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Town and Country Planning Acts (Amendment) Bill

Volume 459: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to broaden the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman to include certain disputes arising from planning permission granted by local government authorities to cover below-ground utilities; and to require development plans submitted to relevant local authorities to include provision for below-ground utilities.

Unadopted roads are highways that are not maintained at the public expense—responsibility for their upkeep rests on those whose properties face on to them—and they include many older streets.

The welcome growth of new house building since 1997 has significantly increased the number of unadopted roads. As in my constituency, developers often cut costs when building roads, forcing future residents, who may end up liable, to pick up the bill years after they have purchased their property. Although councils can provide moneys to assist residents with maintenance assistance, there is no statutory obligation on them to do so. Many of my constituents live on roads that the council refuses to maintain and for which they cannot afford to pay the upkeep costs.

Under the Highways Act 1980, most roads are maintained at public expense. Usually, roads are adopted by local councils when the building standard meets the required level of quality; roads are usually unadopted when that standard is not met. Although it is obvious that the developer is at fault in many cases, no legislation deals with causation. The Sale of Goods Act 1979 exempts the sale of land from its provisions, so if residents want to prove that responsibility lies with the developer, they must pursue that course through private litigation. My constituents cannot afford to do that.

Unadopted roads therefore remain the responsibility of those who cannot afford them. The highways authority can, under the Highways Act, force residents to make repairs that are needed to “obviate danger to traffic” and, if they will not, carry out repairs itself and claw back money from residents at a later date.

In addition, water companies are responsible for all water leakages above and under the ground, but only on adopted land. That is a further expense that residents must bear if they find that their road is not adopted by the council.

The fact that the position is allowed to exist means that developers can cut costs and leave new home owners to foot the bill. The previous official Government estimate, which is now significantly out of date, shows 4,000 miles of unadopted roads in this country.

The Bill requires greater scrutiny by local authorities at the planning permission stage to ensure that proposed roads through developments are constructed to a standard that allows councils to adopt them. It requires developers to provide for below-ground utilities such as water and drainage. It also extends the remit of the local government ombudsman to cover disputes over the adoption of roads, allowing residents a tribunal for their complaints, without having to fall back on expensive private litigation.

The problem in my area is highlighted by the new Gateford estate, which has more than 2,000 houses. It is difficult to work out against whom to litigate even if one has the resources. There is a triangulation involving the water authorities, the developer and the highways authority, and identifying against whom to litigate is impossible. Unless the local authority chooses to take pre-emptive action or the developer chooses to ensure that the roads and utilities are up to standard, there is a loop.

In many modern developments, a plethora of developers works on the same site. Six separate developers are working on the Gateford estate in Worksop. Until I intervened in January, the electricity was not up to the national standard. It required the Member of Parliament to put together a protest to negotiate and get a national electricity standard. Again, that is not covered by statute.

The problems that we experience in my area—flooding, street lights that do not work and dangerous footpaths—apply to every part of the country. We found it especially astonishing that there was no requirement to have a plan for what is underground in the Gateford estate. There is an above-ground plan, but, for a huge new estate built by a plethora of developers, there was no intention—until many hundreds of hours of painstaking work by me, residents associations and the county council had passed—to create such a plan for what is underground.

There are unseen problems—for example, where purchasers were unaware that utilities such as water and sewerage pipes were running under their corner properties but are resistant to remedial action and have a right to block it. My Bill would begin to deal with such problems.

Those problems affect not only the quality of life but house prices. In my area, the price difference between a house that is 15 or 20 years old on an unadopted road and one that is on an adopted road can be £20,000 to £25,000 because of the liability of the householders.

I am delighted that all the pressure from Councillor Fielding, the Gateford residents association and me, ably assisted by my staff, means that Nottinghamshire county council agreed this week to adopt the 50-odd roads on the Gateford estate at its own risk this year. It will adopt the vast majority in the next few weeks and within the next three months to ensure that residents on the estate live as council tax payers with the same rights as everyone else. That local authority is a well managed and well run leading council, which is clearly also forward thinking, but residents should not have to rely on the council taking the risk. That is why we need a statutory change.

Although I commend Nottinghamshire county council and the residents for their work, I call on the Government to consider the Bill, which would improve the position for residents throughout the country. The existing law has almost enticed developers to cut costs and forced future residents, who are largely ignorant of the position until problems occur, to foot the bill. In an era of high house prices, that is often a hidden cost that is not budgeted for on purchase and could lead to severe financial problems for those who try to remedy the situation on their own.

It is unacceptable, in my view, that a council, having approved a sub-standard development, can turn a blind eye to the problem and force residents to pay for its lack of scrutiny. By introducing new measures that require councils to scrutinise plans more carefully and ensure that roads and drainage are to the correct standard, my Bill will give some protection to residents before they buy. After they buy, it will help them by extending the powers of the local government ombudsman to deal with disputes of this nature. I commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Mann, Jessica Morden, Natascha Engel, Helen Southworth, Stephen Pound, Clive Efford, Ms Diana R. Johnson, Mr. Kevan Jones, Christine Russell and Bob Spink.

Town and Country Planning Acts (Amendment)

John Mann accordingly presented a Bill to broaden the remit of the Local Government Ombudsman to include certain disputes arising from planning permission granted by local government authorities to cover below-ground utilities; and to require development plans submitted to relevant local authorities to include provision for below-ground utilities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 99].