Speculation about how long I might speak for is rife in the Tea Room. I have been informed by the Government Whips Office that I could take almost three hours with my speech. Tempting though that is, I reassure the House that I will not detain it for as long as that—although I acknowledge that that is a shame.
This debate is a follow-up to the ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced to the House last autumn, which sought to make unauthorised development an offence and to prohibit retrospective planning applications. Sadly, there was insufficient parliamentary time for the Bill to proceed, but the problems with planning enforcements remain.
What is the problem? Rogue developers regularly exploit loopholes in our planning system to build unauthorised developments without planning permission. Sadly, they are getting away with it. Under the current planning rules, development without permission is generally not a criminal offence, whereas failing to comply with enforcement action is.
Local authorities have a range of enforcement powers in their arsenals. Enforcement notices can be issued and, at the extreme end, require demolition and restoration. If they are upheld, there can be a fine of up to £20,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited fine on indictment under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Other measures, such as contravention or stop notices, can be used depending on the circumstances.
Elements of the Localism Act 2011 made changes to the planning system, notably by removing an applicant’s right to use two separate defences in a single case. In 2015, the then Minister, my right hon. Friend Brandon Lewis, outlined a policy to make intentional unauthorised development a material consideration for all applications, including retrospective ones.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes a new offence for anyone who resides, or intends to reside, on land without permission and has caused, or is likely to cause, damage. The proposals are welcome, but the enforcement action I have outlined comes at a high cost to local authorities. It can take years to restore some sites because of the lengthy appeal processes involved. In any event, many rogue developers are eventually granted retrospective planning permission.
The planning portal goes as far as to state that in respect of breaches, local authorities
“often permit a retrospective application where planning permission has not been sought.”
Even when local authorities do not, the unauthorised development is often at such an advanced stage that the site is never fully restored. When such unauthorised developments have taken place on green-belt land or open land, they can lead to significant and permanent damage to areas that our planning system is supposed to protect.
That means a developer could show absolutely no regard for the legal process yet ultimately still be rewarded.