Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Matthew Green : I shall try to make a contribution that is a little shorter than 49 minutes.The Government have ended up falling into an unsatisfactory method of dealing with changes to section 106. I realise that planning Bills do not come along often, so I can see why the Government wanted to insert the provisions at this stage and have them enacted through regulations. However, many of the details that have caused concern on both sides of the House will be dealt with in those regulations, and that is unsatisfactory. It is also unfortunate that the Government are in the middle of the consultation process.

8 Dec 2003 : Column 820

None the less, I suspect that the broad thrust of the changes is correct. They should enable local councils to define through a local development document the areas and types of scheme to which planning contributions—planning gain—will be expected.

Mr. Andrew Turner : To what extent does the hon. Gentleman think that we can rely on the Minister's assurances about the regulations that might be made by the National Assembly for Wales? Although local authorities in England may have considerable scope, the Assembly could introduce incredibly rigid provisions.

Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman is right, but I welcome devolution of power not only to Wales but to local councils, and it seems to me that the proposals will take decision making to a lower level than the current system, which operates by ministerial diktat. I welcome that, whether decisions are to be made by the local council in the Isle of Wight or regulations are to be made by the National Assembly for Wales, so I have no problem with such proposals in principle. If the Assembly makes a hash of things, it is for the electorate to kick out the Labour Administration in Wales.

The new provisions will provide a more satisfactory arrangement and will give power back to local councils, but I want to raise some detailed concerns so that the answers can be put on the record. First, section 106 is not used purely for planning gain—for example, in South Shropshire district council's affordable housing scheme, it is used to put a cap on the price of individual houses for resale. I know that the Government are looking with some interest at the development of that new policy. However, as the thrust of the debate has been about the use of section 106 in terms of planning gain rather than an agreement about a single dwelling, it is unclear how the changes will affect it. My understanding is that the local council could, through its local development document, continue to make stipulations exactly as, for example, the South Shropshire council does under its current policy. I understand that a similar scheme has been taken up on Dartmoor and in some other rural areas where affordable housing is a serious problem. My reading of the provisions is that it will be left to the local authority to deal with them in the relevant local development document, but I should like the Minister to clarify that point and confirm that it is correct.

Secondly, I hope that local authorities will be left with their current freedom to stipulate, through the local development document, a fairly high percentage of affordable housing on a site. Currently, several local authorities, not least South Shropshire, require there to be 50 per cent. affordable housing on sites of two or more houses. That goes well beyond the Government's recommendation of 30 per cent. on sites of 19 or more houses. That is the current legal situation, so I hope that nothing in the regulations will curtail local authorities in the delivery of more affordable housing. Again, I seek reassurance from the Minister on that point.

Sir Sydney Chapman: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, but is not there a difficulty if a local planning authority has power to raise money through a planning contribution or a section 106 agreement? Obviously, the authority would be interested in

8 Dec 2003 : Column 821

obtaining as much money as possible—that is human nature—so does not that make it less likely that the authority would insist on a higher proportion of social or affordable housing?

Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but again it comes down to local decision making. I know that in Shropshire the priority would be to take little money from developers and to have affordable houses, as that is the overwhelming problem facing my constituency—as both local district councils now recognise. I suspect that the situation will vary throughout the country, but surely that is what we want: local decision making by local people.

Will the Minister confirm that, through the local development documents, councils will still be able to specify a high rate of affordable housing and use that as a way of delivering such houses? Similar schemes could be used in London in the Thames gateway to provide housing for key workers, so I hope for reassurance from the Minister as a sign that the Government are moving in that direction.

I have some concerns about the rates of the tariff and again I should like some reassurances from the Minister. Section 106 is often used to deliver small items of community benefit next to a housing development—for example, a community hall or a children's play area. Those are good uses of section 106. However, I am concerned that if the developer opted to pay the tariff it would be up to the local authority to do the work, to construct the play area or whatever the community needed. However, because the public sector acts more slowly than the private sector, by the time the council gets around to building the item in question it will cost more than it would have done when the tariff was calculated, with the result that either the community ends up with a smaller children's play area or the council tax payer is asked to pay the extra and thus subsidise the construction.

6 pm

The Minister will say that it is up to councils to calculate the tariffs correctly, so that they know that they will get the money they need, but I remain concerned that the route whereby developers can opt to pay the money will lead to more detailed work having to be done—calculations of what something might cost in a year's time, for example—rather than the contribution being made in kind. If the developer opts to produce it in kind, that is probably an appropriate way around that potential problem.

The Minister dealt broadly with another of my concerns, but I would like him to reiterate his reply that it is not intended that the charge will be some form of tax that may be used to keep down council tax. I believe that there is broad agreement in the House that that is not the intention behind the measure. Community gain is the idea underlying planning contributions and it would be worrying if a local authority sought to tax development purely to keep down council tax.

Mr. Hayes: I tried to tease the maximum clarity from the Minister earlier, and he was most helpful. However, what causes me anxiety is not that the whole sum will

8 Dec 2003 : Column 822

transparently and obviously be spent on subsidising council tax or on a completely unrelated purpose, but that the money will be divided up and a more complex, more convoluted way found to do something that was not clear at the beginning of the process, that is not in line with local expectations, and that is not in the spirit of the arrangements that the Minister is hoping local authorities will put in place.

Matthew Green: I share that concern. The council is to set out in the local development document what it will use the money for, on which sites or schemes the charge is likely to be an option, and what the levels of charge will be. My concern is that there is a danger of inaction by the local authority—not so much that it will literally take the money out of one account and put it into the revenue account to keep other services running, but that it will sit on the money and use the interest to subsidise other services.

Even though I am not a huge fan of reserved powers, I was relieved to hear the Minister mention that reserved powers may be necessary in this respect. A council could create a local development document, then broadly ignore it. The problem is that we are dealing with fairly technical stuff. Not many members of the public will rush to the local council and ask to see the local development document setting out the charging regime for developments. Nor, dare I say it, will many councillors rush to read that part of the document: they will be far more interested in seeing whether some houses are to be built next to their homes or in their wards than in reading about the charging arrangements. Although I am inclined to agree that the electorate should be the best judge and that adverse publicity about a council that takes money and does nothing with it should be enough, I suspect that because of the technical nature of the matter, there should be some form of reserved powers in this instance. The Minister touched on that subject, but I would welcome hearing about what form the powers might take.

Another of my concerns is probably best dealt with through guidance. We all know that people do not like new housing or industrial developments to be built next door. Often, community gain is used to assuage some of their fears: yes, there will be more housing in the area, but a roundabout will be installed at that really dangerous junction as a result, or the school will get a much needed extension, and the developer will pay for it. That can help to reduce local public opposition to a project, but I foresee problems arising. Let us suppose that a local development document is produced stating that all the charges will be taken from all the schemes in the area and the money used to build a new sports centre at one end of the council area. Although that would be entirely legal, it might excite great resentment in parts of the district, because the people in those areas would feel that the houses had been built next to them so that people 20 miles away could have a new sports centre.

There is a danger of public discontent with that aspect of the system. As it is difficult to deal with such issues in legislation, and nearly impossible to do so in regulations, I hope that the guidance which I assume will accompany the new arrangements will encourage councils to bear in mind that the community that bears

8 Dec 2003 : Column 823

the brunt of the development for which the planning application has been submitted should see at least some of the gain as a result.

Next Section

IndexHome Page