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The thrust of the review seems to be that, somehow, business is hard done by; the cards are stacked against it. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. In 25 years’ experience as both a councillor and an MP, it has been demonstrated unequivocally to me that more people engage in the planning process than almost any other aspect of local democracy.
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Communities in my constituency are in constant conflict with planners and developers about excessive and overbearing housing and office projects. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that community involvement in the planning system is seen as very much on the debit side of developers’ balance sheets.

Let us be clear—I made this point during my Adjournment debate and I take the opportunity to make it again here—we are not talking about nimbyism. Most people in my constituency do not oppose the development of derelict brownfield sites. Many of those sites are eyesores, and people cannot wait to see them developed sensitively, but they want to ensure that such developments display real sustainability and sensitivity to the needs, problems and character of the neighbourhoods involved. They fear that key considerations are often lost in the pursuit of profit, and I certainly do not want matters to be made worse by any action by Government based on Ms Barker’s recommendations.

Some people might contend—I would count myself among them—that from a community point of view, the planning process already favours the developer. Developers have a right of appeal against refusal, but communities cannot appeal against the granting of planning permission. The argument is trotted out time and again that, somehow, elected councillors represent the community interest, but it is certainly questionable from the point of view of my constituents whether that argument is valid in practice.

Applications for over-intensive developments have been and continue to be made across my constituency. I am referring to places such as Pudsey, Yeadon, Horsforth, Rodley and Farsley. In my Adjournment debate, I cited the experience of the town of Guiseley, where planning permissions over the past six or seven years have given the go-ahead for about 1,200 extra homes—a major increase in the size of the town without any commensurate improvement or increase in the local infrastructure to support it. Clearly, that is not a sustainable approach.

There is a familiar gavotte that we do when planning applications of that type are submitted. The developers submit applications for housing with a density of 70 to 90 properties per hectare on brownfield sites, which is far in excess of the 30 to 50 indicated in PPG3, and the community coalesces to oppose that density. The developers argue that the sites fulfil the requirements of PPG3, which will be replaced by PPS3 in due course, for greater density because there happens to be a rail station, a major road, the A65, and a few buses that go along it from time to time. However, the trains are overcrowded at peak times, the road is congested for much of the day and the bus services have been reduced and have become less reliable and more expensive since deregulation and privatisation. Those factors, which are intimately known and experienced by local people, never seem to be factored in to the deliberations of either developers or planners.

I am pleased to say that, in most cases, community pressure has led to eventual planning permissions for about 50 properties per hectare, in some cases almost halving the figure that was originally asked for. I have to say at this juncture that I am pleased that PPS3 and the Minister’s statement acknowledge that, all too often, housing development takes place in the form of
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flats, whether or not they are needed to meet local housing need. In my constituency, greed has definitely elbowed out need, given the sort of housing applications that have been submitted by developers.

I want to take hon. Members on a whistle-stop tour of some of the recommendations in the review that relate, or rather do not relate, to community involvement. Recommendation 1 suggests that, where plans are out of date or indeterminate, applications should be approved unless there is good reason to believe that the costs outweigh the benefits. That recommendation appears to take no account at all of the 2004 Act process, whereby nowadays plans cannot be out of date in the way they used to be. Plans must be reviewed annually and replaced every three years, so it is difficult to see in what circumstances that presumption in favour of permission should apply.

Recommendation 2 says:

However, as far as I can see in the current planning framework, PPS1 does that. Perhaps, if I may quote my old dad, Ms Barker wants jam on it in terms of promoting the economic and business element of the planning process.

Recommendation 4 states:

I concur entirely with the comments made by the hon. Member for St. Ives about one aspect of that recommendation and its implications. Part of the recommendation—the removal of the needs test—would significantly undermine the “town centre first” policy. It also exaggerates the impact of the needs test on competition and downplays the impact of supermarket domination in terms of the share of the retail market as a whole. Small businesses throughout the country are already beginning to look with concern at what the implications of that recommendation might be if it is translated into practice by my hon. Friend and her ministerial colleagues. I suggest that the test remains a vital tool for resisting development that might adversely impact on the vitality and viability of a community and local economy.

Recommendation 10 refers to the framework for decision making for major infrastructure to support a range of objectives, including the timely delivery of renewable energy. The recommendation appears to suggest a process by which national statements of policy would discuss issues of need, and public inquiries would be limited to discussions of local circumstances. More worryingly, from the point of view of community involvement, I understand that there would be examinations in public, which would presumably be by invitation only. The process would substantially reduce the opportunities of ordinary members of the public to participate in discussions of development that would have a fundamental impact on their lives. The development of national policy through White Papers, for example, is not a process with which ordinary members of the public can easily engage. There are no direct mechanisms for community participation or engagement and there is no independent testing of the policy.

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Recommendation 11 relates to the creation of an independent planning appeals commission. I fail to see how that would be subject to direct political accountability.

Recommendation 15 deals with the streamlining of the planning process. The 2004 Act has already removed a major stage in the adoption of a development plan. Introducing the recommendation would represent another major reduction. The report endorses the local government White Paper proposal to abolish the independent testing of statements of community involvement. I suggested in my Adjournment debate that that sends all the wrong messages about the Government’s expressed determination to enhance public involvement in the planning process.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman skirted over recommendation 12. One of the themes in the Kate Barker review appears to be that the Government should adopt the approach of intervening only on the basis of target numbers, not merit—in other words, they should have a target to call in fewer planning applications than they now do, because to do otherwise gets in the way of the efficiency of the planning process. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should always—as I hope they have in the past—call in only on the merit of the application and their concern about its consistency with policy both nationally and locally?

Mr. Truswell: I do indeed agree. As I said when I began, I am giving a whistle-stop tour of the report. I did not realise that such a generous amount of time would be available because of the hon. Gentleman’s relatively short speech and the relatively small turnout of hon. Members today.

Andrew George: But quality.

Mr. Truswell: Absolutely.

It is also worth reflecting on how the Barker report regards the planning process overall and at local level. There is a general sense of the process of producing plans being foreshortened, regardless of the consequences for public participation. Paragraph 4.25 of the report states:

It is hard to see how that apparently minimalist view of a local planning document fits the ambition for a robust planning system that would show a positive change in a participative and accountable manner. Paragraph 22 of the executive summary even mentions

I fail to see how reducing the periods for consultation would assist the community that is supposed to suffer from such fatigue, since it often takes residents—who are not, as we know, particularly knowledgeable about or aware of the planning process—some time to get their heads round it and mobilise their views and concerns.

Recommendation 23 refers to performance management and customer satisfaction surveys, but I suspect that the customers in this case, as with the rest of the report, are the developers and those applying for planning permission,
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rather than the community—yet the community is at the sharp end of the impact of many applications and its members are equally customers of the service in that their council tax goes to pay for it.

Recommendation 27 states that a series of reforms to improve the efficiency of the planning appeals system should be introduced. I should not necessarily dissent from that as an overall objective, but it appears that part of the recommendation suggests the removal of the right of members of the public to appear at a public inquiry. Written representation almost certainly favours those with the resources and expertise to develop their arguments in an appropriate way over those who simply want to attend and give oral evidence—often, as we know from experience, from the heart. Introducing the recommendation would reduce community participation in the planning process and contribute to a wider sense of the illegitimacy of the planning process in the mind of the public.

Recommendation 31 suggests that business should

I am sure that over months and years of debate that part of the review will be highlighted many times, and so it should be, because it sounds like a form of legalised bribery. Above all, it is likely to be counter-productive. It would require businesses to enter into informal and costly arrangements. It may even encourage speculative objections on the basis that there might be, as we say in the north, a bit of brass at the end of it. Most worrying is the assumption that people’s responses to planning applications are based on purely financial considerations. That takes us back to the implicit theme that nimbyism is somehow a major obstacle to businesses’ submission of planning applications.

I have no objection to improving the efficiency of local planning authorities or the appeals process, but local communities should not be penalised because of the shortcomings of the aspects of the system that I have discussed. I should dearly love to receive today from my hon. Friend the Minister a categorical assurance that nothing in the Barker review on which her Department and others choose to act will militate against community involvement in the planning process.

10.17 am

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. We did not have the opportunity to discuss in any great detail the points that he was planning to raise, and I, like the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), assumed that he would be focusing more on the issues raised in the recent land use report. However, this debate is a good opportunity to tie the two reports together with his points—which he has made consistently over many years—about the need for a new approach to the provision of affordable housing, and to deal in particular with the issue of second homes in our part of the country. Those themes sit very well with the discussion by the hon. Member for Pudsey of community involvement.

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I am sure that my hon. Friend will be happy for me to point out that when his book was published in 1989 I was in my teens, growing up in Cornwall. That shows the length of his experience on these issues.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): Did you buy the book?

Mr. Rogerson: I think I might have done, actually. I think I have a copy of it somewhere—in pride of place in my book collection.

My hon. Friend made some strong points about the need to be tough with developers when securing solutions that will work for communities, and about the fact that planning must be a matter of providing solutions both by way of new development and by bringing benefit to existing communities, so that new development blends and works with existing settlements. As to the issue of second homes that my hon. Friend raised, I shall be interested to see whether the Minister will respond to the idea of a new use category, as suggested in the affordable rural housing report earlier this year. Local solutions are needed for local problems, and the intervention by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is no longer in his place, about the possibilities in the Sustainable Communities Bill touched on key matters in this context.

I also welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Pudsey. As he said, he raised issues of concern earlier this year about community involvement in planning. That is the key to restoring people’s faith in the planning process and restoring a more positive relationship with developers so that we can be constructive about providing the necessary housing and business opportunities for the future.

The hon. Gentleman was right to focus on the terms of reference in last week’s review of land use planning, which focused very much on the needs of the business community and how it is affected by the planning process. It is only fair to take this opportunity to redress that balance slightly. The hon. Gentleman made some very good points about the need for community involvement. Both he and my hon. Friend spoke about the requirement to demonstrate need with regard to commercial and retail development, to which I shall return.

The report sets out the challenges facing the planning system, those who operate it and—very much so—the communities that it shapes. For my party, the solutions suggested in the report are a mixture of the welcome, the unhelpful and, on a few occasions, the alarming. We would welcome the changes suggested to reinvigorate planning departments across England and address their democratic oversights. An investment in more training and moves to increase the status of the profession should help to correct the view that planning is about acting as a gatekeeper for small changes to existing dwellings. Such a change would help to strengthen the hand of a community through its elected local authority in reaching agreements with developers and would help to increase participation in the planning process. I must confess that in my time as a local authority member, I avoided serving on the planning committee, which was called the development control committee. It seemed to me, as a young, newly
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elected councillor, to be very much about those smaller scale developments, and did not interest me hugely as a ward member and a new member of the authority. Reclaiming planning for the more strategic objectives of our local communities is particularly important.

We would also support anything that could be done to streamline the application process for changes such as building extensions or conservatories and fitting satellite dishes and domestic wind turbines. Those sorts of application make up about 50 per cent. of the total and are generally of far less concern to the wider community, other than immediate neighbours, than are proposals for new housing and retail developments. It is on those, more major, areas of development that the Liberal Democrats are determined that local people should have their say. We believe that local authorities are the best arbiters of opinion in the communities that they serve. A reduction in the number of ministerial call-ins would therefore be welcome, but it must be a retrograde step to give that power to yet another quango. That brings me to the less welcome suggestions in the report.

I expect that the Minister will assure me in the strongest terms that the proposed planning commission would be independent and work within strict guidelines set by elected representatives, but surely, transferring higher-level decision making from a remote but accountable Minister to a body that is entirely unaccountable would be a fundamentally undemocratic act. Will the Minister tell us how that policy chimes with the Government’s commitment to localism?

There is a real danger that a report spun as a fast track for householders could turn into a steamroller for developers. If the Minister is concerned that local authorities cannot, rather than should not, handle the larger applications, will she tell us how many decisions taken in Whitehall or by the plethora of quangos take place within two months? That is a key question because 80 per cent. of local authority planning decisions are taken within that time. As for the other 20 per cent., local authorities and developers are often frustrated that the turnover of planning officers is very high. We have a shortage of planners and a system that does not value them highly enough.

The changes to the status and training of members and planners suggested in the report should help to overcome such problems, but responses to the interim Barker report identified acute gaps in skills and resources in planning departments. Training was said to be patchy and departments were said to be particularly poor at dealing with sustainable development, economic development and, perhaps most crucially of all, community involvement.

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