Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make unauthorised development without planning permission an offence; to prohibit retrospective planning applications; and for connected purposes.
The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that everyone who engages with the planning system is on a level playing field and follows the same procedures. It is not to remove permitted development rights, nor is it to target particular communities. Regrettably, in the current planning system, there are loopholes that are all too frequently exploited and, to ensure fairness, it is important that they are closed.
Under current planning rules, development without permission is not a criminal offence. While failure to comply with an enforcement notice is a criminal offence, getting to that point is rare and is very often an overly long and costly process. Too often, people are gaming the system by proceeding with development work, sometimes on a large scale, without having first received or even applied for planning permission. Those engaging in such practices are gambling that, even if the local authority becomes aware of an unauthorised development, if the development is sufficiently advanced, it will prove too time-consuming and costly for the local authority to do much about it. Evidence seems to suggest that they may be right. While there are a range of enforcement powers open to local authorities, including enforcement, contravention and stop notices, they do not appear to be a sufficient deterrent.
Government data from March 2021 show that, in the previous year across England, just under 3,000 enforcement notices were issued, 3,500 planning contravention notices were served, and 49 injunctions were granted by a county court or the High Court.
There are many examples of unauthorised development to be found across the country, both large and small. I will give one current example that is currently impacting on my own constituency of Orpington. As I speak today, an unauthorised development is taking place on Wheatsheaf Hill, on the border of my Orpington constituency and neighbouring Sevenoaks. Since the turn of the year, much activity has taken place on this greenbelt site, where a large area of wooded land has been cleared, six mobile homes have been installed and further work is continuing—all without planning permission. This has caused great concern both to me and to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), as residents on both sides of the constituency boundary have been raising increasing levels of alarm on a daily basis throughout the year.
It has been, to say the least, a very frustrating process. The local planning authority, Bromley Council, was eventually able to obtain a court injunction, but work on the site has continued unabated. Despite daily evidence being provided by residents, including written statements, photographs, videos and drone footage, work has continued with no regard to the court injunction, the objections of local people or the local council. I have personally witnessed work taking place, and I am grateful to those constituents who have provided me with reports of activity and supporting evidence. Sadly, I have also received reports of significant levels of aggression being directed by those responsible for this particular development towards local residents, council officers, and even, incredibly, the local police.
Under section 73A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, a local planning authority can consider a retrospective planning application for works or a change of use that has already been carried out. This type of application is dealt with in the same way as a normal planning application, although the development has already taken place. In theory, therefore, the amount of work carried out by the local planning authority is approximately the same as an application submitted in advance of a development taking place. However, as is the case in the example that I have just cited, retrospective applications will often be controversial, attracting a lot of public attention and correspondence, which can greatly increase the workload of the relevant case officer.
Planning officers have confirmed that retrospective applications often tend to be invalid upon receipt, and this creates additional unnecessary work for the planning authority to resolve them. However, it is possible that the real cost is the fact that the concept exists at all, as the fact that it is possible to apply retrospectively proactively encourages unauthorised development. The evidence is overwhelming that, on a large number of occasions, developers believe that once a development is in place they are more likely to get planning permission. That is an encouragement for them to take that risk.
In most cases, where retrospective applications are refused, enforcement action follows, which can be lengthy and costly for the local planning authorities. Indeed, some applicants deliberately draw out a situation where they know enforcement action is inevitable, knowing that they will have a right of appeal if it is refused. While enforcement notices can be issued, the right of appeal means that a breach of planning can last very significant periods of time before the site in question can be restored to its former state—if indeed it can be restored at all.
The scope of this proposed legislation is therefore to remove remaining permissible grounds for unauthorised developments. Instead, by making unauthorised developments an offence, both the appeal route and the right of retrospective applications will be removed.
In closing, I wish to express my gratitude to Bromley councillors Tony Owen and Colin Smith, who provided me with much of the original thinking behind this Bill, and to colleagues who are supporting me in the Chamber today. We are acutely aware of the damage that this problem causes, and we are supporting our constituents where such development has blighted their communities.
I recognise the challenges that a private Member’s Bill faces to get onto the statute book, which is why I request that Ministers meet with me and co-sponsors to consider adopting this legislation as part of any forthcoming planning Bill that emerges. Together, we have the opportunity to bring about lasting change to the planning system for the benefit of our constituents.
Question put and agreed to.
That Gareth Bacon, Lee Anderson, Mr John Baron, Felicity Buchan, Gareth Davies, Ben Everitt, Jonathan Gullis, Tom Hunt, Marco Longhi, Sir Robert Neill, Tom Randall and David Simmonds present the Bill.
Gareth Bacon accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 December, and to be printed (Bill 165).