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17 Dec 2002 : Column 740continued
I am merely trying to improve the process, and I shall show how the Bill will slow it down. The most important aspect is that it will remove the democratic checks and balances from the planning mechanism, downgrade the role of local people and drastically enhance the power of Whitehall and the Secretary of State.
Peter Bradley : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has referred to affordable housing. What increase in the availability of affordable housing, especially in rural communities, would be achieved by the extension of the right to buy to housing association properties, as championed by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)?
Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman is welcome to take part in our consultation exercise. He will have seen that we propose a clear exemption for rural authorities with populations of 3,000. I see no problem. No doubt he will now feel ready to endorse the right to buy to ensure that people have a right to own their own houses. That seems to me to be of considerable importance.
It is worth remembering that, according to last year's Green Paper, 90 per cent. of planning applications are eventually accepted. Therefore, we are dealing with the controversy that surrounds 10 per cent. of applications. The Bill can only properly be described as an opportunity lost. It is not aimed at achieving a balanced planning system, but rather at fitting in with the Government's regionalist agenda. It was interesting that the Minister referred to that at the beginning of her speech. A sizeable portion of the Bill is aimed at steamrollering the English regions into a regional decision-making process, whether the region likes it or not.
The introduction of regional spatial strategies in the Bill is the clearest indication yet of the Government's desire to bypass county councils and other long-standing democratic bodies in favour of their regionalist pipedream. Regional spatial strategies remove a key democratic input into the planning process. The Bill severely erodes democratic control over future planning developments. It is difficult to understand why the Government insist on a planning mechanism that provides no direct democratic means for people to express their concerns over planning decisions that affect their county or region. The proposed system lacks accountability and openness. Surely that will have only
The Government see regional assemblies as the solution to the democratic gap in the planning Bill. That is highly presumptuous. The Government promised to give the people, via referendums, a say on whether or not they have an assembly, yet they impose a planning Bill that removes democratic accountability in the planning system unless people say yes in a referendum.
If people do not vote for regional assemblies, whom will the Secretary of State designate for planning purposes? That is not clear in the Bill. Will it be the regional development agencies, whose performance varies enormously around the country, the Government offices under the control of unelected officials, or chambers, which are almost non-existent in certain areas? It would be helpful if the Minister who replies to the debate could make that clear.
Mr. Drew : Labour Members may be confused. For good or ill, regional planning conferences have long had a role in the planning process. There may have been problems, because they could be in conflict with the counties or the districts. What is the hon. Gentleman's view on the future of regional planning conferences? He seems to be against the Government's regional drift. Does he think that regional planning conferences could be got rid of?
Mr. Pickles: Regional planning conferences do not exist in every part of the country. The hon. Gentleman must understand that the engine for those conferences is the county council block. The county councils will be diminished by this process, and all their experience will disappear. The regional planning conferences are sometimes too restrictive. They prevent planning on matters in which adjoining authorities have a mutual interest but which do not fit into a particular structure in the region.
It is our contention that the Bill is anti-democratic, and that the counties, rather than arbitrary regions, are a better level at which to make strategic and structural planning decisions. County councils have a clearer view of the real needs of their local area, and their grasp of the important strategic detail is superior to that of large-scale regional authorities. County councils allow for accountability and represent an area with which local people can readily identify. They also have a long-standing pool of expertise in planning and local knowledge, which will be squandered and frittered away by this legislation.
Despite that, the role of county councils under the new arrangements is unclear. I heard what the Minister said, but it is unclear. Although county councils will still have control over minerals, waste, development and transport, according to the explanatory notes they will only be able to participate in the drawing up of local development plans. It is not clear how that is to be achieved and what their responsibility will be. I hope that it will be made clear in the Minister's winding-up speech, and if not, in Committee.
Are the Government prepared to make it clear whether and how county councils will be involved in the process, especially in the drawing up of local development plans? How can they be drawn up without properly considered waste, minerals and transport strategies?
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying, almost in the same breath, that county councils are both local community authorities and strategic, semi-regional authorities. I am not sure that he can have it both ways. Which one does he plump for?
Mr. Pickles: That is their strength, and it is why they are a good unit. The hon. Gentleman makes my point. County councils represent real people in real communities. They can link up if there is commonality of interest. That is why what the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends are seeking to do is such a travesty. The Bill rips power away from local people and diminishes accountability.
Mr. Love: I have been at meetings when members of the previous Conservative Government have confirmed that they seriously considered the abolition of the planning powers of county councils. Would the hon. Gentleman confirm or deny that?
The Secretary of State is to be given virtual carte blanche to do as he wisheshe becomes a grand vizier of planning law. The tone of the Bill is set in part 1, which deals with regional functions. The Secretary of State will have enormous powers. Regional planning guidance issued by him forms part of the regional spatial strategy. The system effectively gives him prescriptive power of central control. He can control a regional spatial strategy that in turn controls a local development plan, which must comply with the regional plan. He even has powers to intervene in the creation of a local development scheme, and to revoke it altogether. He has powers to direct a local authority to withdraw, or to revise, its local development plan. He also has powers to order local authorities, against their wishes, to produce joint local development plans. Under the proposals for simplified planning zones and business improvement zones in the Local Government Bill, he can dictate policy against the wishes of local people.
Mr. Edward Davey: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, under the current planning system bequeathed to us by the previous Conservative Government, the Secretary of State has huge powers to call in almost any aspectif not every aspectof planning applications. Is it now Conservative policy to reverse that, and to reduce the powers of the Secretary of State within the planning system?
Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman must understand that the planning system has been in existence in a proper, recognisable form for 50 years. As recently as five years ago, the relevant standard legal textbooks consisted of three volumes, but because of the continuous process of issuing new directives, there are now some 10 volumes. There is of course a point in the Secretary of State's being involved, but a balance must be struck between local communities and power at the centre. All that we are seeking to do is to redress that balance. We are trying not to remove the Secretary of State from the process, but to return to a proper balance. After all, the current planning system is part of the post-war consensus whereby people had trust in the system. My concern is that if we give too much power to the Secretary of State, people will lose confidence in the system.
The proposals for major infrastructure projects, which were expanded on in a statutory instrument earlier this year, give the Secretary of State enormous powers to set timetables for inquiries, to reject evidence and to appoint inspectors. One aim of the planning process review was to enhance the involvement of local people, but this Bill fails to achieve that. Instead, it raises the powers of the Secretary of State by several notches. The planning system will become overwhelmingly top-down. The Secretary of State will have an omnipresent role in the planning process.
This legislation also clearly fails in its declared aim of speeding up and simplifying the planning system. In fact, the Government may actually have achieved the impossible by making this highly bureaucratic system a smidgen more bureaucratic. Let us consider the example of the document on local development, which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) mentioned earlier. The Bill is in a huge muddle about the overlap between a local development framework and a local development plan. Added to this confusion is the remarkable cocktail of local development orders, local development principles and provision for the Secretary of State to set fees and charges for a range of planning functions. The result can only be a more complex and expensive planning system, with several more layers and tiers than existed before the Bill came into being.
This confusion and bureaucracy expands beyond local development plans and infects the rest of the Bill. Under the terms of clause 38, in drawing up the regional spatial strategy and local development plans a sustainable development plan must be drawn up in parallel. That is in addition to the homelessness plan that local authorities are obliged to produce under the Bill on homelessness, and to the housing plan contained in the Local Government Bill. Is it not possible that local
Statements of development principles are proposed as a replacement for outline planning permission, but the latter is a far stronger legal entity than the proposed new system. Companies often use the certainty provided by outline planning permission to raise funds for ventures, and to plan for the medium or long term. This legal certainty will be lost under the proposed changes, causing delay and perhaps making planning, finance raising and job creation more difficult for business. It is hard to see what statements of development principles add to the planning process, other than providing yet another target for judicial review. They do not provide a developer with a proper equivalent to, or any promise of, planning permission. The Green Paper seemed to suggest that the new system would run in tandem with the old outline planning permission, so that any major problems could be ironed out, but there is no mention of that in the Bill. Can the Minister clarify the transitional arrangements?
Because the Minister concerned is the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), and because it is getting close to Christmas, I have tried to find an aspect of the Bill about which I could say something nice. I hit upon the idea of compulsory purchase, but unfortunately part 7 , which deals with that, is not as welcome as it might first appear. We welcome compensation for landowners whose land is acquired, but the basic loss payment will be subject to a maximum amount, and in July the Deputy Prime Minister stated that property owners will be paid Xhope value" for any possible planning gain. As a result, owners of some larger properties will actually be paid less than they are entitled to. Far from being more generous, the Bill is actually confiscatory. That is especially evident when we consider that the payment of compensation to property owners could take up to seven years. There is a great deal of justified complaint that current compulsory purchase claims take years to be settled.