Leisure Plots (Planning)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th November 1975.

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9.57 p.m.

Photo of Mr Keith Speed Mr Keith Speed , Ashford

I am grateful for the chance to raise a problem—some would call it a scandal—that has been highlighted by a responsible campaign conducted in national and local newspapers and through the media of television and sound broadcasting. I refer to the problem of leisure plots throughout the country.

Land is bought by speculators. It is usually poor agricultural land—marshes, saltings, woodland or orchards. The land is then split into small plots ranging from a few hundred square yards or possibly, in rare cases, an acre.

There has been a great increase in the activities of these so-called leisure plots in the past two or three years. I am told by the County Planning Officer that in Kent there are currently 20 or more sites—well over 1,000 acres—which have been split up in this way. There are at least three in my constituency. However, it is not just a Kent problem. There are similar leisure plot activities in Buckinghamshire, Cornwall, Hampshire, Surrey, Wiltshire, Yorkshire and many other counties. So it is truly a national problem.

There are three groups of people affected. First there is the purchaser, who is usually a town dweller. He pays hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds, often of hard-earned savings, for land which is usually worth very much less. For example, good agricultural land in Kent is at present selling at about £600 an acre. Yet the prices of so-called leisure plots range from £1,000 to £4,000 an acre.

The sales brochures mention the possibility of growing fruit and vegetables and give glowing figures of the returns which can be obtained from such agricultural activities. Up to £480 an acre is possible, apparently. What they do not say is that probably, under the planning rules and restrictions, it is almost impossible for the owner of the plot to keep his tools, mowers, equipment and the rest on the site. He would have to take them there in his motor car.

Again, glowing figures are given for the possible return on timber which could be grown on these leisure plots, where the plots themselves have been forests or orchards.

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. Walter Harrison.]

Photo of Mr Keith Speed Mr Keith Speed , Ashford

One brochure has extolled the virtues of forest investment and leisure plots and yet admits on the very same page that The land is protected against abuse by a tree preservation order. If it is advancing the view that timber is a good investment for the purchaser and then saying on the same page that there is a tree preservation order, that seems to be a contradiction in terms.

I am bound to say in fairness that it is made clear in these brochures that there is no prospect of planning permission for houses or other development of this sort in the near future, but it is usually hinted that Eventually building, with a consequential vast increase in land values, cannot be ruled out. I suppose that pigs might fly. All I would say is that for every plot that I have seen, certainly in Kent, it is 99·9 per cent. certain that no development will ever be allowed on these plots. They are mostly in white or green belt land and the local authorities have made their views crystal clear over a long period.

Also in the brochures no mention is made of things such as land development tax, capital gains tax—or, indeed, the Community Land Act which was passed the other day—capital transfer tax and all the other taxes which ensure that if a vast profit were to be made out of the land—or, as I think, if any is to be made at all—the State and the Government would extract most of that profit anyway.

There are interesting phrases used in the brochures about "Land as investment". This is emphasised time and time again. Some brochures say Your permanent assurance of future wealth", or A generous gift for your child to secure his future", or The very best way to beat inflation. I do not believe that this sort of purchase of this kind of land is anything of the sort.

The other two groups affected are the local authorities and local residents in the areas where leisure plots are sold. The approaches to these sites are usually in country lanes, and traffic problems could be created along with problems of access, particularly if every plot owner were to visit his site at weekends. The rash of small-scale development, with portable lavatories, fences, sheds and so on, can be extremely unsightly upon what is often quite a pleasant landscape.

Where planning consent is involved, Article 4 directions can be brought in by local authorities, as the Minister will know, and this in some cases will give extra control. Unfortunately, however, as the Minister will also know, there is difficulty in enforcement, and this puts a serious strain upon local authorities. There is also the problem that arises when plots are abandoned and the purchaser realises that he has perhaps bought a pup. Then one can have areas which become overgrown and like a wilderness, and this again does not add to the quality of the landscape or the amenities of other plot owners.

The use of land for leisure purposes of this nature in small strips is often contrary to policies in the development plans where it certainly is not intended that use for agriculture and forestry should be disturbed. In woodland sites particularly, there is always the risk of fire and there are sanitation problems. On none of these sites—with rare exceptions—does one find running water or any kind of water closet facilities at all.

This morning I visited one of these leisure plot sites in my constituency. The access is bad. It is on a blind bend in a narrow lane. There are there a number of tents that have more or less blown down on one or two of the sites. There was at least one chemical closet there for all to see and open to public gaze. By whom and when it is emptied, I know not, and I did not inquire that far. There are bottles, crates, tools, wheelbarrows and so on lying on the plots. The so-called roadways to the plots are so boggy that one would need a four-wheel-drive amphibious vehicle to reach them.

The pleasant wood in question is becoming an absolutely derelict area. My own local authority, Ashford Borough Council, has put in an Article 4 direction, and this again has caused a lot of problems to the staff as regards enforcement. This is a real and growing problem. The countryside is being spoilt, and in the long run purchasers will be disappointed when they discover that the high-flown phrases about investment and land values do not materialise.

I have had the advantage of correspondence and discussions with my local authority in Ashford which has been grappling with this problem for some time. The Kent County Planning Officer and the County Solicitor have both been extremely helpful, and the Society of Valuers and Auctioneers has set up a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Mr. J. Heddle to investigate this problem. It has collected a great deal of evidence from all over the country.

I have a six-point plan which would, I think, solve the problem. First, there should be maximum publicity—perhaps this debate will help. Would-be purchasers should know exactly what they are letting themselves in for. I would recommend anyone contemplating buying such a plot to consult a professional valuer and/or a solicitor. This is essential before signing any papers or paying a deposit.

Secondly, Mr. George Dobry, QC, said in his report "Review of the Development Control System": In passing, I would however like to make one specific recommendation. There is evidence from at least one county of a recent practice of selling leisure plots on the assumption that a planning permission is not required. This naturally leads to serious objection from the public, as in practical terms a weekend invasion results and substantial intensification of use of land takes place. Clearly this should be made subject to planning control. Section 22(3) of the 1971 Act should be amended to provide (for the avoidance of doubt) that a change in the use of a separate plot of land from agricultural to a 'leisure' purpose would constitute development. This is absolutely essential now. I hope that it can be done.

Thirdly, we should reinstate the sale of land into the Trade Descriptions Act. That would solve many of the problems raised by the glossier brochures.

Fourthly, local authorities should continue to make Article 4 directions where necessary, although I do not think they would be necessary in many cases if my package as a whole was accepted.

Fifthly, the Town and Country Planning Act should be amended to require that planning permission must be obtained for the subdivsion of land except for agricultural purposes. I would use the 1947 Agriculture Act definition of "agriculture". It is much tighter than the Town and Country Planning Act definitions.

Sixthly, it would be helpful if the Minister gave the Government's general view on this matter so that people could be discouraged from pursuing fruitless planning appeals and the Government could make clear that they regarded green belt land as sacrosanct from the widespread and unsightly development taking place at the moment.

In a letter dated 22nd July this year, written in reply to constituency problems I had raised, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment wrote: I am sorry to say that we have not got much nearer to a solution of the leisure plot problem since I wrote to you last. However, since that occasion Mr. George Dobry QC has produced his Final Report on this Development Control System and in it (at 9. 41) he made certain recommendations on the subject of leisure plots. This, with other recommendations in the Report, has been the subject of consultations with a wide range of interested bodies, as well as with the local authority associations. As you are aware, this is a long-standing environmental problem and one which admits of no easy solution but I hope that the discussions held so far and further discussions planned will point the way to an acceptable and practical solution. That was four months ago.

I know that these are difficult matters, but I am sure the Minister will recognise that this is a real and growing problem. The present situation must be properly controlled in the interests of the bona fide developer, the purchaser, the local authority and local people in the area concerned. If it is not, large parts of the countryside will become rural slums, and none of us wants that.

I hope that tonight the Minister can promise us early and effective action to deal with this problem. I can certainly guarantee him my full support if he does.

10.10 p.m.

Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Royal Tunbridge Wells

I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene briefly in the debate. I warmly support the proposal that planning law should be amended so as to make the conversion of land to leisure plots a material change of use. It certainly is a material change of use to those who live in the vicinity of a plot for which a sale of this nature is proposed. The scenes which have recently taken place in parts of Kent bear eloquent witness to that.

In ordinary common sense, it must be seen to be a material change of use when a pasture is suddenly taken over by 200 leisure users. At the least I would hope that the Minister might be able to tell us tonight that the Government favour the proposal I have already put to the Secretary of State that anyone who wishes to sell land in this way, to split it up in this manner, should be obliged to give at least two months' prior notice to the planning authority. In this way alone, the naive and innocent victims of the land sharks could be forewarned and the countryside saved from the dereliction which inevitably follows a sharp operation of this kind.

10.12 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Rodgers Mr John Rodgers , Sevenoaks

The whole House is deeply indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) for raising this important subject tonight. It affects not only the south-eastern part of England—there are three or four cases in my constituency—but it is becoming a nation-wide problem. People buy agricultural land at a cheap price, divide it into small plots and sell it off at anything from £125 to £800 each. The advertisements tell prospective buyers that the land is always a good buy because today's green belt sites will be tomorrow's development sites.

In one part of my constituency where this happened the local people in the village put up a notice pointing out that the land in question had no access, that a purchaser could not bring a caravan on to it, erect tents or huts, put up gates, fences or walls to divide the plots, or construct or lay out paths or means of access to the road, and that he could not make a new access into the lane as proposed on the company's plans. This sort of thing is a fraud on the public. Gullible people, thinking that it would be nice to get a plot in the green belt where they could spend their leisure weekends, are being led up the garden path.

I support the six proposals put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford. I have been in touch with the Minister, who told me in a letter: I entirely sympathise with the widespread feeling that something should be done about these sales. He went on to say: It is however a long-established principle that the Town and Country Planning Acts exist to regulate the development of land, and not changes in its ownership. We maintain that this is a change of use, and I hope that our suggestions will commend themselves to the Undersecretary.

My local authority has been extremely good in the application of Article 4 directions, but even that is not enough. We must change the law. I put down a Question to the Minister, who said that his Department was discussing the problem with the local authority associations and other interested bodies. I hope that tonight he will tell us what the local authority associations said and what positive steps he intends to take to stop this practice, which is against the public interest, which is spoiling good agricultural land and which pays no attention to amenity or even sanitation.

10.14 p.m.

Photo of Mr Neil Carmichael Mr Neil Carmichael , Glasgow Kelvingrove

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ash-ford (Mr. Speed) for raising the question of leisure plots, and I congratulate him on the able presentation of his case. That does not surprise us. We accept that he usually does his work extremely thoroughly and competently. The support that he received from his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) and his hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers) makes it clear that the question of leisure plots is quite a problem.

Perhaps I should take this opportunity of reviewing the present situation with regard to such plots and describing the action we are taking. In doing so I shall attempt to deal with the points the hon. Members raised.

By a leisure plot I mean one of a group of small areas of land—ranging from a few hundred square yards to an acre or more in area—created by the subdivision of agricultural, forest or undeveloped land and sold individually for leisure use, for growing crops, or simply as an investment, without benefit or prospect of any useful planning permission. Such plots—contrary to the impression that may have been given tonight—are not a new phenomenon. The first sites of which we are aware appeared in the mid-1950s, but in the last few years there has been a widespread increase in their number, and a corresponding growth of public interest and, sometimes, concern about them. Most sites which have come to our notice are in the South-East and close to London—that is, in Kent, Surrey, and Essex—but we also know of sites in Yorkshire, Cornwall, and the North of Scotland. The average site, though they vary enormously, consists of, perhaps, 50 acres divided into 100 or more plots.

There are two points that I wish to make clear at the outset. First, there is nothing illegal about buying an area of land, subdividing it into plots, and selling the plots. Planning permission for so doing is not required. I shall return to this later. Secondly, it is not realistic to speak simply of the leisure plot problem as if it were a single entity. Rather, it is necessary to recognise that no two sites are alike, and that there are a number of problems which arise to different degrees in different circumstances.

What are the problems which have been drawn to our attention? First, there is advertising and promotional literature which, intentionally or otherwise, leads people to believe that they are buying something which they are not. I do not say that all of it falls into this category. But there is some which implies that, for example, the lucky buyer will be able to build the home of his dreams on the land, or will be able to resell at a handsome profit in the near future. Secondly, there is the taking of productive agricultural land or woodland away from its proper uses. There are fears that, once converted into plots, such land will be permanently lost for economic agricultural purposes. Thirdly, there is the loss of visual amenity, or the creation of eyesores, which is probably a more accurate description. Fences, sheds and unmade roads inevitably damage the pleasant appearance of open countryside. Fourthly, there is said to be nuisance and disturbance for local residents, in the form of noise, litter, trespass, damage to hedges and crops, heavy traffic on unsuitable minor roads, and so on.

I do not wish to exaggerate these problems. There have so far been few complaints from leisure plot purchasers that they have been duped. It is perhaps a human failing that we do not like to tell people that we have been duped. That fact has been part of the equipment of the confidence trickster over the centuries. The agricultural land and woodland lost to leisure plots is less than 1 per cent. of the total annual loss to development, and many plots are on relatively unproductive land. Local authorities have powers to control all development on land, including, by means of Article 4 direction, that which is normally permitted without a specific permission under the General Development Order. While local people often have good grounds for complaint, some occasionally forget that the countryside is not theirs alone to enjoy. The local authority associations have recently pointed out to us that some sites give rise to few, if any, difficulties, and clearly provide a valuable source of recreational enjoyment to their owners.

The suggested solutions to these problems fall into two broad groups. First, there might be a control over the actual creation of sites. Secondly, the problems might be tackled individually, without preventing the subdivision and sale of land itself. In the first group, one possibility would be to amend the definition of "development" in Section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 so as to include the fragmentation and sale of land. Planning permission would then be necessary before a leisure plot site could be started. The objection to this is that a fundamental principle of our land use planning system is that it is concerned with the use to which land is put, and not with who owns it. If no physical change of any kind takes place on a piece of land—and a change of ownership does not necessitate any physical change—there is nothing for that planning system to bite on.

Clearly, the introduction of a requirement to obtain planning permission before buying or selling land would have implications far beyond the control of leisure plots, as it would interfere with the freedom of a willing buyer and a willing seller to make a transaction, and it is difficult to see what criteria might be used to reach a decision.

Another possibility would be to declare, also by amendment of Section 22 of the 1971 Act, that a change of use from agriculture to a leisure purpose constitutes development. This was, in fact, the suggestion put forward by Mr. George Dobry, QC, in his review of the development control system. This raises at once the difficulty of ascertaining that all agricultural use has ceased or that leisure has become the predominant use.

It has been suggested that this difficulty might be overcome by restricting the use of the term any land for the purposes of agriculture in the Act to conform with that in the Agriculture Act 1947. If this were done, any agricultural use might constitute development unless for the purposes of a trade or business but this suggestion would have far-reaching effects well outside the problem of leisure plots. In any case, the fact that land was not being farmed actively or profitably could not of itself constitute development, so the problem of defining "leisure use" remains.

To prevent the "weekend invasion", to which Mr. Dobry referred in his final report, the prohibition of leisure use could well mean forbidding such activity as walking the dog, having a picnic, or kicking a ball about. To use planning powers to prevent people doing these things on land they own would, in my view, be quite rightly regarded as oppressive, and intolerable, and the problems of enforcement would be insurmountable. Moreover, most of the activity to which objection is taken takes place not on the plots themselves but in the surrounding area.

A third possibility would be to bring into use the powers of Section 86 of the Agriculture Act 1947 to control the subdivision of agricultural units. However, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government pointed out in a debate last December, these powers have never been used, and would need to be brought into effect by an Order subject to Affirmative Resolution by both Houses of Parliament. Each relevant disposition of part of a farm would require ministerial consent.

The powers are not retrospective, and the procedure is too slow to be of any value in this connection; the subdivision and offer for sale might be well advanced before an order could be made. Moreover, the powers could not, in practice, be confined to the better quality agricultural land; therefore, all such dispositions would have to be notified in order to control a very small fraction of sites.

I am sorry to have dwelt on these possibilities at length, but I wanted to make clear that it would be no easy matter to introduce a control over the actual creation of leisure plot sites. The objections are fundamental, not merely technical ones of administrative complication or obscurantism. I do not yet rule out such a control altogether, and we are ready to consider further suggestions, but it seems to me that the way forward lies in the second group of solutions I mentioned, that is, in recognising that we must deal here with a variety of problems, not all of them to do with land use planning, and tackling them individually.

So far as advertising material is concerned, the hon. Member may have seen that in the consultative document on the review of the Trade Descriptions Act published recently, the review committee proposes that commercial developers and estate agents, among others, should be made criminally liable for false statements made deliberately or recklessly about property. The Director General of Fair Trading, who chaired the review committee, has invited comments on the document by the end of this month, in order that he may proceed to complete his full report. The hon. Member may wish to put views on this matter direct to him, although the debate will make the problem more widely known.

In addition, the Advertising Standards Authority stands ready to investigate any advertisement which a member of the public considers misleading, on the basis of the Code of Advertising Practice. It is fair to say that much leisure plot advertising now points out that there is no planning permission, and little chance of it. In the meantime, I urge anyone thinking of buying a leisure plot to have a look at the site, to read the small print on the contract, to consult a solicitor, and to find out what the attitude of the local planning authority is before parting with any money. I hope that what I have said will be widely reported. I recommend, on behalf of the Government, that people should examine the documents carefully and not believe that a person is willing to sell a site relatively cheaply when it is worth a great deal more.

As to control of development on leisure plot sites, our policy is that Article 4 directions will be approved quickly where there is evidence that development of the kind in question ought to be brought under control. We are considering proposals that the General Development Order be amended, so that Article 4 direction can be brought into effect more easily by local planning authorities. Lastly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced last week that legislation would be introduced making enforcement action against breach of planning control more rapid and more effective.

To a considerable extent the purchase of leisure plots reflects a lack of outdoor recreational opportunities elsewhere. A recent development in this respect is the provision by a number of local authorities of visually attractive landscaped allotment gardens, which provide not only a place to grow food but also recreational facilities for general family enjoyment, in addition to enhancing the local environment. In the White Paper "Sport and Recreation", published in August, the Government drew attention to and warmly welcomed this initiative.

The most urgent need now is for more knowledge of the nature of the problems which leisure plots create. Following a meeting between officials and representatives of the five local authority associations last month, we have asked the associations to provide what further information they can about the number and size of leisure plot sites of which they are aware, accompanied, if possible, by an assessment of how many of these sites give rise to significant problems, how large these problems are, and what form they take. I do not wish to give the impression that our object is to make life difficult for people who have bought plots.

As I said, we recognise that there are sites which are quite unobjectionable. Although I do not look gladly upon people who make large profits merely by subdividing and selling land, it is not at present our intention to put a stop to leisure plots. We want to ensure that where they are created people know what they are buying, and that the sites are in accordance with good planning practice. It may be that this can be achieved through some form of constructive cooperation with the promoters. We shall look at that further when we have made progress on the lines I have indicated.

The House must be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I hope that it will get the wide publicity that it deserves.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.