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2.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on securing this debate. It is an important matter and I sympathise with much of what he said in terms of the effect of illegal and semi-legal camps on his constituency. It is an issue that most of us have had to deal with on a constituency basis.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comment about this being essentially a minority pursuit among the travelling community in the context of more than 100 authorised sites within the Billericay, Basildon and surrounding district. I am grateful that this week's debate—I seem to have one a week, nowadays—is outside party politics and talk of conspiracy about changes. The hon. Gentleman's constituents and the issue deserve better than that.

There are essentially two issues here. The first is the breach of planning control that occurs through the use of land for development which does not have the benefit of planning permission. The second is the fact that the unlawful use is taking place on greenfield land that may also have metropolitan greenbelt status.

The hon. Gentleman said that councils were hampered by the law, and I will return to much of what he said in relation to the unauthorised encampments guidance that has just been issued for consultation. I am grateful for his comments and their context, because they underpin much of what the Department is trying to do. We start from a premise of fairness for all, rights for all and—clearly within that—responsibilities for all. Neither the settled community nor the travelling community has been afforded a status above the law. That is the balance that we are trying to get into the system. All should abide by the law. As the hon. Gentleman said, respect for minority interests is a measure of our civilisation.

Day-to-day policy on development control is the responsibility of local planning authorities. If there has been a breach of planning control in the district, Basildon council has the option of taking enforcement action to bring the unlawful use to an end and to require the offenders to apply formally for planning permission. The planning system provides for appeals to be made against enforcement notices, as well as against refusals of planning permissions. Appeals are considered on their merits and determined in accordance with the development plan for the area, unless material considerations dictate otherwise.

The merits of using greenfield land for development are a matter for the determination of the local planning authority in the first instance, and for the inspector or my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister when considering appeals. The Government are committed to maximising the re-use of previously developed land and empty properties and the conversion of non-residential

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buildings for new housing, in order both to promote regeneration and to minimise the amount of greenfield land being taken for development. We have more than met those targets in the past.

That means giving priority to re-using such land within urban areas, bringing empty homes back into use and converting existing buildings. That is preferable to the development of greenfield sites. In a planning context, that is the background against which we consider illegal developments and the illegal use of greenfield land. However, not all development can take place within urban areas and, where it has to be located elsewhere, we are looking to the local planning authorities to utilise the most sustainable option. Policies and guidance on greenfield and open land are the next step on from use of brownfield and urban centres.

The Government recognise that gypsies have a right to pursue their own lifestyle. We are committed to ensuring that the planning system treats members of that community as fairly as everyone else. Gypsies make up a tiny proportion of the population of this country, but their land use requirements must be met. That is what much of the new guidance will be about.

Planning policies relating to the provision of suitable locations for gypsy sites, whether provided by the local authority or privately, are set out in the then Department of the Environment circular 1/94 "Gypsy Sites and Planning". That advice is now eight years old but remains the legal framework in which planning and other matters are dealt with. The circular places gypsies on the same footing as others in relation to the planning system, while recognising their special accommodation needs, and the desire of many gypsies to buy their own sites to develop and manage. Gypsy sites constitute development, and therefore require planning permission.

The circular emphasises the importance of local authorities and gypsies working together to identify suitable sites, and encourages gypsies to consult local authorities before buying land on which they intend to camp and for which planning permission would be required. Effective liaison is essential if disputes are to be avoided. The lack of availability of alternative sites can be a consideration when appeals against enforcement notices are determined.

It is the responsibility of local planning authorities to judge how they frame their policies, and these of course are open to public scrutiny and comments at inquiry. Development plans must take account of local circumstances. For example, gypsy sites are not among the uses of land that are usually appropriate for greenbelt land, areas of special scientific interest and places of open land where development is severely restricted.

The onus is on the applicant to prove very special circumstances that overcome the harm by reason of inappropriateness. In gypsy cases, special circumstances often include health and educational needs, and those may be human rights considerations. I have participated in two or three debates on this subject, but I am still unclear about the allusions to human rights law. One case revolved around a technicality, with the judge going beyond his brief. We shall explore that further and get back to the hon. Gentleman. We also need to add to what the guidance says about unauthorised sites. We are dealing with three or four different strands of policy, of which the guidance will be one and planning is another.

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A difficulty that we have nationally is that there has been little quantitative and sustainable research on the demand for the provision of sites. We are not minded—although this may change as a result of the research—to return to the pre-1994 position in which every local authority had to provide a site of some description.

We have organised a body of research, which we hope will report during the summer, to try to get not just a feel of how many sites there are, their nature and their general upkeep, but a wider picture of demand and the need for temporary or transitory provision. Building on that research, we have said in the guidance that local authorities and the police should devise strategies to deal with travellers in their areas. That will be through a mix of existing sites and provision for emergency or temporary sites, which can often overcome difficulties in some areas.

As a quid pro quo, if local councils devise such strategies, we will provide a stream of funding for those temporary or transitory sites. We have diverted some of the funds from our three-year gypsy site refurbishment grant for that purpose. As a further quid pro quo, the enforcement powers and the ability to move unauthorised encampments in those areas will be far stronger. It is about getting the balance back into the equation: recognising the need for sites and the responsibility to provide them while giving the police greater powers to move people on.

Mr. Baron: Do the enhanced powers apply to cases in which travellers own the land that they have illegally developed?

Mr. McNulty: I will get back to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong, but I understand that in the context of the guidance "unauthorised" means unauthorised in the context of the planning framework. Whether the person owns the land or not, if there is inappropriate land use or development that has not been authorised through planning permission, the ownership of the land is irrelevant.

In the first instance, it is for the local planning authority to determine planning applications against the new backdrop of the guidance. There are of course other elements of the legislative nexus, such as the Children Act 1989—if children are involved—and social services. All that is taken into account in the guidance that we have issued, and the balance, hopefully, has been restruck.

The fact that gypsies own their land does not mean that planning permission need not be applied for. It should be obtained before development takes place and before the land is occupied. I think—but I will write to the hon. Gentleman in more detail—that there cannot be a qualified position on the principle of retrospective planning. As the hon. Gentleman said, retrospective planning applications should be restricted where it can be shown that significant harm could be done to the land in question, but retrospective planning applications and subsequent provisions are dealt with in exactly the same planning framework. If an existing application came in for a greenfield development that would mean inappropriate use of that greenfield open site, it should not be allowed as a future application. Those are the rules that prevailed for previous applications. We cannot lock qualifications on to retrospective planning; either we have retrospective planning applications in principle or we do not.

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The other important principle is established use, meaning that approval for an application for land that has been used for that purpose for 50 years is fairly automatic because it is determined under the older rather than the new framework. Anything from now on should be dealt with, albeit retrospectively, in the context of whatever the framework is at the time. I cannot envisage many cases in which action that would either cause significant harm or be counter to what the General Development Procedure Order and planning policy guidance currently say about greenfield and green-belt developments would be permitted simply because it was retrospective.

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