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17 Dec 2002 : Column 775—continued

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): A simpler method might be to ask the building control officers to do the final check on whether a building had been constructed according to the requirements of the planning application. Building control officers are there at the end of the process.

Mr. Betts: Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would like to respond to that. It is right to involve more people in the enforcement process. People who are involved in the community, interested in such matters and who often walk around on site could be engaged slightly more formally. My idea has merit.

I want to deal with two criticisms of the current system that have been exposed to some extent. First, it is alleged to be slow. Secondly, it is alleged to be anti-business and anti-competition. The system is sometimes slow, but evidence to the Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee showed that resources and lack of staff have been a major problem. I am delighted by the Government's commitment to the extra #350 million. It is right not to ring-fence the money; it should be up to local authorities to determine their priorities. However, they should be held to account for the way in which they deal with planning applications.

It is often said that urban authorities' unitary development plans are adopted when they are due for revision. Clearly that is nonsense, but the responsibility ultimately lies with Ministers. If we set up a system—unitary development plans now or local development frameworks in future—that requires local authorities to act, Ministers must set out time scales and spell out clearly the consequences of not complying with them. There are currently no sanctions against a local authority that does not want to adopt a set of local plans. That must be examined if we are serious about the matter.

Mr. Truswell: My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of placing the responsibility on local authorities, but should not the Government bear some responsibility? Many delays in finalising unitary development plans fall between holding the public inquiries and inspectors furnishing local authorities with their reports.

Mr. Betts: That is a fair point. If there is a requirement on local authorities, perhaps the Government should also set themselves a clear timetable so that they can be judged against it.

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Do we always want speedy decisions? We certainly want the right decisions. Speeding up the process can sometimes lead to decisions that are not in the best interests of the whole community. Sometimes the problem lies with the quality of the applications, which cannot be determined because the developer gives insufficient or incorrect details. The responsibility does not always lie with the planners. We must accept that although better public consultation will slow down the process, it may mean that the decision is ultimately better.

I welcome the Government's commitment to community involvement by providing for each local authority to devise a statement of their method of operating the policy. I hope that we have seen the last of the notice on the lamp post as the only method of telling or consulting the public about a planning application. However, speed for its own sake can be wrong. An element of caution is therefore desirable.

Let us consider the second allegation that the planning system is anti-business. We heard much rhetoric, but it was accompanied by little evidence. I am not happy about the simplified planning zones. I do not know what they are supposed to achieve. I hope that one or two will be dotted around the country, shown to be ineffective, and thus the idea, like that of enterprise zones, will go away, enabling local authorities to get on with the proper planning job that they are supposed to do. Sheffield asks Ministers for many things, but please do not give us a simplified planning zone; send it somewhere else if it must exist.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the hon. Gentleman know that simplified planning zones already exist under the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, and that since that time, only 20 have been designated? Given the enhanced threshold of an environmental impact assessment that the Bill requires, is it likely that many more will be designated?

Mr. Betts: Either an explosion of uncontrolled development, which would be wrong, could happen, or nothing much will occur because there are few benefits. I hope that the latter is the case, and that the zones are simply someone's idea of a sop to appease the Confederation of British Industry, which is wrong about such issues and cannot substantiate its comments with evidence.

The planning process gives certainty not only to communities but to business. Someone who invests in a high-quality business park or office development does not want a scrap yard next door. The Select Committee visited Sheffield and saw the regeneration of the city centre. Alison Nimmo, who heads Sheffield 1, said that the reason for retailers' interest in developing the town centre was that they knew that the local authority, backed by the Government, would use its planning powers to stop out-of-town shopping developments. It is as simple as that. Such certainty is important to business as well.

The only bit of evidence that I could see was from the Competition Commission, which managed to hold an inquiry and conclude that the lack of competition among British food retailers was due to the restrictions on their developing out-of-town shopping centres,

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which were put in place through PPG6. I find that bizarre, because I did not notice a great deal of competition springing up when we had a free-for-all on out-of-town shopping developments or new firms moving in to ask for developments to be created.

The Competition Commission has spoken about trying to create more competition by encouraging more out-of-town shopping developments, but if that were to work it would set up competition only for those with cars to get them there. There would be no competition, and no shops in many cases, for the poor in our deprived communities.

I refer to what has just happened in Darnall, which is one of the poorest parts of my constituency. Incorrectly and in contradiction of PPG6 in my view, the neighbouring authority, Rotherham, renewed a planning application for an out-of-town food superstore, which was taken up by Morrisons. Surprise, surprise, 12 months after the decision was agreed, Morrisons decided to close its Darnall store, which effectively removed the heart from the shopping centre.

Worse still, I understand that Morrisons is refusing to sell its store to another interested retailer that wants to buy it up. It is therefore depriving my constituents, many of whom are elderly, on low incomes and without a car, of a supermarket in which to do their food shopping. In view of such proposals, I am much more content with a planning system that looks after community interests than one that mistakenly tries to develop such competition. The certainty given to British business by the planning system is worthwhile indeed in terms of competition and something that we should protect.

There are many good things and many things that I agree with in the Bill. I am happy to support it in total, although there are issues that we must consider in more detail, as they need to be subjected to further scrutiny. In general, I give the Bill my strong support.

8.36 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): I want to develop a theme that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who is not in his place. He referred to the role of county councils, although the House will perhaps not be surprised if I do not follow exactly the same line of argument.

We might all agree that a key question for decision making in a democracy is the level at which decisions should be taken, so I want to address planning in general and the Bill in particular in the light of that question, although I have no doubt as to the answer that most of my constituents in Wycombe would give: ideally, decisions should be taken locally and as close to local communities as possible. They should be taken wherever possible by institutions with a claim on the loyalties and affections of those governed by them, which, in short, have legitimacy.

The hon. Gentleman said that the counties have a deep cultural resonance in the English psyche. He is right about that, which is why my hon. Friends and I think that he is wrong in the rest of his argument. The background against which the Bill is set is not one where decisions are always, or even usually, made locally. Indeed, the trend in Britain since the war, under Governments of both parties, has been for more and

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more decisions to be made in Westminster and Whitehall—a process that has accelerated under this Government. That, of course, applies to planning as well as to many other examples.

Local representatives in the High Wycombe and Marlow area from many political parties, not just my own, have told me that they believe that there is now no effective local control over important elements of the planning system, especially in relation to house building. They feel that Westminster and Whitehall are creating a damaging spiral in the south-east whereby development is approved from the centre, thus encouraging a further movement of people to the south-east from other regions, thus creating further housing demand, thus bringing about in turn more development approved in the south-east from the centre. So, a vital question for them and for my constituents is the degree to which the Bill will make planning more local and accountable.

There are good aspects to the Bill. Few Bills, perhaps, are entirely bad. I welcome, for example, the Government's intention to eliminate repeat applications and twin-tracking—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member- for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman). However, the main argument of Opposition Members is that the thrust of the Bill is to make planning less local, less accountable and less democratic.

One of the principal intentions of the Bill is to dynamite the present planning architecture and replace it with a new structure, at the apex of which will be the new regional assemblies. That may be adequate where there is real demand for a regional assembly, such as in the north-east—although there is scope for argument about that—but what about areas such as the south-east, where even Ministers concede there is little demand for a regional assembly? The Bill proposes to take power away from directly elected representatives and to give it to people who are not directly accountable to voters, if at all.

Buckinghamshire county council argues that, if the Bill as presently drafted becomes an Act, county councils will have no statutory powers relating to strategic or sub-regional planning; regional planning bodies will decide whether it is desirable for county councils to have a function at regional or sub-regional level, which means that the regional planning bodies may decide in a particular instance that it is not desirable; and district councils may agree to the involvement of county councils in the production of local development documents through the establishment of a joint committee. Therefore, district councils may not agree in a particular instance that county councils should be involved in the production of local development documents.

Buckinghamshire county council also argues that county councils need to have planning powers to fulfil their duty to secure the social, economic and environmental well-being of their areas. County councils throughout England are putting similar arguments. My hon. Friends and I support them. That is the democratic deficit that has been alluded to by many speakers in the debate—not just Conservative Members, but Liberal Democrats. Without a statutory planning duty in the Bill, county councils will be unable to maintain a strategic planning function and a skills base, which will be to the detriment of the regional

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spatial strategy and local development documents. If the remit of county council planning experts is merely to advise other bodies, to assist them and to provide them with technical expertise, county councils are unlikely, given the pressure on them from education and social services, to retain that expertise unless they have a statutory role in the planning system.

The Minister will be aware that Buckinghamshire county council's view is supported by the Local Government Association, the Civic Trust, the Planning Officers Society, the Town and Country Planning Association, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, to which reference was made earlier. Even the Minister would have to concede that that is a formidable list.

Under the Bill, county councils in areas such as the south-east are to be squeezed between elected district councils and groups that are not directly accountable to voters at regional level—or quangos, to use the word used by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). District councils are also unhappy about the tensions that will result. Wycombe district council has said:

The Government's intention was to simplify planning. However, the Bill may make planning more complex by setting no fewer than four levels of government against each other—regional government, the new sub-regional level, county councils and district councils. Two of those tiers of government seem to have little or no legitimacy in the eyes of local voters, and it has not escaped the House's notice that the Bill increases the already considerable powers available to the Secretary of State.

Despite all this, I want to end on a positive note by quoting with approval a Minister. At the recent Local Government Association conference, Lord Rooker said:

On the basis of tonight's debate and the points made by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members, the Minister must surely be aware that there is no consensus whatever for dynamiting the current planning architecture in which elected county councillors play a crucial part, and replacing it with a system presided over in large tracts of the country—and certainly in the south-east—by those who are less accountable to local voters, if they are accountable at all, and who therefore have less, or no, democratic legitimacy. If Ministers are truly seeking consensus during the Bill's passage, they will achieve it only by reconfirming the statutory planning duties of county councils, rather than by seeking to strip them away. Until and unless they do, I and other Opposition Members will continue to oppose the Bill.

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