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17 Dec 2002 : Column 791continued
This has been a good-tempered debate. Even if attendance in the House is rather thin at the moment, it is worth putting on the record the fact that this will be the last Tuesday on which we will have 10 o'clock vote. Let us hope that modernisation produces a better attendance in the Chamber, as that will be to everyone's advantage. I congratulate, in no particular order, my hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) on their excellent speeches and pertinent comments.
It is a remarkable achievement that bodies as diverse as the CBI and Friends of the Earth can condemn the Bill. It is remarkable that the Government have been able to introduce it under those circumstances.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I agree with all of them, otherwise I would not have cited them. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's contribution because, under his chairmanship, the Select Committee did the House a huge service in taking a huge amount of evidence. However, reading his speech, in parenthesis he appears to say that there is nothing wrong with the present planning system that could not be cured by a little amendment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe was right: why dismantle the entire present planning structure and architecture, and replace it with something that is unproven and which, as all those outside bodies said, at best will be much more lengthy, and at worst may not work? We must consider carefully what the Bill will bring about. There is no doubt that it will introduce more complexity, more delay, less democratic accountability and more centralised direction. I shall enlarge on all those themes in due course.
A number of hon. Members said that the system is not at fault; it needs to be administered by proper professional officers. I declare my interest as a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I know that planning officers, many of whom are in my profession, think that they are undervalued. They certainly think that they are underpaid, compared with the private sector. Until we value them and pay them properly, we will not get planning officers of calibre, whom we will certainly need under the new, more complex system introduced by the Bill.
The Bill introduces the regional planning body and the regional spatial strategies. The Secretary of State will have huge powers over those new unelected regional bodies. He will have to nominate a regional body long before any elected regional assembly comes about, if that ever happens. The Bill centralises the planning system into the hands of the Secretary of State, and huge powers he has. The Local Government Association says of the regional planning body:
Not only does the Secretary of State have huge powers to prepare the regional spatial strategy and supervise it; the regional spatial strategy can then inform and dictate the local development framework and document. By that mechanism the Secretary of State is aggregating to himself huge centralising powers under the Bill.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: What the Secretary of State does not aggregate to himself through the Bill, he aggregates to himself through order-making powers, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made clear.
Mr. Edward Davey: I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), but can he tell the House how centralisation under the Bill differs from the centralisation that the Conservatives bequeathed to the country?
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman has not been listening, or he is deaf, or he is incapable of understanding. I have just read that out to him. I shall give him a little advice. Before he goes into Committee, he had better go through the Bill with somebody who knows what it is all about, then he might understand it a little better. He had better do a bit of boning up.
There are many aspects of the Bill that I want to cover in the short time available. Apart from the powers over the regional spatial strategy and local development documents, the Secretary of State has powers to order joint development documents to be prepared. He has powers of correction of errors. That is an appalling principle to introduce into a Bill. The power of correction of errors allows for sloppy decision making and drafting. Under the old system, if the Secretary of State or any civil servant got a document wrong, it went to the court. That is the system that we ought to adopt. If the House allows for the correction of errors in primary legislation, we are going down a very slippery slope.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: It is an unfortunate trend, as my hon. Friend says, that every piece of legislation brought in by the Government introduces yet more and yet wider order-making powers into primary legislation. The House is adopting a very bad principle, and we are adopting it with a vengeance in the Bill tonight.
One could say a lot of things about the Bill. I am very sceptical about the community involvement that it introduces. It is all very well having a statement of community involvement at the level of the local development framework, but there is no such statement at the regional spatial strategy level. Of course, the regional spatial strategy element will dictate to every local authority what it is to put in its local plan. I am very sceptical about that. In Committee, I shall table an amendment seeking to ensure that the regional spatial planning body has some form of community involvement.
Some very good speeches have been made, and not only from the Opposition Benches. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) spoke very cogently about the system that operates in Wales. I submit to the Minister, as a constructive point, my belief that the system that the Bill introduces in Wales is much simpler than that which it introduces in England. I cannot understand why one Bill introduces two systems, one of which is much better than the other.
Like other hon. Members, I should like to comment on simplified planning zones. As I said in an intervention, the concept of such zones has been around since the introduction of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. I told the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) that only 20 such zones had been designated since that Act took effect, but I was wrong. In fact, only 10 have been designated. I must tell him that if the environmental impact statement in the Bill is applied to such zones, there will probably be even fewer in future, as the hurdle will be so high that it will be very difficult for anyone to overcome it. We will need in Committee to consider very carefully the powers that apply in relation to the zones.
The Opposition can welcome some parts of the Bill. I welcome the streamlining on listed buildings and conservation areas, some of the powers for dealing with simultaneous applications and the speeding up of the decision process with regard to the provision of eight weeks within which a local authority must determine a decision. If it does not do so, the applicant can appeal and the matter can go to the Secretary of State for determination.