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House of Commons Hansard
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20 July 2016
Volume 613

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Christopher Pincher.)

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May I begin by welcoming my good and honourable Friend, the Minister for Housing and Planning, to the Front Bench? I think this is his first outing as a Minister and I am delighted that he is taking the opportunity to respond to a debate about a part of the country with which he is familiar. He recognises Dorset as being a really good place to go for family holidays and outings.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for enabling the House, on the eve of traditional family beach holidays in the United Kingdom, to give its attention to the important issue of beach huts. Beach huts have formed an integral part of traditional British seaside holidays for many years. They evolved from the single-sex segregated bathing machines that were erected in many seaside resorts in the 19th century and are now used, in the words of a recent planning application by North Somerset Council, to

“allow families to relax in comfort, to store belongings and to access facilities such as water and power as well as”—

and I think this is most important—

“providing shelter from inclement weather”.

I cite an application that was made for the grant of planning permission for 132 beach huts at Weston-super-Mare in the spring of last year. The huts were to be erected on hard standing on a former bandstand and also on the promenade. In making the application to itself, the council was open in its public consultation. Furthermore, when the beach huts were first erected and found to be unpopular because they were too large—they blocked the promenade and interfered with the seaside views of others—the council went back to seek fresh planning permission. I cite that example from North Somerset Council as a precedent of best practice, because it entailed full consultation and transparency.

The purpose of this debate is to try to ensure that the approach of North Somerset Council becomes a legal requirement for all councils in England. Many councils recognise that if they are going to give permission for beach huts, they should go through the normal planning procedures, which involve an application, a consultation and so on. However, Christchurch Borough Council has avoided doing that over many months, to the extreme consternation of the public.

The legal background to the planning regime for beach huts is uncertain. The House of Commons Library, in its typically helpful way, has said:

“There is no simple answer as to whether beach huts require planning permission or can be classed as permitted development. Much will depend on the individual circumstances of the beach huts in question, for example, whether they are intended to be temporary or permanent, how easily they can be removed, their size and their physical attachment to the ground”.

We need clarity in our planning law. I hope that, by the end of tonight’s debate, my hon. Friend the Minister will have given some assurance that he will fill that lacuna and ensure that there is clarity, where currently the legal background is uncertain.

One of our country’s greatest national assets is its coastline. Large parts have been protected through the National Trust’s acquiring ownership of the land and securing it against intrusive development; if it had not done so, a lot of our coastline might have been marred, just as a lot of the coastline in the Mediterranean and other parts of the world has been. Other parts of our coastline are in private ownership, so development is controlled by local councils. The gap in the public protection of our coastal amenities is where the land itself is owned by local councils, which seek to give themselves deemed consent for development without the need for any planning application or public consultation.

The extent of that gap in our planning regime has been exposed by what has happened in recent months in Christchurch. Christchurch Borough Council is commendably keen to maximise utilisation of its assets. Some of those assets include land held on long leasehold on Mudeford sandbank, where some of the most expensive beach huts in the country—if not in the world—are located. The Daily Echo recently reported a waiting list of 100 people for the sale of a beach hut with 138 square feet of accommodation, at a price of £250,000. That hut has no bathroom or washing facilities; those are available in a communal shower and lavatory block further up the beach.

It seems that commercial considerations were to the fore when Christchurch councillors came into contact with the television production company Plum Pictures, which was seeking an arrangement whereby there could be a competition for the design and construction of 12 new beach huts as part of the Channel 4 television series “George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces”—I have to admit that I have never seen that programme, but it is apparently a really good view.

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My hon. Friend is making a really fascinating case. I worked for a television company, HTV, which also made a series about beach huts, in that case the wonderful beach huts at Dunster, which are equally expensive. I make the case that beach huts have a certain attraction. We need to consider that—some are almost landmarks, such as the ones at Lyme Regis.

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There are indeed many attractive beach huts located around the country, and there are some amazing spaces. But when we talk about amazing spaces we ought also to think about amazing natural spaces. If my hon. Friend has ever had the privilege of visiting Highcliffe cliff top, she will probably agree that that is an amazing space because it is unspoilt. We can look out to sea and out to the Needles. Why should we wish to despoil such a place, to the detriment of local people, without at least some proper consultation?

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Order. I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to tell the House that his constituency is naturally upmarket and requires no artificial input.

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That is a very good way of putting it, Mr Speaker. We enjoy a large cohort of visitors, not least now because of the popularity of the series “Mr Selfridge”, as Mr Selfridge is buried in a church in Highcliffe and spent much time at Highcliffe castle. We have quite a history and there are many aspects of life in Highcliffe and Christchurch that are attractive to visitors and to our resident population.

On 18 November last year the Christchurch Council community services committee agreed to allow a competition to proceed for the design and construction of beach huts at Highcliffe. That was confirmed by the Council’s resources committee on 2 December. Both meetings, and the decisions taken at them, were kept private on grounds of commercial confidentiality, despite the fact that the beach huts were to be sited on open, unspoiled coastline, which is also part of a site of special scientific interest.

Two months before, local residents had celebrated the Government’s rejection of a proposal for a massive offshore windfarm at Navitus bay of up to 200 wind turbines, each up to 200 metres in height—my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the local council, and many other colleagues campaigned strongly and successfully against that proposal. One can therefore understand people’s dismay when they found that the council, which had campaigned so effectively on their behalf on that issue, had secretly been cooking up a proposal with Plum Pictures.

That proposal emerged only in March this year, when people found out that the competition had been launched and were able to look at the brochure, which described Christchurch Borough Council’s “beach retreat technical specification”, for people to design their own beach retreat—they are called beach retreats because they are not just ordinary huts; they are larger than huts and for overnight, residential use around the clock, 24/7. Those beach retreats were to be located in a scattered formation across the clifftop at Highcliffe.

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As usual, my hon. Friend makes a powerful case. There are no beaches in Wellingborough, but this issue is much more important from a national perspective because when councils own land, they have a tendency almost to rubber-stamp the planning permission. If I have got it right, this case is even worse, because planning permission was not even applied for in the first place.

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Exactly. There has been no accountability for this at all, but I agree there is a problem when councils give themselves planning permission, because the Government are often reluctant to call in those applications, even when they involve development on the green belt. In a recent case in my constituency, development was proposed on the green belt for a new school, and the Government—much to my dismay and that of many of my constituents—did not call it in for a public inquiry, but that is another story.

The terms of this competition were

“to find inventive people to design and build innovative and exciting beach retreats.”

The 12 winners were to get £8,000 each to spend on the materials

“to make their dream beach hideaway a reality”.

The trouble was that they are not really hideaways at all; they are in the most exposed position one could imagine on the coastline. It was stated:

“All beach huts will be owned by the Council, but all designers will be guaranteed four weeks a year to enjoy the retreat they created.”

The brochure also spelt out that the winners of the competition would not need to apply for planning permission for their beach huts, and it boasted that

“Highcliffe is one of the South Coast’s most beautiful coastal points, located just round the corner from the famous beach huts of Mudeford Spit and with panoramic views that include the iconic Isle of Wight Needles.”

The competition was designed to close on 1 May, with winning participants notified on 13 May. The huts would be constructed and completed by 11 September, when filming would be carried out by Plum Pictures. The revelation that the council had entered into such a secret agreement for the development generated an immediate furore that continues to this day. A massive online petition with 1,400 signatures was presented to the council. There has been voluminous correspondence and other protests, and a new local action group has been formed to try to protect the coastline and the beaches against this sort of intrusion.

I asked the council how it was possible for such a proposal to go forward without the need for planning permission.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Christopher Pincher.)

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I was referred to the rules about permitted development, in particular the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, which sets out the rules for what can be classed as permitted development; that is, development that does not require planning permission. Class A under part 12 of schedule 2 to of the order grants permitted development rights for local authorities in relation to what are described as “small ancillary” buildings, including the setting of a size limit. It seems extraordinary to any layman that a small ancillary building could be interpreted as covering 12 separate overnight beach huts in isolated locations many hundreds of yards from any building, let alone a local authority-owned building.

The problem seems to be that in the order, “ancillary” has been deemed by the courts—at least in one judgment—to relate to a function of the council, rather than a building. This was discussed in the case of The Queen on the application of John Richards v. West Somerset Council in the High Court of Justice, Queen’s bench division, the administrative court on 23 September 2008. In this case, Judge Hickinbottom agreed that “ancillary” related to function. It seems, however, that that was on the basis that the parties to that particular case were themselves agreed that “ancillary” related to function, as is made clear in paragraph 21 of the judgment. The judge merely said that he, too, agreed that that must be the case:

“The building works or equipment constructed must be allied to a proper function of the council.”

I do not think that, on any normal interpretation of that case or the order, it could be said that “ancillary” relates to a function rather than to another building. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could ensure that the wording of the order is adjusted to make it clear that this is not the correct interpretation of “ancillary”. That is the only way, in our sovereign Parliament, we can overrule a wrongful interpretation of our intentions by the courts. I am sure the Government would not have intended that this sort of thing could happen, with the council entitled to interpret “ancillary” in this way and not having to apply for planning permission as a result.

I would also be grateful if my hon. Friend established that the permitted development rules do not allow councils, in any circumstances, to avoid planning legislation, by deeming such huts of any size or shape to be permitted development. That is important to restore public confidence. It is also important because many of the powers available to Natural England to protect sites of special scientific interest are triggered only when a planning application is in play. I had a meeting with Natural England in my constituency to discuss this issue. It made it clear that, although it had a very limited role if the council applied for what is called an “assent” rather than a “consent”, it would have a much more significant role if the council had to apply for “consent” as part of a planning application. That is another good reason for strengthening the law in this area.

In the Highcliffe case, Natural England was involved, but, it seems, only as an afterthought by the council. I tabled a question to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which was answered on 6 June. It was prompted by reports emanating from the council that Natural England was content with what was being proposed.

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I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s argument—it is a very strong argument—but can he put this in context? I thought he said that the competition ended on 31 May. How could a council have proposed to build luxurious and very expensive beach huts at a time when everyone in government was saying that the world was coming to an end because we were leaving the EU?

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The councillors viewed the designs for the huts in private, so I cannot comment on rumours that one of the successful designs had a large European flag with a cross through it on one side of the hut and a Union Jack on the other. My hon. Friend, as always, makes an interesting observation, although the competition ended on 1 May.

On 1 June, I was told by the chief executive of the council:

“The Council has been working closely with Natural England since the proposal for the huts first came forward”.

He went on to say that officers from Natural England had given detailed advice as to what would and would not be acceptable on the site and that the competition had been designed with that in mind. He was clearly saying that Natural England was content with the situation. From my discussions with Natural England, however, it is clear that it is not. Indeed, it did not receive an application from the council until 6 June, and following consultation, that application has now been withdrawn as unacceptable to Natural England.

I had hoped to tell the House that all had ended happily and that the application to Natural England had been withdrawn; that the proposal for residential beach huts had been withdrawn; that the rumoured alternative proposal for day huts had also been withdrawn; and that the council had agreed to go back to the drawing board and undertake proper consultation before even considering building any construction on or near the Highcliffe cliff top.

Unfortunately, however, the clarity that I hoped would emerge from the council’s scrutiny committee last night was not forthcoming. There are still rumours circulating that the council might want to develop beach huts and that it might be liable for damages for breach of contract because the competition has been abandoned. Most of all, however, the continuing lack of transparency and accountability is adding to public anger and frustration. The council needs to declare openly that it will not proceed with any beach hut development at Highcliffe unless or until there has been full public consultation, including on the design, location and terms of use of any huts.

Although this is all clouded in secrecy and is regarded as commercially confidential, I find it inconceivable that any council could have entered into a legal agreement for the construction of 12 beach huts without making it conditional upon the obtaining of the relevant consent from Natural England. As that consent has not been forthcoming, the contract, if properly drafted, could be easily terminated by the council on the grounds that one of the conditions had not been fulfilled. The fact that the council does not seem to have announced this to the world makes me suspect that it did not execute that basic precaution. If that is so, I fear a potential bill of many tens of thousands of pounds for my constituents. I am sure they will not be at all pleased at that prospect and will want to ask the sorts of questions I have been asking this evening but which have not yet been answered.

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I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I am wondering whether he might not refer the matter for consideration by the district auditor, given such a use of public money and the fact that the relevant legal considerations were not taken into account.

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very interesting point. At the moment, we would say that it was a bit premature to do that, but I am sure that the people of Christchurch will not allow this issue to rest until there is a proper holding to account of the people responsible.

In conclusion, as the pressure on local councils to operate more commercially increases, it is all the more essential that our natural heritage be properly protected. I therefore hope that the Minister will take immediate action to clear up the uncertain legal background to the planning regime for beach huts, so that other communities in England do not have to suffer the same ordeal as the people of Highcliffe in recent months.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this debate and on raising the concerns of his constituents with his typical diligence. I thank him for his kind words about my appointment as the Minister for Housing and Planning. Two or three days into the job, I have already seen very clearly what we ask of our planning system. At the national and strategic level, it is the means by which we try to ensure that we build the houses we so desperately need and provide opportunities in our economy, while at the local level, as this debate demonstrates, it is about ensuring that development in the places we know and love is sensitive and respectful to those areas.

Let me start by setting out how the Government are supporting coastal communities before I come on to the specific issues about the planning system. The great British coast has enormous economic potential, with coastal tourism contributing £4 billion to our economy every year. The Government are committed to the growth and success of coastal communities. Over the past four years, we have put more than £120 million into our much-loved seaside towns through the coastal communities fund. This money has helped launch more than 200 projects and will help to safeguard or create 18,000 jobs. That includes £2 million to create Europe’s first National Coastal Tourism Academy in Bournemouth, not far from Christchurch, to help accelerate growth in the visitor economy, focusing on improving the visitor experience, supporting coastal tourism businesses and bridging gaps in coastal tourism research and development. It is forecast to create 165 jobs in the local area and over 2,000 jobs nationwide.

To help deliver these vital projects, we have funded 118 coastal communities teams in England to take control of their own areas’ regeneration. This includes the Dorset coastal community team, which covers the area from Weymouth to my hon. Friend’s constituency in Christchurch. These teams have brought together local people, councils and businesses to submit joint economic plans for how to drive forward future growth, jobs and prosperity.

The community in Christchurch has worked collaboratively with neighbouring communities as part of the Dorset team, which has resulted in a comprehensive action plan for economic regeneration of this important coastline and a bid to the current round of the coastal communities fund. Earlier this year, the Dorset team consulted on its economic plan, including on specific area plans for Christchurch. I am pleased to see the team taking a proactive approach to improving the economy of the area and looking for innovative new projects. It is one of those projects—a proposal to build additional beach huts along the coastline—that has given rise to today’s debate.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for sharing his concerns about the planning regime for council-owned beach huts and the impact of this particular proposal on his constituency. I am sure that we are all sad to hear that the competition run by Christchurch local council, in conjunction with the “George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces” TV show, which offered a great opportunity to promote the area and involve the community in the development of this important coastline, has given rise to significant controversy.

With regard to the specific site used for the beach hut development, I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise that I am unable to comment on any specific case due to the Secretary of State’s role in the planning system. My hon. Friend is right that I know the beach in question, having family in nearby Hordle in the New Forest. I can set out the Government’s overall approach to planning and how it supports the development and success of coastal communities. I will also set out the position in relation to permitted development rights.

The planning system supports the Government’s commitments to securing sustainable economic growth. The national planning policy framework is a key part of the Government’s reforms to make the planning system less complex and more accessible. It vastly simplified the number of policy pages about planning. The planning policy guidance to support the framework is published online, and is regularly updated. The framework serves as guidance for local planning authorities and decision makers, explaining both how they should draw up plans and how they should make decisions about planning applications.

Our planning reforms and locally led planning system have given councils more discretion, especially when they are preparing local plans that identify where development should and should not take place. National planning policy requires them, through their local plans, to set out clear visions and strategies for their areas that positively and proactively encourage sustainable growth, and their plans should be tailored to the needs of each area in terms of strategy and policy. The plans should focus on the key issues that need to be addressed, and should be aspirational but realistic.

Councils should have a clear understanding of business needs in their markets, and should work closely with their communities in order to understand their needs. We want business, councils and communities to establish a shared vision for the growth of their areas. Coastal areas such as the Dorset coast, which have coastal community teams, have the perfect structure that enables them to deliver that vision through their economic plan. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that growth in business is good for local communities, creating the jobs and prosperity that they need and providing the opportunity for social and environmental objectives to be met.

Let me now deal with the meat of my hon. Friend’s speech. Permitted development rights support growth by simplifying the planning system. Councils have permitted development rights for ancillary development that is required for the purposes of carrying out their functions. Whether a particular development requires planning permission or benefits from a permitted development right is a matter for the local planning authority, and, ultimately, for the courts. My hon. Friend cited some precedents in the form of councils that had applied for planning permission when developing beach huts, and he asked me to look at the wording of the general permitted development order. The Department is not aware of other cases in which concern has been expressed about such behaviour on the part of councils, but I will reflect on his request.

I can reassure my hon. Friend that, regardless of how planning permission is granted, safeguards remain to protect our most important landscapes. Permission granted by the general permitted development order is still subject to the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. If a development granted permission by the order is likely to have a significant effect on a European site, the development cannot be begun until the local planning authority has determined, in consultation with Natural England, that it will not adversely affect the site. That is still the case when the local authority itself is the developer.

My hon. Friend referred to contact between his local authority and Natural England. I note that, according to Christchurch Council’s website:

“Staff from Natural England…have been involved in discussions with the Council about the proposals since the very earliest approach.”

The date of that approach is not given.

“The Council wished to ensure that NE had no objections to what was being proposed otherwise they would not have entered into discussions with Plum Productions.”

That is the company that is making the television programme.

“NE have given us advice throughout, in terms of what would and would not be acceptable to them, and where any huts could and could not be located to avoid damage to the SSSI. Until the final designs and sites have been selected it is not possible to submit a formal application to Natural England. Natural England must give their approval for the construction and location of the huts before any work can start on site.”

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My hon. Friend has quoted from the council’s website, but surely, if what he quoted was correct, it would not have been necessary for the council’s application to Natural England to be withdrawn, because Natural England found the proposition unacceptable.

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As my hon. Friend says, I was quoting from the information on the council’s website, but he has made his point very powerfully, both in his speech and in that intervention.

Ultimately, it is open to any third parties who are aggrieved by a council’s planning decision to apply for judicial review if they believe that the decision was wrong in law, but that must be done within six weeks of the decision’s coming to light. They can also ask the local government ombudsman to investigate if they consider that injustice has been caused to them as a result of maladministration. I recognise the concerns of my hon. Friend and his constituents and I commend him on securing this debate. I would encourage him and his constituents to continue to engage with the local council on this matter.

The growth of our coastal communities is a Government-wide commitment and my predecessors have worked with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and many other Departments to deliver a number of initiatives.

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My hon. Friend says he would encourage people to work with the council, but will he also take this opportunity to encourage the council to consult and work with the local people on proposals to bring forward any future residential or other beach huts?

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I am certainly happy to do that. We have in this country a planning system which is to a significant extent locally led; it is for local councils to develop their local plans, but the Government would certainly encourage them to engage with their local communities, businesses, Members of Parliament and other interested parties as they do that.

It is of course important that all parties recognise that development, crucial though that is, is not at the cost of our valued landscape, and I look forward to ensuring that our planning system and this Government’s planning policies deliver for all in the community and continue to drive the success of coastal communities.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.