Previous SectionIndexHome Page

17 Dec 2002 : Column 744—continued

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

Mr. Pickles: In a moment.

An interesting feature of this Bill is what is not included in it. No mention is made of third party right of appeal. Is the Minister prepared to rethink this omission, particularly in circumstances where a local authority gives planning permission for its own land? I have talked about the three principles involved, and the issue is one of acceptability. For a local authority to grant itself permission, and for those affected to have no redress, looks wrong and feels wrong.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I hope that I can catch the hon. Gentleman on clause 43, on which the Minister did not amplify sufficiently. On omissions, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the official record will show tomorrow that neither the Minister nor—until now—the hon. Gentleman has referred to planning enforcement. One of the big problems is that, unless dilatory local authorities can pursue planning

17 Dec 2002 : Column 745

enforcement with vigour—in fact, they are tardy—all this great machinery will come to nought, particularly for the small person, whose visual and aural amenity will be trespassed by selfish people who ignore planning law, and who are not chased by local authorities.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman's constituency and mine share a border, and although we do not represent the same authorities, we share some of the same problems. Sometimes, because we say a certain thing, we think that action has been taken and the matter has been dealt with. The extra #350 million has been welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman), but planning officers are needed to put that money to use. Local authority planning departments are grossly overstaffed. Planning officers who are properly trained soon find themselves in the private sector. Enforcement actions do not take place because local authorities are being squeezed by the Government and decide to put their money somewhere else. Often, frustrated constituents tell me that nothing has happened even though the local authority was supposed to take enforcement action. Even when such actions are taken, they can be appealed. The Bill could have dealt with that problem and speeded up the enforcement process.

Mr. Edward Davey: I think that I agree with the hon. Gentleman about third party right of appeal, although he needs to clarify the little that he said. I also agree with him about enforcement, but he said that the Government's proposed limit on compulsory purchase could be too low. Does he not realise that any limit that was even a little higher would make many regeneration projects prohibitively expensive?

Mr. Pickles: I shall answer that point in a second, but first I must apologise to the House. In my gross excitement about planning, I may have suggested that local authority planning departments were overstaffed. In fact, I know that I did, as my boss, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), has just ticked me off. What I meant to say—what was in the Pickles mind—was that planning offices were understaffed. I apologise if I have inadvertently misled hon. Members about the state of local authorities which, I repeat, are understaffed.

Andrew Mackinlay: Especially when it comes to enforcement officers.

Mr. Pickles: As the hon. Gentleman says, especially when it comes to enforcement officers.

One problem with the compulsory purchase process is the long time spent haggling over prices. No one suggests that people should be paid above the market price, but the Bill makes it possible for them to be paid less than that price. If we are to learn from the way in which compulsory purchase operates elsewhere, we must be able to pick up how that problem is dealt with.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) mentioned major infrastructure projects. I understand that he has strong feelings about what happened at Heathrow. It is important that the Government clearly

17 Dec 2002 : Column 746

indicate whether they support major infrastructure projects. A big test will be coming soon, in respect of the decisions about extra runways in the south-east.

Andrew Mackinlay: I hope that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who will reply to the debate, will make matters clearer. The guidance notes do not make it clear that there will be a planning inquiry in the traditional form when an inspector is appointed under clause 43. It might be implicit, but that provision is not made explicit in either the Bill or the accompanying explanatory notes. I want to safeguard the rights of the individual—the cussed, awkward, bloody-minded individual. It was people like that who fought the big battalions, such as the British Airports Authority, during the Heathrow terminal 5 inquiry, and they will wish to do the same again. We need an undertaking that they will not be squeezed out, and that there will always be a proper inquiry in connection with clause 43.

Mr. Pickles: My understanding is that the Secretary of State will direct the procedure. However, I am sure that the Under-Secretary will answer that point when he replies to the debate.

I have forgotten the name of the inspector in the terminal 5 inquiry, for which I apologise, but I have read his evidence to the Select Committee. I thought that the reasons given for the delay were telling. It was not secured by bloody-minded individuals so much as caused by the system. The lack of direction caused delays for all sorts of reasons.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the proximity of Christmas. He stated that local authorities' planning departments were understaffed, so will he confirm, in the spirit of goodwill, that he favours the appointment of large numbers of additional officers? Is that official Opposition policy? Does he have information to offer the House about the costing that the policy wonks will no doubt have done on the policy?

Mr. Pickles: I have written to Santa Claus, but sadly I did not ask for any additional planning officers. My substantive point is that remuneration levels for appropriately qualified people in the private sector are high, and that that adds to the difficulties faced by local authority planning departments. A person qualified in town and country planning is likely to make significantly more money in the private sector than in the local authority sector. However, I am sure that the Government Whips will be awfully pleased with that question. The hon. Gentleman may get a prize after Christmas.

Peter Bradley rose—

Mr. Steen rose—

Mr. Pickles: The time has come for us to move on.

Mr. Steen: I am most grateful for that. I know when my time has come, and I want to ask my hon. Friend about compensation. Some other European countries have been able to make speedy progress with major infrastructure projects because they are willing to pay

17 Dec 2002 : Column 747

compensation at above market values. I disagree with my hon. Friend in that I believe that paying compensation at above the market value would speed up major infrastructure projects, as they would not be delayed by people haggling over small sums. Does he agree that that is an attractive approach that the Opposition should consider carefully?

Mr. Pickles: There is some truth in what my hon. Friend says. We should aim to ensure that the normal, generous market value is paid, but my point is that there should be no artificial ceiling that could prevent the process from going forward.

This Bill is a wasted opportunity, and that is tragic. The UK needs a modern and effective planning system so that it can compete in the 21st century. The Government are right that the planning system needs fundamental reform, but the proposed system is too slow, uncertain and bureaucratic. It does not allow enough input from business or the public.

The proposed changes will, if anything, make matters worse. The new system is more complex and top-down than what it replaces, and it offers less room for public participation. We cannot afford to get this reform wrong. Mistakes now could have damaging consequences for this country for years to come. The reforms need to be thoughtful, balanced and intelligent. They should increase the legitimacy of the planning process and enhance its effectiveness. The Bill clearly fails to do that.

The Minister, when she opened the debate, used her Department's favourite buzz words when she said that the Bill would be a Xstep change" for planning. I agree: the Bill does represent a significant step change for planning—it is a step change towards chaos and muddle, and it is a step change backwards. I urge the Government to reconsider the Bill.

6.39 pm

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I suspect that when the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) reads his speech, he will conclude that much more of it should have taken the form of footnotes rather than actually being delivered. He complained, for instance, that my hon. Friend the Minister had not made much reference to the Bill, but he did not seem to refer to it much himself. Worse, he did not seem to recognise the country in which I think we live—a country in which regional effort is becoming important.

When the Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee took evidence yesterday, we discussed land in Warrington. The use of that land, for housing or for industrial development, has a direct effect on regeneration in Liverpool and east Manchester. Unless we are prepared to accept that there is now a regional dimension in this country, we will find ourselves in real difficulty. In the case of an awful lot of planning issues, we must look at the region.

The best part of the hon. Gentleman's speech was, in fact, his reference to an earlier intervention. We should pay tribute to the 1945 Labour Government who established the town and country planning system, which is one of the jewels in our crown. For more than

17 Dec 2002 : Column 748

50 years it worked pretty well, although there was a slight hiccup when Nicholas Ridley wanted to tear it all up. That led to some of the worst out-of-town planning, and one or two other bits went wrong. Nevertheless, we need only look at national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and historic towns to see that our planning system has protected them from developments that might have ruined them—although they might also have made someone a quick short-term profit.

The planning system also protects many people who might otherwise have to live close to areas that are unattractive, whether because of local industry or because of leisure activities. We should remind people that it has served the country well. We should also remind them that we live on a small island with a large population, where difficult planning decisions will always have to be made.

One thing that worries me about the Bill is that it results from a myth. Unfortunately, when Lord Falconer joined the Department 15 months ago, he almost swallowed that myth hook, line and sinker. The myth, produced particularly by the Confederation of British Industry, is that our planning system makes us uncompetitive. That is nonsense. Lord Falconer should have learnt a lesson that many Ministers need to learn. Departments that can do things can often do them without legislation; it is those who cannot run their own Departments who say, XA Bill will enable us to put off the delivery of results until we have got the legislation through the House." It is to the credit of the Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Rooker and other Ministers that they listened to criticism at the time of the Green Paper, and have modified the Bill significantly. Moreover, the Department has recognised that many improvements in planning can be brought about through resources and administration rather than a big change in the legislation.

Next Section

IndexHome Page