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Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I support the spirit of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I have had a number of representations from elected members, local authorities and residents about exactly this kind of problem. One that comes most to mind has occurred in the Epping Forest District Council area in Essex, where a group of travellers occupy a piece of land in an unauthorised way. The council tells me that the planning legislation is simply inadequate to deal with the problem because it is impossible to obtain the necessary injunctions and orders to seek their removal.
Another more serious case concerns a village in the Surrey Heath area where a field has been bought by a group of travellers, perfectly legally, and they have sub-divided it into 26 plots. They have fenced them in, erected gates and have sold on the plots through cash deals. The land is on a flood plain and as the level has been raised by putting down hardcore, to which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred, there is every
On 2nd May, Mr Justice Holland said that the injunction was "being flagrantly ignored" and that he would commit any of the named respondents if any further breaches occurred before the hearing. Then, astonishingly, on 19th May, the court took no action in the face of the further breaches of the injunction and adjourned the contempt hearing indefinitely.
It appears that the only way in which the situation can be remedied and the site restored to its previous condition is for the council to go down the tortuous route of compulsory purchase. It seems to me that there is something wrong with the system if the interests of local residents, and indeed the interests of the travellers, cannot be looked after better through the planning process. It is for that reason that I support the principle underlying the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and I hope very much that my noble friend will be able to give us some comfort on it.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Faulkner, have underlined the failure of the Tory Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, under which it was the intention that travellersgypsiesshould provide their own sites. Circular 1/94 enjoined local authorities to make provision in their planning schemes for land for that purpose.
However, in fact since the 1994 Act travellers have struggled to provide sites of their own and no local authority has stuck its head above the parapet to say, "There is a parcel of land in this area where we would welcome an application for planning permission". So, what inevitably happens is that gypsies acquire land and then apply for planning permission afterwards instead of doing it the other way around.
I am sure that if the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, reflects on the issue, he would agree with me that if a gypsy came into his local authority and asked for advice on a suitable piece of land within the area on which he might gain planning permission, he would get a fairly lusty answer. The noble Lord is nodding his head. I think that that would be the same response in any one of the hundreds of local authorities up and down the United Kingdom. So, inevitably, they acquire land in unsuitable places and ask for planning permission. Very occasionally they get it.
What the Government have failed to doand this is something they could easily have done since 1997; it would not have cost them large amounts in resourcesis at least to record how many planning permissions were asked for by gypsies for development of their own sites and their rate of success on appeals. I have repeatedly written to Ministers in the ODPM asking them to collect these statistics. They have told
No one wants to know, apparently, the success rate for gypsies applying for planning permission on their own land or appealing against refusal of permission. If we had that information we would know whether or not the policies introduced by the Tories in 1994, including circular 1/94, have been successful. My assertion is that they have failed because it is impossibleand I said so at the time in the debates on the 1994 Actfor gypsies out of their own resources to make up for the deficiencies in the provision of sites by local authorities.
That is the situation we face. It is no good for the Minister to say thatas he did a few minutes ago"We have a few crumbs to throw to the gypsies for transit sites" when nothing whatever is being done about permanent sites, either in the private sector or in the provision of local authority sites.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, it is clear that the problem towards which the amendment draws our attention has arisen because successive governments and local authorities have failed to produce sufficient authorised sites where gypsies can settle and reside. However, it would be helpful to knowwhether from the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, or from the Government; I do not know whichwhat is the scale of the problem arising after purchase of sites by gypsies. Two anecdotal instances have been cited from either side of the House, but is it much more widespread than that? I do not know; perhaps someone does.
As for the amendment, it strikes me that the penalties are on the severe side and perhaps should be reduced. I have one constructive suggestion: that the Home Office and Defra should put their heads together with the Ministry of Defence to see whether there are surplus defence sites that could be made available for the purpose under discussion.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I certainly understand that the intent of the new clause is to deal with camp sites for travellers that are set up without the relevant planning permissions. However, as the amendmentand local planning authorities' existing enforcement powersapply to travellers in the same way as to everyone else, it is best if I deal with the amendment in more general terms.
I am extremely interested in the cases drawn to our attention by my noble friend Lord Faulkner, which drew out some of the problems and deficiencies that may exist and cause problems for local communities.
The new clause appears to allow local planning authorities to act to restore a site to its former state where a change of use does not have planning permission and creates a public nuisance. It also makes a change of use without planning permission an offence and provides for local authorities to restore the site and recover their costs. Those proposed powers would duplicate the enforcement powers that local planning authorities already have under Part VII of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
The new clause also gives local authorities powers to act to have sites restored to their former gloryas I saidwhere a change of use does not have planning permission and creates a nuisance. Planning authorities already have powers under Section 172 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to serve an enforcement notice in all cases where a breach of planning controlincluding unauthorised change of usehas occurred.
The new clause gives power to local authorities to serve a notice on the owners and occupiers of the site requiring them to cease the unauthorised use immediately. If they do not, they will be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding £20,000 and possible imprisonment.
As well as powers to serve an enforcement notice, local authorities also have powers under Sections 183 and 184 of the Town and Country Planning Act to serve a stop notice, which requires the use or activity to cease immediately. So those powers exist.
Also, the new clause allows no right of appeal. We should be concerned about that on grounds of natural justice. It is also likely to be contrary to the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998. Under Section 174 of the Town and Country Planning Act, there is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State against an enforcement notice. If the appeal is dismissed or not appealed, Section 179 of the Town and Country Planning Act makes it an offence to breach an enforcement notice. If found guilty, a person is subject to a fine not exceeding £20,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited fine on indictment.
Where the owner or occupier of a site takes no action to restore it, the new clause provides for the local authority to restore it and charge the owner or occupier the full cost of the restoration. Local planning authorities already have powers under Section 178 of the Town and Country Planning Act to enter the land, take the action required by the enforcement notice and restore the site to its previous condition. They may also recover the cost of taking that action from the owner of the site.
The new clause is not necessary, as it duplicates powers readily available to local authorities. For those reasons, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment. Having said that, I appreciate some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner. Clearly, careful thought has been put into the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. The Government will keep the matter under review, as with all local planning legislation in other parts of the legislative framework.
If there are specific problems of which the noble Lord does not feel that the ODPM is aware, it is open to him to draw them out to ensure that officials are apprised of any deficiencies. We need to keep a careful watch on such matters to ensure that the enforcement powers that local authorities wish to use are appropriate in all the circumstances.
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