Previous SectionIndexHome Page

17 Dec 2002 : Column 784—continued

9.4 pm

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I welcome this long overdue reform of the planning system. Before entering the House, I spent years as an adviser to some major developers, advising on their community relations and promoting some significant schemes up and down the country. My job was to help them to ensure that communities were consulted and that, as far as possible, their support for major schemes was secured. I know that the most important issue for the developer and the community alike was certainty. Major development drives economic and, to some extent, social progress. However, many schemes that could have made a significant contribution to the local, regional and national economy stalled because, during the prolonged decision-making process, the market changed, the scheme was no longer viable and the developer had to go back to the drawing board.

I welcome any move away from the adversarial approach to planning and development towards a more co-operative system in which the developer, the planning authority, elected members and local communities can together secure certainty. Communities that support a scheme need to know whether it will generate jobs from which they can benefit. If they oppose a scheme, they will want to know whether it will have negative impacts—for example, on the value of their homes.

Communities want certainty about how and when decisions will be made and about their right to information—a point made earlier in the debate. They want the right to participate in and inform the decision-making process. I welcome changes that will improve consultation and participation and, in so doing, remove the blight suffered by communities where development is not welcome and accelerate the benefits where it is.

We need to go beyond simply changing the system: we also need to change the culture. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)—the name of whose constituency set me the double challenge, first of remembering it and, secondly, of being able to

17 Dec 2002 : Column 785

pronounce it; I think that I made a reasonable fist of it—mentioned the survey undertaken by the PPS Group that found that planning officers opposed change and thought that the Bill was unnecessary and unwieldy. I wager that whenever members of any profession are consulted about any change to their working practices they come to the same conclusions. Talented, highly skilled and motivated as many planning officers are, and however committed they are to their communities, they need to change their culture. We need to help them to do that. Planners need to get out more. They need to lift their eyes to a further horizon—whatever that means. When I wrote it in my notes I thought that it was a striking phrase.

Planners should raise their game. Planning should be entrepreneurial as well as regulatory. Too often, we encounter planning as development control that has forgotten that it can play a creative role in our communities. Planners should not merely prevent or control development but look out for opportunities to improve housing provision, generate employment and enhance local services. They should improve the environment as well as conserving it.

Planning is a potent engine for social change. When I was a member—

Mr. Drew: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Peter Bradley: I can give way only briefly as I am anxious that other Members have the chance to speak.

Mr. Drew: There is no better example of the points that my hon. Friend was making than when planners are faced with the redundant barn syndrome. They always want to turn down proposals to develop such buildings instead of seeing them as enabling employment or proper housing in rural areas. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Peter Bradley: Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to deal with that point in a moment.

I was about to give an example from my experience as a member of Westminster city council during the heady days of Shirley Porter's regime. The Conservatives on the council certainly understood the importance of planning. In promoting their scandalous and illegitimate homes-for-votes scam, they achieved more through the planning system than they ever did through manipulating housing provision and selling off council flats through the designated sales policy.

Major developments such as Bishopsbridge in Paddington and Westminster hospital, just around the corner in the ward that I represented, did not provide even one unit of social housing, yet such projects could have met acknowledged need in our community. I do not cite those examples to make either a rhetorical or a political point, but there are huge opportunities, especially in commercial centres such as Westminster and the City of London. A force for something that was ultimately unlawful can also be a force for good. We need to return to the concept of planning as a creative engine of social change.

Let me cite another example of my experience as a member of Westminster city council's planning committee. A plausible policy was adopted to resist the

17 Dec 2002 : Column 786

development of tall buildings around the royal parks. Most people would accept that that is a very sensible policy, but I think that it is a counsel of despair. We should tell architects that we value sensitive landscape as a precious resource but then challenge them to come up with excellent architecture that will overcome our objections.

We should challenge planners, architects and developers to extend themselves, meet local needs, devise original schemes and design buildings whose architecture we can be proud of and which will be landmarks for years to come. We should not simply say to them, XI'm sorry mate, but don't even bother to put in a planning application for this site because it won't be accepted."

I commend the emphasis in the Bill on the rights, interests, needs and participation of communities. I have concerns about rural development, not because I am against it—far from it. I favour development in and for rural communities. The Government have rightly supported parish councils, and #16 million has already been distributed by the Countryside Agency's vital villages programme to develop parish plans. The Government are committed to sustainability, but my plea is that the planning system must help more and hinder less. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made that point in his intervention.

The biggest complaint that I get from those in the rural part of my constituency—particularly from farmers, as we are urging them to diversify within and beyond agriculture—is that when they go to the planning department with a proposal to develop a redundant farm building or change its use, the planning officer says, XI am sorry; our controls are very strict, so don't waste time and money on a planning application."

Some businesses that started in farm buildings, have succeeded and are now ready to expand, creating jobs and investment to the benefit of the local community, have their plans stalled before they even get off the drawing board. That problem should not be underestimated. We have to encourage planners in rural settings to understand that, yes, the landscape must be protected, but not always at the expense of the people who live in it.

I want to touch on an important flaw in the Government's policy on the provision of housing for rural communities. The sequential test is fine in principle, but, in practice, it drives young people from their villages into market towns or, worse still, into the nearest urban centre. It does not arrest that migration from which rural communities have suffered for decades; it drives people further away.

Earlier today, hon. Members talked about the need for housing needs surveys, and I fully support that principle. Every district council should be required to undertake a housing needs survey, and those surveys may well be supported by the parish council and village community groups because their village needs affordable housing to sustain community life, despite the fact that it has to be built on green fields or in the green belt.

When young people are driven away from their villages—some go through choice and some because they cannot find jobs, but many go because they cannot find affordable housing—the village shop is undermined

17 Dec 2002 : Column 787

because there are no customers, the school is undermined because there are no children to go to it and the pub begins a downward spiral towards closure. People are not there to use those facilities. If we provide homes and jobs where they are needed, we begin to reverse that process and, incidentally, we reduce the dependence on public and private transport.

My plea is that we look at where housing is needed. Let us not drive people to the nearest market town just because that is where the railway station or the motorway connection is. That has a role to play, and we should stimulate economic development in market towns, but not at the expense of the village communities, where people need to live and often have a right to choose to live.

I am very pleased about the reduction in the life of planning consents from five years to three, and about the bar on repeat applications. We should, however, consider the need to abbreviate the life of planning consents when work has begun on them. That problem is far more widespread than may be recognised, and we need to plug that loophole. We talked about certainty, and people need to know what, if anything, will happen on a site in their neighbourhood. That is an anomaly, and I hope that Ministers have heard the comments of hon. Members and will act to plug that loophole as the Bill progresses.

Next Section

IndexHome Page