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Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman was asked—

Private Finance Initiative

25. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions on the cost and effectiveness of private finance initiative projects in the
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public sector the Commission has had with the National Audit Office. [137953]

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): None. The cost and effectiveness of PFI projects are matters for the Public Accounts Committee.

David Taylor: How confident is my right hon. Friend that the National Audit Office has adequate resources to do a proper job, in the light of the fact that continuing abject failures of PFI projects attract little interest from the NAO, whose critiques of these matters are often timid, lame, vacuous apologia for a concept that I devoutly hope the incoming Prime Minister will promptly abandon?

Mr. Williams: I should have thought that the fact that the NAO will save the taxpayer £660 million this year—nine times its own annual running cost—is clear evidence that it is doing a good job.

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Planning White Paper

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the planning system. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, one of the great civilising reforms of Attlee’s Government. The Act laid the framework for a planning system that has helped create thriving towns, protect our most beautiful countryside, and ensure green spaces around our cities. Its adaptability has been key to years of success. Further reform will help ensure its success for the future, too.

But today we also face significant and growing challenges that could not have been imagined 60 years ago, from climate change, to globalisation, to energy security in an uncertain world. If we are to meet those challenges successfully, planning must be part of the solution. In its current form, it is simply not up to the task. Both Kate Barker, in her review of land use planning, and Sir Rod Eddington, in his review of transport infrastructure, have highlighted the shortcomings of the planning system.

First, an inaccessible and sometimes baffling system makes it hard for people to have their say on issues that can have a big impact on their quality of life. Too often it favours the well-resourced over the less well-off. Secondly, decision making can be painfully slow, causing costs and prolonged uncertainty that are in no one’s interests—not in those of individuals, communities or developers. Thirdly, where good and necessary development is held up, it can mean society missing out on the reliable transport, secure energy, clean water or public amenities that we all need. The costs of not acting are clear, and will only grow more acute in future: energy shortages, mounting congestion, loss of jobs and a worse quality of life. Indeed, an effective planning system is vital for delivering Government policy across a wide range of areas.

The White Paper that I am publishing today sets out a series of proposals to meet the challenges of the future and continue to reform the town and country planning system. The White Paper represents the result of joint working across Government, in particular with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry, for Transport and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Let me first address the proposals on how we take decisions about major infrastructure, such as transport, environmental, waste or energy projects—everything from roads, to reservoirs, power plants and wind farms.

The system for taking those decisions has grown up piecemeal over decades with complex, unwieldy and overlapping rules. Some developments have to get approval under a number of different pieces of legislation, and make numerous separate applications. We need a simpler system to respond to the challenges that we face. The White Paper will ensure that decisions are taken in a way that is transparent and timely, and achieves the right balance of interests.

There are three key elements to our proposed new procedures for national infrastructure projects. First, Ministers will issue national policy statements about
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the infrastructure that the country needs for the next 10 to 25 years. Those statements will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and intense public debate, making sure that people have early input into the formulation of the policy, rather than rehearsing the same arguments over and over again in different local inquiries.

Secondly, we are replacing the numerous and sometimes overlapping consent regimes for major infrastructure projects with a single system. That will provide a far clearer and more accessible application process than at present.

Thirdly, we propose to create a new independent infrastructure planning commission. That will bring together experts from key sectors, including planners, lawyers, environmentalists and others. Guided by the national policy statements, the commission will oversee the planning inquiry process on specific major developments and take the final decisions on whether they should go ahead. It will listen closely to local concerns, and where the commission approves an application, it will be able to specify measures to mitigate the impact on a local area. It will be accountable to Ministers and Parliament for its performance. We believe that it will bring greater objectivity, transparency and accountability to the decision-making process.

Some interest groups promote a false choice between speed and public engagement. Our reforms will achieve both, providing opportunities for better public engagement at every step in the process. There will be public engagement in the formulation of the national policy statements, at the scheme development stage and during the inquiry process. We are backing that up with a new legal duty for developers to consult the public. Consultation must not be a box-ticking process, but a genuine opportunity for local people to have their say in shaping the places where they live. In addition, we are increasing resources for bodies such as Planning Aid, which will help more communities and individuals get access to free professional planning advice.

As well as new procedures for major infrastructure projects, the White Paper outlines measures to improve the town and country planning system. Kate Barker’s report recognised the progress that had been made in recent years to speed up the system and make it more effective, but it also stressed the need to reform further for greater flexibility, responsiveness and efficiency.

Our White Paper responds to those recommendations. Our aim is to create a level playing field that better integrates economic, social and environmental objectives. We will do that by building on the success of the plan-led system with sustainability at its heart. New planning policy statements on economic development and climate change will clarify the national policy on those vital issues. We will also streamline our planning policy documents to devolve where appropriate to local decision makers.

We will continue to promote prosperous and thriving town centres. Our town centre first policy has been a real success, with more than two fifths of retail development now in town centres, compared to just a quarter in 1994. It will remain in place, but there is scope for it to be more effective. The current needs test can sometimes be a blunt instrument to gauge the impact of development on town centres. In future, we will require better assessment of how new developments will affect town centres,
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including the impact on high streets and local shops. Development outside the town centre should not go ahead where it will impact detrimentally on the town centre. We are also reaffirming our commitment to the fundamentals of green-belt policy. It has served us well for 60 years and will continue to do so in the future.

It is vital that planning plays its part in tackling climate change. We will make it easier for householders to reduce their fuel bills and carbon footprint by installing small-scale renewable technologies such as solar panels. In addition, building on the progress made on new homes, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will work with industry to deliver a significant reduction in carbon emissions from new offices and shops.

We are strengthening the role of local government in planning, too. We want to enable local authorities to use planning effectively as a tool to achieve their vision for their area. We will continue to work with partners, including the Local Government Association and the planning profession, to improve performance. With this growing local expertise we aim to devolve further decision making to local communities and to reduce the number of town and country planning cases called in by the Secretary of State.

Our reforms will make town and country planning applications more efficient. We will make it easier for people to make minor improvements to their homes, such as building conservatories or small extensions, while continuing to protect the interests of neighbours and local communities. That will enable councils to focus resources on the genuinely difficult cases. We will also both simplify planning applications and speed up the appeals system.

Our reforms will be good for citizens, who will have greater opportunities to have their say at every stage in the process and the chance to make minor improvements to their homes more easily. Our reforms will be good for communities, by supporting sustainable and vibrant town centres and helping to create safe and healthy places to live.

Our reforms will be good for business, giving greater certainty about the national policy framework to encourage investment and faster decisions on developments. Our reforms will be good for the country, with better access to reliable transport, secure energy, clean water supplies and better local amenities. Finally, our reforms will put climate change and sustainable development where they belong: right at the heart of the planning system.

Our proposals build on Attlee’s legacy and give us a planning system fit for the 21st century. I commend the White Paper to the House.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): First, I thank the Secretary of State for letting me have a copy of the White Paper at the same time as the statement.

It is just three years since the Government’s last attempt at planning reform and some of the guidance reached councils only last month. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government are having to re-do the exercise because the Act designed to speed up the process and engage local people has only made planning more sclerotic and left communities feeling more disempowered?

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How does the Secretary of State explain that, after 10 years in power and with all the rhetoric about increasing home ownership, the number of home owners is declining for the first time in recorded history and the number of houses being built fell again last year?

Of course we all want to see a planning system that is simpler, swifter and seen to be fair. So why not start by abolishing the Deputy Prime Minister’s regional planning bodies, which are unelected, unaccountable and unwanted? Does she not realise that the centralised planning, micromanaged targets and plethora of contradictory edicts that have snarled up the planning system have emanated from the Government and reflect their core philosophy of top-down control, with the bureaucrats in Whitehall knowing best?

It was the Chancellor who hired Kate Barker to review the planning process and he has bought her case for a centralised and undemocratic planning quango. How does that square with his promise last week to

The promised engagement and consultation are not the same as decision making, so why are local people being offered less say under the Prime Minister-elect than under his predecessor?

We all accept that there are some projects of strategic national importance that have been too delayed in the past, but is that a reason for creating an unelected and unaccountable quango as a means of passing the ministerial buck? Conservatives will vigorously oppose this erosion of local democracy.

We welcome the news that the Government have rejected Kate Barker’s recommendation that regional planning bodies should review the green belt, but is that rejection meaningful when the present regional spatial strategies propose housing targets that compel the use of green belt to meet the housing quota?

I am sure that Members on both sides will be concerned about plans to relax restrictions on out-of-town retail development. How can the Government justify abolishing the needs test for out-of-town shopping when so many of Britain’s towns have been turned into ghost towns by the dominance of retail parks on their peripheries? My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) created a life support machine for high streets with planning policy guidance note 6—PPG6—that the Government are about to switch off.

We welcome more relaxed planning on home improvements, particularly the green energy measures that would have made the life of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) a lot easier. Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that the huge increase in such applications arises when people have to extend their homes because they cannot afford to move? Should not the Government apologise for presiding over a house price crisis stoked by increases in stamp duty and a doubling of council tax?

On the subject of tax, I shall turn my attention to the planning gain supplement. We support the campaign to put i before e—infrastructure before expansion—but how can the Minister be so sure that infrastructure funding will find its way out of the Treasury and back to the local community? We accept that more homes need to be built, but why not seize the opportunity and
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regenerate the suburbs around Britain’s cities and use vehicles such as community land trusts to get local homes for local people in Britain’s towns and villages?

I am disappointed that there is no recognition that garden-grabbing is an ongoing problem. The White Paper praises the increased use of brownfield sites, but what percentage of them are, in fact, gardens? Is it any wonder that appeals are up, when such development is so unpopular?

The Government have presided over a housing crisis of monumental proportions. Despite all their schemes, targets and meddling, key workers cannot afford to live near their work; the young cannot get a foot on the housing ladder; homelessness is higher than it was under the last Conservative Government; and the rate of social house building is down.

Only last week, the Chancellor pledged to stop politics being a spectator sport and to provide a voice for communities, but does not this White Paper show that the reality falls far short of the rhetoric and that when it comes to planning this Government choose centralised bureaucracy over local democracy every time?

Ruth Kelly: I was going to say that I was disappointed by the hon. Lady’s response, but frankly I am staggered. After five minutes listening to her, it is still not clear whether she favours the proposals. This is a serious set of proposals to meet some of the challenges that we face as a country, particularly on major infrastructure. Is she in favour, or is she against? Whenever the Government put forward the substance of a policy, the Opposition duck it. Whether it is planning or increasing housing, which the hon. Lady obviously does not support in any single part of the country, when faced by long-term, difficult challenges, she has nothing to say.

The hon. Lady has said that the process will be somehow inaccessible to the public. I think that she misunderstands how the current planning system works for major infrastructure projects. The process for terminal 5 took seven years to complete, and there were 37 different applications and seven different pieces of legislation for different Ministers to consider throughout the process. At the end of the process, Hillingdon borough council had to withdraw from fighting the appeal through lack of funding and resources. That is not a system in which local people had the opportunity to have a real say.

We are putting forward policies where there will be an opportunity for early input from local people, environmentalists and different stakeholder groups on the national policy statement. There will be an opportunity for engagement before the development application is made when the scheme is being worked up, and there will be an opportunity for the public to have their say during the local inquiry process, too. The process will deliver greater speed and certainty, so people will have the opportunity to have their say. We will back that up with more planning resources to help hard-to-reach communities get involved.

The hon. Lady has argued that we are somehow centralising those measures, but throughout the White Paper we make it clear that we are taking decisions at the appropriate level. If a decision is made on a
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national infrastructure project, it is right that we have a national policy debate. When local decisions are made, it is right that we devolve more of them to local communities. We have said that some decisions currently taken by Ministers will, we hope, be taken by local authorities. That is one reason why the Local Government Association welcomed the proposals today—the Tory-led Local Government Association, dare I say.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s support for making microgeneration easier. She also said that the issue of back garden development should be on the table. However, that does not add up to a serious policy proposal from the Opposition.

Let us consider the hon. Lady’s town centre policy proposals. She says that we should not remove the needs test. Does she not accept that the needs test can have a perverse effect on town centres? We need a policy that promotes the vitality and sustainability of our town centres. [ Interruption . ] The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) asks from a sedentary position how we are going to do it. I shall give an example. If a developer put in an application for an edge-of-town-centre development that would drain that town centre’s vitality, it could be refused on the basis of a needs test saying that there was already existing capacity in relation to another developer who had an out-of-town site. That does not help town centres. In future, we want a stronger impact test that considers the impact of any development on the town centre.

I am incredibly disappointed by the hon. Lady, who has failed to meet the challenges for the future. She has failed even to say whether she welcomes the White Paper that has been put before the House. This package will be good for citizens and will deliver speed and certainty for business. I commend it to the House.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The White Paper proposes an increased role for parliamentary scrutiny but also suggests that public representations would be taken prior to such scrutiny. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether that means that there would not be any direct interaction between parliamentary scrutiny and further public representations?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The public have a right to be fully engaged in the formulation of national policy statements, and early on in the process. When a national policy statement is drawn up, it is right that people should have an opportunity to get involved and to make clear their points of view, which will be reflected in its formulation. The national policy statement will then be scrutinised and debated in this House. That is a sensible way of drawing up national policy statements. We should determine need at the right time in the process rather than at various moments during local planning inquiries, where sometimes arguments are rehearsed repeatedly, leading to a waste of time and money.

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