Mr. Humfrey Matins:
I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of planning appeals from the London borough of Croydon. Last November, a lady constituent living in Thornton Heath, which is part of north-west Croydon, informed me that she had received an unsolicited letter from a property company based in Reading. It read :
Please excuse the liberty of writing to you, but we are looking for residential land for development, and we noticed that your property has a large area of land which, subject to planning permission being granted, may be suitable for this purpose. If you would be interested in receiving an offer, substantially in excess of the current market value of your property, we should be pleased to hear from you.
That type of approach is not untypical, and I gather that some property dealers go even further, commissioning helicopters to fly over south London to scan back gardens. My constituent, correctly, resented the approach that was made to her. She spoke to me of the deteriorating quality of life in part of north Croydon, where she felt that there had been too much development and infilling, bringing with it more people, stretched services, and the destruction of whole communities. That is a common enough complaint, but it is genuinely felt.
When I discussed the matter with Croydon's planning officer, Mr. Coombs, he confirmed that one of the major concerns of Croydon councillors is that in the past few years there has been a sometimes dramatic, usually gradual, but always continuing change in the character of the borough brought about by development—a change for the worse.
Pressures on the planning authority are building up, so I tabled a question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, asking how many planning applications were received by the London borough of Croydon in the last 10 years, how many were granted, how many were the subject of appeals, and how many appeals were allowed and refused. My right hon. Friend replied that applications under section 29 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 had risen from 2,101 in 1983–84 to 2,456 in 1987–88. The number of planning appeals under sections 35 and 36 of that Act had risen from 79 in 1984–85 to 136 in 1987–88. Significantly, in 1974, of the 79 appeals made that year, 47 were dismissed, but in 1987–88, only 67 of the 136 appeals made that year were dismissed. That strongly suggests that many more appeals are being allowed these days.
I acknowledge that the value of such a comparison is limited. The district plan adopted in 1982 sets out policies and guidelines, and is a major consideration in the determination of development proposals. Even so, Croydon, as with other places, no doubt, has seen a steady increase in the number of appeals allowed by the Secretary of State, and many members of Croydon council feel that their position in maintaining local democracy is to some extent being eroded by a combination of the advice, actions and decisions of central Government.
The planning officer's schedule of applications and appeals shows that the percentage of appeals dismissed by the Department fell from 77 per cent. in 1977 to only 48 per cent. in 1987. At that rate, within 10 years no appeals to the Secretary of State will be dismissed; they will all be allowed. Whether this is a fair comparison and conclusion to draw is uncertain, but what is clear is that now almost more appeals succeed than fail, and the developer and the applicant are both encouraged not so much to ignore local authorities but to rely on the fact that they have a better than even chance of success on their appeal.
Local councillors feel, with justification, that their decisions are unduly influenced by the threat of appeal and the possibility of a claimant being awarded costs, because if the local planners make a decision against known Government policy there is a real prospect that heavy costs will be awarded against them. A recent application that came before Croydon was for a car telephone mast set on high ground within an area of metropolitan open land. Circular 16/85 dealt with telecommunications development. It says:
Planning Authorities will have to be alive to the special needs and technical problems of telecommunications development, and in many cases these will necessarily have to prevail over normal planning policies.
But should they? Sometimes, I think not. Is it not an unfair constraint on the proper planning considerations of a development, and is this not an example of a circular taking away the local authority's discretion?
There are also many instances when, on appeal, a planning inspector, having agreed with the council's objection, allows the appellant to introduce an amendment—say, in terms of reducing the number of dwellings—in an attempt to overcome the problem. This is a prospect not open to the local authority at its level, but perhaps it should be. There is concern that the considered decisions of the local authority are not being sufficiently supported by central Government—and all this at a time when pressures on local authorities are undoubtedly increasing.
Croydon's published figures for 1987 show that over the five years from 1982 to 1987 there has been about a 38 per cent. increase in the number of planning applications. There has been an increase in the number of appeals and tree preservation orders, all of which add hugely to the workload of the authorities. Despite improvements in productivity, there is bound to be an increasing number of outstanding applications.
When the Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) Regulations were introduced in 1981, they included a concession for duplicate applications. A 25 per cent. fee is prescribed for the second application providing that it is lodged within 28 days of the first. The object of submitting duplicate applications is to facilitate an appeal on one, against a failure to determine within the statutory period of eight weeks, while still negotiating on the other. In these circumstances, there would be no point in asking the applicant to agree to an extension of the determination period. Can this really be right?
In the circumstances that I have outlined—the increase in the backlog of work, the time taken to determine applications, the reduction in the decision period for appeals, and the increase in the percentage of appeals allowed—developers have now been encouraged almost to go to appeal, and the practice of submitting duplicate applications has become all too common. In the sense that a developer can exercise his right of appeal against a failure to determine, are we not seeing an element of queue jumping? Many London local authorities—I am sure that Croydon is one of them—are concerned about the twin issues of the number of appeals that are being allowed and the overriding of local planning policies by Department of Environment circular planning advice.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me, unusually, to intervene in an Adjournment debate. He is correct in what he is saying, and neighbouring Bromley is having similar problems. Does he find, as I do, that our constituents are becoming increasingly incensed at the fact that decisions taken by local councillors, on the advice of officers and residents who know the district, are being overturned on the advice of a single inspector based in Bristol?
My hon. Friend is right. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt) are extremely active on this important matter on behalf of their constituents. Every authority has its own concerns, but a common theme is a desire for greater local accountability, possibly by increasing the status of local plans. Local councillors are the ones who are best qualified to decide local planning issues. Many of them have lived in the area for a long time, they know their patch well, and they have a great feel for their people and for the area that they represent.
All that brings me back to my constituent in Thornton Heath. She at least had local interests at heart, but others may be tempted by the grubby money of property developers. As a result, formerly attractive streets in north-west Croydon—be they in Beulah, Norbury, Thornton Heath or elsewhere—will be yet further damaged. A Government circular says that there is always a presumption in favour of allowing applications for development, unless the development would cause considerable demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance.
Has the pendulum swung too far? Yes, the interests of industry, commerce and technology are important, but are they so important that they should so often override environmental and community interests? People in north Croydon and elsewhere are beginning to feel instinctively that the quality of their environment is deteriorating. They believe that local democracy is gradually being eroded. They have an instinctive feeling that, whenever commercial pressures and environmental interests clash, commercial pressures will win the day.
Unless we are careful, people in south London and elsewhere will face a very bleak future in terms of the quality of their neighbourhoods. I can only hope that today my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to offer some words of reassurance to the many people who are concerned about such a vital matter as the quality of our environment.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) on securing this Adjournment debate and on the way in which he has made his points. He has demonstrated today, as on so many other occasions, his deep understanding of the concerns of his constituents and his diligence in bringing them to the attention of Ministers. I have listened carefully to the points that he has made and I understand his concern about certain aspects of planning policy as they affect appeals in the London borough of Croydon. I am very well aware of the regional importance of Croydon, as both a shopping and a commercial centre. The council has made strenuous efforts over the years to encourage development, economic prosperity and the provision of jobs. The results of their positive approach are an example to many other authorities.
The council has kept abreast of changing trends. It has monitored its local planning policies and has adopted a flexible approach to planning control to meet changing circumstances. A notable example of this is the way that the Council has seized the opportunities for large-scale commercial and residential development on redundant sites in the Purley way area, encouraging retail warehouses and other developments to help to relieve pressures and congestion in the town centre.
I am also aware of the efforts that Croydon has made to meet housing needs and its difficult task in trying to meet development pressures and yet maintain an acceptable living environment that retains local character.
The pressure for development reflects the attraction of Croydon as a place in which to live and work and also the buoyancy of the local economy. Unemployment in Croydon is about 37 per cent. below the level that prevails in London and it is much below the national average. Those are some of the success stories that lead to pressure for development.
My hon. Friend addressed largely the density problem. At the outset I ought perhaps to put into context the density issue in Croydon. In 1981, population density in Croydon was 36·6 persons to the hectare. In 1987, it was 36·9 persons to the hectare. Although the impression of many of my hon. Friends constituents may he that population density is increasing rapidly in Croydon, the figures do not show that to be true. Between 1981 and 1987 Croydon's population declined by about 2,000—from a figure of about 321,000 to 319,000 in 1987.
The present greater London development plan identifies the desirable housing density within the greater London area as between 70 and 100 habitable rooms to an acre. It is open to an individual council to draw up a local plan giving more precise densities in different parts of its area, as the Government consider that density should be a matter for local authorities and not for national or regional guidance. I assure my hon. Friend that the new regional guidance for London will reflect that, and the rigidities contained in the previous Greater London development plan will be removed. The recently-issued policy planning guidance note No. 12 expressly states that a local council can adopt density policies. It is important that councils take advantage of the opportunities presented in that planning policy guidance note, which states:
Where authorities consider that the pressure for development and redevelopment is such as to threaten seriously the character of an established residential area which ought to be protected, they may include density and other policies in their local plans for the areas concerned. while avoiding undue rigidity. The scale and character of new development in relation to existing development are material considerations which should be taken into account in deciding planning applications, and the decisions of local planning authorities will be the more secure where the adopted local plan includes policies designed to protect the environmental character of particular localities.
I hope that the London borough of Croydon will bear that in mind when it prepares its unitary development plan.
My hon. Friend referred to helicopters being used by potential developers to identify unused land for development. There is nothing inherently wrong with that provided that they keep within the law. Development land is scarce, particularly in London and the south-east, and it is in the national interest that developable land should be brought into use. However, it is one thing to identify land for development, but it is quite another to harass the owners or occupiers of the land to force them to sell against their will, and it is not acceptable for landlords to harass tenants in order to obtain vacant possession. Nor is it acceptable for developers to harass owner-occupiers. My hon. Friend referred to one particular case, but I am aware of other cases of harassment on a much more severe scale in the London area.
I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the number of telecommunications masts being erected in line with the changing technology, and the problems involved in their siting. They were rarely required when the present town and country planning system was set up, but I believe that the system is flexible enough to balance the needs for the masts and for environmental protection. My hon. Friend quoted from circular 16/85 but I wish to quote from planning policy guidance note No. 8 entitled, "Telecommunications" which states:
Government policy is to facilitate the growth of telecommunications … However, the Government is also fully committed to preserving the national heritage, and the growth of telecommunications does not mean that the appearance of buildings, towns and countryside can be allowed to suffer serious damage.
There is no question of usurping the principle of treating each case on its merits or removing local authority discretion. However, we must recognise that telecommunications masts have different requirements from other types of development which must be taken into account in the exercise of development control. The purpose of the circular and planning policy guidance note No. 8 is to set out those special requirements and identify how they can be balanced with other planning matters.
My hon. Friend referred in considerable detail to the issue of a number of appeals being allowed in the London borough of Croydon. The proportion has declined from 52 per cent. in 1986–87 to 44 per cent. in 1987–88 to 38 per cent. in the nine months in the current financial year—a trend which, if extrapolated, could show that in some year in the future all the appeals will be turned down. Perhaps my hon. Friend looks forward to that occasion. He will certainly welcome the change in the trend, which is reflected nationally. Nevertheless, I understand that allowing planning appeals may be seen by some as undermining the policies of the local planning authorities.
There has, at the same time, been an increase in the rate at which local planning authorities refuse applications for planning permission. That has increased nationally from 14 per cent. in 1984–85 to 16 per cent. in 1987–88. The refusal rate in Croydon is even higher at between 17 per cent. and 20 per cent. in the years between 1984 and 1988. There was no change in national planning policies or in development plan policies that would have explained the increase in the rate of refusals. The Government have no wish to undermine the way in which local authorities carry out their responsibilities, but our inspectors must have regard to national policies as well as to local policies.
Planning is, to some extent, subjective and, therefore, it is inevitable that the inspector will not always reach the same conclusion as the local authority. Obviously, if the local authority refuses more applications at the outset, that may lead to an increased number of appeals allowed.
We should also keep in perspective the increase in the percentage of appeals allowed. Applications permitted on appeal represent less than 2 per cent. of the 390,000 or so planning permissions given each year. In Croydon it was about 2·6 per cent. of 2,050 permissions given at borough level and on appeal in 1987–88.
Some commentators allege that departmental circular 14/85 was responsible for increases in successful appeals. That is not the case. The circular simply reminds authorities of the general presumption in favour of allowing applications for development, having regard to all material considerations, unless that development would cause demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance. The principle is as old as the planning system set up by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and the key words were repeated from circulars issued in 1949 and 1953. The principle was again restated in 1985 in the White Paper "Lifting the Burden" and more recently in planning policy guidance note 1.
Some concern has been expressed that the Department and its inspectors are not taking proper account of local plans in allowing appeals. That is not so. Development plans are a vital part of the framework for development control. They are not prescriptive, but provide a firm basis for rational and consistent decisions on applications. Planning policy guidance note 1 emphasises that, where a plan is up-to-date and relevant to the particular proposal, it follows that the plan should normally be given considerable weight in the decision, and strong contrary planning grounds will have to be demonstrated to justify a proposal which conflicts with it. That policy was reiterated in planning policy guidance note 12 and again the White Paper on the future of development plans, which was published only last month.
I appreciate the complex problems facing planning authorities. Throughout the south-east the pressures for housing on the one hand and the need to conserve the environment on the other pose very difficult problems. Decisions on whether and where to allow development call for careful consideration and the reconciliation of conflicting demands. The main vehicle for resolving them is the development plan.
Every inspector taking an appeal must carefully consider the development plan policies. That is one of the factors which must be weighed in the balance. An inspector wil need good reasons to set aside the provisions of an up-to-date adopted plan, and, if he does so, must give a clear explanation.
Ministers have said before, and I repeat today, that in determining planning appeals, up-to-date local plans consistent with national and regional policies will carry a great deal of weight. Although the Croydon borough plan was adopted nearly seven years ago, it is clear and succinct and remains a very important consideration for development control purposes. The council has regularly monitored development trends and the effectiveness of its plan policies and has made alterations to the plan over the past year or two to take account of changing circumstances.
The council in Croydon is therefore, well placed to prepare a unitary development plan. It would be well advised to start work well in advance of the introduction of the unitary development plan commencement order. It should start work now on how to apply detailed density policies to the borough.
We hope to issue shortly the draft strategic guidance for London, and the commencement order for the unitary development plan process will be issued during the summer. Croydon will then be in an even stronger position to review its strategic policies in a way that takes account of the opportunities and needs of the area.
My hon. Friend made some other detailed points. He was concerned about the amendment of applications at appeal. I hope that he will agree that the development control system should allow a degree of flexibility to enable the developer to make his application more acceptable by introducing small amendments. That would normally be done only with the agreement of the local authority. The purpose of the circular and planning policy guidance note 8 is to set out the special requirements and how they can be balanced with other planning matters.
My hon. Friend is concerned also about duplicate applications. I agree that some cases that cause most concern are those in which an applicant believes that the authority will take more than the statutory period to decide his application, and then decides to appeal against non-determination as soon as possible. At the same time, the applicant leaves the door open to negotiate an agreement on the duplicate. That is wasteful to the appellant, the authority and my Department, but it is understandable when many authorities decide fewer than half their applications in the eight-week period. As my hon. Friend will know, although Croydon has speeded up its decision-taking process, it is still dealing with only about 40 per cent. of its applications within eight weeks.
I do not doubt that, were Croydon to get near the national target, which is to deal with 80 per cent. of applications within eight weeks, it would find a dramatic reduction in the number of duplicate applications. The remedy is to be found in the hands of the authorities.
My hon. Friend is concerned also about costs. A review of regulations has just been approved, and fees will rise by about 15 per cent. from 14 March. There will be a further review this year and, given that there has been no comprehensive review of the fees scheme since 1986, it will give us the opportunity to look at the matter in greater depth, including consideration of my hon. Friend's views.
I hope that I have been able to put my hon. Friend's concerns in perspective. I hope that he will take comfort from the increased emphasis on local plan making, and I hope that his council will take full advantage of the new opportunities, especially on the issue of density, which is of such great concern to my hon. Friends who represent outer London constituencies.