Planning Applications

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 7th April 2010.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Minister without Portfolio 10:59 am, 7th April 2010

May I say, Mr. Fraser, that it is a bittersweet pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, as it is the first and last time that I will have the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship? I am very sorry that you will be disappearing from the House after the election.

It is very good to have the opportunity to raise this subject, even at the tail-end of this Parliament, because it is a subject of very considerable concern to some of my constituents, as I shall explain in a moment, and because it has wider ramifications. I should give the facts of the particular case that I will talk about, which are extremely simple. West Bexington is a very beautiful stretch of coastline in my constituency. It has a remarkable shingle beach that is a particularly nice part of a world heritage coastline. Behind the beach and the coastal path lie a set of chalets, which are the only things that are visible from many angles on the beach. Those chalets are quite small.

In April 2007, a chalet owner at West Bexington put in an application to enlarge their chalet and alter it. As is normal, that application was accompanied by both factual details and drawings. Unfortunately, the drawings did not bring to light, in a way that enabled either the planning officers or the local people to understand what was going on, the relationship between the size of what was being planned and the adjoining chalets on either side.

The drawings suggested, to the uninformed eye and indeed to the more informed eyes of the planning officers, that the chalet for which the application was being made would not be very far off the same size as the chalets next to it, if the application was permitted. Unfortunately, once the works to the chalet were completed-indeed, I think it was clear even from the point at which the works began-it was obvious to all the local people that the chalet for which the application had been made and for which planning permission had been received in April 2007 was by no means of the same scale as the chalets on either side. In fact, it was much larger and visually quite obtrusive.

That led to very considerable objections locally. People felt that they had not been alerted to what was being proposed and therefore that they had not done what they would otherwise have done, which was to object to the change. They felt that the planning officers had not seen what was on offer, so to speak, and therefore that those planning officers had effectively been misled by the drawings. Consequently, they were outraged. Therefore I received a petition from more than 100 local people-given the size of West Bexington, that is a lot of people.

I then engaged in a considerable amount of correspondence about this application over quite a long period with the Minister's predecessors, as well as with other people, including officials, lawyers and representatives of the district council and the parish council. I have also had a number of meetings with local residents about it. As a result of all that activity, what has come to light is that, under the current planning law, if an application is made and permission for what is applied for is given, the permission that has been given is valid, regardless of the fact that the basis on which the application was made was such as to lead the planning officers and any councillors-if any councillors had been involved in the process-to the wrong conclusions about the scale and nature of what was being proposed.

In other words-to take an extreme example-if I proposed building the Empire State building at West Bexington and I provided a drawing that suggested that it was six feet high and if, by mistake, the planning officers did not look sufficiently closely at the dimensions of the Empire State building and merely looked at the drawing and concluded that I was building something that was 6 feet high and they gave me permission on that basis, then under current English law, as I understand it and as the Minister's predecessors have explained it to me, I would have an undisputed right to build the Empire State building at West Bexington.

I give that ludicrous example simply to point out that there is clearly a problem in this sector of planning. It has visited itself on my constituents in West Bexington in a less exaggerated form than that ludicrous example, but at some other time someone could do something much more exaggerated than the changes proposed at West Bexington and they would still be in the same position of having a valid planning permission on the basis of information that was misleading to the naked eye.