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Column 1146Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Sydney Chapman and
Mr. Timothy Wood.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Madam Speaker-- forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House strongly supports the Government's transport policies which are providing more efficient and effective delivery for all users, in particular through the programme of privatisation and liberalisation in transport which allows the market to provide the transport services users want rather than the services which central planners dictate they should have ; believes that the Government's rail reforms will build on the improvements in passenger service quality already achieved under the Citizen's Charter and offer the best opportunity to transfer freight from road to rail ; noting the increased levels of public investment in rail, road and London Transport infrastructure, welcomes also the innovative means of financing new transport infrastructure developed in the Private Finance Initiative ; supports the initiatives taken by the Government in the European Union to deal with sub-standard shipping ; and applauds the Government's drive to liberalise aviation in the European Third Aviation Package and elsewhere.
That Mr. Raymond S. Robertson be discharged from the Select Committee on Procedure and Cheryl Gillan be added to the Committee.--[ Mr. Patnick .]
That Mr. Piara S. Khabra be added to the Select Committee on Members' Interests.--[ Mr. Patnick .]
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : Today is an appropriate day to present this petition calling for the restoration of Lancashire's historic county boundaries. Today is the birthday of both Her Majesty the Queen, the Duke of Lancaster, and also the noble Earl of Derby, whose ancestor presented Bolton with its first charter in 1253, and who shares the same ancestor with Her Majesty in the Tudor Lancastrian John of Gaunt.
The petition says :
Column 1147To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.
The Humble Petition of the Friends of Real Lancashire sheweth That the petitioners wish that the Metropolitan Counties of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cumbria be abolished and the real and historic county of Lancashire be restored.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House will call on Her Majesty's Government to place the whole of the county of Lancashire under the jurisdiction of the Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire, to include Lancashire in the postal address, to erect signs bearing the county name where roads enter Lancashire and to remove signs naming the defunct administrative areas of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cumbria, and to show the real boundaries of Lancashire on all maps.
And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, etc. To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Arbuthnot.]
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) : I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for the opportunity to have this debate about a most distressing issue that is afflicting parts of my constituency. The background to the debate, which is about the provision of sites for travelling people in the constituency of Colchester, North, is, of course, the Caravan Sites Act 1968. I very much welcome the Government's Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which is amending it and changing the whole regime for caravan sites. The existing regime has been a failure.
The intention of the Act was to promote public provision of caravan sites for travelling people throughout the country by putting the responsibility on local authorities to provide sites at public expense. The fact is that these have always been extremely hot political potatoes in the areas where they have been suggested, and the provision of private sites, or self- provision by travelling people and their families, has outstripped the rate at which public sites have been provided.
In some areas, as in Tendring district in my constituency, no public sites have been provided and we still have the problem of travelling people who regularly visit parts of the area and end up illegally occupying public, or even private, land at great expense and inconvenience to local people. In one case, county council land that was not designated for travelling people was occupied and it took three years for the county council to evict them, at great distress to local people in the village of Great Bromley. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill will improve the situation with regard to illegal occupation, and the amended regulations on caravan sites will encourage local authorities either to move on with the provision of local sites or let the situation lapse. The effect of that situation on Essex county council and Tendring district council has been rather adverse. Having had a stalemate between them for a great many years, they are now in an unseemly rush--Essex county council certainly is--to provide a site for travelling people in my constituency in Tendring district. The interesting thing about Tendring district council and Essex county council is that they are both under Lib-Lab control, yet they cannot agree where the sites should be and members of the same parties are at daggers drawn in great dispute over that particular matter. Essex county council has lighted on a site at Grove farm in Elmstead, but local people have many objections to that proposal, not least because it is land that is not scheduled for development in the Tendring local plan. It sets a precedent for further planning permission to be granted in the area.
There is no proper access to the site. According to expert advice, new access would have to be created and would cause possible hazards on an already dangerous road. There are no mains services to the site. Furthermore, Grove farm is high-quality agricultural land. It adjoins Palegate Wood, which is an ancient and semi-natural woodland. It is, at the moment, Essex county council's policy to safeguard such woodland.
Column 1149There are preservation orders on the trees to the entrance of the site, which would have to be cut down in the event of the site going ahead, and development would greatly reduce the value of Grove farm. It is no surprise, perhaps, that the farm is owned by Essex county council, and it is using the fact to make it easier to get a gipsy site in that particular place.
In terms of Essex county council's site selection criteria, it fails on many counts. There are few shops in the vicinity ; residential properties are in close proximity ; the site is not capable of providing what is called a "living environment" ; it is not in an area that is frequently visited by travelling people ; a similar site approximately four miles from the proposed site is continuously under-used by travelling people ; and it is not provided with the services that one would expect.
Essex county council has gone ahead with the application for planning permission for the site. I understand that it will be at public expense, costing some £440,000 for only 20 or 25 pitches. Understandably, local people are most concerned and have made many representations to me. Tendring district council, however, has other ideas : it opposes the site recommended by Essex county council, and is going for a site at Willow farm in Great Bromley. I do not believe that the plan is yet subject to formal planning permission, but it falls into the same category, apart from not being subject to an application by Essex county council under the Act.
The problem with Willow Farm is that, when Tendring district council chose the site, it did not impartially address the criteria recommended by the county council regarding the selection of sites for travelling people. Willow farm is not at a reasonable distance for access to schools and shops ; indeed, the village school is 1.8 miles away. It is down long, dangerous, narrow lanes, and it would not be sensible for a mother walking her children to and from school every day to take such a path.
There are three permanent residential properties in close proximity to Willow farm. Willow farm is clearly visible from the A120 ; landscaping and tree planting would be necessary and no doubt expensive. A new road off the A120 would have to be built to provide safe access. Only 12 yd from the perimeter of Willow farm is a large pig slurry lagoon with run-off from 1,750 pigs, whose capacity is soon to be increased to deal with more than 2,000. That strikes me as hardly a useful facility for travelling people.
Great Bromley is not a village traditionally visited by travelling people. Willow farm has a very high water table, and no mains drainage or mains sewerage. Furthermore, Willow farm is privately owned and is not owned by a willing seller. It is thus a most unlikely site.
Another consideration is that there is a Ministry of Defence and police communications link at Willow farm, very close to the proposed site. We cannot imagine that the MOD is not gravely concerned about the security of that installation, given that there will be much more coming and going on the site.
My hon. Friend the Minister will understand that there is considerable public concern and controversy about both potential sites. We all understand that travelling people have civil rights that need to be respected and accommodated--although many of my constituents might think otherwise. They do not understand the life style of travelling people, and there is much fear and consternation
Column 1150about how those people fit into society-- whether they pay their way or are over-dependent on services provided and paid for by others. That, however, is a separate matter.
The only objective way in which to allay public concern--given the dispute between Essex county council and Tendring district council--is to hold a full public inquiry, in both cases if necessary. I urge my hon. Friend to make representations to the Secretary of State. 10.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) on securing the debate. As the House will know, this is a topical issue, as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill--which will bear down on unlawful camping by travellers--is currently before Parliament.
My hon. Friend is concerned about Essex county council's decision to press ahead with a proposed new residential gipsy site at Elmstead Market in Tendring district, despite the proposed repeal of the duty on local authorities to provide sites, and of the power to pay gipsy site grant. Until the repeal comes into force, local authorities retain the duty to provide sites, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is bound by statute to continue to consider paying grant on applications received before commencement of the new legislation.
The position in my hon. Friend's constituency is that Essex county council applied for grant aid to provide a site at Grove farm, Elmstead Market, and is currently seeking planning permission for it. There is also discussion about Willow farm in Great Bromley. The decision in respect of Elmstead Market was made after an extensive search over a number of years for a suitable site, to provide for the demand from gipsies in the district--some of whom are illegally camped. I believe that the delay in site provision in my hon. Friend's constituency caused him to complain to the county and district councils in the past. I understand that the ombudsman was recently asked to investigate the apparent failure of the county council and Tendring district council to fulfil their existing statutory obligation to provide sites.
A number of sites in the area, both private and public, are being considered--but it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any planning application that may come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment at some future stage for decision. As I said, Essex county council is still bound by the statutory obligation of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 to provide gipsy sites--but must, of course, consult the district and other local interests on a choice of location.
I can appreciate my hon. Friend's concern, if he feels that the public consultation process is not being followed, but I reassure him that the planning application in respect of Elmstead Market is at an early stage and that for Willow farm at an even earlier stage. In the former case, I certainly expect the county council to follow the proper process of public consultation with all relevant parties, including local people, and to hold a local exhibition.
The thrust of my hon. Friend's argument was that there should be a public inquiry. His concern is that the country council and Tendring district council are in disagreement. If the district council decides that it wants to oppose the county's proposal to establish a site at Grove farm, it can
Column 1151lodge an objection to it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State under section 8 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968.
If it does so, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, after considering the objection, has three options. He can direct the county to abandon the proposal, proceed with it or refer the planning application for the proposed site to him for his own determination. The third option, which would involve a public inquiry, would need to be considered against the Department's general policy on calling in planning applications for the Secretary of State's decision--which is to use those powers sparingly and only when issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases may include those that could have wide effects beyond their immediate locality and give rise to substantial regional or national controversy.
Mr. Jenkin : I am speculating, but my guess is that Essex county council would argue strenuously against a public inquiry, on the ground that Tendring district council's plea for one has simply added to its apparent obstructionist tactics. I am reluctant to rely purely on Tendring district council's section 8 appeal, because it has for years failed to co- operate with Essex county council on this matter. It may be tempting to visit this site upon Tendring district council, to force the issue, but I thought it best to make my own plea on the purely objective ground that, in respect of the Grove farm site, the people of Elmstead have not had a proper say.
Mr. Baldry : As I shall explain in a moment, one of the reasons why we are taking powers to repeal the Caravan Sites Act is that for far too long there have been too many instances of county councils and district councils being at loggerheads on caravan site provision. That has been incredibly frustrating, not least to local people who have been left in an uncertain position, sometimes for a long time, while the district and county councils have argued the toss among themselves as to where possible sites might be. But the Secretary of State must comply with the statute, and the Caravan Sites Act is clear. If Tendring district council and the county council disagree on the matter, that falls to be resolved within the provisions of section 8 of the Caravan Sites Act.
I should make it clear that the fact that a planning application is highly controversial locally is not of itself a justification for the Secretary of State to call it in or for there to be a public inquiry. After all, Parliament has charged local authorities with the responsibility for planning, together with many other important administrative decisions. It must be right that, as far as possible, local authorities should discharge the responsibility that has been given to them by Parliament.
Local authorities are democratically elected organisations and are accountable to their electorate for their decisions. We consider that it would imply unnecessary central control if a large number of decisions on planning applications were taken by the Secretary of State, rather than the local authority. Indeed, it is also important that local authorities should accept responsibility for the decisions that they make, rather than expecting difficult or locally contentious decisions to be taken for them by others. The Secretary of State will therefore intervene only when there are compelling reasons to do so.
Column 1152It might be helpful if I say that, over the past few years, the number of matters that have been called in by the Secretary of State for his own decision has averaged about 100 a year-- about two a week. While he may have a role to play where applications are referred to him as a departure from the development plan, he will not intervene on planning applications simply because the local planning authority finds the decision difficult or complex because of local controversy. He will exercise his reserve powers of intervention only sparingly where there are compelling and wider reasons to do so.
I am in no position to judge whether the matters raised by my hon. Friend would merit a call-in by my right hon. Friend because, as I said, they are at an early stage of the planning process. It is a matter that we will consider carefully, especially having regard to the representations made by my hon. Friend. We will consider it carefully at the appropriate time if the circumstances require it. As I have said, my Department has received such an application for Grove farm, Elmstead Market which will be considered in the usual way with the usual criteria under the existing legislation. Proposed residential sites should have planning permission and assured availability for at least 10 years--and normally longer. Authorities must demonstrate that any scheme proposed for grant approval offers value for money, and we have benchmark figures. In Essex, the benchmark is £27,000 per pitch ; we would need to be convincingly persuaded to agree to a higher figure. In Essex county council's initial application for the Grove Farm site, the works costs appear to be reasonable, together with land costs which seem to be on a par with other recent schemes.
Good management is, of course, essential if a site is to work well, and proposals for future management are therefore an important element of applications. We look for sensible and robust designs in line with good practice and capable of being effectively managed. That will ensure the orderly and peaceful integration of a site into the local community and full utilisation by gipsy families. Complaints about irregular encampments by gipsies and the mess and disturbance that can go with them come up time and again in the constituency correspondence and surgeries of many of us here, and more so recently because of the disruption and antics of the less traditional travellers, new age travellers and ravers. I know that my hon. Friend has had more than his share of complaints from those in his constituency.
Over 20 years ago, legislation was introduced to try to tackle unauthorised gipsy camping. That gave county councils a duty to provide decent public sites, in the hope that that would end the unofficial ones. Generous Government grant was made available, and locally there have been successes. In Essex, for example, sites have become accepted and integrated into local communities, even where the more settled population originally had doubts. The development of official sites has led to the closing of scruffy roadside arrangements.
Across the country as a whole, and despite the substantial Government spending--millions of pounds of Government
spending--insufficient progress has been achieved in clearing away the ad hoc sites which cause so much upset to continue to justify an open-ended call upon public spending.
I think that the gipsy site grant is the only 100 per cent. Whitehall grant made available to local authorities. That is why we intend to change the legislation. It no longer seems
Column 1153reasonable for local authorities to be obliged to provide and run gipsy sites, or for the taxpayer to pay for them. Clearly that does not meet the intentions of Parliament, and we think there is a much better approach.
Many individual gipsy families would be, and are, perfectly content to make their own site arrangements. I expect that there will also be organisations representing gipsy groups which will be interested in getting permission to provide larger licensed sites as well. We have therefore already issued planning guidance on how their reasonable requirements should be catered for within the existing planning framework. We shall expect--we will, if necessary, insist on--positive statements to that effect to be put in local authorities' development plans.
Along with that encouragement of greater ability to make provision through the planning process, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill proposes to make it easier to move on the illegal campers who cause so much annoyance and discomfort, and sometimes expense, to those living nearby.
I accept that, between now and the expected Royal Assent in July, there will be an inevitable hiatus over the proposed council sites. Such a situation is, of course, not infrequent when there are changes in legislation. At the moment, local authorities still have a statutory duty to provide sites, and it would have been inequitable--and almost certainly challengeable in the courts--to stop grant where authorities had already spent considerable time and money trying to fulfil that duty.
It is therefore still possible between now and July for local authorities to put forward well-advanced, properly planned schemes for grant aid where considerable time and energy have already been expended, as long as they can get them completed in a year or so. That will bring the whole gipsy site grants saga to a foreseeable end. Whether or not local authorities-- including that in my hon. Friend's constituency and Essex county council-- bring forward such schemes within the rules is not a matter for Ministers. Those are local decisions.