New clause 3

Planning and Compulsory Purchase (Re-committed) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 16 October 2003.

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'After section 57 of the principal Act (planning permission required for development) there is inserted the following section—

''57A Planning permission in areas of high environmental value

(1) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 55(b) and (c) of the principal Act, planning permission is required in areas of high environmental value for road signs and street furniture (including street lighting).

(2) In this section 'areas of high environmental value' means—

(a) National Parks, as defined in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949;

(b) Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as defined in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000;

(c) Sites of Special Scientific Interest, as defined in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981;

(d) Heritage Coasts;

(e) Conservation Areas, as defined in the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990; and

(f) Places of such other types as the Secretary of State may by Order designate for the purposes of this section.

(3) In this section 'Heritage Coast' is any part of the coastline of England and Wales that has been so designated by agreement between the local authority and the Countryside Agency or the Countryside Council for Wales (Cyngor Cefn Gwlad Cymru).''.'.—[Mr. Andrew Turner.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 3:45, 16 October 2003

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 3 is about areas of high environmental value. I am pleased to say that the issue is slightly less technical than the matters that were discussed in relation to the previous two proposed new clauses. It is almost a matter of aesthetic judgment. However, the aesthetic judgment of planners, and of the population in general, is not shared as frequently as we should like by highway engineers. Highway engineers are not the only people whom I target here, but they are among the principal despoilers of the countryside—and of urban areas as well. I am indebted to the CPRE, now the Campaign to Protect Rural England, for its booklet on the cluttered countryside. It illustrates the kind of damage that can be done not only to the countryside but to villages and towns by ill-considered development that is not counted as development for the purposes of planning legislation. My purpose is to bring within the ambit of that legislation road signs and street furniture, including street lighting, in areas of high environmental value, as defined in subsection 2 of the proposed new clause.

As an example, Isle of Wight council is considering a number of applications for Tetra masts, some of which are approved under the general development order. Such masts are different from conventional telephone masts, and have different scientific properties. However, at the moment they are allowed under the general development order and can be put in

an area in which there is already a mast without any further permission.

I have here an illustration of the approach along the A303 road, west of Amesbury, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), to a world heritage site, Stonehenge. It is one of the few such sites in this country, yet some 30 road signs are visible to the motorist along the approach to Stonehenge on that route. I could name another example: the turning off the A303 from Andover for Salisbury. I am pleased to say that we do not have that many road signs in the Isle of Wight because there are not that many places to go, so this is not a complaint about my local highway engineers. Indeed, it is hard to get lost, because if one goes far enough one gets to the sea.

Another problem—

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

I am sure that hon. Members will realise that Hansard does not carry illustrations at the present time, so if the hon. Gentleman refers to an illustration, a good narrative is required to go with it.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I am most grateful for that and shall try not to detain the Committee for too long by narrating the nature of what I have to show, but I shall give another example from a conservation area.

I am holding up a picture of an approach to a village on which hon. Members can again see a large number of road signs, but also a suburban footpath. Pavements are provided for good reasons, but they can be provided in an urban manner or in a rural manner. It is appropriate that on the approach to a village a pavement should be provided in a rural manner, not an urban manner.

I have discussed some of those issues with the planners and engineers in my constituency, because in Cowes, where I lived until quite recently, Union road and Church road have recently attracted a residents' parking scheme. Initially there were four posts, each 4 ft high—I imagine that Hansard does not convey hand signals either, but hon. Members can imagine what those posts looked like—with signs on them that were something like 1 ft by 9 in , along with other signs of a similar dimension, fixed to the wall. Those fittings have been replaced by 11 posts that are 7 ft high, with signs on them that are something like 18 in by 8 in, in a very small area indeed—certainly smaller than the width of the river outside the Windows here.

To be fair, that example is not in a conservation area, but on the border of one. However, anyone who walks through a town or city can see the damage done by ill-considered bus shelters, litter bins, bicycle racks and signs of all description, some of which the local highways authority have erected and others that the Highways Agency has no doubt erected. Many comply with all sorts of regulations that are provided in detail by Ministers from another Department.

Such features spoil the effect and look of areas of high environmental value, which we have a responsibility to protect. That is the purpose of the new clause, which is simple and will, I hope, benefit those areas where the highways authority is one council and the planning authority is another. I am

fortunate that we have a unitary council on the Isle of Wight, although I do not say that that is the solution for all areas, because it is probably wrong for shire counties. Despite that, I can see that we have some advantage in my constituency in that highways and planning are nearer together than they would be were they in two different authorities. However, although there is scope for them to work together, they do not always do so, even within a single authority.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He does the Committee a service in bringing the issue of road signs to our attention.

Again, the problem affects not only areas of high landscape value, important conservation areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks; there is a general trend throughout the country for more and more signs to be erected on our highways. The problem is that with more and more legislation, highways authorities are trying to cover every eventuality. Not only that, they are advertising commercial interests by erecting so-called brown signs. There is a proliferation of brown signs, which are supposed to be guides for tourists—that is how authorities get round it—but in fact they are advertising commercial ventures.

Highways authorities and the Government used to have the philosophy that only those signs that were absolutely necessary in the interests of highway safety were to be erected and that every other sign was to be resisted. I represent a constituency that is about 80 per cent. covered by areas of outstanding beauty and yet I have a proliferation of such signs. Not only is there the argument advanced by my hon. Friend that they are unsightly, which they certainly are, but there is also an issue of safety. The more signs there are, the more likely it is that the motorist will ignore the sign that is really important because his mind will be so focused on other signs that he will not focus on the one that is really important.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I agree absolutely with that. Would my hon. Friend also accept that the bigger signs become, the faster motorists are able to drive while they read them, which in turn has consequences for road safety?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I agree with that, too, but they have to be big enough. There is nothing more annoying than small road signs that one cannot read in a car until one is right next to them. That is equally unsafe because one is concentrating so hard on trying to read that road sign with small writing on it, one is not paying 100 per cent. attention to what is going on elsewhere on the road. The answer is to minimise the number of signs. Size is important, so that people can be aware of signs that are of critical importance, such as stop signs. A stop sign means stop; it does not mean a temporary slowing down—the wheels have to stop turning. One so often sees that stop signs are honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

My hon. Friend has done the Committee a service. I am not sure that his new clause is the solution. I am not sure that this is a planning matter. It is perhaps one that should not be dealt with in legislation.

However, we are coming on to discuss a plethora of RPGs and PPGs—supposedly to be renamed PPSs—and the correct solution might be that the matter should be dealt with through guidance to planning authorities and highways. I am not sure that primary legislation is the right vehicle because it is impossible to cater for every circumstance in primary legislation.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I want to draw the Committee's attention to subsection 2(e) of new clause 3 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. Understandably, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold have referred to areas of outstanding natural beauty and the countryside. However, by and large conservation areas are mainly found in urban and suburban areas, and also in villages in what I regard as developed areas, although they are in the main extremely beautifully developed.

The question concerns the eyesores of road signs and how often they are unnecessarily duplicated. I would have thought that it was quite reasonable not to have gallons of white and yellow paint poured on our road surfaces, when a small notice, or a colour band on a street light might be just as effective an alternative. In urban areas, the street litter and street furniture in otherwise pleasant streets are a ghastly sight to behold.

The difficulty that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has in introducing his new clause is that beauty is a subjective judgment. I have no doubt that certain traffic engineers think that the signs on our motorways and streets are beautiful things to behold. That is a view I do not happen to share. I invite everyone going home tonight—if we finish before nightfall—to look at any street that they walk down and imagine the street furniture removed from that highway, and how much more pleasant it would look. I am not naive enough to suggest that we do not need road signs, but we ought to make a positive effort to see how we could visually improve urban areas and the countryside, particularly designated and other beautiful areas.

The problem is multiplied by garish shop fascias, which are all too prevalent on our high streets. It seems that every shopkeeper has to compete with the shop next door by making his property stand out, which makes it more garish. We could take a much more intelligent and communal approach. I would like to go back to the old-fashioned hanging signs, which could tell us equally well what sort of shop we were approaching. Instead, we see letters 5 ft high displayed on scarlet or yellow fascia boards.

The fact is that we are all competing for attention—I am referring not to our political careers, but to the general environmental standards in town and country. I do not know whether the Bill is the right vehicle for my hon. Friend's new clause. I suspect that, for the third time running, the Minister will say that it is not—she may be allowed to keep the cup as a result. Nevertheless, we ought to take a much more intelligent approach to our street furniture, and the awful litter. What is there is not always necessary.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow 4:00, 16 October 2003

I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman was going to suggest that we went back to the 1940s, when there were no road signs, as they had been removed because of the threat of German invasion. I doubt if anyone in the Room remembers that, but it would be interesting to know how people managed to get around.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

I was trying to do the hon. Gentleman a good turn.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight has raised a significant issue. I hope the Minister will say that this can all be done through guidance—and that it will apply as much to the Highways Agency as to the highway authorities. The agency sometimes acts more unaccountably than local authorities, and I would like to see all those bodies brought into line. However, I issue a note of caution.

My constituency is the size of Greater London, and it is criss-crossed by many roads, not one of which is a motorway or dual carriageway. Only one trunk road, the A49, runs through it. Almost 40 per cent. of it is an area of outstanding natural beauty. If the new clause were enacted, the county council would forever be paying planning fees to erect new signs. There is quite a lot of pressure in Shropshire for 30 mph speed limits in all villages, all of which would require signage. There is huge public support for such speed limits, and the signage could be done sensitively, but if they required planning permission the county council would face an extra cost—one that I do not want it to have to bear.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman Conservative, Chipping Barnet

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that some years ago, one of his predecessors—not his immediate predecessor—told me with pride that he had only one set of traffic lights in his constituency. The hon. Gentleman might like to take this opportunity to put in a bid for the town of Ludlow, which is regarded by many as being one of the most beautiful towns in the country.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

I am always happy to talk about Ludlow and the surrounding countryside—and other towns such as Much Wenlock, and Bridgnorth, where I live. They are all outstanding. I would recommend that members of the Committee visit the area, and spend some of their holiday time there. We now have more than one set of traffic lights, but still not many. It is probably only in the past decade that we have gained roundabouts in my part of the world. I am still very proud that there is not a McDonald's in all of my constituency, which is a good reason to come and visit it; if a McDonald's were ever suggested, the Minister would be hearing from me and could expect a call-in.

This is a genuine issue, but new clause 3 is not the way to deal with it. For example, there are areas with little population and lots of roads. Signage is not a big problem in my constituency, but it would be a great expense for the county council to have to deal with those requirements out of its minuscule road safety budget.

There is also a lot of pressure to increase road safety. On a road in my constituency that runs through the Corvedale there have been six deaths and five separate accidents in the past six months. I have only just had a meeting with the police and the county highways department to discuss extra signage. If someone suggested that they had to go through the planning process to deal with a growing problem that needed to be reacted to quickly, I would be concerned. That is not the way forward, and I would be perturbed if the Minister suggested that it was.

There is clearly a significant problem in parts of the country. I hope that the Minister suggests a way through; the answer is probably guidance. Let us make sure that it is guidance that the Highways Agency, in particular, is keen to follow.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Developement)

New clause 3 would require planning permission to be obtained for road signs and street furniture, including street lighting, in areas of high environmental value. As the hon. Member for Ludlow said, the planning system has long recognised that certain types of development should be allowed to take place without an application for planning permission. That is designed to reduce the burden on the planning system of development types that are minor or non-controversial in nature, and also to ensure that such development is not unduly delayed.

Section 55(2)(b) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 makes it clear that the carrying out of work required for the maintenance or improvement of a road is not treated as development and therefore does not require planning permission. That means that authorities that need to install or replace traffic signs or street lighting can do so without having to apply for planning permission every time. The provision does not apply if development that is not exclusively for the maintenance of the roads would have significant adverse effects on the environment. Likewise, the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 1992 allow the display of traffic signs without the need for planning permission provided they fall within the criteria set out in the regulations.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The Minister said that works that are not exclusively for the maintenance of the roads require permission. Does that include works for safety?

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Developement)

As I said, the 1992 regulations also allow the display of traffic signs without the need for planning permission provided they fall within the criteria set out. My understanding is that that includes issues relating to safety. Therefore, signs that are needed for safety can be put in place without a delay that could cause risk to life or serious harm. That makes sense. The provisions enable a large number of facilities to be provided for essential public services, many of which can be required urgently. Removing those rights in areas of environmental value could create risk, and could lead to a significant additional burden for local planning authorities, and delays in providing such facilities.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Following on from the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight

made, if highway maintenance and safety signs only are available without getting planning permission, would brown signs, which are supposed to inform visitors but often are just a cover to advertise a commercial venture, require planning permission? I am sure that some such signs in my constituency—and there has been a proliferation of them—do not have planning permission.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Developement)

As a general point, many of the signs that we are discussing may well be included under provisions which mean that no planning permission is required, whether that is under what the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 says about roads, or the control of advertisement regulations, or the further permitted development that is granted by the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, which applies to such things as street lighting. However, local authorities need to make judgments about each case and seek legal advice if there is any doubt.

The issue raised by the new clause is that development in areas of high environmental value needs to be carried out with sensitivity towards the streetscape or local environment. Inappropriate or inappropriately sited street furniture or signage can spoil an otherwise attractive area. A recently published research report on the functioning of the General Permitted Development Order recommended that local authority permitted development rights might be made dependent on avoiding adverse impact on the streetscape, which would be assessed through a street management code. That is an interesting idea, which we are considering. It raises the possibility of addressing those concerns through guidance or other means without the need for primary legislation, which would cause additional burdens and simply would not be appropriate in many of the situations that we are discussing.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

While the Minister was speaking, I recalled that about 18 months ago, South Shropshire district council dealt with the similar issue of masts by writing its own policy, which means that they are all called in. Most of South Shropshire is an AONB, and when BT put up a mast for the police, it suddenly discovered that it had to remove it very quickly. It had assumed that the area was like the rest of the country, but the council had adopted a policy that meant that someone could not just put up a mast.

In areas where planning is a sensitive issue, can councils or planning authorities write their own policies—in effect, article 4 variations of the GPDO—that would prevent such things from being erected without the council being able to intervene?

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Developement)

Clearly, there are areas in which local authorities have discretion. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's example would be more widely applicable. I will write to him, if I may.

The overall position is that this issue can cause problems in some areas. However, it must be balanced against other needs, particularly against safety issues, and against other needs such as sensible, urgently needed public facilities, which the community requires not to be unduly delayed. Therefore, this type of measure would not be appropriate in the Bill. The issue is better dealt with by considering ideas such as those raised in the research report to which I referred earlier. I ask the hon. Member for Isle of Wight to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The Minister is right: it is not appropriate to deal with the matter in the Bill. I tabled the new clause to secure a debate that took account of some of the issues that have arisen. Indeed, I will add one that did not arise, which is that when I was a member of Oxford city council, we had a protocol that the highways authority always consulted the conservation officer about any street furniture or highway development in a conservation area. As most of the western part of the city of Oxford was a conservation area, that was a significant responsibility. We soon learned that it was possible to take sensitive decisions sensibly within those confines so that there was no need for a long dispute with the planning authority. I would be grateful if that could emerge from the guidance that the Minister is preparing.

I wish to underline a couple of points made by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Ludlow. The first of them is to do with the highways authorities covering their backs by putting up more signs because they are concerned about safety. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Ludlow's experience of having to negotiate with a highways authority for more signs. I hope I do not speak out of turn when I say that the leader of Isle of Wight council—who is from the same political party as the hon. Gentleman—told me recently that she had been asked for more signs in a particular place, but had replied that more signs would not make any difference, because people simply drive too fast. Sometimes highways agencies cover their backs to no effect, which is even worse. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold about the proliferation of brown signs.

This is clearly a planning matter, not least because it is the General Permitted Development Order and section 55 of the principal Act that excludes highway development from planning legislation; if it were not a planning matter, it would not be necessary to exclude it.

The key question is not whether this Bill is a suitable vehicle—I am confident that it is—but whether the clause is suitable. I understand why it may not be. I urge the Minister to consult the Department for Transport to find ways of implementing regulations—such as speed limits, and the 30 mph speed limit in particular. There has been pressure to introduce speed limits in narrow rural roads. One of the objections to that is that it will produce a further proliferation of signage, but the Department for Transport might be persuaded to think of ways to implement these regulations without—or with minimal—additional signage. I

suggest that whether a 40 mph speed limit applies on any rural road could be signified by whether there was a line down the middle of the road. That is a nice, simple method that would not encourage additional signage.

I am glad that Ministers are looking into the General Permitted Development Order. A determined approach is needed, and it would be best if that were to come from the local level, by local councils working with each other, but until we can persuade them to do that, they may need a little additional guidance from the Minister.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow 4:15, 16 October 2003

One of the most effective ways for Ministers to address this matter would be to give greater flexibility to local councils to vary what is and is not permitted in their areas. That would allow us to be proactive in different areas: what might be a problem in the Isle of Wight might not be a problem in south Shropshire or vice versa.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Gentleman subscribes perfectly to Conservative policy on that.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Before my hon. Friend finishes on this matter, I want to say that what I would like to come out of this debate is not only an understanding that a careful look will be given to all future signs, but that every highway authority in the land reviews every single sign to see whether it is absolutely necessary—and if it is not, it should be taken down.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I will certainly try to persuade my authority to do that, and I hope that my hon. Friend and other Committee members will try to persuade theirs to do so. That would be preferable to the Government telling them to do so, but it may be necessary for them to give a gentle push in the right direction: the Minister is nodding his head to that suggestion, and I accept that as a commitment, so I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Developement)

I am happy to look further at the points that hon. Members have raised: we are already looking at the proposal that has come forward as a result of the research report. However, we must stop knocking all signs. We have just had a load of signs put up in Castleford that we are proud of: they tell people who are driving through Castleford, and who do not know what a wonderful place it is, what it has to offer. Without those signs, they would just drive through the town without stopping. Hopefully, more drivers will stop because they see the wonderful signs telling them about the historic sites in Castleford. Let us not knock all signs.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

Order. For the convenience of the Committee, I have regrouped the new clauses. We are moving to new clause 22, and with that we shall take new clause 34.