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17 Dec 2002 : Column 751—continued

6.56 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): My hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) may not agree with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) about IKEA, but I congratulate him on his speech and on his Select Committee's report on the planning Green Paper. I believe that the report influenced the Government's thinking and was the main factor in encouraging them to change their mind about some of the Green Paper's more distasteful aspects, such as its proposals on national planning decisions for major infrastructure projects. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) served on the Select Committee and has told me about the hon. Gentleman's good leadership.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about staff in planning departments. Staffing is probably the major weakness of the planning system, and he was right to dwell on it. I am sure that he is aware that undergraduate courses on planning are increasingly unpopular. The Government must work to reverse that

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decline. I am sure that he is aware of some research that was conducted by the Department that used to have responsibility for planning, which showed that, on average, planning departments across the country were short of four or five staff. That represents a huge national shortage. The research also dealt with issues such as the failure of local authorities to enforce some aspects of the planning system, which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) mentioned. We need those staff so that such work can be done. The Government's announcement last July of #350 million was a welcome first step towards rectifying the core problem.

Sir Sydney Chapman: As I understood the Minister, she said that the money would not be ring-fenced. The memorandum says that it will go to local planning authorities that manage to deliver an efficient planning service, but surely it is a question of the chicken and the egg. Local planning authorities need part of that extra allocation to improve their performance, and, if they succeed, by all means, give them bonuses.

Mr. Davey: I agree about the chicken and egg, but I do not agree about ring-fencing. There is too much ring-fencing in local government finance and the Government are right to resist that temptation.

Only the Minister will realise what a great thrill it is for me to speak on Second Reading of this Bill. I last debated with her when she was a Treasury Minister dealing with a Finance Bill. It is a particular pleasure for me to debate planning with her.

Mr. Pickles: What a smooth talking young lad.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman suggests that I am a smooth talker, but I will let the Minister make that decision.

During the run-up to the Bill, the Government's thinking on planning has undergone many changes. At times, they appeared to be unsure about what they wanted to do about planning, and contradiction and confusion is reflected in the Bill. The Government talk about decentralising planning powers, but the proposed regional structures, which would give the Secretary of State extra powers, do not appear to decentralise a thing; if anything, they will cement the centralisation of the existing system.

The explanatory notes and all the rhetoric before the debate suggested that the Bill would speed up the planning system, but many aspects of the local development plans, to which the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) referred and which will doubtless be debated not only tonight but in Committee, will slow up the system and make it far more inefficient.

Those failures spring from the Government's lack of vision on planning. Sometimes, the Government are almost apologetic about the planning system, and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish came close to suggesting as much. We should be proud of our planning system; it has a great role. It was the 1909 Liberal Government who first legislated for a planning system—an important move to ensure that development produced benefits for society. After the second world war, the

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Labour Government introduced important planning legislation, which developed the system and bequeathed us our current procedures.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If the hon. Gentleman studies his history carefully, he will find that Disraeli was the first to propose the establishment of a planning system and to set up slum clearance programmes.

Mr. Davey: I do not really want to follow the hon. Gentleman into a historical debate; there is a big difference between slum clearance and actual planning policies.

The problem is that the vision that the Labour Government showed in their Town and Country Planning Act 1947 is not reflected in the Bill. The present Government are torn between their new Labour instincts to suck up to business and the reality experienced by Ministers, who understand how the planning system works in their constituencies and the tension in reconciling community interests. The Government do not know how to deal with that dilemma, so they have tried to split the difference and this unsatisfactory Bill is the result.

We welcome some aspects of the Bill, such as, its provisions that contain the germ of ideas that will give us a real vision for planning. It will be interesting to hear the Select Committee's views on such provisions. For example, clause 38 would make sustainable development a key test in planning decisions, which is welcome. However, although the Minister explained what she meant by Xsustainable development", there is no such explanation in the Bill, and that could cause problems. The Government should have been braver and set out clearly what they meant by that welcome provision.

Clause 17 provides for a statement of Xcommunity involvement". That, too, is welcome as far as it goes, but it is vague and I shall develop that point later in my speech.

Andrew Bennett: If the hon. Gentleman is so worried about sustainable development, what definition would he table as an amendment?

Mr. Davey: As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Town and Country Planning Association has proposed an amendment that would give such a definition. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), who will serve on the Standing Committee, may table it.

We welcome other changes proposed in the Bill. There is already some agreement about compulsory purchase powers and about the extra flexibility in development controls. We especially welcome the proposals for Wales. As a result of the Bill, Wales will have a much better system than England, although we might ask whether the National Assembly for Wales should not already have the power to debate such legislation, rather than it being debated in this place. However, we shall let that point pass—at least Wales will get a better deal than England.

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Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): People in Wales welcome the Bill—although, as my hon. Friend pointed out, many of its regulation-making powers should have been devolved to the Assembly. The proposed spatial strategies will allow Wales to take a much more strategic approach to issues such as renewable energy and wind farm development.

Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the Assembly will seize the opportunity to create a much better planning system in Wales.

Our major problem with the Bill is the centralising tendency that underpins it. As has been pointed out, we already have a centralised system, although when I challenged the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar on that point he was not quite prepared to admit that it was the fault of previous Conservative Governments, who bequeathed us that system. However, the Labour Government have achieved what seemed almost impossible—they have made the system even more centralised. Instead of passing powers—such as those in the current transport and works framework—from Parliament down to regional planning bodies, or to the future regional assemblies, they have taken powers back from county councils, thus increasing centralisation.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The reasoned amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues states that the House declines to give the Bill a Second Reading

I thought that the Liberal party was all in favour of regionalism and regional bodies. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his party's policy?

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to do so. We believe in elected regional assemblies. When we have accountable, elected regional assemblies, that will be the right time to give them real planning powers.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: But we are debating the Bill now.

Mr. Davey: My criticism of the Bill—if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my argument—is that it would give some planning powers to unelected regional planning bodies, which would, in effect, be quangos. We oppose that. To centralise is bad enough, but to centralise power in unelected, unaccountable bodies is unacceptable. That is one of our reasons for opposing the Bill.

To be fair to the Government, we could say that the Bill and other measures, such as the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, are merely preparatory and that they precede regional devolution across England. We might be that generous if the Government were truly pushing ahead with regional devolution, but the caution and timidity with which they are approaching that key constitutional change mean that we cannot give them the benefit of the doubt. As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar pointed out, under the Government's framework it may be years or even decades—perhaps never—before some regions have elected assemblies, yet the new planning bodies or quangos would take powers from county councils up to the centre, and that cannot be right.

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We oppose not merely the centralisation proposed in the Bill but the way in which it is being pushed through. County councils will simply be agents of the regional bodies.

Our other major criticism of the Bill is that it will do the reverse of what the Government claim. It will not speed up the planning process. If the Government had gone for genuine decentralisation, they would have removed many of the Secretary of State's powers to intervene in each and every planning application; removing that upper tier of intervention and interference would be the best way of speeding up the planning process. However, the Bill proposes a set of local development frameworks, schemes, documents, statements of community involvement and optional action plans that together will not produce a simpler system or a speedier process.

The Government are the only people who seem to think that streamlining something means adding to it. The current system of unitary development plans and local plans is not perfect, as I am sure Members on both sides of the House will agree, but it has improved as it has gone along. A much better approach to reform would have been to build on those improvements rather than to tear up the system.

The current system passes an important test—my weekly advice surgery test. Constituents bring a lot of issues to our advice surgeries, many of which relate to Departments, the Government's tax and benefit systems and so on. It is often very difficult to give constituents the answers that they want to hear, and I have to refer them to other bodies. I am delighted to say that Members of Parliament do not have a central role in planning, but at least we can explain how the system works and where the constituent can obtain redress. I fear that that will become impossible under the plethora of new plans, schemes, documents, statements and so on. That is a backward step.

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