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3.47 pm

Keith Hill: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We have held full and extensive debates on the Bill. I again sincerely thank both Opposition parties for the serious and responsible way in which they contributed to the proceedings. The Bill is in good shape and it is right that we now commend it to the other House, where I hope that it will receive a fair and impartial hearing from both sides.

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As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear, we have a huge agenda to deliver sustainable communities. A reformed planning system is a key part of our strategy for those communities. The challenges of sustainable development, of building sustainable communities and of dealing with the problems of providing decent and affordable homes for our people should be taken up by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The Government are rising to those challenges, but we can and must do better on planning. The Bill will help us to build a better planning system to help us to achieve those goals. It delivers on our commitments to introduce a simpler and more flexible plan-making system regionally and locally. Perhaps most important, effective community involvement and the achievement of sustainable development are at its heart.

This is an important Bill and I commend it to the House.

3.49 pm

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am pleased to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, in what has been a real marathon. The Bill was read the First time in the House on 1 December last year and the Second time on 17 December. After a rushed first stage in Committee, the Government went to sleep until June, when they suddenly awoke and decided to recommit the Bill, having got it wrong the first time, to Standing Committee in October. We had an inadequate number of sittings in Committee in October—eight, although we pleaded for 12 in debating the recommittal motion—and a day and a quarter on Report, followed by Third Reading now. That represents a complete manipulation of the parliamentary timetable, using the Government's guillotine procedures. It is very unsatisfactory that large chunks of the original Bill remain undebated to this day. Of course, we should have liked to have the opportunity to debate those important matters.

The regional element of the Bill and the sidelining of county councils will only diminish the legitimacy of the planning system and increasingly distance people from the planning decision-making process. If people feel alienated from their own planning process, they will not participate in it. It will become less effective, so it will decline. Limiting the role of county councils effectively breaks up a large bank of planning knowledge that has been built up over centuries in some cases. County councils have a clearer view of a local area's needs—and a superior grasp of the important strategic detail in an area—than large regional authorities. Counties allow for accountability. Local people readily identify with them. They also have a long-standing pool of planning expertise and local knowledge.

The local development framework—the local plan-making system, about which we had a long debate before Third Reading—will be unnecessarily complex and cause further delays in the planning system. In that debate, I identified no fewer than six types of local plan in the Bill. I was absolutely horrified when the Minister, when replying to that debate, identified a further four types of plan that are not even in the Bill: the proposals map, the action plan, the project plan and the local development scheme. No wonder plans will be implemented more quickly—there are so many of them that each must take less time to implement—but the question is whether they will all be implemented.

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My suspicion is that the local plan-making process will be so complex that huge excuses will be made not to revise the plans regularly. Surely the major lacuna in the present system is that 15 authorities have no plans at all and many others never revise them. It would have been far better to fix the present system, rather than to rip it up and implement a new system that is bound to cause delay and, at the very least, to become a lawyers' paradise.

Other elements of the Bill are reprehensible. The idea of replacing outline planning permission—a legal process—with a statement of development principles will cause developers many problems because they will not be able to obtain finance on the basis merely of such a statement, which has no binding effect on a local authority. The Secretary of State's power is greatly strengthened in the Bill. It has almost become a planning system by diktat of the Secretary of State. This hugely centralising measure will take powers away from local people and local authorities. It will move powers upwards, rather than devolve them, which is what we sincerely advocate. Add to all that the complexity of an alternative system to the section 106 procedure, which we discussed yesterday, and I am not sure how local planning officers, who are often in scarce supply, will cope with the whole process.

The proposal to cut the duration of consents is wrong. The principal legislation—the Town and Country Planning Act 1990—already provides flexibility on the duration of consents. Local planning authorities already have the power to grant planning consents for only three years if they wish to do so, so why make that mandatory? Developers on big developments will have a great deal of difficulty with consents of three years' duration. It often takes three years to overcome certain things, such as compulsory purchase. The Government rejected our amendments that would have ensured that the three years ran from the end of any statutory procedure in the plan-making process.

The proposal to remove the so-called twin-tracking process is wrong. Under that system, if the local authority does not determine an application made by a developer within eight weeks, which it is supposed to do, the developer continues negotiating with the local authority but at the same time puts in an alternative application, which it takes to appeal. If the system works properly, the local planning authority is able to negotiate with the developer, the original application is passed, or sufficient reasons are given why it will never pass and the alternative proposal is withdrawn. Under the system in the Bill, however, there will be far more appeals, because local developers will have no alternative but to appeal.

We welcome parts of the Bill—the clarification of the compulsory purchase procedures and the Crown immunity provisions—but we have grave concerns about the general resources available for planning. Many times in Committee and during debates on Report, the Minister said that the Government are already distributing part of the £350 million planning grant. The problem, however, is that it is not ring-fenced. Therefore, cash-strapped local authorities are

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likely to spend some of it elsewhere. In any case, I believe that a large chunk of it will go into setting up an unnecessary and unwanted regional tier of planning.

The Bill is hugely complicated and hugely bureaucratic—that is just the regulation so far related to this Bill. By the time that we finish, my guess is that the quantity of regulations related to the Bill will be even bigger than the pile in front of me. How on earth will local planning authorities, which are already hard-pressed to deal with existing regulations, devote their energies to enforcement, which we have discussed under various amendments? I simply do not know how the planning system will cope.

This is a bad Bill. It will cause delay and a great deal more complication in the planning system. The right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers) said when he started the review of our planning process:

you and I, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everybody who uses planning departments—

I agree wholeheartedly with every word of that. The trouble is that it is completely hollow, because the Bill will be completely contrary to everything in that paragraph. We will see, but I bet the Minister—he has been unfortunate enough to be cast in the role of trying to sort out this mess; it is Hill's Bill and it will be a testimonial to him—that there will be at least one and probably several planning revision Bills in the next five years to sort out the mess that he has created. On that basis, I will urge my colleagues to vote against this bad and over-complex Bill.

3.58 pm

Matthew Green : May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on his shortest contribution so far in all the stages of our consideration of this Bill? I sometimes wonder whether the reason the Conservatives are always antagonistic towards programmed Bills is that they work on the principle, "Why make a five-minute speech when a 25-minute speech will do?"

We welcome much that is in the Bill, as the Minister and Members who have followed this debate will know. We broadly welcome the new planning system at the heart of the Bill, with the local development schemes and local development documents. It should lead to a more flexible, open and accountable system, which should result in fewer appeals to the Secretary of State, fewer public inquiries, more public contentment—happiness is probably too strong a word—with the planning process, and, therefore, a speedier process. I therefore want to put on record that the idea that moving to an entirely managerial process—of which we hear more from the Chancellor than from the Minister—will solve the nation's economic problems is far-fetched. The reality is that it will take some time for

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a proper and effective planning system to work, but it does not have to take the amount of time that it sometimes does at the moment.

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