Clause 11 - Notice of removal

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 18th January 2005.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:00 pm, 18th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 45, in clause 11, page 12, line 30, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

'(2) Leave out subsection (2) (Requirement to give notice to occupier).'.

The Bill is not designed to see who is responsible for checking the ownership of the abandoned vehicle. Paragraph 52 of the Library note says:

''Currently, under section 3(2) of the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978, if a vehicle that appears to be abandoned is found on land that is occupied, a 15-day notice must be served on the occupier of that land before that vehicle can be removed.'' 

What test and weight of evidence will the Government require to conclude that the vehicle appears to be abandoned? The hon. Member for Ludlow referred to the registered owner, but which official will be responsible for checking who the registered owner of that vehicle is? What constitutes an abandoned vehicle?

The note continues:

''If the vehicle is on a private driveway, there is no practical problem.''

However, we in rural areas find that such vehicles are abandoned on land. I have not mentioned the WEEE directive, which we shall consider later, but as the Minister touched on it he will be aware that there is now a fridge mountain, most of which is finding its way on to farmland. That same problem—

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

Thank you, Mr. Taylor.

The problem is the definition of a road. Section 142 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 specifies that roads could include those passing through housing estates managed by registered social landlords and other social authority housing estates. The purpose of this probing amendment is to ask the Minister whether he has considered the implications for housing estates in urban areas.

For my hon. Friends, who, like me, have predominantly rural constituencies outside London and other urban conurbations, the concern is not about vehicles dumped on private driveways, but about vehicles dumped on farm land. Who is responsible for determining whether the notice of removal goes to the registered keeper or owner? Is the Minister seeking to impose a blanket notice of removal on the landowner? That would be grossly unfair to the person who owns the land on which an abandoned vehicle is dumped, without his knowledge and through no fault of his own. That scenario may not have been the first that came to mind when the Bill was drafted.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am a little puzzled because most of the time it seemed that the hon. Lady was speaking against her amendment, which would enable a local authority to remove immediately from private land any vehicle it considers has been abandoned. That would not require the agreement or consent of the landowner. I am convinced that that goes too far. It would amount to a major interference with private property and would almost certainly be contrary to the European convention on human rights. Consultation on reducing the 15-day notice period in 2001 showed that it was strongly opposed by classic car organisations, among others.

I shall clarify the position. We want action to be taken quickly when cars are abandoned, but we do not   want to cause unintended damage to individuals as a consequence. Classic car organisations, including the British Historical Vehicle Club Federation, which represents the views of 350 organisations, which between them have 250,000 members, stated that it was concerned that one man's treasure could be deemed detrimental by a local authority. Someone could return from holiday to find that their car, which they had left on their private driveway, had been removed. A reduction, let alone the removal, of a notice period would leave the Department open to legal challenge on the grounds of proportionality, and the proposal was therefore dropped.

Some of the hon. Lady's other remarks were more about the clause than the amendment. It might therefore be more appropriate to respond to them in the clause stand part debate.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

It might help if the Minister could confirm my understanding of the situation, which is that when someone allows old cars to pile up in their fields, local authorities already have the power to take enforcement action and to move those vehicles off private land. I believe that the powers have been used in my constituency.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Indeed. There are powers for the local authority to use, with the approval of the owner or occupier of the land. I am setting out why we cannot accept the amendment. The hon. Gentleman, in explaining some of the context, is right.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. If it is more appropriate, I can raise some of the issues in our clause stand part debate. He referred to the fact that these vehicles would be unceremoniously carted off. The specific point is what the situation would be on private land when the occupier had no knowledge that the vehicle was there. Also, there is the particular situation of a road going through a housing estate.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Presumably the hon. Lady is referring to housing association roads and that sort of thing. Those are highways, so the legislation applies to them. As I said, I am resisting the temptation to stray outside what the amendment says and respond to all the points.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

Against that background, it was a useful debate. It was a probing amendment, and I listened with great interest to what the Minister said. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Perhaps I could assist the Committee more generally on clause 11.

According to existing legislation, a local authority cannot remove an abandoned vehicle from land that is occupied before the expiration of a 15-day notice   served on the occupier of that land. This causes problems, especially when the vehicle is on a road that passed through a privately owned estate, because there is confusion about who the occupier is. The local authority will therefore usually affix a notice to the vehicle to alert the owner. The notice attracts instances of antisocial behaviour, such as arson and vandalism. Similarly, a local authority must affix a 24-hour notice to a vehicle prior to removal, when it considers it to be in such a condition that it should be destroyed. That notice, again, can attract instances of antisocial behaviour such as arson and vandalism. Clause 11 therefore amends the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978, by disapplying the requirement to serve a notice on an occupier where the vehicle is on a road and removing the requirement to serve a 24-hour notice when the vehicle is in such a condition that it is considered fit only for destruction.

Let me explain again that ''road'' is not restricted to the public highway, but includes all roads to which the public have access, and will, in many cases, include private roads running through estates. I hope that that explanation makes it clear why the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman had to say with great interest. I wonder if he could respond—I may have missed this—to the question of who is going to be responsible for checking the ownership and what actually constitutes an abandoned vehicle.

Furthermore, section (3) of the 1978 Act requires a local authority to affix a notice to a vehicle 24 hours prior to removal if it is considered to be in such a condition that it should be destroyed. There is no definition of what that means. I wonder if the Minister could help the Committee with that? [Interruption.]

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Order. Will hon. Members desist from continuous conversation?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

Thank you, Mr. Taylor.

Surely the Minister did not intend not to have that definition, because that could make a nonsense of the clause. Will he therefore share the definition with us? I understand it could include vehicles that have some parts missing or which have been burnt out. What is the significance of the 24-hour notice?

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I wish to make a very brief contribution, which I think would have been ruled excessively long if it had been delivered as an intervention on the Minister.

On Second Reading, I asked about the definition of any road over which the public has access. I said that if car parks on housing estates owned by housing associations are not included in the provision to permit immediate removal, the Bill's scope may be disappointingly limited. 

I note that paragraph 34 of the explanatory notes says that clause 3, which deals with selling vehicles in the street, specifically excludes car parks. When my right hon. Friend intervened on me on Second Reading, he recognised the importance of the need for total clarity and indicated his willingness to assist at a later stage. When will we be fully apprised on that?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend asked whether subsection (2) will permit abandoned cars to be removed immediately from roads, car parks and other public areas on housing estates owned by housing associations and similar bodies. I have referred on a number of occasions to the definition that ensures that not only public highways, but other roads are subject to the requirements in the Bill, and I am happy to emphasise that.

I have considered the issue further in the light of my hon. Friend's concern. It is clear that any road, whether adopted or unadopted—that is another good point that he raised—is covered. Car parks that are distinct from roads and other public areas are not. A parking area that is clearly part of the highway is covered, but a separate and discrete car park might not be. That does not affect a local authority's duty to remove abandoned cars. It applies to all land, public and private.

The only circumstances in which a local authority does not have to exercise that duty is if the cost of removing the car to the nearest carriageway is disproportionately high, and that is not likely to arise in relation to land on a housing estate. It does mean that a local authority will need to obtain the consent of the occupier of the land—for example, the relevant housing association—before removing an abandoned vehicle from land that is not a road, because the provision applies to land that is a road. That may be done by placing a notice on the car. If the landowner or occupier does not object within 15 days, the vehicle may be removed. We discussed that situation earlier in relation to roads. There is no need to wait 15 days. As soon as the occupier's consent is obtained, the vehicle can be removed. Housing associations should, therefore, be able to arrange with local authorities to have abandoned cars removed rapidly.

My hon. Friend raised some points that probably apply more to practice than to the legislation, and I propose to consider them further with ministerial colleagues in other Departments to see whether anything more needs to be done in legislation or whether there are other ways, perhaps in guidance or as part of the expectations that are placed on housing associations and local authorities, in which we can ensure that everyone knows how the problem can and should be tackled. My hon. Friend made it clear that he wants something practical done when the circumstances require that. I certainly appreciate the wish to simplify the process as much as possible for housing estates on which abandoned cars are a real problem, so I will re-examine the provision to see if anything more is needed to ensure that they are   removed immediately from public areas on housing estates.

A point worth making is that there is no specific definition of an ''abandoned vehicle'' or one that is ''fit for destruction''. Those terms were used in the 1978 Act, so they have been around for some time. Local authorities are used to using them and there is guidance from ENCAMS and the Local Government Association on the sort of criteria that should be used by local authorities when making a decision. In the spirit of ''If it ain't broke, don't fix it'', it seems to me that good practice is the right approach.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Ainger.]

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Five o'clock till Thursday 20 January at twenty-five minutes past Nine o'clock.