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Sub-Plot Land Sales

Volume 406: debated on Thursday 5 June 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Caplin.]

4.42 pm

My debate has been triggered by a horrendous chain of events at a location in the green belt in my constituency called Deer's Leap. I shall return to that but the House and the Minister should be in no doubt that the events that I shall describe have a significance that goes far wider than only my constituency. They have relevance to the south-east region and beyond, because they call into question the integrity, credibility and enforceability of the entire development control system.

Deer's Leap is—or rather was—an area of lush, open meadow in the beautiful parish of Hever, near the town of Edenbridge in my constituency. It is in an area that is designated as both green belt and of local landscape importance. Those who bought homes in the vicinity of Deer's Leap did so on the basis of local authority searches, some of which I have seen, that assured them that the surrounding land was designated as green belt The prices that they paid for the homes reflected that designation. Sadly, the name Deer's Leap today carries a somewhat bitter irony. It is the name of an area in which no self-respecting deer would venture to tread; and no deer, or indeed anyone who saw what is there today, would leap for joy.

It was on 2 September last year that the officers of Sevenoaks district council, who should be commended for their alertness, first became aware that a land speculation company called Parker Fields Ltd., which had acquired Deer's Leap, was offering it for resale in a series of sub-plots. On the following day, 3 September, the council immediately fired a warning shot across the bows of Parker Fields. They told the company that the council would strongly resist any attempt to develop Deer's Leap for non-agricultural purposes and that it would monitor the site closely and consider taking any enforcement action that became necessary. Regrettably, the warning shot proved to have no deterrent value whatsoever for that land speculation company.

With all the danger signs flashing over Deer's Leap, the officers of the council as quickly as possible sought and obtained from the members of the council authority to apply to the Deputy Prime Minister for article 4 directions. As the House knows, article 4 directions are the strongest forms of protection that can be obtained for a site such as Deer's Leap under existing planning law. The council applied for not just one article 4 direction, but three, supposedly to protect the site against the incursion of caravans, the arrival of hardcore for hard-standings or roadways, and the erection of fencing.

The council applied to the Deputy Prime Minister's Department on 13 November last year. It took the Department a total of four months to process those straightforward applications, which was far too long. Finally, on 12 March the three directions, signed in the name of the Deputy Prime Minister, reached Sevenoaks district council. Ironically, the letters and approval of the three article 4 directions arrived on the day on which the invasion of Deer's Leap began.

The invasion of Deer's Leap was no ordinary minor infringement of development control. It was a carefully planned, determinedly executed military-style operation. Caravans started to arrive on 12 March. Hard on their heels came lorry after lorry loaded with hardcore to create hard-standings and roadways. That in turn was followed by the removal of the topsoil and the erection of huge lengths of fencing to fence off the sub-plots. In a very short space of time, the lush open meadow of Deer's Leap in the green belt had become an environmental eyesore of a caravan encampment with all the trappings of permanence. In the process, the article 4 directions of the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had, frankly, been torn up in shreds in his face.

Equally well organised in that carefully planned attempt to smash the development control system was the planning application. Lo and behold, it arrived in the offices of Sevenoaks district council on 13 March, just 24 hours after the invasion of Deer's Leap began. The planning application was for a retrospective change of use of Deer's Leap to be used as a site for the permanent positioning of 12 caravans and mobile homes, together with hard-standing and fencing. In other words, it was an application to get planning consent on a permanent basis for a change of use that had already been brought about by force and by occupation.

In such circumstances the local authority has only one place to go—to the High Court for an injunction—and to the High Court Sevenoaks district council went. Unhappily, though, the legal system is no better able than the planning system to protect areas such as Deer's Leap from gross breaches of development control. The practice of the High Court is not to issue an injunction saying that the land is to be restored to what it was before the gross breach of development control took place, but merely to issue an injunction to stop the breach getting any worse than it has become by the time the injunction is issued. That means that the legal system gives every possible incentive to those carrying out a gross breach of development control to make the maximum possible breach in the shortest possible time, before the injunction takes effect. That is precisely what happened at Deer's Leap.

Despite the serious limitations of the legal process, Sevenoaks district council had no alternative but to go down the High Court injunction route. An ex parte injunction was obtained on 3 April, three weeks after the invasion started, followed by an inter partes injunction confirming the ex parte injunction on 11 April. By the time the ex parte injunction was issued on 3 April requiring the maintenance of the status quo as at that date, there were a total of 12 caravans on the site. However, following the injunctions of 3 and 11 April, additional caravans continued to arrive on the site, additional hardcore was laid out and additional fencing continued to go up. As a result, Sevenoaks district council has had to go to the extreme lengths of making a further application to the High Court for a committal order to prison for contempt of court. That is set down for hearing on 27 June.

As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I took advice from the Clerk of the House this morning on the application of the sub judice rule. In accordance with the advice that I received, I shall make no comment on the merits or otherwise of Sevenoaks district council's application for a committal order set down for hearing on 27 June.

In the meantime, the planning application lodged on 13 March has been determined. It was determined last week, on 30 May. Sevenoaks district council refused planning consent and the council members gave authority for the taking of enforcement action to try to restore Deer's Leap in its entirety to an unfenced grazing area. However, that is not the end of the planning story. Planning refusals can be appealed. Enforcement notices can be appealed. If there are appeals, months will elapse while an inquiry is set up, a public inquiry is heard, the inspector goes away to consider the inquiry's evidence and produce his report, and final determination of the appeals takes place. It could be a year or more from the start of the invasion before the planning outcome is determined.

I earnestly hope that the outcome, which will appear in the name of the Deputy Prime Minister, will ensure that the gross breach of development control is reversed in its entirety. All that can be said at this stage—this is a grim situation for my constituents—is that the final outcome is unknown.

What can be done about situations such as that at Deer's Leap? Prior to this debate, I put the case in writing directly to the Deputy Prime Minister, on 28 March and again on 14 April. When I wrote, I illustrated the situation with photographs taken before the invasion and after it, which were kindly supplied by one of my constituents. I found the reply dated 7 May that I received from the Minister of State in another place, Lord Rooker, totally inadequate. It contained the, to my mind, hopelessly over-optimistic sentence:
"I should point out that controls already exist to tackle unlawful development in the countryside."
Tell that to those of my constituents who live in the vicinity of Deer's Leap. Controls may exist in theory, but in practice, as I hope I have illustrated, they are totally and utterly ineffectual against those who are out to smash the development control system. In his reply, the Minister of State showed no regard for the seriousness of what has happened at Deer's Leap. He showed no appreciation of how urgently Government legislation is now required, and no understanding of the fact that if new legislation is not forthcoming, the implications for the entire development control system will be very serious.

In exploring what should be done, I start with what I thought was a very pertinent observation put to me by the planning director of Sevenoaks district council, Mrs. Jean Morgan, in a letter to me dated 30 May. She says:
"It is difficult not to conclude that planning only works when people follow the rules: the current system is based on consent and compliance. Although it works successfully to protect the environment and the interests of the wider community in the large majority of cases, when it does not work it can fail spectacularly."
At Deer's Leap it has failed not only spectacularly, but disastrously. The key question is what is to be done about the small minority of people, whether companies, partnerships or individuals, who are out simply to bust the development control system. I shall start with the land speculation companies, because I believe that without them the problem would not arise. If there were no Parker Fields Ltd., I would not have had to raise this debate.

I want to take this opportunity to put the record straight on one point relating to Parker Fields Ltd. I have examined the company's website very closely. Parker Fields Ltd. operates out of suite 113 of the Park Royal business centre in London N W10. On the first page of the website is a quotation in which the company is described as the
"Robin Hood of the Land Industry".
Below that is the statement that the company's sole director
"robs the Rich and gives to the Middle Classes".
Well, Robin Hood, I have been examining your company's transactions in the context of Deer's Leap, and I want to put on the record the justification or otherwise for the nauseatingly self-righteous claim that you make on the front page of your website.

In doing so, I am most grateful for the assistance that I have received from the chief registrar of the Tunbridge Wells district Land Registry office for the following information. He has assured me that in all cases it can be put into the public domain. These are the transactions in relation to Deer's Leap conducted by Parker Fields Ltd.

On 19 April 2002, the company bought the area for £60,000. It got its money back in five months flat by reselling part of the site to Susan Armitage for £60,000. From then on it was profit all the way for Robin Hood, and the profit came in three separate tranches. There were two sales to Mr. William Kennedy in September 2002 and February 2003 for £19,000 and £10,000 respectively. Finally, there was a sale to four members of the Doran family in sub-plots for £22,500 in February 2003. So as a result of the land speculation of Parker Fields Ltd., for the initial outlay of £60,000 it got back £111,500, effectively nearly doubling its money in 10 months flat. The one person who has clearly become significantly richer is Mr. Robin Hood.

Let us consider the other side of the financial equation. The local home owners in the vicinity of Deer's Leap have found that hundreds of thousands of pounds have been wiped off the value of their homes. Indeed, one or two of the local residents have told me that their homes are now, to all intents and purpose, unsaleable.

In addition, the luckless council tax payers of Sevenoaks district council are picking up an ever increasing bill. I have seen the costs for the district council so far. In terms of legal fees and the cost of officers' time, the bill for the district council's council tax payers already runs into tens of thousands of pounds. I suspect that that is only the start of the overall bill for council tax payers. There will be further legal costs and High Court appearances. There is no doubt that further costs will be incurred—officers' time and legal costs—as a result of a public inquiry if the enforcement notice and planning refusal are appealed.

Perhaps most significantly of all, at the end of the process, if the Deputy Prime Minister ensures that the site is returned to its original state, as I trust he will, there will be the cost of removing all the hardcore, some of which may be contaminated, putting back the topsoil and restoring the site to what it was. Ultimately, the bill could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, which might become a liability of the council tax payers of Sevenoaks district council.

On the basis of this illustration, which I am glad I have had the opportunity to recount to the House in detail, it is evident that although only a small minority of people are determined to bust the development control system, the present civil basis of planning law and enforcement law is ineffectual. It clearly provides a wholly insufficient deterrent for those who are effectively seeking to take development rights into their own hands.

I believe that the Government have to consider introducing wholly new legislation in respect of such people, who create major breaches of development control. In speaking of major breaches, I am not referring to homeowners who push their luck with extensions that are rather larger than is appropriate under the general development order or even to travellers who pitch camp at the roadside and who intend to move on, but do so only when they are required to—irritating, vexing and costly though the associated processes are. I am referring to those who breach development control in a major way and then seek to establish permanent development rights on the basis of their breach.

I want to put a particular proposal to the Minister. I believe that there is now an unanswerable case, given the weakness of the civil law, to make a small but necessary extension of the criminal law into this area. The proposition that I put to her is that where companies, partnerships or individuals knowingly connive in, are associated with or give effect to major breaches of development control, they should be brought within the ambit of the criminal law. Happily, the Government have in the House at the present time a legislative vehicle that would make that possible—the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, on which I understand a carry-over motion is being debated next week. I ask the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to consider most carefully the proposal that I have made, as I believe that it is absolutely essential, on the basis of what has happened at Deer's Leap and elsewhere, to make a significant change in the development control system and to introduce the criminal law into this area.

Finally, I stress to the Minister the fact that the problem is growing. If she is in any doubt about that, I suggest to her and her officials that they scrutinise the website of Parker Fields Ltd., as well as those of other companies that may be involved in the speculative sub-plot land sale process. That website should be studied not only by the Government, but by local authorities and solicitors firms advising clients as to whether they should buy a house in a particular location. Indeed, a large number of existing house owners may wish to satisfy themselves as to whether Parker Fields Ltd. is active in the vicinity of their homes. If that is the case, all that I can point out is that the activities of that company have had a disastrous impact on house prices in the immediate vicinity of Deer's Leap.

It may assist the Minister and the House if I indicate the locations where Parker Fields Ltd. has land up for sale, as featured today on its website. There are two sites in south Buckinghamshire, at Denham and Beaconsfield. A site is up for sale in the Chiltern district of Buckinghamshire, and another site in the Three Rivers district of Hertfordshire. There is also a site near Maidstone in Kent, which I am sure will dismay my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), and a site in the Mole Valley area of Surrey. Only today, a site appeared on the website that is described thus: "Surrey. Coming soon—nine and a half acres south of Dorking.' That will please people who live just south of Dorking. Lastly, there is a site in east Sussex in the Wealden district.

I make these points to the Minister so that the Government are in no doubt that the significance of the problem goes much wider than my constituency. The Government must act. They must produce further legislation, and they must do so fast.

5.10 pm

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women
(Mrs. Barbara Roche)

Let me say at the beginning that I fully understand why the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir John Stanley) has brought the subject of the debate before the House. I congratulate him on securing the debate. I entirely share his view that this is an important issue for his constituency with wider ramifications throughout the south-east. He may be aware of the previous debate that was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) in April. It is a matter of cross-party concern to the whole House, and I am pleased that we are discussing it. There is great concern about the practice of sub-dividing farmland to sell off at higher prices than might be achieved through the sale of the land as one large plot, which has given rise to some of the difficulties that the right hon. Gentleman outlines. I shall shortly go into those in a little more detail.

First, I want to reassure the House that the Government do not intend to change the basis of green belt policy as set out in national planning policy guidance. The fundamental aim of green belt policy remains unchanged: it is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. The purposes of including land in green belts are: to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another; to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and to assist in urban regeneration. The guidance makes it clear that there is a general presumption against inappropriate development in green belts. Save for a few specific exceptions—for example, agricultural buildings—the construction of new buildings inside a green belt is inappropriate development. The right hon. Gentleman, as a distinguished former Minister in the Department of the Environment, as it then was, will be familiar with policy and procedure in this area. In his announcement on sustainable communities on 5 February this year, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the protection and enhancement of the green belt and the valued countryside around our towns and cities.

If the House will bear with me, I shall clearly set out the legal position. I agree that the sub-division of agricultural land, especially in areas of outstanding natural beauty, can have an adverse affect on the scenic nature of the environment. The sub-division itself can be unsightly, but it may lead to even more harmful longer term affects. If a developer buys a plot of land and discovers that planning permission is not granted for the use that he or she has in mind, there is a real danger that the plot could fall into neglect and disrepair. Subdivision of fields is, of course, perfectly legal and can be undertaken without the need for planning permission. The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 grants permitted development rights for
"the erection, construction, maintenance, improvement or alteration of a gate, fence, wall or other means of enclosure",
provided that it is 2 m or less in height above ground level.

Unless a planning condition or other legal obstacle affects the situation, development permitted by the general permitted development order cannot be prevented except by a local authority using its powers under article 4 of the order to withdraw permitted development rights in a particular circumstance. The right hon. Gentleman has already given us a graphic example of that this afternoon. Article 4 directions may also require the agreement of the Deputy Prime Minister in his role as First Secretary of State.

I should also explain that permitted development rights granted by Parliament are removed only in exceptional circumstances, and only when a real and specific threat to the interest of the proper planning of an area has been demonstrated. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would agree that to do otherwise would undermine the rights granted to the public to undertake minor works, and involving certain temporary uses, without the need for planning permission. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is not speaking of cases such as these; he is speaking about the specific examples—in a very cogent fashion, if I may say so that he has given to the House this afternoon. Having said that, when it is shown that such a threat exists, we appreciate that prompt action is required by both local and central Government—I understand what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the time gap; I will undertake to look into that—to ensure that, in appropriate instances, permitted development rights are removed before uncontrolled and potentially harmful development takes place.

I should point out that the effect of the directions is not to prevent development outright. As the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the developer would still be able to seek planning permission, but that must be done firmly within the bounds of the planning and development control framework. Such directions enable the council to have control over the situation, and to decide any application in the light of the development plan and any other material considerations, such as relevant planning policy guidance. The process also allows local residents to make representations on any application for planning permission that may subsequently be made.

In respect of the particular case at Deer's Leap that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned, I base my remarks on information that has been provided to me by the local government office. I understand that Sevenoaks district council had previously contacted the selling agent of Parker Fields Ltd. Indeed, that has been confirmed by the right hon. Gentleman today. The council told the agent that it would strongly resist any form of inappropriate development, as the site was designated green belt, an area of local landscape importance, and an area for the special control of adverts. It is also included in the Environment Agency's indicative flood plain, so there are several important reasons why the local authority acted in the way that it did.

The selling agent was also advised that the site would be closely monitored and that consideration would be given to enforcement action against any development for use of the site for non-agricultural purposes. Following this contact with the selling agent, the council contacted the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, requesting confirmation of three article 4 directions on the site. It felt that if development took place under permitted development rights, it could seriously affect the character, amenity and attractiveness of the countryside. On 12 March this year, on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Government office for the south-east confirmed these three article 4 directions on land at Deer's Leap field.

Sevenoaks has subsequently refused planning permission for the siting of four mobile homes on the site, as has been stated, and is currently considering an application for a stable block on the site. However, I understand that there are currently 21 caravans on the site, complete with large areas of hard standing, including block paving, that do not relate to the sketches shown to the council as part of the planning application process. Indeed, this has been graphically described by the right hon. Gentleman.

I further understand—this is my information as of last night—that an enforcement notice is being prepared by the council to remove the caravans and hard standing and return the use of land to its natural agricultural state. I understand also that it will be served very soon.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of enforcement powers and how breaches of planning control could be dealt with. He will be aware that we recently undertook a comprehensive review of planning enforcement. The resulting consultation paper, which considers the principles and the range of powers available, was issued towards the end of last year. We expect to announce the results later this year.

The right hon. Gentleman has made strong representations. Even though the consultation period has closed, I give him my undertaking that we will look very seriously at the proposals that he has put to us this afternoon. I hope that that is helpful to him.

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that her Department will look closely at the proposals I have made. Can she say that the Government have an open mind as to whether there may be circumstances in which it would be right to bring major breaches of development control within the ambit of the criminal law system? I am not asking her to sign up to that proposition across the Floor of the House today, but I hope that she can confirm that, on this key issue, the Government have an open mind.

I want to choose my words carefully here. We will look very openly at all the representations that are made to us. The right hon. Gentleman has raised a number of serious issues, which deserve thorough examination. We will certainly look at them. I hope that he will forgive me for being unable to give any firmer commitment, because, of course, a number of representations have already been received.

It might interest the House to know that the Deputy Prime Minister has also confirmed other article 4 directions in respect of sites in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. For example, the Deputy Prime Minister recently confirmed eight directions on Common road, Burham. The site comprises about 17 hectares of land fronting on to the north-east side of Common road adjacent to Burham Hill farm.

That area is in the adjacent constituency, which is represented by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw). He and I have been discussing the issue, and I know that he will be glad to hear what the Minister has said.

I am grateful for that information. I will write to my hon. Friend to ensure that he is apprised of these matters. I am sure that he is, as there will have been discussions between him and the right hon. Gentleman.

The land is a site of nature conservation interest. It is also an area of outstanding natural beauty and a special landscape area. The Deputy Prime Minister has also recently confirmed an article 4 direction on a site at Raywood farm, near Ashford. A company named Property Spy was advertising the site as being available for sale in plots. The local authority believes that, without the direction, the subdivision of land could seriously damage the amenity of the area, which is designated as a special landscape area.

To bring us right up to date, I understand that the Government office for the south-east is considering requests for confirmation of article 4 directions from Tonbridge and Mailing borough council on the following sites: Beechin wood farm, Platt; Shrublands, Platt; and Kits Coty farm in Aylesford. We will ensure that the consideration is completed as soon as possible. understand that investigations have been carried out on two sites, and that a third is to be conducted soon.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, this is not just an issue for his constituency; it has wide ramifications. He has done the House a service by raising it.

The Government are conducting a review of permitted development rights to determine whether existing rights are still appropriate, and to consider how the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 could be made more comprehensible. The first stage of the review—a research study—is nearing completion, and the report is likely to be published this summer. I cannot comment on its findings until we have seen its recommendations, but I can confirm that the issue of subdivision of land has been raised with the researchers.

Once the report has been completed, we will consider its conclusions and recommendations before deciding whether any changes are desirable. Any such changes will be subject to full public consultation, and I am sure that the subdivision issue will be raised during that consultation.

Can the Minister confirm that, if the House approves the carry-over order for the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill next week, that will provide a legislative vehicle allowing changes in the development control system to be introduced if the Government so decide?

I do not want to raise the right hon. Gentleman's hopes. I am not sure whether that is allowed by the timetable for the review. However, other matters relating to planning are still under consideration, so there may be other opportunities in the future.

We want to act to support local planning authorities when a real and specific threat has been shown to exist, even if it is posed by permitted development. I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman brought this case to our attention. We must protect the countryside, for the benefit of those who want to enjoy the countryside not just today but tomorrow.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Five o'clock.