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12 Mar 2003 : Column 359—continued

Mr. Roger Williams: I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said about the preparation of the unitary development plan in Ceredigion. Will not it reach a public inquiry at which people's objections can be heard by an independent inspector?

Mr. Thomas: It will; I look forward to that public inquiry and to hearing the councillors' justification for their proposals. However, the hon. Gentleman surely would not close out the need for a democratic process before a public inquiry. Any responsible local authority should hear the views of its local people, especially when they are forcefully expressed in such numbers. I am sure that he would not wish to ignore that.

I believe the process by which the unitary development plan has been arrived at in my county to be fundamentally corrupt—and I use my words advisedly. There has been a distortion of the planning process to the benefit, real and potential, of individuals. Those individuals happen to be councillors, so we must ask who will benefit from the plan in Ceredigion.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas: Not at the moment, I regret, but perhaps if I have time later.

The planning process arrived at the conclusion that 6,500 new homes were needed in Ceredigion by 2016. How can a rural county support 6,500 new homes? What effect will that have on Welsh-speaking communities? What proportion of those new homes has been designed for local need? What proportion has been designed for social need? What proportion has been designed to go with economic development? What proportion has been designed to meet the needs of the student population in Ceredigion? All those questions need to be considered when we examine the unitary development plan for the county.

The matter was the subject of an exposé on "Week In, Week Out". We in Ceredigion are all grateful to the BBC for that exposé on the planning processes that led up to the unitary development plan. How was it that so much extra land was allocated for housing in Ceredigion, and by what process was the figure of 6,500 new homes arrived at?

I held a public meeting with the leader of the council, Councillor Dai Lloyd Evans. The meeting was called by the Farmers Union of Wales, which opposed the plans; when farmers oppose land allocation plans, one knows that something needs looking at. At the meeting, the local planning process was explained: local councillors walked round their wards with the planning officer and identified the land that would be good for housing. That was then put into the local plan for development. The council took the plan forward as the deposit version, and the whole council agreed the plans for the entire county.

There are two fundamental problems with that, which is why I say that the whole process has been corrupt. First, local councillors who went round their wards

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allocating land for housing had some of their own land allocated for housing. They did not declare an interest until after the whole plan was approved and discussed at individual ward level. My argument is that they should have declared an interest when they first allocated land that included their own land for housing development in Ceredigion.

Secondly, the process is a nightmare. As any hon. Member knows, there is a local needs assessment planning process with guidelines from the National Assembly for Wales, which looks at local needs in terms of communities, and builds up from that the overall housing needs of the county. In the case of Ceredigion, one cannot depend on people of a certain age who have fought uncontested elections for the past 30 years deciding what proportion of land in the county should be allocated for housing, particularly when that land includes their own.

That land included the council leader's own land. He allocated for development land in his ward that he owned, and told the "Week In, Week Out" programme that he saw nothing wrong with councillors making money on the back of land that was being developed under the local plan. That was before he had declared an interest in that land. The process has, therefore, been corrupt from beginning to end.

Lembit Öpik: I would be interested in having a conversation with the hon. Gentleman outside. Can he confirm, for the record and for the avoidance of doubt, that he is not referring to a Liberal Democrat councillor? I should be grateful if he would make that clear.

Mr. Thomas: I made it clear who ran the local authority in Ceredigion. I have named only one councillor so far. The record will show that he is an independent councillor. Whether Liberal Democrats had land allocated in any ward for housing is a matter for the record to show. I do not intend to speak about that.

In an attempt to throw some light on a difficult situation, I have commissioned an independent report on the unitary development plan in Ceredigion, which I hope to publish next week. The report has been written by Mark Tewdwr-Jones, who, as many hon. Members know, is one of the foremost authorities in planning issues in Wales. He is a reader in spatial development at the Bartlett school of planning at University college London and has recently worked on two projects for the National Assembly for Wales. One of the projects dealt with second homes and he is currently working on a language planning project. His examination of the plan is fairly forensic. Although it is not yet available in its full version, it would be useful for me to tell the House what it has revealed to date.

First, the report has revealed that no local housing needs assessment has been made, as I have already alleged. Secondly, it points out that the local plan produced by Ceredigion depends on things called language impact assessments to protect rural communities. It says that those assessments as yet have no basis in planning policy and that Ceredigion county council has done no assessment of how they might work in that context. Thirdly, the report points out that

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Ceredigion has used something called the Norfolk model for working out student numbers in the county, but has not detailed how that model, which is literally a model from Norfolk, can work in an such an area. Finally—this is important not least in terms of social justice—the report has shown that the unitary development plan sets out no information about how much housing should be set aside as social or low-income housing or for the needs of local communities.

In other words, a huge amount of land—sufficient to provide more than the 6,500 houses to which the local development plan refers—has been set aside without any allocation whatever on the basis of local need. The expectation and fear is that that land will simply be developed in a piecemeal way with maximum profit for the landowner and minimum benefit to the local community.

The unitary development plan has now gone to the National Assembly, which has placed several formal objections, as indeed has the Welsh Language Board. I understand that the plan was very close to being called in by Sue Essex, as the environment and local government Minister, because she was so concerned about some elements of it. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) intimated, there will almost certainly be a public inquiry into the plan. More to the point, however, is the fact that that whole process will not happen until next April or May. Of course, that is when local government elections will occur both in Ceredigion and Wales as a whole and when a different Administration will—I hope—take over in Ceredigion and throw this ridiculous plan out on its sorry backside.

There is one final sorry chapter in the history of the plan: the use of public office by Cabinet members in Ceredigion county council—and by one councillor, Ray Quant, in particular—to carry out a nasty political witch hunt against the Plaid Cymru leader on Ceredigion county council, Councillor Penri James. Councillor James was accused of breaking an agricultural restriction on his home. Indeed, the county council began enforcement action against him, and him only, out of 500-odd people in Ceredigion who were in the same position. The local government ombudsman investigated the matter and Councillor James was cleared. The officers eventually saw sense and reined back their more extreme councillors, and enforcement action was not taken against him. Unfortunately, however, the campaign of personal vilification against him has continued in the press in a series of letters from Councillor Quant. That has served only to besmirch and reduce public trust in the whole planning process in Ceredigion.

The House has previously examined in detail, through the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the planning processes in Ceredigion and found them severely wanting. I think that it is appropriate and right for me again to bring before the House on the occasion of this Welsh affairs debate the fact that things have not improved. I remind hon. Members in all parts of the House that the same individuals are involved and that the council leader who was found so wanting 10 years ago is the same one whom we now find wanting in the planning process. The Under-Secretary used to have

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responsibility for planning in Wales and, although he no longer has such direct responsibility, he has a direct line into the Assembly. I ask him to ensure that he is fully appraised of developments in Ceredigion and to talk to Sue Essex as the Assembly Member responsible for those matters in Ceredigion. I ask him to ensure one thing. Whatever happens in the planning process in Ceredigion and in the final decision on allocating X amount of houses or land—it is important that we allocate new land for housing—I ask him to ensure that that process is seen to be above board, and above all else, is seen not to involve personal gain at the expense of our communities.

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