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17 Dec 2002 : Column 767—continued

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the people of Southampton, let alone Hampshire, are likely to vote to join the regional assembly of the south-east? If he does not, is he happy that the regional spatial plan will be prepared by some unelected regional body that will dictate to his own unitary authority exactly what it must have in its local development document?

Dr. Whitehead: I have said in the House and on previous occasions that, in my view, we are engaged in a process. We recently had a Bill before the House paving the way for people to take a decision on whether they wish, at this stage or later, to have a democratically elected regional assembly looking after the regional strategic interests that I described. My personal view is that the process whereby that transition will be completed will be much shorter than some hon. Members currently believe. The process will speed up, as has happened in other countries of Europe, as people come to see why an elected regional assembly is useful and advantageous to their region.

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My personal view, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is that whether that will finally result in a body covering exactly the boundaries of the south-east region and having full regional accountability is a matter for further discussion, but the principle that democratically elected regional assemblies will come to England over a relatively short period can certainly be argued. [Interruption.] The answer is that we are engaged in a process, as I have just told the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). Opposition Members ought to understand the difference between something that is static and something that is a process. Their failure to understand that may explain why they are in the position that they are in.

It is imperative for regional planning to be sustainable, as hon. Members from all parties have said this evening. We in the House have rightly committed ourselves to targets for emission reductions to combat climate change, targets for biodiversity, indicators on the quality of life, the establishment of targets for the proportion of housing to be built on brownfield sites, and so on. All these are important targets and indicators, and their achievement or failure will depend to a great extent on our use of land.

If we agree to a free-for-all on urban ribbon development, if we go back to the days of the aforesaid Nicholas Ridley and rubber-stamp out-of-town shopping developments, if we agree to massive house building on greenfield sites, or if we develop settlements that increase commuting time and car use, those indicators and targets will fall by the wayside. Strategic land use planning and planning for strategic economic development must be co-located with sustainability. In this respect, I am not sure that we have made a brilliant start.

I read the first published economic development plans for each of the new regional development agencies some while ago, and also the regional policy guidance that then ran alongside them. Without exception, the stated ambition of each of the regions was at that point

We could suggest kindly that that sounds rather similar to statements made by premiership football managers at the beginning of each season that their ambition this year is Xa place in Europe"—an ambition which, for many of them, rapidly becomes obviously unachievable, although this season, remarkably, not in the case of Southampton football club.

A series of RDAs aiming to perform economically at above the national average is bound to conflict with regional planning guidance and, if the Bill is agreed by the House, with regional spatial strategies, if the latter are to unfold in line with the imperatives of sustainability in land use planning. The fact that clause 38(2) states that the regional spatial strategy should be undertaken with a view to contributing to the achievement of sustainable development will not resolve the problem entirely. In the legislation setting up the RDAs, it was stated that one of the five primary purposes of each RDA was to

To date, the potential conflict of outcome between what an RDA does, and what regional planning requires, remains unresolved.

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We need better to define the term Xsustainability" in the Bill. We need to make sure that that clause is substantially strengthened if a logical and progressive new system of planning, which I heartily endorse, is to become meaningful in terms of the needs of sustainable planning in England.

8.5 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): An article about the Bill in the Financial Times on 25 November stated that 60 per cent. of local authority planners believed that the Bill would be a failure, and that it would

[Interruption.] I am quoting, not necessarily expressing my own view. I shall develop the idea presently, if hon. Members will bear with me. The article continues:

Those were the views of 129 planning officers—not necessarily mine, as I said. I am starting with the blackest part of my remarks.

It is my belief, since I have been in this place, that there is a certain ambivalence towards local government at Westminster. Over the past two decades, more than 120 Acts have been passed, gradually scraping away local government powers. There is a distrust of local democracy here, despite lip service being paid—we have heard it this evening, and we will hear more later this evening, I am sure. The bottom line is that this place does not want local government to become over-mighty. That is a bad thing.

If we are serious about local democracy and empowerment, surely we should do more than merely pay lip service to that notion. The apparent readiness to find fault with local government is not confined to this place. Recently, Margaret Curran, the Minister for Social Justice in the Scottish Executive, put all the blame for planning shortcomings squarely on the shoulders of local government and no one else.

In the Welsh context, clauses 56 and 59 deal with the necessity for local development plans. That is a good idea. We should have local development plans that are overseen, in this case by the National Assembly. One hopes, of course, that the National Assembly will not play the role of big brother, as Westminster has done with local government. Hitherto, that has not been the case, and the hope is that it will not happen. On the face of it, the proposal is acceptable, provided that it is not shorthand for the Assembly and, in England, the Department, usurping the planning functions of local government.

After all, the thrust of the Bill is to speed up the planning system. There has already been a move to involve Whitehall in too many planning matters—for example, the larger wind power schemes need the approval of the Department of Trade and Industry, over the head of the National Assembly. With that caveat, it is right that there should be an input from the Department, and in the Welsh context from the Assembly.

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Ceredigion council in central Wales recently came up with the idea that it needed 6,500 new homes. The research basis for that figure is non-existent. It was arrived at on the whim of a group of independent councillors. There is, sadly, no proof of local need. No methodology has been applied. The idea is being driven by independents on the council, some of whom stand to gain considerably from it. The figure of 6,500 homes seems to have been plucked out of the air. The driving force behind it is questionable. The independent councillors are adamant about the issue, and I might add that they are strongly supported by the Liberal Democrat councillors. At stake is the potential for extreme dilution of the Welsh language and culture because of the building of houses for which there exists no proven local need. The result would be a further influx of people who can pay higher prices, ensuring that the housing market spirals even further out of the reach of local youngsters. That stark scenario is a current one and I welcome the fact that the National Assembly for Wales will have a pivotal role in preventing such abuse from recurring.

I welcome the spatial plans as, in the Welsh context, the National Assembly for Wales will be doing the work. I think that the proposal is sensible and, in England, it is a step towards true regional economic planning. The same is equally, if not more blatantly so in Wales. Several hon. Members have pointed out that planning might be working slightly better in Wales than in England. I am very pleased to hear that. It proves that we can do some things right. Indeed, I hope that before long we will also legislate well in Wales, although that is a debate for another day—or perhaps I should say other days.

What will be expected of planning authorities in their local development plans, which are dealt with in clause 56? I hope very much that the authorities will consider in their plans health impact assessments and the Welsh language impact. Those are bread-and-butter issues in Wales and I hope that they will be dealt with in due course by being included in the Bill. Furthermore, I hope that it will be made clear that the plans should have due regard to housing strategy and mineral development strategy, which should be linked. Indeed, the National Assembly has recently done some very good work in that regard.

I continue to be dismayed by the fact that local authorities do not as a matter of course undertake audits to survey local housing needs, concentrating on affordable housing. That was a strong recommendation of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs back in 1995 or 1996, but unfortunately precious little has been done, despite the fact that the need for social and affordable housing is even greater now than it was at that time.

The idea of limiting the duration of planning permissions from five to three years is good and I welcome it unreservedly, but I regret that the Government did not bite the bullet fully and provide a time limit within which the development has to be completed or referred back to the planning authority so an explanation can be given as to why an extension is being sought. Hon. Members will know that far too many developers use land as a resource and pension policy. In so doing, they skew natural and proper development in any area. Development can mean as

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little as a few pegs in the ground. In dealing with development, Sweet and Maxwell's XEncyclopaedia of Planning" refers to

It seems to me that simply marking out a plot is enough.

If the House will bear with me, I should like to cite one example. Aberdyfi in the south of my constituency is a small and fascinating maritime village with a year-round population of approximately 400 to 500. In the 1960s, a developer decided to submit an application for 200 houses on Copper hill above the village. There was no local need for the houses at that time and there is no such need now, but the mere fact that those permissions have existed for more than 30 years without a single plot being built upon has created terrible problems for small-scale local developers who have an eye on building affordable and social housing and on the local need. The obvious problem is that whenever a developer applies for planning permission in the locality, it is deemed that housing numbers are sufficient, but the parcel of 200 houses up on the hill has yet to be developed. Of course, if it is ever developed, it will result in the ruination of the wonderful little village of Aberdyfi.

The irksome aspect of that situation is that it has caused a planning blight in about a third of my constituency, as people cannot build a few houses to meet the local need because of a development that was allowed previously. I think that we should grasp that nettle. In saying that, I am sure that I speak for hon. Members and other people who have encountered the same problem. I believe that the situation that I have described is wrong and skews the planning system altogether. I do not think that land should be used a resource for investment for the future if that is to the detriment of those who need places to live in the foreseeable future.

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