I thank my right hon. Friend for the intervention and I agree entirely. The point is very well made and I can see the Minister on the Treasury Bench paying close attention. It is a subject that he and I have discussed on many occasions, and I look forward to hearing what he says in a moment.
The impact of all of this goes beyond local areas, as local authorities that pursue enforcement action against rogue developers have to spend significant sums of taxpayers’ cash on legal battles. When I introduced my Bill back in the autumn, I referred at length to a case in my constituency as an example of what can occur. That case is now subject to consideration by the courts, so I will not go into that detail again, save to make the observation that it has taken more than a year to get to this point and the end is still not in sight. However, it does not impact just my constituency—it is a national problem. Such incidents, as I have heard from my hon. Friends, are widespread.
In another example, in 2018, an unauthorised development was set up around Chelmsford on a Saturday morning, meaning that the planning enforcement team were able to visit the site only on the following Monday, by which time caravans, a digger and lorries carrying materials had all been brought on to the site in a pre-planned and co-ordinated attempt to build as much as possible so that it would become unviable for the council to dismantle the works. Neither of those incidents are easily resolvable. My hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford has spoken in this House about procedural battles on development sites in Guildford and Leatherhead that have lasted between 14 and 18 years. Green belt land has been acquired and built over without planning permission in both locations.
So what solutions might there be? When I introduced my ten-minute rule Bill, I stated that I believed that the solution lay in legislative change to move unauthorised developments without permission from being a civil offence to being a criminal offence. I made the argument that that would prevent rogue developers from appealing enforcement action and block retrospective planning permission automatically. I stated that any change should not aim to remove certain permitted development rights for private households. Nor should it attempt to single out encampments by certain specific communities. Any fair planning system should recognise that developments could unintentionally stray from the approved plans when constructed. In order to avoid the danger of people who have inadvertently breached planning regulations being criminalised, for example, in cases where an extension is slightly too large or where someone implemented something erroneously, believing that they had permitted development rights, the Bill I drafted distinguished between more minor, accidental planning permission breaches, and egregious breaches where someone repeatedly attempted to bypass the planning system, or where the breach occurred on protected land such as the green belt. In such instances, the rules need to be flexible enough to consider the circumstances of the breach. However, I believe this should be balanced against the need to ensure the system is strong enough to close the loophole that rogue developers are currently exploiting.
There are a range of potential solutions. As I have stated, my solution was to change the law to make unauthorised development a criminal offence. An alternative might be to reform the pre-existing enforcement provisions, for example, by rapidly speeding up the process by which planning enforcement can take place, and perhaps vastly increasing the level of fines applicable and limiting the timescales and grounds for appeal.
Whatever solution we opt for, the case for change is substantial. I have seen at first hand local authorities’ difficulties in deterring and stopping rogue developers from building without permission. I have seen the damage that that can cause. I have witnessed the frustration of local residents who find their local areas threatened and I have heard from local councillors and their officers about the long drawn-out, inefficient and very expensive processes they are obliged to follow in attempting to deal with the problem.
We can strengthen councils’ ability to act, protect the green belt and ensure that communities get their say on local developments by changing the law. When the planning Bill comes to the House, it will be a golden opportunity to take steps to protect local residents, stamp out these abuses of the planning process and right a very clear wrong. I urge the Government to pay heed to the issue. I very much look forward to hearing the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister.