My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in this debate on Amendment 38. I particularly thank my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, who has vast experience of not just national politics but, in particular, London politics. I know she feels very strongly about this issue. I have great respect for her and for the way she has presented the case. I am conscious that she has raised it on a number of occasions, most recently in Grand Committee.
Other noble Lords participated in the debate and sympathise with the general thrust of what my noble friend is seeking to achieve. They include the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, who stunningly remembers being on a planning committee 43 years ago. It is hard to appreciate that, but he clearly has vast experience in this area. There were also the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Maddock, and my noble friend Lord True, who talked about good neighbourliness, which goes to the essence of it. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, sympathised with the thrust of what is being said here.
At the outset, I remind noble Lords that one thing that we are seeking to achieve in this legislation and more generally as a Government—supported, I think, by noble Lords from around the House—is localism, and therefore we have to be a little careful about resisting the temptation every time something goes wrong to weigh in and say, “That is not the right way to do it”. I appreciate that there is more to it than that, but we need to keep that sense of perspective in our minds.
The ideal is, of course, that everybody should seek planning permission before they start work. That is what the majority expect and, indeed, what the majority of people do. Sadly, as my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes has experienced, that does not always happen. We therefore need a way to deal with these cases. Where a local authority considers that a planning application is the appropriate way forward, it can invite a retrospective planning application. Otherwise, local authorities have at their disposal a wide range of enforcement powers.
My noble friend’s amendment calls for changes to the retrospective planning application process. I am afraid that the Government’s position on this has not changed. I think I said in Committee, and I say again now, that there are many cases where there is a genuine error, so we need this process to deal with that situation rather than a harsher regime. The retrospective planning application process is there primarily to give those who have made a genuine mistake the opportunity to rectify the situation, but I appreciate that the examples that get into the media are much higher profile than that. We have had the haystack case, the palace in Kirklees and so on. Different considerations will apply there.
Local authorities have other tools at their disposal. Local planning authorities have flexibility, but planning applications have to be determined in the same way as any other application. My noble friend did not receive notification of the planning application. That is a mistake under the current law, and we need to look at proper enforcement. If she is able to bring forward evidence of the process not being followed, I would be very keen to look at it with officials, and I undertake to do so. I am sure that there are things that we can be doing better in relation to that with a view perhaps to looking to the future rather than this legislation. She has highlighted an important problem.
There is no guarantee that planning permission will be granted just because the development already exists. We have seen examples where that has not been the case, so we know that there are local authorities that are tough and are probably doing the right things in relation to some development. In some cases, the impact of the development may be mitigated by imposing planning conditions on the retrospective grant of planning permission. Otherwise, local planning authorities have a wide range of enforcement powers, with strong penalties for non-compliance, at their disposal. Where an enforcement notice is served and the person appeals on the ground that planning permission ought to be granted, the person is deemed to have made an application for planning permission and must pay a fee. That fee is twice the fee that would have been payable in respect of a planning application to the relevant authority seeking permission for the matters stated in the enforcement notice. This is in recognition of the additional work and would obviously act as a disincentive in that situation.
My noble friend’s amendment would make retrospective planning applications compulsory for all breaches of planning control. As I say, we cannot accept that because we see situations where that would be inappropriate, as I think successive Governments have done. It would be difficult to enforce and could lead to delays and additional burdens. My noble friend’s suggestion of a penalty fee in addition to charges in respect of the costs incurred by the local planning authority would unfairly penalise those who had made a genuine error, and discourage the submission of such an application for proper consideration by the local planning authority.
That said, I recognise that my noble friend has brought forward a very important issue. As I say, if she is able to come forward with some evidence of local planning authorities not doing what they should be doing and not enforcing the law, I would be very keen to see that; if other noble Lords have experience of it, I would be very keen to see that too. I can give that undertaking. However, while thanking my noble friend for bringing forward an important issue which clearly has resonance around the House, for the reasons I have outlined and in the light of the undertakings I have given, I respectfully ask her if she would withdraw her amendment.