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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has been generous. His parliamentary answer to me said that, in the first lot of responses to the original consultation, by far the majority of developers opposed a tariff system. If his second consultation shows that by far the larger number of respondents, other than local authorities, oppose the proposals, will he withdraw them?
Keith Hill: I could not possibly give that undertaking, but looking at the responses to the tariff proposals, the proportion within the industry was about 60:40 in favour. We have begun our discussions, and our impression is that we are receiving a positive interest on the part of the industry, the housebuilders and developers, in the proposals. I have no reason to expect a negative response on these matters. We are a listening Government, but if we think it right, we will proceed with our proposals, and we should do no other. I can tell from the hon. Gentleman's body language that he agrees with me, and in the unlikely event that he were ever in my position, he would do exactly the same thing.
I want to deal with two concerns that have been raised about the proposals. The first is that this is in some way a tax on development. That is untrue. The charge will have to relate to planning matters, as the existing system of negotiated obligations does now. Under our proposals, the level of the planning contribution can be set out in advance and in public, which will allow it to be tested. New clause 2 ensures that we have a power to require that the charge be applied only to the matters identified in the local authority's planning contributions policy, and the developer can opt not to pay the charge at all, but to negotiate over what level of contribution to offer.
The second concern, which has already rightly been raised by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, is that in some way the new arrangements might undermine provision of affordable housing. I recognise that that is a matter of importance to Members on both sides of the House. The Government are determined to drive forward their agenda for mixed, socially inclusive and sustainable communities. Our consultation document invites views on the best way to provide affordable housing within the reforms.
The House will know that the Government have also issued a consultation on changes to their policy on planning for housing. Our proposed provisions place a new and vital emphasis on planning for the housing needs of the whole community. Planning obligations are one tool that local authorities can use to develop the housing that they need. The House will note that we are not precluding what is currently possible in our new approach. I draw attention to the possibility, which we have provided for, that the charge could be sought either in kind or in cash. One can draw parallels between this and the two main ways in which affordable housing is currently provided through section 106. Precisely how the new arrangements can best be used to deliver our affordable housing objectives is something that we will want to work through as part of our consultation, and we are already talking inside the Government and beyond about how that can be achieved.
Can my right hon. Friend explain what he means when he refers to a contribution in kind? Might such a contribution mean that some of the housing to be created in a housing development could be dedicated for the use of a social housing provider?
Of course, it will be open to the local planning authority to stipulate in setting the terms of the charge the ways in which the developers will be expected to deliver on that charge, if it were to be a contribution in kind. It will be open to the local planning authority to indicate whether it would expect an element of contribution in kind. I fully expect the authority to set out in some detail the terms of that in-kind provision. I hope that that goes some way towards reassuring my hon. Friend.
Mr. Curry: I see from the body language of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) that he, like me, feels a pall of incomprehension descending on him. What is the difference between a tariff delivered in kind and an old section 106 agreement?
Keith Hill: There is none in principle, but it would certainly be open to a local planning authority to stipulate that its charge could be delivered in the form of a financial contribution, a contribution wholly in kind or a contribution that is partly in kind and partly financial. That is matter for the authority to set out as part of the charge.
Mr. Curry: In that case, a charge defined as in kind and not in cash might well refer to x number of affordable houses or x provision in education or community centres. Is that what the Minister means by "in kind"? Is he saying that the charge would specify the amount to be delivered and that, while section 106 involves a negotiation, the amount would be clearly set out? Is that the difference?
Keith Hill: The right hon. Gentleman has it. Again, as part of the clarity, transparency and predictability of the arrangement, such a stipulation could be made as part of the charge set by the local planning authority, but of course, whether the developer takes that path or the traditional negotiated path remains a matter of choice.
As I did not declare in the debate on the programme motion my interests as stated in the Register of Members' Interests, I should like to do so now: I am a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and I have property interests that are not currently likely to benefit from the provisions, but may conceivably do so in future.
Having got that off my chest, I shall now seek to press the Government on a number of matters, as we are entering a very wide field in debating the new clauses. Despite the Minister's assurances, if what is proposed is not carefully controlled by regulation, it could become a tax by another name. Given that the planning obligations did not have to be published until 1 July 2002, the Government are proceeding with a whole range of changes to the planning system on the basis of information that they have received only since then. The only definitive study on the subject is by John Hennebury of Sheffield university, who, although drawing on information from only 45 local authorities, tells us that the average value of planning applications is £148,000 in the north of England and £753,000 in the south of England. He further says that it is common for negotiations on section 106 agreements to last from one to eight months, but a small number last for up to four years and a very few take five years or more. It would be interesting to see whether the Minister's alternative system will deliver a quicker route to the developer.
My main concern is that the Government are producing a voluntary alternative that will require planning authorities to carry out a huge amount of work to set it up. The Bill is already exceedingly complex, with a raft of regulations several inches thick. Planning authorities will have enough difficulty in coping with those complexities, but the Minister proposes to lay even more on top by changing the section 106 procedure at a time when many authorities in the south of England are desperately short of planning officers. I would not be surprised if some authorities were simply to grind to a halt as a result. I predict that, far from delivering a quicker, more transparent planning system, the Government will deliver a system that leads some local authorities into chaos.
Matthew Green (Ludlow) (LD): I am a little confused. I had understood Conservative policy to be in favour of decentralising powers to local councils, yet, although the proposal gives local councils decision-making powers on what is appropriate in their areas, the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument appears to be that that is far too complex a matter for local people to decide, and that it is better decided by the Secretary of State.
In the absence of my amendment (a), which was not selected, I am pleased that the Minister has categorically confirmed that there will be a voluntary option for developers and that the regulations will in no way withdraw the current section 106 procedure.