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Local Discretion In Defining "Material Change Of Use"

Volume 987: debated on Thursday 3 July 1980

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The following subsection shall be inserted after subsection (3) of section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 (meaning of "development"):

"(3A) A local planning authority may in any local plan prepared by that authority under Part II of this Act designate the whole or part of the area to which that plan relates as an area in which the use for any other purpose of any building previously used as an only or main residence shall be treated for the purposes of this section as involving a material change in the use of the building.".—[Mr. Wigley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 23—Change of use of an only or main residence—and new clause 24—Change of use of only or main residence in National Parks and area of outstanding natural beauty, etc. We may also take the following amendments:

No. 234, in schedule 11, page 134, line 36, at end insert—

"1. The following paragraph shall be inserted after subsection (3)(a) of section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 (meaning of "development"):—
'(aa) The use for any other purpose of any other building previously used as an only or main residence involves a material change in the use of the building.'"

No. 235, in page 134, line 36, at end insert—

'1. The following subsection shall be inserted after subsection (3) of section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 (meaning of "development"):—
"(3A) The use for any other purpose of any building previously used as an only or main residence shall be treated for the purposes of this section, as involving material change in the use of the building.".'.

I am very grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the fact that this matter has been facilitated, because it is of considerable concern.

I have been catapulted into the debate rather more quickly than I had anticipated when I raised the point of order, but I shall take the maximum opportunity that I can, in case I lose it later.

The question of second homes and holiday homes is a vexed one. In certain parts of Wales it is very vexed. I hesitate to say that it is a burning issue; unfortunately, it has caused incidents of arson over recent months in Wales. No hon. Member would condone that sort of approach; none the less, the fact that there are people who are driven to that sort of end illustrates the depth and strength of feeling that exists in certain areas on the question of holiday homes.

The reason for this may not be appreciated fully by hon. Members who represent urban areas, although those who represent rural areas will probably have come across it. In an area such as Gwynedd, my area, there are about 7,600 second homes, according to the latest figures that we have had. There are also about 5,000 families on the waiting list for local authority housing. It is often asked "Why do not those people who are looking for housing buy the homes that become second homes when they can buy them on the open market?"

The reality is that, because of the levels of wages and incomes in the area, which are anything between 15 per cent. and 30 per cent. below the United Kingdom average, it is imposible for people earning ordinary wages to compete with people from the richer cities who want to buy holiday homes.

Those people from the richer cities may be from Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham. They may well be from Cardiff. Therefore, one is not saying that it is a problem of people coming only from England into Wales; it is a problem of people coming into rural areas. The problem exists in a severe form in the Lake District, so much so that that district has been forced to take steps itself to try to combat the problem. The fact that it has taken steps that may not have a formal legislative background illustrates the need for the House and the Government to approach the problem constructively and to find a solution.

Interestingly enough, there was an instance only last December of a planning application being turned down in the Poole area. An appeal was upheld when Poole council had refused an application for planning permission on the basis of a change of use. I believe that that instance concerned holiday flats.

The question to which my colleagues and I tried to square up on this issue is how we can find a constructive and practical solution that will give the maximum degree of freedom at local level. It is patently clear that some of the houses that become second homes and holiday homes would not be inhabited otherwise. Some of them may be on the tops of mountains, or in woodlands. Others, however, are in the centres of villages, and even towns. When there is a high level of second homes in such areas in Gwynedd one sees the devastating effect on the social, cultural and economic life of the community. The community can change overnight in its nature, and for large parts of the year the village can be totally dead.

6 pm

The figures for the Dwyfor area, in my constituency, show that in 1977 in the village of Beddgelert 30 per cent. of the houses were second homes. The figure is probably higher now. In the village of Llanengan virtually half of the houses—46·6 per cent.—are second or holiday homes. We know of instances in other areas where the figure is almost 100 per cent., and some villages have changed almost entirely to second homes. It is possible that the problems are worse in the villages that have moved half way towards second homes than in those villages that have changed entirely to second homes—but it is sad to see a village that has changed entirely. In the village of Llanbedrog, which has been a thriving community, 33 per cent. of its housing stock is second homes.

How can the housing stock of an area be managed in a way that gives priority to the needs of people to have first homes, before allowing any residual stock to be sold as holiday or second homes? Most would agree that a priority for any civilised community should be to ensure that every family has a roof over its head. Over and above that, if there is housing stock in excess it could be used in different ways—and holiday homes may be one of those uses. The holiday industry is important in such areas as Gwynedd. But the first priority should be to ensure that people have first homes before the houses become second homes.

How can that be achieved? There are a number of ways in which the problem can be approached. One way that has been advocated but which would not appeal to the Government is that local authorities should buy more of the housing stock in those areas and rent the houses to people on the waiting list. That suggestion has been experimented with, and houses have been bought in areas such as Dwyfor and Arfon during the past four or five years. The amount of money needed for that meaningful solution to the overall problem is immense. Given the thrust of Government policy in the other directon for selling council houses, I do not imagine that I shall receive a favourable response to that suggestion from the Government Front Bench.

An alternative way of approaching the problem would be to get a determination on the use of the housing stock at a local level. The way proposed in these belt-and-braces new clauses and amendments which use different forms of words for the same objective—we do not mind which one is pressed, provided that there is movement in one direction—is that the change in use from a house that is a first home—a primary or main home—to a second home—not the main or primary home—should be treated as a material change in the use of that building. There are precedents for trying to distinguish between first homes and second homes. The Housing Act 1974 draws that distinction in payment of grants. There is a similar distinction in one of the Finance Acts. We are not breaking new ground by suggesting that there should be a distinction between a main residence and those used for other purposes.

We would like local authorities in the areas concerned to be able to take a decision on any specific change of use. A planning application should be submitted on a house that changes from being a primary house, lived in all the year round, to a holiday or second home. If that house is on the top of a mountain, or in an area where the reason for the community's existence—such as a quarry, which has closed—no longer applies and the houses are in excess of requirements, and if there is no valid reason for that house being needed for a first home, the local authority will be in a position to know that. It would not be unreasonable for it to say that that house could become a holiday home. Likewise, in areas where there are large demands for first homes from the indigenous population, the local authority could draw the line and say that there should not be a material change of use for a specific building.

There are several ways of doing that. New clause 22 asks for local discretion in defining material change of use. We try to do that in a slightly different way in new clause 23, by adding to the end of section 22(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 the words:
"(including the use for any other purpose of any building previously used as an only or main residence)".'.
In new clause 24 we have recognised what the Government themselves recognised in this year's Housing Bill, namely, that there are problems in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, etcetera. "Etcetera" is the word that appears in the Housing Bill. The Government recognised that in some such areas council houses should not be sold. Therefore, the Government have already moved towards acknowledging the existence of the problem. New clause 24 provides the same definition that the Government have deemed appropriate in the context of the Housing Bill, and applied it to section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. That will bring in the need for a change of use application. The amendments have the same purpose, but approach the problem in a different way by adding new words to existing provisions.

The problem is a real one. Given the developments that we have seen in Wales over recent months, everyone in Wales, of all political parties, looks to Parliament to show an initiative to meet the problem. The problem has a special Welsh element, but it is not confined to Wales. There are hon. Members from other areas who feel strongly about this issue—and they are Members of all parties.

I hope that tonight the Government will show that they are aware of the existence of the problem and are willing to move in a direction that will give reasonable control, so that the emotions that we have seen recently will cool down. If they do that, people will see that a constructive and realistic answer can be forthcoming from Parliament, and that Parliament is not oblivious of the problem or unwilling to tackle it.

I am delighted that Mr. Speaker changed his mind and allowed these clauses to be debated. The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) is to be congratulated upon raising the subject under the Bill. It concerns my constituency, and I know that if my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) were here he, too, would wish to speak about the matter.

The solution that has been suggested is one that has been suggested from the Liberal Bench on previous occasions. The Government must act in this area. We understand—the hon. Member for Caernarvon was fair on this matter—how the build-up of second homes in Wales, in my constituency, in the West country and elsewhere, has taken place. It is quite legitimate. As an auctioneer I have sold property in the past for very little money—property such as coastguard cottages, which I sold for as little as £1,000 or £1,500. The people who bought those cottages spent a great deal of money on them, both in bringing services to them and in modernising them. In many ways they have done a service to the community.

Those times have changed. For example, when that happened on the Isle of Wight, the population was 92,000 and going down. It is now approaching 120,000 and going up, and house prices have gone through the roof. Certainly, nowadays one cannot buy many properties for under £15,000 or £16,000, and they are properties that used to sell at £600 or £700 when I first went to the Isle of Wight nearly 30 years ago.

Understandably, feelings are building up, in that people see themselves priced out of the property market and unable to get a home from the local authority because the waiting lists are getting longer and the housing investment programmes have been cut by successive Governments—indeed, almost cut to ribbons by the present Government.

I am sure that the Government must be aware of this fact, but the warning must be given that, unless it is seen that some action is being taken to prevent a continual build-up of the second home saga, people not only in Wales but in parts of England will start to take the law into their own hands. Therefore, the hon. Member for Caernarvon has put a valid point before the House.

Another problem is that village communities are virtually disappearing. I remember canvassing in the village of Brook during a county council election. I went along a terrace of eight cottages, of which only one was occupied permanently. I imagine that the average age of the people in that village is now about 70. Hardly any young people are left. The only time at which there are any number of people there is during the months of July, August and September.

If the Government cannot accept the approach that has been suggested they should at least give an indication that they will bear it in mind and try to do something about it. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, this problem has already been dealt with in taxation. Capital gains tax is paid on second homes. I think that I am also right in saying that some recognition has been given to this in the Housing Bill, in that council houses in rural areas which are purchased by tenants must first be offered back to the authority.

Therefore, the Government have already taken this matter on board. They will have to do more if feelings are not to run too high and action be taken which we might all regret. I do not want to see a return to squatting, but I suggest that that is what ultimately will happen if we do not tackle the problem of second homes.

I strongly support what was said by the hon. Member for Caernarvon, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give a constructive answer to the suggestions that have been put forward.

I hope that in the remarks that I shall make the hon. Members for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) and Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) will not think that I am minimising the problem or the sensitive situation that exists in many parts of the country. I fully understand the deep concern of many of our constituents, and I shall certainly make sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction is aware of what has been said.

Of course, in many areas our planning laws are specific. As I am sure all hon. Members know, a change in the use of an only residence or a main residence which resulted in the house or flat ceasing to be used as a single dwelling would, under current planning law, already normally be a material change of use requiring planning permission. The new clauses would go further—the hon. Gentleman accepts that—by providing that a property that had been a single dwelling and remained a single dwelling would nevertheless need planning permission, because it ceased to be the only or main residence of its occupier. I think that I interpret the hon. Gentleman's contribution correctly.

I cannot support the new clause. It would represent an unacceptable intrusion by the State into the housing market and a major extension of the role of the planning system. The hon. Gentleman's intention is to bring second homes within planning control, but the new clause would go much further than that. For example, it would bite particularly hard on landlords of privately rented property, who could find themselves liable to enforcement action if a new tenant were not using the dwelling as his only or main residence.

The clause would also introduce anomalies, in that, although it might not prevent a house from being bought as a retirement home for immediate use, it might prevent someone from buying a house shortly before retirement with the intention of retiring there in due course. I mention those only as examples of the difficulties.

There is, however, a still more fundamental objection to the clause. It would introduce into planning legislation a new concept which I consider would be completely unacceptable. In effect, it would delegate to local planning authorities the power to amend the provisions of section 22 of the 1971 Act. It would mean that a local authority's provisions in a local plan would bring within planning control activities which, in the country as a whole, Parliament had decided should not require development or planning permission.

6.15 pm

The hon. Member for Caernarvon drew a comparison with certain national parks. He was right in saying that in the Lake District—I think also in the Peak park—certain measures have been taken where new housing is designated for local people. Although those two national parks have taken that action, they have not as yet been challenged in court. It is perhaps open to doubt whether they are acting legally.

Where a particular development is environmentally acceptable in some areas but not others, the situation can be dealt with by the use of development orders under section 24 of the 1971 Act. These are subject to parliamentary procedure. I do not consider it acceptable that local authorities should, in effect, be given the power to amend Acts of Parliament, or that such a fundamental incursion into the rights of individuals to use and dispose of their properties as they wish should be delegated in that way to local planning authorities.

The hon. Gentleman was very fair and accepted that there was no way in which the Government would be in the business of buying up more homes. Indeed, in planning terms as well, our policy is to reduce public sector activities as far as possible. I regret to have to tell the hon. Member that what he has suggested is out of place in a Bill of this kind, the prime aim of which is to reduce controls. Indeed, it contains a number of measures, which we shall eventually discuss, to speed up the whole planning process.

I take note of the strong feelings that have been expressed. Certainly, the Government will watch very carefully any further developments in this area.

I am sorry that the Minister was not able to go further than he has tonight. Frankly, it is not enough to watch developments. Developments are already taking place in Wales. There have already been 40 incidents of arson. I would have thought that what has already happened would be enough to make the Government realise that this problem must be tackled now and that it is not one to be watched in the future. As I have said, it is not a problem just in Wales.

I believe that there are certain times and circumstances—I believe that the Government accept this as well—when one needs regulations. This is one of those times. One does not want regulations for their own sake; one wants regulations and controls because a problem exists. A problem exists in the county of Gwynedd because 4,000 or 5,000 families cannot get homes. From the response that we have had tonight, the message that will go back loud and clear is that no answer will be forthcoming from the Government to these problems. Frankly, that will be greeted with considerable dismay in my area.

I believe that the Government should and could have gone further in what was said tonight. Had they done so, it would have helped to defuse the problem. In closing the door on any possibility of moving in the direction that I have suggested—I regret to use these terms—they are fanning the flames, which is highly regrettable and irresponsible. I use that word advisedly, because their response will aggravate the problem rather than solve it.

As the Minister has said, the Lake District has taken the law into its own hands because of the nature of the problem. It may or may not be acting ultra vires; it has not been challenged in the courts. That is my understanding of the position as well.

Surely that underlines to the Government the strength of feeling that exists in responsible local authorities in areas such as the Lake District. In Wales, in addition to the rural problems, we have the linguistic and cultural dimension. If in areas such as the Lake District people are taking the law into their own hands, surely the Government should be making a better response than they have tonight to these problems.

When opening the short debate I mentioned Poole. The local authority there has raised the question whether there is a material change of use when a block of flats become holiday flats rather than accommodation that is used all the year round. There again we see responsible people who recognise the reality of a problem in their own area and who feel that something needs to be done about it.

The Government's attitude tonight is that they will do nothing about the problem. That is the message that I shall have to take back to Gwynedd—that the Government intend to do nothing about the problem. I shall ask Opposition Members—I hope that they will be joined by some Conservative Members from rural areas—to respond by dividing the House.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State responded very sympathetically to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), and it is not fair for the hon. Gentleman to pursue the charge that he has made against the Government. We all admire and respect the ingenuity with which he has been able to raise a serious matter under the Bill. As an old and experienced hon. Member he knows perfectly well that the issue that he is raising is a housing issue.

The problems that the hon. Gentleman described are present in my own constituency. I understand them perfectly well. I agree with him that they are very serious problems. But, as I have already indicated, he has used his ingenuity in order to raise the matter in the context of planning law. Until his last-minute appeal to Mr. Speaker, it was not thought that he would be successful in raising the question on the Floor of the House.

It is unfair for the hon. Gentleman to say that the Government have totally rejected consideration of the problem. It is unfair for him to suggest that we are fanning the flames. He was perfectly entitled to raise the matter in the way that he did, but he seems in some ways to have been exploiting the difficulty that we face. Technically, he has been able to raise a serious housing issue in the planning context of the Bill now before the House. In these circumstances, it is not fair for him to allege that there has been a total rejection of his proposals. We have sought to respond sympathetically and to explain, why, technically, we could not accept the amendments.

I hear what the Minister says. On 20 December, just before Christmas, my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) and I had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Wales—the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts)—to explore ways of tackling the problem. Two ways were suggested at that meeting. One was by amendments to the Housing Bill, which was then going through Parliament; the other was by amendments to this Bill. Both were regarded as possibilities. It is for that reason that these amendments have been brought forward today. If the Government speak with one voice in one place and with another voice in another place, that is not my fault.

We tabled amendments to the Housing Bill. We were given to understand that it was more of a planning problem than a housing problem, and we were told that the amendments would not be called. Now that we have tabled amendments to this Bill, the buck is tossed back the other way.

Our argument is that the Government can respond, even though they may not accept the technical wording of the amendment or even our approach to the problem. They can still respond, because the Bill is going through this House and the Housing Bill is going through another place. The Government could say that they are willing to consider the matter in relation to either of the two Bills. I do not mind which one it is, provided that something is done about it.

It is because the Government are not prepared to meet us here and have no intention of meeting us on the other Bill that I have accused them of being complacent. How am I to explain that attitude in my constituency? What message am I to take back to the people who are concerned with the problem and who are living with it from week to week? It is of concern not only to the families who do not have homes but to the people who have second homes. A satisfactory solution to the problem must be found, but from what I understand, no answer is forthcoming from the Government. They have nothing to offer as an alternative way forward. If they did, I should be only too willing to withdraw my words of accusation.

I hoped that the Government would provide a glimmer of light, but there is none. It is no use the Minister's accusing me of using inflammatory language. It is an inflammatory problem. I am living with it in my constituency. I have constituents who have been taken into custody by the police for the activities that have taken place in the last few months. This is a very real problem, and no answer whatever has been forthcoming from the Government Front Bench. That is why I get annoyed about it.

I am still hoping that the Government Front Bench will say that they will look at the problem, if not in terms of this Bill, then next year. I am hoping that they will consider the possibility of some other form of legislation that would ameliorate the problem, perhaps by making legal the kind of step taken in the Lake District and elsewhere. Will the Government give any assurance at all that they will consider any other approach to the problem?

The hon. Gentleman knows something of how government works and the problems involved. The amendments were tabled late last week, on the Report stage of the Bill, at a time when there were already a considerable number of other amendments on a major policy issue.

The hon. Gentleman put his point perfectly fairly. We shall consider the matter. I shall have discussions with my right hon. and hon. Friends in order to see what further suggestions can be made. That is the positive way to approach the matter. It needs discussion across Government, because a number of issues are involved. It needs preparation; it cannot be done by a fairly late amendment to a Bill. The hon. Gentleman was ingenious and correct in getting the amendments before the House, but it was hardly fair to describe the Government's conduct as outrageous because they had not produced a complete policy to deal with the problem.

Having given the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I hope that he will regard it as a reasonable response to his request.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. The reason why there were no amendments tabled in Committee was, of course, that my party was not represented on the Committee; in fact, there were no hon. Members from Wales on the Committee dealing with the Bill. That is the simple reason, presumably, why the problem did not raise its head before. I put forward the matter on Report in consequence of discussions that we have had with branches of Government. But if the Minister is willing to enter into meaningful discussion on a cross-party basis, to try to find a way of answering the problem, I shall be prepared to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

I used the phrase "across Government". There are a number of different aspects to the problem.

I take the Minister's point. Obviously it would have to be across Government, because there are different Departments involved. I assume that there would be an opportunity for other parties to make their representations, in the hope that, not in this parliamentary year but perhaps in the next, there may be progress towards achieving a solution to this vexed problem.

I am happier now that there is some light that I can take back to the area. If I needed to raise my voice, it was in order to get that assurance, and not to aggravate the problem. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.