I am grateful for the opportunity of this Adjournment debate to raise a number of planning issues that are of particular concern to my constituents in Maidenhead, but which will have an echo across the country, because they are general issues with which many hon. Members will have experienced problems in their constituencies. I hope that, as I am raising general issues, the Minister will respond positively.
Many of my constituents feel under siege from developers, especially developers who will not take no for an answer. The problem of multiple applications is very much alive in my constituency. There are two aspects to the problem, which I shall illustrate by quoting two examples.
The first is Badnell's tip in Maidenhead. It is a former waste tip site. Later, I shall speak about contaminated land. Badnell's tip has been the subject of a planning application for development. The residents opposed the application, the council turned it down, the matter went to public inquiry, the appeal was turned down, and now the process is starting again with another development application, which the residents continue to oppose and the council has refused. The public inquiry finished over the summer and we now await the inspector's decision.
My constituents ask why they should have to go through the process all over again. There is a cost to local residents in terms of their worry about what might happen to the site, there is a cost in overall terms to the town, because we do not know whether a potentially significant development will proceed, and there is a cost to the council tax payers as the council has to fight another public inquiry. The Badnell's tip public inquiry cost the local borough council about £70,000.
Residents are worried that, if they are constantly fighting development applications, eventually something will give and an application that might otherwise have been refused will be given permission.
The problem arises in a different way in another issue in my constituency—the development of motorway service areas. There are currently eight applications for the development of a motorway service area at junction 8/9 on the M4 or between junction 8/9 and junction 10. We have just had a public inquiry on three of those applications, and the others are at various stages of the planning process. They affect not only my constituency, but the constituencies of Windsor and Bracknell.
Once again, residents find that they must fight constantly to defend their local environment. They are particularly concerned because, when the planning inspector gave approval for the development of a motorway service area at Reading, which is the first MSA down the M4 from Heston, he said in his judgment that he did not consider that there was any need for a motorway service area between Reading and Heston, yet there are eight applications on the stocks for just such an MSA.
Constituents ask why the planning process can put them through all that anxiety and the battle to save their environment, when a decision from a planning inspector suggests that there may be no need for the development in that stretch of road.
I hope that the Government will examine the issue of multiple applications and look perhaps at the imposition of time limits and at the possibility that all applications for a given type of development such as an MSA are submitted within a given time and considered in one block, instead of the rolling process and the constant need to fight. I hope that the Government will consider the problem sympathetically and find a way of resolving it, as it does not affect my constituency alone.
I mentioned Badnell's tip and the issue of contaminated land. Badnell's tip was a waste tip in the times when people dumped waste without giving the matter much thought. A local builder tells the story of having been down to the site many years ago and seen some rather nice glass bottles. He did not know what was in them, but fortunately someone else at the site suggested that he should not take the bottles away, as they were full of cyanide. There is certainly cyanide and asbestos in the tip, but no one is quite sure what else is present on the Badnell's tip site. Local residents are, naturally, extremely concerned.
At present there is no problem. The site is open space and is undisturbed, but local people are worried about what might happen if development permission is given and the site is disturbed by a developer. The potential problems arising from the site are illustrated by the fact that when the inspector at the recent planning inquiry went to look at the site, he wore a gas mask—a precaution that I did not take when I visited the site recently with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the shadow spokesman on planning and local government matters.
Will the Government examine the issue of contaminated land? In 1990, the Select Committee on the Environment proposed that local authorities should have a duty to compile registers of contaminated land. That was originally in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, but was repealed in the Environment Act 1995. I understand why the Government did that, but I question whether the decision was correct. I hope that the Government will consider instituting registers of contaminated land, and will review the powers of local authorities and the Environment Agency, to help with the clearing up of such sites.
Another relevant site in my constituency is Sandford farm in Woodley. I sometimes say that I am the Member of Parliament for tips—I will not say that I am the rubbish Member of Parliament, which would have an entirely different connotation. There has been a problem with the tip at Sandford farm. In the summer of 1996, the district council told local residents that they should not hold barbecues in their gardens because of the methane escaping from the site, which created the risk of explosions.
There is the question whether the local authority has the finance or the power to clean up that site, and what role the Environment Agency has in the matter. I ask the Minister to examine the issue. There is an application from a developer offering to clear up the site, if development permission were granted. Local residents are concerned that a development which might otherwise not be acceptable would be allowed through because it provided an easy option for dealing with the problem of contaminated land. That applies to both Badnell's tip and Sandford farm. The third issue is the guidance given to local authorities on the aspects that they may take into material consideration when considering planning applications. Again, I shall illustrate the problem with an example from my constituency. I refer to the East Park farm development at Charvil where, following a public inquiry, 232 houses—family homes—are being built on the edge of the village, which has no school and only one small shop. The children from those homes will have to travel into a nearby village, with all the resulting congestion problems on the roads.
Local authorities should be required to take more notice of the more general infrastructure features when they consider planning applications for significant development, such as a housing development of that size. Such considerations include schools and whether the local water supply can cope with the number of houses to be built on a site. As I understand it, there is no statutory requirement to consult water companies about whether the water supply will cope with increased demand. Local authorities should examine those issues more carefully when considering such developments. They should ask whether a village can cope with a significant development on its doorstep.
I have raised three issues: multiple applications in the planning process, contaminated land, and the consideration of infrastructure issues. There is considerable interest in this Adjournment debate in my constituency—particularly because of the Badnell's tip issue—and the story made the front page of the Maidenhead Advertiser. That is a significant local paper to which I have referred in the House previously. Local residents are very interested in the outcome of the debate and in the Minister's response. They hope that, because the issues facing Maidenhead are also experienced up and down the country, the Government will consider them sympathetically. I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on her extremely fluent presentation of issues relating to several sites in her constituency, which have clearly raised concerns locally. She highlighted local interest in the debate, and I only hope that those who read the Maidenhead Advertiser do not pick up on her reference to herself as the "Member of Parliament for tips"—I cannot think of a less appropriate description.
Before I respond to the specific issues that the hon. Lady raised, I shall put them into context. The Government retain a firm commitment to achieving sustainable development through a plan-led system. We believe this to be the most effective way of reconciling the demands for land for development and the need to protect the environment. The plan-led system has a vital role to play in identifying and providing sites for necessary development in locations that do not compromise the needs of future generations. It provides greater certainty for developers and business, and an appropriate framework for them to take investment decisions. At the same time—and perhaps more important—it allows anyone with an interest to be involved in shaping the policies that determine future decisions on land use. The system must be open and accountable.
We have a well-established system of statutory development plans, and we have no proposals for changing those basic arrangements. However, if the system is to survive, it must be made more efficient. A number of proposals for changes to the way in which local plans and unitary development plans are prepared and adopted were put forward by our predecessors last January. I certainly share their view that the current procedures are too cumbersome.
Some commentators have suggested that the Government are interested only in speed and in getting plans adopted as soon as possible—even if that is to the detriment of public involvement in the plan-making process and the quality of the end product. That is not the case. The Government are committed to proper public involvement in the plan-making process and to achieving a high-quality plan.
We have considered the responses to consultation on the issue initiated by the previous Government, and we intend to implement the changes to procedures related to the deposit stage, designed to encourage local planning authorities to make real efforts to negotiate with objectors and thereby resolve objections before plans reach the inquiry. There is certainly some scope for improving inquiry procedures, possibly involving the introduction of procedural rules, and we shall pursue measures to reduce the time spent on modifications after the inquiry. We hope that we can achieve a position where modifications become the exception rather than the rule.
On the other hand, we have decided not to pursue changes that would reduce the rights of people to be involved in the preparation of development plans. Similarly, we have decided not to take forward the previous Government's proposal that the recommendations in the report on the public local inquiry into a plan should be made binding on the local authority. We consider it important that the authority should remain accountable for the planning policies adopted in its area. Some of the changes can be taken forward by the Government, and we hope to issue consultation revisions to the development plan regulations and PPG12 before the new year.
We are also actively looking at ways of improving both the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning appeals system. We want to speed up the handling of appeals and deliver quicker decisions. I say that with some feeling, having had to deal with a large number of planning appeals over the past few months—some of which have been outstanding for far too long. Many individuals and organisations have recently given their views on a number of suggestions to speed up the planning appeals process. That is very helpful, and we aim to build on those suggestions.
The importance of the issues and the need to get the changes right are reflected in the variety and volume of comments: more than 250 responses have been received. The message is positive overall—although some reservations were expressed. Most respondents welcomed the main objective of improving speed and efficiency while retaining the essential elements of fairness, openness and impartiality. We have been giving careful thought to all the responses, but have not yet reached any final conclusions about future changes. Clearly, a number of the proposals are capable of being implemented in the short term either administratively or through secondary legislation but, where necessary, we do not rule out the possibility of primary legislation if and when the opportunity arises.
Having established the context, I come to the specific issues raised by the hon. Lady. I start with Badnell's tip, which is located behind homes in Blackamore lane to the north of Maidenhead town centre. The hon. Lady referred to her constituents' concerns about the number of planning applications that have been made for the site over the years. While the site has been subject to a number of applications, not all have gone to determination. Applications on the site for a hotel and for a football ground were withdrawn. The site was subject to retail applications in 1992–93, but they were also withdrawn. In the past 10 years, I understand that there have been only two appeals on the site.
The site was allocated in the local plan for housing in the 1970s. A local plan inquiry was held in 1995–96. The inspector came down against proposals for housing—even though that is what the local authority suggested—because he was not satisfied at the time about the remediation measures necessary to deal with the contamination to which the hon. Lady referred. I was slightly alarmed to hear that an inspector wandered around the site wearing a gas mask, and I am delighted that the hon. Lady felt sufficiently confident to visit the site without taking such measures.
That confidence is obviously shared by the local authority, which has undertaken further studies aimed at solving the contamination issue. It proposes to use the site for about 120 dwellings, and views it as an urban brown-field site. Because of the very real pressures for housing throughout the south-east, not just in Maidenhead, it is important—and very much part of the Government' s thinking—that, where appropriate, brown-field sites should be used for housing in order to avoid placing unnecessary pressure on the green belt and the countryside.
I also understand that there are currently proposals by the Michael Shanly Group for an edge-of-town superstore on the site. We understand that remediation is required to make the site suitable for such development and that the proposals have been subject to considerable local controversy. An appeal was lodged against non-determination of permission by the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and a public inquiry was held. The many concerns raised at the inquiry will, of course, be fully considered by the inspector in reaching his decision. The inspector's report is awaited by the local planning authority.
As the decision is still under consideration, I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that I cannot discuss the details of the proposals. The Secretary of State and Ministers in the Department have a quasi-judicial capacity in the matter. I hope that my remarks have at least put the issues in context.
I come now to the implications for PPG6 with regard to town centres and retail developments. There are several general concerns in that area. The Government reaffirm the objectives of the current planning policy guidance in PPG6 on town centres and retail developments. The guidance seeks to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of our existing city, town and district centres. That will remain a key pillar of Government policy.
We are also keen to ensure that, where possible, development is planned in a manner that is consistent with the maintenance and defence of the environment. Sustainability issues are at the forefront of the Government's approach. When we consider the kind of development that the hon. Lady mentioned towards the end of her speech—I apologise for forgetting the precise location to which she referred, involving the proposal for a large development at the edge of a village—issues such as transport, infrastructure, how the development would relate to the existing settlement, and whether there are adequate water supplies and other facilities must be material considerations if we are to contemplate such developments from the point of view of sustainability.
On the issue of contaminated land, which the hon. Lady rightly highlighted, local authorities were required to draw up registers under section 143 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The previous Government withdrew their proposals for statutory registers in 1993 and instigated instead a review of contaminated land policy. The basic argument against registers was that they could unnecessarily blight land. I understand that.
The review led to a recommendation that there should be a specific contaminated land power in place of the general statutory nuisance power. The previous Government took that power in section 57 of the Environment Act 1995, which inserted a new part IIA into the Environmental Protection Act 1990. That has not yet been implemented, but the Government are considering whether, and if so when, to bring part IIA into operation. We expect to make an announcement shortly.
Let me now refer to repetitive planning applications. I am aware that concern is sometimes expressed about the resource implications of developers submitting more than one planning application for the same piece of land.
A power was introduced through the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 which gives local planning authorities a measure of protection against the behaviour of a small number of developers who submit repetitive applications in an attempt to wear down the resistance of local communities and planning committees. The power enables authorities to turn away planning applications when a substantially similar proposal has been rejected by the Secretary of State on appeal, or following a call-in within the previous two years and where there has been no significant change in the material circumstances.
I appreciate that that power does not go as far as some would wish. It does not control the situation in which an applicant submits repeated applications to the local planning authority, but does not take any of them to appeal. In those situations, we must be careful not to tilt the scales too far and remove from the applicant his legitimate right to appeal. However, I am also concerned at the extra burden that such repeated applications may place on the local authority. It is therefore my intention to look again at that issue, to see what further action might be taken.
The hon. Lady also mentioned motorway service areas. I am well aware that there are a number of competing proposals for motorway service areas on the section of the M4 in the Maidenhead area. A joint public local planning inquiry has been held into a planning appeal concerning proposals for a motorway service area west of junction 8/9—which is one junction—on the M4. The other site considered at the joint inquiry is in Bracknell Forest district council area.
The inspector's report is unlikely to be received in the Government office for some months, and the proposed decision will be submitted to Ministers in due course. I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that, because of our quasi-judicial role, I cannot comment on the merits of the scheme, but I am sure that she is aware that, as the final decision will be taken in the Department, we shall consider carefully all the issues that she raised, and the other representations that have been made.
I am aware that the inquiry has lasted since January and has only just concluded. We are also aware that there have been concerns about the cost of such lengthy inquiries to the local planning authority. I can assure the hon. Lady that we too are concerned about delays in the planning process and are looking at mechanisms to speed it up in the future. That will not remedy the problem that she highlighted, but it may help in the future.
I understand that further developers are also competing to provide MSAs on that section of the M4. In considering proposals for further MSAs, the Government will have regard to the planning policy guidance note, PPG13 on transport, which states that the minimum gap between any two MSAs should normally be 15 miles. That does not mean that the guidance positively recommends provision of MSAs at 15-mile intervals, but it means that the need for a new facility nearer than about 15 miles to an existing one would not normally be sufficient to outweigh objections on road safety and traffic management grounds.
The guidance does not have in mind any maximum interval beyond which there would be any presumption in favour of the siting of an MSA. The precise number and frequency will depend on private sector responses to market pressures tempered by normal planning considerations. There is no change in the normal operation of the land use planning process, including land use planning policy. Local planning authorities should bear it in mind that, where MSAs are proposed within a short distance of another, my Department will provide signs for only one of them. It will also direct refusal of any scheme accessed directly from the motorway if its proximity to another MSA would disqualify it from signing.
I am conscious that the hon. Lady has raised a large number of detailed issues, and I have not been able to cover every aspect of what she said. I invite her, if she has further concerns, to write to me. I shall be only too happy to try to give her a more detailed response on those matters, apart from those on which I have indicated that we are not able to comment at this stage because the matter may come to our Department on appeal. I repeat my appreciation of the way in which she has raised those important matters, and hope that my reply has helped her and her constituents to understand how the Government are responding to their concerns.