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17 Dec 2002 : Column 760—continued

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that the Bill requires simplified planning zones to have environmental impact assessments, which will undoubtedly require details of design to be submitted, yet, for all other planning, it does not require design details to be given before the application is submitted? Does not he think that that is an inconsistency?

David Wright: No, because I imagine—I certainly hope—that when local planning authorities look at the contents of their local scheme and their local development framework, they will take on board those issues. When responding to applicants, they will be able to say clearly what they expect in terms of design and quality. I do not, therefore, see a problem in that regard. In fact, the process enhances the current arrangement.

My third point relates to development control, the key issue in which is certainty for applicants. The proposed statement of development principles is a major step forward. Many local planning authorities need to be much more open in dealing with applicants and they should give better professional advice. At the moment, many authorities do not meet applicants about submitted applications and the first thing that the applicant hears is when the authority says yes or no to the application. That is not acceptable.

I strongly welcome the Government's change of mind on major projects of national or regional importance. The Bill's proposals offer a much better solution. I was on the Procedure Committee, which recently began an investigation into the major infrastructure project process, and it concluded that the Government's previous proposal would not have been effective and would have bogged the House down with an enormous amount of work on planning matters. The proposal in the Bill is a good compromise.

Finally, I should like to discuss compulsory purchase. Land assembly issues and land assembly for regeneration are incredibly important. The present system is

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cumbersome and many of the skills that have been used over the years in compulsory purchase cases have been lost. In the 1980s, the then Government's view was that the market could deal with most regeneration issues and authorities were encouraged not to use compulsory purchase powers but to try to let the market dictate the system. Unfortunately, as we have seen in many areas, that does not work. We need the effective and smooth power of compulsory purchase to deliver major regeneration projects. We have failed, in many senses, on that agenda in the past and I would like to think that the Bill will start to put some of the problems right.

The Bill will enhance the power of local planning authorities to obtain land by compulsory purchase by widening the definition of the objectives that compulsory purchase must achieve. There is now a need to prove that the project will contribute to the economic, social or environmental well-being of an area, and that must remain a feature of the compulsory purchase process. As we have heard, the Bill will introduce a fairer compensation scheme, covering a wider range of owners and occupiers. There is a need to ensure that the benefits of compulsory purchase orders are fully understood at the local level and that capital resources are available to enable authorities to take positive action. Flexibility for local authorities will be critical.

I hope that, over the next three years, some of the Government's resources for investing in skills in planning will go into enhancing the skills needed to implement compulsory purchase orders and that that will link across into wider regeneration activity. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that when he winds up.

7.32 pm

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). The Bill's purpose is put plainly and simply in the explanatory notes. It is designed

My view is that the planning system can be speeded up by making relatively few amendments to the existing legislation.

I share a certain disappointment that the Bill does not contain a clearer and stronger statement on the purpose of planning. The public perceive planning to be a negative instrument when, as someone said earlier, it should enable people to get the right development in the right place at the right time. I commend the Town and Country Planning Association's definition, which states:

I am also slightly disappointed that there is no definition of sustainable development in the Bill. I know that it is difficult to come up with one, as I am chairman of the 44-nation Council of Europe committee on sustainable development. I offered a prize at the world summit in Johannesburg recently to the person who could give the simplest and shortest definition of sustainable development. I was speaking globally, but I got the definition down to eight words. It is Xconserving finite resources of Earth for future generations".

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However, a more homely definition of sustainable development—exactly what the Government are trying to achieve—could appear in the Bill.

It may be appropriate to declare what I might best describe as a reverse financial interest. I have been a member and fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute for 40 years. Unfortunately, the requirements of continuing professional development have caught up with me, and I have been advised that it might be a good thing if I applied for retired membership status. That would save me a considerable amount of money, but I thought of sending the institute 28 years of Hansard to try to show what I have been doing and the interest that I have continued to take in town and country planning issues. None the less, I declare a possible interest as a member of the institute.

The detail of these 90 clauses and six schedules is, of course, best left to discussion in Committee. I want to speak about a few of the broad themes of what the Bill seeks to do. I share the anxieties about the rather radical changes and the introduction of regional functions, with the regional spatial strategy and the regional planning bodies. I share the criticism that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made. The Bill puts the cart before the horse. It should not apply unless and until regional assemblies have been set up and are directly elected. In that sense, there is a democratic deficit in the Bill.

I also regret the severe curtailment of the present powers of county councils. Even the powers that will remain underline that there will be yet another layer of bureaucracy in the town and country planning system. I read the Bill in a way similar to that of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). It will hugely increase the powers given to the Secretary of State and lead to their centralisation.

The hon. Gentleman understands the current position in London. The Mayor has been given certain powers to call in particular applications. I will not go into detail, but they are not necessarily the largest applications. However, the Mayor has been given considerable powers. Once an application is submitted to the local planning authority—in London, it will be one of the London boroughs—it has to be referred to the Mayor, who has the power to direct the local planning authority to turn the application down. If he does that and the application is turned down, the applicant can quite properly appeal to the Secretary of State. If the applicant does not appeal, or the Mayor does not intervene on what he considers to be a good application, the Secretary of State can still call in that application. Precisely that has happened in my constituency. I ask the Government to reconsider. The powers for the regions should not be implemented unless and until directly elected regional assemblies—irrespective of our view of them—are set up.

I welcome the fact that the Government have dropped the idea mentioned in the Green Paper that Parliament might decide on major planning cases and infrastructure projects. A local public inquiry is essential. The problem occurs when that process takes as long as it did for Sizewell B and Heathrow terminal 5. That was the Government's fault and not that of the system.

I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). Clause 43 deals with major infrastructure projects. When major infrastructure projects are of

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national or regional importance, the Secretary of State will be able to call them in and he must appoint an inspector to consider the application. New subsection 76A(6) under clause 43(6) adds:

I want the Bill to stipulate that there should be a local public inquiry in such situations. I find it inconceivable that there might not be and I hope that the Government take that on board.

Local development frameworks, by which I mean local development schemes and documents, will replace the local plan system, which includes structure plans, unitary development plans and local plans. I agree that there will be confusion and complication. Although I fully accept that the Government want to streamline the process, the proposal will have the opposite effect. Of course I welcome clause 22, which allows modifications to be made to draft unitary development plans and other plans without having to repeat consultations and reopen inquiries.

I am worried about the business planning zones and must caution the Government on them. Simplified planning zones already exist and in the old days, we had enterprise zones. We do not need the new scheme. Instead, we should use the existing simplified planning zone technique. It might be right not to require an outline planning permission if a development is proposed in an area where the land use is in conformity with the proposal. That could apply to many other areas. However, we need to continue the general principle of requiring outline planning applications because they give certainty and assurance to the planning process.

I read the comments in the White Paper on speeding up decisions. It proposes that 65 per cent. of minor commercial and industrial applications, and 80 per cent. of other minor applications, should be determined within eight weeks, but why not 100 per cent.? I do not think that 65 and 80 per cent. are appropriate figures. One way to speed up the planning process for minor, not major, applications is to deem them granted if a determination is not made in eight weeks.

On the rights of third parties, I hold what must be defined as the publicly unpopular view. Third parties have rights when the Secretary of State calls in an application for a public local inquiry and they can give evidence before the decision is made. I recognise that, at the other end of the scale, local planning authorities consult on other applications, although whether they do that adequately is a matter of subjective judgment. I fear that if the rights of third parties are expanded, the whole system will grind to a halt.

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