MP COLUMN: Difficulties of planning

Objectors to the Northumberland Estates' housing plans for Warkworth. Picture by The Ambler.
Objectors to the Northumberland Estates' housing plans for Warkworth. Picture by The Ambler.

When Alnwick’s splendid Town Cryer calls out ‘God save the Queen and the Lord of this Manor’ it sounds like a re-enactment of ancient history, but the title of Lord of the Manor has rather more significance than that in some areas.

Residents of Welwyn Garden City were taken aback recently when hundreds of them were notified that Lord Salisbury had registered claims of manorial rights, including sporting and mineral rights, over the land on which their houses stood.

Residents of Anglesey were even more surprised when similar claims were registered by someone who had bought the title of Lord of the Manor on the market.

These rights, which are rarely exercised in practice, go back to the Norman Conquest, and lords of the manor who wanted to protect them had to register their claims by 2013.

As a result there has been a flood of claims registered at the Land Registry. They are only claims, but it takes quite a lot of research to challenge them successfully.

We received complaints from many areas about this, so the Justice Committee carried out an inquiry and we have recommended that the Law Commission consider whether the rights could be abolished (which would probably require compensation), and that in the meantime better information should be available so that house owners do not face difficulty if a buyer or the building society think that a manorial rights claim affects the saleability of the house.

The status of Lord of the Manor, which can be bought and sold and is sometimes held by charities, has nothing to do with the House of Lords or titles.

It is quite different from the situation where an estate actually owns large areas of land and property, as is the case with the Duke of Northumberland’s Estates.

That can present quite different problems, particularly when it comes to planning issues.

Many residents of Warkworth feel that they are up against an organisation with far greater resources than they have in the argument about new house building at Warkworth, and that the planners who are supposed to be taking account of the village’s needs have got their hands tied behind their backs.

Northumberland County Council still has no agreed Core Strategy, as it is still under consultation, and this has led to the local refusal of planning permission for 37 houses being turned down on appeal.

Secondly, the planning system treats applications for adjoining sites individually, taking no account of the combined effect of all the applications being granted.

In Warkworth’s case that means a potential total of over 100 houses, which might well have been turned down if it was a single application.

I have raised both these issues with the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, both by letter and in person, and I am pressing him to look more closely at what is happening at Warkworth.

We do need more housing, including rented social housing, but the planning system needs to function properly and ensure that developments are proportionate, well-sited and sustainable.

HOSPITAL TRANSPORT

I am still receiving many complaints from people who have been wrongly denied transport to hospital appointments now that the rules are being interpreted more strictly and the decisions are being made over the telephone by ambulance service call handlers.

If you live on your own in Seahouses, Wooler or Scots Gap – or perhaps outside those villages and off a bus route – and you cannot drive or find a friend to drive you, it is no use being told that you should be able to make your own way to a hospital in Ashington, Newcastle or even North Shields.

You may have a condition which makes long bus journeys with uncertain changes impossible to manage.

Your appointment may mean that even if there are buses, you miss the last bus home which is probably mid-afternoon.

Some of my constituents have been reduced to tears by the difficulty of convincing a call handler that they need help to get to the hospital.

The Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group, which represents local doctors, is responsible for contracting this service and for the stricter interpretation of the rules. I am calling on them to sort this out.

Some steps have been taken to improve the call handling arrangements, but I am still getting too many stories of patients who need help with transport not getting it or having to fight their way through the bureaucratic system to get it.

And in some cases patients could have been offered appointments or treatment nearer home – at community hospitals in Alnwick or Rothbury or at their local doctors’ surgery.

Action is needed.

PARLIAMENTARY BIRTHDAY

Parliament is having a birthday celebration this year, although there is no sign of a birthday cake.

It is 750 years since the Simon de Montfort Parliament, the first English Parliament, and 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta, the document which first insisted that the King himself and his government were subject to the law, and not above the law.

It is seen as the foundation of human rights, not only in this country but also in America, Canada, Australia and other countries which have been influenced by our democratic traditions.

Of course, any examination of any period of history, or even a viewing of the Wolf Hall TV drama series, demonstrates that these world-shaping events did not guarantee our freedoms – they had to be fought for and reasserted again and again.

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, even in our own day, and I see it as partof my job as MP to exercise that vigilance.

RAIL SERVICES

Local councils along the East Coast main line from London to Aberdeen came to Parliament last week to press the case for investment in the line at the same time as or ahead of the building of the HS2 line.

Rail services are vital to our area, and, despite occasional problems, we now have faster, more frequent and better used services from Alnmouth and Morpeth than we have ever had before.

There are many improvements I would still like to see – some additional services from local stations such as Chathill, Widdrington and Acklington, and the reopening of passenger services from Belford station and on the Blyth and Tyne line to serve Ashington, for example.

New operators will be running the East Coast main line services and the Northern Rail local services are open to possible new bidders at present, so I will be meeting the companies involved to try to make sure that we build on the success of rail expansion in recent years.

Railways are currently undergoing the biggest investment programme since they were first built, which is a transformation from the years of managed decline from which the old British Railways suffered.

It is something of which I think the Coalition Government can be proud.

And this week it will be complemented by a new legal requirement to have a strategy for investment in cycling.