I am very grateful to have caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to have the opportunity to make a contribution to this slightly extended Adjournment debate. I promise my hon. Friend Gareth Bacon that it will be a brief one.
I have a dreadful situation in my constituency. Over the past 12 months, a local chalk pit on green-belt land, which has historically been a combination of an overflow for the local car dealers and a transfer site for local skip dealers, has been transformed by one operator—a local firm, NJB Recycling—into a full recycling centre without planning consent. It is now applying retrospectively for planning consent; I have opposed the application and hope that it will be turned down.
The experience of the past 12 months has highlighted an issue to which I hope the Minister will give some thought in discussion with his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Not only is there an unlawful use of the site, and not only is the operator applying for retrospective consent—I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that someone should not be allowed to set up a commercial operation without permission and get away with it—but the agencies involved do not have the powers to deal with a contravention of planning consent.
The facility is regulated by the Environment Agency, whose performance over the past 12 months has, I have to say, been lamentable. The site is causing massive noise nuisance to local residents; it is a few yards away from houses that are now being subjected to substantial noise all day long. We have had massive dust problems, and there have been huge traffic problems with the dramatic expansion in the use of the site. It is a shocking example of something that simply should not be able to happen.
Not only has the performance by the Environment Agency’s team been lamentable, but it has not used the powers that it has to try to restrain things. Frankly, it has not followed its own assessment of the scale of the problem: it carried out an independent assessment, found out that the operator was in breach and then failed to act on that breach. It has said all along that it cannot act to close down, or withdraw a permit from, an operator that is operating a site unlawfully, even though the operator has changed the nature of its work and is now operating in a way that is unlawful in planning terms.
We need a joined-up approach to regulation. We should not have a situation in which the planning authority receives a retrospective application for an unlawful use of a site, but the regulations that apply to the site’s use under the auspices of the Environment Agency do not permit the Environment Agency to say “stop.” My message to the Minister, to whom I am happy to speak in more detail as he prepares the planning Bill, is that two agencies should not have different enforcement powers and different abilities to intervene in a case of unlawful use and a retrospective planning application.
I would like the whole thing to be stopped. I would like all the agencies involved to act in unison and say, “You ain’t got permission to use the site in this way. It’s against planning law, you don’t have consent, you’re applying retrospectively—you should not be doing what you’re doing.” Everyone should have the power to step in and say, “You must stop.” I am happy to share more detail with the Minister; I have been talking to DEFRA Ministers as well.
I want a joined-up approach so that all the agencies have the same power to intervene when a site is being used unlawfully and when a retrospective application is made. Actually, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington that a retrospective planning application simply should not be allowed anyway, but at the moment we have a disjointed situation among the different agencies. I encourage the Minister to work with me to address it in legislation.