Local Government Finance
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : This is an anti-poll tax petition. It is the tip of the iceberg and has been organised by the London Anti-Poll Tax Campaign with which I have been associated for some time, including addressing a meeting in your constituency, Mr. Speaker. The petition reads :
"To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. The Humble Petition of the People of London sheweth that legislation to introduce a poll tax will place an unbearable financial burden upon your petitioners, subsidise wealthy people at the direct expense of others, create fear and despondency amongst those who cannot pay, disfranchise many who will be frightened to claim their right to vote, attack the civil liberties of your petitioners by opening up areas of sensitive and private information for the Poll Tax Registrar, destroy the democratic freedom of your petitioners to elect local councillors who can act with a degree of independence from the power of the central state. Wherefore your petitioners pray that your Honourable House will take measures to hold a national referendum on the Poll Tax legislation. And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray etc."
This is the worst taxation system that has ever been introduced--
To lie upon the Table.
Planning Permission (Demolition of Houses) Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
Having had no more luck in 14 years of parliamentary ballots for private Member's Bills than I have had in premium bond draws, I wasted no emotional energy on hoping to get a Bill on to the statute book and I harboured no preconceptions about a desirable subject for private Member's legislation when, surprisingly, my name popped out of the hat at the beginning of this Session.
The many unsolicited suggestions that I received were almost all for major Bills. Some were highly controversial and, moved by Member No. 6 in the order of precedence, stood no chance of reaching the statute book in the limited time available. The Bills proposed to me by the Government Whips seemed either so bland and banal as to offer no appreciable benefit to my constituents or to be legislative afterthoughts which it was really the duty of the Government to enact, rather than a private Member in probably his sole chance of a lifetime.
Wearied by a surfeit of juggernaut Bills in Government time, I sought a short and simple measure whose object would be clearly defined in its title, whose guiding principle would be widely supported by the general public and whose philosophy was traditionally shared by my party. The measure should secure the backing of Members of all parties in the House ; above all, it should accord with the publicly proclaimed policies of Her Majesty's Government. At that point, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) generously proposed that I promote his admirable one- clause Bill to make it obligatory to apply for planning permission before demolishing a dwelling house, and I readily agreed.
Having been introduced formally by my hon. Friend in two earlier Parliaments, the Bill is by now well known to the Department of the Environment and has enjoyed favourable press comment. There has been ample time for it to be considered, not only by the Government but by all interested parties.
My hon. Friend's list of sponsors impressed me : they were all Conservative Members with impeccable parliamentary credentials, the sum of whose total political experience was, in my view, at least a match for that of Ministers in the Department of the Environment. These Back Benchers had a proven record of distinguished service to constituents and party alike, and their collective judgment could only be regarded as sound. When it comes to private Members' Bills, by their sponsors shall ye know them.
When I adopted the Bill, I believed that many of the arguments in favour of it would be self-evident--that they would virtually speak for themselves. Certainly I hope that neither I nor other hon. Members need detain the House with long speeches on Second Reading. The clear purpose behind the Bill accords entirely with the Government's much-vaunted desire to protect the environment--a desire
Column 495that is earnestly shared on both sides of the House, and in the country as a whole--although its detailed and technical practicalities can be fully tested only in Committee. While I do not pretend to be a planning boffin, I believe that it represents the views of people up and down the country. I make no bold prescriptive claims on its behalf, but I can assert that it meets an urgent need that should be addressed immediately.
The 1987 Conservative election manifesto contains a section on planning and the environment, which puts the Bill in its political context. It begins :
"Conservatives are by instinct conservationists--committed to preserve all that is best of our country's past. We are determined to maintain our national heritage of countryside and architecture Wherever possible we want to encourage large-scale developments to take place on unused and neglected land in our towns and cities rather than in the countryside."
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the magnificent service that he is doing to the country? The number of Conservative Members who are present this morning illustrates the concern that is felt by them, and by the planning group of which I, like my hon. Friend, am an active member. May I make two points? Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have been slow to do something about the thousands of acres of vacant public land lying dormant and surplus to requirements? Should they not dispose of that eyesore and build on land that is being stored by public organisations, rather than on green-field sites? Secondly, as regards my hon. Friend's Bill--
Secondly, does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill, although well measured and well thought out, is likely to give rise to enormous planning bureaucracy? Will not more and more time--
Mr. Speaker : Order. I am terribly sorry, but I still think that the hon. Gentleman's remarks would be more appropriate as part of a speech. I know that his constituency is a long way away, and I shall try to get him in nice and early.
Mr. Wilkinson : I appreciate my hon. Friend's intervention, and defer to his considerable experience, which goes back many years and has done our party a singular service. I hope that he will be lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and will make an appropriate intervention later on the specific subject of the extra bureaucracy to which the Bill may or may not lead.
The manifesto continues :
"We want to improve on our performance in 1986, when nearly half of all new development took place on reused land."
The overriding impression of existing planning law is that confusion reigns supreme, that inexplicable anomalies abound and that, when it comes to protecting the citizen's
Column 496residential environment, current legislation is gravely deficient. The definition of what constitutes development is itself ambiguous, being--I quote from section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971--
"the carrying out of building, engineering, mining or other operations in, on, over or under land, or the making of any material change in the use of any buildings or other land."
Development, of course, requires prior planning permission. Although to the layman the wording of that provision in that 1971 Act would seem to preclude demolition of a dwelling house without prior planning permission-- as demolishing a house must, by making it uninhabitable, constitute a change of use--local authorities have assumed demolition to be outside the ambit of planning control, an assumption that has not been challenged successfully in the courts. The man in the street cannot comprehend why planning permission should be required before a householder can initiate relatively minor changes to the size and structure of his home, which impinge very little on the amenity of his neighbours or the environment of the area, while to turn that home into a wasteground by means of demolition is unrestrainedly permissible.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford) : My hon. Friend said that the proposition that demolition was not development had not been challenged successfully in the courts. Will he not go further and point out that it has been challenged unsuccessfully--in the case of nissen huts, for instance? Why has he not attempted to expand the definition of development to include demolition, which would surely be a rather simpler way of achieving what he wishes to achieve?
Mr. Wilkinson : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful and thoughtful intervention. I was seeking to make the Bill as simple as possible ; the expansion of its legislative proposals to make them more thorough and effective could readily be accomplished in Committee. That is why the Bill should go to Committee, and that is why I commend it for Second Reading today.
No amount of willowherb in July or blackberries in autumn on a bomb site can compensate for the loss of quality of life or drop in property values of those who live around and beside sites of such legalised neighbourhood vandalism. The contrast between the necessity for prior planning permission for relatively small changes to a dwelling house and the lack of such a requirement to sanction its demolition is tantamount to granting a residential landscape greater legal protection against minor alteration than against its destruction.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : Does my hon. Friend envisage that there will be an appeals procedure in the Bill? If there was such a procedure, would it not lead to blight, which might be even more deleterious to the environment than the waste land to which he has referred?
Mr. Wilkinson : That argument is ideally suited for Standing Committee. By instinct I am inclined towards such an appeals procedure, but the arguments to the contrary advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East may be telling.
Sadly, the abuses that I have described seldom come singularly. If two or three adjacent properties can be acquired and flattened, the unscrupulous can present to a local authority a case for redevelopment in an area which
Column 497otherwise would undoubtedly have been protected by a refusal of planning permission. Although, over the years, a specific and effective system of protecting listed dwellings and homes in conservation areas from demolition without the strictest and most exceptional prior planning permission has been in place, and has been universally welcomed, the lack of a clear legal control of demolition has long caused deep public anxiety.
The report by Mr. G. Dobry QC which was published in 1974 on the control of demolition gave clear practical reasons for a generalised extension of planning control over demolition and those reasons remain equally valid 16 years on. His first reason related to the aftermath of demolition. Barren sites, inadequately fenced, often become a dumping ground causing general deterioration of the neighbourhood. Secondly, demolition as a fait accompli can be used by developers to force the granting of planning permission. Finally premature demolition and vacancy of residential accommodation in anticipation of development causes public disquiet.
Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington) : I entirely support ths admirable measure, and hope that it receives its Second Reading today. However, I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware of a further dimension to the problem. In areas of south suburban London such as mine, when houses are demolished gratuitously, it is almost an invitation for local gipsies, didicois and tinkers to come in and occupy those sites with their caravans, causing enormous annoyance to local residents and considerable law and order hazards.
By enacting this Bill, the Government and the House could at last rectify the error of not implementing the recommendation in Mr. Dobry's report, which the Department of the Environment sponsored. The Committee stage of this Bill would usefully constitute the process of public consultation, as all interested parties would undoubtedly make representations once legislation became imminent rather than merely hypothetical.
If the Department of the Environment were to promote its own planning Bill next Session, as has been suggested to me by Ministers--there is no certainty that it will be able to do that in current foreseeable electoral circumstances--my Bill, if enacted, could be consolidated later into the new Bill. That would save valuable legislative time in what must be the last full Session before the next general election.
Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes) : Is my hon. Friend aware that certain planning officers, particularly in my borough of Richmond upon Thames, have suggested to me that the Government are planning a consolidation of planning legislation whether or not there is a new law? Therefore, would my hon. Friend's Bill not be ideal for consolidation in the foreseeable future?
The Bill is not, as some would wrongly describe it, a surburban dwellers' charter or a Bill to address a problem which confronts London and the home counties alone. I remember, when I represented Bradford, West in 1970,
Column 498that the same unprincipled practices of demolition were used in Bradford to force out elderly people and break up happy communities in inner-city streets of basically sound houses to make space for high rise flats and other blots on an urban residential landscape which deserved to be cherished, not bulldozed.
The protection afforded by listing buildings and conservation areas is not enough. Most people do not live in homes of outstanding architectural or historic interest or in neighbourhoods of obvious natural beauty. However, their homes and those of their neighbours and friends represent a treasured quality of life for them and their children for which the law, in all equity, should provide comparable safeguards. Just because people do not live in conservation areas or listed dwellings should not, by virtue of the insouciance of Government, make them vulnerable to depredations upon their environment of the demolition men.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will, I am sure, profess sympathy for the Bill. If so, I welcome it. However, he should also remember that the public will see the Government's reaction to the Bill as a touchstone of their environmental credentials.
People will be looking to see the Government's sympathetic rhetoric matched by prompt and urgent action. I offer the Government an incomparable legislative opportunity to redress a manifest abuse. Those whose neighbourhoods are at risk from the men with the ball and chain expect action from the Government now.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environnent has all the right instincts. He is courteous, sensitive, civilised, well- read and intelligent. He should do what the Labour Government did for the late Duncan Sandys's Civic Amenities Bill in 1967 which designated conservation areas--we should give this Bill a fair wind into Committee and beyond to the statute book.
As for the number of extra planning posts that the Bill might require on implementation, I can say only that, as with the enforcement of the poll tax, the Government can will the means if they so wish. The Government hitherto have said that they will try to have the Bill talked out. I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench that loyalty should operate both ways. We must secure from Government the enactment of legislative proposals from their supporters, like this brief but constructive Bill, just as much as they demand unquestioning backing for Government legislation whose merits are, candidly, often not immediately apparent. I warn the House that parliamentary stratagems such as having a Bill talked out may seem the height of political sophistry to their would- be perpetrators--I have witnesses that that action has been prepared--but before it is put into action, I advise my colleagues that outside the House it will appear to be parliamentary sabotage not just of this modest but deserving legislation, but of the important Bill which lies second on today's Order Paper.
Before coming to the House, I did my right hon. and hon. Friends, other than Ministers and their Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the courtesy of soliciting by letter their views on my proposed legislation. Of those with prior political engagements elsewhere this day, 42 were in favour of the Bill. One was in favour, with
Column 499reservations which he said that I could doubtless remove if we were to talk. One was at the Council of Europe. Two were otherwise abroad. One kept his options open by leaving both parts of the form unmarked. Another said that he could not declare himself, let alone be present, because he would have to chair the Standing Committee if the Bill received a Second Reading. A further nine declared their support for the Bill in writing and their determination to attend the debate. Only one of my right hon. and hon. Friends expressed any opposition to the Bill.
"We will plan ourselves into perdition,"
"if we are not careful."
I hope that the Government are careful with the Bill and do not side with the odd man out. Therein lies total isolation and the road to political perdition. However, I have faith that the collective wisdom of hon. Members will prevail to see this little Bill safely through the House and to grant it a Second Reading this day. 10 am
Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on his good luck in the ballot and on introducing a Bill that will have some merit if the Standing Committee business is targeted at resolving some inherent problems in the present planning procedure. There must be procedures to ensure that permission to demolish houses is not as forthcoming as it is at present. Therefore, there is merit in considering this brief Bill. Reference has been made to appeals procedures. In any democracy, the individual must have the right to appeal against any decision that is taken by a local planning authority. The appeals procedure must apply in this case, as it does in other planning cases. It is important that the demolition appeals procedure is so constructed that there are no outstanding lengthy appeals as there are in other planning matters. If the Bill is granted a Second Reading, the appeals procedure will be an important topic in Committee. The appeals inspectorate must be strengthened and all aspects of planning procedures must be speeded up. Further, we must include in the legislation a provision requiring consistency in any planning proposals and decisions.
The hon. Gentleman referred to subsidence. Mining subsidence has caused the demolition of property in many constituencies. Hon. Members must direct attention at demolition problems that are caused by mining subsidence. There must be close co-operation and discussions with British Coal when mine workings are planned in high-density residential areas. Mining subsidence problems should be considered before any demolition takes place. That may include the planning of workings in urban and rural areas where great suffering takes place because of mining subsidence.
Mr. Arbuthnot : I confess that I did not expect the debate to turn into a mining debate. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why it seems that the Labour party's policy has changed since it rejected Mr. Dobry's report in 1974? I shall be interested to hear his reply.
Column 500made by the hon. Member for Ruislip- Northwood. He referred to subsidence. The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) is trying to introduce a wider debate on mining procedures. I am prepared to do that, because I am a mining man, but I know that you would stop me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Mr. O'Brien : I do not wish to intrude on your stewardship this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford wishes to raise that issue, perhaps he could do so in Committee.
Reference has been made to the Town and Country Planning Bill now in another place. I hope that we will discuss planning procedures during the consolidation of the legislation. This brief Bill would help to strengthen the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, which has been in existence for many years and needs consolidating. Opposition Members will not oppose the Bill. Given the proposals that have been outlined by its promoter, I support the application that the Bill should be referred to a Standing Committee. I hope that the Minister will accept the merits of the Bill and allow it to proceed to Committee.
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because it gives me the opportunity to pay a warm tribute to the promoter of the Bill, my hon. and good Friend and colleague the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) for his work in taking this modest measure a step further, in the crucial habit and custom--which resembles winning the treble chance except that one does not get any money- -known as the ballot for private Members Bills. Even to be No. 6 has enormous potential--it is never as good as No. 1, but it is said that half way between one and 12 is pretty good.
My hon. Friend could have chosen a number of extremely beguiling measures, such as those produced from independent intellectual thought and those coming from the Government's labours. Sometimes, interesting Government Bills can be taken up by hon. Members. Instead, my hon. Friend chose this proposal. I am most grateful to him for that and also for adhering to the original text, which was drafted with the usual consummate skill by the Public Bill Office. Lest my hon. Friend the Minister suggest that there is any deficiency in the text, I must state that it is pristine--a gem of a Bill--as I am sure he will agree if he is allowed to say what he really feels, which I know that he will be tempted to do because he is a humane man.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood quoted several of the respondents to whom he wrote his impressive letter asking for support. I have also received some correspondence because people know that I have been associated with my hon. Friend's initiative. Although I cannot give the name, I have with me a letter from a member of the Government Whips Office. Paragraph two of that striking letter states :
"Obviously I cannot join your delegation as a Government Whip"-- referring to one of our visits to the Department--
Column 501"though I will most certainly be with you in spirit."
In recent months I had become disillusioned with the Government monolith and had been thinking that there was no end to Cabinet-only rule, and that no consideration was given to alternative ideas. Perhaps it is down to one individual now and even the Cabinet only gets a little look in. Because I was demoralised by those developments, that letter gave me new hope because I knew that my parliamentary colleagues in the Government were human beings, too, and that they would listen to cogent arguments. Those cogent arguments were advanced magisterially and non-histrionically by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood.
As both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien)--to whom we are grateful for his support--have said, the Bill may felicitously and practically be included in later consolidation if, as has been rumoured, a Government planning Bill is introduced in the autumn. It is thus not an attempt mischieviously to anticipate or to distort any future objectives. Although I should not dream of identifying them, officials in the Department have hinted that they and the Government have never really liked private Members Bills suggesting planning proposals. They are always uneasy about that and prefer it to be a departmental and official initiative. I can understand that to some extent because of the complexities of our planning laws and the underlying rules and regulations. However, the Department was moving towards an understanding of the concept of the Bill despite worries about the dangers of an increase in the bureaucracy and the expense of legitimate planning applications and their resolutions. I share that anxiety.
Although I do not presume to be a substitute promoter for the Bill and am merely a loyal supporter of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip- Northwood, nevertheless, as he so kindly said, I was the original designer of the proposal when it was launched and promulgated through the ordinary presentation procedure. However, with all the emphasis that I can command today, I stress that the Bill is not in any way an anti-property developer measure. That would be manifestly absurd for Conservative Members who strongly believe in legitimate private enterprise activity, private industry and private effort in industrial and commercial achievements. That applies to the important sector of property developers, estate developers, house builders and all those involved in the general industry. Incidentally, compared with other European countries that sector is highly developed and highly sophisticated in Britain.
I pay tribute to the many decent property developers who, although they cannot say so publicly because presumably they have to support their federation and trade associations, have expressed a degree of support for the measure privately to me and, I believe, to a number of my colleagues. They have witnessed the vandalism that has been launched by the indecent, illegitimate and over-ruthless property developers who do not have the same regard for the general good as the vast number of decent property developers. The latter category are concerned about the need to provide lower-cost housing in the more expensive southern areas and in the greater London conurbation rather than doing as the more ruthless property developers wish and concentrating on the expensive end of the market, building £300,000 retirement flats for elderly people who no longer need a mortgage and can indulge in a cash-only deal. The decent
Column 502tribe of property developers reject that because their priority and wish is to provide socially useful housing--with a reasonable profit for themselves, of course--but they are often prevented from doing that by the activities of the indecent minority.
Although the Bill is brief and seems modest, it is crucial because it removes an outdated anomaly. The more I think about it, the more astonishing it seems, that in 1990 there is no local control over the first crucial stage of the redevelopment process on any given site. This applies both in conurbations and in rural areas. Incidentally, we are glad to have the support of our rural colleagues from all parties. The problem affects both north and south, and it will afflict the north more and more unless we deal with it now. As I have said, there is no local control over the first crucial stage of planning and development activity, which is the demolition of an existing building or buildings.
The rapacious minority of property developers are not concerned with the public good. My own constituency saw the notorious case in which one half of a pair of 1930s semi-detached dwellings was pulled down without the inhabitants of the adjoining house having any control or say, or even being notified. That scandal has been mentioned in the press, and it was referred to again this week in the Evening Standard.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Michael Spicer) : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I will certainly return some compliments about him when I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have seen reports of the case to which he has just referred--indeed, a trade magazine recently carried a lengthy report of it--but how widespread is that type of case? I keep hearing about that one instance. I should genuinely like to know whether my hon. Friend has any evidence of the problem being more widespread.
Mr. Dykes : That case triggered my attention to this amazing situation for the first time. There are no controls over the first step in the planning process although there are fully developed controls over all the rest--the redevelopment and the rebuilding. Nevertheless developers seem to have a growing tendency no longer to pull down first one dwelling but to say, "Because my super-normal profits can come only from ever larger scale developments in the face of ferocious competition from my rapacious property developer friends, whom I know intimately because we all play golf together, I must do this on an ever larger scale and pull down not one unit, but clusters of houses."
I have heard from witnesses not only in my constituency but elsewhere, and I have with me a file containing just one twentieth of the examples that I have received from all over the country and from many colleagues, to whom I am grateful for sending me that information. Some developers pull down six, 10 or 12 houses, only to find that one awkward old lady has the cheek not to wish to leave her home. That is utter heresy and entirely unacceptable to the developers, so she has to be bribed, winkled or harrassed out. The phenomenon will recur in greater measure in the future. After all, to whom do the banks most wish to provide finance? It must be to the property industry, which is one of the best securities of all, notwithstanding the present recession. That is why we must deal with these problems. In answer to my hon. Friend the Minister, those
Column 503examples are widespread and of crucial importance, I repeat that that horrific case was the trigger for me. Mr. and Mrs. Williams of Harrow Weald responded with a civilised restraint which still astonishes me, bearing in mind what they have suffered. That case triggered me into paying further attention to the present extraordinary anomaly.
Mr. O'Brien : Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Minister to visit the Docklands developments, because if he wants to see instances of developers demolishing residential properties by their tens, twenties and hundreds, the evidence is there. Good properties are being demolished without consultation with anyone. That is happening not only in the London Docklands area, but in other urban development corporation areas. The evidence exists and the hon. Gentleman should remind his hon. Friend about it.
Mr. Dykes : That interesting thought shows once again that this issue is not simply an indulgence of outer London suburban Members of Parliament wishing to deal with a pet problem. It is a national matter, affecting urban and rural areas, north and south.
A legitimate objection to the proposals would be the fear of excessive bureaucracy and additional expense. Although I accept that point, I am convinced that that would not occur because we already regard the necessity for planning controls in the crucial first stage of any redevelopment activity--the discretionary demolition of a building--as totally normal for a conservation area or a listed building. In other, continental, countries one has to have permission for demolition.
It is crucial that the Bill goes into Committee so that we can discuss the modalities in detail and the procedural planning administration points. If it is organised properly, the implication of having to obtain permission for demolition, dealt with either as part of the substantive planning application in one package, dealt with rapidly at stage one-- notwithstanding the fears of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip- Northwood about vandalism of a site which is left untended for too long and his desire that developers should look after vacant sites--or dealt with at stage 2 of the original planning application for the new buildings, the implication will be that permission for a reasonable development will be much more easily obtainable. The incidence weight and enormous bureaucratic expense of the appeals procedure will thereby be reduced.
Mr. Dykes : I shall give way if I have time. I am watching the clock and trying to make my points. I must be fair to my other hon. Friends. I know my hon. Friend's interest in planning matters and in the legal aspects.
The great weight of bureaucratic expense is now at the other end of the procedure. Appeals are not launched