Planning (Enforcement) Bill

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Friday 19th November 2021

(2 weeks, 1 day ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities
Ben Spencer Portrait Dr Spencer
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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is just another example of something I said at the start of my remarks: while this issue blights many parts of Runnymede and Weybridge, it affects people across England and Wales.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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May I ask why my hon. Friend’s Bill is drafted in such a tentative way? It says that the Secretary of State “may” make regulations. Bearing in mind my hon. Friend’s strength of feeling on this issue, which I share very much, why is he not demanding more of the Secretary of State?

Ben Spencer Portrait Dr Spencer
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The reason for the Bill’s drafting is that this whole area of planning enforcement and law is complicated—I recognise that—and in the discussions that I have had with Ministers—

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Gagan Mohindra Portrait Mr Mohindra
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend, who I know is newer in this place than he looks. I totally agree with his comments about the unintended consequences and the knock-on ecological damage associated with bad practice by some landowners.

Like many fellow Members, I am in regular contact with local authorities, so I am aware of proposed developments and any future plans to utilise brownfield land in my constituency. I also attend monthly meetings with residents associations across South West Hertfordshire, so I know that my constituents are passionate about protecting their green-belt land and preventing its destruction. They repeatedly raise the need for greater measures to protect the green belt and the desire to be more involved in local planning decisions. My constituents work hard, in collaboration with local councils, to ensure that brownfield land is prioritised for development instead of our valuable green-belt areas.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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In the light of what my hon. Friend says, can he understand why the Government objected to my Green Belt Protection Bill last week? Does he share my hope that when the Bill comes forward today, the Government will no longer object?

Gagan Mohindra Portrait Mr Mohindra
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As my hon. Friend will know, that decision is well above my pay grade. I suggest that he takes it up with Front Benchers and with his Whip.

I am supporting the Bill so that we can advance the discussion around our responsibility to protect our green-belt land from development.

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Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury
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The hon. Lady anticipates the end of my speech.

In the planning system, enforcement action is intended to be remedial rather than punitive. That might be the difficulty. To carry out development without the necessary consent is not in itself a criminal offence, and as I understand it this place has always baulked at the idea of making it one; however, the failure to comply with a planning enforcement notice is a criminal offence and carries the risk of heavy fines and, ultimately, imprisonment.

We have a lot of sympathy for the Bill and, most certainly, for the reasons why the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has brought it to the House, and we understand why so many Members with green belt and open space in their constituencies are present, but we are not convinced that the specific measures in the Bill will actually address the egregious breaches. Clearly, a failure somewhere in the system has allowed to arise the situation about which Members have spoken so eloquently; it is cumbersome and slow.

In conclusion—

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Will the hon. Lady include in her conclusion a consideration of whether it is appropriate for people to be able to continue to appeal against enforcement notices? That is where a lot of the abuse arises, particularly in respect of the length of time.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury
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As I say, I am no planning lawyer. The situation clearly needs to be investigated. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge described just that situation when we met earlier.

We would like assurance from the Government that there will be a review of the particularly extreme examples of planning abuses and the cases that go on and on for many years. Particular attention should be given to cases in which it appears that the same offenders try the same tactics at multiple sites, which is the reason why the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge had the idea of a database. The review should consider whether aspects of planning law should be amended to better address the kind of breaches that have led the hon. Member to introduce the Bill.

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Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O’Brien)
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What superb speeches we have heard today, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) for his proposals to strengthen the hand of local planning authorities, protect our precious green belt, and crack down on rogue development. He makes an important point that this is not just about protecting our green spaces, but is a basic issue of fairness. As the hon. Member who represents the place where Magna Carta was signed, he is very conscious of fairness and the rule of law. Of course, when Magna Carta was signed, barons tried to drag concessions out of a rather unwilling Executive, but in this case we are entirely in alignment. I am sure hon. Members across the House will have experienced problems similar to those he describes. They are problems we must solve, and I look forward to doing so with my hon. Friend.

While the Government are very sympathetic to the objectives of the Bill, we believe that the changes that we need to enforcement are best developed as part of a package and aligned with our wider planning reforms. As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will know, we are currently reviewing these departmental programmes and engaging with key parties ahead of setting out our proposed way forward.

I believe that hon. Members across the House will agree that the current system does not always serve local communities effectively, which is why we want to modernise the planning system in England, so that it strengthens enforcement and provides better outcomes for local authorities and communities. We want to make it easier for local planning authorities to tackle deliberate unauthorised development and ensure that the retrospective planning process is not abused. At the same time, we want to see retrospective applications used only by those who have genuinely made a mistake.

I know how important it is to make sure that local authorities have the right capabilities to implement these reforms, especially with respect to the planning enforcement regime. The additional £65 million announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget will enable us to make the upfront investment in skills, digitisation and capability required to make these reforms a success. My hon. Friend proposed the creation of a database of local enforcement registers. While the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) raised some important questions about this, we are keen, as part of the investment we are making in digitisation, to make sure that more data enforcement is digitally available to be shared among local planning authorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge raised a series of really important issues about the potential gaming of the system, and those are exactly the kinds of issues that we are looking to address. To address the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), who asked whether sites that had been illegally developed would be considered brownfield as a result, my understanding is that most local planning authorities would not consider them to be brownfield sites as they had not been subject to previous lawful development. There is, of course, some theology around what exactly is brownfield, having been asked before whether Stonehenge is a brownfield site. That is one, perhaps, for the philosophers, but, on that particular point, I hope that I can put the mind of my hon. Friend at ease.

Today, in addition to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, we have heard some really excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Bury North (James Daly). My normally mild-mannered hon. Friend the Member for Meriden was, I think, channelling John Rambo when he said, “We are coming for you”, and we absolutely are. I am not sure what was put in his tea this morning, but he is passionate, and rightly so, because this is a hugely important issue.

We have also had hugely important contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), for Truro and Falmouth, for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). We all share the same concerns and we all want to see the same things changing and to fix these unfairnesses. This Government are committed to improving the planning system.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Does my hon. Friend share the sense of urgency that has been palpable in all the contributions from the Conservative Benches? From what he is saying, it seems as though the Government are in the process of kicking this down the road.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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I absolutely share the sense of urgency of my hon. Friend, and it is something that we are actively working to solve. Yes, absolutely, the level of interest from hon. Members, particularly on the Conservative Benches, is striking and they are quite right to be provoked and interested in this important subject.

This Government are committed to improving the planning system so that it works more effectively, delivers better outcomes and supports our mission to level up communities right across the country.