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Column 305bound to follow. That is our democratic process, which we encourage. An examination in public is therefore inevitable. I was a member of the Standing Committee which considered the Planning Compensation Act 1991. I was particularly enthusiastic about that legislation, which made it the statutory responsibility of every authority to draw up a local plan and to keep it up to date. Since 1991, such plans have had enhanced status, as the hon. Member for Leicester, East mentioned. The aim of local plans is to ensure that authorities develop their areas according to a rational process, with the fullest public consultation. That is what local accountability is all about.
What happens? The Government actuaries in Holborn, using the most modern technology, analyse the demographic profile of regions and projects and see what is required in the next 10 or 20 years. They have what might be described as a crystal ball in Holborn. They look into it and ask, "What is required in each region of Britain? How many houses, schools, hospitals and roads are needed?" They produce a picture from Holborn--I do not know why it is from Holborn, but that is where they seem to be--and they present it to the Department of the Environment. Estimates are produced, based on their demographic profiles of births, divorces, deaths, employment figures and so on. At the end of the period--abracadabra--they say how much is required in each region of the country.
For example, in respect of Devon--my area--the actuaries say, "We should have another 60,000 houses by the turn of the century." They then ask, "Why 60,000? Let's make it 90,000 houses." In the south-east of England--I do not think that anyone has an idea how many houses there will be in many Conservative constituencies--there will be nearly 1 million more houses by the turn of the century. That is what those people in Holborn are doing, looking into their crystal ball. In fact, if there are 960,000 more houses in the south-east of England by the turn of the century, it will be a continuous urban area. It will be a suburban area. There will be no countryside from London to Brighton.
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): I stayed in the Chamber to hear my hon. Friend, because what he says is usually good value. He raises an important subject. He will be interested to know that the Somerset branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, an organisation which would not oppose the traditional conservatism that my hon. Friend and I support, has written to me suggesting that the assumption that previous tendencies of people to migrate, particularly to retire to the south-west, should now be questioned and that housing and other developments should also be questioned. The south-west of England, which my hon. Friend and I represent, would otherwise be greatly disadvantaged by the developments that might follow.
Mr. Steen: It was very kind of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) to make such gracious remarks about my contributions in the House. May I make, similarly, a comment about his interventions? They are well known always to be of very good value and of very good sense. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Column 306The Government are advised by civil servants in Holborn, who are very brilliant, wear glasses and gaze into crystal balls, and who believe that there should be 60,000 more houses in Devon and nearly 1 million more in the south-east. At the end of the relevant period, they get the houses, because planners and politicians build the houses, and they say, "There we are, we told you that they were needed." That has been happening in Somerset, Devon and the south-east.
I question the assumption that is made, and I also question the process. Planners and politicians do great disservice to our local communities by burdening them with more homes, schools, hospitals and roads than are needed. They distort migration patterns in this country by building those houses.
Mr. Vaz: Does the hon. Gentleman consider that the Government should bear the costs of a local inquiry?
Mr. Steen: That is the thrust of my argument.
My modest local South Hams district council is one of the best in the country, and is regularly mentioned in dispatches as providing good value for money. I am questioning why, if the Government are committed to the democratic process and to consultation and have passed an Act saying that local plans must be drawn up, they do not pay part of the cost. I question that concept.
Sir Paul Beresford: I have made it plain twice to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and others that, through the standard spending assessment and the RSG, the Government have done that, and continue to do so.
Mr. Steen: I do not think that I should get involved in a discussion between the occupants of the two Front Benches as to who should pay. However, there is a point--
Mr. David Nicholson: Would my hon. Friend be interested to know that West Somerset district council, which covers part of my constituency and is Conservative and independent-controlled, has written to me expressing the same concerns and suggesting that, if the costs of inquiries are to be changed as a result of the Bill, that fact should at least be reflected in the SSA? The council also made the same point as my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) about retrospection.
Mr. Steen: Those are all good points, and I know that the Minister is aware of the issues, as he is one of the Ministers with the most experience of local government. Having heard what my hon. Friend said about West Somerset council, which is not a hotbed of left-wing socialism--at least, not at the moment--I am sure that, when the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland winds up, he will be extremely circumspect. With discussions through the normal channels, I am sure that some improvement can be made.
What I am saying--I hope that it is of some help to the House--is that the Department of the Environment hands down the housing allocations it believes necessary for the county, rather like Moses with his tablets. The county then offloads the numbers on to the district or city council. There is then an argy-bargy between the district and the county about where the exact numbers are to go. Revised numbers are then sent back to the Department for approval.
Column 307The whole process is therefore triggered by the Government sending down a diktat that so many new homes and new roads are to be built, and so much new employment is to be found, and then that there must be so many schools to deal with the children who will live in the homes, so many hospitals to deal with the elderly and the ill who will live in them, and so on. Local inquiries arise because Government have initiated the process.
If things were otherwise, local plans would be development programmes based on what local people felt could be managed locally. What we now have is the opposite--a reaction to a Government edict handed down to the county for consideration by local people. The flow is from the top downwards, not from the local people upwards. It is therefore not surprising that, when local people are faced with a Government proposal for an influx of new construction, they lodge objections and rightly demand an inquiry. Why should local authorities pick up the whole tab for that process, which has been instigated by central Government and their officials?
The Government must think about that again--not only about the fact that local participation in matters for which the Government have been a catalyst is penalised, but about the wider attitude towards legislation. The beginning of 1995 should have been a time to signal that we have learnt the lessons of the past and we shall halt the passage of new legislation. Yet here we go again with more legislation. There is always a good reason for it, no doubt, but there is no point in passing a major Act of Parliament saying that we will deregulate and reduce the existing level of legislation if we then pass new legislation to take its place.
There seems little inclination or inducement to get hold of this virulent disease by the short and curlies and stop the legislative machine grinding out more and more laws. The reason is simple: Ministers' careers depend on passing laws. The more laws they pass, the more credit they get, and they move up the ladder. That is how the whole system works. No wonder the deregulation process is in difficulties. If a Minister does not come to the House with legislation to pass, he is considered inept and unenthusiastic. "What is he doing?" people ask, and he will be out.
The House is sitting for fewer hours now, but that will have virtually no impact on the growth of statute law that makes us one of the most over- governed, over-bureaucratic nations in the world. It is no good complaining about the nanny state if we do little to curtail its all-pervasive and all- embracing nature.
Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton): The Minister said that the Bill was merely technical, but for me it is much more than just a technical Bill. I speak as someone who was the chairman of a planning committee for six or seven years many moons ago, and I know the delicate balancing act that planning authorities, whether at district, county or city level, have to perform week after week and month after month. I am sure that the Minister, with his local government experience, knows it too.
I well remember local plans being drawn up, especially in my constituency. That was a mandatory requirement on local planning authorities. Because of his local government experience, the Minister will also know that there are two conflicting forces acting in any planning
Column 308matter. One is the local population, who may not want expansion in their area; theirs is a legitimate grievance. The other force, which is becoming more difficult for local authorities to deal with, is that exerted by people with large tracts of land who want to develop them against local authorities' wishes.
What brings some democracy and equity to the process is the fact that there will be a planning inquiry. I shall say more later about the retrospection, and whether a charge should be made in the first place, but I believe that it is an affront to the democratic process to charge anything for those due processes to be carried out. Among the facts to come to light at the planning inquiry will be the pressure that local authorities now have to face, especially from well-heeled planning applicants.
When such a person makes a planning application, the local authority by due process may refuse it on legitimate grounds. I know that I am straying slightly off the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I shall attach what I am saying to the main theme. When a planning application is refused by the local authority, it may go to appeal and the inspector may approve it, overturning the local authority's decision. The local authority may then have to pay a considerable sum to the applicant.
I hope that the Minister will understand that, in the planning committee, at the back of the ordinary local councillor's mind is the fear that, when a powerful person with plenty of money makes a planning application that local people do not want, it is getting more difficult to refuse, because in the end there may be a financial penalty for everyone else to pay.
The planning system is based on democracy and on local people having an input. That is why the statutory mandatory requirement for local plans and unitary development plans should be funded directly by the Government. It has all come about because the Government, especially the Department of the Environment, have been found to be acting without due process of law. The Government should not have been charging what local councils had to pay for public inquiries in the past.
It is ludicrous that the Government should seek to legitimise their errors of the past in this way. That goes against all natural justice. I do not know whether my own local authority has a financial interest in this or whether it has paid out money for this purpose, but it is incensed that the Government seem to be acting illegally by bringing before Parliament a Bill to legitimise their past actions. Even worse, the Government are trying to make the legislation retrospective. Until one of his colleagues pulled him up, the Minister kept talking about RSGs. I thought that the rate support grant went out with the poll tax--
Sir Paul Beresford: Revenue support grant.
Mr. Olner: Whether we talk about RSGs or SSAs, we would be hard pushed to find any local authority in the United Kingdom that could identify within its SSA any money given it for this purpose, so that it could pay the money back should there be a need for a local inquiry. I do not believe that any such money has been given to local authorities.
I fear that this is the thin end of the wedge. The Bill details charges for the inspector and his officials and for other costs. All that breaches the principle of free planning
Column 309inquiries. In future, they will have to be paid for when a planning inspector is involved. That will erode the democratic right of communities to lodge planning appeals. I therefore urge the Government seriously to think about the legislation again. I wish now that, when I told my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) yesterday that I wanted to speak in this debate, we had decided to force a vote on the Bill--especially having heard what other hon. Members have had to say about it since then. Few of them seem to favour this piece of legislation.
Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton): We have heard a remarkable speech by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). He wrongly blamed the Government, who he said demanded illegal payments from local authorities. On the contrary: it was the Labour Government who brought in the original legislation, which was presumably carefully thought through and scrutinised by the House of Commons. For more than 20 years local authorities and the Department of the Environment have been implementing the will of the House, which was that local authorities should pay the costs of planning inspectors--
Mr. Vaz: The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. It was not the will of Parliament that the charges should be borne in that way. The will of Parliament was that no charges should be made.
Dr. Twinn: The hon. Gentleman deliberately misunderstands me. It may be his job as a lawyer to play with words, but let us keep to the simple truth of the matter. At the time, Parliament thought that it was asking local authorities to pay these costs, since when the Department of the Environment has asked local authorities to pay them. They in turn believed that that was the law and were content with it--until Birmingham discovered that it was not the law. I do not blame Birmingham for finding out that what everyone thought was the law actually was not, and then exploiting that fact.
Unless we pass this Bill, to restore the status quo ante, we shall have to adjust standard spending assessments to recoup the money that local authorities have been allowed against paying for these costs. I do not agree with Opposition Members who think that a point of principle is at stake and that it is right that central Government should pay the whole cost of the planning inspector; nor do I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). He should beware of his own arguments--
Mr. Steen: They were good though.
Dr. Twinn: I do not agree. My hon. Friend is worried about civil servants in the DOE inflicting population growth on his area. I share that concern, because I represent a suburban constituency in London, restricted by the green belt, and development is thrust back on us because the shire counties do not want it. We have no choice but to become town-crowned because of that.
I should like local authorities to have a certain amount of freedom to speak independently. He who pays the piper calls the tune. If my hon. Friend suggests that the DOE picks up the tab, I suspect that we shall gradually accept
Column 310the principle that the DOE has every right to dictate what the result of an inquiry should be. At the moment we have a nicely balanced system of local planning inquiries; the DOE Planning Inspectorate supervises it, but the process is independent. The DOE does not interfere with the contents of the reports, but inspectors report back their draft recommendations to local authorities, which then have a chance to feed through their views to the inspectors. This is a pleasant and useful system in which local authorities pay for the inspectors' time and in return expect to have some say in the interpretation and presentation of the reports.
Mr. Steen: What I am really saying is that we do not need this Bill. We can simply rearrange the SSAs to deduct some money from local authorities. If we are the party of deregulation we must not pass more regulations.
The independence of the process is not affected one way or the other, because either way the Government pay for it--by sending out the bill and getting the money back, or by deducting it from SSAs.
Dr. Twinn: I always hesitate to discuss the complexities of local government finance, although I used to understand it when I taught it. I certainly do not understand all its details today. This week I went to see the Secretary of State at the DOE with the Labour leader of Enfield council to talk about this year's SSA, and I understood less at the end of the meeting than I did at the beginning. We should not make SSA calculations more complicated than they already are. I would rather stick with the principle that local authorities be paid a lump sum which they can decide how to spend. That sum should include an amount representing the cost of employing a planning inspector. This legislation is necessary to return the situation to what we thought it was before Birmingham discovered that it was not.
If local authorities really are concerned about the rising costs of local public inquiries, perhaps they should look more carefully at how they develop their local plans--that might be more productive. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Leicester, East about the need for more public participation and consultation. If we involve more groups of people earlier in the planning process, it is much more likely that local plans will emerge with local consent and that there will be fewer objections to them. That will lead to cheaper inquiries.
I also agree with what the hon. Member for Leicester, East said about the Royal Town Planning Institute, which has pointed out that we might have expected an earlier response from my right hon. and hon. Friends at the DOE, following consultations on the document, in respect of improving local plans. We might have expected the introduction of more formal agreements between local authorities and planning inspectors about the format and costing arrangements for inquiries.
If that were something on which Front-Bench Members on both sides of the House would get together while we await the Bill's consideration in Committee, I would wholeheartedly approve. If something were put into the Bill to allow a new agreement between the Planning Inspectorate and local authorities, we could improve the system and address some of the concerns that local authorities genuinely have. For example, an inspector
Column 311might fall ill after his inquiry and not produce the report. The local authority might be faced with the cost of a second inquiry, which would be completely unreasonable. So there are concerns for my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to answer.
The principle of the Bill is that local authorities should pay for the costs of planning inspectors. We should go back to what we thought that the previous Labour Government had passed in 1977. The Bill should be welcomed by the House and passed.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I do not intend to detain the House for long, as I believe that most hon. Members are in agreement with the general principle that it is right that local authorities should pay the costs of plans and the inquiries that go with them. I also recognise that a number of the points that I might have made have been made already by other hon. Members; it is important that we should all learn not to repeat ourselves too frequently and I hope not to do that this afternoon.
There are one or two points, however, that need to be added to the debate. One point that was mentioned by more than one hon. Member is whether there will be any extra costs as a result of the Bill. The Minister gave us some assurance that, as far as the inquiries that have already taken place are concerned, no extra costs will be added to those that are now charged to local authorities. He was, perhaps, a little bit woolly on the question of interest, but I hope that he will clarify that later.
The Minister was fairly clear that there would be no extra costs, but was less clear on whether they would apply to all future inquiries as well. That point has already been raised and I ask the Minister to give assurance that, in future, perhaps as a result of the consultation that he has promised us between the Bill's Second Reading and its consideration in Committee, costs charged to local authorities for inquiries will be along precisely the same lines as those traditionally charged and that no extra costs will be added. It is, of course, true that plans and inquiries are becoming more difficult and complex all the time, partly because of the number of objections to them nowadays. That is not entirely unexpected, because the amount of money that is involved in development permissions is very great and we must expect that many people will be concerned to ensure that the inquiries produce the result that is financially beneficial to them; not only the small man who, perhaps, wishes to amend or improve his house in some way but some of the larger vested interests that have a lot of money that they can apply to the costs of getting involved in inquiries.
It is also true that inquiries are about plans, which, every year, become more important as the Government insist on them being followed more strictly and give greater weight to what is in structure plans or local district plans. That means that the pressure on people to take part in inquiries, to involve themselves and therefore perhaps lengthen an inquiry, is growing all the time.
Inquiries are unpredictable. It is difficult to tell how long an inquiry will take and therefore how much it will cost. That makes it difficult for local authorities to budget sensibly for the costs of their inquiries. One of the points made to me by several local government officers is that no choice is allowed in who is to be the inspector for any
Column 312inquiry. While I would not like to see local councils given the right to choose their own inspector so that they might, perhaps, choose one whom they knew would give them exactly what they wanted, there is an argument for saying that some element of choice should be allowed. After all, one would have thought that the Government themselves, with their reliance on market forces, might give some credence to the idea that, if local authorities were allowed to choose between inspectors, they would be more keen to choose one whom they knew to be more efficient and effective and who would run their inquiries well. Perhaps those who were found to be less effective in the past would be less likely to be asked to undertake inquiries in the future. Some element of market forces in that way might be rather attractive to the Government. I hope so.
We need some form of guidance about what to expect from our inspectors. The Government are keen on charters at the moment. Perhaps there should be an inspectors charter, which would lay down some ground rules on how they would work and what local authorities could expect from them.
The point was made by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) that the Bill is a missed opportunity. He thought that there was a chance to include some ways of amending and improving the whole local planning process. I, too, would like to know when the Government expect to announce the improvements, which, perhaps, they hope to make as a result of the consultation. That has not yet been announced and we would very much welcome an early announcement.
Perhaps most importantly, there is a great failing in the present planning system in that there is very little opportunity for the small man to have a real say. The large organisations, which are well funded and the local authorities themselves, which are comparatively well funded, have a much better chance of getting their way in an inquiry than the small individual who perhaps does not have the money or expertise of the big boys. That is a basic and fundamental flaw in the present planning system and we need to seek ways to overcome it. There is some opportunity for local authorities to do that, and I am proud and happy to say that my own Liberal Democrat- run authority in Newbury currently proposes that some money should be set aside to provide expertise for objectors to our local plan. It might seem a rather odd idea that one should try to help people to object to something that one is proposing, but there is a good argument for it, not only on fairness, as that is obvious, but on finance. One of the difficulties of local planning inquiries and one of the reasons why they cost such a lot is that some of the objectors are not good at setting out their objections. They do not really know how to make their objections well. As a result, it takes a lot longer than it might to go through them to work out whether they are valid. There is a good case for saying that it may save money in the long run if local authorities provided some means for the little man to gain expertise. That can be done now, but to make it more widespread the Government must recognise that need and the fact that it may increase costs to local authorities.
The Minister has already given an assurance that the costs of inquiries will be met through SSAs and local grants. I believe that that cost of giving expertise--or the right to expertise--to objectors should also be met through SSAs and local grants. I hope that that and other
Column 313potential costs, as the costs of inquiries are met, will be fully met through SSAs. I ask the Minister to give that assurance today. 5.27 pm
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield): The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) thinks that the Bill constitutes a missed opportunity, as he would have liked to see attached to it various other rather vague planning provisions, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) thinks that it is unnecessary and should not have been introduced in the first place, because we should be deregulating and not adding to regulation.
The Bill has the virtue of simplicity. It is clear, straightforward and necessary, because once we discovered that the Government might be acting ultra vires, we had to put matters right. Before Christmas, I sent a copy of the Bill to the director of planning services of South Bucks district council, to ask him for his views. He said that it was his professional opinion that
"It seems reasonable for local Councils to pay a fair level of costs for the services of inspectors and I think it would be difficult to object to the legislation. I would hope, though, that the levels of charges subsequently fixed by Ministers reflect a reasonable balance between recovering the Inspectorates costs while not draining the limited resources of local authorities." If my hon. Friend looks at page ii of the Bill, he will see that it says that the Bill
"will have no effect on public service manpower."
It will also have
"no effect on businesses as regards compliance costs." So its regulatory burden is relatively limited. However, I agree with my hon. Friend when he says that we should do everything that we can to ensure that we stop the great tide of legislation. The director of planning services of South Bucks district council also made a point about recent developments with local planning inquiries. He said that they
"are becoming extremely long and costly as more and more people exercise their right to object (e.g. the Wycombe plan had more than 500 objections)."
That raises an important point, to which the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) referred. I agree that we should involve local people as much as possible in the planning process and explain it to local people. They do not understand precisely how it works. For example, parish councils have been referred to. Their role is commonly misunderstood. They have no authority over planning matters, yet all the parish councils in my constituency have planning committees. They go through the planning applications and decide whether they should be accepted or rejected.
People say, "Beaconsfield town council rejected that planning application. Shouldn't that be the end of the matter?" One then has to explain that the committee is there only in an advisory role. That involves local people, which is what we want, but it is the district council that is the planning authority.
That planning application may then go to the district council planning committee. If it rejects it, it will then go to the Secretary of State, and his inspector, apparently considering the application on its merits against exactly the same criteria, the same planning guidance from the
Column 314Department and the same county structure plan and district plan, may come to exactly the opposite conclusion to the parish and district council planning committees. Such an application could relate to just one house, an infill in Beaconsfield somewhere. How does one explain that a district council planning committee can come to a completely opposite decision on such a matter judged against the same criteria? In the end, such matters become highly subjective. We need to do more to explain the planning process to local people as well as involving them.
There is another aspect that I wish to mention to my hon. Friend the Minister. I have written to him about this, but I feel strongly about it. A number of major developments can be proposed in one relatively small area at the same time, but at the moment the planning process is incapable of taking into account the potential effect of all of them. Each one has to be considered individually on its merits and it is not open to an inspector to consider other applications that may be in the pipeline at the same time. I have an extreme example of that in the villages of Dorney and Taplow in my constituency. Those villages form a green lung between the conurbations of Slough and Maidenhead; a tongue of green between the two.
Mr. Steen: That will not last long.
Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend is right. It will not last long because of the tremendous development pressure. The Secretary of State has approved a planning application from Eton college for the construction of a rowing lake 2 km long and 0.5 km wide in the village of Dorney. He has also approved a new five-mile stretch of the River Thames that is to be constructed by the National Rivers Authority to benefit the people of Maidenhead who live on the other side of the river. Those two huge planning applications, both involving millions of pounds, were being considered at the same time, but one inspector could not consider the other. In the end, the two were approved.
Now it is proposed to widen the M4 from three to seven lanes in each direction. Again, that proposal will be considered on its merits. The overall impact of all those developments will not be considered by any one inspector. That is a fundamental flaw in the planning system, which needs to be addressed. We need to explain to local people why it arises and what we shall do to address it. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise those matters because planning, the protection of the environment and the green belt are important issues in my constituency. I have given examples of ways in which people do not understand the planning process. We need to do more to involve them and more to explain the system to them. 5.34 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr): I want to make only a brief contribution and I shall follow the example of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) by not repeating points that other hon. Members have made.
The more that I think about the Bill, the more I listen to the Minister and the more I study the notes on clauses, the more I realise that the Bill could equally be entitled, "Birmingham Catches the Tory Government Out Retribution Bill". That sums it up.
Column 315It has been said that the Bill is needed to put right mistakes made by Harold Wilson's Labour Government in the 1960s, when most hon. Members here now were probably at school. However, I remind hon. Members that the Bill amends the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Therefore, it is not all the fault of Harold Wilson's Labour Government in the 1960s. It is the fault of the way in which the House of Commons operates. We do not fully scrutinise or understand the consequences of the legislation that we pass. I hope that, with the new mood accompanying the Jopling reforms, we shall pay a little more attention to what we are legislating for.
I should make it clear that Birmingham city council in no way objects in principle to paying for planning inquiries. There is no argument about that. It is an important part of local authority responsibility. A briefing note from Birmingham city council says: "However, the principle that the local authority should be responsible for its Development Plan is more important, and the City Council would not wish to argue with the principle of being charged for inspectors services."
Another point which has been touched on and which will certainly be raised in Committee and on Report concerns the contractual arrangements between inspectors and local authorities. That matter should be considered in detail. The Bill does not address that, but it can be raised by way of amendment to the long title.
For the local authority to pick the inspector is going a little too far, but there should be some competition. However, these days legislation allows schools to appoint their own inspectors. It is not like the old days, when they had no say in the matter. Therefore, there is an argument for bringing in, if not the full rigours of the market, a degree of competition, particularly in view of the way in which Birmingham suffered-- I use that word in a general sense--a vast increase in the inspector's charges just before the inquiry took place. That point cannot be repeated too often.
Furthermore, the inspector's charges on Birmingham, as on other authorities, for a day when visits take place are the same as for when the inquiry is taking place. I understand that that is done to keep the accounts simple, but there is an argument for differential charging.
I regret that I shall not be available to serve on the Standing Committee on the Bill, so I shall make one point now on the detail of the Bill. I have referred to the Department's overheads, but new section 303A(6) in clause 1 suggests that local authorities could be charged for an inquiry that does not take place as if it had taken place. If an inquiry does not take place, it is fine to charge for the set-up and administrative costs, but to be charged on the basis of what an inquiry would have cost if it had taken place is outrageous. I shall leave that point to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench who are far more experienced than I am in such nit-picking and will have the opportunity to do so in Committee.
I have some partisan criticism to make across the Chamber. I have detected some NIMBYism this afternoon. Listening to the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), one could be forgiven for forgetting that he was once the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree. I was in the House when he was and he would not have made that speech then. Then his constituents from Liverpool holidayed in the west country, bringing jobs into that part of the world. They are now being told, "You can't come and live here." That is what he is telling my
Column 316constituents--people from Birmingham and elsewhere in the west midlands, thousands of whom spend joyous periods in the west country. One of the problems is that the M5 gets blocked up. The countryside of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Wiltshire is beautiful and much enjoyed by my constituents, some of whom decide to live in the area. That is their right as citizens, and I do not see why the hon. Member for South Hams wants to stop them.
The issue goes beyond that, however. People who now live in the west country may want their children to have homes, so that they can remain in what has become their county. That will not be possible without new buildings--extra buildings and replacements, which are the same in some senses. At the present rate of replacement, every home in the country has to last about 900 years. Listening to hon. Members from the south-east, one would think that we wanted to concrete the area. Of course we do not. Hon. Members should not use such extravagant language when we are discussing people's homes: people should have a fair amount of choice about where they live, and the extravagant language of hon. Members from the south-east and south-west ruins their case.
Mr. David Nicholson: My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) and I were merely questioning, and suggesting that the House question, some of the rather extravagant demographic predictions made by people in Holborn, which my hon. Friend graphically described.
Mr. Rooker: I was Labour spokesman on housing and construction for about three years. During that time, I discussed whether the south-east and south-west should have new towns or villages, or whether we should go for infills to complete the circles of some of the villages. That arrangement, which would stop the linear flow, seemed much more sensible to me.
When Birmingham first raised the issue early in 1994, the Department of the Environment did not respond. One Birmingham Member of Parliament does not like to be called a Birmingham Member, but nevertheless represents at least 70,000 Birmingham citizens. [Hon. Members:-- "Name him."] I am referring to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). He does not appear on any list of Birmingham Members, because Sutton Coldfield is the only constituency in the city that does not include the prefix "Birmingham". That conveniently allows the right hon. Gentleman to give the impression that he is not a Birmingham Member. I did not give the right hon. Gentleman notice that I would mention him, but I did not think it necessary to do so; in any event, we have engaged in correspondence on the subject.
Early in 1994, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield was masterminding a vicious Tory party political broadcast attack on Birmingham city council. It was proved that every point that the Tories made about the council was a lie. I am not surprised that a block was put on the Department of the Environment. It was a case of, "Well, Minister, Birmingham has caught us out on this planning matter. We must go to the House of Commons and secure a change in the legislation, because we have been illegally--criminally-- charging local authorities all over the country money that we had no right to charge them." Ministers at the Department have slagged off Birmingham at virtually every opportunity.
I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for not rising to the bait presented by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), who invited him to attack
Column 317Birmingham city council again. The Prime Minister has learnt his lesson. When Ministers attack the council, it usually bites back, and we end up with more votes than we had before they began attacking us.
I also pay tribute to my colleagues, the members and officers of Birmingham city council, for what they have achieved. They do not seek to wipe out what has happened in the past or to escape paying charges; they have no argument with what they understand to be a point of principle. They have, however, taken the opportunity to raise other issues, such as retrospection and the contractual arrangements between the inspectorate and the city council. For that, we all owe the council a vote of thanks.
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East): The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who opened the debate, described this as a wee Bill. We have had a wee debate as well, in terms of numbers present rather than quality.
Opposition Members have made excellent speeches, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones). I know that their speeches were especially appreciated by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz).
Every speech has referred to clauses 1 and 2, which apply to England and Wales. As a Scottish Member, I dare not comment on those clauses in any detail. As Conservative Members may know, we in Scotland have a separate planning system and, indeed, a separate system of local government; we even have separate central Government machinery in the form of the Scottish Office, which spends more than £14 billion a year in Scotland-- unaccountably--and employs more than 7, 000 civil servants.
We are so different that we have not only separate clauses in Bills of this kind but, in some instances, separate legislation and a separate Committee structure in the House of Commons. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is present, knows that Scottish Office Ministers have even introduced a range of innovative procedures that demonstrate the distinctive way in which Scotland is treated in the House. I believe that all that justifies Opposition Members' case for a Scottish Parliament: clauses 3 and 4 should really be debated not here but in the Scottish Parliament that a Labour Government will set up after the next election.
None the less, I welcome the opportunity to debate the Scottish clauses, especially clause 4. [ Laughter.] Since I became a Front Bencher I have not had many opportunities to debate any variety of clause 4. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland for the briefing with Scottish Office civil servants that he arranged earlier today, which I attended, about the Scottish part of the Bill.
Will the Under-Secretary confirm that the only plans in Scotland that will be affected by the Bill are the local plans of district planning authorities? The Minister who opened the debate referred to structure plans in Scotland, but I should like a Scottish Office Minister to confirm that they will not be affected.