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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Given the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the new regional-plan-led system, will the Liberal Democrats support all the extra houses that the Secretary of State will want to visit on the green fields of many beautiful places in England?
Matthew Green: Had the right hon. Gentleman deigned to participate in any of the Bill's stages before Third Reading, he would have anticipated that I would address some of the Bill's problems, including the regional elements, and explain why we shall vote against it.
There are other aspects of the Bill that we like. It contains a provision on sustainable development, although we would have liked it to include a definition of that. We hope that the regulations will be effective. At least there is now the intention for sustainability to form part of the planning process. Although the clauses that concern Wales have not found universal approval, no one can find any reason to object to them and the Welsh seem happy with them, so that is good enough for me. The local development orders represent a step forward and the Bill's provisions on Crown immunity are long overdue. Although I am worried that the section 106 reforms might have perverse consequences for affordable housingI am sure that the Minister will work to try to prevent thatthe changes are broadly welcome, as are the Bill's compulsory purchase provisions.
We have some worries about the Bill, though. We did not discuss the simplified planning zonesor "Gordon's planning zones", as I call themat length in Committee. I think that the provisions are in the Bill only because the zones were mentioned in last year's Budget. If the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister were honest, I am sure that it would rather that the provisions were not in the Bill because broadly similar provisions exist, although no oneincluding developersuses them or is enthusiastic about them. Developers and businesses often prefer a structured process to a simplified one. When development takes place, people want to ensure that there is some control on what happens next door. I suspect that the Bill's provisions on such zones will not be used.
We are also worried about the introduction of statements of development principles. The Government rightly had to row back from abolishing outline planning permission because of the question of land banks and their value. There is a danger that the statements of development principles will become rapidly discredited because they will be relatively worthless. It would be good if the shift from outline planning permission to statements of development principles could be achieved, because the statements would allow planners to detail what they would like to see on a site, rather than using a reactive system in which they must wait for applications to come forward. However, it will be difficult to make that transition and
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I thought that the hon. Gentleman said that the Government had to row back on the abolition of outline planning permission, but I understand that that is not the case. A provision to abolish outline planning permission remains in the Bill and the Minister in Committee said that such planning permission would be abolished once the Government had decided that statements of development principles were working properly.
Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman is right that the Bill still contains such a provision. The Government have rowed back because the Bill originally provided that if a development was covered by a statement of development principles, outline planning permission could not be issued. They have removed that provision and left the situation for outline planning permission unchanged. The Bill does include a provision to abolish such permission, but the Minister will never be able to use it because he will find that statements of development principles will unfortunately be discredited and considered to be worthless. It will be potential objectors or people with a third-party interest who will apply for them, rather than developers, who will continue to opt for outline planning permission.
Those are the technical details. There is one fundamental reason why we will not support the Bill. The regional element means that powers are transferred from elected county councils and elected principal local authorities up to a regional tier. That would be acceptable if elected regional assemblies were in place. Regional planning can make a great deal of sense, especially for transport, which is difficult to organise at a local level. However, in many cases power will be transferred before elected regional assemblies exist. In some cases, it will be at least a decade before those assemblies are established, because the Government will not win referendums in the south-east and south-west unless they review the regional boundaries. The powers will go to the regional planning bodies, which are accountable to no one except the Secretary of State, who appoints them.
The transfer of powers from elected to unelected bodies is unacceptable. That is a strong enough reason to vote against the Bill, regardless of its good aspects. A compromise is possible. As I made clear in Committee, and as I have told the Minister at other times, if the county councils or principal local authorities have a power of veto over the new regional spatial strategy, the elected county councillors could indirectly hold the regional planning body to account and it would be forced to take note of their views. That would be a step forward, which might go some way to allaying some of the concerns raised.
As I have said before, the Minister has the numbers on his side in this place, but he does not in the other place, which will be greatly concerned by issues such as the transfer of powers. If he wants the good parts of the Bill to survive, he needs to find a way around the problem. I cannot foresee circumstances in which the other place will accept that proposal in its current form.
Overall, there is much in the Bill to welcome, but the fundamental problem remains. I am surprised that the Minister has signed up to it, because I should not have thought that he would want to sign up too often to allowing power to be taken upwards, away from elected people to unelected people. For that reason, I too shall urge my colleagues to vote against the Bill.
Sir Sydney Chapman: I want to pick the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) up on one thing. He complained about the length of the performances of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). They were as long as they were because my hon. Friend allowed Members on both sides of the House to intervene to raise specific points, which, ultimately, saved time. The hon. Gentleman spoke for longer than he intended because he accepted an intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood).
My main point is that here we are again, involved in a rushed and shortened Third Reading of an important Bill, with not enough time to consider it on Report. The Government amendments went through on the nod and the same thing happened in Committee.
David Wright: I have one point to make. As I said on Report, the Government could have crashed the Bill through Parliament in the last Session. Instead, they took time to consider its contents and to carry it over into this Session. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it could have been crashed through with a large parliamentary majority?
The purpose of the Bill is to speed up the planning systemthat is the summary in the explanatory notes. I accept that the Government would say that they want to "speed up the planning system while ensuring that it becomes fairer or remains as fair, and is as simple as possible."
Of course I welcome parts of the Bill, as the hon. Member for Ludlow has, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). If we could speed up the handling of major infrastructure projects, that would be a good thing. The devil is in the detail, and we must look into that. There is a good case for simplified planning zones, except perhaps for people who live in the affected areas, who may not think that a simplified system is necessarily the best way forward.
On reforms relating to the handling of planning applications, I do not think that the process will become quicker and more efficient, except possibly in the simplified planning zones. The regulations have been made more and unnecessarily complicated.
I am sorry that the Minister resisted the timetable proposals for drawing up development plans and for the inspector examining them and publishing the reports. Like the hon. Member for Ludlow, I feel strongly that there should be no question of transferring any powers
Let me deal with the remarks of the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). The Government introduced the first Bill, if I may call it that. We had a Second Reading almost a year ago and the Bill was rushed through Committee in January. The Government said that they rushed it through because they needed to get it on to the statute book quicklythose are their words, not mine. We then waited expectantly for no fewer than six months before the Government decided to recommit the Bill. That was unique in my experience in this place. The Government then added substantial new clauses.