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The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), who has been involved in this debate for some time, made her points about out-of-town shopping centres and second homes. She mentioned the frustration at public meetings, with the public feeling that they are not being listened to or that their views are not being acted on. As an elected Member of Parliament, she is aware of the need for planning policy to be fair and balanced and to give rights to home owners as well as others. However, that
frustration is real, although I disagree with her prescription for addressing it. That is why the changes in mechanisms for the powers of local councillors are important.
One of the points about community cohesion that concerns people across the House is how we ensure that elected councillors are the conduit of lots of decisions. How can they be neighbourhood champions, as well as representatives? One of the dangers of the debate is that if one empowers unrepresentative and unaccountable individuals or organisations, the sorts of points that were being raised become very real.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs talked about his concerns about fair shares of funding and unelected PCTs. On Monday, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is before Parliament. That will improve the ways in which local health authorities can be held to account for their decisions. The duty to co-operate in the partnerships between primary care trusts and local councils, and in particular their social care departments, is high on the list of Members concerns on both sides of the House. That is evident from the postbags that we receive. The best value duty that I have talked about and the community call for action address many of the points that he made.
I hope that I am not breaking the spirit of non-partisanship when I say that we cannot ignore the fact that police authorities are local authorities. They are accountable to the local authorities and through them to the people. [ Interruption. ] The House is chuntering at that point. I wish it would do that when it is holding the Home Secretary to account for every action of every police officer in the country. I am sure that if we brought forward measures to do that, Members would scream centralisation and a lack of accountability to existing structures. [ Interruption. ] No, the Home Secretary did not try to do that. That was the previous one. [ Laughter. ]
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly mentioned Nye Bevan and his own book. He made a powerful speech, based on experience. The experience of devolution in Wales has hugely informed the Governments ability to bring forward the measures that we have. I hope that on Monday he will welcome part 12 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is on the powers for Wales. I know that my counterpart in the Welsh Assembly Government has welcomed those powers. The devolution behind the measures in the Bill on Monday throws up a deficiency in the Bill before us today, but that could be debated. I do not want to make a point of principle out of it.
My hon. Friend served the House well in pointing out the role of the Secretary of State in the Bill. I share his anxieties that there may be a centralising tendency as a result of the ability to give the veto to the Secretary of State. I know that that is not the intention of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, and I think that he and the right hon. Member for West Dorset addressed that. However, I ask the House to consider the fact that, in the real world, when plans come forward from local areas, the Secretary of States power
of veto would most probably have to be used, because inevitably political priorities [ Interruption. ] I admire the right hon. Gentlemans knowledge and intelligence, but he must recognise the reality of politics. If, in 1985, Liverpool city council had put forward a local plan to the Secretary of State for his approval, I think that the veto might just have been used.
Mr. Letwin: There was a time at which some local authorities acted in a lunatic fashion. Although I do not believe that there are any today, there might be again, and the reserved power would allow that to be dealt with. However, the Minister is really saying that todays local authorities cannot be trusted to make decisions that Ministers are willing to accept, while the rest of us are saying that local authorities must be trusted to make decisions that Ministers might not find comfortable. Is not that the nub of the argument between us?
Mr. Woolas: Yes, I think that it is. The right hon. Gentleman made the important point in his speech that money is at the heart of this. I am simply saying that if an area came forward with an action plan that disagreed with the definition of a national allocation and a local allocation, a conflict in policy, although not necessarily an ideological conflict, would inevitably occur.
The Government have been accused during the debate of allocating money away from the south-east in general to other parts of the country. My hon. Friends from those parts of the country often complain that that is not true. I examined the allocation of money for local government in preparation for the debate and found that the east and west midlands were the most significant beneficiaries of the increased resources that have been allocated.
My response to the right hon. Gentlemans point is that people would inevitably call for more national money to be localised, but that would be possible within resources only if some of the rights available to all people, irrespective of where they live, were taken away. I do not think that he wants that to happen, so my accusation against him is one of naivety. I do not believe that the proposition that the Secretary of States veto could not be used, or that some local areas would not put forward action plans, would reflect the reality. However, I believe strongly that our policy of joining up by way of pooling financial decisions and local flexibilities is a better way of squaring the circle.
The analysis must be right before that issue can be addressed. The hon. Lady described the process in her constituency, and I have heard similar comments on many occasions. However, what is the answer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish about his swimming pool? I do not say that because Stockport council is run by the Liberal Democrats. However, in every area in the
county, strong arguments are always mademost forcefully when it comes to planning decisionsand councillors have to reconcile differences.
There has been a tendency in this country to make local authorities bigger. The urban district councils were abolished in 1974, under the Local Government Act 1972, but that did not coincide with the strengthening of the third tierthe local tierof representation: parish, town, neighbourhood and community councils. We must ensure that strengthening if we are to address the frustrations to which the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) referred in her speech and her interventions, but in doing so, all of us should be honest about the fact that localism and devolution do not of themselves increase resources. Nor do they take away the right of national Governmentsand this House, through its role in holding the Executive to accountto determine what the national priorities should be. It is that debate that led to the creation of the national health service.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are not staying for the debate to leave quickly and quietly.
Conscious of the limited time remaining, and keen that the Minister should have adequate time to respond before half-past 2, I will keep my comments fairly brief. I shall be able to do so because the Bill is very short, simple and straightforward. Like the Sustainable Communities Bill, which I am delighted to say has just been given a Second Reading, it would give local councils greater freedom and flexibilityin this case, focused specifically on their responsibilities as planning authorities. It would enable them, if they so choose, to set higher standards for energy efficiency in their development plans than those laid down in building regulations, and allow them to make provision for sustainable energy and microgeneration requirements in the same document.
The Bill is about enabling local authorities better to contribute to tackling the problem of climate change, which is undoubtedly the most important challenge for this planet at this time in its history. After the publication of the Stern review, surely no one can doubt either the scale of the problem that we face in global warming, the urgency with which we need to respond to it, or the fact that we will have to utilise a panoply of means to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases in general, and carbon dioxide in particular, in the years that lie immediately ahead. On Tuesday morning, Nick Stern himself made those very points in evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee.
The Bill says that the planning system is one of the weapons that should be available in the battle against climate change. It says, in particular, that it can be used to achieve energy efficiency improvements, which everyone acknowledges are the easiest, quickest and most cost-effective methods of reducing carbon emissions. That is the low-hanging fruit on the climate change tree, and we are not yet harvesting it anything like as well as we should be. The Bill offers one means of turning that round.
Similarly, there is huge scope for using the planning system in certain circumstances to encourage the generation of energy from renewable or other low-carbon sources and the use of energy from local, decentralised energy systems combining heat and power. The Bill would enable councils to limit the carbon footprints in the areas that they serve using planning policies set out in their development plans. I must confess that until the Association for the Conservation of Energy raised this issue with me, I did not know that planning authorities did not already have that freedom. I thank ACE for enlightening me about the variations in interpretation of planning policy by Government officials throughout the country
and, more importantly, for the enormous help that it has provided in drafting the Bill and campaigning to achieve its objectives.
At the moment, we have a rather absurd situation in which virtually everyone believes that the planning system can, and should, play a significant role in improvements to energy efficiency and low-carbon generationour Ministers with responsibility for housing and for energy have said sobut that intention is being thwarted on the ground when certain far-seeing councils try to go beyond building regulations in the production of their development plans. Ministers say that building regulations are minimum standards, but in practice officials interpreting planning policies are treating them as maximum standards.
Let me give a couple of examples. Cambridge city council tried to include in its planning policy a requirement for larger developers to provide evidence of how they have minimised energy consumption, maximised energy efficiency and considered the feasibility of using combined heat and power systems. That is not an unreasonable requirement at this time, one might think, but a Government planning inspector forced the council to water it down and said that it was unreasonable to the extent that it imposed more onerous requirements than building regulations.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I am a little concerned. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if a particular local authority were to be too heavy-handed and impose too great a burden on developers, that could destroy the availability of low-cost housing?
Mr. Caton: I take the right hon. Gentlemans point. In fact, my original draft of the Bill dealt not only with development plans but individual planning applications. I think that the development plan process will prevent unreasonable measures. If the Bill gets into Committee, I will consider setting parameters on what local authorities could put in their development plans.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I will not detain the hon. Gentleman for long, as I believe that this is an excellent Bill, which I hope will go into Committee. Ultimately, if local authorities make a mistake and over-egg it, they will be responsible to their local electorate, who will be the best judges of what is appropriate.
I was explaining what happened in Cambridge. If we reflect on the fact that it is set to expand its housing by 40 per cent. in the next 15 years, it is easy to see that a golden opportunity to limit greenhouse gas emissions is being sacrificed. That, surely, is absolute nonsense.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to Cambridge city councils plans. Another important aspect of the problem is that local authorities can and do go furtheras Cambridge city council hasin respect of public sector housing, but the key problem is the ability to control what happens in the private sector, which is also the key to the expansion of Cambridge. It is a matter of equality between the two sectors.
Mr. Caton: That is absolutely true. A strange pattern is developing across the country, with some local authoritiesReading is a good examplebeing allowed to go further with their development plans. The patchwork that we see at present is a nonsense.
Mr. Hollobone: I used to serve as a councillor on Kettering borough council. It takes the view that under the 2006 building regulations it cannot reduce the carbon footprint in its planning applications and development plans beyond what the regulations allow. The leader of Kettering borough council is very supportive indeed of the hon. Gentlemans Bill, and I shall certainly support it.
Mr. Caton: I am very grateful for that. The problem is that planning inspectors from different Government Departments all around the country are ruling that building regulations are a maximum standard, even though, as I have said, Ministers say that they should be a minimum standard.
Let me provide one other example. Last summer, Bedford borough council produced its draft core strategy and rural issues plan, which included a policy to reduce CO2 emissions by 10 per cent. more than building regulations allowed in certain developments. The Government office for the east of England objected on the grounds that the current planning system did not permit the setting of energy efficiency standards. That needs changing and this Bill will deliver that change.
I would like to pay tribute to the work that the Government have already done in moving forward to achieve their objective of zero carbon homes within 10 years. The code for sustainable homes provides a good and useful measuring stick and I look forward to something above the lower star ratings becoming mandatory in the not too distant future. In the meantime, if my Bill became an Act, the code could be used by local planning authorities to provide the higher benchmark standards that they might want to specify in their policies.
It is right to give due priority to housing. As the Minister for Housing and Planning said, our homes account for more than a quarter of our carbon emissions. That is about 40 million tonnes. We also need to be looking to higher standards of energy efficiency and more and better use of low-energy carbon generation in other forms of development. The Bill will enable local planning authorities to require those higher standards in non-residential building projects.
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