Previous Section Index Home Page

That leads me on to the Mayor’s role in strategic planning. I note that he will not get involved in most local applications; I think that it has been said that 99 per cent. will still be dealt with at local level. However, he will be able to call in strategic applications. Although I support that, I do not think that this system is appropriate overall. We should be looking for a different sort of system. Last week, I visited New Zealand with the Work and Pensions Committee, and I had the opportunity to have a cup of tea with Mrs. Daphne Steele, a great environmental campaigner in New Zealand who has been awarded a medal for her activities there. She told me about the environmental
12 Dec 2006 : Column 816
court system that New Zealand uses, which I found very interesting. She took certain major strategic planning applications to that court, and when the environment was taken into account in a fuller way by neutral judges—or by judges with a concern for the environment, at least—she won the day. Given the problems associated with climate change, there is a very real case for putting such major planning applications before an environmental court.

An environmental court should be combined with a system of prior notification. It is clear that not all such applications should go before an environmental court, but it should be signalled that an application deemed of great environmental importance could go before such a court at the beginning of the process, if sufficient objections on environmental grounds were raised.

Where the Mayor or the Government say that a particular application is in London’s or the national interest, what is the point of going through a long and arduous planning process? The planning inspector found against the Oxford immigration centre planning application, for example, but the Deputy Prime Minister stepped in and said that it was in the national interest. Why do we have that process for deciding on such an application, given that the decision is based in the first place on whether it is in the national interest or the London interest? In such cases, an environmental court could consider what the major mitigating environmental factors are, and a system of prior notification could be used.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman knows that I am very sympathetic to many of the things that he is saying, but the difficulty is that the judgments about national and regional interest are subjective ones. Rotherhithe has just had a great battle with the Secretary of State over a small planning application that went to inquiry. The inspector recommended that the local authority view be supported, but the Secretary of State has ignored that and supported the developer, presumably because she thinks that it is more than just a local matter. However, we are talking about a very small site that is not in a metropolitan centre. People fear that in such a case, a different judgment is applied and a perceived regional or national interest is imposed, when in fact, it should be an entirely local matter.

Harry Cohen: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but in the few cases where the Government make it absolutely clear that a particular project is in the national interest, the rest of the existing planning process is irrelevant and costly. It should be shaped and modified according to our response to that national interest, and in the light of other issues.

Mr. Dismore: Is not the answer to the point madeby the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that, under the current arrangements, there are no criteria governing the Secretary of State’s decision as to whether a particular project can or cannot be called in? However, bearing in mind what my hon. Friend the Minister said when she introduced the debate, we will have very clear criteria governing what is and is not a strategic issue from the Mayor’s point of view.

12 Dec 2006 : Column 817

Harry Cohen: I agree with that point, which dovetails with my own about early prior notification.

I would not say that an environmental court is an idea whose time has come, because it has not—we are considering something else—but it should be borne in mind for the future. It would give third-party objections the right of appeal in the most serious cases in environmental terms, and the environment would have to be taken properly into account.

I want to make two other brief points. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall that, in the main, section 106 money should go to areas in which development is taking place. However, getting section 106 money in the first place is an issue in itself. Given the push for affordable housing, approval for such housing could well be given at a local or mayoral level without the section 106 money that is so needed for the infrastructure being provided. I was not really convinced by the answer my hon. Friend the Minister gave from the Dispatch Box when I raised that point. She said that we had to balance affordable housing and infrastructure. We cannot have affordable housing without infrastructure; when that happens, developers just suck up the profits that should return to the community. We shall look closely at the guidelines my hon. Friend produces, but I impress on her the need to maximise the section 106 money and put it back into communities.

My last point is about the London plan, which will be extremely important under the proposed arrangements. I know that it was put out for consultation, but it was done in a weak way. The consultation was not even as thorough as that for statutory district plans, yet the London plan will be of much greater importance. The consultation process for the plan should be strengthened and should include hearings on the most important issues both in London areas and in London as a whole. Londoners should have the chance to challenge aspects of the plan, perhaps before an independent judge of such matters—perhaps even an environmental judge. The plan will have greater importance as the measure progresses, and there may even be a case for making the plan statutory, so that such factors can be built into it. However, none of that should detract from the provision of the affordable housing that Londoners very much need and want to be facilitated.

8.57 pm

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Many Members are still waiting to speak, so I shall be brief.

I begin with housing. I know from my surgery cases that more housing is vital, and I agree with Members on both sides of the House on that point. I shall certainly not argue against more housing, but it should be quality housing that people can afford and that they want to live in, rather than shoe boxes built where nobody wants to live.

I do not intend to be detrimental to the current mayoral incumbent. Instead, I congratulate the London borough of Redbridge, which the Mayor recognises is doing a wonderful job, because he gave it an award for its housing and regeneration programme. I know that because he presented it to me when I was the cabinet member responsible.

12 Dec 2006 : Column 818

Housing cannot be built without the necessary infrastructure. Not long ago, at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether the Government would fully fund the new primary schools needed to support the housing requirements of the London borough of Redbridge. Unfortunately, I received no assurances, but I am delighted to tell colleagues that we shall be building two new primary schools to meet the needs of children in the borough over the next two years, and that there will be a new secondary school by 2010.

The people best placed to make planning decisions are democratically elected local councillors—not the Mayor and not central Government, but people who know the communities best and live in them. We should give them more power, not less. In my constituency, planning applications are often turned down locally but then approved nationally. That process benefits nobody. It is truly ridiculous and does not meet housing requirements or the needs of my constituents. The situation cannot continue.

On health, part of the Mayor’s powers under the Bill would be to stop inequalities. I hope that one such measure will be to stop cuts at the hospitals serving my constituency and, indeed, those of the hon. Members for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes). The proposed cuts will create more inequalities, not less. Those cuts must be opposed and I trust that whoever is incumbent in the Mayor’s post will oppose them.

As someone who commutes daily to and from my constituency, what can I say about Transport for London? Having to stand on trains in travelling conditions that we would not legally allow for animals is unacceptable. That is why people are leaving London. Such travelling conditions and the stress that they cause are unacceptable. Before more powers are given to Transport for London, perhaps it should look after and exercise its existing ones better. I do not believe that it is doing that.

I was not in the House when the Bill that dealt with the congestion charge was debated and went through, but if the money was truly invested in better quality transport, perhaps there would be less resistance to it. That is not happening. If we look at transport problems that have affected the underground network over the last few weeks, it is not a question of if or when there will be problems: there are problems on it every minute of every day. That is not fair to my constituents or any London constituents.

This is a great city and I am proud to be the Member of Parliament representing the constituency of Ilford, North. I believe that London is a city that can go from strength to strength and deserves to do so. I do not oppose many aspects of the Bill, but I will vote against it. I hope that it can be rectified in Committee to make it a Bill that the people of London deserve.

9.1 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I, too, shall endeavour to be brief. To my mind, the Bill is disappointing. I regret having to say that because, as the Minister knows, I have been involved in London politics for a long time. We had an opportunity to enhance greatly the delivery of services for residents of London, but, in a number of ways, the Government have missed it.

12 Dec 2006 : Column 819

First, the Government have not been bold enough at the strategic level. They have failed to achieve optimum accountability and transparency in terms of the delivery of services in the skills sector and in health. An enormous democratic deficit still remains in relation to health and skills in London, which the Government have not dealt with.

Secondly, the Government have remained wedded to a national template for the Government office for London, but that is not necessary. If there is a devolved system in London, it is not necessary for the Government office to take the same form as those elsewhere that currently administer some 30 schemes, worth many millions of pounds. I say that with no personal disrespect to the Minister, but the fact is that we have devolution, so we should follow its logic through and hand more powers from central Government down to Londoners, whether it be to the Mayor, the functional bodies or, indeed, in some cases, the London boroughs. The Government have, I am afraid, ducked that issue.

The Bill fails at the strategic level and, to make it worse, instead of giving the Mayor more strategic power, it takes power away from the boroughs in respect of important matters such as planning. My constituents in Bromley, an outer London borough, already find that the Mayor seeks to impose on them a one-size-fits-all planning policy. Planning policies and planning densities that are appropriate in inner London and even in suburban town centres are not appropriate in established residential suburbs, but the Mayor seeks to drive them through regardless. The Mayor, I am afraid, has not been a good advocate for giving his own office more powers. Perhaps it is his own erratic behaviour that has caused the Government to duck following the logic of their own devolution position. If that is the case, it is regrettable. It leaves my constituents with less service delivery, which is subject to less transparency, but with more burdens placed upon them.

The third failure is the lack of balance within the Greater London authority. Let us consider the following:

I suspect that the Minister is familiar with the quote, which comes from the current Mayor of London when he was a Member of the House. What he said has been proved right. The Mayor has changed his mind, of course, but he has changed it on so many things that it does not greatly surprise us. He was right the first time, which means that when the Mayor gets more powers, the London assembly should get more powers to hold him to account.

It cannot be right that we will have a one-man planning authority who will deal—with respect to the righthon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford)—not only with strategic plans but with individual applications. That is a thoroughly undesirable state of affairs on any view. It should be written into the Bill, not dependent on the concession of the Mayor, that that should not happen. The assembly should have a role before the Mayor comes to a decision.

12 Dec 2006 : Column 820

It cannot be right either that some 10 pages of the Bill are taken up with what should be the simple proposition that the assembly should be able to set its own budget. There must be a better and easier way to deal with that. Finally, the assembly should have the power to amend the Mayor’s strategies. The Deputy Prime Minister, when the original legislation was considered, recognised that the assembly should have that power, but he shied away from it before it became law. That was an error, but there is time to put it right. That would be an opportunity to rebalance the system in London advantageously.

I am sorry to have to raise those points so briefly. The Minister and I are used to disappointments because we have seen so many at Upton Park recently, but in Committee he has the chance to become the Alan Curbishley of the Bill and save something from the wreckage by improving accountability and balance.

9.6 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): In the midst of considering an essentially parochial set of priorities for our capital, we should remind ourselves of a few more general considerations. First and foremost, London is a global city, an attribute that all of us London Members love greatly. Its outstanding success has been based on its unique diversity—a rich mix of people, innovation and energy, which has served London so well over the 2,000 years since its foundation.

The overall strength and well-being of England and the UK depends on London’s continued success. The strength of which I speak is not confined to the economic sphere: London is also a creative, cultural, administrative and political capital. London’s success is plain to see. With one eighth of the UK’s population, London contributes roughly one fifth of our GDP. In the course of this decade, 40 per cent. of the UK’s crucial export growth has been fuelled from London. It is estimated that some £20 billion of tax paid by Londoners every year is used to subsidise public spending in other parts of the country. London also leads the way in the all-important area of productivity, which has increased by some 27 per cent. in this decade.

Given that roll call of London’s contemporary achievements, one might ask whether and why the capital needs more government at all. In my view, London’s future prosperity can be assured only if our capital city remains a cradle for capitalism. Indeed, I would contend that the reason that Londoners have these past six years been able to tolerate Ken Livingstone—a maverick Mayor who has shown himself incapable of efficient, competent administration—is that he has so few effective powers. As a result, the damage that he has been able to inflict upon London’s engine of economic growth has been thankfully limited.

In the midst of this debate about the Mayor’s powers, I am keenly aware that one cannot dismiss the importance of the office simply because of the incompetence and financial ignorance of its incumbent. To do so would be making the same mistake as the Government made at the outset. That serious role requires some serious powers and one day—I hope it will be sooner rather than later, for the financial welfare of all Londoners—Mr. Livingstone will no longer be in office. The London Mayor will then
12 Dec 2006 : Column 821
cease to be a quasi-independent, celebrity figure, but instead someone with the capacity and integrity to be a first rate public administrator, making the case for London to Government as well as promoting London’s global importance on the international stage, alongside other truly global cities such as New York, Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi and Hong Kong.

I have been lobbied by several local residents groups, including the Knightsbridge Association and Paddington Residents Active Concern on Transport, about the strategic dimension that this devolution brings in to play. Those groups feel that the present system allows decisions to be taken openly in the full knowledge of the local context. While no one would deny that a case can be made for a wider range of planning applications to be treated as genuinely strategic and left for referral to the Mayor, it is not clear how such a referral would be made. Above all, the Mayor, whoever it is, should not be given carte blanche in the matter.

Frankly, no London Mayor is likely to have the depth of intimate local knowledge that would justify his interfering in planning applications refused by local councils, yet the proposal is that he be given more power to reverse a locally made decision. Furthermore, the notion that any Mayor should be able to direct boroughs to amend their local development schemes surely runs counter to the very devolutionary principles on which the Bill is supposed to be based.

I am also very much opposed to the idea of the Mayor of London being a signatory to section 106 agreements so that they can be treated as a potential source of revenue for housing or improved transport schemes. The purpose of a section 106 agreement is to provide ring-fenced benefits to offset the disadvantages that a development might bring to its immediate neighbourhood.

I accept that controversy already surrounds section 106 agreements, even under the present scheme, but it has always been easier to make the case for them when local councillors are able to identify specific projects to enhance a locality that is plainly losing out as a result of a development. Handing that power to the Mayor of London will mean that section 106 agreements will be regarded as no more than an additional development tax, and that in turn can only further corrupt, in the eyes of the general public, the transparency and openness of planning decision making.

I also fear that, given his track record, the Mayor’s intentions in planning matters are not likely to be limited to strategic issues. Paradoxically, the potential grandstanding that the Bill will make possible is likely to add a further layer of bureaucracy, complexity and delay to the planning process, at precisely the time when the Government want to streamline it. I very much agree with Sir Simon Milton, the leader of Westminster city council, who has asserted that the number of cases in which the Mayor needs to intervene should be minimised.

It is easy to see how developers and other interested parties might use the Mayor as an additional means of delay and a way to mess up the system further. If we are to make improvements in housing and focus on our targets, we need to minimise the potential new layer of bureaucracy.

12 Dec 2006 : Column 822

Finally, I want to stress the importance of maintaining our heritage. London is a very exciting city, full of hope, passion and vision for the future. We need to encourage exciting new development, but my constituency has some of London’s best known listed buildings and most important heritage. In contrast, the Mayor’s stance has been unashamedly pro-development, and he prides himself on his tall buildings strategy.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government’s consultation papers on the Mayor’s powers list some 25 examples of strategic planning applications that would have benefited from positive mayoral planning powers. I strongly oppose the provision that would make the Mayor responsible for listed building and conservation area consent. As I said, I suspect that my constituency contains more listed buildings than any other in the UK. I do not want to defend a nimby charter: one has only to look at the superbly designed new buildings that have gone up in central London over the past decade to see that a balance can be struck between protecting heritage and encouraging innovation. Local borough politicians have been getting that right in recent years, and I hope that we will let them get on with the job.

Next Section Index Home Page