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Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Liberal Democrats welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the publication of the White Paper, although not
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necessarily everything in it. I look forward to reading it first-hand rather than having to rely on the newspapers.

At the heart of any national planning policy statement must be a balance between environmental sustainability and economic sustainability. Without that, we will not have the social sustainability that is the foundation of healthy communities. Can the Secretary of State explain why she is tilting things away from environmental sustainability in favour of big business and big projects? The key to all this will be how the new national policy framework is implemented, what the Government propose, and what opportunities the House has to take sensible, binding decisions on that national policy framework. How will that aspect of her proposals be taken forward? If that goes wrong, anything that the independent commission does will be stuck in a cul de sac.

Will the independent commission have the power to refuse a project, or will it merely be a rubber stamp or a paper tiger? Unless it has the capacity to refuse a project despite what the Government or the House might have said about national objectives, its credibility and that of the whole system will quickly crumble. At the moment, we have the gravest doubts about it.

I welcome what the Secretary of State said about town centre development, but we are not sure what the mechanics of delivering it will be. The devil will be in the detail. What discussions has the right hon. Lady had with major retailers? How did they respond to the plan that she has brought to the House today?

We strongly welcome a new duty on developers to consult local communities. I would like to hear that mobile phone companies are included in that. We also welcome, in the Secretary of State’s words, “a level playing field”, although her next phrase—that she intended to build on it—was not so encouraging. Will the right to speak and vote on planning applications be restored to local councillors? If there is to be more community engagement, which will involve the hard-to-reach groups, surely it is wrong for those groups’ elected representatives to be unable to participate in the process that the Secretary of State wants. I am sure that she knows that we have tabled an appropriate amendment, which will be discussed tomorrow, to the Local Government Bill. Will she support it?

We welcome the opportunity that the White Paper presents to hold a national debate on such important issues. We look forward with deep interest to the detail that may come in the planning Bill in November.

Ruth Kelly: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s more balanced approach to the proposals. His first point was about the balance in the proposals between the environmental, economic and social considerations. There are two parts to the proposals: the major infrastructure projects and the town and country planning system. In the latter, we have deliberately not taken an approach that favours one aspect over another. Indeed, sustainability in the plan-led process is at the heart of local planning. I hope that he welcomes that. However, we want people to think positively about planning, which is why we will revise the principles of the planning system and introduce a new planning policy statement on economic development.

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I believe that I have already dealt with the point about major infrastructure projects in reply to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). The system will produce greater timeliness, greater transparency and the ability for local people to have their say in the process. When the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) has time to examine the detail, he will realise that, for the first time, there will be a statutory duty to consult local people. To answer his specific question, local people will have the opportunity to have their say in hearings during a planning inquiry as the system moves from favouring those who can afford to pay lawyers’ fees to enabling those who are hard to reach to influence the outcome of the inquiry process.

The independent planning commission will have the power to turn down an application even if it is consistent with the national policy statement if, for example, a proposal’s local disbenefit or cost to a community is greater than its perceived national benefit.

The hon. Gentleman said that the devil was in the detail on town centre development. I grant him that: it is a complex subject. We have been discussing those issues with stakeholders and so on. They have not had an opportunity to read our proposals yet and I am sure that they are listening intently to the debate. However, we will introduce a stronger impact test, which we will formulate and publish so that people have the opportunity to have an input into its development, thus enabling us to promote our town centres and continue our town centre first policy. The sequential test will remain in place.

The package of proposals is sensible and will work for the benefit of citizens and communities as well as businesses, environmentalists and other groups.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The Secretary of State knows that Heathrow lies in my constituency and that 10,000 of my constituents could lose their homes as a result of the proposals for the third runway and a sixth terminal. There are genuine concerns that, in the proposals that she set out today, the local community voice will be overridden and the democratic processes of Parliament will be undermined. Will she give more details about the support that will be provided to local communities, the resources that will be available and when they will become available, because the planning application process for Heathrow could be imminent?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right that it is important for his constituents to have an appropriate and early input into discussions on issues such as a new runway. As well as building up the planning capacity of local councils, we intend to double the amount of money that we spend on Planning Aid. It provides free legal and professional advice on planning to communities, particularly hard-to-reach communities. We will also provide guidance on how local authorities should consult those communities to ensure that they are adequately involved in the process. The key factor is that an incredibly long process, such as the one on the new terminal, does not benefit anyone. It certainly does not enable local people who are hard to reach to have a say. The new system should be more transparent. Together with the other measures that we are proposing, it will make it easier for local people to have a say.

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Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): While I doubt that the Secretary of State’s proposals will be greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by my former colleagues at the planning Bar, I have long thought that some reform of the arrangements for dealing with national projects of major significance would be desirable. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that all national projects have local aspects and local impact? In reply to a question from the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), she referred to oral hearings. Will she give an assurance that the planning commission that she proposes to set up will sit locally and in public to hear representations on those local implications of the national projects?

Ruth Kelly: I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s statesmanlike tone. It is absolutely right that he realises that, although we need to deal with the major infrastructural challenges of the future, we also need to do so in a way that recognises that local communities must have an appropriate influence on the national policy statement. Clearly, public investment is different from private sector investment, but where the plans are spatially specific—perhaps where the public sector outlines major road spending—it would be right for the local communities to be able to influence the drawing up of the national policy statement in the first place. It is right, too, for the infrastructure planning commission to sit locally and hear local input directly in order to bring that into its deliberations.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I acknowledge that certain projects such as terminal 5 and Thameslink 2000 can get mired in process, but does my right hon. Friend accept that some schemes thought necessary and desirable by the great and the good can be the cause of much local concern? I am thinking particularly of the east London river crossing in my constituency and the local community uniting against the building of a six-lane motorway through Oxleas woods—a unique site of special scientific interest that would have been destroyed. Sometimes these good and necessary schemes are not in the public interest and certainly not in accordance with any environmental impact studies. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that, first, local communities will still be able to stop the great and the good imposing such schemes on them and, secondly, that in what she proposes today the environmental impact will be front and centre of any consideration?

Ruth Kelly: I can give my hon. Friend a categorical assurance on both counts. If the local disbenefits outweigh the national benefits, it is absolutely right that local people should be able to have an influence and that the IPC should be able to turn down any such proposals. It is right too that the environment is taken into account in the drawing up of the national policy statement. It is a key consideration that an environmental appraisal be part of the national policy statement; it would look not just at the overall impact of the statement, but at specific local impacts.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that the planning system exists to mediate between different views of what is in the individual, the local, the community and, indeed, the national interest, and that therefore we face
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competing public goods? I think, for example, of the landscape of the Yorkshire dales as against renewable energy, or the roofline of a Georgian terrace in an urban conservation area as against wind turbines or solar panels. Will she ensure that the processes of consultation are such that in our anxiety to make the environment more sustainable we do not threaten it?

Ruth Kelly: I completely accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point. That is why a full national debate and parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements is essential. I hope that he acknowledges that early input into the process from environmental groups and others with an interest will make it more likely that we get the policy right, which would have better results for the environment as well as for the economy and society. There is a potential win-win situation, with greater clarity and transparency as well as greater opportunity for influence.

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): As a former chair of a local authority planning committee, I welcome today’s White Paper. The present system is confusing and can be time-consuming. As the representative of an historic city with more than 900 listed buildings, however, I must ask the Secretary of State for reassurance that nothing in the White Paper will undermine the protection and safeguards that we give to important listed buildings.

Ruth Kelly: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. She is presumably aware of the recently published heritage White Paper that proposed a new, streamlined regime for listed buildings. There is nothing in today’s White Paper that dilutes those necessary safeguards.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I am sure that there are things in the White Paper that, on close study, will prove useful, but does the right hon. Lady accept that her Government have been telling us for a long time now that planning applications for large numbers of houses, particularly in the south-east of England, where we acknowledge they are needed in some places, will be matched by infrastructure to support that level of building, but so far there is absolutely no sign of that happening anywhere? For example, in the major proposal for East Grinstead, there is no infrastructure at all planned by the Government. Will the right hon. Lady give me some assurance that the Government will reconsider those plans in the light of what she has said today?

Ruth Kelly: It would be useful if, before I answer that question, the hon. Member for Meriden were to acknowledge the country’s need for the 200,000 extra homes identified in the Barker review. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that extra homes need to be accompanied by extra infrastructure spending, and the Government have a proposal to meet that extra spending: the planning gain supplement. I have yet to hear anything from the hon. Lady on the Conservative Front Bench about where that money would come from.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Although I support the general approach of this policy, the devil will clearly be in the detail. Will the Secretary of State tell us who will be able to make a referral to the independent planning commission? Will local residents
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and citizens, particularly those with environmental concerns, be able to make a referral? How will the commission sit with the planning inspectorate?

Ruth Kelly: When the independent planning commission holds a local inquiry on a local planning application, there will of course be opportunities for local people to have a direct say, in oral hearings or through written representations. They will be able to approach the planning commission. It will also be possible for Members of Parliament to get involved and to have a say. The list of statutory consultees is set out in the White Paper. The planning inspectorate will continue to have a role to play in the town and country planning system, which is designed to deal not with the major infrastructure projects that we have been discussing but with more local planning matters.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The right hon. Lady has made many references to local people having their say, but she has been somewhat silent on local decision making. Who, for example, would uphold a unanimous decision that had been reached democratically in accordance with a borough plan, a local plan or a structure plan, if a Minister were to come in and allow 120 houses to be built on a natural flood plain, as has happened in Colchester? Where is the local accountability there?

Ruth Kelly: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment on a specific planning application. The planning White Paper sets out our proposals for reducing the number of call-ins that are made either by officials in Government offices on behalf of Ministers or directly by Ministers themselves. It also contains proposals for local members to hear appeals on local planning decisions more frequently.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on local decision making and a level playing field. It is clear, however, that she has never sat on a planning committee or been involved in the planning process. In planning law, there is a presumption to agree a planning application. Therefore, however many platitudes we come out with about level playing fields or giving more money to ineffective organisations such as Planning Aid, we will end up with a lot of frustrated and unhappy people, whose hopes have been built up but who will not be able to carry out their plans. I do not actually welcome the reduction in the number of call-ins, because there are occasions when the public need protection from politically corrupt local planning committees.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend has already spoken to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning about some of those issues. The key is to have a local vision of what is right for a local area, agreed with local people and implemented through the plan-making process. If an application is made in line with the plan, clearly, it would normally be approved. What is at issue is an application that is submitted outside the limits of a plan, in which case we want a system in which the environmental considerations are given priority alongside the social ones, so that a clear view is taken across all.

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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): What impact will the Secretary of State’s statement have on national parks? As for small extensions, how would she describe a small extension to Chatsworth house?

Ruth Kelly: Very funny! On national parks, I have made it clear that our policies do not change our fundamental approach either towards green belt or protected public spaces. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would welcome that approach.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the sequential test, the needs test and other tests, as part of PPG6 and then PPS6, have been largely successful in revitalising our town and city centres? Will she explain precisely what will be the effect of the change from the needs test to the greater and stronger impact test? What will be the effect on the balance of development between out of town and city and town centre locations? Does she accept that developers need long-term certainty if they are to assemble sites and carry out the complicated work of development in city and town centres, and that significant changes to the planning system can undermine that and stop developments going ahead?

Ruth Kelly: I do accept my hon. Friend’s point, which is why we will consult on the new, stronger impact test to make sure that it takes such considerations properly into account. The impact test will be stronger because, for some of the reasons that I set out earlier, the needs test does not always work in favour of town centre development at the moment. The needs test can prevent appropriate town centre development from going ahead by protecting out-of-town developers who already have capacity and who can argue that no need exists for new town centre development. That does not promote the vitality or sustainability of town centres, help consumer choice or respond appropriately to market forces. In developing the new test, we have a real opportunity to underpin the reforms so far and to continue to create thriving, sustainable town centres in future.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): The Secretary of State says in her statement that she wants to strengthen the role of local government and devolve further decision making to local communities. May I suggest one area in which doing so would receive widespread approval in the House: the impact of PPG3 and the density to which builders are allowed to build? I do not know whether it is happening in her constituency, but in towns across the country, such as Stratford-on-Avon, the look of streets of family houses with gardens is being ruined when one house is bought by a developer, knocked down, and houses are crammed on the site at 15 to the acre. That is not appropriate, and local planning authorities need to have greater discretion over whether they approve such developments.

Ruth Kelly: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is why we recently introduced a new draft planning policy statement 3. Its purpose, among others, is precisely to give local councils more flexibility to set their own densities. I urge him and his local council to study the new planning policy statement, as I think it gives exactly the flexibility for which he is asking.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State not concerned that by setting up an infrastructure planning commission we are reducing democracy in this country by effectively devolving powers to an unelected commission that is accountable to Parliament only for its performance and not for its decisions, and that major issues such as nuclear power stations could be pushed through without any democratic vote or voice whatever?

Ruth Kelly: No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend. I would not argue for a second that the current system allows democratic input at the final stage of a decision-making process by Ministers. Ministers act in a quasi-judicial role when they make decisions on planning applications. They cannot exert independent political judgment on those issues. They have to take decisions based on the evidence presented in front of them. In fact, by being more streamlined and more transparent, and by specifically involving local people at every stage of the process, the new process will make it easier for that democratic debate to happen and for early input into the process to influence the outcome.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): In the Secretary of State’s statement, she mentioned power plants once and energy projects once, raised the spectre of energy shortages once, and spoke about energy security three times. Given that Ministers will be able to issue national policy statements, there is a real concern that the White Paper and the legislation that falls from it is simply designed to pave the way for the early building of new nuclear power stations, which are massively opposed in Scotland. Will she confirm that any legislation that falls from the White Paper, while it may be applicable in England and Wales, will not apply to Scotland in that regard?

Ruth Kelly: Although I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the proposals, I can give him the confirmation that he seeks. That matter applies to England and Wales, and not to Scotland, which has devolved responsibility for some of the issues. Perhaps I should have referred to wind farms more than I did to energy security.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I welcome the easing of planning application requirements for minor alterations to properties, but will the Secretary of State assure me that there will be no retrospective changes to the protection offered to estates such as the Moorpool estate in my constituency, which got an article 4(2) direction only last year requiring planning applications for porches and minor changes?

Ruth Kelly: In the future regime, as set out in the White Paper, we envisage that local authorities will still have the power to put in place appropriate safeguards in their areas where they think that is necessary for heritage or other reasons. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks.

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