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17 Dec 2002 : Column 763—continued

Mr. Llwyd: I am listening carefully. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in the Republic of Ireland, a gateway gets rid of the chaff to leave only the wheat? Genuine complaints go forward and there is no delay. If it is possible that a bad neighbour will impinge on an individual, it is right for that individual to have redress.

Sir Sydney Chapman: In a sense, the hon. Gentleman nicely anticipates what I am about to say. For certain

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applications and to a limited extent, a case can be made to enhance the rights of third parties, but if the gateway is too wide, the whole system will grind to a halt.

Peter Bradley: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his position on the eight-week rule? He suggested that it might accelerate the process if an applicant is deemed to have consent after eight weeks. Is he advocating that as part of the planning process? If so, what consequences would that have for the rights of third parties?

Sir Sydney Chapman: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am not saying that that principle should apply throughout. All I am saying is that there should be a back-up for some relatively minor cases. For example, if a decision is not given within eight weeks, deemed consent might be considered appropriate. I hope, however, that on simpler and minor applications eight weeks will not be needed. The planning officer should ring up the applicant and say, XWe've got this. It is in conformity with land use. You've got the right density, which we approve of. We are just a bit worried about vehicular access to the site or housing estate and think that it should be pushed 20 ft along the road." Such problems could be dealt with over the telephone, modified on the plan submitted and stamped by the local planning officer. In those minor cases in which planning officers are allowed to make a decision, it could be given within a week. We want to encourage that approach.

On section 106 agreements—I suppose the section number will have to change if the Bill is accepted—I welcome what the Minister said about the need for transparency. Frankly, many section 106 agreements are uncertain. They consume time and are anything but transparent. Indeed—I choose my words carefully—some of them could be seen to border on perceived corruption because the impression is given that people can get what they want provided that they give a certain amount of money. That unsatisfactory arrangement should be changed.

I welcome the power not to accept repeat applications and twin-track applications. People can use and abuse the system. They go through the process. As soon as they are turned down, they appeal and put in another minor variant. I would welcome the time for appealing against refusals being cut from six to three months. I think that that is proposed, although I am not sure whether it is in the Bill. I very much welcome the ability of the local planning authority to expand permitted development rights.

We have moved a long way on compulsory purchase and I have a suggestion that may help us move a bit further. The Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which was great in many respects, had one fault: it was deeply unfair to people whose land was confiscated in compulsory purchase orders. I say confiscated because they did not get anything like the full market value of their land. All they received was an imagined piece of a #400 million pot. Over the years, we have gradually moved to the market value, although many people do not think that the amount set by district valuers is enough. There is a case not for 100 per cent. compensation, but for 110 per cent. compensation provided the owner agrees within a specific period. That would provide an incentive, and it would be possible to

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get the land and to carry out the development. That would be especially useful when we need to widen roads or construct new ones.

Dr. Whitehead: That sounds remarkably like giving someone money for doing what one wants. I thought that the hon. Gentleman rejected that principle.

Sir Sydney Chapman: If we give 110 per cent., we are not giving people more than they deserve. It is not a case simply of buying the land, but of accepting that they have to move, which causes expenses. I accept that the Bill deals with loss of payments, but still think that, for the Government and the taxpayer, my proposal is good value for money, as the land would be obtained earlier—the longer it takes to get the land, the more it costs to carry out the development.

Peter Bradley: That is an interesting idea, but will it not have the opposite effect to that desired by the hon. Gentleman? Compulsory purchase comes into play only when the private or public promoter of a scheme has failed to negotiate the acquisition of land with the owner. He is providing the landowner with an incentive not to deal with the applicant but to hold on to the promise of getting 110 per cent. of the value that could be obtained much earlier and more constructively through negotiation.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I am not proposing that such a scheme be implemented in every case. I do not have time to develop this argument, but there are cases in which putting in an early, favourable offer with a time limit will help people to achieve what they want. The present method provides every incentive to delay and hang on.

I doubt whether the Bill, as drafted, will speed up planning. It is possible, but not probable. There is no doubt that the Secretary of State will be given many more and greater powers. I am concerned about county councils' loss of statutory powers, and believe that local development frameworks are unnecessarily complicated. Decision making could become more remote and local people would have less say if the Bill goes through unamended. To return to my central point, while the Bill is good in parts, its approach is wrong, and the Government should have sought to amend the principal measure—the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. I therefore feel obliged to support the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

7.52 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I shall speak briefly about county planning functions and the Bill's proposals to change them.

I was interested to hear Opposition Members mount a thorough defence of county councils. That has not always been the Conservatives' position. The previous Government, I recall, instructed the Banham commission to assume that county councils would be abolished in the early stages of its deliberations on local authority structure. Indeed, one hon. Member who is in the Chamber today was a commissioner and succeeded

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in abolishing Berkshire, of which he may be proud. Such a development is at odds with the thorough historical defence mounted by some hon. Members today.

Counties' function in planning is mainly to produce structure plans which, unlike local plans, do not relate directly to communities—they are general devices that sketch out broad areas of use, defend areas like the strategic gap in Hampshire, show where population growth may occur, and so on. The Conservative defence of county councils, which, as I mentioned, is relatively new, is not based on that function but, bizarrely, on the idea that counties are bastions of communities. In the debate on the Loyal Address, the king of the Tories over the water, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), called them Xorganic communities". They are lots of things, but they are not organic communities. If we take a look at local authorities in the round, we could say that counties are providers of generic and strategic services. They do not have a specific community function, but plan and co-ordinate county land use, mineral extraction, waste disposal and so on. Some of those functions, as hon. Members have said, will be retained by counties in the Bill.

District councils have a clear community function in the proper sense of the word. The Bill makes community input a requirement for local plans in the shape of the new local development frameworks, which must include a statement of community involvement, as set out in clause 17. The process of community involvement is pitched at the right level, as communities will be able to make more decisions that affect their daily lives through the local development framework than has hitherto been the case. They will have input in the planning of their streets, their neighbourhood and the local shopping centre. Moreover, that input will have to be demonstrated by the local authority before the local development plan is finalised.

Contrary to claims by Opposition spokesmen, that is in line with recent pronouncements of the current Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who made a speech about returning power to local government, quite improbably on the occasion of the Nicholas Ridley memorial lecture. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) said, as a Minister in the Thatcher Government, Nicholas Ridley was probably more responsible for damaging and disabling local government, and its representative, community and, significantly, planning functions, than any other Minister in living memory. However, I will let that pass.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green did not equivocate or attempt to pretend that counties were local communities or even organic communities. He said, among other things, that

I would have thought that Opposition Members would be in favour of the provisions on local development frameworks, but apparently they are not—I guess that relates to their hang-up with counties and their defence. They do not want county functions that relate to communities passed to communities nor, on the other

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hand, do they want functions that relate to strategic planning and regional co-ordination passed to regions. They want to keep things just as they are.

If we step back and look impartially at the logic of the counties' function as the unit of strategic planning, we must ask why we should plan strategically on that basis. The only answer, frankly, is that we plan like that because that is how it has always been. I do not mean that that is how it has been since counties were established as elected bodies in their current form at the end of the 19th century, or even since the modern planning system came into being. I really do mean that that is how it has always been. If we look at a historical atlas, a remarkable fact emerges—counties have always had roughly the boundaries that they now have. A time traveller departing the earth in 1390 and returning today would have no idea that he had landed back in the same country until his eyes lit upon a map of the English counties, after which he would be certain that he had.

That may be good news for cultural integrity—counties are certainly a deep cultural implantation in the English psyche, as the polling during the local government review of the early 1990s demonstrated. However, I wonder whether a structure whose boundaries have withstood the black death, the depopulation of mediaeval centres of industry, the enclosures, the industrial revolution, the rise of urban ribbon development and the suburbs, has the best boundaries on which to base strategic planning considerations for the next 100 years. Planning strategically at regional level therefore makes sense, as it allows a structure plan to look at the deployment of land use overall; how uses cohabit with each other; how transportation systems work; and how urban, semi-urban and rural areas may be mutually defended to come into their own. Over time, Opposition Members' objection that regions are not democratically accountable—whereas counties, whatever their flawed planning function, are—is likely to be overcome as regions establish elected assemblies and as regional spatial strategies come under their purview.

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