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17 Dec 2002 : Column 794—continued

Mr. Betts rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I was just coming to the hon. Gentleman, so I shall briefly comment on his speech.

One of the most cogent things that he said was that what is wrong with the current planning system is the time that it takes to draw up the local development and structural plans. In his case, as there is a unitary authority, there will be a unitary development plan. He was absolutely right about that problem, although it could be put right within the current system. I welcome some of the powers in the Bill to streamline and speed up some of the planning process. Without a proper plan, it is very difficult for local planning officers to make the correct decisions.

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Mr. Betts: Having listened earlier to the arguments of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) about the need for significant reform of the planning system, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to explain to the House precisely what the great reforms that the Opposition would like to see amount to, as his hon. Friend did not do so?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We would certainly take out of the Bill altogether the whole section relating to regional spatial strategies. We do not believe in regional assemblies, which are a denigration of democracy and take power away from local people. We want the decision-making process to be taken as close to local people as possible. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy gave the game away: in the past 20 years, 120 Bills have been introduced that have taken powers away from local authorities. We want local authorities to be more accountable and want the Bill to make the planning process faster, more accountable and based on good decisions. We want local people to feel that they have some ownership of the Bill and we want the democratic deficit to be rectified. We want people to have a stake in their planning process. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe gave the game away by saying that local people could look at their local unitary plan, but under the new system they will have to go to Leeds, York, Bradford or somewhere else to do so. How will his local people like that?

When Labour Members were challenged, their concerns emerged. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) did not want his local plan to be dealt with somewhere in Berkshire and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) did not want his plan to be dealt with somewhere in Exeter. I put it to the Government that the whole regional strategy will fail and the Bill will be a mess, because if the regional strategy fails, regional planning will be in the hands of unelected officials. How can they be accountable to local people? Local people will feel alienated from the process, and the turnout at local elections will further decrease.

If the Government want to introduce a system that is fairer and more accountable, they must put more power in the hands of local authorities—even the few that are left. They must not concentrate power in the hands of the Secretary of State, but ensure that people can understand what is going on in their local planning system. The Bill will do exactly the opposite.

9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): May I simply say to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) that I hope the volume is turned down somewhat in Committee, otherwise we shall be concerned about his health?

Let me start with some of the basic facts that stand behind the debate. Cascading a policy change through the current hierarchy can take well over a decade. The unitary development plan regime was introduced in 1990, and there are still any number of local authorities without a plan under that system. I am afraid that less than 10 per cent. of local authorities meet all the performance targets for handling planning applications.

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One theme that ran through much of what hon. Members have said this evening is absolutely right, and I said it this morning in the Select Committee: we must achieve, hopefully on a non-partisan basis, a balance between the development control framework and land use policy that the country needs, and the mixture of the concerns about economic development and sustainable communities and the very real concerns that exist in communities that, after all, have to live with the consequences of the planning system.

We have made it clear elsewhere and I emphasise that the Bill is part of the planning reform agenda. However, it is not the entire agenda. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear, we have a huge agenda to deliver Xsustainable communities"—that is everybody's phrase, not just the Liberal Democrats', although they hijack everything that moves. A reformed planning system must be a key part of our strategy for sustainable communities, and the Bill is part of it.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. McNulty: No. [Interruption.] Let me say purely and simply that my hon. Friend has just got here. He has not been here for the entire day and it is not entirely courteous to seek to intervene in those circumstances.

My hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) and for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) spoke at length about welcoming the planning and development grant and about seeking to engage all the professional bodies in order to Xskill up", as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) said, the professions in the area. They also spoke about seeking to change entirely the planning culture. We are working closely with the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and a range of other bodies to do precisely that, above and beyond simply the planning development grant.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I accept all that the Minister has said and I welcome what he said in that respect, but does he appreciate that the extra resources must go to the planning authorities to allow them to improve their performance, and that therefore the money must be given up front, rather than as a reward if they manage to meet certain targets? It is a very important point.

Mr. McNulty: As the hon. Gentleman will discover when my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister makes his communities plan statement in January, the full details will not be a million miles away from what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

As I said, the Liberal Democrats seek to hijack everything, but it is historical revisionism writ large to compare some tiddly little 1907 town planning Act—

Mr. Edward Davey: It is 1909.

Mr. McNulty: I apologise. The Housing, Town Planning etc. Act 1909 cannot be compared with the glory that is the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said, that Act was part of a broad, cross-party post-war consensus.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish seemed to assume that, this morning, when we were in the Select Committee, I said that every single aspect of secondary legislation would be published in draft before the Bill even goes into Committee. If I did, it was an error on my part. As I have said, we shall try to ensure that as much as possible is published as the Committee unfolds and as the Bill proceeds through both Houses, but absolutely not before the Committee's first sitting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made a thoughtful contribution on the Bill's rural dimension and some useful points about the supposed sanctity of county structure plans. I also accept his point that local development orders can be explored further.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made some interesting points about the Welsh dimension and elements of the Irish planning system's gateway process, about which I know. Although it is not as rosy-tinted as he suggests, it is worth exploring.

Devolution, with which we have no problem, is the reason for the Welsh differences. I almost believed that the hon. Member for Cotswold wanted to get rid of county councils tomorrow because of his great appreciation of the Welsh system, which is rooted in an all-unitary local government structure. It is therefore far easier to apply the spatial strategy there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright), like others, welcomed the changes to the original suggestions for major infrastructure projects and the compulsory purchase order processes.

As a near neighbour, I respect the expertise of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, who made a thoughtful and reflective speech, which was nevertheless often wrong in emphasis. We will not yet have to change the thrust of section 106 because we shall do that in the new year via a circular rather than through the Bill.

I know that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has a range of interests in the subject because we had a delightful Adjournment debate on various aspects of the Cambridgeshire green belt. I hope that we can explore that far more in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) delivered an excellent treatise on the substantive logic behind the shift from counties up to regions and down to localities.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) that there is no automatic right to extensive planning permissions after extant consents run out. I will watch with interest as people develop the notion of planning watch wardens running around doing the job of enforcement officers. Perhaps the idea should be explored.

I would be remiss if I did not at least comment on the Loyal Opposition's amendment, especially some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who opened the debate on their behalf. He described my hon. Friend the Minister's opening comments as an ODPM Christmas carol; the amendment resembles a bad Christmas record such as XMistletoe and Wine".

The amendment suggests that the Bill

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when that is precisely what it does. It continues by claiming that

The Bill does not do that. The Greater London Authority Act 1999—I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee that considered it for the best part of three months—introduces that concept.

The amendment also claims that the Bill

I point out in passing that much of that has to do with the pleasure of parliamentary counsel. However, the amendment simply refers to a portfolio of specific documents. I do not know how anyone who knows anything about the planning system could make the sort of comments that the hon. Member for Cotswold made.

The amendment gets better when it states that the Bill

Perhaps the lacuna goes back to 1947, but if the Secretary of State or an inspector in his name currently makes a mistake in a decision letter and writes that 29 Acacia avenue rather than 27 Acacia avenue will be bulldozed, the might of the British state can do nothing about it short of going to court to get the decision changed. The contents of the decision letter prevail in the law, which dates from a long time ago.

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