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Planning Conditions

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

Good morning, Mr. Chope. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise in the Chamber this morning the issue of planning enforcement. Although I shall provide one particular example of an issue that has arisen from planning applications that are under consideration with my local authority, I fully understand that the Minister is not expected to comment on individual applications. Nor, indeed, do I expect the Chamber to have the intimate knowledge of my constituency that one would need in order to assess them. Therefore, I seek to raise a much broader issue.

In summary, I seek to discuss the planning system’s credibility when the public see that what appear to be flagrant breaches of planning rules are neither punished nor dealt with. I am increasingly finding that in different contexts, my constituents are losing faith in the planning process, because their perception is that, to put it colloquially, people get away with it when they breach planning conditions. There is a particular set of circumstances in which it appears to be easy—in the vernacular—to get away with it. When a new planning application is pending, the authority takes the view that because it will have to assess the application, which might in principle be used to regularise the situation, there is no point enforcing in the meantime.

If all planning applications went through in eight weeks, one might say, “That is a reasonable thing to do.” However, the reality is that the period during which a council knows that an application might be made, it is made, the site visits take place, and the planning committee meetings—including delays—take place, can become protracted. During that period, residents feel that planning obligations are not being enforced. The not unreasonable assumption is that, if one is about to sort out the issue through a planning application anyway, one does not want to spend taxpayers’ money on legal action. However, is that not a potential loophole? That is the perception of my constituents.

I shall provide two different examples. The first relates to a quarry in my constituency. My constituency has several quarries. Quarrying is a significant local employer, and when most people buy a house in the area, they know that there is a quarry. This is not an anti-quarrying speech. Many residents recognise that quarrying has to take place somewhere, and there is a relatively limited number of places where it can happen, because one has to dig in the right place. People in my area understand the need for quarries, and recognise that quarrying cannot take place silently, that there are traffic implications and so on.

However, my constituents also need to know that when limits are placed on that activity, particularly on hours worked, the volume and the scale, they will be observed. My example is a quarry, near a village called Wickwar in my constituency, which is operated by a Mexican company called Cemex, which took it over from RMC a couple of years ago. The quarry has permission to extract 400,000 tonnes of limestone a year. It extracts 750,000 tonnes of limestone a year, and it publicly admits that it has done so for more than a decade.

We have the rather strange situation that everybody knows that the quarry is breaking its planning conditions. It extracts almost double what it is allowed to extract, and its operating hours go beyond what is allowed. It is not meant to start until 6.30 am, but it starts at 6 am. That may be considered a marginal difference, but if one is woken up at 6 am, it is not that marginal. Residents understandably feel aggrieved.

The quarry company has put in three planning applications to try to regularise the situation. The first application is to expand the area in which it quarries; the second is to extend the operating hours of the coating plant, which coats the stone that is extracted for use in tarmac on motorways and so on; and the third is to expand the hours during which crushing and screening takes place. Some of those applications would regularise the existing situation. If they went through, the quarry would be allowed to work the hours that it already works, and extract the volume of limestone that it already extracts.

I have been swamped with comments from residents of the neighbouring villages of Wickwar, Churchend, Charfield and Cromhall, who are on the whole concerned about the applications. They are particularly concerned about the fact that the breaches seem to have been going on for a considerable amount of time. The feeling is that nothing is being done, which is the issue that I want to raise today.

I shall tell the story by providing the perspectives of the three different parties—the residents, the quarry company, with which I had a very constructive meeting yesterday, and the local authority. Each party sees the situation differently. The residents know that there is a quarry, and that it implies traffic noise. By and large, they recognise and accept that fact. However, they did not know that the higher levels of noise, traffic, dust and the rest of it were the result of a breach of the planning conditions.

We had a public meeting. I do not often chair public meetings about such issues, but many people were strongly concerned about the situation. At the meeting, somebody—I shall not say who—said, “Nobody has complained,” and there was almost a riot, because everybody had complained. However, they had complained about the noise, dust or traffic, rather than about a breach of planning conditions to the planning enforcement section. As far as the planning enforcement people were concerned, nobody had complained, which raises issues about the local authority’s complaints handling process, which I have subsequently raised with the authority.

The situation is interesting, because the public have said to me, “We assumed that if there are all these lorries and all this volume, it must be okay, because somebody must be checking that they are obeying the rules.” The public do not complain to the planning department about a breach of planning conditions. They assume that there could not have been any breach, because if there had been, something would have been done about it. When they discover that nothing has been done about it for 10 years, they are understandably aggrieved.

I shall provide some excerpts from residents’ letters. One resident wrote:

“If they”—

the quarry company—

“are prepared to breach the current rules, what is to stop them pushing the boundaries even further than the extended planning applications requested?”

In other words, residents are saying, “We had this meeting, and we said, ‘All right, they might get the new application or they might not, but if they do, there will be conditions attached’.” Everyone rolls their eyes, however, and says, ‘Yeah. They paid so much attention to the last conditions, how can we have any confidence that they will pay attention to the next lot?” They are rather sceptical about the process.

In another letter, a different resident wrote:

“The Authority has proved unable or unwilling to enforce existing parameters so the public has grounds to feel vulnerable about the future.”

On the day that the applications are decided, some conditions will be set, but the public do not believe that they will be adhered to, which undermines the credibility of the planning process.

I shall give the Chamber a feel for what I am talking about. One resident wrote:

“The noise from the operating machinery and Lorries cause disturbance to local residents, we do need to sleep! The dust…is constantly on windows… The road outside the quarry is breaking up.”

The concluding sentence mirrored them all:

“I understand the Quarry is already working outside their current permitted planning conditions, why has this been allowed to happen? How are planning conditions monitored?”

I could go on, because I have dozens of letters. I shall not read them all out, but in a fourth letter, a resident writes:

“Can you please advise me as to what action is to be taken against Cemex in respect of these breaches and how their activities are to be monitored in future to ensure compliance with the existing planning constraints?”

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, but does he agree that the problem with planning enforcement is that when they monitor compliance, enforcement departments in district councils—certainly in my constituency, where there are three—appear to be reactive rather than proactive? It requires local people and neighbours to complain in order to be well informed, to double-guess the way in which the system works and to go beyond what they might normally do in order to investigate the issue themselves. That work puts a great deal of pressure on ordinary citizens, and it is surely something that planning departments should do themselves.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That very point was made by residents at the meeting, who asked why it was down to them to complain. Even when they have complained, their complaints have not been handled in a way that has prompted planning enforcement. I shall come to the council’s perspective shortly, however. At the moment I am being anti-the quarry and anti-the council, but hon. Members will soon see that the picture is slightly more complicated than that.

I have described how the residents see the situation. One can imagine the scene. There is WRAG—Wickwar residents action group—as well as various websites and petitions. Interestingly, not everybody wants to stop the expansion altogether. Charfield parish council thinks that a more limited expansion might be appropriate, so the issue is not black and white, even for those who have concerns about the applications. However, the process has raised a lot of concern, and I said at the public meeting that I would raise that concern with Ministers. I wrote to Ministers towards the end of last week, although I do not know whether they have received the letters yet, and I have been fortunate to have this opportunity to raise the issue today.

It is difficult not to have a lot of sympathy with the residents. They pay their council tax and they know that there is a limited amount of activity at the quarry, but they also want a quiet life, clean roads and so forth. However, the quarry has a different perspective, as one might imagine, and it is quite an interesting perspective, which is worth putting on record. I met the quarry company yesterday and was told, “It’s true that we’ve been operating on this scale for a decade or more, but the first thing you have to recognise is that there’s a quarry down the road that’s shut. If you add together us and the neighbouring quarry, the volume of activity now is no different from what it was when the two were running together and we were operating on a smaller scale.” The company’s argument was that the volume of traffic, dust and noise is pretty similar, but distributed slightly differently.

Although that is probably true of the traffic, I suspect that that is a flexible view of planning. The company says, “Well, you know, the broad impact’s kind of the same, so we won’t worry that we’re breaking our planning rules.” That is a defence, as it were, but I do not think that it will reassure residents. If the activity can be regularised, which is what is happening now, that is clearly the right way to proceed. The company’s argument was, first, that the volume of activity is not very different from what it was 10 years ago; it is just distributed differently.

The second thing that the quarry company said was, “We are now effectively the good guys. We have taken over this company. We have observed that we’ve been operating in breach of planning conditions for 10 years and we’re now trying to put it right. We’re trying to do the decent thing, by putting in an application that specifies what we are actually doing, and thereby regularising the situation.” In a sense, to attack the current company for submitting the application is a little harsh, because it is trying to sort the situation out. I am not in the business of apportioning blame, but to be fair to the company, it is at least trying to regularise the situation, so that whatever planning conditions are attached, they will hopefully be observed. Everybody should accept that that must be the outcome that we want.

As for operating outside the opening hours, the company said, “Well, yes it’s true we start a bit early; but actually we finish earlier than we’re allowed to as well, so overall we’re not operating for as many hours as we could.” Again, that is a creative way of looking at things. My view is that if the restrictions are there, they are there for a reason and they should be observed. If companies want to change their operating practices, they should do so formally, rather than just saying that they will decide what is appropriate and what is not. So that sort of variation cannot be justified.

The quarry company’s principal argument is that it has a minerals plan for the area. All the quarries are part of that plan, and the expansion that the company wants to make is broadly within the preferred area that has been identified, although it goes slightly beyond it, which is a source of considerable contention. However, the company’s argument is that if it does not develop in the place that has been identified on the plan, the stone will still be needed and will therefore just have to be quarried somewhere else. The argument is that it is better to quarry the stone in places that have been identified in a plan that has been debated and discussed, rather than saying no to any application to extend within a preferred area. That is the quarry company’s perspective. It points out that some local residents have signed a different petition, in support of the applications—including, obviously, those who work at the quarry—and that it is not simply the case that residents are anti and the company is pro. Again, the situation is more complex.

What is interesting is the council’s perspective. I have raised the issue with the council, as have local residents, and we have received two responses. In a letter dated 16 May, the senior planning officer for minerals and waste says:

“The issue of existing planning restrictions being ignored and no enforcement action being taken is noted. However, whilst these applications are under consideration it is not considered expedient”—

that is obviously the key word—

“for the Council to take formal enforcement action against the matters that are the subject of these submissions.”

One can imagine how thrilled residents were to receive a letter saying that the fact that existing planning restrictions were being ignored and that no enforcement action was being taken had been “noted”. That did not go down terribly well.

However, there is a slightly expanded version of that letter, referring to Government guidance, which is part of the reason for raising the issue today, and from which it is worth reading a couple of excerpts. The same official says:

“The Council has received similar letters raising concern about operations at the quarry taking place outside permitted hours and seeking immediate enforcement action to remedy the breaches before the current application…is considered.”

That is what people want—in other words, to say, “That’s an application, that’s different. Let’s enforce the existing rules now.” The official also says:

“Government guidance in PPG18 advises that where it is possible that planning permission (subject to conditions) may be granted to regularise the situation, that Local Planning Authorities should request the submission of retrospective planning applications.”

That is what has happened—the quarry company has been talking to the council, they have both accepted that the conditions have been breached and it has been agreed that, in effect, a retrospective application should go in, in order to deal with the breach. The officer continues:

“In this instance the Council has pursued this approach and is currently dealing with three planning applications…Whilst these applications are under consideration, it is not considered expedient for the Council to take formal enforcement action against the matters that are the subject of these submissions.”

That does not mean that absolutely nothing is being done—environmental health is looking at a few bits and pieces—but the central planning enforcement action is on hold.

As I mentioned, one of the problems is that there is not just an eight-week wait involved. The council has been in discussions with the quarry for some years about regularising the situation and it has known that the applications were to be submitted. Therefore, no enforcement action was taken over the period when the council knew that they were to be submitted, none has been taken while they are under consideration and until they are considered in July—even that might be deferred; we do not know—none will be taken. One can see the logic that says, “If it’s all going to be sorted out in a few weeks, don’t waste time”, but if the situation has gone on for so long, one can see why the residents are frustrated.

To return to the comment that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) made, the council’s perspective is that it has a relatively small planning department, in a rapidly growing unitary authority, with masses of planning applications and a lot of development on the go. For the council, even simply to process what comes in and then to deal reactively with complaints is a struggle. I have some sympathy for the people involved in planning enforcement, but the council’s view is that it simply does not have the resources to be as proactive as it would like to be. The issue, particularly for growing authorities, is whether enough recognition is given in, for example, the funding formula for local authorities of an area’s growth and the planning burden that it brings. With many planning applications, we are not talking patios; we are talking out-of-town developments, new towns and major road network changes.

Planning departments are therefore in a demanding position, and I have some sympathy with the council’s enforcement officers. However, the bottom line is that the guidance that enforcement officers receive is not to enforce while an application is live, so we are left in a kind of limbo. My question for the Minister is whether he is satisfied that PPG18 is working as it should be in practice. I know that there has been a big review of planning, which reported last November, the conclusion of which was that the current balance is broadly right. However, I still get the impression from my constituents that they do not think that the balance is right, and that there should be more incentives and processes for existing conditions to be enforced. The worry is that putting in applications can be used as a loophole to allow irregular situations to continue.

I am listening to the case that my hon. Friend is describing and, although the council is understandably cogitating, debating and negotiating with the quarry, planning enforcement action can be taken only within 10 years of a condition first being breached, as he is no doubt aware. Given that the quarry has apparently been in breach for about 10 years, the longer cogitation and negotiation continues, the more likely it is that the quarry will be able to ignore any enforcement action.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. He obviously has good eyesight and can see over my shoulder, because the quarry company wrote to me last night and said precisely that:

“We could have sought immunity due to the length of time the exceedances had been apparent; however, we did not believe that this approach would have been in the best interests of the community, the company or the local authority.”

The company’s point is, like my hon. Friend’s, that the issue has gone on for so long that the company could have just carried on. However, to its credit, it has decided to regularise the situation. I should also say that the quarry company has recognised that its liaison with the local community could have been a lot better. It is now starting to meet all the residents who have complained to consider the issues of noise, dust, traffic and so on. I hope that, whatever the outcome, relations between the quarry company and the other parties will be better and that some of the initial concerns will be addressed.

I want to give a second, very different example, which is also big in my constituency. I was not able to forewarn the Minister that I was going to raise it, although I hope that he will be able to give some initial reaction. The same sort of issues arise from it.

Obviously, my constituency is the most attractive in the country—with the obvious exception of yours, Mr. Chope. My constituency has some attractive green belt land and lots of villages, and lots of people want to live in the area. There are good motorway connections to the rest of the country—we are at the junction of the M4 and the M5—so the area is popular for Travellers. Many people want to travel around the country as part of their lifestyle, and I see no reason why they should not. We are a good base for them. The council has a couple of official council Traveller sites. However, a planning issue that relates to Travellers is arising now; such issues are sensitive and controversial, but this one is germane.

Normally, when we talk about Travellers and planning, one thinks about people pitching up on a highway verge or a farmer’s field and needing to be moved on. That is not what I am talking about. My example is of a Traveller who buys a piece of green belt land on the edge of a settlement and moves a caravan and a mobile home or two on to the site. Obviously, doing so breaches planning regulations, so it is reported to the council. The Travellers unit goes to see the families to find out their intentions, whether there are any children on the site and so on. We should remember that the Travellers own the land, so there has been no trespass and there is no question of their being evicted. However, they are in breach of planning regulations.

Someone objects to the fact that the Travellers have put the mobile home or caravan on the site and an enforcement process begins. At that point, a planning application is made for a house, caravan or mobile home on the site. The council then says, “Hang on, a planning application has been made. We will not take enforcement action because it would not be expedient to do so.” Such applications often go on for a long time. Inevitably, social needs assessments of the families are made and there is assessment of the availability of Traveller sites elsewhere in the area and so on.

That is why I mention Travellers. My example is not about anybody pitching up on a greenfield site; there are particular issues about such applications that mean that they are handled differently. The issue is not only about where the pitching takes place; who does the pitching is also germane. What tends to happen is that after the application goes in, there is no enforcement. The process can be slow. One, two, three or six months go by and local residents start to say, “Hang on a minute. This is a lovely village, and we would all like to have a nice house on its edges in one of those fields, but we can’t. We want somewhere for our kids to live in the village, but there is nowhere—an extra house or two around the edge would be lovely, but we know that we cannot have them. How can somebody else do that?”

The planning application goes in and may well be turned down—routinely, such applications are. One imagines that enforcement would then happen. It would, except that an appeal is then made. The appeal can take months and months—such appeals are, in fact, often successful because of the shortage of official sites. However, whether it is successful or not is irrelevant. What happens in practice is that the breach of planning regulations goes on for months and months, if not years and years, and creates real resentment. Effectively, no enforcement takes place because planning applications are live. If, at the end of the entire process, the application and appeal fail, 18 months have gone by. What do the Travellers do? They sell their plot of land, buy the next-door one and start all over again.

The worry is that the planning system falls into disrepute. Every time that somebody complains to me about a breach of planning on the edge of a village and I write to the council to say, “Come on, the rules have to be the same for everybody,” it writes back to say that it will not take enforcement action because a planning action or appeal are pending.

The strategic planning of the area is gradually being undermined by such piecemeal developments, but in any case the public increasingly feel that the rules are not being followed. I have absolutely no problem with diversity and different people having different lifestyles; the issue is not about that, but about people feeling that the rules are not being followed and their frustration at the fact that there seems to be no way to enforce them.

That second example was very different from my first; the quarry company was not too thrilled at my using it in the same context as their case. It says, not unreasonably, that the issues are different. However, the underlying issue is linked. We need a planning system in which the public can have confidence. The public need to know that when a restriction is placed on something, it will be enforced, and that just as they would not be allowed to put a house on a green field next to a village, so others will not be able to. The public need to have confidence that the taxes that they pay for planning enforcement are money well spent and that there is consistency. The worry, which I hope the Minister will address, is that given how the rules and guidelines are interpreted, councils—not just mine; I am sure that we shall hear about others in this debate—are judging that it is not expedient to enforce them, and the public are feeling let down.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my principal point—that we all want consistency. We all want rules, where they exist, to be followed. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said, the public do not want to have to report breaches or to look up planning conditions all the time to make sure that they are being followed. They expect that work to be done, but that is not happening. I know that there has been a big review that concluded that things were kind of okay, but is the Minister satisfied that the system is working as it should? My constituents are clear that it is not. Does the Minister have any views on how we can more effectively ensure that the tabling of a planning application does not become a loophole? That happened in my second example. More generally, how do we ensure that when conditions are imposed, they are effectively and consistently enforced?

I am delighted to follow my near-neighbour, the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), in this important debate; I am glad that he managed to secure it. I do not want to speak for long, but the issues are of concern. I shall raise a couple of cases that are different from but share a number of common features with the ones that he raised.

Planning is a difficult issue, and there are notorious cases in which planning enforcement officers have lost their lives because of the nature of the conflict in which they had to engage. However, if the law is to mean anything, it has to be enforced. I am sure that we all, as constituency representatives, have faced individuals who have said, “Well, if I had sought planning on a bigger scale, I would have got away with it even if I had broken the rules.” I declare an interest as a town councillor; we spend a lot of time seeking retrospective action against people who have built a conservatory, shed or even a small extension without having sought planning permission. However, some developers have blatantly broken the rules but apparently are able to get away with it. There is an issue of scale; enforcement is often used against people who break the rules on a smaller scale, while the way in which bigger-scale issues are sometimes dealt with is almost tantamount to causing the law to be treated with contempt. That is not acceptable.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be sensible to amend PPG18 and the regulations so that if an applicant finds that they have to make a retrospective application because of the commencement of enforcement action, they should lose their right to have costs awarded against the council as the result of any appeal? That might at least concentrate people’s minds so that they follow the proper procedures rather than trying to flout them in the way that many developers, both small and large, do.

I support that. I hope that the Minister will say something about the way in which some people deliberately—there is no other way to say it—contravene planning policy by building something, then putting in a retrospective planning application if action is taken against them. More often than not, those people do not bear the council’s costs for taking action against them. It is galling to know that enforcement is about to be taken but that developers can defend themselves by seeking another planning application, even if the original was turned down. This is a grey area, and unless we get into the legal process the problem is often never resolved satisfactorily, and the next-door neighbour ends up saying, “Why don’t I do the same?” That is the biggest problem, as it leads to planning by neglect.

I have two interesting cases. I do not want to have a go at Stroud district council—the people who carry out enforcement are friends of mine—but it is under-resourced and under-powered. Taking enforcement action is dangerous and difficult, but if the process is to mean anything it has to be done and someone has to do it. One of the biggest problems is section 106 agreements, as councils often try to get jurisdiction over them, as they would like to see some amenity value properly delivered from a bigger development. The problem with section 106 agreements, I have found—I cannot believe that I am alone in this—is that they are signed by one developer but are often delivered by the second or third developer to take on the site. Lo and behold, that developer is often not keen to deliver the section 106 agreement. The council comes along and tries to enforce it, only to be told, “I’m sorry, but we never signed that agreement. We signed a subsequent agreement.” That brings the planning process into disrepute. The council may choose to take enforcement action, but any developer worth their salt will have a skilled lawyer who will make the point that the developer did not think that it was taking on the agreement when they took on the site.

Let me show how ludicrous the problem can become. A development is taking place in Dursley, not a million miles from the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon. Crest Nicholson, one of the country’s biggest developers, has worked to the letter of the law, I presume, but certainly not to the spirit of the law. During the course of development at the site, the developer prevented businesses and the public from gaining access to it. It was abundantly clear what was going on, and a so-called enforcement action was pursued. The problem was that Crest Nicholson batted it away. That was frustrating for those businesses, as they received little or no compensation for all the disruption that they suffered when the site was being developed. Why was effective enforcement action not taken? The reality is that a small district council was taking on a big developer, which was able to play for time and use the legal process to say, “I’m sorry, but what do you expect with a difficult site?”

The situation became even more ludicrous. The scouts had a hut next door to the development, and it provides one of the most graphic demonstrations of how planning can go wrong. The hut is now isolated, 20 ft away from the rest of the site. The developer dug away at the side of the scout hut, leaving it 20 ft up in the air so that the scouts could not get any proper access to it, saying that that was in the original agreement. The council tried to take enforcement action, but once more it was left to the media to highlight how unfair the process was. The argument is that the amenity is being delivered in other ways, but as far as I am concerned an existing amenity, such as a scout hut, is important. We tried to take action against Crest Nicholson, but it merely said, “When the development is finished, we will get proper access restored.” That is not acceptable.

Another case concerns a Gypsy site that was won, effectively, through the back door. The Gypsies had a good reputation in Moreton Valence, where they were before, but they moved on to a site in Brookthorpe, bang up against Gloucester city, so there was much more impact on Gloucester city than on Stroud district. Despite the unease of the local population about the way in which the planning was won, they let it go and in the early months there were few problems. Three years down the line, I went to a protest meeting a month ago in Brookthorpe. The original Gypsy site has now become a transit camp. The planning agreement, under which foul drainage arrangements should have been put in place, has clearly never been adhered to. The planting of trees has not been fulfilled and the site is in such a mess that we have called on the council to take action against the development, which is clearly outwith what was intended by the planning agreement. All the ill feeling in the locality, which was against the original Gypsy settlement, has returned with knobs on. Locals believe that the planning process has been completely overruled and that enforcement action is rather late, if it has taken place at all, and weak.

Those are only two examples of how enforcement, if it is not properly carried out, can lead to all sorts of problems. The difficulty is that it is unclear whether the problem is purely a planning matter. Environmental health services, the police and the Environment Agency are all involved in considering the need for enforcement action, but no single agency can deliver it. If they all turned up mob-handed, I suppose that that would have an impact, but that is not how the planning process should operate. There is a lack of clarity about how planning should be delivered and, where it is not delivered properly, who should take enforcement action.

The examples I have given are typical of what can happen and what can go wrong. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say something about the need to finesse the planning system so that if there is a break in the planning process and enforcement has to be used, councils regard that process as important, and provide sufficient resources to ensure that integrated action follows when needed? I agree with the White Paper that we need to remove some of the unnecessary burdens on councils when they deal with small developments, but if we are to remove those burdens from councils they have to be given real powers to deal with larger cases of clear breaches of the planning rule, or people will take the law into their own hands more frequently in the belief that they can get away with it. There are too many cases in the Strouds and Northavons of this world that show that planning is held in contempt by many local people. If their application is turned down, but if they see that others have got through the back door and that no enforcement action was taken, they get the message that it is one law for some, but a completely different law for others.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate. It is timely given the White Paper and the concerns of many of our constituents, particularly in the south-east, where planning is becoming one of the big issues that deeply worries people, who write to me about it.

My constituents and I feel that the Government’s plans to deregulate planning are bad for local democracy, communities and our environment, not just for protecting our green belt but for our carbon footprint as well. Their proposals for a national policy statement on major infrastructure projects are at odds with their support for local democracy and their efforts to reduce carbon output. The White Paper will cause a surge in major, carbon-intensive developments such as airport expansions, like the one that is threatened for Stansted in Essex, major road schemes, massive incinerators and major non-renewable energy projects across the UK. The Government must try to square that circle and make their policies make sense.

I know that the Minister is keen on local democracy and bringing control down to the grass-roots level to empower local people to have meaningful control over what happens in their communities. I totally agree and support him on that, and have heard him speak eloquently about it in the House. I wonder whether the Government’s proposals in the White Paper will conflict with that objective. I know that there are difficult questions to answer and that the national interest in infrastructure and energy generation projects must be considered, but a careful balance must be struck. We still need to respect true local democracy and to keep local people empowered.

The planning system, as it is at the moment, is biased against local communities. If a planning application goes in and is knocked back, the developer can appeal at very little cost and trouble to himself. If it is approved, the local community cannot appeal. There are no circumstances in which a community can say, “You’ve got this one wrong. We want it looked at independently, because we think something has gone wrong in the planning system.” My constituents regularly feel that something has gone wrong in the planning system in Castle Point and that bad decisions have been made, but they have no means of challenging those decisions unless the procedure was got wrong. In general, the local council does not get it wrong, and even if it does residents only have a compensation route and cannot change the planning decision.

The planning system needs to be rebalanced. We need to empower local communities to challenge major planning applications. I know that we cannot have a next-door neighbour fighting another next-door neighbour—that would be rather silly—but there needs to be a system of challenging major decisions that affect a community, such as the planning application in my community to enable the building of 320 houses on green belt land. Many of the planning committee did not turn up to vote on it, and people from another community voted and approved it against the expectations of the local community, the local media and myself. We need to rebalance power and to give it back to local communities.

The debate is about enforcement. It seems that the enforcement rules are complicated and muddled. I pulled out the Library debate pack “Enforcement of planning conditions”. It states, quite rightly, that

“domestic building work that has not been challenged during the four years after its substantial completion is safe from enforcement action by the local authority.”

That is clear, and we all understand it. It also states that the limit for a breach of conditions is 10 years, after which enforcement action cannot be taken. The same report says that, with some exclusions, unauthorised change of use is not excluded from enforcement action for 10 years, but that action on a breach of planning control through a change of use has to be taken within four years. I am now confused—is it four years or 10 years for a change of use? In deciding on such a matter, a judge was also confused and there was a lot of controversy about what constituted a change of use rather than a breach of condition. There is room to clarify such matters and have clear, simple principles against which planning decisions can be judged.

Retrospective planning applications, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Northavon and others, are often used to legitimise unauthorised developments. I know that the Minister is considering whether we might have some controls on that, such as a change in the fees for retrospective planning applications so that they are made more difficult and controlled.

I was going to talk about other issues, but I see that other hon. Members want to speak. I hope that the Minister will consider one or two of my points.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate on a matter that affects every right hon. and hon. Member. I am sure that it is regularly raised in every postbag.

I agree with what hon. Members said about the lack of enforcement. There is no doubt that the planning departments of local authorities are overstretched and that the action that they take is reactive rather than proactive. All too often, they rely on local residents or residents’ groups to inform them of when planning conditions are breached. I wish to give one example from my constituency—the old Withington hospital site.

Withington and West Didsbury have the very active West Didsbury residents association, which takes a keen interest in planning matters. When the hospital site was being redeveloped, some of the trees there were protected to retain as many of them as possible. Unfortunately, the conditions that were put on the application to protect the trees during construction were flouted. It was only because of the work of Alison Hunt, the environmental officer for the residents association, that it was ever brought to the attention of the planning department that the developers were putting building materials right up against protected trees, potentially damaging their roots. Without that hard work by local residents, some of those trees could have been damaged and might have ended up dying.

The problem is that it is okay where there are strong, proactive residents’ groups to do that work and keep an eye on developers, but all too often areas do not have such groups to take action and inform local councillors, local MPs and the planning department when regulations are being flouted. Clearly, there are some areas where developers will always get away with ignoring the planning conditions. The areas with strong residents’ groups are the only ones where action is actually taken.

In raising a specific issue that relates to Manchester, I should like some steer from the Minister as to whether it is a national problem. I am not a big fan of the new executive and scrutiny structure in local government, but one of the good things that has come out of it in Manchester is that the physical environment scrutiny committee, which is chaired by one of my colleagues, Councillor Simon Wheale, conducted an inquiry into the enforcement of planning regulations. The inquiry made it clear that there is a lack of enforcement in Manchester, and, as a result, extra resources were found to fund two additional enforcement officers in the planning department.

Unfortunately, 12 months later, those two enforcement officers have still not been recruited. My question is whether this is a problem with the Manchester recruiting process, or whether across the country there is a lack of people who have the necessary enforcement skills. If there is a lack of skills, perhaps it should be addressed.

We must deal with penalties for breaking conditions. The one way to improve compliance with planning conditions is to impose tougher penalties on developers. Currently, they think that they can get away with flouting conditions. If they are caught, the penalties are so insignificant that it is worth their taking the risk. Others assume that if they are caught, all they need to do is put in another planning application and get permission. I shall give two examples from my constituency.

Two or three years ago, a developer built a block of flats in Didsbury several feet higher than it was supposed to be. As soon as local residents and councillors—not planning enforcement officers who had noticed the problem themselves—made the planning department aware of the contravention, the developers were forced to put in another planning application. The planning department did not think that the cost of forcing the developer to chop off the top part of the building was justifiable, so section 106 was introduced instead, and the developer spent thousands of pounds on improving the environment in the street. Of course, the developer thought that that was a price worth paying because building a larger development would result in additional money when the flats were sold. That amount far outweighed what the developer paid to improve the local environment.

A more recent example is from the Chorlton end of my constituency. The council gave permission for a coach house on Edge lane to be demolished and rebuilt in a similar fashion but slightly bigger. That permission was given on the understanding that the existing bricks would be retained during demolition of the old building and reused for the new building, and that bricks that matched the original ones would have to be sourced if additional bricks were required.

The developer sent in the bulldozers and made no attempt to retain any of the bricks. He then used brand-new bricks of a completely different colour. The planning department was informed by local residents and councillors, and what happened? It approved an application to use new bricks, despite the strong condition attached to the earlier application. The only reason why the developer was allowed to demolish the original coach house was that the original bricks would be retained for the new building. It was in the interests of the developer to bulldoze the building and not worry about retaining the bricks because it was much cheaper to use brand-new bricks, and, of course, he then got away with it. Tougher penalties are needed so that financially it will not be in the interests of developers to flout the conditions.

I end by raising a point that has not yet been made. It is to do with the restrictions on opening times. In Manchester—certainly in my constituency—many applications are made to convert shops or buildings into bars, restaurants and take-aways. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that such applications are often fairly controversial with local residents; that is certainly the case in my constituency. Because they are controversial, and because there is an impact on local residents, conditions are usually imposed on such developments to restrict the hours and to ensure that local people do not suffer too much disamenity as a result of late-night drinking or noise.

The problem is that we now have new licensing laws, and owners of bars and restaurants are applying for later licences, which are often approved. They then use their licensing hours as justification for extending the opening times and for requesting a change in how long they can stay open under their planning conditions. Councils—Manchester is certainly one of them—worry about refusing such applications on the basis that if the applicant appeals, they will almost certainly be granted the additional time because they have been granted a licence for later hours.

I want an assurance from the Minister that the Department will consider the impact that the new licensing laws have had on planning conditions to restrict hours of operation, and whether they have resulted in hours of operation being extended when conditions had been imposed to restrict the level of disamenity to local residents.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) has allowed me a little leeway should I spill over my allotted time, but I will do my best not to take advantage of his kindness.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate. He made some strong arguments for reviewing how the Government approach the matter and for finding ways to strengthen the integrity of the planning system, particularly in the area of enforcement. I hope that the Minister will take those points on board.

As many of us know, the planning system is fuelled more by greed than by need. When planning committees grant permission, they in fact write cheques to those who are successful in the process, whether or not they bamboozled the local committee. The fact is that the system itself is often driven by the wrong motivations. One of the results is that some developers will go to extreme degrees to avoid proper process.

The hon. Gentleman says that the planning system is driven by greed, not need, but is he aware of a pamphlet recently published by the Liberal Democrat think-tank CentreForum? It was written by the distinguished economic historian Dr. Tim Leunig, and it was endorsed by Front-Bench Liberal Democrat spokesmen. It argues that the planning system should harness what the hon. Gentleman describes as greed by allowing community land options so that local authorities and developers both gain from the uplift in value when land is auctioned. Does he, like his party’s Front-Bench spokesmen, consider that an enlightened way to harness greed for community benefit, or does he reject it?

As a humble Back Bencher, it is not for me to comment on matters on which my Front Bench has commented.

Clearly, a significant element is driving the planning process that is to do not with talent or the hard slog of work, but with simply converting land from one use to another, which is in fact a privilege granted to the successful applicant by the community. As a society, whether our political parties do this or not—I urge my Front-Benchers to do it—we need to acknowledge that a value goes into private pockets as a result of such decisions. We should ensure that the community shares in any benefit from decisions made.

On the enforcement process, I am arguing not for a nimbyist’s charter, but for finding ways to achieve balance. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke about balancing the process and argued for third-party rights of appeal. I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who speaks for the Conservatives from the Front Bench, will reflect on whether he considers that a wise and constructive contribution. Failure to comply is a criminal offence, yet because it is a crime against the environment, it is considered a low-order crime. In fact, many people consider failure to comply to be an acceptable crime. They do not consider it to be an embarrassment to themselves in society.

The system lacks targets. Yes, there are targets to deal with the speed with which planning applications are dealt, but there are no targets to deal with compliance, monitoring or enforcement. I hope that the Government and the Minister reflect on that. I said that the system is reactive; in fact, it depends on a complaint being made. Very few planning departments proactively engage in the enforcement process; instead, they simply wait for complaints to be made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon argued, even when people complain, complaints are often not taken to the enforcement department, which is frequently regarded as a mediation service for disputes between neighbours. Many neighbours who wish to complain do not want to harm the relationship that they have with their neighbour and are therefore forced to stand back and not to complain. That allows breaches in planning law to continue because people fear that they will harm their relationship with a neighbour for ever. The planning department should be given the powers and have the resources to take enforcement action.

I have two proposals for the Minister, one of which I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Those who consciously and knowingly flagrantly abuse the planning process either by failing to apply for permission or by not applying conditions of planning permission should lose the right to have costs awarded against them if their subsequent application results in an appeal to the Secretary of State and an inspector. If people knew that they would lose that entitlement, it would strengthen the position of the local authority and weaken the position of those who flagrantly abuse the system. The other proposal, which the Minister has heard me mention before and with which I know he has sympathy, is that parish councils should be given an enhanced role in monitoring the planning system and ensuring that matters are brought forward, which would avoid the need for neighbours to complain against each other.

I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that it was time well spent hearing the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing the debate, which has examined an aspect of the planning system that we often hear discussed at a local level, but rarely at a national level. It is particularly important that we discuss the matter because we are considering the Government’s proposals for reform of the planning system announced in the recent White Paper.

If people are big enough and know the rules and the loopholes, they feel that they can get away with abusing the planning system, and my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon concentrated on that. If people are to have any confidence that the planning system is there for them and is seriously doing what it should, it is crucial that we overcome that problem. To enable us to plan for the sustainable future of communities around the country, we must have a watertight, fair and transparent system.

My hon. Friend mentioned enforcements being delayed by further applications, and I am sure that all hon. Members are familiar with that issue, which is echoed in the problems faced by people who want to lodge objections against applications. For example, when an application is submitted and it is objected to, it can be withdrawn and on the same day a second application can be submitted. Local people think that they have objected to the planning application that has been considered in the committee when in fact there is a second application that differs by 1 ft and their objection has not been taken into account. That is another example of the types of problems that my hon. Friend raised.

My hon. Friend also said how relations with the community and the local authority have a crucial role to play in dealing with that problem. That should be borne in mind when we consider how constructive companies and developers are at dealing with planning issues. There are good examples of how those conversations can be had with local employers, as in the case of the quarry in his constituency.

As my hon. Friend said, communication is also important within local authorities. When a department—whether it is environmental health or another department that is liaising with the Environment Agency—is aware of a breach, it should immediately pass the information on to the planning enforcement section in the local authority. Does the Minister have any views on what could be done in local authorities to encourage them to ensure that such information is exchanged more freely? Community involvement is vital, and that is the message that I will take away from my hon. Friend’s speech.

The hon. Member for Stroud raised similar points to my hon. Friend and reminded us how high passions can run on some of the issues. If people are faced with even a very minor planning scheme on a day-to-day basis, it grinds them down and can undermine their quality of life. What may seem a minor problem to the developer or a busy local authority officer who is dealing with a huge caseload could be a huge problem for the person affected and it should be dealt with. The hon. Gentleman echoes what my hon. Friend said about how the piecemeal breakdown of the planning system undermines the whole system.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) suggested looking at the fee structure to discourage retrospective planning applications and I am sure that the Minister will want to consider that. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) made some strong points, particularly about the aesthetic aspects of planning applications, which are usually vital in finally winning the support of a community for a controversial development. As they are often crucial to the successful acceptance of the final development, there should be some enforcement of them. That was a good point to raise. In his intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives talked about the benefits of development being shared by the local community. As all hon. Members are aware, my party thoroughly supports that principle.

As the Minister has studied the planning White Paper at length, I am sure he will correct me if enforcement is mentioned a great deal, but although I am aware that we have PPG18, which I am sure will be replaced by a planning policy statement in due course, I do not think that the White Paper tackles the problem of enforcement in any detail. As we want to consider how local authorities manage their resources and how we encourage them to become more proactive in dealing with planning issues, I hope that the Minister will reassure us that when planning legislation is introduced, perhaps in the next Session, enforcement will be covered more thoroughly than it is in the White Paper.

I have a couple of brief questions for the Minister. What assessment has he made of the resources that are available to local authorities? Obviously, he wrestles with that issue on a daily basis and when he considers bids for unitary government. We heard about the quarry in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon. In two-tier areas, mineral and waste applications are dealt with at a county level and the district deals with other matters. That is a further level of complication that needs to be addressed when considering enforcement. What assessment has the Minister made of the level of resources and of the incentives and disincentives for local authorities to carry out their roles as enforcers, if I may call them that—it might paint a slightly unpleasant picture of local government officers? That comes back, in particular, to what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington said: often developers or businesses make a financial calculation. Is it cheaper to flout the law and break the conditions of a planning application than to fulfil the obligations undertaken when the application was submitted and considered?

I would be grateful if the Minister could address some of those concerns, and I reiterate my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon on securing the debate. I hope that, as we consider the restructuring of the planning system, enforcement will be given its fair share of the discussion.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. First, I would like to join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) for securing the debate this morning. He laid out the challenges in front of us in an exemplary fashion with reference to two hard, complex cases. I appreciate the difficulty that the Minister will have in referring in detail to either of them, but the hon. Gentleman used them to illustrate broad, general principles.

In particular, I appreciated the sensitive way in which the hon. Gentleman outlined the range of views on the vexed question of quarrying and quarrying development in his constituency. While it is undoubtedly the case that his constituents suffer disturbance and annoyance—which are very far from trivial—as a result of quarry working, it is also the case, as he was right to acknowledge, that many of those residents were aware when they bought their houses and moved to the area that quarry work was going on there. I would like to raise a broader point about the built environment, however, with which I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees. Many of us believe that housing development should be organic—in sympathy and in tune with the local neighbourhood—so local materials should be used. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) made a very good point in a different context about the appropriateness of maintaining high aesthetic standards in development.

The quality of limestone found in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon, and across the west country, is of the sort to allow sympathetic development elsewhere in the area. If we are to ensure that the necessary additional housing in the south-west is built in harmony with existing housing and in a way that wins the consent of local people, quarrying, such as that which takes place in his constituency, will have to continue. There is another layer of complexity, therefore, that means that the whole planning system has to take into account and balance a variety of conflicting or overlapping objectives.

This debate is taking place because the planning system is dysfunctional. Everyone who has spoken in our debate has addressed the way in which, not just planning enforcement, but the planning system overall, is not seen to serve the interests of our constituents, to underpin faith in local democracy, to reinforce faith in the rule of law or, indeed, to allow prompt and effective commercial development when it is in the interests of the community or the broader economy. The planning system has been tried and found wanting in almost every area.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned an unauthorised development in the green belt in his constituency, which was consequent on the actions of a small group of Travellers. Once again, I congratulate him on the sensitive way in which he dealt with that issue. Everyone who I know—certainly everyone in the Chamber—understands that the country has benefited from the rich diversity of traditions and cultures that make up the tapestry of British life. Some aspects of British life would have been impossible without Travellers and, as it is Ascot week, we should recognise that. Many of the events in the traditional British season, whether major racing events or local village fêtes and fairs, would be impossible without the services provided by Travellers and showmen, so we should pay tribute to their contribution to British society.

Once again, however, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, an appreciation of what Travellers and showmen have brought to our society is undermined by the actions of a small minority using the planning system in the way that he accurately described—they are playing fast and loose with the rules to push through unauthorised developments of a kind that make many local communities exceptionally irritated and lead them to believe that the law does not defend their interests. We heard, too, from the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Manchester, Withington, and for St. Ives (Andrew George), as well as from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) about the way in which local people’s faith in the planning system is tested when unscrupulous individuals or large developers think that it is more economical to ignore the law, take the hit, and profit elsewhere. That brings me back to something that we need to understand about the planning system. It is a legal framework. The rule of law matters in this country, and if people are to have faith in the system they need to see that laws are applied consistently and fairly.

You will appreciate, Mr. Chope, having had the good fortune to serve alongside Nicholas Ridley—a genuinely enlightened figure in that role—in the Department of the Environment, that the planning system is about economics, too. If it is to work, it must work rationally and ensure that incentives for developers and others are aligned with good behaviour. At the moment, that is not the case. We heard interesting suggestions from the hon. Member for St. Ives and from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point about how we might better align the planning system to ensure that penalties and incentives make developers behave appropriately. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to that.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) pointed out that one of many disappointments in the planning White Paper, which was a well-intended but disappointing document, was the lack of detail about how enforcement might be better secured. As he pointed out, there is a serious question about capacity in the planning system. Do we have enough sufficiently trained planning professionals to deliver enforcement? I would be very interested in the Minister’s remarks on that, as well as his response to the initial questions posed by the hon. Member for Northavon about the way in which guidance has been framed to encourage and incentivise local authorities to be proactive.

Of course, those two questions are interrelated. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, if a planning department is run off its feet dealing with a rash of new planning applications, sometimes enforcement takes second place to the processing of those applications. However, I am sure that anyone here with experience of local government, such as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, would say that guidance and resourcing go together. Adequate resourcing and clear, empowering guidance can provide local authorities with the means to do what I suspect every Member in this debate would like them to do—apply the law in such a way as to restore faith in the planning system.

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on the extremely helpful way in which he approached the debate and described the problem from the point of view of residents, the local authority and the developers. Obviously, the issue has raised emotions in his constituency and I have read the background to the issues that he introduced. As he and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, I am limited in what I can say, but I shall try to be helpful.

Given the short time available, it will be helpful if I set out our policy before trying to answer the questions that have been asked, but I apologise in advance if some go unanswered. I suspect that we are entering a period in which debates on planning policy will rise up the policy agenda following the publication of the White Paper. Therefore, if I do not answer all the questions today, I am sure that they will be dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Castleford and Normanton—I am sorry, I mean my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who is the Minister for Housing and Planning: those constituencies are easy to confuse. I am sure that either she or her successors, or I or my successors, will return to the point.

The Minister is a real gentleman. As he said that the Minister for Housing and Planning may write to us to answer our questions, will he add this question to the list? If a local authority fails to take enforcement action against breaches or irregularities, in effect ignoring complaints, what sanctions are available to communities or complainants against that local authority?

A wide range of powers are available, and there are even more in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, if a local authority is deemed not to be doing its job. Of course, I recognise the frustration that residents can experience in such circumstances.

Let me set out the policy. Under successive Governments, local authorities have had very wide powers to impose planning conditions, which are an important development control instrument that can be used to overcome a broad range of issues that might otherwise lead to refusal of planning permission. More generally, conditions can be used to improve the overall quality of a completed development. In deciding whether to impose conditions in any particular instance, we expect—and Parliament expects—local planning authorities to follow guidance in “Circular 11/95: the use of conditions in planning permission”, which was issued by the former Department of the Environment, and is the key guidance document to which we all refer. It requires the following policy tests to be applied to the use of conditions. They should be necessary; relevant to planning; relevant to the development to be permitted; enforceable—that is a key criterion; precise; and

“reasonable in all other respects.”

That last test is a definition of which I am especially fond, as it is good guidance in any policy area.

The guidance advises that local planning authorities should give careful consideration to the need for a condition before imposing it. In particular, they should ask themselves whether planning permission would have to be refused if that condition were not imposed. If it would not, the condition needs special and precise justification. If a condition is considered necessary and is imposed, only to be flouted, authorities can enforce compliance by serving a breach of condition notice. If a valid breach of condition notice is contravened, the resulting offence is open to summary prosecution. We would not expect authorities to impose conditions if they had no intention of enforcing them should that prove necessary. There is no evidence, in our opinion, of widespread non-compliance with conditions, or that local planning authorities have any particular difficulties in using the statutory powers available to them properly. Planning conditions remain in force until they are revoked, amended or discharged. That is the basic system.

The issue of evidence is obviously crucial if we are to consider enforcement as we proceed with the planning White Paper. As it is not part of the consultation, because it is not in the current document, what is the best route to stimulate the gathering of evidence so that we can make progress?

The Local Government Association and the Department meet regularly and planning policy is one of the issues raised. It is for local authorities to raise the matter with us if they believe that their powers are inadequate, and obviously it is open to Members of Parliament to do so as well. The debate today is an important cross-party contribution to discussions about people’s concerns. We have heard examples ranging from very significant developments, such as the quarry that was mentioned, through to smaller matters at local and, indeed, household level.

Hon. Members may find it helpful if I complete the point about policy, as it is important both to the debate as it goes forward and to today’s debate. Other provisions can come into play. Section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides for applications for planning permission to develop land without complying with conditions previously imposed by an earlier planning permission. That seems to be the position in the case described by the hon. Member for Northavon. The local planning authority can grant such permission unconditionally, or subject to different conditions, or it can refuse the application if it decides that the original condition or conditions should continue. The original planning permission will continue to exist and apply until the outcome of the application under section 73 is decided, at which point it will supersede the original planning permission.

With regard to the Wickwar quarry, Government guidance does not tell the council—the hon. Gentleman did not make this accusation, but it is part of the debate—that because there is a pending application that could regularise the situation, it should not take enforcement action. Our advice is that, although it is unsatisfactory for anyone to carry out development without first obtaining the required planning permission, an enforcement notice should not normally be issued solely to regularise development that is acceptable on its planning merits but for which permission has not been sought. If, however, it is not clear whether development is acceptable, it is open to the local planning authority to take enforcement action. Although enforcement is discretionary, we would certainly expect local planning authorities to take enforcement action in cases in which the amenity or the environment was threatened.

As I said, planning conditions remain in force until they are revoked, amended or discharged, and the conditions attached to the existing planning permission remain in force until any new planning permission with the same and/or different conditions takes effect. Local planning authorities therefore have a full range of statutory powers available to them, backed up by Government guidance on how to ensure that planning conditions are used properly. Where necessary, planning conditions can be enforced if there is non-compliance, but if planning conditions are breached, it is for the local planning authority to decide whether to take enforcement action. The hon. Member for Northavon asked a general question whether PPG18 is working in practice. Clearly, in publishing a White Paper, we believe that the time is right to develop policy, but to describe the planning system as dysfunctional is over the top.

How can the Minister possibly be happy with the planning system when, as we know, household growth is running at the rate of some 223,000 a year, yet we are delivering new housing only at the level of about 160,000 a year, and housing starts in the three months to March of this year are down 9 per cent. on the previous year? He cannot be either happy with, or willing to commend, that system.

I will not be tempted down that road, because it is outside the remit of the debate, but my contention is that, while the planning system has been described as dysfunctional, it is not so.

Hon. Members have made a number of suggestions as to how we could improve the situation. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned the role of parishes, which are statutory consultees. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) accused us of deregulating the planning system. Incidentally, I would expect him to welcome deregulation; perhaps he would do so in a different context. The question that the White Paper raises is this: at what level should planning decisions be taken? The hon. Gentleman’s point is obviously important in that regard. He had one other suggestion, which may raise practical problems. Briefly, the answer to his question is that the period is four years for dwelling houses and 10 years for other changes of use.

We have had a useful debate. I have tried, in the time available, to answer the questions that were raised, but I look forward to further debate on planning policy, the White Paper and the important issue of enforcement.