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17 Dec 2002 : Column 755—continued

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Has the Liberal party considered community involvement? In an intervention on the Minister I stated that the Bill provides for community involvement in drawing up local development documents, but not in drawing up regional spatial strategies, which will, in effect, inform local development documents. That will circumvent any community involvement. Has the hon. Gentleman considered how community involvement may be improved in drawing up regional spatial strategies?

Mr. Davey: I have indeed. Liberal Democrats want elected regional assemblies so that elected representatives can help to provide that community involvement. As a regional planning tier has existed for some time, it is incumbent on the hon. Gentleman and his party, who oppose regional assemblies, to say how they would involve communities in regional planning.

The proposals on the local development process are many and complex. When one reads clause 37(6), one might think that things will be a little easier than I have led the House to believe because it says that only the development plan documents will be used to determine planning applications. That seems a lot simpler than the

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plethora of schemes and frameworks that I have mentioned, but the problem is that under another part of the Bill a local authority can decide what constitutes a development plan document.

Clause 17 refers to the statement of community involvement

as though the local authority does not have the power to determine that issue anyway, so there are many contradictions and much confusion in the new process that the Government propose. It is supposed to be clear, but I am afraid that it has the clarity of the mud bath.

I do not agree with many of the CBI's comments on the Bill, but it has touched on something in its briefing for today's debate when it says:

That is absolutely right; the planning system needs to be relatively transparent not just for business but for members of the public. If it is not clear and Members of Parliament are not easily able to explain it at their surgeries, we lose the current system's element of accountability, which is so important. I fear that that complexity will get even worse by the time the courts get their mitts on the Bill. If the Government's intention is not obvious to us in Parliament as we debate it, I am sure that the judges will have quite a lot to say about it.

Mr. Llwyd: The judges are normally guided by what we think.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is indeed right, but the judges will have a problem because of the contradictions and confusion in the Bill.

With local development, we have change for its own sake. Rather than building on something that could be improved and enhanced, the Government have decided to tear things up. That is a mistake not only because of the resulting lack of simplicity, but because there will be many transitional costs. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish touched on the point that high transitional costs are involved in moving from one planning system to another. A proper cost-benefit analysis would show that the benefits of the system, even according to the Government's own terms, would not outweigh the cost of the transition.

Another contentious issue is whether the Bill is business friendly. We can look at the CBI briefing and those of other business organisations and take our pick, but some of us are concerned about the core proposal on business planning zones—they are called simplified planning zones in the Bill—which is supposed to make the Bill business-friendly. Two arguments relate to simplified planning zones. People who share my concerns believe that they could result in the planning system being pushed aside, resulting in poor design quality, a lack of accountability and thus bad planning. If that argument proves correct, those zones will clearly be a bad thing. Other people argue that, in fact, the proposals will make little difference.

The legal framework for simplified planning zones already exists in planning legislation and all that the clauses on those zones will do is slightly change the

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process in respect of regional planning bodies. I hope that the Minister will say whether she thinks that simplified planning zones will make a difference; many people's final judgment on the Bill will depend on her answer.

Andrew Mackinlay : May I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing caution? I represent the port of Tilbury—indeed, my constituency home is by the port—and, in essence, it is already a simplified planning zone. By and large, it is not subject to normal development controls, but, of course, it has residential neighbours, and developments in port technology have often caused problems with noise and light pollution. We need to be careful not to create problems for future generations; what may be a superficially attractive scheme to help business could present other people with problems in the future.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is right. My worry is that the thinking behind the Bill comes from the Treasury, not the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Perhaps that is why the measure had been cut slightly by the time it had reached that office. A few months ago, the Chancellor was very keen to respond to the business community's argument that the planning system was a real drag on competitiveness and productivity, and a few soundbites and press releases came from Great George street. The proposals look like a sop to the Chancellor. If they are as effective as some Ministers claim, that will be a worry and the hon. Gentleman will be right in what he says.

My final major criticism of the Bill relates to community involvement. At the start of my remarks, I said that clause 17 might prove to be a welcome development, but the problem is that it is difficult to tell whether that is so from that clause, the explanatory notes and all the other related documents that the Government have issued. The Government have phrased community development in a very non-prescriptive way. That may be a good idea, because such involvement needs to reflect the communities in different parts of the country and one size clearly will not fit all of them.

Not being over-prescriptive is perhaps the right approach, but the danger in not providing clarity is that the power might become a damp squib and community involvement in planning might become superficial rather than profound. I hope that the Government will either be more specific in their guidance on community involvement or accept amendments to clause 17.

Mr. Drew: I have some reservations, but the danger is that we try to pretend that we can legislate in an all-embracing way. Some of the work done in rural areas in respect of village appraisals and village design statements speaks volumes for what communities can do. I would never pretend that we can legislate to make every community do that, but surely that is how we should take this forward.

Mr. Davey: I am interested to hear about the good practice in the hon. Gentleman's area. I have seen examples of good practice in other areas, and he is right to say that we cannot be over-prescriptive, which was my point. Perhaps we can be prescriptive, however,

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about what will be some of the features of good community involvement—for example, in relation to information provision and the advice that might be available to members of the public or to applicants, to make sure that there are clear standards by which to judge whether planning authorities and applicants have involved the community. Perhaps we could go one stage further—this would be controversial—by making it a statutory requirement, before applications are put to a planning authority, that developers have engaged in some early community consultation. That might promote good practice within the private sector, as there is certainly a need for that.

There are many aspects of the Bill that I have not been able to cover in my short remarks. I hope that I have made it clear to the House that the Liberal Democrats are concerned about the centralisation and complexity in the Bill and its lack of clear vision for the planning system. What we need is a planning system that is more accountable and that has sustainability built even more firmly into its foundations. Through such features, we can have a truly efficient planning system.

7.21 pm

David Wright (Telford): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this important debate. I get more letters about planning applications than anything else, as I am sure many other hon. Members do. That is a sign that local people do not understand the planning system as it operates in this country, contrary to what some Opposition Members have suggested. Many people think that their MP has a veto over planning applications, and often we have to point them in the right direction in planning terms.

The Bill is particularly welcome because it sits alongside a raft of proposed legislation to make regeneration effective and give local people the opportunity to influence change in their neighbourhoods. Contrary to the comments of some Opposition Members, the Bill has had a broad welcome from several quarters, including the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Mr. Mike Haslam, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, has said:

I endorse those comments because I believe that the planning process is at the heart of regeneration.

I am conscious that many Members want to speak, so I shall try to be relatively brief. I want to focus on four key areas: regional planning structures; local planning arrangements; development control matters; and compulsory purchase issues.

First, on regional planning, the Bill envisages the replacement of regional planning guidance with regional spatial strategies. That is more than just a change in name: there will be a change in style with more focus on the spatial form of the region and a move away from a policy-based document. It is important that the new strategies give spatial expression to, among other issues, regional transport and economic and environmental plans. All that is to be welcomed. In one sense, it repairs the damage inflicted on strategic

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planning throughout the 1980s by the Conservative party. In another sense, it is a new, modern planning agenda that reflects best practice across the whole European Community.

As we have heard, the new strategies will be led by a regional planning body, and, in the interim period, the regional assembly. I accept some of the criticism that that interim arrangement, prior to the establishment of an elected structure, takes away some democratic accountability in relation to county councils. There is a danger that the larger planning authorities will continue to drive the regional spatial strategy and base their decisions on what is best for their authorities rather than for the region as a whole. However, that is what happens now through the current regional planning structure. The counties often fail to engage fully in the regional planning process, which is a significant weakness across the country.

It is important that the regional planning body has the appropriate level of staffing to prepare the regional strategy statement, and that the skills and views of the counties are taken fully into account. I accept that there is a danger that the proper functioning of sub-regional planning will become too dependent on regional government and the subsequent local government reforms. However, the system is not working well at present. In relation to housing target figures in particular, across many county areas, there is no coherence between what is being planned in metropolitan areas and what county councils are delivering on the ground, especially in large rural counties. We must understand that there is interdependence between housing target figures in metropolitan areas and large towns and what is being provided in rural areas.

We need to ensure that sub-regional planning is given a dedicated role within regional planning to deal with important issues such as housing. Of course, the more quickly we can move to a comprehensive structure of regional government, the better. A key issue in the development of regional spatial strategies will be the interrelationship with regional development agencies, which has not been covered in much detail this evening. It would help if that could be more clearly defined in the Bill, which is light on comments about the role of regional development agencies, particularly in relation to economic development and transport.

Secondly, on local planning arrangements, local plans, unitary development plans and structure plans are to be replaced by local development schemes, and every local planning authority must prepare a local development scheme that will set out what local development documents the authority will produce and a time scale for publication. I hope that that will enhance local priority setting and enable local planning authorities to focus on trying to build character into the urban form in many of our towns and cities—something that is very much absent in the current unitary development planning framework.

Each development plan document will be subject to independent examination, with the emphasis on testing the overall soundness of the plan. The process is intended to be less formal, and that is welcome. Regulations will need to make it clear what role, if any,

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legal representatives will be able to play in any examination process. In general, anything that helps to engage local people through more informal debate on planning issues will make the planning system more accessible and user-friendly.

I particularly welcome clause 26, which requires authorities that are currently incredibly slow to produce their development plans in good time. It is not acceptable that 10 to 15 per cent. of authorities still do not have effective unitary development plan structures some years after the relevant legislation came into effect. That means that developers in many areas cannot plan effectively, and local communities cannot interact with their local authority in understanding how the planning regime is going to work in their area.

The Bill contains a statutory duty for all development plans to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. That is an important and welcome statement, and I join the Liberal Democrat spokesman in calling on the Government to define their objectives on sustainable development more clearly. I would like some comments not only about design matters and enhancing the quality of the urban form but about sustainability in rural communities, especially in relation to providing affordable housing for people in need in those environments.

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