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17 Dec 2002 : Column 736—continued

Mr. Love: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Roche: Yes, for the final time.

Mr. Love: I give my hon. Friend extra thanks for giving way on this point. Concern has been expressed that many groups that want to make representations to inquiries form new groups to make more representations, thus further slowing the process. Has she taken that into account in trying to limit the time that inquiries take?

Mrs. Roche: Again, the question is one of balance. The consultation on the Green Paper involved a great deal of consideration of major infrastructure projects.

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Of course everybody wants to hear from the local community and, in particular, local community groups, but such things cannot be allowed to drag on for ever and ever when much-needed projects are being considered. The new procedures will allow the team of inspectors in, which strikes the right balance.

The Bill will also introduce provisions to set up business planning zones, which will be planned in the regional strategic interest, but designated by individual local authorities. They will be areas in which high-quality development is fast-tracked to help to create jobs where they are needed most. The zones will not be a free-for-all, but will adhere to strict approval criteria set out in guidance and be subject to an environmental impact assessment.

The Bill will introduce a duty for statutory consultees to respond to a consultation request within a specified time and report on their performance in meeting their targets. It will also reform the development plan system in Wales, where a single-tier local government system and a uniform pattern of unitary development plans were introduced by the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994.

The basic pattern of development plans in Wales is to be retained. Local development plans will be simpler and more concise than unitary development plans. Procedures will be simplified and community participation improved. Provision is also made for the National Assembly for Wales to prepare and publish a national spatial plan for Wales.

Where it is necessary to use compulsory purchase to assemble land for regeneration and large-scale projects, the implementation of proposals in the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on 18 July should help to speed the process. We intend to achieve that by making the basis on which local authorities can exercise their powers clearer and more positive while also improving compensation by introducing additional loss payments.

The Bill sets out a reformed planning system for the 21st century that will help us to live in sustainable communities; a reformed system that will be faster and fairer; and a reformed system that will help us to meet the challenges of the future, deal with the problems of the present and protect the heritage of the past. I commend it to the House.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

6.3 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I beg to move,

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It is always a great pleasure to follow the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women, who dealt with the House most courteously. At times, I felt as though we were already in Committee, such was her willingness to give way and to answer technical points. However, I have to say that her description of the Bill is not one that I recognise. I have read it and the explanatory notes.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman has read the wrong Bill.

Mr. Pickles: Almost certainly I did. I read the Bill that is before the House, not the one that the Minister talked about.

This could have been a great Bill that we would all be proud of and that addressed the stress in the system. It could have achieved quicker, more devolved local decisions. Instead of addressing the problems, the Government have chosen to politicise the planning process by dragging in a more remote regional authority, thereby breaking the link with decisions made by local people, which have been such an important feature of the past 50 years.

At one time, I thought that we were being treated to the Christmas carol concert of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and that we were being given a turn—a parody of a Bill whereby a party with a large majority could push any measure through the Chamber without the Chamber objecting. If that were the case, the Bill would come awfully close to being such a measure. Despite what the Government wish, most areas of the country will not vote for a regional assembly, so deciding to build a planning system around a non-existent assembly seems perverse to me.

To build a planning system in the certain knowledge that the south-east of England—this country's economic motor—will not have an elected assembly seems both wilful and contemptuous of local opinion. The planning system relies on three basic principles: the speed at which decisions are made, the quality of those decisions, and public acceptance of the decision-making process. In that process, there is often a tension between speed and the other two principles. That is where the problem lies.

The Bill's tone is overwhelmingly centralising. It will take power from local people, stifle local democracy and dramatically increase the power of the Secretary of State. The Government set out on this process of reforming the planning system with the declared aim of making it quicker and less bureaucratic, increasing certainty and enhancing business and public involvement.

Mr. Betts: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles: Of course. It is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Gentleman.

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Mr. Betts: Perhaps we are both reading slightly different Bills. The hon. Gentleman talks about centralisation, but has he read the sections on community involvement and the requirements on planning authorities to produce that? Does he not welcome them?

Mr. Pickles: I shall come to that. I am not saying that we cannot amend the Bill in Committee or that it cannot be improved, but I do have to say that the hon. Gentleman, perhaps due to his experience in Sheffield, is looking at the legislation through rose-coloured spectacles. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman, like me, is getting on in years and has to use glasses for reading. We congratulate him on his important victory—the Government are to allow local authorities to put together some plans, which is a very good thing—but he should not let that cloud his judgment on the rest of the Bill.

Mr. Steen: Does my hon. Friend agree that Xcommunity" has become another buzz word? If it means anything, it tends to be the local authority such as the parish, district or town council, but it does not mean the whole community. There is no way of consulting the community. Does he agree that the problem with the Bill and constantly harping on about the community is that there is no vehicle for consulting the community? It is lovely to say, XThe community is going to be consulted." We all feel much more comfortable when we hear that, but it will not happen.

Mr. Pickles: I am sure that we can all agree that any consultation of the community must be sustainable. To answer my hon. Friend, part of the problem and the real trick for achieving success lies in getting involved in the strategic stage of the consultation process. So often, as he will recognise, consultation takes place in planning and other authorities when the process has been decided; it allows those who were involved to be told that they have done a marvellous job. The real trick of making a consultation work, if it can be made to work, is to get in at a strategic stage. That will be difficult to achieve, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, with all his experience, recognises that.

The Government set out to reform the planning system with the declared aim of making the process quicker and less bureaucratic, thus increasing certainty and enhancing business and public involvement. The explanatory notes declare that the measures in the Bill are broadly deregulatory and will simplify the planning process. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bill fails to achieve what it sets out to do. It imposes further regulation, greatly complicates the planning system and is likely to slow down the planning process rather than speed it up.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey): The hon. Gentleman talks about the speed of the planning process. Does he accept that the unitary development planning process that was introduced by the previous Conservative Government took almost 10 years to unfold in Leeds? How can he possibly stand there and criticise the present

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Government for trying to speed up the process when the system that the Conservative Government introduced was so sadly lacking?

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