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Unauthorised Development

Volume 550: debated on Monday 17 September 2012

3. What plans he has to increase the powers of local authorities to tackle unauthorised development. (120885)

19. What plans he has to increase the powers of local authorities to tackle unauthorised development. (120904)

The Government take the problem of unauthorised development very seriously. In August, I issued new guidance to local authorities that set out the strong powers councils and landlords have to remove illegal and unauthorised encampments, such as Traveller sites, protest camps and squatter sites, from both public and private land. Provisions in the Localism Act 2011 that came into force on 6 April this year have strengthened councils’ powers to tackle unauthorised development.

I welcome the Government’s stance on unauthorised development, which will help to strengthen the protection of areas such as the Kingswood green belt, after Labour’s regional spatial strategy aimed to build 10,000 houses on it. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will honour their commitment, as set out in the national planning policy framework, to protect and preserve the Kingswood green belt, and assure my constituents that the green belt is safe?

We strengthened the green belt provisions regarding unauthorised development when we issued the changes to the Travellers guidance. I can assure my hon. Friend that we regard the buffer between Bristol and Bath as extremely important, which is also how we regard the co-operation between authorities to ensure adequate housing provision.

The Secretary of State will know that between 2000 and 2009, the number of unauthorised Traveller camps built on Travellers’ own land but tolerated by local authorities increased fourfold. What are the Government doing to tackle that soft-touch approach by some town halls and to protect the people forced to live next to them?

It is often a question of local authorities not entirely understanding the powers they have. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome the guidance that we issued last month explaining a range of measures, including pre-emptive injunctions to protect vulnerable land; possession orders; police powers to remove unauthorised camps; temporary stop notices; powers of entry, planning contravention notices; licensing rules; and enforcement notices to remedy breaches of planning rules. Everybody in this country should be treated equally. It is unacceptable that planning authorities readily take enforcement action against the settled population but have been reluctant to do so against Travellers.

Will the Secretary of State clear something up? A lot of people in my constituency and up and down the country now believe that what used to be unauthorised development will become authorised, in the sense that anyone will be able to build a hideous extension to the house next door, abutting their property, and not have to go through planning, which could blight many people’s homes up and down the country. Can he clear that up?

I certainly can. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, when faced with such ignorance, will say that there are existing powers to prevent neighbours from doing such things. There is a 2-metre limit and rules on taking up no more than half the garden. It seems to me that he is simply scoffing at the aspirations of ordinary people.

I welcome the new planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), to his post. I understand from comments that he has made that he is in favour of “chaos” in place of a properly functioning planning system. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that is now Government planning policy and, if so, how they plan to tackle unauthorised building, welcome much-needed development and deal with green-belt issues?

I feel like Bertie Wooster asking someone to look at Jeeves, saying, “Look at that noble forehead. Look at that cranium. All that thinking that took place for all those years.” It is not surprising that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is bursting with ideas, and he now has an opportunity to deliver the national planning policy framework.

As part of dealing with unauthorised development, will the Secretary of State consider narrowing the number of occasions when authorisation is needed, where it is safe to do so? Specifically, in his response to the consultation on allowing hotels to convert to residential use without planning permission, will he bear it in mind that many people in the hospitality sector would relish the extra flexibility and freedom that that would bring? It would free up investment and clear the way for faster and more vigorous regeneration of high-quality, good-value hotel stock.

We have indeed been looking at ways in which we can ease up the use classes to ensure that development takes place. It is our aim to see vibrant buildings that enhance the community, not ones that are rotting and left for no purpose.