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Planning Permission (Financial Penalties)

Volume 561: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable local planning authorities to impose a mandatory financial penalty where planning permission has been deliberately breached; and for connected purposes.

I recall, as a newly elected councillor in Newcastle-under-Lyme, being astonished to see a walled mansion being built in a particularly pleasant spot and being told by the ward member that, although it clearly contravened the planning permission that had been given, nothing could be done. Ever since then, I have been concerned about a lack of fairness in the planning system, or at least in its administration, which seems to impose considerable burdens on the vast majority of ordinary citizens who play by the rules, while the small minority who do not do so get away with the planning equivalent of murder.

Judging by the fact that I have seen examples of this in all three planning authorities with which I have had a close connection—Newcastle under Lyme borough council, Stafford borough council and South Staffordshire district council—I believe this to be a widespread problem and not peculiar to a few areas. Indeed, I have been contacted by one council which highlighted some serious deliberate abuses of planning. Although the council welcomed the amendments through the Localism Act to the scale of fines that can be levied, it believes that these do not go far enough to act as a deterrent.

The national planning policy framework states:

“Effective enforcement is important as a means of maintaining public confidence in the planning system.”

It also states:

“Enforcement action is discretionary, and local planning authorities should act proportionately in responding to suspected breaches of planning control. Local planning authorities should consider publishing a local enforcement plan to manage enforcement proactively, in a way that is appropriate to their area. This should set out how they will monitor the implementation of planning permissions, investigate alleged cases of unauthorised development and take action where it is appropriate to do so.”

The Bill which I am asking leave to introduce would require local authorities to impose substantial and proportionate fines on those who deliberately and clearly breached planning consent in such cases or who built without consent at all.

The authority would clearly have discretion to determine whether the breach of consent was deliberate and clear, but it seems to me, as I am sure it does to most who have been involved in such matters, that it is not difficult to distinguish between an inadvertent and minor breach and one which is deliberate and clear.

The Bill would also make it clear that a proportionate fine would remove all actual and potential financial gain made by the developer as a result of the deliberate breach of consent, and permit a penalty to be imposed in addition. Under my Bill, councils would be required to use the proceeds of fines to the benefit of the community in which the breach occurred, helping to restore public confidence in the planning system and delivering clear results from enforcement action.

I am not seeking to impose new bureaucratic burdens on planning. No law-abiding citizen or development company would be caught by these provisions, nor would fines be imposed for slight, unintentional infringements of planning permission. Indeed, law-abiding citizens are likely to welcome proper fines being imposed on those who decide to break the law by breaching planning permission. Everyone who goes through the planning process knows that it can be time-consuming and expensive, but they also know, or should know, that they are being required to do what everyone else must do in order either to preserve the character of the built environment in which they live or as part of developments in their community which have been agreed upon through the democratic process. If people see wilful breaches of planning permission, or development with no permission at all and no sanction imposed, they understandably feel aggrieved. The result is that the planning system comes into disrepute and there is a strong sense of injustice.

Clearly, I also want to see a more efficient planning system with fewer delays and unnecessary costs, and it is the responsibility of local planning authorities to achieve this. There must be a carrot as well as a stick. A letter to Planning in January 2009 under the headline “Process drives developers to eschew approvals route” reads:

“The planning process has become so lengthy, complicated and bureaucratic that unscrupulous developers have found a more efficient, profitable and quicker method of obtaining permissions. They simply ignore the system.”

But as they improve their systems, planning authorities must have the ability to deal properly with those unscrupulous developers.

One argument which might be advanced against my Bill is that there are already sufficient sanctions available to planning authorities. It is true that they are able to order the demolition of the offending development and have been known to do so. But more often than not, demolition is considered a disproportionate penalty, and the result is that the illegal development is sanctioned in retrospect.

Fines can also be levied. For instance, there is a maximum fine for the unauthorised display of an advertisement of £2,500. For unauthorised works, there are fines of up to £20,000 upon conviction in the magistrates court and an unlimited fine if convicted by the Crown court. But these cases rarely go to court and the fines are almost never imposed. Certainly, that has not happened in any of the cases which I have seen locally and believe merited such penalties.

What is needed is an automatic sanction which falls short of demolition, unless that is clearly the answer, but which means that the developer not only gains no financial reward from their illegal activity, but incurs a penalty. I think of a recent case in my constituency in which homes were constructed of a size that was considerably larger than that for which permission had been given. I would have wished to see a fine imposed which was equivalent to the difference in value between the type of house actually built and that which had been permitted, with a penalty on top. Such a fine, which the developer would have known about in advance, would make it less likely that he would have gone ahead and flouted planning permission to the distress and disadvantage of several local residents.

My Bill would particularly support places such as the City of Westminster, which contacted me over this issue. It has been a serious matter for that council, not least because of the high land values and the potential financial gains which can be made though breaches of consent. One specific example the council shared involved major international businesses displaying large scaffold advertising banners during London 2012 Olympics. This case was subject to enforcement and the deputy chief magistrate who heard the case stated in her summation that the scale of fines was not high enough and needed to be reviewed. This deliberate abuse of the planning system purely for financial gain resulted in a fine in one case of just £2,000—far less than the advantage gained.

The City of Westminster also pointed out the impact of unauthorised short-term lets which skew the rental market and squeeze out genuine long-term renters. Ensuring that such breaches resulted in fines which removed any financial gain would encourage renters to follow the law.

My Bill serves to strengthen the hand of local authorities in a proportionate manner to deter those who wish to use for their own gain the ineffectiveness of the current application of sanctions on unauthorised development. It is, I believe, a necessary part of a more efficient and fair planning system.

Question put and agreed to.


That Jeremy Lefroy, Fiona Bruce, Gavin Williamson, Paul Farrelly, Andrea Leadsom, Mr Michael McCann, Steve Brine, Andrew Griffiths, Jim Shannon, Peter Luff, Mr Robin Walker and Mr Gary Streeter present the Bill.

Jeremy Lefroy accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April and to be printed (Bill 166).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Scottish questions earlier today, the Secretary of State agreed to group Questions 6 and 7. I am puzzled as to why my question, Question 12, which was exactly the same, was not also grouped. As you know, I stood up at the time to try to ask my question but was unsuccessful. That is not a complaint; I just wonder how questions are grouped and who decided how they are grouped.

The short answer to the question in the hon. Gentleman’s point of order is that responsibility for the grouping or non-grouping of questions lies entirely with the Government. Ordinarily, the Government make a calculation of the likely point that will be reached in Question Time, based on previous experience, and judge accordingly whether or not they think it appropriate to group Questions. It is not a matter for the Chair. I am genuinely sorry if the hon. Gentleman was disappointed not to be able to participate in the exchanges on—if memory serves me correctly—the effect of the Budget upon Scotland, but I know that he is a dedicated and assiduous contributor to our proceedings and am sure that he will seek to catch the eye of the Chair in future. In the meantime, his dissatisfaction has been registered with the Chair, the House and the Government Whip sitting on the Treasury Bench.