§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Carrington.]9.58 pm
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency for taking the trouble to reply to the debate this evening. I am conscious that the hinge on which I have to hang ministerial responsibility is not the direct planning issue that I am about to raise. I hope that my hon. Friend will be tolerant when I describe the events that have persuaded me to draw ministerial attention to the history of the Willowmead temporary gipsy caravan site.
In March 1992, some hard-core arrived on the site. By the time of the general election, the gipsies had arrived on the site; they are still there in 1997. In the 1970s and 1980s, planning permission was given for about 17 caravans on that small piece of land, originally two acres with a two-acre paddock next door. Then the land was acquired for the new primary distributor road linking Weston-super-Mare and the M5.
In 1991, the then Woodspring district council revoked the previous planning permission and declared that the land should be returned to agricultural status.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Carrington.]
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin
Avon county council, which has emerged from this matter with no credit, was a Labour-controlled council, supported and kept in power by a substantial number of Liberal Democrats. The council claimed that the Willowmead site had planning permission for holiday caravans. The truth is that most of the site had been used for the construction of the new highway. The amount that remained allowed space for only three static vans, and in any event the planning permission had been withdrawn.
That, in itself, was a scandalous misinterpretation of the planning laws. I am afraid that the theme of my debate must be that there has been so much precedent in planning law over such a long period—nearly 50 years—that it is now essential that someone, sometime, examine the general principles behind the planning laws. For some time, I have advocated that a royal commission on planning be set up.
If there is a Gilbert and Sullivan situation like that, where a local authority grants planning permission for gipsy caravans based on the fact that, once upon a time, holiday caravans were allowed to be on the site, it is pretty obvious that the local authority is contravening the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
Avon county council got caught out. It had allowed gipsies on to a site that it had used for roadworks. It had leased the quarry from an astute landowner who well knew the terms of his lease and who took Avon county council to court. The council was forced to eject the travellers from Racecourse quarry, and it had to find somewhere else to put them. In a desperate move, it put them on that tiny bit of land.
263 The county council made a planning application for emergency temporary use of the site. There were objections from Woodspring district council, Locking parish council, 50 local residents and me, and a petition with more than 10,000 signatures. Nevertheless, Avon granted itself permission to use the site for three years, expiring at the end of 1995.
Part of Avon's plan was to use Willowmead until the permanent travellers' site at Hewish was available. That was a privately owned site. An application had been submitted by a private owner and, although I received a petition of about 700 signatures, I am happy to say that I believe that site has settled down and is causing no difficulty. It appears to be well run.
One would have thought that, during the three years, Avon county council, knowing that the site had only temporary planning permission, might make some provision to resite the travellers from the Willowmead site. To the best of my knowledge, Avon county council made no effort to relocate the travellers from Willowmead to Hewish and, despite the fact that there was only temporary planning permission, it made no effort to find an alternative.
Avon council's structure plan contains policy H12, which identifies the need for about 100 pitches on either permanent or transfer sites throughout the whole of the former county of Avon. Without Willowmead, there are already 26 permanent pitches. There is no provision for a travellers' site within the Locking castle area local action plan.
It may be asked, "Why is all this so awful?" I have it on record that there are endless complaints about the site. Principally, they are about dogs trespassing on the neighbouring caravan site—the legitimate one that is used by one of my constituents as a commercial enterprise—chickens digging up flowers, bonfires, all-night parties, verbal abuse, blocking the entrance of neighbours and trespass. That has led to a reduction in business, and, sadly, even a drop in the grade of Airport View caravan and camping park, which has been in place for many years and was a great asset to the town. Rubbish is deposited everywhere and fencing is torn up. There is even a record of a goal making a nuisance of itself. I do not suppose that information will come as any surprise to the House, because so often sites of the sort that I am describing produce such complaints.
The local government ombudsman was brought in in April 1995. He ruled against the local authority on several counts. Some modest compensation was paid to some of my constituents. Further applications have been made to him, because much of the nuisance has persisted.
In November 1995, bearing it in mind that the planning permission was about to expire, Avon county—it knew that it was going into oblivion in April 1996—had the gall to apply for a new extension running until 30 September 1996. Again. I complained to my hon. Friend the Minister, saying. "This is really not good enough. You must intervene and call a public inquiry."
My hon. Friend replied on 28 October. He wrote:I have noted your concerns about the latest application, and can understand your constituents' disappointment at the latest turn of events. However, as you are aware, the Government's policy is that planning applications are best left, as far as possible, in the hands of locally-accountable planning authorities. The Secretary of State is therefore very selective in deciding which applications to call-in, 264 and would generally intervene only where issues of regional or national significance are raised. Although of local importance, I do not consider that this latest application raises issues which are significant enough to justify the Secretary of State calling it in for own determination. Indeed, even were this not so, it is unlikely, given the time it takes to determine called in applications, that a decision would be reached much before March 1997.That paragraph is a pretty permanent feature of the word processor that is driven by the Department of the Environment office for the south-west. It is by no means the first time that that answer—not in this case but in equally important planning matters which I have tried to raise—has been churned out. I urge my hon. Friend and others who are in charge of these matters in future to recognise, especially if they have some experience of these issues, that hon. Members do not seek to press Ministers for public inquiries, which are expensive and lengthy, unless they believe that a principle is involved. I believe that the principle involved in this instance is one of serious and long-standing injustice.
The saga has moved on a little and may well still be playing out in the next 24 hours. In January, North Somerset council, the successor to Woodspring, controlled by Liberal Democrats, applied for a six months' extension to 31 March. It did so two or three days either side of the previous permission running out. No one takes any notice of how long a permission runs: councils go flat-footed into it, ignore the dates, give themselves retrospective permission and away they go for another few months.
Whether North Somerset council will decide tomorrow to give or to extend permission—it is clear that that is what its officers want—is not a matter for us tonight. The problem is that, five years after the saga started, there is no change and no solution.
Various criteria are being used to find a new site. Those criteria are based partly on Avon's requirement that if the site be shut alternative accommodation be found. The traveller who clearly is not prepared to confine himself to the social customs of the rest of the population now seems to be treated infinitely better than the ordinary citizen. The council is considering spending between £350,000 and £400,000 to provide pitches on these 13 sites. It has selected two sites: one in Sandford and one in Hutton Moor road, both of which are entirely unsuitable. The latter is next to a large residential park of elderly people, who have suffered for many years because of trouble with itinerant gipsies; and the former is in a quiet backwater between two nice villages where gipsies have never been and have no business to be.
I question the parameters that have been set. Why must the new site be within five miles of a former school, and why should there be facilities for this, that and the other? The truth of the matter is that the gipsy problem is about integration. It has plagued me all my life—from the time I was a farmer, and throughout my political life. There has been bodging, hedging and dipping rather than facing up to the proper solution.
The Liberal Democrat council in North Somerset is finding practical difficulties. It was responsible for the 13 sites being placed in my constituency. The gipsies did not want to come there: they lived and worked near Bristol, and were imported by Avon county council, which was dominated by the city of Bristol, which did not want anything to do with the gipsies. It pushed them out to the 265 peripheries, and now the cows will have to come home and the penalty will have to be paid. It is grossly and deeply unfair that my constituents should have to pay.
I appreciate that there is no easy solution to this problem. The Government have changed the parameters: councils are no longer required to find gipsy sites. Strangely enough, my morning paper contains a letter from Councillor Laband, who represents one of those areas. He says:Nothing is more likely to cause heartfelt anxiety to local residents.He then says that he wants the true gipsy culture to survive, which I have always thought was rubbish. He finishes by saying that we must have true integration.
These matters are deeply felt by the population. I am glad that Councillor Laband has realised that local government is not all that easy. The solutions that the council is considering will be disruptive and distressing and will cause many of my constituents much heartache. I seek a sympathetic ear, and I hope that my hon. Friend can give me some comfort, or perhaps my successor, as this is certainly the last time that I shall have an Adjournment debate.
§ The Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency (Mr. Robert B. Jones)
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) on obtaining this Adjournment debate, which has given him an opportunity to make clear the strength of his concerns about the gipsy and travellers' site at Willowmead caravan park, near Weston-super-Mare. I have no doubt that those concerns are shared by a number of local residents, and have been since the site was first occupied as a temporary gipsy site in 1992.
My hon. Friend has demonstrated tonight that he and his constituents are aggrieved about the fact that, first, the Labour-run Avon county council and, latterly, the Liberal-controlled North Somerset council favour gipsy provision to which he and those he represents are strongly opposed.
Over the past four years, the Willowmead site has come to the attention of Secretaries of State for the Environment on a number of occasions—for instance, in May 1992, when Woodspring district council objected to its appropriation by Avon county council for the purposes of a gipsy site; in October 1995, when the county council sought to extend temporary planning permission for emergency travellers and the gipsy site by nine months, from 31 December 1995 to 30 September 1996; and in October 1996, when North Somerset council, the new unitary authority, sought to extend temporary planning permission by a further six months—from 30 September 1996 to 31 March 1997.
My hon. Friend will be aware that, on each occasion, the Secretaries of State, after careful consideration of all the available information, had to decide that, although the matter was highly controversial, it could not be said that the issues involved were of regional or national significance—which would have justified their intervention, whether under their then powers under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 or under their powers under the 266 Town and Country Planning Act 1990. In each case, it was decided that the local planning authority was the appropriate body to determine the proposals on the basis of the material planning considerations that were applicable at the time.
My hon. Friend will also be aware that the most recent planning application to which I have referred is still before North Somerset council. Propriety therefore forbids me to express any opinions on the planning merits of the circumstances that currently exist at Willowmead, or to pass any comment on the present application. I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that to do so could prejudice the position of the Secretary of State for the Environment should the matter come before him formally in the future.
Nevertheless, I have listened closely to what my hon. Friend has said this evening, and will take it into account if the matter comes before the Secretary of State at any stage. Equally, I am sure that, if any new information comes to light, my hon. Friend will ensure that it is drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In particular, if the council were to continue extensions of temporary planning permission indefinitely without making progress towards resolution of the issue, it would be perfectly proper for my hon. Friend to take up his concerns again with my right hon. Friend, who would examine the case on its merits.
Although I do not intend to comment on the circumstances at the Willowmead site, I am not unaware of the types of general policy issue that have been touched on by events at Willowmead over the past four years, such as policy on gipsy site provision and on local authorities' own development proposals. I trust that my hon. Friend will be interested if I briefly explain the Government's position on each of those matters—and I hope that he will appreciate that I am not attempting to suggest or imply how these general policies might relate to the specific circumstances at the Willowmead site. That must be the prerogative of North Somerset council, in its capacity as the local planning authority.
Our land use planning policy on gipsy sites is set out in Department of the Environment circular 1/94, entitled "Gypsy Sites and Planning". We encourage gipsies to provide their own accommodation, applying for planning permission when that is necessary, like everyone else. A critical element is to ensure that, when provision is made, amenities and the environment continue to be protected. To help to achieve that, the circular sets out factors that should be taken into account in decisions on planning applications for gipsy sites. Those factors also apply to proposals for local planning authorities' own sites.
Our guidance on gipsy sites fully reflects the plan-led nature of the planning system. The guidance makes it clear that authorities should assess the need for gipsy accommodation in their areas. They should include in their development plans suitable location or criteria-based policies for meeting that need, by provision of local authority or private sites, to provide the statutory framework for determining individual applications.
The inclusion of policies in development plans provides greater certainty in development control. If the development plan does not contain relevant policies, applications should be determined in the light of all material considerations, including the advice in circular 1/94.
267 There is no longer a duty on local authorities to provide caravan sites for gipsies who reside in or resort to their region. That duty, which was contained in part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968, was repealed in November 1994 by section 80 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
My Department's circular, which was issued when the 1994 Act came into force, does, however, stress the importance of local authorities keeping their existing gipsy caravan sites open and maintained. It also reiterates long-standing advice to local authorities that they should consider providing emergency stopping places for gipsies who visit their region regularly, and that they should consider the option of tolerating the presence of gipsies who camp on council land if—I stress this—they are not causing a nuisance.
It is for local authorities to decide how best to maintain their existing gipsy caravan sites and to consider whether it is appropriate to extend the planning permission for temporary sites where planning permission has expired. Local authorities will also wish to consider their statutory responsibilities towards children and homeless persons when taking decisions about the future of their authorised gipsy sites.
The procedures governing local authorities' own development proposals are contained in the Town and Country Planning General Regulations 1992. The general principle underlying the regulations is that local planning authorities must make planning applications in the same way as any other person applying for planning permission, and must follow the same procedures that would apply to applications that are made by others.
Local authorities may grant themselves planning permission for their own development on land in which they have an interest, but that is subject to several important safeguards: the proposals must be advertised and decided in public by a committee that is not responsible for land management; the public cannot be excluded from such a committee meeting; and, to avoid potential conflicts of interest, applications may not be determined by a committee or officer responsible for the management of the land or buildings concerned.
Another safeguard is that local authority development proposals must be notified to the relevant Government office for the region if they are not in accordance with the provisions of the development plan in force in that region. It is for the local planning authority to decide whether an application represents a departure from the development plan. When applications are notified in that way, careful consideration is given to all the issues raised by the proposal and to how they might relate to the Government's policy on call-in, as described by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on 26 January 1995.
Although a decision on whether to call in an application is normally based on the importance of the issues raised by the application, rather than on the procedures followed by the local planning authority, we do consider whether the handling of the application might raise issues sufficient to justify making an exception to the general 268 policy. Nevertheless, we believe that planning applications are generally best left, as far as possible, in the hands of the locally accountable planning authority, and we are therefore selective when deciding which applications to call in. I know that my hon. Friend regards that as a paragraph from a word processor, but I do regard local council democracy as stronger than just a few words churned out by electronic equipment.
Following amendments by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, section 54(1)(a) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 requires that planning applications, irrespective of whether they are made by a local authority, must be decided in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
In general, the local planning authority's elected members represent the community's interests in planning matters, but, when determining planning applications, they must take into account any relevant views expressed by neighbouring occupiers, local residents and any other third parties, although only genuine land-use planning concerns are material. However, in some cases, there may be positive reasons in favour of development, which will outweigh local objections, however widespread or strongly felt they might be.
Local authorities must of course act within the law, and it is open to any third party who is aggrieved by a local authority's decision to grant itself planning permission to apply for judicial review if they believe that the decision was wrong in law. If they consider that they have suffered personal injustice as a result of maladministration by the council, they may also ask the local government ombudsman to investigate the matter.
Sometimes, local planning authorities will be required to consider whether to grant planning permission for development or change of use of land that has already taken place. I would expect local authorities rarely to find themselves in that position for their own development proposals or land, except in exceptional circumstances.
Where this does arise, however, retrospective planning applications submitted by the local authority, like those submitted by others, should be considered in the same way as other applications. The fact that the development has already taken place should not influence the final decision one way or the other. The same is true for applications that seek to renew or extend planning permission.
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for drawing the matter to my attention. I have noted the strength of feeling locally about the Willowmead site. At the end of the day, however, the councillors on his local council are accountable for such decisions. He will no doubt want to remind his constituents of that fact. I am grateful to him for bringing the matter to the Floor of the House, and I hope that what I have said this evening will be helpful to him and his constituents in understanding the background of Government policy and the options that are open to him and them.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o'clock.