning officers that it is possible to refuse a highly controversial application, but that the refusal will be appealed against, that the developers will probably win and that it will result in considerable cost to council tax payers. Those are the sort of pressures that are brought to bear on planning committees. We believe that cross-appeals should be permissible and that the number of appeals should be dramatically reduced.

We would remove the Secretary of State from the equation because it is a fiction. I would like to think of the Minister or her boss, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, sitting up for hours on end poring over the minutiae of such appeals, but we all know that a nice man from Bristol holds an inquiry and that, when he eventually reaches a decision, it is said to be the decision of the Secretary of State. I do not suggest any impropriety, but the system has been in force since the 1940s, is visibly and audibly creaking and fails to reflect local views. The Secretary of State should be removed from the appeal process and the planning inspectorate scrapped. Fewer decisions should be appealed against and those appeals should be heard by an independent appeal tribunal.

The majority of planning decisions should be made by the elected representatives of local people. I know the arguments that have been advanced about nimbyism—some people prefer to call it positive parochialism—and about political pressures, but at the moment we have the worst of all worlds. Local residents do not have ownership of their local plans. Nor do they feel involved in their preparation. The first that they may know of a planning application is a small sign stuck on a lamp post—and they may not see that until it is too late. They may decide that the application genuinely affects them and their way of life, but all too often their attempts to object are frustrated by the system. A planning system in which most local people have no influence and that makes local councillors feel powerless in the face of applications—often multiple applications—by large, well-funded developers is no longer sustainable.

Those are the ways in which the planning system should be changed. Local communities should have a clear right to decide whether to allow new developments. Those making applications should know in advance whether they are likely to receive permission. There should be a limited right of appeal. Appeals should be made only on narrow grounds. The right of appeal should also be available to local residents.

This has been an excellent debate and one that will resonate with all right hon. and hon. Members. Again, I commend the hon. Member for Twickenham for securing it.

12.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate and on giving us the opportunity to consider this subject. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said—this is probably the only point on which I agree with him—it is not a subject that many of our colleagues regard as the most politically exciting, but it is important in determining land use and the quality of the environment of our electors.

We have heard several criticisms of the planning system. I remind hon. Members that, at all levels, the planning system must take decisions on issues that are often hotly contested on all sides, trying to find the best resolution and taking into account policy, development plans and the competing views of the different interested parties. It is an arena with potential for enormous conflict, for different views and for difficult decisions. On balance, we have a system that, although by no means perfect—we have been trying to improve it—does its best in what is a difficult and emotional area for people.

Mr. Hancock

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hughes

No, I shall make a little progress first. The hon. Gentleman spoke for some time and I want to set out some of my main points first. I shall certainly give way to him later.

The hon. Member for Twickenham feels that Government policy on housing and planning does not reflect the situation of people in suburbs, as opposed to towns and city centres. I disagree. Our policy to achieve a better quality of urban life speaks closely to the different needs of different areas.

I also take issue with the hon. Gentleman's claim, repeated in a political context by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, that the Government are ascribing housing numbers to local authorities. That is untrue. We have insisted that, at the regional level, there be a target— although it is subject to periodic review—but how that target is achieved and the contribution of each local planning authority to meet housing need over time are matters for local authorities, together with the regional planning body.

That is not an imposition by central Government. In fact, the whole thrust of our approach to housing need and to the planning system to provide houses to meet that need is that it should be a shared and corporate responsibility among the regional and local bodies charged with that duty. That differs from the policy of the hon. Member for Eastbourne, who would abdicate all responsibility and leave every local authority to do its own thing, with no shared ownership of the region's housing problems.

Dr. Cable

I recognise that the Minister is trying to summarise what she regards as a balanced arrangement, but, if a local authority's unitary development plan does not provide sufficient housing, cannot the Department's inspector reject the, plan? At the end of the day, power lies with the Department, rather than with the local authority.

Ms Hughes

As I explained, that falls within the framework of the system requiring every local authority, in so far as it is able and taking into account a range of factors, to share ownership of the overall issue—to take responsibility with other local authorities for meeting the overall need for housing in a region. Clearly, if a local inspector feels that an authority is not fulfilling that responsibility to the degree that it might, he or she can say so, and rightly so.

The hon. Member for Twickenham told a story of predatory developers in his constituency trying to persuade local residents, by dubious means, to sell houses that could be converted or knocked down in order to build flats. Clearly, no one would support such activity. Such practice is not supported by Government policy and is to be abhorred. I accept his point that some residents are vulnerable, but they do not have to sell. Furthermore, the local authority does not have to grant planning permission, as he assumed.

Several hon. Members have painted a pejorative picture of all development as negative and unwelcome, but we must take a broader perspective. Much development is positive. It improves the quality of life and provides opportunity in areas; for example, suburban areas. The provision of smaller accommodation units can enable older people or younger single people to stay in an area, which they would not be able to do if only large houses were available. Development also has a beneficial impact on jobs, on the quality of the environment and in stimulating the local economy. The hon. Member for Twickenham referred to sustainable development. Such results assist sustainable development in many ways.

Mr. Hancock

The Minister is missing the point. We were talking about planning appeals, and applications that had already been turned down at local level. In general, 80 per cent. of planning applications are permitted and an not subject to appeal, a development that is welcomed by local people. However, the problem is that the appeal process is weighted heavily in favour of the developer.

Ms Hughes

With due respect to the hon. Member for Twickenham, the debate has slid some way from the subject of planning appeals. I am sure that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South will acknowledge that he talked specifically about the ability, willingness and capacity of local authorities, in the first instance, to turn down some applications because of perceived pressure from subsequent appeals. He talked about initial decisions.

Several hon. Members have claimed that the planning system is biased in favour of developers. We should acknowledge that we have a plan-led system, which requires the deposit of draft development plans and requires some decisions about the uses to which parcels of land will be put in principle to be made at local level. Applications will be sought in line with those policy decisions.

As we have a plan-led system, the charge of bias in favour of one set of interests does not hold water and must be qualified. The system is not based on a general presumption in favour of any party car interest. We are committed to a plan-led system that is given statutory force by legislation. In the context of development control, the system requires that, unless material considerations—I remind hon. Members that material considerations include the relevant considerations of third parties—indicate otherwise, local planning authorities must determine planning applications in accordance with the development plan.

The framework is not a free-for-all, or a system in which the rights of developers supersede those of everyone else. It represents a systematic approach to making decisions in principle about land use in the development plan and making development control decisions in accordance with that previously determined set of policies. In that way, an attempt is made through the system to strike a right and fair balance between the community's needs and individuals' rights.

People who apply for planning permission have a statutory right to appeal to the Secretary of State if the local planning authority refuses permission. An appeal can also be made if the authority fails to determine the application within eight weeks or if conditions are thought to be unwarranted. That statutory right has been a fundamental part of our planning system for more than half a century.

There has been a supposition in the debate—there may even have been an explicit statement—that most appeals are decided in favour of the developer. For the last year for which statistics are available, 1999–2000, almost 13,000 planning appeals were decided, but only 36 per cent. were allowed on appeal: two in one were not allowed. Decisions are not going in favour of developers. That rather challenges hon. Members' views. The appeals related to a wide variety of developments, with particular emphasis on household development, small-scale residential properties and change of use, the same issues that hon. Members have raised this morning. Hon. Members will know that planning appeals are decided in one of three ways: following an exchange of written representations, an inquiry or a hearing. The appellant and the local planning authority have the right to have the appeal heard by a person appointed by the Secretary of State.

We have introduced new rules and procedures for planning appeals received after 1 August 2000. Most respondents have welcomed those proposals, which we expect to ensure greater transparency and clarity in the system. Concern has been expressed about the time scales in the new procedures. I do not accept that they will affect the quality of decisions. Clear time scales that parties, whether developers or others, cannot drag out by not submitting evidence on time are in local people's interests. As a result of the new procedures, more evidence has been submitted on time.

The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned a couple of devices that he thinks developers sometimes use to circumvent the spirit of the appeal and planning processes. He mentioned the practice of twin-tracking, whereby two identical applications are submitted to the local authority at the same time. The applicant takes one to appeal as soon as the eight-week period has expired and continues to negotiate with the authority on the other. That is a safety-net approach. We have tried to make it a less attractive option. Twin-tracking used to enjoy a concession for the duplicate application. We have withdrawn that benefit. Both applications must now be accompanied by the full fee, reflecting our view that the submission of two applications involves a lot of work and deliberation.

Other hon. Members raised the practice of repetitive applications with respect to a particular site. The current legislation gives local planning authorities the power to turn away planning applications within two years of a similar, or substantially similar, application being rejected by the Secretary of State on appeal or following call-in, if there has been no significant change in the material circumstances.

The hon. Member for Twickenham made several suggestions. He talked about the ability of local people to put their point of view independently. Our present planning system and the system of development control are predicated on the assumption that the local authority is the best forum for such decisions.

I support the principle that elected members should both oversee the process by which planning decisions are made and be involved in individual development control decisions. Some hon. Members have had experience of those matters at local authority level, as I have. However, they have underestimated both the ability of council members to take difficult decisions and the jealousy with which such people guard their authority to make quasi-judicial decisions.

The suggestion that council members either have been browbeaten by officers or are afraid of going against the recommendations in officers' reports to planning committees does not square with my experience. Elected members take their role seriously. They realise that there are difficult decisions—that sometimes it is difficult to marry competing interests. In many instances, local people are being invited to planning committee meetings. It happens less in Conservative-controlled authorities, but it certainly happens in Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled ones. They are given the opportunity to express their views. It is interesting that, in Tory authorities, the councillors have more difficulty with that concept, which contradicts the policy that the hon. Member for Eastbourne said his party stood for, at least at national level.

Mr. Waterson

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Hughes

Certainly. The hon. Gentleman has risen to the bait.

Mr. Waterson

The Minister has only herself to blame. Is she now going to come to cross-appeals? It is no good inviting people to attend local planning committee meetings to let off steam if, at the end of the process, they feel that they have no control over whether a decision is made, or whether it can be overturned on appeal by them, rather than by the unsuccessful developer.

Ms Hughes

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman did not respond to the point that I was making, but went on to the next issue that I was about to raise. I know that, in some quarters, there is pressure for the introduction of some form of third-party right of appeal. Some people believe that that is an inevitable consequence of the Human Rights Act 1998. I agree that people affected by, or with an interest in, the development of an area should have an opportunity to make their views known before decisions are taken. The planning system should operate fairly and should be seen to do so. It should give people the chance to comment, as it does on development plans and on individual planning applications. It is also right that there should be an opportunity to challenge the granting of planning permission by a local authority through the judicial review process.

The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned one of the difficulties that could arise from a universal third-party right of appeal: the impact that it could have on the decision-making process and the fact that it might be used as a device to delay or to veto applications that would otherwise be perfectly acceptable and bring jobs and regeneration to local communities. It is a difficult issue. I am not persuaded that a universal third-party right of appeal is either desirable in principle or an inevitable consequence of the Human Rights Act, but I am aware that there is pressure for it and I am sure that that pressure will continue.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned retrospective appeals, whereby a developer does not apply for permission, but simply does something and then goes back to the local authority. That is reprehensible; it is always so. The hon. Gentleman said that occasionally there are reasons for it—perhaps reasons not of intent, but of omission. Local authorities should take a strong line when that occurs. Indeed, they have the power to do so. They must use their power not only to make individual decisions, but to send the right message to developers that they will not tolerate people who ride roughshod over the planning process.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that a predisposition to sustainable development, rather than what he regarded as a predisposition to development, was important. I do not accept that distinction. In my earlier remarks, I tried to convey that development is an important issue, which need not necessarily be a negative one.

The issue of human rights was raised by the hon. Member for Eastbourne and others. It is correct that, in four test cases, the divisional court found that various planning processes might not be compatible with article 6 of the European convention on human rights. The court also found that the Secretary of State was not acting unlawfully, which is important. The judgment was directed to the House of Lords on appeal, which heard the case at the end of February. We are awaiting judgment and expert it to be announced in May or early June. I can comment no further for that reason.

On telecommunications, I remind the hon. Member for Eastbourne that this Government established the Stewart inquiry and that we are continuing to support substantial research on health and other issues. An announcement was made last Friday. which the Minister for Housing and Planning communicated to all hon. Members with constituencies in England, as well as to all council leaders and chief planning officers, so everyone is fully informed.

The series of important changes to the planning system for telecommunications masts significantly strengthen the current arrangements. We shall strengthen public consultation requirements on proposals for masts of 15 m and under, so that they are exactly the same as applications for planning permission. We shall increase the time for authorities to deal with prior approval applications from 42 to 56 days, which is the same period as that for a full planning application. We have underlined that school governors must be consulted on all proposals for new masts on or near a school or college. We have increased the fees to enable authorities to carry out full public consultation.

We shall introduce those changes and revised planning policy guidance at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Hancock

Will the Minister clarify what she means by "on or near"? Apparently, there is no effect outside a certain distance.

Ms Hughes

There will be further information about that. From the Stewart report, "on" means "on the premises" and "near" would normally relate to the beam of greatest intensity falling on some part of the school premises. Stewart raised those issues and those are the parameters.

Hon. Members' views have been less than rounded on the importance of development. Although I acknowledge that there may be individual issues, they should take a wider view. They have been unnecessarily critical of the planning system, which involves difficult issues. We inherited a seriously flawed system and have spent a lot of time modernising it. Many of the changes have been introduced to ensure that all those involved, especially local people, get a fair say. The process needs to be transparent and one with which people can engage more easily. I believe that the planning system pays heed as far as possible to all points of view in relation to development control decisions.