My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as a councillor in the borough of Kirklees and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I agree with the principle behind the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. The issue that she has brought to our attention is important, although, in common with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, I am not entirely clear that the amendment that she has drafted will address the fundamentals behind the issue that she is trying to address.
This issue is important because, currently, irresponsible individuals who believe that they can avoid the irritation of planning regulations and legislation go ahead and build at their own risk. They know they are taking a risk; no doubt they assess the risk of getting away with the development which might otherwise be turned down were planning permission sought in the normal way. Of course, that risk assessment might well be right. Certainly in my experience as a local councillor over a number of years, several developers got away with taking that risk and so had a development that they might not otherwise have been granted permission for.
The issue is that planning enforcement in local planning authorities has been depleted as a consequence of the cuts to local government. That has meant there are not enough planning enforcement officers to investigate where development takes place without planning permission except in the most outrageous cases. Even then, there is an example in my own area where a vast house, described locally as a palace because it was of that sort of scale, was built without planning consent. Enforcement action was taken, and it was agreed that it could stay. That person got a substantial financial advantage out of avoiding planning consent. It seems that the balance of the rules—in planning, it is nearly always a question of balance—is now weighed too heavily against enforcement and in favour of those individuals who want to take a punt against planning law and regulations.
I hope that the Minister will look at planning enforcement in the way he looked at planning fees to strengthen that area of local government planning departments and see whether planning enforcement could be reinforced. Every time an individual takes a punt against planning legislation and going through the proper routes and gets away with it, it undermines everything that we have discussed in this and the previous planning Bill. Most people do the right thing; those who do not and get away with it seriously undermine that level of community responsibility that enables us to have planning policies and rules that help everybody. That is my plea, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for raising this issue.