§ Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
May I start by thanking you, Mr. Illsley, for sparing the time to preside over the debate this afternoon, and through you, thank the Speaker's Office for granting me the debate? I also thank the Minister for taking the time this afternoon to respond on behalf of the Government.
I greatly regret that it was necessary to bring you here this afternoon, Mr. Illsley. The issues that will be raised were raised in a letter that I wrote to the relevant Secretary of State, enclosing the arguments from Maidstone borough council. One letter was sent on 30 April, and the second was sent on 19 June. I greatly regret that neither letter has been acknowledged or responded to. That is the reason why we are here this afternoon.
The aim of the debate is to correct an injustice, which has been caused by a change in the Planning Inspectorate's attitude to gypsies. It is important to start with one qualification. I am not in any way against gypsies, nor are the overwhelming majority of ordinary people. It is quite right that they should enjoy the same rights and protection under English law as anyone else. However, they now have a de facto range of rights under planning law that is simply denied to ordinary residents, which has been caused directly by the actions of the Planning Inspectorate.
I raise the matter as a constituency MP. I do so on behalf of the residents of Lenham road in Headcorn, the residents of Sutton Valence and Chart Sutton, and several councillors who have come to see me, deeply concerned about the issue. However, it is not simply a problem in Faversham and Mid-Kent. It is a problem throughout Kent, and is just rearing its head on the Isle of Sheppey in the northern part of my constituency. Since the debate has been tabled, several of my colleagues in the House have seen me about the issue to point out that it is a problem across large areas of the south-east. I have been asked to raise it by all levels of government in Kent.
The leader of Kent county council wrote to me last week and said:I am deeply aware of the public's growing concern about gypsies in Kent.The director of development services and the deputy chief executive of Maidstone borough council—not a Conservative council—wrote to me and said:I can only presume that advice which the Inspectorate is now receiving from the Government is leading to the very lenient approach…Local residents are being severely disadvantaged.A representative of the parish council in the area in my constituency most affected, Headcorn, wrote and said:My council"—that is Headcorn—is very concerned that it is the Government Department which is causing the increasing problem of the concentration of gypsy sites. My council is dismayed at what appears to be a change in planning policies by the Inspectorate in favour of those with gypsy origins. There is clear discrimination against other residents.So what is the background to the problem? Kent has traditionally been an area popular with gypsies. It is largely rural, or was in the past. It has beautiful 134WH Countryside—after all, it is the garden of England—and has plentiful casual labour, particularly in the seasonal fruit-picking industry. There has therefore always been enormous pressure for sites, particularly across the Weald. One can see that in areas like Yalding, Headcorn, Sutton Valence and Chart Sutton. As a result, Maidstone borough council, which only covers a small part of the Weald, has 44 per cent. of the private gypsy site provision in the county of Kent—a staggeringly large proportion.
These days Kent is, of course, no longer a predominantly rural county supported by an agricultural economy. Furthermore, Government policy is encouraging housebuilding across Kent. It is now less easy to support the lifestyles of the gypsy community and far less easy to explain to existing householders why gypsies should be a special case.
Maidstone borough council, which has 44 per cent. of the gypsy site provision across Kent, only covers a small part of the Weald. Its particular problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the whole of the northern part of the borough, in effect the north downs, is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Government policy specifically discourages the provision of gypsy sites in such areas, and there is enormous pressure on the very fragile environment on the Weald. Despite that, Maidstone borough council has fulfilled the requirements of Government circular No. 1/94. In the 1993 local plan and the December 2000 borough-wide local plan, it set out criteria-based policies to indicate how it would provide for gypsy sites.
The problems in the last couple of years are threefold. First, gypsies have started to buy land, move on to it illegally and gain planning permission. They have been able to do that because the Government planning inspector is now granting permission and overturning the borough council's decisions.
Secondly, a large number of gypsy caravans are moving on to land owned by a gypsy who has permission for only one caravan. One can see that problem at the moment in places such as Redhill stables on the Lenham road in Headcorn and Pear orchard in Yalding. The lives of residents in those areas are being made a misery.
Thirdly, large numbers of gypsy caravans, often numbering 30 or 40, are moving to Kent and camping illegally on private land. The High Court is not allocating enough time for urgent hearings to allow local borough councils to evict illegal occupiers of private land.
I want to focus on the first of those problems this afternoon, the consequences of which are obvious. The countryside where gypsies stay is ruined. Remember that that part of the country is well known as the garden of England. The quality of life for existing residents declines very quickly. I have constituents who are unable to open their windows during the summer because a gypsy site across the road burns tyres all day long. House prices in those areas suffer and fall very quickly, for the obvious reason that people do not want to buy houses with gypsy sites around them.
135WH I regret to say this, but there has been a certain amount of low-level intimidation of residents. An old-age pensioner, who is just over 90, objected to a gypsy site next door to his house and found a knife on his doorstep the next morning. Two old-age pensioners live just off the Lenham road, opposite a gypsy site that allows two rottweilers to roam free. The rottweilers came across the road and through the hedge, and nearly killed the pensioners' pet terrier. The pensioners are now afraid to go out in their garden during the summer. Also, of course, the crime rate has risen.
The cause of those problems, which is very clear to me as the constituency MP and to local parish councillors, the borough council and Kent county council, is simply the actions of the Planning Inspectorate. We have reached a stage at which Maidstone borough council is unwilling to take any form of enforcement action against gypsies because it knows that it will lose on appeal.
The evidence for that is not only in the letters, about which I have talked this afternoon, that have been written to me, but in a parliamentary written answer from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which disclosed that in 1996 only 19 per cent. of appeals were allowed by the inspectorate. In 2001, that figure had risen to 57 per cent. The reason why the figure increased is clear: the inspectors are accepting planning policy arguments against the granting of permission, but are allowing planning appeals for reasons such as the Human Rights Act 1998 or personal circumstances relating to individual gypsies.
An extremely good example of that is the recent appeal decision in the case of Greengates, Lenham road, Headcorn, Kent. The inspector, Miss Katie Peerless, states:Therefore, I consider that, on balance, the proposed development conflicts both with Development Plan policies designed to protect the countryside and Special Landscape Area and also those aimed at providing suitable sites for gypsy caravans. If no other material consideration were found to outweigh the presumption against the proposals, then the appeal would be dismissed.However, she goes on to allow the appeal.
That flies in the face of Government planning policy guidance notes, which indicate that personal circumstances will seldom be such as to set aside development plan policies. Furthermore, I very much doubt that the Human Rights Act was ever intended to set aside planning policies that have evolved through the full democratic process, or to provide for what amounts to positive discrimination in favour of an ethnic group.
I therefore ask the Minister to accept that the change in the actions of the Planning Inspectorate over the past three or four years has favoured gypsies. Evidence of that is in the findings of Kent county council, borough councils throughout the Weald, parish councils and in my observations as a constituency MP. If that is not enough, it has also been proved in a parliamentary written answer. I ask the Minister to accept that that situation is unfair to existing local residents. There can be no reason why gypsies should be allowed to develop housing in a manner denied to non-gypsy people. That must be unjust.
136WH Has there been any change in the Government guidelines given to the Planning Inspectorate? If there has, when was it announced? If there has not, I ask the Minister to undertake to write to the inspectorate and ensure that the correct guidelines are properly interpreted in future. That will place both gypsies and local residents on an equal and fair footing under planning law.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) on securing the debate, and on raising some important issues about gypsies and the planning system, particularly in relation to Kent. I hope to deal with many of his points.
The Government recognise that gypsies have a right to pursue their lifestyle and are committed to ensuring that the planning system treats members of that community as fairly as everybody else. The notion, spurious or otherwise, that the planning system provides de facto rights to any particular group, or that such rights exist for the gypsy community, is a nonsense. At best, the hon. Gentleman has offered casual empiricism as evidence of that; at worst, he has provided one parliamentary answer, which I suspect has been taken wholly out of context. He would have been better served to have gone through each and every case covered by the parliamentary answer to find some substance to give me, but substance came there none.
I repeat that no de facto rights have emerged over recent years in relation to the treatment of gypsies or anybody else under the law. The hon. Gentleman himself alluded to the fact that the root of much of our current planning policy is in Government circular No. 1/94 on gypsy sites and planning, with the emphasis very much on the "94". The legal and statutory framework for dealing with gypsies in this country under the planning system has been, and remains, that outlined in the 1994 circular.
I am not disparaging of the experience faced by the hon. Gentleman's constituents—I have heard of similar cases on numerous occasions and have experienced them in my own constituency. However, I was almost waiting to hear mention of the lone gunman on the grassy knoll in what became a nasty, over-politicised conspiracy theory about everything shifting since Labour came to office. From what I know of the hon. Gentleman, that is utterly unworthy of him. If there are difficulties with the reaction of the communities in his area of Kent to what prevails under the planning system, there are better ways of raising them than the way in which he did so, which was wholly and utterly unworthy.
§ Hugh Robertson
The Minister should accept—he almost said so, but not quite—that at no stage did I say that that had occurred as a result of the 1997 election. I merely gave the figures that the Minister's own 137WH Department had produced, showing that in 1996 19 per cent. of appeals were allowed and in 2001 that figure had risen to 57 per cent. I went on to say that I had been asked to raise the matter by parish councils, borough councils and Kent county council. If the Minister thinks that I dreamt it up last night as a clever political scam, he is simply mistaken.
§ Mr. McNulty
I do not want to be overly contentious, but if that is the best the hon. Gentleman can do, he is, at best, naive and, at worst, duplicitous—
§ Mr. McNulty
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is, at worst, misguided. He cannot quote at length from Headcorn parish council saying that it is a huge conspiracy and has changed since Labour came to office, and then quote from Maidstone borough council, which said in a totally and utterly disreputable way—I shall check up on that when I leave the debate—that it is not bothering with enforcement any more. Is that supposed to be serving the community in the Maidstone borough? The council, not the Planning Inspectorate or the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, should be ashamed of itself. It has fiduciary, public policy and other duties, and the letter of the law to carry out and should do so. I shall check in Hansard to see what the hon. Gentleman said. If Maidstone borough council's policy, explicit or otherwise, when it should be enforcing eviction powers is that it cannot be bothered because it might lose on appeal, that is to its shame. It is irrelevant to me what its political persuasion is.
§ Mr. McNulty
No. I will not. It is common courtesy in this place when intervening during a 30-minute debate to give notice to both sides in advance. I have had no such notice from the hon. Gentleman, so I shall not give way.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. It is actually common courtesy to give notice to the hon. Member introducing the debate, the Minister and the Chair.
§ Mr. McNulty
Absolutely, and that has not been forthcoming, so I will not give way.
The key point is that the regulatory framework remains as it always has been. There is no positive discrimination towards any group in the planning process and to say so with such flimsy and casually empirical evidence undermines not only the hon. Gentleman, but the Planning Inspectorate. I had the great pleasure, as one of my first duties only last week, of visiting the Planning Inspectorate and I looked deep into the bowels of the machine to see what it does. I have nothing but the highest regard for it.
There are three key elements in our policy on gypsies and travellers. All are about to come to fruition and one that has already done so is the announcement of this year's round of the three-year plan for gypsy site refurbishment grants, because we are keen to obviate the 138WH need for anyone to move on to unauthorised and illegal encampments. Secondly, because it has been less than clear what provision is required for the community, two bodies of research will probably be published before the summer, which we hope will inform not just local government but central Government. Thirdly, in the very near future, as part of the three prongs of policy on travellers, we shall issue renewed and updated guidance, which the hon. Gentleman should read at his leisure with great care and attention. I hope that within that new guidance the notion of rights and responsibilities for all parties will be clear and explicit.
Those three elements will not only inform how we go forward but enable us, working with responsible local government, to deal with the issue with a degree of parity all round. I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman started from the premise that he has no objection, violent or otherwise, to the gypsy community. Implicit in his remarks was the recognition that it has the same rights as every other community. However, the issues of illegal, unauthorised encampments and of where some members of the community buy land are very real.
The Planning Inspectorate's powers are determined in accordance with the requirements of section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended, which states that applications and appeals should be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
If planning permission is refused by the local planning authority or an enforcement notice is served in order to remedy a breach of planning control, there is a right of appeal to the First Secretary of State. That right of appeal is an integral and long-established part of the planning system. Given that, by definition, someone always has to lose an appeal, there will always be aggrieved parties. However, having had 11 years' experience on a planning committee, I would suggest that planning authorities and everyone involved would like the world to be as clear cut as the hon. Gentleman seems to suggest it should be.
The vast majority of appeals are transferred to inspectors to determine on the First Secretary of State's behalf. When inspectors are instructed to hold inquiries on behalf of the First Secretary of State, or appointed to determine appeals, they stand in the shoes of the First Secretary of State and must have regard to his policies. Each inspector, in exercising the duty of making a recommendation or determining an appeal, is technically a tribunal.
It is a basic principle that in an appeal or other case in which an inspector is instructed or appointed, there should be no evidence or policy advice relevant to the case before the inspector that is not also available to all the parties.
The Planning Inspectorate has an impressive reputation in its handling of planning appeals. The integrity, impartiality and fairness with which each appeal is handled are widely acknowledged. Every issue that is a material consideration in assessing a proposal, whether of local or national importance, is taken into account by an inspector at appeal stage. As I said, the hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot refer specifically to any of the cases that he has outlined.
139WH Through the inspectorate's work, disputes between individuals and public authorities are resolved taking into account the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended, any other legislation relevant to the inspectorate's casework, the First Secretary of State's policies and, where relevant, the development plan.
Government policies on relevant areas of environmental concern—not just those directly related to town and country planning matters—may also be taken into account. It is for the inspector to weigh up often conflicting considerations and to make a decision. It is very much a balancing exercise and one that the Planning Inspectorate carries out in an extremely fair and robust fashion.
Inspectors bring their own experience, expertise and common sense to bear in interpreting and weighing the evidence before them. Like the decisions of judicial tribunals, inspectors' decisions or recommendations must flow from the evidence before them, not from any external source. In all cases planning inspectors are fully briefed on the circumstances of the appeal proposal and will visit the site to familiarise themselves with its location and surroundings. Each decision is reached, therefore, only after careful consideration of all the relevant planning issues, including the likely effect of the proposed development on the surrounding area, and taking into account the views of the local planning authority and local residents.
The Planning Inspectorate aims for the highest quality in the way that it handles casework and in the speed and quality of its decisions. The Franks principles of openness, fairness and impartiality continue to be the watchwords under which all decisions are taken. However, as nearly all decisions go against at least one of the parties involved in the appeal, the inspectorate knows that it will also receive complaints.
I have explained my absolute confidence in the integrity of the planning inspectors and the way in which the inspectorate handles planning cases. I do not feel, therefore, that there is any need to write to them in the terms suggested by the hon. Gentleman. I say that as someone who has been on the wrong end of what I 140WH considered to be perverse decisions during my 11 years as a councillor on a planning committee. I do not, even as a Minister, speak out of any great love for the inspectorate—I simply recognise its objectivity, integrity and, above all, professionalism.
As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Advisory Panel on Standards in the Planning Inspectorate—APOS—is an independent body that advises the First Secretary of State on the maintenance and enhancement of professional standards in the Planning Inspectorate. Members are volunteers drawn from the legal, surveying, planning, architectural, engineering and other relevant professions.
In advising the First Secretary of State, the panel investigates issues that may impinge on the quality of Planning Inspectorate decisions, such as the number of planning inspectors and their training and administrative support. The latest annual report to the First Secretary of State confirmed that the ministerial target on quality for the year 2000–01 had been met. It concluded that the inspectoratedemonstrated to us their commitment to maintaining, and where possible, improving their standard of service across the very wide range of activities—99 per cent. of their casework was free from justified complaint.To answer the hon. Gentleman's suggestions, therefore, I do not believe that various de facto rights have been merged, and there is no legal context in which that could happen because of inspectorate decisions. The inspectorate does not exercise positive discrimination on behalf of the Government or of its own volition, and, given the flimsy evidence presented in the debate, I see no virtue in writing to it in any capacity.
As I said at the beginning, I fully recognise the gypsy community's concerns about site provision, with all that flows from that, and the real dislocation and hardship that illegal and unauthorised encampments can cause.
In conclusion, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks to his own lights and to the assorted authorities—from Headcorn and Maidstone to Kent county council—that serve the same area that he does. He should remonstrate with them, and get them to use their powers under the law as effectively as they can.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Two o'clock.