Planning Permissions and Unauthorised Developments

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:18 pm on 26th January 2022.

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Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 4:18 pm, 26th January 2022

Essentially, it should, but of course there are legal interpretations that need to be considered. Therefore, we need to ensure that any rule changes that we make are right, that they do not allow the new system to be gamed and therefore brought into disrepute, and that they do not lead to unintended and unfair consequences for, shall we say, the innocent.

Over the years, the system has been deliberately gamed by cowboy builders creating large structures or even whole developments before trying their luck with the local council to see whether they can get retrospective planning permission. There is one infamous case in Bedfordshire, which saw a local business owner who was originally granted permission to make a modest improvement to his 1960s bungalow end up building a three-storey mega-mansion, complete with a turret and sweeping balconies. That is just not right; it is the sort of egregious development that should not be allowed.

In other cases, we have heard of, as my right hon. Friend Bob Stewart has said, lorries and building equipment arriving on site in the dead of night or at the weekend, and people laying internal roads and hardstanding without planning permission. Retrospective planning permission is then sought soon afterwards, and wrongly so. Clamping down on such flagrant planning violations and abuses of the system is going to be a key focus of my Department. It is one of the reasons why we have made intentional unauthorised development a material planning consideration, meaning that local authorities can factor in intent behind the unauthorised development when considering a retrospective application. In other words, it is not enough for builders to plead ignorance when it is plain for all—not least the planning authority—to see that they were well aware that their structure needed planning permission right from the outset.

Legislation also states that retrospective applications must be assessed in the same way as standard planning applications, so that permission cannot be granted retrospectively if there was little or no prospect of it being approved in the first place.

People making small improvements to their own home or garden are human, like all of us. Our constituents might not always think that we are human, but, like them, we are, and we know that genuine mistakes can be made. They will happen, so it would be unfair, where someone built their rear extension a foot too high, for example, or erected a fence in the wrong place, to take a sledgehammer to that work when retrospective planning permission would do. We have to be fair, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington said in his remarks.

With that principle in mind, while also accounting for the natural frustration that people and communities can feel about unauthorised development, criminalisation for infringements that fall into the minor or unwitting camp would be disproportionate. That is why we need to make sure that any changes we make are right and do not lead to unintended and unfair consequences.

As the House will know, we are considering a whole suite of possible planning reforms. I reassure my hon. Friend that that includes consideration of whether the current scope of offences is fit for purpose. He mentioned some matters, including using such terms as “egregious” in the law. We would need to look closely at that to ensure that there is a fair and proper legal interpretation of that word. He mentioned the greater use of fines, and we will certainly look at that possibility. The fundamental must be that the system deters retrospective planning applications and also deters the activity that results in those retrospective applications—the building in the first place.

We recognise that these reforms will only be worth making if our local authorities and the wider planning sector have the right tools to implement them and are able to give our planning enforcement regime proper teeth. To that end, an additional £65 million was made available by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Budget last year. That will help build the skills and capability that we need at the local level to translate our words into deeds on the ground.

As we look beyond the here and now, our commitment in the long term is to digitisation. Digitisation will mean that local authorities and their planning officers have much more space and much more time to focus on the things that really matter, rather than the administrative bumf that goes along with the present planning system. By digitising the system, we can make it more effective, and we can also create the headroom for planning officers and other officials to be more effective in their own work.

I will say a few brief words on appeals, which I know are a bugbear for many communities that find themselves in protracted and exhausting disputes. We certainly want them speeded up. It is absolutely right that everyone should be able to make their case and to have that case heard. Our priority is to accelerate that process by closing loopholes through future planning reforms. We are undoubtedly making progress in that direction. In the 18-month stretch from March 2020—the height of the covid pandemic—the Planning Inspectorate issued some 3,300 appeal decisions on enforcement cases. However, as I set out, there is more to be done to improve how the fundamentals of our appeals process work, and that has to start with removing the incentive for those who set out deliberately to abuse the system to try to delay the appeals process. I will say more about that as we advance our planning reforms, and I am happy to discuss it further with my hon. Friend and other Members to ensure that we get this aspect of our reforms right.

I thank my hon. Friend for championing this issue on behalf of his constituents, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed. The concerns raised echo through local authorities around the country, and I assure the House that they echo through my Department. They will have been heard loudly and clearly, and we are determined to act on them. I look forward to working with colleagues from across the House in the months to come to ensure that we get our planning reforms ready, right and on the statute book so that all our constituents are protected.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.