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David Wright: I represent a new town. There was consensus from the end of the second world war, under all Governments, that we should, through the planning system, build new housing in certain local areas to meet major regional and national demand. The new towns were one of those strategies. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is perfectly reasonable in a coherent regional planning structure to require areas to consider large-scale housing development? That happens to be occurring in his area. In my area, there was originally large-scale opposition to the new town of Telford, but it has turned out to be an absolute success as far as most people are concerned in Shropshire and the wider west midlands.
Andrew Selous: The hon. Gentleman persuasively puts forward one way to solve the nation's current housing problems, which I accept are serious. He is absolutely right to say that we have to find radical solutions. There are alternatives, however. Even in London and the south-east there are around 150,000 empty properties. It is possible to develop existing communities organically so that there is some proper sense of community. If the hon. Gentleman thinks of developments on the edge of Glasgow, such as the Easterhouse estates, he will know that many people say that putting down vast numbers of houses on the outside of towns without proper community infrastructure has not worked as there is no proper sense of community. We need to think more seriously about that.
Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend will agree that there is a massive difference between what is being proposed for his part of the world and the new towns, which were devised and implemented as self-sustaining communities. What is being proposed in his part of Bedfordshire is an influx of people who will not be sustained locally and who will travel to work, increasing wage inflation and environmental pollution and doing untold damage. They will not be building the sort of communities that we all want to develop and thrive.
Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is at the heart of my constituents' objections to current housing proposals for south Bedfordshire, which the four amendments would go some way to addressing.
I have put all these points to the Minister before, in an Adjournment debate, and I will continue to raise them on behalf of my constituents. It seems that I am the only elected person to whom my constituents can turn on these matters, because power has been taken out of my local planning authority's hands. I shall quote briefly from a letter and an article that the Chiltern Society
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recently sent me. This local society looks after environmental and planning issues in the area and has no party political stance. Its chairman, Mr. Robin Rowland, wrote to me with a magazine last month:
"If you have time only to read just one article, can I ask you in the interests of democracy to read the article on page 14 by Helen Whitmore. This epitomises the current almost total disregard for local community views. It can not be right to empower Central Government and unelected Regional bodies this way. I am personally very much a non-political person as is the Chiltern Society, but it would be very wrong for us not to express our views strongly on this subject. I hope you will also feel it necessary to raise awareness on this matter."
I should like also to quote from the magazine concerned, because it is relevant to the four amendments that we are discussing. In the excellent article, my constituent Helen Whitmore, who is planning field officer in south Bedfordshire for the Chiltern Society, wrote of her considerable concern that the examination in public process, which is all that we have been offered, is inadequate, and she comments:
"At the Preliminary meeting to discuss the draft matters, a Government officer made it quite clear that it was not the job of the EiP to question Government Policy on growth in the South-East of England. We're stuck with it, like it or lump it.
This is not democracy. All we in South Bedfordshire are to enjoy out of this thoroughly undemocratic process is the overwhelming of our communities by thousands upon thousands of people for the benefit of"
"but with little or no opportunity to even temper"
"never mind rein it back to realistic . . . requirements . . . What appears to be happening to the planning system in this country with the stealth surrounding the destruction of true public involvement deeply frightens me. In relation to the devastation facing communities in South Bedfordshire, the process of an Examination-in-Public is inadequate, undemocratic and disempowering. It is a process which no longer allows individuals, local groups or for that matter voluntary organisations such as the Chiltern Society to put their case except in writing, unless specifically invited by the Examination Panel, nor to have convenient access to the debates. It is a disgrace."
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful that the examination in public at Northampton is considering major housing proposals for his constituency and mine without any rights for local amenity groups or parish councils to make their views known? Is he aware that, according the Aylesbury Vale district council, the Government office for the south-east proposes to bring forward from the second half of the communities plan yet more housing for the first half of the plan? The Government office will not even accept any responsibility for telling local people that that is what it plans to do.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point with the lucidity that we have come to expect from him. He is right, and similar affronts to the feelings and
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needs of local people occur in every area we look at. We are all concerned about the low turnouts in local elections, but many of my constituents ask why they should bother to vote in local elections again if those who are elected have no power over some of the most significant issues that affect our area most deeply. The Government try to assume the mantle of new localism, but that is far from the truth.
Concern has been expressed from different standpoints by my hon. Friends and myself today, but the theme of lack of concern for local areas is the same. More people come to see me about housing than about any other issue, and I am concerned that the housing needs of my constituents should be fully and adequately met. All that I ask is that other areas act as responsibly as my area is acting, and that housing supply is spread across London and the south-east, where it is needed, instead of being rammed into a few areasas currently proposed.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I declare an interest as a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. As such, I have practised within the planning system. I shall speak briefly so that the Minister has an opportunity to reply to some of the points that have been made ably by my hon. Friends.
"shall apply only if an elected assembly for the region has been established."
That amendment would make a bad Bill marginally better. The Bill will be a testimonial to the Minister and I call it Hill's Bill. The problem is that its insidious effects will not be felt until long after he has ceased to hold his present position. Only then will the country reap the problems that the Bill will sow.
The Bill has two fundamental disadvantages. First, it will do nothing to improve the democratic accountability of the planning system and, secondly, it will not speed up the planning system. In fact, it will do the reverse in both cases. I do not know how anyone, least of all the Minister, could believe that placing planning control under a regional system will improve matters. I have already demonstrated how my constituents will have to travel many hundreds of miles to make representations. Even if my constituents could discover the identities of the indirectly elected representatives, they would have great difficulty making representations about Gloucestershire matters to people living in Dorset or Cornwall. I do not know how my constituents would realistically be able to take part in a regional planning system.
The regional planning system is not democratic. The Minister even said today that the regional spatial strategy would be the property of the Secretary of State. The Minister's predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, said that it would be the creature of the Secretary of State. If the RSS is the creature of the Secretary of State, how can it possibly be democratic for local people? The system would be hugely centralised, not democratic.
The second issue is whether the Bill will speed up the planning system. Any developer will confirm that the reason we are building the lowest number of houses a
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year in peacetime since 1927 is the length of time that it takes to get planning permission for a residential development of any size. In most cases, it takes at least five years. We desperately need to speed up the planning system. The Government could speed up the existing system by ensuring that the structure plans and local plans were drawn up more frequently. That would also mean that people would feel more involved in the system. At present, when a controversial planning application is made, the people who would live next door to it often find out that it was contained in the structure plan or local plan that was drawn up four or five years ago and has been long forgotten, except by those experienced in the planning system. I have tabled a written question to the Deputy Prime Minister on that very pointit is No. 39 in the list of notice of questions in the Order Paper today. I have also asked about the strategic role of county councils, which are a vital part of the planning system and have been for 10 centuries. Shire counties have been in existence since the Norman conquest, but this vandalising Government propose to discard all the knowledge and experience of county councils.
The Bill will not speed up the planning system. I have also tabled a questionNo. 36, as listed on the Order Paperabout the number of planning officers. The lack of qualified planning officers is one reason for the slowness of the system. Does the Minister think that he will get more qualified planning officers by tearing up the county council system? If he does, he is living in a different country.
I recognise that time is running out, so I shall conclude my remarks. This is a bad Bill and the effects of which will be felt for years to come, until a future Government rip it up and start again. It will mean a paradise for lawyers, with case after case to establish the law. The Bill will greatly slow down the planning system and alienate people from the democratic process, at local, district and county council level. We should not, therefore, be surprised when we see lower and lower turnouts at elections. It will all be the Government's fault.
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