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Unauthorised Development

Volume 542: debated on Monday 12 March 2012

11. What plans he has to increase the powers of local authorities to tackle unauthorised development. (98964)

The Government take the problem of unauthorised development very seriously. Strong powers already exist to enable local planning authorities to take action. Provisions in the Localism Act 2011 will strengthen local planning authorities’ powers to tackle the issue, and will come into force on 6 April this year.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Planning appeals are costly and bureaucratic, which does not encourage the local planning authority to pursue breaches, and the process frustrates both the community and elected representatives alike. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address this problem?

The new Localism Act makes five substantial changes. The first, and most obvious, is that it will no longer be possible to appeal an enforcement and make a retrospective planning application at the same time. Secondly, the issue of permission being granted when there has been concealment beyond the normal period will be addressed, so that, for instance, if somebody builds a bungalow behind a haystack, the fact that it has been there for longer than three years will make no difference in respect of enforcement. We will also be able to offer letters of comfort to landowners who are not involved in unauthorised action, and we are increasing penalties—and we are increasing penalties with regard to fly-posting and unauthorised advertising, too.

We in South Staffordshire have to deal with the problem of illegal Gypsy and Traveller sites. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that these powers will help local councils such as mine deal more effectively and quickly with such sites?

Certainly, these powers will help, along with the new planning guidance on Gypsy and Traveller sites, but it is important to understand that the new measures will help not only the planning authority, but Gypsies and Travellers, the vast majority of whom are on legal sites, obey the law and do their best to integrate with their neighbours. Unfortunately, however, a small minority have abused the system, and I get complaints about that from both sides of the House. From 6 April, these new powers will help, and it is to be hoped that we can once again have a much more level playing field.

I have always believed in the right to protest, but does my right hon. Friend agree that nobody should have the right to set up permanent squats, such as those we have seen in Parliament square and at St Paul’s over recent years?

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. As he will be aware, we recently amended legislation to give councils stronger powers to use byelaws to tackle tent encampments such as those that blighted Parliament square. I am engaged in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and am actively looking into other ways in which councils and police practice and powers can be strengthened.

In Bristol, the problem is not so much that the planning department lacks the powers; rather, it is that it lacks the willpower to take enforcement action. Many constituents come to me utterly frustrated that dwelling houses are being built in people’s back gardens, clearly by flaunting the planning guidance. What can be done to address this problem?

The hon. Lady makes a very reasonable point about these so-called beds in sheds. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government recently had a meeting with a number of local authorities to look into ways in which the problem might be effectively dealt with. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that there are more than adequate existing powers to deal with it, and as she rightly points out, the issue has been a lack of willpower. One authority—I shall not name it—has, frankly, let this get out of hand in a two-year process, so that the problem is now very difficult indeed to deal with.

Can the Secretary of State update the House on when we will receive version two of the national planning policy framework, so that we in this Chamber can enjoy the massive, copper-bottomed 180° U-turn at the same time as the press?

What comfort can the Secretary of State give my constituents, who, like those in Bristol, are affected by a blizzard of small extensions that the local authority never seems to be able to deal with? Surely there must be powers at the centre to get local authorities to take this matter seriously?

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) was referring to the new phenomenon of sheds in people’s back gardens, whereby people are often paying over the odds for substandard accommodation in very cramped conditions, and are largely being exploited by their landlords. There is permitted development for some extensions. If the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) feels that there are developments in his constituency that exceed what is permitted, perhaps we could have a word about them outside the Chamber.