Monday, 10 January 2011

It’s a question of balance

One of my colleagues has always said that the most difficult decision any councillor will face is where to site a bus-stop. Everyone wants one in their street, but no-one wants it outside their home.

Lots of decisions that both local and national politicians have to take are about balancing the interests and rights of different citizens. This is most obvious in planning. One person’s right to build an extension on their home has to be balanced against the neighbour’s entitlement to light and a view. The national economic interest and the north’s expectation of a high-speed rail service has to be balanced against the interests of the residents of the Chilterns, who will get no direct benefit from the rail service but will experience some detriment to their local environment.

What everyone does know is that, whatever decision is reached, you’re bound to get attacked by those who feel their interests have lost out.

Governments often have to legislate to set out clearly the issues that must be taken into account when balancing interests in particular issues. Before I was elected as a member of parliament, I had experience of two particular issues where I believed new legislation was required in order for action to be taken to protect the interests of local people and where the balancing interests had to be defined.

The first was about trees, specifically leylandii. Some people decided to plant leylandii trees on the boundaries of their gardens. This wasn’t a problem until the trees became 30 foot tall and completely blocked out the light to neighbouring homes. Those who planted them said “It’s my property and I can plant what I like and you can’t stop me.” And no-one could, until we introduced new legislation in the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act to provide for action to be taken, where necessary, to balance the interests.

The second concerned empty homes. Sometimes – and, thankfully quite rarely - an owner would effectively abandon a house, but refuse to maintain it or sell the property so that someone else could do so. The result was a house where windows became boarded up, tiles and guttering fell off leading to water ingress to neighbouring properties, and rubbish would pile up in the garden. Neighbours became absolutely despairing and infuriated about councils’ inabilities to act. Sometimes they couldn’t even sell their own property because no-one wanted to buy with a tip next door and no prospect of resolution. This could go on for years.

Therefore, I was a big supporter of new legal powers – called the Enforced Sale Procedure – which enabled councils to act in situations like this. Obviously, it is in everyone’s interest to get the owner to act but, failing that, neighbours should be able to petition the local council to act. Then, the council – after taking all appropriate steps to get the owner to act – could apply for an Enforced Sale.

Last week, some of my constituents went public with their anger about the council’s failure to enforce the sale of a property in Waterthorpe which has now been empty for several years. I supported them. The property is overgrown, boarded up, rubbish is tipped and it’s become the focus for anti-social behaviour.
Then, this week, Eric Pickles – the Conservative Secretary of State – has announced that he is going to remove some of the powers and insist on a delay of two years before a council can even consider acting to deal with the problem. He says he’s doing this to protect the interests of property owners.

I think he’s simply failing to have a proper balance between the rights of property owners and the rights of all the neighbours who have to live with the consequences every day for years on end.