I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Rogue development is the cause of great anger and misery in Runnymede and Weybridge. Our green belt and natural environment are incredibly important. Our green belt prevents urban sprawl, protects biodiversity, provides a home for countless types of wildlife and provides essential outdoor space for leisure. Whether it is green parks, farmers’ fields, meadows or forests, our green belt is our community identity, health and wellbeing, and it must be protected.
I have seen the incredible harm that rogue development does in my beautiful constituency of Runnymede and Weybridge, but from speaking to other Members, I know that it happens everywhere. I am here today to right this wrong, to put strong measures in law to stop rogue development in its tracks and to protect our green belt and local communities.
We have planning policy and rules to regulate where development can happen. We have processes of appeal and enforcement. For the most part, people stick to those rules, but some people do not—they deliberately build on the green belt without permission. They set up lorry parks, with heavy goods vehicles trundling down country lanes in front of people’s homes and schools, all without permission.
It is shameful. They build temporary homes with no thought to infrastructure, sewage, water or the impact on local services, all without permission. They destroy green fields and forest to make a quick buck. That in itself is enough to infuriate anyone, particularly my residents who live next to a rogue development, but there is something even worse—even more toxic and offensive—than the rogue development itself.
One of the things that I believe unites us all is the British sense of fairness and fair play. As the MP for Magna Carta, the importance of due process, proper legal strictures and the right of appeal weighs heavily on me and is always at the forefront of my mind. Sometimes people make innocent mistakes, and our planning enforcement system needs to be fair, but rogue developers prey on that system. They use it to their advantage. They profit from fairness by abusing the system—by appealing, delaying, changing, amending, adapting. What was a farm becomes a spray shop, becomes a junkyard, becomes a dwelling, becomes a block of flats. By redeveloping, appealing, delaying, building, ignoring, they can continue to profit from rogue development with impunity, making vast amounts of money. And the local authority is helpless, trapped in our cumbersome enforcement and appeal system. This must stop.
When I first became an MP and my constituents brought the horror of rogue development to my attention, I spoke to many people about how we could solve it, and I was often told, “Stay out of it. It’s too difficult, Ben. It can’t be solved.” Such are the challenges of enforcement that in a particularly egregious case, one of my local councils, Runnymede, has had to use extraordinary methods—a proceeds of crime order—to try to stop this rogue development cycle. This is crazy.
I refuse to accept that this problem is too difficult to fix. This is about basic fairness, protecting our communities and stopping villains profiting from crime, and I do not think there is a single Member of this House who disagrees with me about the importance of fixing the problem.
I can think of plenty of examples in my neck of the woods in east Berkshire, and indeed in neighbouring Hampshire and Surrey, of where unscrupulous landowners have put scrap cars on sites, contaminated the soil and put up small dwellings, with constant encroachment on what is there already. Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that we must give councils the powers to deal with this issue and to ensure that these unscrupulous people cannot make money from their actions?
May I ask why my hon. Friend’s Bill is drafted in such a tentative way? It says that the Secretary of State “may” make regulations. Bearing in mind my hon. Friend’s strength of feeling on this issue, which I share very much, why is he not demanding more of the Secretary of State?
My apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I recognise that this is a very complicated area. Rogue developers will use any chink in the armour of enforcement and the appeals process to their advantage—I will come to that a bit later—so it is important that there is as much scope as possible for regulations to be adapted, amended and updated to ensure that we get this absolutely right and prevent these rogue developments. That is why the Bill is drafted in the way that it is.
Sorry, I am not helping my hon. Friend make any progress. He mentioned the impact that this issue has on local authorities, but there is also the impact that it has on our residents and constituents. They spend countless hours on neighbourhood plans and trying to get the best for their communities, only to find that developers ignore them. This is about them; it is about taxpayers’ money, where it goes, and what our local authorities do. I hope he recognises, as is recognised in the Bill, that there is an enormous opportunity to restore faith in process and ensure that greed is not winning the day.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention—it is exactly that. One challenge is that residents see what is effectively a two-tier system, in that those who do not play by the rules are managing to benefit from that. It is a source of great frustration. For enhancing faith in the law and the faith of local authorities in the Government, the inclusion of measures to stop people getting away with breaking rules is critical.
Why is all this so hard? Let us go through it. Under our current processes, if someone builds a lorry park on a farm without permission, first that needs to get reported. The local planning authority must investigate and, if necessary, issue an enforcement notice. All that time, the lorries are moving and the rogue developer is making money. Section 174(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides a right of appeal, and this is where it really starts to get fun. Written notice of the appeal must be sent to the Secretary of State before the date specified in the enforcement notice as the date on which it is to take effect. If an applicant gives notice of appeal without providing a statement in writing, specifying the grounds on which he or she is appealing, they are granted a further 14 days to provide it. So far, the council has found a breach, and that takes time. It has investigated it, which takes time. If one games the system by submitting an appeal without a statement, one gets even more time. All that time, lorries are moving and the rogue developer is making money.
If an enforcement appeal is delayed because the appellant fails to provide sufficient information and the Department’s request for it is ignored, the Department will involve the Secretary of State’s powers under regulation 5 to require a time limit to be observed. Before we even get to the appeal, not providing information can lead to ongoing delays. That means more lorries, and more money for the rogue developer. Most enforcement appeals are transferred to planning inspectors for determination. Appeals represent the highest volume—but not all—of their work, and the number of open cases is vast. It increased to about 11,000 in August 2020, and although that number began to reduce, in recent months it has been rising again. This summer it reached 10,500. The average time for inquires to be heard is 60 weeks. Think about that—60 weeks! That is 60 weeks of lorries moving, and rogue developers making money.
Once the Secretary of State or planning inspector has determined an appeal, an application for leave to submit a further appeal in the High Court can be made on a point of law, under section 289 of the 1990 Act. That must be submitted within 28 days of the appeal, or in an extended period at the court’s discretion. So long and drawn out is the process that Government guidance even sets out considerations for if it takes longer than four years. That is four years of lorries, and by that time, it is no longer just a lorry park as homes are starting to be built. The next cycle is about to begin, and all that time the rogue developer is making money by changing the goalposts, gaming the system, and destroying our communities.
My constituents say to me, “Ben, look at this. We live in a society where the rule of law is broken.” What can I say to them? We can add to all that the fact that planning enforcement is a discretionary service, at a time when local authority finances have been under significant pressure. I must stress: this is not the fault of our local authorities and their planning enforcement teams. They are fantastic, and they are equally frustrated by the lengthy delays in trying to tackle these issues. They would welcome further powers, so that we can identify and address rogue development more swiftly and effectively.
In a nutshell, tackling that is the aim of the Bill. First, it will create greater transparency, making it easier to identify persistent offenders. Currently, there is no way to identify or track those who persistently flout planning rules. This Bill will therefore create a national database for planning enforcement issues and a duty to declare whether an applicant has been subject to previous enforcement notices. This will be populated by planning enforcement teams and paid for through the existing mechanisms of the planning application fee. To address the most serious planning breaches—those that cause the most significant damage to or impact on our communities and natural environment—the Bill also seeks to strengthen the powers available to local planning authorities. Clause 3 therefore sets out a mechanism for local authorities to apply for a High Court injunction, where the court may apply conditions on the site or developer, including, but not restricted to: restricting the use of a site currently subject to enforcement proceedings; stopping the lorries; requiring remedial action to return the site to its prior condition; putting back the forest; digging up the concrete and asphalt; and preventing further applications being made until the initial enforcement matter is resolved, to break the endless cycle of overlapping applications and appeals.
Does my hon. Friend have any knowledge—if he does not, perhaps the Minister might say something on this in his wind-up—of what happens when such a situation occurs on a pure greenfield site? If the planning application had gone ahead, the damage would turn that into a brownfield site, which would then become somewhere we could build on afterwards. What happens to the site? If it is put back to normal, does it become a greenfield site again or will it always be seen as a brownfield site because the damage has been done?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I cannot answer that question, but I hope the Minister can do so in his wind-up. I realise that we have now set him a task to do so. Where this flouting of rules has happened in my constituency and things such as the POCA have been used, the damage has been done. I recognise that the duty to try to put things back to how they were before is a bit of wishful thinking. If we take out the commercial incentive, we can, I hope, stop this behaviour dead in its tracks. That is a better approach, and the measures I have mentioned are fundamental in bringing that about. As everyone has said, all this is complicated, so in addition to bringing forward these measures, we will need to review them to make sure that they work. My Bill therefore also seeks to review their effectiveness to see whether more needs to be done.
I would like to finish up by thanking everyone who has worked with me to get to where we are today—my local authorities, planning officers, the Government and Members from across this House. Rogue development is a nightmare that wreaks havoc on all our communities. I believe it can be solved.
Before my hon. Friend finishes, let me say that I find it extraordinary that in this House we spend a great deal of time on these Benches being attacked by the Liberal Democrats over planning and the lack of accountability of developers, yet on the day he brings forward a Bill that holds developers to account, the Liberal Democrats are nowhere to be seen.
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I hope that all our constituents will be watching our debate and reading the Hansard record of our discussion on these important issues. I believe this issue can be solved. It must be solved, for all our communities, and I hope that we will look back on this debate today as the start of the end of rogue development.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) on his dedication and determination in leading the Bill to a Second Reading.
Green-belt land is one of our country’s most important assets. It spans approximately 6,000 square miles and provides beautiful open spaces and woodland across the whole country for us all to enjoy. Not only is the green belt critical for our environment, but it provides many people with respite from their busy daily lives.
As my hon. Friend may know, my beautiful constituency of South West Hertfordshire is approximately 80% green belt. My constituents value that land and enjoy using it; it enables them to get closer to nature and enjoy the fresh air, whether they are walking, jogging, running, cycling or even exercising their pets. I have made preserving the green belt one of my top priorities as Member of Parliament for South West Hertfordshire, and I am working hard in collaboration with my constituents and local authorities to achieve that. It is essential that we utilise the plentiful brownfield sites that I and many hon. Members have in our constituencies, to ensure that we preserve vital unspoilt land as best we can.
Green-belt land is not just good for recreation; it is a vital flood defence. Sadly, flooding affects South West Hertfordshire, just as it affects many other areas across the UK. Green-belt land serves as an important defence against flooding, better absorbing water and slowing its flow down rivers such as the Chess, the Gade and the Colne in my constituency. Residents, particularly those who live in Long Marston, have long suffered the detrimental impact of flooding. Only last week, we passed the landmark, wide-ranging Environment Act 2021, which introduced several new measures to incentivise farmers and landowners to use their resources to combat flooding further. It would be a step back to undo that hard work by allowing the destruction of our beautiful green-belt land, which serves a similar purpose, while spending extensively on flood-prevention measures.
Destroying green-belt land can also cause irreversible damage to wildlife and ecosystems, have a negative impact on our biodiversity, and damage land that contributes significantly to our world-leading efforts to reach net zero by 2050.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Does he agree that one of the problems with unwanted developments, particularly lorry parks or scrapyards, is that the land that he is talking about—the rivers and streams that Conservative Members very much cherish, as everybody knows, and the areas of outstanding natural beauty and nature reserves—get contaminated by fuel oil or by whatever comes out of the developments? There are so many reasons why this is such a good Bill, but preserving nature from such contaminants is one of them.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend, who I know is newer in this place than he looks. I totally agree with his comments about the unintended consequences and the knock-on ecological damage associated with bad practice by some landowners.
Like many fellow Members, I am in regular contact with local authorities, so I am aware of proposed developments and any future plans to utilise brownfield land in my constituency. I also attend monthly meetings with residents associations across South West Hertfordshire, so I know that my constituents are passionate about protecting their green-belt land and preventing its destruction. They repeatedly raise the need for greater measures to protect the green belt and the desire to be more involved in local planning decisions. My constituents work hard, in collaboration with local councils, to ensure that brownfield land is prioritised for development instead of our valuable green-belt areas.
As my hon. Friend will know, that decision is well above my pay grade. I suggest that he takes it up with Front Benchers and with his Whip.
I am supporting the Bill so that we can advance the discussion around our responsibility to protect our green-belt land from development.
My hon. Friend refers to the green belt, and although I am not pulling him up on this point, this is about not just the green belt, but green spaces. Those of us outside the green belt would wholeheartedly agree with his speech, but we recognise that we are in a different situation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his invaluable contribution, as always. I support the Bill so that we can advance the discussion around our responsibility to protect our green-belt land—and our green spaces; sorry, I should broaden that out—from development, and preserve it for our constituents and for the environment to enjoy for generations to come.
We need to review what we as legislators can do to help to protect the green belt. As well as reviewing the penalties for violating the law, it is vital that we encourage sustainable development and make use of the brownfield sites that we have. I believe that providing incentives to developers who repurpose brownfield land, instead of seeking to build on our green belt, would potentially be beneficial in helping us achieve that.
As many Members will know, I also chair the all-party group on regeneration and development. Having been both a property developer previously and now a politician, I am fully aware of the need for a collaborative approach between developers and politicians to find solutions to this issue. I know that property development is a very emotive issue and that developers are seen as working against those aiming to protect the green belt. That is not always the case, so we should not taint all the developers with the broad brush used for those, unfortunately, who know and play the system.
We know that in this country there is a housing shortage and that we must build new, affordable homes. However, as I and many colleagues have mentioned, that must not come at the cost of our green belt. I have not yet had a chance in the Chamber to welcome the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, or, indeed, the Minister on the Front Bench today, to their roles, but I know that they are already working hard on ways that we can provide the housing we need while protecting our vital green belt.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about protecting the green belt and I welcome the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) is promoting. However, is my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) shocked, as I am, that although the Liberal Democrats have constantly berated the Government for trying to destroy the green belt and for not building enough housing, today, when we are debating this very important issue that concerns so many of our constituents, there is not a single Liberal Democrat MP in this Chamber? It is, in fact, the Conservative Government and Conservative Members who are so determined to build more homes and protect the green belt.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I would have made a comment in my speech if Liberal Democrat Members had been in their place, but as we Conservative Members all know, we are a bit fairer. However, I will report back to my neighbouring Liberal Democrat Members that we would have appreciated hearing their views in this place, not just on social media and in local press releases.
If my hon. Friend, in looking at the Liberal Democrat Benches, had to rate the Liberal Democrat interest in this issue on a scale from one to 10—10 being the most interested and most serious about this issue—what rating would he give them?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I did not appreciate that we were doing a knock, drop and collect survey of zero to 10 on voting intentions. My hon. Friend makes a valid point: we need both sides of the House to be engaged in this debate. That is how we make better laws and legislation and our role as parliamentarians is to be critical friends, even on the Government Benches, to those in the Executive.
It is, and will continue to be, for local authorities, rightly, to grant planning permission. However, it is for us as legislators to decide what planning enforcement powers local authorities have and are able to use. This is where we, as legislators, play an important role and must support our local councils and developers in their efforts to build on brownfield sites instead.
A small minority of people and businesses do not care about preserving the green belt. They do not seek planning permission, but would rather take the law into their own hands and destroy our beautiful green belt. Unfortunately, there have been several instances of that in my own constituency, including people building dwellings on green belt land without permission and destroying woodland to create new paths to their land. The process of dealing with such cases can be long and drawn out, as my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has pointed out. In the two cases I have just outlined, fines of £12,000 and £8,000 were issued to the homeowners.
I do not want to see my constituency’s defence against flooding being lost to people who do not abide by planning laws. Illegally building on the green belt reduces our ability to fight the adverse impacts of flooding, which is why we must review what policies are in place to help protect the green belt. In order to truly protect the green belt, we must enforce the law and penalise those who breach it. It is clear that we need to take stronger action against those who cause illegal damage without consulting the authorities. Now is the time to increase the penalties on those who repeatedly and intentionally flout the law to stop further destruction of our green belt. We must ensure that local authorities have the power to effectively punish those who do break the law and prevent individuals or companies that continue to do so.
We should also look at the timescales involved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said in his opening remarks. The time taken to enforce better behaviour can be years, and, therefore, bad behaviour is, unintentionally, rewarded by gaming the system. I know that my hon. Friend has proposed some measures, including creating a national register to enable local authorities to identify repeat offenders, enabling them to prevent and prosecute those who flout the laws more quickly and effectively. Although I am not convinced that that system is the most effective method of catching repeat offenders at the time, I would be interested to hear more about it and how it could be implemented.
We must balance tougher fines and stronger laws with legislation that encourages good behaviour, rather than just penalises people. By encouraging people to develop sustainably by utilising brownfield sites, we are taking a better approach to preventing green belt planning breaches. By reducing stamp duty or council tax at the beginning of construction as one solution for a fixed period, we can hopefully incentivise development on those brownfield sites rather than watch our green belt land be built on.
We are all in agreement that the best way to protect our green spaces is to maximise the use of sustainable brownfield sites. Members across the House will also know that there are plenty of under-utilised brownfield sites that are perfectly fit for new, affordable homes across the country.
I do agree. My hon. Friend raises a really important point: planning is an evolutionary process and what might have been right for planning five, 10 or 15 years ago needs to be amended and evolve. The pandemic has raised some interesting questions that need answering: what will our high streets look like; where will people be commuting to work; and what is the distinction between working from home versus returning to offices, factories and the like. Absolutely, this is something that needs to be under constant consideration. I am not necessarily talking about in this place; it might be more appropriate for this to happen at a local council level, but it is definitely something that we will continue to debate.
The collective brownfield registers of local authorities identified an estimated 26,000 hectares of brownfield with potential for around 1 million new homes in 2018. By having a brownfield-first approach and implementing my proposed tax cuts to encourage that, we will incentivise sustainable development and not only ensure that our green belt is better protected, but enable us to meet our housing pressures.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for giving way. Will he join me in paying tribute to the Hertfordshire branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, which has a great many interesting things to say about possible solutions to the green belt problems that we are all discussing? Such groups have a valuable part to play in this regard.
As my hon. Friend will know, I have already engaged with CPRE Hertfordshire. Given her extensive experience in this area, she will be aware of the other community groups and bodies whose wealth of knowledge leads parliamentarians on all sides to engage with them. I firmly believe that one can learn something new every day, and the CPRE is a body to which I frequently return.
Let me finally thank my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge for initiating the debate and raising awareness of planning breaches. I support increased penalties for those who break these laws, but I would also stress the importance of legislation that seeks to encourage good behaviour. By incentivising the development of brownfield sites, we can better prevent the destruction of our green belt and green spaces and reduce the risk of planning violations. Only by utilising brownfield land can we truly protect those green spaces, ensuring that they are accessible to us and, more important, to future generations.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) for introducing the Bill. Back home in North Devon, my district council, which is very small, has reported that it receives 500 planning enforcement applications a year. That is clearly far more work than a team of fewer than five people can undertake.
While some of the developments in my constituency may be much smaller than those with which my hon. Friend is dealing, this none the less puts considerable pressure on a very small and hard-working council team. It also enables people to play the system, and I think we are all seeing that on different scales in our constituencies. Why on earth would someone who knows that there is a backlog of several years in the planning enforcement department bother to pop in an application for a small development? In a beautiful constituency like mine, every space that we can keep in pristine condition counts.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) about the need to see our high streets as an opportunity. There is plenty of space, notably in Barnstaple, where a number of large units are now vacant with no property conversions above them. There is a large amount of brownfield that is hidden; it is not traditional brownfield, but it is a brownfield development site.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge about the need to simplify the system and reduce delays throughout the planning process. Such action is long overdue, and I hope that the Minister will have an opportunity to feed back to the new Secretary of State how much we are all looking forward to seeing his planning reforms. We have a real opportunity to improve a system that has not kept pace with development, and to deal with the needs of our council teams recovering from covid whose backlogs prevent them from going out to sites to look into enforcement issues.
The Bill refers to the establishment of
“a national register of persons who have committed planning offences or breached planning controls”.
Such a shared resource to help small district authorities like my own would be a fantastic addition to the system in enabling people to check what was going on. My constituency is very remote and rural, so it presents a useful opportunity to people who want to sneak off to somewhere a bit quieter to do something which, perhaps, they should not be doing.
Constituencies such as mine contain a burgeoning number of second homes and Airbnb rentals, so perhaps we could also consider an accommodation register to ensure that there are enough homes for people to live in in villages like Croyde and Instow, so that they do not turn into massive holiday camps in the summer and ghost towns in the winter. We need, through planning reforms, to tackle these issues at many different levels. The second-home situation in North Devon has hit crisis point, and we need help at both district council and Government level.
The planning system is certainly in need of reform, but we do not need a dodgy bar chart to show us that it is the Conservatives who are sorting out our planning system, and are seriously winning here.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) on his success in the private Member’s Bill ballot and on choosing planning enforcement as his topic. I thank him for taking the time to meet me earlier this week to discuss the detail of his Bill. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) and my friend the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), with whom I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking, on their contributions.
As has been expressed in the Chamber through speeches and interventions, there cannot be many MPs or councillors of all parties and none who have not had constituents complain about the delays and apparent weaknesses in the planning enforcement system. The Bill seeks to address the most egregious breaches of planning law—those of multiple abuses. Often, but not exclusively, they are on the green belt or on metropolitan open land and on other green open spaces, involving uses such as junk yards, coach and lorry parks and mobile home parks. I cannot imagine the pain and stress experienced by immediate neighbours and those in the communities affected by the damage caused by these sites while they are operating.
I would like to add another example of egregious abuse: too many houses in multiple occupation. I have seen some truly terrible housing conditions in Hounslow, with back-garden shacks—not even sheds—and front rooms of small terraces split into two, with eight bedsits squeezed into a home. I think that Hounslow was the first local authority to use the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 against such abuses. The victims of this abuse of the planning system are the residents who are charged rip-off rents, and their children. Furthermore, it appears that in these egregious examples, the perpetrators’ names come up repeatedly in different places.
I absolutely accept the hon. Lady bringing up HMOs as an issue. Does she agree that planning enforcement should be strengthened to prevent the ongoing blight that concerns people particularly in London—especially in my constituency—of short-term, one-night lettings under Airbnb or Booking.com? The 90-night rule should be enforced under planning law.
I appreciate the pressure that the hon. Member faces in her constituency. My friend the hon. Member for North Devon expressed concerns about seaside resort cities and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is also experiencing this blight. The Airbnb situation is a further example of weaknesses in the planning system. Perhaps the planning system in a wider sense needs strengthening rather than planning enforcement—that might be the subject for another debate and another Bill—but I understand the pain of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and that of her constituents.
I agree with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that it is not fair that while everyone else play by the rules, a tiny number are apparently able to cock a snook at the council and their neighbours. His Bill is not aimed at the far more common lower-level breaches such as residential extensions built higher or closer than allowed in planning permission or under permitted development rights, but neighbours say that the system takes far too long to sort out even those cases. People do not appreciate that planning enforcement is not like licensing, where a miscreant’s premises can be closed down immediately.
I turn to the Bill’s clauses. First, it would create a single England-wide database of all major or repeated planning enforcement breaches that would be publicly available. The cost of maintaining the database is to be covered by charging planning fees. Does that mean increasing current fees? Local planning authorities are currently each required to maintain their own register of enforcement and stop notices, which contains details of enforcement notices, stop notices, breach of condition notices and planning enforcement orders. The data is there, but it is not all in one place.
If enacted, the clause would make it really easy for planning enforcement officers to see whether they were dealing with regular offenders who work across a number of council areas. This could certainly be useful. For example, in prosecuting cases for failure to comply with enforcement notices, local planning enforcement officers could join up and bring a bigger case against that particular individual. A database would also provide a source of reference, so that planning officers could look at the types of breaches that have been enforced against and how officers in different boroughs dealt with them, such as the wording used for complex breaches.
Let me return to how the database would be resourced. The Bill refers to making a call on planning fees. However, there are any number of pressures on planning department budgets, thanks to 10 years of Government cuts to local councils, so if there were any opportunity to raise funds from planning fees to support the planning system, I am sure that borough planning officers would have a long list of greater priorities to spend that money on, such as employing more staff. This week, the Royal Town Planning Institute told me that it had a report of one authority that has just five planning officers to deal with everything: planning policy, planning applications and enforcement. Besides, why should well-behaved applicants be subsidising the prosecution of unauthorised activity? Although I appreciate the intent, and the proposal has some merit, I fear that the database could be seen as a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Clause 2 would require all applicants for planning consent to declare if they or their company has ever had any planning enforcement action taken against them. One difficulty is that planning applications and planning permissions run with the land, and not the person who makes the application as such. It would therefore be quite easy for anyone to circumvent the need to declare whether they have had enforcement action taken against them or their company by simply getting someone else to put their name on the application.
Appearing on the list could also be held against someone in determining any application they make subsequently. Each application has to be judged on its merits and not the prior actions of a person making a new application on a different site. The provision could catch many perfectly innocent people who just do not understand the planning system. It ignores the fact that the majority of people subject to enforcement action breach the system unwittingly; in the vast majority of cases the process of being served with an enforcement notice leads them to rectify the mistake and, in the process, learn about the planning system. Why should they be forced to declare and have their past mistake hanging over them?
Clause 3 would enable the local planning authority to seek an injunction in the High Court, with the effect of a stop notice, so that no further planning applications could be considered on that particular site. Now, I am no planning lawyer but my understanding is that provisions for injunctions are already available to local planning authorities under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
I share the frustration of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge with the situation in his constituency, and the cases raised by other Members. I do not know what other remedies were sought by the planning authorities in these egregious cases, nor why they did not work. As he will be aware, there are a number of tools in the enforcement officers’ armour that can be used to tackle ongoing and serious breaches of planning consent, and the ignoring of planning enforcement notices. Those tools include stop notices and temporary stop notices, POCA, planning enforcement orders if there may have been concealment—I remember the case of a farmer who built a house hidden behind walls of hay bales; I think he was prosecuted in the end—and injunctions, as I have already said.
Many of the appalling cases described by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge are subject to other criminal and civil proceedings relating to pollution, noise and smell, housing conditions and tenure, health and safety breaches, modern slavery and more.
The hon. Lady is demonstrating well the complexity of these cases; our constituents all feel frustrated by how long and complex they are. As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, our constituents have to put up with it while cases go on for months and often years. Does the hon. Lady welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has brought this issue to the House for us to examine? Hopefully, Ministers can take the matter back to the Department and it will come back later in the planning enforcement paper.
The hon. Lady anticipates the end of my speech.
In the planning system, enforcement action is intended to be remedial rather than punitive. That might be the difficulty. To carry out development without the necessary consent is not in itself a criminal offence, and as I understand it this place has always baulked at the idea of making it one; however, the failure to comply with a planning enforcement notice is a criminal offence and carries the risk of heavy fines and, ultimately, imprisonment.
We have a lot of sympathy for the Bill and, most certainly, for the reasons why the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has brought it to the House, and we understand why so many Members with green belt and open space in their constituencies are present, but we are not convinced that the specific measures in the Bill will actually address the egregious breaches. Clearly, a failure somewhere in the system has allowed to arise the situation about which Members have spoken so eloquently; it is cumbersome and slow.
Will the hon. Lady include in her conclusion a consideration of whether it is appropriate for people to be able to continue to appeal against enforcement notices? That is where a lot of the abuse arises, particularly in respect of the length of time.
As I say, I am no planning lawyer. The situation clearly needs to be investigated. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge described just that situation when we met earlier.
We would like assurance from the Government that there will be a review of the particularly extreme examples of planning abuses and the cases that go on and on for many years. Particular attention should be given to cases in which it appears that the same offenders try the same tactics at multiple sites, which is the reason why the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge had the idea of a database. The review should consider whether aspects of planning law should be amended to better address the kind of breaches that have led the hon. Member to introduce the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) on introducing this insightful Bill for which he made the case articulately. I thank him for that.
My constituency of Meriden is one of the largest, by geographical size, in the west midlands and arguably has some of the largest amounts of green spaces and green belt, so I really sympathise with the Bill because I, too, have to deal with a lot of planning issues. I am sure colleagues from all parties find it deeply frustrating that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, we are often told that individual planning cases do not fall within the remit of Members of Parliament. That can be deeply frustrating and really goes to the heart of people’s faith in the system.
My local council has put forward its local plan and started to tackle the duty to co-operate. There is great need for housing and so on and there are immense pressures on the green-belt and green spaces in my constituency. There is not only the need for extra housing in my constituency but the duty to co-operate at a regional level. I have the HS2 interchange in my constituency, so HS2 goes through it and puts additional pressure on it. I have other planning applications, such as for motorway service stations. Constituents often say to me that if a development needs to be done, it will be put in the constituency of Meriden, because it seems that that is where there is space for it. It is incredibly frustrating at times, and we do not feel we have the powers to hand to deal with these situations. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge captured that sentiment and the frustration of residents, constituents, councils and Members of Parliament about the time it takes to enforce.
I commend my Conservative council, which is determined to do everything it can to protect our green spaces, including a commitment to plant a quarter of a million trees, alongside its other environmental ambitions. There is even talk of a west midlands national park, which I hope to see come to fruition.
I am also delighted to have the support of the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, who is determined to unleash brownfield sites to alleviate the pressure on our green belt and our green spaces, which is an acute situation I have often had to deal with. Fundamentally, on planning, it comes down to the faith people have in the system and the stake they have in society and in our communities.
This is why I believe in the spirit of the Bill. If we do not have effective enforcement, procedures, processes and rights of appeal, if people do not feel that due process is being followed and if they do not feel a sense of fairness, it undermines faith not just in our system but in our democracy. That speaks to the broader principle of people needing to feel enfranchised and that they have a stake in a democratic society.
Every person should feel that their home and their environment is safe, and they should have a stake in that, so I am a big supporter of local support in the planning process. I hope the Government will take note of the spirit of the Bill, as I am sure the Minister will, and take it into account when they propose future planning reforms. Legislating for good planning practice demonstrates the delicate balance between the needs of residents, development and progress as we change aspects of our neighbourhoods.
Unfortunately, there are many scenarios in which planning controls are contravened and people do not feel they are being enforced. Where these breaches occur, it is not just a breach of the planning system but an assault on our environment. In the weeks after COP26, we should think about the impact on our environment, on our precious green belt and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) said, on our green spaces.
Such breaches not only cause physical scars but they damage people’s trust in us, and I will return to that point throughout my remarks. Of course, it is essential to have confidence and trust in our system, and we should have appropriate punishments, too. I am intrigued by the proposed database, which is a signal of intent to those who comply with the system and to those who do not. There is a strong Conservative argument for giving people a stake so that they have faith in due process and natural justice in the planning system.
This Government have sought to remedy some of the problems in our current planning arrangements, particularly those related to breaches of planning agreements. The “Planning for the Future” White Paper gives ample thought to the future of enforcing planning rules, and I strongly welcome its commitment to introducing more powers to address intentional unauthorised development.
Does my hon. Friend agree that intentional unauthorised development leads to a great loss of confidence among local residents when it is allowed to go unchecked? Does he agree it is extremely odd and an anomaly in the planning system that a council can secure a court injunction to stop a person continuing to build on a site and then that person is allowed to apply for planning permission retrospectively?
Absolutely; my right hon. and learned Friend makes an excellent point. That goes to the essence of the Bill, and it is why I really believe in what my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has brought forward.
As I have said, I am particularly interested in the national register, which I think will prove to be an effective instrument if it is implemented in the right way; as ever with good policy, it all comes down to the execution. I commend my hon. Friend for including that.
Let me end on three quick points. I thank the CPRE for all the work that it does, and I thank the Woodland Trust, with which I have had lots of engagement. I originally had a reference in my notes to engagement with the Liberal Democrats, but I am not going to go down that road, Mr Deputy Speaker; I will take your direction. However, I say to unscrupulous developers and immoral people who abuse our planning system, as they will see if they are watching today’s debate: we are coming for you.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Runnybridge and Weymede, who is not only a friend in this place but a neighbour. I have seen his work in supporting his constituents not only with challenges such as flooding but on so many other issues in Surrey. We are so lucky to have him. I know from the various WhatsApp groups that I am in that there is so much support for the work that he is doing in this area across Surrey.
I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), on the Front Bench. Not only is he known as one of the smartest people in Whitehall, but he has a much more important accolade: he is a former constituent of mine, so he knows the joys of the beautiful landscape in East Surrey. I am sure that he will be listening very carefully to the debate.
When we look at planning controls, we should start by thinking about what they mean. The reason they are so important is that they protect our heritage and ensure that planning improves the infrastructure that we all access. It is so fundamentally important that we have good planning, because it is a key part of people’s lives—of how they interact with their community and feel at home.
On heritage, I am lucky in East Surrey because I have not only areas of outstanding natural beauty but sites of special scientific interest, listed buildings and one of the largest proportions of green belt in the country. We have heard from many Members across the House, and I fully concur with them about the importance not only of green spaces, which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) mentioned, but of protecting the landscape, the luxury of clean air, and the beauty of the biodiversity that we have in those wonderful spaces.
I do quite a lot of work on the environment. On the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) made, it is not only that building on these spaces in this way might denigrate their green-belt status; the environment is a delicate chain, and once we take away parts of natural habitat, it is so hard to replace them. I work with so many organisations that are trying to do exactly that, but in these cases they should not have to.
The things that these rogue developers do are not limited to the rogue development that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) talked about; they also affect infrastructure, such as infrastructure to handle sewage and flooding—things that my constituents face particular challenges with. That is why it is so important that development goes through planning controls and that measures can be looked at as a whole, so we know that anything that is being built in an area is fit for purpose and fit for the local community.
However, that is not always what happens. We know that some of these rogue developers not only do things that might encumber the local infrastructure, but cause great upset in our communities by doing things that affect local heritage, whether it is the landscape or something else such as listed buildings. It is so important that we crack down on these things.
One of the challenges that I face in my community is that there is sympathy for the need for homes—when I talk to people about affordable homes in particular, they know that we need more homes—but there is a problem with trust in the planning system and in developers. People feel that where there are rogue developers and people not building to planning controls, there is not enough enforcement. When people feel like there is no rule of law, it makes it so much harder for them to trust in more house building, and I will be very clear—I have said it before in the House—that we do need some of that.
These people are not nimbys. Many have spent many hours and weeks working on neighbourhood plans. They have put forward sites, and sometimes there can be difficult conversations about green fields or beautiful places, and they say, “We all agree we can build some homes on that site.” What they do not trust is that developers as a whole will ensure that they build in the way that people would like to see. I know that the Minister will be considering that carefully.
This particular challenge around rogue builders and rogue developers is a real problem, and not just in affluent parts of this country; it affects deprived parts of this country, too. I visited a deprived part of Bristol recently, and I talked to residents there who had not only set up a local lettings policy, but had got their own equipment to go and check building standards. They would look at some of the developments that had been built and use their own equipment that they had personally bought to see whether building standards had been met, and they had not. They felt that they did not have a place to turn to. We should work out how we can give people that confidence when building standards are not being met.
I always like to listen to what my hon. Friend has to say, particularly in this area.
Turning to some of the interesting measures in the Bill, the database is particularly good. We all know that good government runs on good data, and the database should enable us to find some of the people who are repeatedly breaching proposals. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) made an interesting point when she said that for so many people, a breach is a first-time mistake and they learn about the planning processes through making it. Certainly we do not want to catch too many of those people out, but where there are major breaches and repeat breaches—I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has put this in his Bill—we should take that into consideration, so that we know who is carrying them out.
My hon. Friend talked about creating a financial offence, which is particularly important, because for so many of these people, they will keep committing the same offences over and over again, as he so clearly set out, because there is a lot of financial gain for them. It is not only the fact that they can do it multiple times, but the length of time it takes for enforcement. We heard earlier that it can take up to 16 weeks and possibly longer just to go through the appeals process set out in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. I would welcome that being looked at again.
I have talked about the importance of why we must protect heritage and people’s confidence in their local infrastructure, while also allowing for the house building that we need, and this Bill is a very good starting point. My hon. Friend knows I have some technical questions that I would like to see answered, but this is an interesting area and I hope the Minister is listening carefully.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), with whose words I completely agree. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) for bringing forward this important Bill. Perhaps there is something in the water in Runnymede, with the history of Magna Carta, about wanting to stand up for the voice of the people. Before historians write to me, I know it was not that simple and that was not exactly what the barons had in mind, but it plays into the theme of what he is trying to achieve, which is to have people’s voices heard and to ensure there is integrity and faith in the planning system. That is so important, because housing and our lived environment play into what most of us want from our lives.
We want a decent place to live. We want our neighbours to respect our rights and we have to respect our neighbours’ rights. This plays into a sense of fairness and of right and wrong in the system, and if systems do not have that innate sense of fairness and of right and wrong, we lose trust in them. Once we lose faith in such systems, we are all in a very dangerous place.
Planning is one of the things that those in government—whether at local authority level or at parliamentary and national level—find really affects people’s lives. This can seem esoteric, but when people’s bins are not collected or someone is building an illegal garage or parking lot next to them, it causes them so much distress and truly causes so much anxiety in their lives. That is when they turn to those in authority—they come to us for help, but when that help is not available, it has a real effect on their faith in all of us, which is why I think this is so important. As a policeman’s daughter and a former magistrate, I do not think I am much of a rule breaker, so to see other people break the rules—[Interruption.] I am not; I am a good girl.
Turning to the measures in the Bill, I think there is a lot to commend them. The database is a really pragmatic way of determining who breaks the rules and how often, and of seeing how widespread this problem is. So often, this is a commercial decision for people, and that plays into the second part of what my hon. Friend is trying to do, which is about breaches and fines. I think the fines and other disincentives to people doing this have to be based on commercial reality, otherwise they can easily be factored into the decisions made by rogue developers and those who want to break the rules, and be seen as just a cost of doing that business. That is covered in the Bill, but the devil is in the detail as to how it might work.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the impact on residents of rogue developments. My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) likewise made a point about the time taken up by the impact on people. In my own constituency of Aberconwy, the town of Deganwy is suffering from exactly that, as a rogue development has led to sewage outfall going directly into the Conwy estuary. Does my hon. Friend agree that the size of the penalty needs to be proportionate to the longevity and the nature of the distress that residents suffer?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is so cynical. Some of these things are accidental—people do not mean to do it—but so often they are intentional and commercial decisions. Whether people make such a commercial decision or abide by the rules so often depends on the penalties available to local authorities and planning enforcers. As I say, the cynical breaking of planning provisions undermines all faith in the system, particularly for the vast majority of people who abide by the rules. They take the rules seriously, and they do not want to push the envelope as some people do. It is a great contrast.
Going back to the Bill, the ability to go to the High Court for an injunction is a pragmatic and realistic way to stop people doing this again or making further applications, as well as to restrict the use of a site or to return a site to its original state, notwithstanding the comment made by one of my hon. Friends about that. Another interesting provision included in the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is the requirement on the Secretary of State to review the adequacy of its measures. As another of my hon. Friends said, this process is an evolution, and we need to monitor it, determine whether the provisions in the Bill are sufficient, and see whether other criminal offences or increased penalties are needed in the future. That is all part of this, and we should take it very seriously.
As I have said, this issue causes people great anxiety, and what plays into that is the fact that the power is held by large developers in so many cases. There is no one silver bullet for many of these issues. One constituent has been waiting for two and a half years for a developer to resolve issues with the house that they moved into. We should encourage more competition in the market from small and medium-sized enterprise providers to improve the market and ensure fair competition so that those types of practices, which push the envelope, are not allowed to take root.
My hon. Friend makes a typically astute intervention. She is right and I welcome the fact that the Government acknowledge that there are lots of things that we need to do in this area, to which I am sure that the Minister is committed. Planning reform, help to build and Help to Buy are different ways to address the issues, because people just want to have a nice, decent home and to live in peace with their neighbours.
I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak, but I will mention that my constituency has one of the largest releases of green-belt land for development ever, as far as I can see, in the Harlow and Gilston garden town plan for seven garden villages. I pay tribute to the local Hunsdon, Eastwick and Gilston Neighbourhood Plan Group, which has an award-winning neighbourhood plan. It faces a David and Goliath situation, however, with developers who do not respond to its questions.
They are a group of volunteers who are having to cope with questions about sewage, environmental protection, cycleways and the quality of builds. They are doing a fantastic job, but it is wearing; I am trying to support them in every way I can. Even last week, a planning meeting was supposed to go ahead to look at huge infrastructure issues. They were originally given six minutes to respond, but because another parish wanted to respond as well, that time was brought down to three minutes. The meeting was cancelled, but it is not good enough.
People who are genuinely, actively and positively engaging in the process and who are proactively not nimbys should be given the chance to have their voice heard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge on introducing the Bill and on a worthwhile debate.
It is a great pleasure to be called to speak in the debate. I commend my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), who has been an excellent champion for his constituency, in which I was born. I have watched his excellent work with interest and I commend him for a brilliant Bill, which I will support really hard.
As we know, the Bill creates offences relating to repeat breaches of planning controls, makes provision about planning offences and establishes a national register of persons who have committed planning offences. That is all good. The key point is to protect our countryside. Although the majority of developers and councils follow the rules, the Bill will hold those who flout the rules to account.
Clause 1 would facilitate the establishment of an England-wide database of breaches of planning control. That is important, because councils such as Bracknell Forest Council, a working borough council, are spending an absolute fortune fighting breaches and repeat appeals. It is right that the cost of those appeals should be covered by the fees. Why should we as taxpayers pick up the tab for rogue developers?
Clause 2 would require planning applicants to declare previous breaches, which is absolutely right. Clause 3 would allow planning authorities in England to seek an injunction from the High Court in response to an unresolved breach of planning control; again, that is spot on. Clauses 4 and 5 are also excellent clauses that will aid transparency.
Why is my hon. Friend doing this? It is quite simple. At the moment, development is immune from enforcement within four years of substantial completion for a breach of planning control, and within four years where there is an unauthorised change of use to a single dwelling house. Councils are powerless to deal with the problem, and it is morally wrong. Again, my hon. Friend has an excellent Bill and I support it.
On wider planning, I am very enthused by what lies ahead in the Government’s forthcoming planning Bill: a new £11.5 billion affordable homes programme over five years, a new mortgage guarantee scheme for those with a 5% deposit, and discounts from the market price for first-time buyers. The abolition of section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 on no-fault evictions will help to protect tenants against being thrown out into the streets.
That is all excellent stuff, but there is a big “but”. The housing and planning Bill needs to focus its future planning on areas that have the capacity to absorb planning and whose need for the levelling-up agenda is most acute. To put it bluntly, that cannot come at the expense of the quality of life that constituents enjoy in parts of the UK, notably in the congested south-east. It must not include building on green belt or green spaces, eroding what is left of our open spaces, or ripping the heart out of our rural or even urban communities.
In the Bracknell Forest Council area, which I am proud to represent in this place, 1,688 homes were built in 2019-20—a 123% increase. Bracknell Forest Council is doing that in line with the local plan, mostly on brownfield sites. That is really important, but this Government-driven policy is vexing our communities. It is wrong that councils should be forced to build on whatever scraps of land are left over, including pub gardens, school playgrounds, golf courses, common land, forest blocks, recreational areas and open spaces. That is a disgrace. There is a similar picture in Wokingham, where the council is almost powerless to stop the activities of speculative developers. I urge Wokingham Borough Council to engage with its MP and run its local plan past its MP, particularly in relation to Pinewood.
Ripping up the Lichfield table was absolutely right. What we need is not the Lichfield formula, but a new formula that focuses on residual land availability as a percentage of total available area. If there is nothing left apart from residual farmland, golf courses or school playgrounds, we should not build on that land. We must build on urban and brownfield sites, particularly in areas such as the midlands, the north-west and the north-east. The Government should therefore incentivise developers to target less valuable land by levelling up further north and in areas that need new housing.
I am led to believe that 1 million homes across the UK are currently unoccupied, and a further 1 million permissions have already been granted. Let us exploit that first, before building on yet more green-belt land. We also need more protections for farmland, so let us impose punitive and progressive taxes on those who seek to build on what is left of our constituencies. We must also allow councils to honour existing local plans and not have extra targets forced upon them. We need to give communities the autonomy and ability to say no.
Our communities need a voice. Our constituents need a voice. They must not have targets imposed on them, particularly in the south-east. Will the Government listen, please, to Conservative voters in particular, who are really concerned? Let us get the planning Bill done, please. I say to the Minister, who is in his place: let us get it done in the right way and build in the right locations. Let us not erode the quality of life that our constituents already have with yet more concreting over what is left of our green and pleasant land. That is just plain wrong.
Lastly, let us subsume my hon. Friend’s Bill into the planning Bill. It is the right thing to do, and we must support it. Let us deal, once and for all, with these rogue developers.
What a pleasure it is to speak in this debate. In the next five minutes, I am going to say why my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer)—or Runnybridge and Weymede, as has been said—is absolutely right in putting forward this legislation. I disagree slightly with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) about the planning Bill, because I have not seen anything in it yet. What I do know is that the strength of feeling on planning in this House means that we need to have new reforms that take into account infrastructure, design, local affordability and jobs. We need to ensure that we can rebuild the faith and trust that has been lost in our planning reform system, which for too many years has let people down, as so many Members have said.
We know that planning does not sit within our remit, but we also know that day after day our inboxes are filled with concerns about planning development, the way in which it goes through local authorities and the way in which developers do what they do. Unfortunately, we have heard far too many stories of that today. We have heard that developers time and time again ride roughshod over local authorities and, perhaps most importantly, over our constituents, who take the time to do neighbourhood plans and to fill in their views about what they want in their area. I can give you countless examples of this in my constituency, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am conscious of the time and so I will not do so. I will just point out the figures for the past three years. In 2019, there were 474 planning breaches in South Hams, and there were 561 in 2020 and a further 560 in 2021. These are not just individual houses; they are development sites. That is a huge amount of housing where developers are doing what they like, without listening to the local authorities, who do have the best interest of their constituents in mind. We need to address this issue because the planning rules are there for a very specific purpose: to try to build the houses for our constituents, so that we can build for the future and allow people to get on to the housing ladder.
On the Bill, it is right that we have to ensure that those who have broken the law elsewhere, or who have breached planning provisions, are held accountable not just in that local authority, but across the whole country. Therefore, a database is the right thing. It is right that we look at where we can put fines on these people. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), who makes the point about developers factoring that into their prices and that getting passed on to the consumer. If we are going to go forward in this way, how do we make sure that we have a fine that is going to hit where it hurts and make sure that developers rethink their proposals?
My second point is about what happens to planning applications until breaches have been addressed. In my constituency in south Devon, in Kingsbridge, at Lock’s Hill, the developers have had a planning breach notice and they are continuing work on the site—that is unacceptable. The residents look on as a greenfield site is turned into a mud pit and development continues while we are putting it right.
The third point I wish to make in the last minute available to me is that we have to find a balance, ensuring that we are still building houses and fulfilling the commitment to provide affordable houses across the country. There are some loopholes and issues that can be tightened up in the Bill, and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge knows that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) said, we must find the tightened language so that we can ensure that this provision is not exploited. He and I know that in a host of areas, be it second homes or park homes, housing is being exploited by people who want to get more money out of others, rather than deliver a service, a house and a style of living that should be expected for all people.
I hope that we let this Bill pass its Second Reading today, but that we have a massive opportunity in the planning Bill to ensure that we can deliver something for the whole country that makes a real difference. My constituents in Totnes and south Devon expect that. They expect us to stand up to developers. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) finished his speech by talking about how we are coming for developers. They need to be very careful, because the standard of what they supply for people who spend their hard-earned money is outrageous. The faults and the mistakes that they make, without constituents and communities having the ability to appeal, is shocking. Where there is the opportunity for any one of us in this place, in any part of the country, to stand up to counter the greed and the drive of property developers, I will be four-square behind them, as I am today.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). I agreed with every word he said. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) on bringing before the House the incredibly important issue of planning enforcement. If we do not have effective planning enforcement, we have no local democratic accountability within the planning system. This is such an important issue.
I start my brief remarks by having to address, as the sole northern voice in this debate, the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), who is a great man but who appeared to suggest that all the houses being built on the green belt should be in the north of England and that we should preserve the green belt in the south of England. Like me, the Minister, with his origins from the same town as mine in the north of England, will appreciate that the green belt in Bury, Huddersfield and other parts, including, dare I say, the Ribble Valley, Mr Deputy Speaker, is just as valuable, precious and important to local people there as the green belt is to those in the south-east of England.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was trying to suggest that we should be building on brownfield sites across the country. There is clearly a preponderance of brownfield sites further north. We should be building on the best sites, not on the wrong sites.
I thought I had misinterpreted my hon. Friend, and I am glad we are in complete agreement on these matters. A group called Bury Folk in my constituency has over 12,000 members. It is committed to ensuring that there is a voice for local people so that they can be heard on how they view their area and what it should look like. The most basic thing we should expect from our local councillors is that, as part of the planning process, they should have an idea and vision about what the local environment should look like, but that is not the case in Bury or Greater Manchester.
We have a regional strategic building plan called Places for Everyone. It has been taken forward by the Mayor of Greater Manchester and supported by the Labour council in Bury. Effectively, it has subcontracted development policy for the next 20 years to unknown developers. The whole plan seems to come down to this: we will allow the concreting over of large sections of the green belt, without any details of how that will happen. That is clearly unacceptable and there is no democratic accountability for it. How can my constituents have any confident in a plan such as that, which has no vision, is lazy, and when we have no idea about what bespoke details will be required and enforced to ensure we have that local voice in the planning process?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) about the use of our town centres, and how the Government should consider working with local authorities to incentivise developments on appropriate brownfield sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) said. This comes down to the voices of all our constituents, and to their confidence that those voices will be heard and that the local authority will act on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is correct about individual rogue developers, but there also are issues with large developers, because their financial might impacts the enforcement process in many applications. Essentially, local authorities are intimidated into not taking appropriate action to address egregious breaches by large-scale developers, which is hugely significant.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and his Bill has brought important issues to the Floor of the House. We must ensure that we have enforcement that works, supports local people and—most of all—supports a vision that protects the green belt and the environment that is so important to us. We must incentivise and ensure that local authorities take decisions in the best interests of the people who pay their wages, and who pay council tax to ensure a fully functioning, democratic planning system. Local authorities must not simply subcontract planning to large developers that do not care about individual areas and are eating up large sections of the green belt to build thousands of houses, without any thought or care for the people whose lives they will blight. We need effective enforcement. My hon. Friend’s important Bill contributes to that debate, and I thank him for it.
What superb speeches we have heard today, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) for his proposals to strengthen the hand of local planning authorities, protect our precious green belt, and crack down on rogue development. He makes an important point that this is not just about protecting our green spaces, but is a basic issue of fairness. As the hon. Member who represents the place where Magna Carta was signed, he is very conscious of fairness and the rule of law. Of course, when Magna Carta was signed, barons tried to drag concessions out of a rather unwilling Executive, but in this case we are entirely in alignment. I am sure hon. Members across the House will have experienced problems similar to those he describes. They are problems we must solve, and I look forward to doing so with my hon. Friend.
While the Government are very sympathetic to the objectives of the Bill, we believe that the changes that we need to enforcement are best developed as part of a package and aligned with our wider planning reforms. As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will know, we are currently reviewing these departmental programmes and engaging with key parties ahead of setting out our proposed way forward.
I believe that hon. Members across the House will agree that the current system does not always serve local communities effectively, which is why we want to modernise the planning system in England, so that it strengthens enforcement and provides better outcomes for local authorities and communities. We want to make it easier for local planning authorities to tackle deliberate unauthorised development and ensure that the retrospective planning process is not abused. At the same time, we want to see retrospective applications used only by those who have genuinely made a mistake.
I know how important it is to make sure that local authorities have the right capabilities to implement these reforms, especially with respect to the planning enforcement regime. The additional £65 million announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget will enable us to make the upfront investment in skills, digitisation and capability required to make these reforms a success. My hon. Friend proposed the creation of a database of local enforcement registers. While the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) raised some important questions about this, we are keen, as part of the investment we are making in digitisation, to make sure that more data enforcement is digitally available to be shared among local planning authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge raised a series of really important issues about the potential gaming of the system, and those are exactly the kinds of issues that we are looking to address. To address the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), who asked whether sites that had been illegally developed would be considered brownfield as a result, my understanding is that most local planning authorities would not consider them to be brownfield sites as they had not been subject to previous lawful development. There is, of course, some theology around what exactly is brownfield, having been asked before whether Stonehenge is a brownfield site. That is one, perhaps, for the philosophers, but, on that particular point, I hope that I can put the mind of my hon. Friend at ease.
Today, in addition to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, we have heard some really excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson), for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Bury North (James Daly). My normally mild-mannered hon. Friend the Member for Meriden was, I think, channelling John Rambo when he said, “We are coming for you”, and we absolutely are. I am not sure what was put in his tea this morning, but he is passionate, and rightly so, because this is a hugely important issue.
We have also had hugely important contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), for Truro and Falmouth, for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). We all share the same concerns and we all want to see the same things changing and to fix these unfairnesses. This Government are committed to improving the planning system.
I absolutely share the sense of urgency of my hon. Friend, and it is something that we are actively working to solve. Yes, absolutely, the level of interest from hon. Members, particularly on the Conservative Benches, is striking and they are quite right to be provoked and interested in this important subject.
This Government are committed to improving the planning system so that it works more effectively, delivers better outcomes and supports our mission to level up communities right across the country.
I thank the Clerks, the Government, the officers in my local council, the Opposition Front Bench and the Conservative Members who took part in this important debate. The strength of feeling across the House is palpable. I have to say that I feel a degree of sadness hearing stories from fellow Members about how many people have been affected. I knew that this issue affected not just my constituency, but there is a difference between knowing, and then hearing people’s personal stories and the stories of their constituents; this has blighted so many people. The situation clearly needs to be fixed, but the methods that we use to fix it need to be invulnerable to abuse. I choose the word “invulnerable” carefully, because rogue developers will use every possible means in their power to continue, because of the massive financial incentive.
This has been a powerful debate, and I have reflected on lots of good comments from Members on both sides of the House. I am pleased to hear from the Minister that he and the Government see this as a critical issue that needs to be driven forward. I am particularly pleased to hear the strength of feeling about taking on some of the database provisions in my Bill, and ensuring that we can break the issue down and stop it happening. With that spirit of co-operation, I very much welcome ongoing discussions with the Government to get these measures into the planning Bill in a form that is invulnerable to abuse by rogue developers. For those reasons, with the leave of the House, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.