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17 Dec 2002 : Column 733—continued

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Does my hon. Friend agree that education for local authority councillors is important also in this regard: they should focus not just on the narrow, local planning aspects of the decisions that they take, but on the wider regional and even national issues involved?

Mrs. Roche: I absolutely agree, which is why we shall continue to work closely with local government associations and others to ensure that this is not a one-off approach, but one that continues throughout the process.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: I want to make progress.

Mr. Steen: I think that the Minister is making excellent progress and I hope that my question will help.

My concern with the Bill is about local democracy. On smaller district councils, the cabinet system has already excluded an awful lot of councillors. I fear that the Bill will alienate councillors and separate them from officials. Officials will get much more power and become more involved in planning decisions at the expense of local democracy and the councillors. Will the Minister confirm that that is not the case?

Mrs. Roche: It is not the case. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, and he makes a valid point, but let me try to reassure him. The Bill does not stipulate what decisions must be taken by officials or councillors. The hon. Gentleman is understandably confused about best practice targets, whereby routine and uncontroversial planning decisions can be taken by skilled planning officials, freeing councillors to deal with important matters such as controversial planning decisions, of which there are many in our constituencies.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): In my constituency, councillors of all parties and the public

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believe that the planning process does not reflect their concerns and needs. Councillors feel that they cannot throw out applications, typically those for building high-value flats, because the planning rules do not give them grounds to do that even though the local infrastructure is significantly overloaded. Can the Minister give any hope that the Bill will help with that?

Mrs. Roche: I understand the concern, which applies in areas such as mine. Clearly, officials understand the planning system and the guidance. It is therefore important that the messages from our discussions of the planning process in the past year stress the importance of continuing education for councillors so that they have confidence that they are making the right decisions. [Interruption.] Before the hon. Gentleman gets to his feet again, I believe that some officials do not always have confidence in their decisions. Sometimes the guidance is interpreted differently and consequently different decisions are made. That is why it is important to spread best practice.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Does the Minister agree that if the new system is to be successful, local people must feel that they own it? Although clause 17 provides for some community involvement, there is no provision for such involvement in drawing up the regional spatial strategies that will inform the contents of the local development documents. Community involvement is thus circumvented.

Mrs. Roche: The Secretary of State must give approval, and would want to ensure that decisions took account of all relevant matters. There is a distinction between the regional spatial strategy, which is a strategic document, and the local development framework, which covers what happens on the ground in a practical way.

The Bill simplifies the plan-led process by abolishing the middle tier of planning that exists in some areas. The new system will have two linked levels of planning: regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks. The latter will consist of a set of local development documents, which each authority will be required to prepare. Together, the documents will replace local plans and unitary development plans. They will set out development proposals and have a clear map so that everyone knows what goes where.

Each authority will prepare a local development scheme, which will list the local development documents.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe): I welcome the Government's change of heart to require local authorities to produce a plan for their areas. That will provide much greater certainty for prospective developers, and people who live in a community and want to know what will happen to the land next door. It is a welcome change for which I thank my hon. Friend.

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Mrs. Roche: I should probably thank my hon. Friend, who was a key advocate of that change. I understand his reasons completely. People were anxious to ensure a clear map and the ability to understand what is happening in an area. Maps will be introduced in secondary legislation. Again, I thank him for his contribution.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: I must make some progress.

Counties will be consultees on regional plans and continue to be responsible for transport, waste and minerals plans. Regions can use them as agents on sub-regional planning, and, when agreed, the Bill will enable counties to work with districts on local plans. As I said previously, the role of parishes is unchanged. Greater emphasis will be placed on local community participation. Local planning authorities will have to prepare statements of community involvement, which will set out how they will consult local communities on devising local development documents and significant planning applications.

The Bill provides for making grants. Under those provisions, we shall make grants to organisations such as Planning Aid. That will allow them to develop a greater role in targeting communities that traditionally do not get involved in the planning system, especially groups in deprived areas or those representing the socially excluded. I emphasise the importance of those provisions; we all know Planning Aid's valuable contribution.

Alan Simpson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Roche: No, I must make some progress.

The Bill will introduce a statutory purpose for planning. We want a planning system that supports and promotes sustainable development. The Bill imposes a duty on those with plan-making functions under parts 1 and 2 to exercise them with a view to contributing to achieving sustainable development.

Sustainable development does not mean no development, but sustaining high, stable economic growth and employment, social progress, effective protection of the environment and prudent use of resources. The Bill also grants new powers for local planning authorities to introduce local permitted development rights in local development orders.

Mr. Steen: Now that the Minister has made some progress, will she give way?

Mrs. Roche: No, I must make a little more. I have an eye to the time, because I know that many hon. Members wish to speak.

Developers will be able to request a statement of development principles. The Bill contains new provisions to speed up the planning process for applicants and introduces greater clarity. It will also stamp out abuses of the system by preventing repeat and twin-track applications.

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The Bill reduces the time required for planning permission from five to three years and abolishes automatic renewal. Developers will therefore no longer be able to sit on planning permission for years without starting work. Many hon. Members are genuinely worried about that.

As I said earlier, the onus is not only on local authorities; we are serious about improving the planning system

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I heartily welcome my hon. Friend's comments about developers sitting on planning consents. However, what about developers who put down foundations and thus perpetually prolong planning permission, at great expense to local communities, which would like developments to be demolished or completed?

Mrs. Roche: I understand my hon. Friend's point. That is the precise reason for the way in which the Bill is drafted.

Mr. Steen: I am grateful for the Minister's generosity. Sustainable development has become a buzzword for the Liberal Democrats. Whenever they are asked a question, they reply, Xsustainable development." Does the Minister realise that building programmes in many areas happen so fast and are so great that the infrastructure cannot cope with the new demands on it? Does the Bill define sustainable development so as to prevent building in constituencies such as mine, where the current infrastructure means that the rural area cannot sustain the number of people who move in?

Mrs. Roche: Much as I hate to disagree with the hon. Gentleman, I would not give the phrase Xsustainable development" to one party. We would all buy into the concept because it is about getting the balance right in the planning process. Of course, business would like a speedier process, but it is right for local communities to have a direct say, and for their voices to be heard. If I may seek to reassure him, that is why the Bill seeks to strike such a balance.

The Bill will speed up the processing of major infrastructure projects by introducing new inquiry rules to allow inspectors to make better use of inquiry time while ensuring that everyone can adequately express their views and by putting in place new procedures to allow a team of inspectors to operate an inquiry.

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