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17 Dec 2002 : Column 787continued
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): I apologise to both Front-Bench spokesmen for not being present for the opening speeches because of duties elsewhere in the House, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) mentioned.
Planning is a major issue in my constituency. It has been a running theme in my postbag since I was elected, and it was one of the key themes in the general election in June last year. It is a major issue because of the way in which Fareham has grown over the last 20 to 30 years: what was once strawberry fields and market gardens is now densely populated housing, particularly in the west of the constituency where I live.
When I talk to local people about their planning concerns, they do not focus on somebody's extension or putting dormer windows in roofs. Their concerns focus on the density and scale of housing development in an area that is already densely populated. Many local people were given heart by the words of the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) in introducing the Green Paper just over a year ago, when he said:
It appears from the Bill that the voice of local communities will be strong. We have already heard about the requirement for a statement of community involvement. That sends out a powerful signal to people that they should participate in the planning process. In reality, however, I fear that their voice will not be heard fully. Because of the way in which the planning structure has been changedwith the abandonment of county structure plans and the insertion of regional structure planstheir voice will be diminished. In evidence to the Select Committee in relation to the structure of the plans that will be in place, the County Councils Network said:
The abolition of the county structure plan and the end of a statutory role for county councils in the development of plans is a great loss, as I do not believe that any regional body set up to give guidance on the spatial plans will in any way represent the needs of constituencies such as Fareham. Any regional body in the south-east, whether elected or unelected, will be dominated by the representatives of the large conurbationsplaces such as Portsmouth, Southampton or Brighton. The voices of people in constituencies such as Fareham will not be heard loudly enough in the regional bodies. However, those voices are heard very loudly in the county council, where Fareham has six councillors to represent local people. The councillors can express people's views and concerns about how planning has developed in Hampshire and how development should take place.
Hampshire county council provides an ideal forum for the creation of its own sub-regional strategies. It met the representatives of local councils recently and identified two needs for sub-regional policies in Hampshire. One was in the south of Hampshire, where Fareham is, and the other was in the north, where the county felt that it could work well within the existing structures with Surrey and with unitary authorities in what was Berkshire. There is a framework for local people to feel involved and for sub-regional strategies centred on existing planning structures.
Mr. Love: I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's contribution, which has focused on the needs of local people. However, does he recognise the regional and, in many cases, national dimension, especially in relation to housing? If we do not build houses, we will have house price inflation and rising homelessness. We have to find a balance that reduces homelessness and house price inflation, but allows people to live in sustainable communities.
Mr. Hoban: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that many people raise when talking about housing in the south-east. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) mentioned it. When we build more houses, all that seems to happen is that more people migrate from the north-east, where I came from, and the north-west to the south. That is not sustainable. Rather than sucking economic development and prosperity out
I have yet to be convinced that regional guidance, housing targets and housing development work. They do not take sufficiently into account the needs of local communities.If we place more emphasis on regional planning, the housing development that the regional planning bodies believe is needed will be pushed into the areas that are not well represented on them.
Compulsory purchase is another aspect of the Bill, and I wish to raise an issue that relates to my constituency. I refer to the way in which land for compulsory purchase is valued. There is a ransom strip in my constituency that is holding up a major road that could improve the lives of many people in the area. That land is not currently scheduled for development, but its owners have said that, if it is subject to a compulsory purchase order, they will fight to make sure that the land value that they receive reflects not its current worth as agricultural land but what it might be worth if it is used for development. The Government need to introduce more certainty into how land values are calculated for compulsory purchase orders, so that they can prevent landowners from holding communities to ransom by extracting too high a price for their land even if it is not scheduled for development. I am disappointed that the Bill does not move the system any closer to clarifying how we should value that land.
The right hon. Member for Tyneside, North said that we needed to give people a real voice in deciding the future of where they live. The proposals in the Bill will diminish the voices of local communities in deciding their future. It is right that we should oppose it.
When I first read the Bill, I tried to put myself in the position of my constituents who are interested in and affected by planning matters. I asked myself a few simple questions. First, is the process in the Bill more intelligible than the present system? The answer is probably that it is just as impenetrable unless there is a determined effort to achieve the contrary. Secondly, does it give my constituents further rights to assert their interests? Again, probably not. Thirdly, does it improve their ability to challenge planning applications and permissions that they believe will damage their communities? The answer to that is a firm no.
I regret the absence of even an attempt to provide a qualified third party right of appeal. However, it is interesting to hear the Conservative party's sudden conversion to that when it did not lift a finger to do anything about it in its 18 years in government. I welcomed the comments of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). They seemed to be an unequivocal apology for the planning system that his Government inflicted on communities, like those that I serve in Leeds.
Unless drastic changes are made to the planning process, I regret that it may continue to exist in its present form. The problem is that it militates against public involvement, as does the impenetrable jargon, which we could refer to as planning-speak. Perhaps planners and Ministers should be encouraged to take courses run by the Plain English Campaign or involve that excellent organisation when they draw up documents. I am sure that Chrissie Maher and her colleagues would receive that challenge with some relish and, I have to say, planners deserve it.
My fear about the local development scheme is that it replaces the maze of the unitary development plan with a labyrinth of various documents. It will take a real Theseus, or his female equivalent, to find his way in or out of the labyrinth, with or without a ball of twine. Several references have been made to the simplicity of the Welsh model, and Ministers should take that on board.
On the statements of community involvement, will the Secretary of State lay down minimum standards or will it be a moveable feast? Can Ministers be more specific about what they want the SCIs to include as a minimum? Part of the problem is that SCIs will be drawn up in conjunction with the rest of the documents in the local development scheme. Although it does not exactly put the cart before the horse, it does put the horse in the cart. If we are talking about generating true, real and dynamic community involvement, surely we need to set the ground rules at the outset rather than as part of the overall process. There is a lovely juxtaposition in subsections (3) and (4) of clause 18. They say:
But subsection (3) does not apply at any time before the authority have adopted their statement of community involvement."
It also appears that the SCIs do not have a clear status. That indeterminate status means that they will not have the same force as the development plan. Instead, they will be seen very much as guidance. Part of the problem with that is that guidance is much easier to circumvent than something that is laid down in the development plan.
I have other concerns, which I shall list quickly. I agree with many of the comments on local development orders, statements of development principles and simplified planning zones. Each of those, in their own way, appears to militate against community involvement in, and understanding of, planning processes.
I shall use the short time left to concentrate on the third party right of appeal. It is clearly unsustainable to argue that local authorities are always right when they grant planning permission, but sometimes wrong when they do not. In the past, Ministers have said that it is difficult to define applications where a right of appeal may operate. What about local authorities giving themselves planning permission? What about permission being granted for a clear departure from a structure plan? What about where an environmental impact assessment is required as part of the process? The
It is simply not enough to suggest that people have redress through a judicial review, as that is expensive and tests only the process, not a decision. I appreciate that much of what I am concentrating on in the few remaining moments is negative, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister accepts that that is born from the frustration of grappling with the planning system on behalf of my constituents for over 20 years and the disappointment that, on the face of it, the Bill does little to make that task easier. However, I still live in hope. We must ensure that the process is engaging and properly publicised. It is important to the public and their need to become involved is crucial. The planning process must have a welcome mat at the door, rather than the combination lock or guard dogs that are sometimes there. If, through regulation or guidance, Ministers can reinvigorate the planning process so that community involvement is a fact rather than something achieved in passing, they still stand a chance of bringing a smile to my face.