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13 Feb 2002 : Column 114WH

Planning (Community Involvement)

12.30 pm

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey): In my 15 years' experience as a councillor and almost five years as an MP, it has become clear that planning issues are one of the most prominent vehicles for promoting interest and involvement in local democratic processes. Popular involvement is not just a product of NIMBYism or of a knee-jerk reaction against change, but of people's genuine concern for their community, their environment and future generations. Members of Parliament talk a great deal about the decline in democracy. We want to overcome apathy and answer the charge that we do not listen. If we are to rebuild our democracy from the ground up, what better place to start than with a review of planning?

There are some positive aspects to the planning Green Paper. For example, all councils will have to open up planning committee meetings to public participation. The Government are to expand the planning advice service. I stress that the details must be worked out soon and the resource commitments made, so that the Government can ensure that communities genuinely believe that their role is being enhanced and supported. Councils will be required to give reasons for decisions to approve planning applications, with reference to planning policies; that is already good practice among many local authorities, including Leeds city council. I understand that the Government are reviewing current enforcement arrangements and whether a deliberate breach of planning regulations should constitute an offence immediately pursuable through the courts; that would be welcome. I am also attracted by the idea floated in the Green Paper regarding mediation, which might help deal with some of the cases that come to Members' attention.

The accent on community involvement in local development frameworks and action plans is a welcome principle. However, the plans must be relevant to people, communities and their perceptions of problems and challenges; otherwise, they will appear to be abstract and bureaucratic exercises, and will attract little participation. The deficiencies of plans will come to the fore when they are tested and found wanting against specific planning applications that excite real community attention, anxiety and opposition.

The development frameworks and action plans must clearly and specifically address the concerns of our constituents on issues such as housing and other developments that place extra pressure on the local infrastructure of roads, public transport, school places and health care provision, such as GPs. They must also place mobile phone mast applications in a clear structure and move away from the current ad hoc approach.

Contrary to the Green Paper's assertion, compiling and keeping local development frameworks and action plans up to date will be labour-intensive, especially for large local authorities such as Leeds city council. Drawing up action plans in an area such as Leeds will be very time-consuming, and I cannot think of many communities in my constituency, or across the whole of the city, that will not want their own action plan in addition to the local development framework. Will the Minister explain who will decide where action plans are desirable or required?

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The idea of developers engaging the community as a material consideration in the planning process is also a worthy principle. In practice, it is unfortunately more of a selling job than an attempt to find common ground. On two recent occasions, I have heard developers quote planning policy guidance 3—PPG3—to justify inappropriate and over-intensive proposals, and portray that as a simple wish to carry out the Government's will. Surely it is not the Government's intention that such cynical engagement with the community should count in developers' favour.

I am worried about what is contained in paragraph 4.26 of the Green Paper. It refers to representation at inquiries into local development frameworks and action plans. It implies that the Government are thinking about withdrawing the right to have objections to a local plan heard in front of an inspector at a public inquiry. The Green Paper states that such a system has proved to be "time consuming and adversarial".

I hate to be a cynical old student of humanity and human psychology, but relationships between communities and developers are often hostile and adversarial—that is inescapable. Communities regard the situation as a David and Goliath battle, and we have often seen headlines couched in such terms. However, as I read the Green Paper, it seems that the Government have taken pity on poor old Goliath against the upstart David. The Green Paper also suggests that the future system might be based on informal hearings or examinations in public. The Government seem to be proposing the removal of a tangible and defined statutory right of participation and replacing it with something vaguer that relates to public involvement.

To be effective, public participation must be founded on real, legally enforceable rights, not on a set of voluntary or discretionary opportunities. The system must cater for conflict and aggrieved parties, as well as promote consensus.

In paragraph 5.2, the Green Paper states that the present system of development control is not customer friendly. Who do we mean by customers in that context—the applicants? Are not individuals, neighbours, council tax payers and communities customers too? They certainly pay for the services and expect to have their interests protected. The paper provokes other fears that local community interests may not be adequately protected. For example, new business zones will be introduced in which developers will not have to apply for planning consent.

Under the previous, Conservative Government, we witnessed what can happen when areas are excluded from the normal democratic and accountable planning processes. We have some good examples in Leeds. The Green Paper tells us that important national policy, such as planning policy guidance notes on nature conservation, will be slimmed down. Can the Minister confirm that that is not a euphemism for diluted? It states that Parliament will be able to grant permission for a wide range of projects, including large-scale quarrying and opencast mining, chemical plants and roads over 30 km. However, Parliament is not best placed for dealing with major site-specific proposals.

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Lobbying an MP—no matter how brilliant we are—especially on whipped business, is not the same as having access to a public inquiry.

The Green Paper seeks to strip powers from directly elected county councils and unitary authorities, and to hand them to unelected regional planning bodies. The membership of those bodies is not made clear, but Lord Falconer confirmed in his evidence to the Select Committee that the Secretary of State would have the final veto on their membership. The Green Paper refers to local strategic partnerships and their importance. Those organisations may fulfil a useful economic regeneration function, but are not democratically accountable and should not be given influence in establishing the grounds for local public participation.

Finally, I turn to my hobbyhorse, on which I have tabled questions and an early-day motion: the third-party right of appeal on planning applications. In the Green Paper, the Government, quite wrongly, dismiss out of hand that right of appeal. They may have thought that dismissing the idea at the outset would make it go away; as always, the reverse it true. We have a system under which councils are held to be infallible when they grant planning applications, but fallible when they refuse them. In other words, developers can appeal if planning permission is refused, but communities cannot appeal when it is granted.

When I say that there are many reasons why we need at least a restricted right of appeal, I am talking not about Mrs. Scroggins appealing against the granting of planning permission for her next-door neighbour's conservatory, but about important major applications. I say that we need such a right, because, as a former council member, I am more than aware of the fact that councils are not perfect. Decisions can be finely balanced, and developers can be given the benefit of the doubt. Pressure from the district auditor can sometimes make councils sensitive about refusing too many applications, because those involved might appeal. Local authorities are also under pressure to meet housing quotas and—sometimes spuriously, as I shall show in a moment—to protect jobs. In some cases, they might even be the applicants. Finally, there are cases in which planning officers have recommended refusal, but local authority members have exercised their obvious prerogative to overturn that recommendation.

The case that the Government make in the Green Paper against a third-party right of appeal is intellectually and politically unsustainable. I hope that the Minister will not use her Department's intentions to improve the front-end community involvement aspects of the system as a pretext for preventing people from picking up controversial planning applications through a third-party right of appeal at the end of the process. I am sure that she will not suggest that calling in by the Secretary of State, judicial reviews or reference to the ombudsman will help to redress the balance as far as the community is concerned. Improving the pre-decision community involvement process is valuable and to be welcomed, but it is no good on its own. It is a bit like saying that someone can have the best defence lawyers that money can buy but that he will have no right of appeal if the jury convicts him, no matter how perversely.

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Lord Falconer has impressed many people—including myself, I must say—with his grasp of the planning brief, his advocacy of the Green Paper, his willingness to debate and his huge charm. I should, however, tell him that one can be a friend of businesses without being its fall guy.

There are numerous examples in my constituency of sites that have been redesignated from employment to housing use. If the local development framework or the action plan can be ignored as easily as the unitary development plan is, we shall be back at square one. Again, that reinforces the need for a third-party right of appeal over major applications. What use is a unitary development plan, a local development framework or an action plan to the community—even where the community has been involved in drawing it up—if departures from it cannot be challenged on appeal? If there is a third-party right of appeal against such departures, the onus will surely be on the council to ensure that it gets its plans right in the first place.

Let me conclude with an example that best demonstrates why we need a third-party right of appeal. Silver Cross, the renowned pram maker, is based in Guiseley, in my constituency. Several years ago, the old family-owned company was in trouble. Consultants arrived on the scene, immediately cut the work force to 30 and came up with a recovery package that required the sale of half the site for housing. If that was not done, they threatened, the company and the remaining jobs would disappear.

The community was rightly up in arms, given the congestion that already existed on the A65 and the pressure on school places and facilities such as GP practices. The council, however, being only human, reluctantly succumbed to the threat contained in the planning application. Half the site was redesignated for housing, and planning permission was subsequently granted. The consultants then pocketed the £2 million proceeds from the sale of the site and sold the company on. The current owners, who are making a real go of the business and taking on 50 workers, are left bemoaning the loss of the rest of the site and the valuable warehousing that it contained. We are looking at massive community opposition, a reluctant council with a gun held to its head, a change in the designation of the site from employment to housing and the serious undermining of the viability of the remaining employment site. If ever a case called for a third-party right of appeal, this one does.

The Green Paper and the planning review teeter on the brink of enhancing community involvement and protecting the planning process. On behalf of the communities in my constituency, which are probably no different from those throughout the country, I do not ask for the earth; I ask only for some level ground.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) for raising this important matter. Issues relating to planning and development often generate intense community interest and scrutiny. It is often thought that planning is a dry subject, but his experience and mine do not support that view. People can be

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dramatically affected by the quality of their environment; they care deeply about what happens to it and about changes that take place around the areas in which they live and work.

The Government recognise the need for a planning system that engages people in shaping the future of their communities and gives them the chance to have a say. To be successful, the planning system must have the confidence of all parties. My hon. Friend asked who the consumers are. Anyone who is affected by plans and planning applications is a consumer—the term embraces the public, the business community, who have an interest in seeing successful results, and all who care about proposals for the development of their areas.

I shall deal partly with the existing system and partly with the Green Paper, on which we are still consulting. I assume that part of the point of today's debate is to ensure that the views of my hon. Friend are fed into that consultation.

It is right that people who are affected by a plan or who have an interest in the development of an area should have the opportunity to make their views known and to have them taken into account. The system already provides such opportunities. However, in the past, people either heard about planning proposals far too late or, although they theoretically had a right to be heard, were not able to exercise that right.

The planning Green Paper, published on 12 December, puts forward robust proposals to rectify that. They are designed to strengthen the opportunities for people to comment on and influence development proposals, even before a planning application has been submitted.

I shall explain some of those changes, including the third-party right of appeal, in which my hon. Friend is particularly interested. There is an issue about the local development frameworks. In recent years, the scope for communities to participate effectively in the planning process has been enhanced by the requirement that development plan policies be adopted only after widespread consultation, and the statutory requirement for all planning applications to be publicised. However, we must do more than merely consult. We intend to deliver a planning system that better engages communities and secures their effective involvement and ownership.

We propose real community participation in the preparation of our new local development frameworks, especially in drawing up action plans—I shall deal with my hon. Friend's question on those—which bear on local areas and may result in the regeneration or conservation of particular neighbourhoods. I am sure that my hon. Friend will recall development plans that ended up being 10 years out of date before they were even produced. One of the aims of the proposed changes is to ensure that we have documents that are current and relevant to a changing built and natural environment, and that are not out of date before they are completed.

The confusing complexity of the current system does little to promote public confidence or to encourage community engagement. We shall simplify the complex hierarchical system of plans and replace local plans with new local development frameworks. Those will connect with the local community strategy and help to put into practice the policies that it contains. The framework will

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include a clear set of criteria by which local authorities will be able to steer development and use growth to bring about the vision for their areas. Action plans will be drawn up for town centres, neighbourhoods and villages, and those will be the focus for local participation.

My hon. Friend asked whether local communities would be able to requisition, as it were, the plans. I appreciate his point, but we do not envisage that; however, we expect close working relations between a local authority and the community, and the local authority should be sensitive and responsive to the views of the community with respect to a range of activities.

Mr. Truswell : The point that I was trying to make was that a framework that applies to a whole city will necessarily be somewhat vague and not relevant to particular communities. If those cannot, to use my hon. Friend's term, "requisition" a local action plan, I fear that the Government will fail to engage them any more than the current process does.

Ms Keeble : I take my hon. Friend's point, but we expect the local authority, through such mechanisms as a community strategy, to be alive to the concerns of communities and the areas in which action plans are needed. My hon. Friend was also concerned about local strategic partnerships and I want to go on to deal with them.

Under the present system, everyone has a right to make objections to draft local plans, and to have those heard, usually in a public inquiry. However, that approach can sometimes be time consuming and adversarial. We seek a better way to test the new local development frameworks. Under our proposal, we shall encourage all local authorities to work with local strategic partnerships to establish effective mechanisms for community involvement, building on their work preparing community strategies.

My hon. Friend questioned the democratic credentials of the local strategic partnership. They are being carefully developed around the country, but in particular in the most disadvantaged areas, with careful structuring to involve local businesses, residents, tenants and voluntary groups. We see them as extending, not replacing, the democratic credentials of the local authority and extending the effectiveness of the local authority's links with the community. The proposals on community advocacy in the Green Paper would support the ability of relevant groups to prepare and present their cases more effectively.

We propose that the local development framework should contain a statement of community involvement, setting out how the community should be involved in the continuing review of the framework and in commenting on significant planning applications. The statement will set the standard for good practice in engaging those with an interest in proposed developments. I hope that that provides some reassurance.

My hon. Friend mentioned large developments in particular. We propose that compliance with the terms of the statement, and its requirements for engaging the community, should be a "material consideration"

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supporting a planning application. As my hon. Friend probably knows, that term, used by planners, would denote that the amount and quality of public consultation would be a factor that could be taken into account in determining a planning application. That is in keeping with our view that there is mutual benefit to developers and communities in working together to plan developments that are likely to have a major impact on a locality.

My hon. Friend referred to the David and Goliath relationship that is usual between community and developer, and the fact that they are seldom in agreement. That is sometimes so, but equally in some cases the developer and the community work hand in glove and the developer is careful to ensure that the community is supportive. Some might cynically say that that sometimes happens if the proposed development would conflict with a PPG, but that is not necessarily so. Best practice would avoid conflict between the developer and the community.

I shall deal with some of the issues surrounding development control, so that I can deal with some of my hon. Friend's points. Master planning of major sites will help developers plan for higher quality development in partnership with local authorities. There will be clearer information for planning applicants and new requirements for openness and accountability within the planning process.

Master planning means that an overall vision or development brief for an area is set out so that people can understand clearly what the future may look like. It enables the community to be directly engaged with big development or redevelopment proposals.

We propose that local authorities should now give reasons for approving a planning application as well as for refusing it. By listening to people's concerns up front and ensuring that people can see why a particular decision has been reached, we aim to minimise the need for action after a decision has been made, which is often the least satisfactory route of all for local communities.

We recognise that elements in the planning system are a mystery to many in the community. Therefore, we are considering whether we can provide more support to Planning Aid, a voluntary network of planners who provide professional advice to the public. In collaboration with the Royal Town Planning Institute, we are investigating how that organisation might be expanded and better funded.

Before dealing with the third-party right of appeal, I would like to touch briefly on some of my hon. Friend's other points.

Mr. Truswell : May I return to the question of Planning Aid? Does the Minister accept that it is pivotal to local communities, because structures are always regarded as bureaucratic and complicated, and the only way in which ordinary people and community groups can get round them is with the sort of advice provided by organisations such as Planning Aid? That, rather than the structure, is the key.

Ms Keeble : I certainly agree that it is essential that communities, particularly the more disadvantaged ones, be supported, so that the planning system is made to work for them.

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I would like briefly to deal with three points before I go on to the third-party right of appeal. Making PPGs slimmer is designed not to weaken them but to make them more effective. Much of what is in the current PPGs consists of general statements of practice and does not represent the hard core of policy. Slimming them down is designed to make them more comprehensible, better tools in the development of planning policy. I assure my hon. Friend that it is not our intention that what he predicted should come about.

My hon. Friend also asked about debates in Parliament on general policy. It is essential that we have proper policies on major infrastructure issues, which are often among the most hotly contested in planning terms. For example, for the country not to have a proper policy on airports would be an abdication of our responsibility in that important area. It is essential that the Government propose policies on such issues and that Parliament debate them. That provides a framework for the way in which we approach the provision of that infrastructure.

We propose that counties retain their responsibility for minerals and waste. They will also retain an involvement in some other planning issues, but we envisage a slimmer planning structure. Retaining the strategic and local levels means that that tier disappears.

On the third-party right of appeal, the Government's view is that such a right would not be consistent with our democratically accountable system of planning. Elected councillors represent their communities—they must take account of the views of local people on planning matters before decisions are made and justify their decisions subsequently to their electorate.

Third parties do not have a right of appeal against planning decisions in the way that applicants do, because it is the responsibility of local planning authorities to act in the general public interest when determining planning applications. Local authorities must determine planning applications in accordance with the development plan for the area, unless material considerations indicate otherwise, which can include views expressed by local residents and other third parties.

The right way forward is to make the planning system more accessible and transparent and to strengthen the opportunities for community involvement, which we believe would be a major benefit of the proposals in our Green Paper.

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