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17 Dec 2002 : Column 729—continued

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): That Bill will give regional authorities dramatic powers. Should they not be left with county councils in areas that have not voted for a regional assembly?

Mrs. Roche: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the regional planning body includes many directly elected members or local councillors who, of course, are directly accountable to their electorate. He also knows that many Conservative councillors are strong members of those regional chambers. During my time at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and, before that, at the Cabinet Office, I have had the pleasure of meeting many Conservative councillors who are engaged with such

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bodies and make a strong contribution to them. I am not sure that they would recognise the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McLoughlin rose—

Mrs. Roche: No, I must make progress, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me. I am sure that he will seek to catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye later.

The Local Government Bill, which is also before the House, offers new flexibility and extends the freedoms available to local government. It will free successful councils to innovate and make real improvements in local services and the quality of life in their communities. A reformed planning system is a key tool in delivering sustainable communities. That is the purpose of the Bill.

Planning is critical to the delivery of new housing, the transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools. It is critical to ensure that we make the best use of our land, increasing development on brownfield sites and protecting and enhancing our green belt and valuable countryside.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): If transport is so important to planning, why do the Government's proposals leave the responsibility for transport with county councils, not with the regional authorities?

Mrs. Roche: We already have regional planning guidance. We have an unnecessary layer, the county structure plans, which in the main replicate what is done at national and regional level. Of course, there is a part to be played by the counties and others in transport plans, but we envisage that where people would like elected regional assemblies, those should have powers in transport matters.

As I said, it is critical that we make the best use of our land and protect valuable countryside.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Can the hon. Lady clarify whether the compulsory purchase powers in the Bill will enable councils to deal with the problem where companies such as Property Spy buy up greenbelt land, sell off little fragments at inflated prices claiming that it could be developed some day, allow it to become derelict and an eyesore, and thereby hope to hasten development? Can compulsory purchase powers be used to cope with that problem?

Mrs. Roche: I shall come to that aspect, but the Bill does not deal with all aspects of compulsory purchase. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a great interest in that topic. The Bill already contains some 90 clauses, but that does not mean that it is the end of the process on planning. We have limited our objectives to a number of key compulsory planning issues. I shall deal with compulsory purchase a little later.

The current planning system has served the country well, but it needs reform to support the new agenda. Anyone looking at the record over past decades will recognise that all Governments have failed to address the problems of the planning system. Too many councils fall short of the targets for handling planning

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applications. Too many local plans are out of date and no longer reflect the realities that many communities face.

We set out our proposals for reform in the planning Green Paper last year. We received more than 16,000 responses—one of the biggest responses to consultation on record—which amply demonstrates the importance of the planning system. There was certainly a consensus about the need for change. All of us as constituency Members have experience of planning issues and know how important they are to our local communities.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): My hon. Friend mentioned the consultation papers published by the Government over the past few years. The responses to the papers mention planning gain as an important issue. Why have the Government not taken the opportunity to clarify the rules on planning gain in the Bill?

Mrs. Roche: I understand my hon. Friend's point, which is extremely important. I have seen in my constituency and elsewhere and heard from councillors of various parties how helpful planning gain under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is. I can assure him that revised guidance will be used. I hope that that will satisfy him.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): The Minister referred to our experience of the planning system as constituency Members. How does she recommend that we explain to our constituents the new proposals for local development, which include a local development framework, local development schemes, local development documents, development plan documents, action plans and statements of community involvement? Does she think that that system will be easier to explain than the current one?

Mrs. Roche: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman—in my legal days, that opening was usually the polite way of being slightly rude, but of course, I would have no intention of doing any such thing in this honourable House—if he looks closely at the Bill and the Green Paper, he will see that, in talking about a local development framework, we are referring not only to the documents that will form part of that framework, but to the process of involving local communities. We may explore that matter further in Committee, but I think that he will find that it is simpler than he has suggested.

We have listened to the concerns that have been expressed. In July, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out our response to the consultation in our paper on sustainable communities, XDelivering through Planning". We continue to listen. As with any legislation, the Bill will not be the last word on the matter. However, while we continue to listen, our objectives for the Bill are straightforward. We want to make the system fairer, faster and more predictable and to bring to planning clarity, certainty and more strategic direction.

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Of course, the reform agenda is not only about legislation. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced in July an extra #350 million for the planning system over the next three years. Some #50 million will be released in the next financial year.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I welcome the additional #350 million, but my understanding is that it will not be ring-fenced. If that is the case, surely it is wrong, because we want to give specific direction and resources to planning authorities so that decisions can be made more efficiently.

Mrs. Roche: Ring-fencing has been the subject of lively discussion, but we think that planning is about local democracy and trusting local authorities.

We will set out for the House the full details of how the new grant will operate. The extra money will go to the authorities that demonstrate their commitment to high-quality planning. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the main elements of the grant in his pre-Budget report. It will incentivise improved performance by local planning authorities and reward authorities in proportion to the extent of their performance improvement. Some of it will be used to strengthen regional planning and support delivery of existing housing targets.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of strengthening the process is to put more resources into parish and town councils? In rural areas, one of the ways in which we can build consensus is by developing a capacity for local people to feel genuinely involved in the planning process. There is no better way of doing that than through parish and town councils.

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Bill takes nothing away from the existing rights of parish councils. One issue that we are exploring is how, by working with other organisations, we can improve the quality of planning decisions at officer level and also in respect of councils and representatives. Although not necessarily a part of today's discussion, it is an important aspect of the planning system.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend speak about strengthening local authorities' powers to make better quality and speedier decisions. One of the great frustrations of urban authorities, particularly those with universities based in them, is their inability to secure sustainable communities in the face of huge increases in property acquisitions and conversions to houses in multiple occupation. Will it be possible, under the powers set out in the Bill, for local authorities to set ceilings on their areas' capacity to deal with that overloading of property conversions for letting, which hinders the survival of sustainable communities?

Mrs. Roche: I understand the important point that my hon. Friend makes. It is not a precise point for this legislation, but it is certainly important for my colleagues involved in that aspect of the Department's work.

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As I was saying in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), we will issue new guidance on how planning obligations will work to make the section 106 planning obligations system more transparent and simple.

This is not just about setting targets for local authorities and asking them to do better. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will lead the way in setting itself challenging targets for handling Secretary of State cases. We shall continue to review planning policy statements to make them clearer and more succinct. I think that that will be appreciated by all hon. Members.

Successful planning reform also depends on a change in planning culture. I add to the point made earlier about our needing to improve the education and training, and raise the skills and morale, of both planners and councillors. We also need to look at ways of spreading best practice and providing help and guidance to local authorities. Whatever the differences of opinion across the House about the approach to the planning system and planning reform, we all agree that planning is vital to our communities. Therefore, we all subscribe to raising standards and spreading best practice for both planning officials and councillors.

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