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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
Greater London Authority

Greater London Authority Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Edward O'Hara, † Ann Winterton
Baker, Norman (Lewes) (LD)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Cooper, Yvette (Minister for Housing and Planning)
Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry)
Gove, Michael (Surrey Heath) (Con)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Pelling, Mr. Andrew (Croydon, Central) (Con)
Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
Shaw, Jonathan (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)
Alan Sandall, Keith Neary, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 16 January 2007


[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Greater London Authority Bill

10.30 am

Further written evidence to be reported to the House for publication
GLA 4 London Councils

Clause 29

Duties in relation to consultation
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): The clause reflects clause 2, which we debated earlier in our proceedings. It strengthens the role of the assembly when the Mayor prepares or revises his spatial development strategy, the London plan, and mirrors the strengthened assembly role in the Mayor’s other statutory strategies set out in clause 2, which the Committee agreed last Tuesday should stand part of the Bill.
The provisions for consultation on the London plan are set out separately from the Mayor’s other strategies under section 335 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. The clause amends that section to require the Mayor to have regard to the comments of the assembly and the functional bodies in response to consultation on the drafts of, or the revisions to, his London plan.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): Will the Minister advise the Committee of the importance of the words “must have regard”? How is that a change from the current position in relation to the assembly’s role?
Yvette Cooper: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and as we debated in earlier proceedings, the Mayor has an obligation to consult, but it is also important that the Mayor should have an obligation to have regard to the views of the assembly. That will strengthen the position of the assembly relative to the position under the 1999 Act. The clause is a helpful step in respect of the role of the assembly. The Mayor must also respond in writing to the chair of the assembly and explain which of the assembly’s comments he accepts for implementation in the plan and which he rejects. That will provide clarity and transparency in the relationship between the assembly and the Mayor in their debate on the London plan. The provision will put the London plan on the same footing as the Mayor’s other strategies.
Mr. Pelling: I am appraised of the fact that we are not to spend too much time discussing particular individuals, but, under the current regime at city hall, surely the main response to us from the Mayor would be that he was elected and that he can decide what to do. Would that really significantly improve the powers of the assembly?
Yvette Cooper: The Bill makes it clear that the Mayor must respond in writing to chair of the assembly, explaining which of the assembly’s comments he accepts and which he rejects. Obviously, personal battles between the hon. Gentleman and the Mayor are not a matter for the Committee.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Can the Minister help with my question? Under the budgetary procedures for the assembly, the Mayor is obliged to respond to those matters on which he disagrees with the assembly’s proposed amendments. On first reading—as it is sometimes called for shorthand purposes—the assembly can amend the Mayor’s budget. He must respond in writing when he drafts his final budget and say why he disagrees with the assembly’s amendments. In practice, we receive about five lines on paper—just about enough to comply with the Wednesbury reasonableness test—to say that he disagrees with the assembly’s amendments because they are not consistent with his policy and what he believes to be the objectives that he was elected to carry out, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central said.
I do not understand how such a provision will produce any other result from the Mayor. He will stick just within what is required by his lawyers to keep him within the law. If there were no hold over him in respect of the assembly having the ability to amend the strategies, all that will happen is a banal throwing back of them in his face. I accept that the provision is well intended, but I cannot help but feel that it has the whiff of a compromise that has been cobbled together by the Labour party so that the assembly is bought off with a minor right to have regard taken of its comments because the Mayor would not take the logical step of giving the assembly real teeth with which to amend the strategies. It is regrettable, therefore, that in this case, as with the previous clause that we referred to, the Government have ducked the chance of seizing an opportunity.
Tony Travers, the academic referred to on a number of occasions, has talked about the logic of developing a legislative role for the assembly in the sense that if it could amend strategies, that would require the Mayor not just to come back with a bland response, but to deal with the assembly. That would be a healthy thing. For these purposes, as we have said in debate on previous amendments, that could be achieved by some qualified majority, which is more than the simple majority that Conservative Members would prefer. However, we could live with that for the sake of compromise.
In a nutshell, having regard is a very worthy concept, but to have regard and then make a rather basic gesture in response is not much of a power for the assembly to have. That is what practice tells us we are likely to get from the Mayor, unless this measure is significantly strengthened.
Yvette Cooper: I shall respond briefly. Hon. Members have raised a series of concerns, and it is unusual to hear politicians criticised for the brevity of their responses. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst might find it inappropriate for the Committee to legislate, within either primary or secondary legislation, for lengthy responses that must be of 10 pages or more.
The spirit of the legislation is clear. The Mayor will need to explain adequately why he does not accept the recommendations put forward by the assembly. It would be rather too much to expect us to legislate for either the assembly or the Mayor to show different forms of politeness towards each other.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 30

Local development schemes
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Clauses 31 to 35 stand part.
New clause 12—Amendment of TCPA
‘(1) TCPA 1990 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 12(3C) leave out “be in general conformity with” and insert “have regard to”.
(3) In section 13(1A) leave out “is in general conformity with” and insert “has regard to”.
(4) In section 13(5A) leave out “is not in general conformity with” and insert “does not have regard to”.
(5) In section 15(2A) leave out “are in general conformity with” and insert “have regard to”.
(6) Leave out section 21A.
(7) In section 26 leave out subsection (2)(bb).
(8) In section 74 leave out subsections (1B) and (1C).
(9) Leave out section 322B.’.
Throughout the debate, the Opposition have consistently aimed to ensure that legislation that is passed is as devolutionary as possible. Whenever power has been devolved down from the Government to the Mayor, we have welcomed that. We have naturally sought to ensure that there are adequate powers of scrutiny to balance the Mayor’s new powers and that those powers of scrutiny be invested in the assembly or the boroughs as appropriate. However our general direction of travel has been clear—namely, to welcome that devolution of power.
In other areas, we have been anxious to see devolution go further, consistent with the vision outlined by the Secretary of State whenever she has spoken about local government more generally. We have been anxious to see neighbourhoods and boroughs empowered at the appropriate moment. That was the spirit in which we moved our amendments, sadly rejected, to the Mayor’s housing strategy.
Here, we have the clearest example in the legislation of that devolutionary spirit being overturned. We already have a system of planning that gives the boroughs not just the lead role, but a vital function to play in reflecting local public opinion when it comes to shaping the future of our communities. These changes will, in crucial ways, deprive the boroughs of the capacity to discharge their functions and to reflect local opinion. Therefore, it is in a devolutionary spirit that we oppose them. However, it is more than a commitment to the principle of devolution that prompts us to ask for these clauses to be removed and the Government to think again.
We also believe that the clauses fail the crucial efficiency test that should apply to new legislation. The Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer asked Kate Barker to look at land use planning because there was a widespread consensus that our planning system was dysfunctional: it was too slow, too bureaucratic and in need of reform. Kate Barker’s recommendations, some of which are more attractive than others, all seek to move in one direction—to make the planning system more transparent and speedier, and to serve the interests not just of business, but of those of us who believe in meeting our housing supply problems more effectively. The spirit of Kate Barker’s review, however, is not reflected in these clauses.
Let me turn to the powers in clause 30 that enable the Mayor to direct changes to the local development schemes proposed by the boroughs. Any number of acronyms exist across the UK for the specific plans that boroughs, or the principal planning authorities, put forward to master-plan their area. There used to be UDPs, or unitary development plans, and there are now LDFs, or local development frameworks, in many parts of the country. Those plans are LDSs in London, for the sake of the Bill. Whether they are UDP, LDF or LDS, the principle remains the same, and that principle is KIL—keep it local.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Very good.
Michael Gove: Thank you. The important thing about those schemes is that they allow community groups and stakeholders to shape the development of their area.
Mr. Pelling: Kill Bill.
Michael Gove: I have no wish to expose the Bill to Quentin Tarantino-esque evisceration, but this is one part of it that we want to kill.
Stephen Pound: I would settle for Uma Thurman.
Michael Gove: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if there were an Uma Thurman role in the Bill, it would fall to the Minister for Housing and Planning.
The importance of keeping local powers local is that they allow the people who live in a community a vital say in shaping how that community develops. They ensure that the affection that local people have for the area in which they have grown up or in which they work and live is reflected in the strategic view that locally elected representatives take of the development of their area. Under clause 30, the Mayor will acquire a power, which currently only the Secretary of State has, to direct changes to that plan. That means that the Mayor could rewrite the plan in accordance with either his strategic or his ideological objectives. We are concerned that that is a further dilution of the powers that local people have.
It is understandable why the Secretary of State should have the power to direct changes, but one point that we need to make about the Secretary of State directing changes is that that process slows down planning significantly. We have already had a number of examples of districts and local authorities outside London coming forward expeditiously with an LDF, submitting it to the Secretary of State and then having it thrown back in their face, forcing them to go back to the drawing board. During this period in the process of planning, the certainty that developers expect and that residents have every right to expect is denied them. The process of plan making has become slower and more cumbersome following the changes to planning legislation made by the Government. They claim to want to make the planning system more streamline, effective, market conscious and sensitive to community involvement, but they have succeeded in slowing the process, which has disappointed developers and irritated residents.
10.45 am
Clause 30 introduces another layer of complexity to the scheme. Currently, the Secretary of State can direct changes: clause 30 means that the Mayor could also direct changes. The senior planning officer in a local authority may attempt to develop a local development scheme with elected members of the authority, by consulting local amenity groups, and by doing everything possible to talk to those commercial interests that keep the borough lively and successful. What happens to that process when that officer has heavy-handed intervention not only from the clunking fist of central Government, but from the south paw from city hall? That double whammy will leave local planners punch drunk. For that reason, we believe that the power direction should be struck out. It serves neither the interests of efficiency or the priority of community involvement.
On the importance of community involvement in planning, some inevitably say that Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and localists are all too keen on local boroughs deciding things because they are closet nimbys—people who hide behind the language of localism because of their resistance to development. Allow me to take that argument head on. As the Minister for Housing and Planning has graciously acknowledged to the Committee, and in the House last night, those of us charged by the leader of the Conservative party with coming up with housing and planning policy have made it clear that we believe in increasing the supply of housing. That is the coherent view of the Department for Communities and Local Government shadow team. It is also the view of the leader of the Conservative party, as he outlined in his speech to the Conservative party conference.
Yvette Cooper: Sometimes.
Michael Gove: The Minister for Housing and Planning says, “Sometimes”, but I urge her to come up with any evidence that the leader of the Conservative party has argued against an increase of the housing supply. He has actually taken a lead in shaping the debate, and has pointed out some of the obstacles that we will have to overcome to deliver an increase in the housing supply. I have alluded to the obstacles that have been created by the Government’s planning legislation. I am sure that the other obstacles will come up later in the debate.
The first canard, which I have effectively nailed, is the idea that the Conservatives are in some sense opposed to more housing as a solution to housing supply problems. Let us look at the facts on the ground—what boroughs in London are doing to deliver housing. In her more partisan moments, which thankfully are rare, the Minister for Housing and Planning makes the point that Conservative boroughs are somehow resistant to the notion of providing additional housing. Earlier, I pointed out that if one looks at the targets set by the Government, and then at the performance of Conservative boroughs, one can see that Wandsworth has exceeded its target for housing completions by 168 per cent., Westminster by 124 per cent., and Kensington and Chelsea, which was pointed out as a laggard by the Minister, by 104 per cent. When we look for the local authorities in central London that have been poorest in meeting their housing targets, I am afraid that we find local authorities such as Camden, which was until recently under Labour control, and Southwark.
The same pattern occurs in north London. The local authority with the best record of meeting housing targets is Conservative-controlled Barnet, which is on the threshold of a significant and exciting array of new developments. Looking at east London, we see that Bexley has met 205 per cent. of the target for housing completions, more than doubling the target level of housing set by the Government. I should say, in a spirit of bipartisanship, that the best-performing local authority in east London is Greenwich, which is Labour-controlled. But I shall deal with that in a moment when I discuss the inappropriateness of extending planning powers to the Mayor. There are specific factors relating to Greenwich: it is sui generis for various reasons.
Across London, Conservative boroughs perform the best in meeting the housing obligations placed on them by this Government. Conservative local authorities have also been speedy and effective in dealing with planning applications. Who are the laggards? Again, they are the local authorities like Lewisham, where Labour has been in control. Lewisham has processed only 53 per cent. of major planning applications in the time scale laid down by the Government. That is in stark contrast with Westminster, for example, which processes about three quarters of planning applications.
We have established that if we want housing completion figures to rise and planning applications to be processed speedily, the answer is not to transfer more powers to the Mayor, but for Conservative administrations to run boroughs. In that respect, the answer to the Minister’s bedtime prayer for more homes in London is not legislative change, but change at the ballot box. I do not know where the Minister is fortunate enough to live when she has to spend time in London, but I presume that it is probably in Westminster council’s area. If that is so, she is fortunate enough to be living in an area that exceeds its housing targets and processes its planning applications quickly. If that is not so, perhaps she would care to enlighten us.
Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman reminds me of Gordon Strachan in the Aberdeen team of 1983, who, although he was overshadowed at the time by giants like John Hewitt and Willie Miller, later rose to greater prominence. This is a good attempt by the hon. Gentleman to make his name, but can he stop for a moment and think? If he is really thinking of structuring a critique of the Bill on the grounds of political leadership of the boroughs, for every Kensington and Chelsea that he names, we can mention a Hillingdon. There are arguments on both sides. This is a poor way to approach the matter. We are trying to talk about city standards, not parish pump politics. Of course, I mean Hillingdon a few years ago, not today.
Michael Gove: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am flattered to be compared with Gordon Strachan, rather than Willie Miller, who was a captain of rare skill although sadly his managerial career was not as happy. That suggests that we should all know our place—and I know mine. I shall try not to get above myself in this Committee and elsewhere. However, I will correct the hon. Gentleman, who normally has scrupulous regard for the facts, on the facts themselves, and I hope this will not be construed as my getting above myself. Hillingdon has managed to exceed its housing targets by 106 per cent., whereas the London borough of Ealing—in the figures covering the period when it was under Labour control—only met 84 per cent. of the housing targets set by the Government. Tragically, under Labour control, Ealing council did not meet those housing targets and did not deliver the completions that I am sure the hon. Gentleman would have championed for his constituents as a good constituency Member of Parliament.
I make these points about political control because the Government have continually misrepresented the Conservative position and argued that our localism is a cover for a deeper ideological resistance to increasing housing supply. The facts on the ground—the record of Conservative councils—show that that is not so. Thus, a major strut of the Government’s justification, not just for this legislation but for some of their other legislation, is at a stroke removed.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman has broached the subject of politics, does he not appreciate that there is a clear political distinction in the Government’s mind between meeting housing targets and meeting affordable housing targets? That is at the heart of our politics. Does he accept that Westminster city council, which he has prayed in aid, took legal advice to challenge the Government and the Mayor of London on meeting the 50 per cent. target for affordable housing? We therefore had the situation exemplified by the Paddington basin development, in which there were 1,000 new homes, of which only 250 were affordable, despite the desperate level of housing need. Does he not agree that from the Labour party side the politics is in meeting housing need and making affordable housing provision, not just in housing for millionaires?
Michael Gove: The hon. Lady makes an important point. Everyone in the Committee knows her commitment, not just to increasing housing but to increasing affordable housing, and to doing something to tackle inequalities in London in housing and in other areas. We should, however, recognise something that in certain more candid moments the Mayor has acknowledged. It is that the uniform target of 50 per cent. affordable housing, together with—within that—70 per cent. socially rented housing, may not be appropriate in all developments. As I mentioned the last time we discussed housing strategy, in the area set aside for Olympic development the Mayor has himself allowed housing for which the target has not been met.
Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): rose
Michael Gove: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in due course. It is important to recall that even though there is a London housing market, there are also sub-regional markets, and important factors that govern housing in different parts of London. Any local authority must weigh a number of factors. At the moment, when a developer considers proposing a development, there are a number of obligations that he must envisage. There are broader, section 106 obligations that he may have to meet. Then there is the affordable housing obligation, which is often part of the section 106 negotiation. If the Government now have their way—after last night’s results, there will be the broader planning gain supplement obligation that the developer will have to consider fulfilling.
Mr. Slaughter: We have been entertained by the notion that no Tory council is nimbyist and that all Tory councils want to build houses. I assume, therefore, that the early-day motions tabled by the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, which oppose house building in almost every region, must have been an administrative error. The hon. Gentleman is now struggling, however. He has yet again named one development to which he is clinging like driftwood. It may be that one development does not suit, or that another could be better. Does he, however, support overall the Mayor’s target?
Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman’s intervention made two apparently unrelated points, but there was a deep logic behind them that he himself may not have realised, although I suspect that he did. He referred to the various early-day motions of some of my hon. Friends who have expressed concerns about aspects of the south-east plan, or the east of England plan, or any of the plans that have been regionally decided. The concerns relate to the whole philosophy of central target setting as a way of meeting housing need. They reflect a philosophical divide between the Labour party and the Conservative party which is also reflected in the discussion on affordable housing targets. Our view is that using targets as constraints, as straitjackets, and as ways to compel particular developments can often be counter-productive. An analogy that I would use is the way in which the economy was managed in the 1960s and 1970s by proliferation of centrally set targets.
We believe that we need supply-side changes to ensure that the market works effectively, with powers of intervention for local communities to ensure that their interests are effectively addressed.
11 am
Mr. Pelling: Not wanting to be described as another item of driftwood, I offer to my hon. Friend the observation that the way in which Croydon, a Conservative council and a big social housing provider until 1994, is once again building council housing—with the aid of a Government grant, I admit—is another sign of activism by Conservative councils to provide much-needed social and council housing in the capital.
Ms Buck: As I think the hon. Gentleman recognised, the Mayor factors flexibility into the 50 per cent. target to meet some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises. To follow him down the road of not being too rigid in targets, one of the ways that that has been done is by encouraging boroughs to work together in local partnerships. My Conservative-controlled borough is working in partnership with another Conservative-controlled borough in north London which effectively refuses to allow the borough any access to the housing provision that he said was being built. Is he satisfied with how boroughs even of the same politics—his politics—are working together to meet housing requirements and ensure that the high-cost boroughs not expected to meet the targets get access to housing provision?
Michael Gove: The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I recognise that it was not made in a partisan spirit. As a Member of Parliament for a constituency covering both Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, she represents the two boroughs with the highest housing costs in Britain.
Residents of Westminster have a particular concern, because Westminster is the entry point for many new Britons and newcomers to Britain. As a consequence, migratory and economic forces create huge pressure on housing in Westminster. When it comes to meeting its statutory requirements to house the homeless and fulfil housing need, Westminster faces almost unique challenges. There is a case for considering how other boroughs could support Westminster in meeting that housing need. I agree that there is room for improvement in co-ordination in that respect. I do not believe that the Mayor is the right person to drive the process, but I recognise the importance of that.
Mr. Pelling: Is not my hon. Friend exactly right in decrying the disadvantages of centrally or regionally set targets, as they have produced an excess supply of one and two-bedroomed flats when the need is for family housing? A 10-year delay in re-housing people out of social housing—perhaps in one or two-bedroomed facilities for a family of four or five—shows a fundamental failure of centrally provided targets. Surely it is at a local level that boroughs are best placed to provide much-needed social housing in London.
Michael Gove: Once again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. In the current planning system, we have in effect a system similar to the one that gave us the Lada, the Polski Fiat and the Yugo—a system that concentrates on production but not quality. One of the concerns about housing supply in this country is the over-supply of one and two-bedroomed flats relative to the supply of family homes.
The Minister for Housing and Planning acknowledged that in a groundbreaking interview with The Observer; I recommend such interviews to all Committee members. She acknowledged the need for more family homes and fewer one and two-bedroomed flats in the balance of supply. It was a mea culpa, or at least an acknowledgment that the Government had got it wrong. She pointed out that there were a number of attractive developments of family homes—in Barking and Dagenham, for example—which just might point the way forward, but what she did not acknowledge was how centrally set targets had been responsible for the problem.
Specifically, the target for which people aimed was the number of housing units completed—not, as might have been the case, the number of rooms or amount of floor space, so that overcrowding and the need for family homes might be addressed. The Government might change those targets, but they are still so addicted to their centrally set target culture that all we will get is a roomier Lada. Talking of which, I shall give way to the Member for Battersea.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman acknowledges the need for a regional housing strategy. Surely he accepts that the current function of ensuring that local housing strategies conform with the regional housing strategy lies with the Government office for London. The Bill is devolving that power from GOL to the elected Mayor of London. Who does the hon. Gentleman suggest should be responsible for the regional housing strategy?
Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which accurately reflects the position of those on the Labour Benches. However, it was better made in our debate last week when we specifically discussed our housing strategy. As I acknowledged at the time, housing and planning are intimately interlinked. Our point was that we wanted London councils, as did all local authorities before the advent of regional government, to arrange such matters between themselves in a co-operative fashion. Our view did not prevail then, nor do I wish to revisit that debate as I want to move on to other planning issues. However, I acknowledge that the two are linked.
Ms Buck: The debate goes to the heart of an important issue, which is localism versus the strategic needs of the city as a whole. The hon. Gentleman kindly appreciated the dilemma of central London boroughs in respect of their housing pressure. They are not alone. If there were no strategic authority and, above all, one that has a democratic mandate, too, in what way does he suggest a borough such as Barnet and Enfield could take the overspill housing demands of a central London borough if it were not by strategic direction? Altruism?
Michael Gove: The hon. Lady is tempting us to advance on a longer argument about how local government operates and, for that matter, the way in which support is provided from central Government to providers of social housing. Tempting as that route is—there might be another opportunity for her and I to have such a conversation—my point about broader planning issues is that we already have a centralised planning system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central said, that system has often meant inadequate houses in the wrong places built in the wrong way, not through malice but through a failure of the centralised system.
There is a better way to take account primarily of local feeling, which includes greater freedom for local authorities and also takes a more sensitive account of market pressures, as Kate Barker suggested. It is by moving in those directions that we can develop a more effective housing and planning strategy for the whole nation. I should have described the process as a more effective housing and planning policy because, as the hon. Lady said, I distrust the principle of strategies. As she probably knows, a new book on estates by Lynsey Hanley has been widely reviewed this week. It points out some of the problems that we have had with social housing. Some of them were at their most acute when strategic powers were exercised by visionary individuals who did not take sufficient account of local sentiment, a phenomenon that is also happening outside London in our pathfinder and housing renewal areas.
Mr. Slaughter: That is another interesting debate. However, I prefer the steel of my local Tory planning chairwoman who said at the weekend, as a reason for not building any more houses, that housing in the borough was skewed towards the poor. To be fair to her, she said it was skewed towards the rich and the poor—those two nefarious or meritorious groups being equal. I prefer that approach to the crocodile tears of the Member for Croydon, Central about families, because how does the hon. Member for Surrey Heath justify the fact that only four social rented homes were completed in Kingston in the past financial year, six were completed in Havering and nine in Wandsworth? Is his real reason for opposing the targets that have been set so that Tory councils can build almost no social housing at all?
Michael Gove: Absolutely not, and I acknowledge that, when the planning chairwoman at Hammersmith and Fulham said that, she was opening a large debate. One of the matters that the local authority in Hammersmith and Fulham has to grasp is the broader question, which goes to the heart of what the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Chancellor of Exchequer seek to do, of expanding the provision of low-cost home ownership schemes.
It is the Government’s aim—once again, another target—to increase the number of people who are home owners from 70 to 80 per cent. As they seek to do so, again they come up with a host of new schemes and a plethora of new targets. However, this proliferation of schemes and targets has not succeeded in meeting that need. For a variety of reasons, there are increasing problems for first-time buyers trying to get on the housing ladder and a low take-up of the Government’s low-cost home ownership schemes. I shall not rehearse the dreary statistics that show the Government’s failure because I know that they are engraved on the Minister’s heart.
At the moment, as Committee members know, the Mayor has the power, in specific cases, to direct refusal of a planning application if it conflicts with part of the London plan. What the Mayor wants is the power to direct acceptance of planning applications—in effect, to take over the whole planning function. The power of direct refusal is basically there as a back-stop. We could argue about whether or not it has been wisely or unwisely used. I will discuss the way in which the Mayor has used his planning powers and explain why some of us fear the extension of those powers. However it is important to recognise that a wide variety of planning applications are already being referred to the Mayor or prompting an expression of mayoral interest.
When we have discussed the extension of planning powers, the Minister and, indeed, the Mayor have said that they envisage the Mayor only exercising them on very few occasions. Again, unfortunately, the facts suggest that that just ain’t so. The Mayor has expressed an opinion in more than 1,200 planning applications since his office was created. Many of those have been applications—more than 200 of them—that have passed the strategic test which the Government have set.
It is interesting that the Government have brought forward an order—a piece of secondary legislation—that will define the test and allow the Mayor to intervene positively to take over a planning application. Far from the test being tighter and the definition of “strategic” being more narrowly drawn than was hitherto the case with previous interventions, the definition is, to all intents and purposes, almost exactly the same. Therefore we believe that the Mayor will have the power to intervene in a dramatic number of cases.
Why do we believe that? The Mayor has already chosen to intervene using one reason as a casus belli—a justification for intervention—and then suddenly found lots of other reasons subsequently to justify it. For example, under the Town and Country Planning (Mayor of London) Order 2000, the Mayor can intervene if a building is particularly high, over a specific number of metres and, implicitly, over a specific number of storeys. Therefore, he can intervene if it is over 30 m, over 10 storeys and in any area apart from the City of London. However, having intervened on the basis of height, the Mayor has then used his powers to say a host of other things about that development. The intention of the secondary legislation was to ensure that the Mayor is a guardian of the London skyline, but he has used that power as a Trojan horse to interfere, or to seek to interfere, in a host of other factors.
11.15 pm
For those people who are inclined to believe that the Mayor will exercise his power with restraint and discretion, the Mayor himself has lifted the skirt to reveal the cloven hoof. He said of certain planning applications in which he had an interest that he would have wished to take over had such a power existed. For example, if we look at the development in Commerce road in Hounslow, we see that the Mayor intervened using a justification provided under the London plan. However, he intervened to recommend that the development was changed to conform with his vision, and in a way that would have taken it out of conformity with other aspects of the London plan.
The Mayor will use any opportunity or justification he can to express an opinion. Once that justification has been accepted, he will allow his own vision to take over. In that respect, the order laid before us by the Government provides potentially limitless opportunities for the Mayor to intervene. As hon. Members know, there are 180 different targets and objectives in the London plan that planning applications are invited to meet. It is almost impossible to conceive of a planning application that would meet all 180 objectives perfectly. Therefore, the door is open for mayoral intervention in many planning applications that, at the moment, people would not consider to be genuinely strategic.
On Second Reading, the Minister said that the Mayor would only have the power to intervene in those planning applications that go to the heart of the London plan, but nowhere in the legislation, or in the orders that have been laid before us, is there any effective guarantee of constraint on the Mayor’s powers. More than that, the Bill contains a positive incentive for the Mayor to intervene as often as he can get away with. If the Mayor intervenes, he takes over control of the section 106 negotiations in a planning application. As we are all aware, section 106 applications are a vital part in securing consent for a planning application.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my concerns that the large expansion of mayoral power and ability to meddle will necessitate a significant increase in the bureaucracy that works for the Mayor at city hall? It seems inconceivable that the Mayor would be able to meddle to the degree that we fear with his current staffing levels.
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Mayor has already been advertising for planners, lawyers and others to join him, so that he can expand his writ in planning. The Mayor has made it clear that he expects the growth of his planning and legal support teams to increase year on year for the next two years. It is clear that the Mayor is anticipating a power grab and, more than that, a money grab. As my hon. Friend points out, the growth in staff will add to the precept that all of us face as residents and council tax payers in London. The other side of the money grab relates to the section 106 agreements.
We recognise that there should be an offset for those who bear the additional burdens that may come as a result of new residential and commercial development. The section 106 negotiation is a way of ensuring that the community that bears the cost of any planning change gets the benefit as well. However, the Mayor will be able to take over section 106 negotiations, which means that the money from the developer that is associated with a planning application will pass through his sticky fingers. That is a clear incentive and a sweetening of the temptation for the Mayor to intervene and gives him a chance to take over those applications, because it means his having more control over resources and, potentially, having the power to shift those from areas where he has directed that a planning development should take place to where he may have another political interest. The Mayor can say, “Okay, your borough happens to be run by a political party opposite mine, so I will take over these planning applications, force you to accept them, negotiate the section 106 agreements, then take the cash and give it to my supporters somewhere else in the capital.”
There can be no clearer risk of inflaming public opinion, leading to even greater public resistance towards development, than a regional figure compelling an area to accept new development, then robbing it of one of its key benefits and passing it on to another area. In that respect, the clauses will do nothing to encourage support for new housing and development and may imperil that support. It is important that we recognise that this provision is analogous to one contained in the Government’s plans for a planning gain supplement, which could also lead to people accepting a development in one area and finding that some of the money that they should get to mitigate its effects is being spent elsewhere. Both these provisions—particularly the one relating to power that the Mayor might have—will only increase hostility towards housing development.
Mr. Slaughter: That seems to be an argument against having a Mayor or against having a Mayor with any strategic planning powers. If that is the hon. Gentleman’s position, so be it. If it is not, what powers does he think that the Mayor should have? The hon. Gentleman’s speech sounds like a rant based on the parochial interests of Tory boroughs or antipathy towards the current Mayor.
Michael Gove: My point is not specifically about the Mayor, although he has shown his desire to intervene in many more planning applications than is currently the case. I am saying that there should be an organic, democratic link between accepting development and securing the benefits. That link is broken by the Bill and elsewhere by the Government’s activities, as a result of which a future Mayor, whatever his political complexion, may act in a cavalier, high-handed manner towards those boroughs in which development is taking place.
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Irrespective of their political colouring, London boroughs have been deeply concerned about this aspect of the Bill. One would expect boroughs with different political leaderships to be more or less enthusiastic about the Mayor acquiring new powers, but there has been a near-universal consensus on the part of London councils that are concerned about what the clauses under discussion would do for the integrity of the planning process and for local democratic accountability.
Mr. Pelling: I should like to mention the current incumbent in the mayoralty. He would quite openly accept, would he not, that he is in favour of redistribution of wealth? So he could quite rationally argue that under the new planning powers he would like to transfer moneys away from one part of London to another. Once again, the Greater London authority would have greater powers to transfer moneys away—particularly away from south London.
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, we recognise that redistribution is intrinsic in the function of the Treasury. It is something that central Government should do to help alleviate poverty—both absolute and relative. But my hon. Friend referred specifically to the Mayor of London. We all know what his or a future Mayor’s agenda might be: it might be to punish local areas that have had the temerity to elect a party of a different colour.
We know that this particular Mayor has a tendency to demonise some boroughs and to cosset others. I shall not rehearse the arguments that we heard earlier about the way in which he has shown his disdain for some local authorities—whether the newly elected Conservative administration in Hammersmith and Fulham, or the long-standing and successful Conservative administration in Bexley.
Mr. Pelling: And Liberal Democrat boroughs.
Michael Gove: Yes indeed. All we know is that the Mayor is prepared to be personal, but we shall seek not to be.
Martin Linton: Did 25 years of London without a strategic authority not convince the hon. Gentleman that issues such as housing can be dealt with only on a London-wide basis? If it is left entirely to the boroughs to decide whether they should have affordable housing, there will be parts of London that decide they do not want it. They will have it if it is unaffordable affordable housing, but they do not particularly want housing for low-income families. That has been amply demonstrated by Wandsworth, which for many years told developers not to bother about affordable housing. Only when the Mayor took office did they reluctantly accede to 25 per cent., and now they are being dragged kicking and screaming up to 33 per cent. Essentially, however, it is a borough that does not want to be forced to put in affordable housing for low-income people. That demonstrates that we need a London-wide, not borough-wide approach to the subject. of affordable housing.
Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is proof of his passion and commitment to the cause of affordable housing, but as I pointed out when he made a similar intervention earlier, we discussed previously the pros and cons of a regional housing strategy for London, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central pointed out, Croydon is an example of a Conservative-led local authority that is doing very well on sketching out and delivering on the need for commitments to greater affordable housing. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, therefore, I shall move on, having accepted his passion for pointing out contrary examples.
A number of developers are concerned—not just in relation to section 106 but in a number of other areas—that the extension of the Mayor’s planning powers to allow him to intervene will create the potential, or indeed possibly a demand, for parallel negotiations. Developers are concerned—but crucially the issue should also be a matter of democratic concern. Under the proposals in the order that accompanies this legislation, the borough is supposed to be the lead authority that negotiates with a developer on particular planning applications. Things are supposed to proceed sweetly. The Mayor has the capacity to take the application over, however, if it conflicts with any aspect of the London plan that he considers to be significant—perhaps because it crosses the height threshold.
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A canny or cynical developer might think, “Hmm, we can play the borough along for a bit and get involved in negotiations with it in some detail, but we really need to convince the Mayor. If we can convince him strongly enough of the merits of our application, he will take it over at the appropriate moment and we will have won.” There is a significant incentive for developers to treat the borough as the poor relation in the planning process. Genuine democratic control and oversight of the planning process will move away from the borough, which is supposed to be managing it, to the Mayor and his team, who will be covertly taking over a planning application prior to overtly saying that they wish, after eight weeks, to decide on its merits.
Having said that a canny or cynical developer might wish to do that, with the precedent having been established in development circles, the danger increases that the whole planning process will become not only less democratic, but more expensive for the developer, as it maintains two parallel sets of negotiations. One part of its team will be working with the Mayor on what is really going to happen and another part will be working with the borough on what might happen. The other danger is that the Mayor could be working on his pet scheme with the developer while it is, at the same time, in negotiation with the borough.
A well-staffed borough with a planning committee that takes its obligations seriously and planning officers that look closely at applications may come up with a range of detailed improvements to a plan. However, the developer does not necessarily need to take account of those, because it knows that it will eventually get its way through the Mayor. In that respect, the potential for parallel jurisdiction works in nobody’s interests.
Mr. Pelling: My hon. Friend mentions local boroughs being well staffed by planners. Surely, one complication arising from these additional powers is that there is already a substantial shortage of planners, partly because of the creation of the GLA. My local authority is a good 40 per cent. below the levels required. In terms of accountability and parallel processes, does he agree that there are complications for residents as well, in that the Mayor’s office is clearly not capable of dealing with all the interests and concerns expressed by residents? The Government propose an arm’s length process under which local boroughs are responsible, rather oddly, for communicating feedback on behalf of the Mayor in respect of any application that he is considering. Surely, that is not workable.
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Mayor is being given significant new powers under the Bill. However, the Mayor as a planning authority is a curious creature, because as my hon. Friend says, not only is he likely to be sucking up planning expertise and taking individuals from already understaffed planning departments, but the way in which he makes his decisions is different from any other planning authority in the country. Most planning decisions are made by committees and most committees are enjoined by statute to act in a non-partisan, non-ideological, non-party political way. They act quasi-judicially. Most planning authorities recognise and take seriously their obligations and the need to take account of public feeling. They make their decisions in public and often allow members of the public to make representations.
Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman is assuming a Jim Leighton role. He is being unduly defensive. Having tried to demonise the Mayor as a cloven-hoofed, sticky-fingered skirt-lifter, he now seems to imply that every planning application in the city could, potentially, wash up on the Mayor’s desk. The vast majority of planning applications in this city, as in most other cities, are decided under delegated powers by officers. We are talking about a tiny proportion of planning applications—precisely, those that have a huge strategic impact—that the Mayor will consider. The Mayor is not a dictator, much as the hon. Gentleman may wish to characterise him as such. There is a process of democratic accountability and let us not forget that there is an effective London assembly as well—there are some distinguished examples of it in this Committee Room.
Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman makes a number of very good points. He refers to the distinguished goalkeeper, Jim Leighton, who served Aberdeen. Leighton’s capacity to play a defensive role is similar to that of my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, Central and for Bromley and Chislehurst, both of whom are similarly remarkably agile. They always have their eyes on the ball, and ensure that the Conservatives do not score any own goals. More broadly, the hon. Member for Ealing, North was making a material point about the number of planning applications that are dealt with by planning officers using delegated powers. Indeed when it comes to issues such as extensions, windmills on roofs and all the sorts of things that we might want to do to improve our own homes, the Mayor will not intervene.
In his Christmas letter, which I have now had the opportunity to read, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush did suggest that we Conservatives would be seeking to argue that the Mayor would even be trying to influence planning applications that related to garden sheds. May I now place it on the record that we recognise that even if the Mayor was in pursuit of a newt sanctuary, he would have no intention of interfering in what happens in any of our garden sheds. None the less, the figures show that the Mayor has become an increasingly active figure when it comes to planning applications that fall between the truly strategic and the truly intimate, personal and local.
In 2004-05, as I mentioned earlier, the Mayor was involved in 291 applications. As I said, the Mayor has also found a variety of reasons to become involved in a growing number of planning applications, and there are 180 different targets or requirements of the London plan, any of which—if the development is not in conformity—might trigger the Mayor’s interest and might provide him with an opportunity to say that he wished to take the plan over.
Mr. Pelling: My hon. Friend continues to speak about the parallel process. Could not taking away the discretion and initiative at a local borough level mean that many schemes end up not being pursued? For a town such as Croydon, which has more than 350,000 people, regards itself as separate from London in some ways and has had a long history of significant planning initiatives of its own, surely the Bill offers the prospect of returning to the type of interference and confusion that we saw when the Greater London council was in existence?
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and if these clauses were to pass intact and unamended, there would be concern not only in town halls but among many London residents about the consequences of a more interventionist planning regime from an explicitly interventionist Mayor—this one or indeed any future one. As I pointed out, the Mayor is a unique planning authority. He does not meet in public in a collegiate fashion. He does not have the opportunities of most local authority planning committees to hear different voices, which can stress the pros and cons of any scheme. He is a one-man planning authority.
Earlier, we used the phrase “municipal Bonaparte”. It was very striking that the Bagehot column in The Economist this week picked up on that view and depicted the Mayor of London as a municipal Bonaparte. One of the key ways in which he could become the Napoleon not just of Notting Hill but of every borough in London is the way in which he seeks to exercise his planning powers on his own. How does the Mayor take a planning decision? We know that he will have lawyers and planning officers who can help him come to a view, but when that decision is taken, it is not taken in a formal way with the Mayor explaining in public to those most affected why he has come to that decision. He can make that decision in the bath. He can make it while he is shaving, in the stands at Craven Cottage or anywhere he likes and then deliver himself of that judgment by posting up on the internet what view he has reached. The order laid before us by the Minister and the Secretary of State mercifully creates provision for the Mayor to enable public involvement in such decisions. It is the Mayor who decides so, if he wishes to under certain circumstances, he can say, “Oyez, I am prepared to make the decision public.” Ultimately, however, the power to make those decisions will remain with the Mayor. The degree of additional accountability that the order envisages is timing.
Robert Neill: Is my hon. Friend aware that his argument is greatly reinforced by the knowledge that the Mayor’s exercise of his current powers has been criticised by the assembly on a cross-party basis since the GLA was created? All parties on the assembly, including that of the Government, signed up to that criticism in the assembly scrutiny report “Behind Closed Doors”. The Mayor himself withdrew the facility that he had initially granted to assembly members to scrutinise and pass comment on planning applications coming to him in advance of his decision on the ostensible grounds that there was not enough officer time to permit it. He actually closed the door even more and reduced the ability of the goalkeepers to deflect the occasional dubious shot.
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. When the Mayor took office, he promised some of the most open and inclusive governance anywhere in the United Kingdom, yet as my hon. Friend said, when the GLA planning committee asked for a limited say and a role in the exercise of the Mayor’s planning powers, which was only right, it was told in no uncertain terms where to leave its request. It was downgraded from a planning committee to a planning advisory committee. Before we vote on the clauses, I recommend all members of the Committee to pay close attention to the assembly’s report “Behind Closed Doors”, which paints a damning picture of the Mayor’s high-handedness when it comes to the exercise of his planning powers. That does not give us any reason to believe confidently that he will exercise limited capacity to meet in public to bolster public confidence.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): May I invite the hon. Gentleman to speculate on what a Mayor who is a one-man planning authority might do about a planning application in which he has a personal financial interest?
Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. While there is absolutely no reason to believe that the current incumbent is anything other than a man of spotless integrity, it is the case that he has in the past met developers before deciding subsequently on applications in which they had an interest. The Mayor has acted in a way whereby, if he were a local councillor, almost any other local authority in the country would see him up before the Standards Board before we could say “strategic development”.
The reason why Opposition parties are so worried about the exercise of the Mayor’s planning powers is again the potential for a future Mayor to act in a way that would not be in the best interests of the city or of open government. The fact that the Mayor can meet developers, listen to them and possibly enjoy their badinage over lunch and then go off and come up with a conclusion on a planning application in which they have a direct interest runs against the spirit of how planning operates throughout the country. There are good reasons why members of planning committees have to exercise a degree of care about whom they meet and what they say before they make a judgment.
Conservative Members have had worries about the Standards Board regime and now is not the moment to rehearse them. All that I would say is that I cannot see a safeguard in the Bill that would prevent the Mayor or future Mayor from spending great time and energy with developers in private before deciding subsequently on an application in which he had an interest.
One of the Conservative amendments would provide greater public scrutiny of the Mayor’s exercise of his planning powers. I hope that Labour Members, whatever they think of the current Mayor, recognise the potential for abuse of the clause’s powers, and that they will look favourably on that amendment.
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Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Is it not key for Members to try to depersonalise the matter and to accept the general principle that openness and accountability, particularly in planning where money can be involved, is essential for public confidence? Would it not be helpful for all Committee members to imagine the worst possible candidate for London Mayor—
Stephen Pound: Jeffrey Archer.
Norman Baker: Perhaps so—and to ask whether they would be happy for that individual to hold the powers in the Bill.
Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, because he underlines our concerns. Whatever one might think about the current incumbent and his ideology, and however welcome his commitment to increasing affordable housing might be, we must bear in mind the broader point that current planning law takes full account of the potential for corruption and abuse of power in the planning process. As the Minister pointed out during debate on the planning gain supplement last night, a stroke of the pen can transform the value of a piece of land tenfold or more as a result of a planning decision. Access to planning powers unlocks the door to wealth. For that reason, I agree absolutely that all of us should contemplate the powers in the hands of one individual in office who might be the worst possible person to exercise those powers.
Yvette Cooper: Does the hon. Gentleman’s anxiety apply similarly to Secretaries of State, who equally take decisions on appeal cases and call-ins? They are bound exactly as the Mayor will be—not simply by the broad framework of planning legislation but by propriety guidance and, perhaps most importantly, safeguards in common law, which have been in place for a very long time.
Michael Gove: The Minister makes an interesting point about Secretaries of State. Before the creation of the Department for Communities and Local Government, when we still had the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, a number of concerns were raised about how the Deputy Prime Minister spent a great deal of time in the United States of America negotiating with an individual who had a material interest in a significant—and, I acknowledge, strategic—development in London.
Yvette Cooper: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Michael Gove: I will in a moment. The great deal of parliamentary scrutiny that the Deputy Prime Minister came under only underlines our concerns about the importance of ensuring that the Bill contains every safeguard possible.
Yvette Cooper: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware—I hope that he is not suggesting otherwise—all those safeguards operated in that case, which is why the Deputy Prime Minister did not take those planning decisions. He made it clear at every stage that he has never done so. Considerable safeguards are in place, including those in the common law, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not implying otherwise.
Michael Gove: The Minister springs chivalrously to the Deputy Prime Minister’s defence. I say only that if one moves from the specific to the general, one recognises in giving the Mayor such powers the potential for an exercise of those powers that is not necessarily in the best interests of the public or open government. At the moment we have a system in which, because planning applications are decided in boroughs by planning committees, a greater degree of transparency exists.
One of the other areas of complexity that could be introduced in relation to the Secretary of State’s call-in power is that, as Kate Barker pointed out, the Secretary of State probably exercises his or her call-in power too promiscuously when it comes to ensuring that the planning system operates as effectively as possible. Kate Barker referred to something that she called planning by appeal—the way that developers sometimes play fast and loose with the local authority because they are confident that on appeal, a planning inspector or indeed the Secretary of State will decide in their favour. It is our concern that that problem could happen on a London level, and that we will, in effect, have developers who play fast and loose with local boroughs because they want the Mayor to decide. The fact that the Secretary of State will still have a call-in power makes things more complicated. We have a potential situation in which a developer feels that it can negotiate successfully with the Mayor, and there is then an application to the Secretary of State to exercise his or her call-in powers. In such a situation, a development is made yet more bureaucratic and complicated.
Yvette Cooper: As I understand the hon. Gentleman’s position, his party supports the role of Secretaries of State in decision making on appeals and call-ins. I have heard Conservative Front Benchers articulate that position. Will he clarify whether the position has changed?
Michael Gove: I absolutely support the role of Secretaries of State, and nothing I said would suggest that I want to change that position. The point that I am making is that the powers are significant and serious. Kate Barker has argued that in the interests of speeding up the planning process, the powers should be exercised less often and that we should recognise that they should be used sparingly. The Conservatives agree with that position. A concern that we have about the Bill is that such significant powers are likely to be exercised in an analogous fashion by the Mayor. Given what the Mayor has said, and the increasing number of planning applications in which he has become involved, there is a danger that he may exercise the powers much more promiscuously than any of us would want.
Stephen Pound: A promiscuous skirt-lifter!
Michael Gove: Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene?
Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman is almost entering the Doug Rougvie phase of his defence in which he tends to play the man rather than the ball. He is almost becoming a John McMaster in that respect.
May I urge the hon. Gentleman against over-egging the rather elegant confection that he is creating for the Committee by bringing in extraneous matters such as visits made to the United States by the Deputy Prime Minister? Those comments were not a means of discussing the issues of the day. He is making a powerful point, but he demeans it by over-personalising matters. I mean that not as a criticism, but as a friendly, helpful comment.
The Chairman: Before you reply, Mr. Gove, may I say that as the referee of the Committee, I will produce a yellow card if there are too many long-winded interventions in the future.
Michael Gove: Thank you, Lady Winterton. The referee is always right.
The hon. Gentleman made an entirely fair point. To underline it, and for the reassurance of the Minister, I had no desire to cast aspersions on the Deputy Prime Minister. I wished to point it out merely because it is the most current and contemporary example of controversy arising from the exercise of planning powers. How much more controversial could the exercise of the powers be in the hands of someone less scrupulous and respected than the Deputy Prime Minister?
I shall make one final point. The Government use the need for greater efficiency as one of their principal justifications for the extension of planning powers. We are led to believe that it is by giving the Mayor the planning powers that the planning system in London will become more efficient. The Government have to acknowledge that when real efficiency and speed is required in planning, the Mayor’s hand is nowhere to be seen. Why is it that the Olympic delivery authority and the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation are exempted from the Mayor’s powers? Is it because the Government implicitly recognise—interestingly—that there may be a conflict between the speed and efficiency that those major areas of development require, and the unnecessarily bureaucratic and Byzantine structure set up for the exercise of the Mayor’s powers? It is for all those reasons that we believe that the clauses should be removed from the Bill.
I ask Labour Members to reflect on what their own local authorities have said about the Mayor’s exercising of his powers, and on what they know of their own Labour local authority colleagues. Is it right that the voice of those people elected by, and intimately aware of the concerns of, their communities, and who are knowledgeable about the impact of planning applications on the balance of work and other community needs, be muted, while the voice of the Mayor is amplified? Is it right that he should have the opportunity to intervene when the London plan gives him such extensive freedom to intervene? Is it right that he should be able to intervene on one basis, such as the height of a building, and then use that justification to meddle in every other aspect of a development? Is it right that he should exercise his powers sitting alone, many of them in private and effectively unscrutinised? Is it right that we should be setting up a process that encourages developers to negotiate in parallel, downgrading the role of boroughs and increasing the potential for covert deals that work in no one’s interest? It is for all those reasons that we should consider striking out this element of the Bill. We can then proceed quickly to give a fair reading to the attractive parts of the Bill so that it can pass to Royal Assent.
Tom Brake: I support much of what has been said by the official Opposition spokesman and the deletion of clauses 31 to 35. It is worth considering the backdrop to this debate on planning by looking at the findings of a survey in September 2006 in which 1,000 Londoners were asked about the proposed additional powers for the London Mayor.
In that survey, 54 per cent. of Londoners opposed plans to award the Mayor extra powers to decide planning applications across the capital. Only 27 per cent., just over one in four, supported proposals to award the Mayor further powers over planning. An overwhelming three out of four Londoners named their local council as being the most appropriate body to have planning powers in their area.
I know that the Mayor has responded with his own opinion poll. In my personal experience of constituents’ views, the role of local authorities in planning is not greatly appreciated, but the role of the Mayor is even less appreciated. The best example of that is a development of a strategic nature, Durand close, that I have previously referred to and which the Mayor called in but then proceeded to raise issues of a non-strategic nature.
As part of the backdrop, it is also worth providing the statistics to which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred, on the number of plans with which the Mayor has been involved since the introduction of the Town and Country Planning (Mayor of London) Order 2000, under which 291 applications have been classified as strategic and referred to him for comment. Interestingly, he has directly refused an application on only four occasions, a number that most people would feel is acceptable. However, the concerns must be that these changes will significantly increase the volume of applications that the Mayor will look into, in a way that will go against the grain of what local people want to see happen.
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I now want to look briefly at the Town and Country Planning (Mayor of London) Order 2007. I know that it is going to be the subject of consultation and hope that the Minister will set out the form of that consultation. However, the order goes to the heart of what we are discussing today and the matter of what is and is not an application of potential strategic importance.
I have considered the order carefully and a number of significant questions leap out of it. First, the heart of it is in article 7, which considers the Mayor’s power to direct refusal or permission, and, in particular, article 7(1)(a), which uses the words
“contrary to the spatial development strategy or prejudicial to its implementation”.
I hope that the Minister will explain what “prejudicial” means. Does it mean greatly or just slightly prejudicial? If she says that that matter will be resolved in the courts, that will be regrettable. We need much more precision from her on that point.
Yvette Cooper: I would like to clarify something, before the hon. Gentleman develops his important and interesting remarks. Article 7 deals with the power to direct refusal of permission. The Mayor already has that power. Article 8 applies to the new powers that he will be given under the Bill.
Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for that clarification. None the less, I hope that she will clarify the point further.
There are some definitions in article 8 that the Minister could helpfully clarify. In article 8(1), for example, the term “significant impact” is used, and I hope that she expands on what constitutes a “significant impact”.
Article 8(3) says:
“In deciding whether to give a direction the Mayor must take account of the extent to which the council of the London Borough is achieving, and has achieved, the relevant targets set out in the spatial development strategy.”
There is potential for that to be used as a big stick to beat a borough around the head if the Mayor believes that it is not complying with all relevant targets. I hope that the Minister will expand on what restrictions might apply to that article.
There is some satisfaction in that the Minister has introduced article 10 on determining an application. However, I hope that she will clarify the extent to which there has to be consultation, how far local residents and other objectors will be involved in the process, how the matter is to be addressed and what record will be made of that process.
London Councils is particularly concerned about schedule 3(b) to the order, under which an application might be deemed strategic if other planning permissions had been granted in the vicinity in the previous five years. That could open up a huge number of planning applications that would not previously have been covered by the Mayor’s remit. I hope that the Minister will tell the Committee what assessment the Government have made of the impact of the schedule on the expansion that might be expected in the number of applications that the Mayor will consider.
The Committee should consider an interesting classification:
“Development to provide a large or regional casino”,
which falls under category 1E of the order. That seems to be considered a strategic development, which is a departure from the nature of planning relating to all the other categories set out in the document. Does the Minister concur? Is it correct that the order, which focuses on the planning issue, appears to include a provision relating to a casino application, which seems to be outside the remit of every other category in the list provided?
There are other references in part 3 to phrases that require clarification. For example, it is not clear whether “prejudice” means a lot of prejudice, although the scale of intervention under category 3 development will allow the Mayor much greater intervention than is appropriate or acceptable. Bearing it in mind that local authorities will still have to be in general conformity with the London plan, category 3 sets out when intervention will be possible.
Category 3A and part 3 are about developments that affect strategic policies, but, interestingly, the loss of housing has been singled out as opposed to the loss of employment, for example. Can the Minister clarify the thinking behind that? The 2007 order, on which she will be consulting, requires significant clarification, and I hope that she will use this opportunity to respond to the points that I have made.
Broadly speaking, Liberal Democrat Members see eye to eye with London Councils on its position on the planning powers that the Mayor will be granted. His decision-making process should be much more transparent, as transparent as the activities of the borough planning committees—a matter to which we shall return in our debate on amendment No. 52 under clause 31.
Any transfer of powers to the Mayor should not involve making the planning system more complex or the introduction of additional delays. The worry is that that will clearly be the case. The number of cases that the Mayor intervenes on should be minimised, but nothing in the order suggests that that will happen. On the contrary, the scope for the Mayor intervening has been widened significantly.
There should be an acid test of whether the Mayor’s approach is right and whether his intervention is reasonable and necessary to ensure the delivery of the London plan. Liberal Democrat Members believe in the strategic nature of the authority, as well as the right to put forward the London plan, the housing plan and the spatial development plan, but we believe that the basic test of whether it is reasonable for the Mayor to intervene to ensure delivery of the London plan is required.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath referred to worries about section 106. The current or future Mayor should not be allowed to use his powers to take over an application simply if there is a minor difference with the local authority because he wants to access the funds that are available under section 106.
To conclude—
Mr. Slaughter: I hear the word “conclude”. Is the hon. Gentleman about to mention affordable housing—a topic that, to be fair to him, was referred to by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath? It is a priority for the Mayor and central to such powers. However, once again the Liberal Democrats have not mentioned it. Will the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington tell the Committee whether he, Liberal Democrat councillors and the Liberal Democrat party support the Mayor’s target on affordable housing? If so, will he condemn the London borough of Islington, which is achieving 20 per cent. affordable housing when its target is 50 per cent?
Tom Brake: I am happy to deal with the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, although we had a debate on housing last week. As for whether the Liberal Democrats support the Mayor’s affordable housing target, I must say that we do. As for whether each borough delivers precisely the Mayor’s target, we need to allow boroughs flexibility in delivering the Mayor’s targets, but I am of the view that Liberal Democrat boroughs should seek to hit them. Unfortunately, in the London borough of Sutton, where the local authority has taken an active role in ensuring that substandard housing was replaced by good-quality new affordable housing, the Mayor’s intervention delayed the project by 10 months, rather than assisting the process.
Yes, we support the basic principle, although I know that the hon. Gentleman is prone to citing individual local authorities in his interventions. I am not convinced that that is terribly helpful, as each of us could produce our own list of local authorities, of all political complexions, that we felt were not delivering. When I moved to London in the early 1980s, I lived in Islington—then the socialist republic of Islington—and I am sure that the Liberal Democrat local authority is doing a much better job than was being done then.
To conclude, we should ensure that the Mayor focuses on strategic issues when he intervenes; he should not be permitted to comment on non-strategic matters as happens now. Nothing in the provision will stop the Mayor doing that. On the contrary, his non-strategic interventions will escalate. It is disproportionate and unjustified to give him the discretion to take over a potentially larger number of planning applications.
Interestingly, London Councils says that the Mayor has not been able to prove that important strategic applications are frequently hindered by local authorities. The councils are concerned that if the Government proceed with the draft order it will enable the Mayor to take over a larger number of applications than is appropriate, and I support them in that view—particularly, as I mentioned earlier, in relation to the potentially massive expansion in the number of applications in which he might intervene that could result from the proposal that planning applications within a given area in the previous five years must be taken into account.
I hope that the Minister responds to those specific points on the draft Mayor of London order. I shall listen carefully to her response, but the tenor of the order suggests that the concerns that we expressed on Second Reading about planning have not been addressed and that it will require a significant U-turn by the Minister to satisfy us.
Mr. Hands: I intend to be fairly brief, not least because my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath spoke eloquently and extremely effectively—with supportive comments from the Liberal Democrats—to the Opposition amendments, which go to the heart of the Bill. First, however, I wish to raise a couple of points.
First, the my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North suggested that only a few applications will be called in. I am reasonably sure that he is right, but the problem is that the Bill gives the ability to call in a great number of applications. The Mayor may not call in or take over most of those. As a former councillor, I received every week a list of the planning applications that had been submitted to the borough. They included almost everything from new lamp posts and illuminated advertising all the way up to developments of 2,000 homes.
It is inconceivable that either the current or a future Mayor will start calling in large numbers of such applications, but it is a significant worry that he will be able to do so. For every development of 500 homes, there will probably be 500 loft extensions. However, we fear that he will call in the 500-home developments and other larger applications with some regularity.
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Stephen Pound: Further to the hon. Gentleman’s point, the difficulty is that if we constantly get into hypothetical situations, we might find ourselves in the same position as, say, Alex McLeish in 1982, who never thought that one day he would become Scotland manager. We cannot predicate an analysis on the basis of what might be. Does the hon. Gentleman at least accept that if a planning application is of such significance that it affects adjoining boroughs, a strategic mechanism will be required? That is the nature of a very crowded city.
Mr. Hands: There is some truth in that, but for large developments close to borough boundaries, existing powers provide for consultation with neighbouring and nearby boroughs. In the wrong hands, I fear that the proposal will give rise to a meddler’s charter. As we have seen in recent years with existing powers, some of the Mayor’s interventions on local councils will be highly selective, media-driven and politically motivated.
I shall return to the point about a worst case scenario raised by the hon. Member for Lewes, which involves cases under a different type of Mayor. I ask Labour Members to imagine a Mayor who pledges to deliver no affordable housing in London, who is given those powers to meddle and intervene in the 32 boroughs and who takes over developments and directs that no affordable housing shall be built. If that Mayor were close to a developer or set of developers, the accusation would arise that they were influenced by a developer seeking to maximise their profit by not delivering affordable housing. The hon. Member for Ealing, North might think that that is a hypothetical scenario, which it probably is—it probably will not happen—but we must look beyond the current personality and consider what could happen under a different Mayor.
Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman think that if a Mayor failed to deliver any affordable housing in London, they would be democratically re-elected at the next election?
Mr. Hands: The hon. Lady is probably right, but housing policy will not necessarily be the principal factor in determining the course of the London mayoral election, which is held every four years. The principal factor might be the condition of the tube, public transport, the buses, crime and so on. We have had two such elections, and affordable housing and housing and planning policy were probably not in the top five factors in determining the result.
Norman Baker: Briefly, does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a mature democracy democratic accountability should run parallel with the decision-making process, rather than its being exercised every four years?
Mr. Hands: That is a helpful intervention. I shall come on to the importance of planning, which works differently from the normal democratic process.
I shall talk about the impact of planning and the overall development process in this country. The Government proposals threaten and jeopardise some of the central tenets of the planning system. We all know that that system is not perfect—now is not the right time to talk about its pros and cons—but it needs to be consistent across the country, yet the proposals seek radical changes in the metropolis of London.
I was interested in a submission to the Committee by the Mayor, who talked at some length about wanting to increase transparency, saying, “The Mayor has agreed to publish the reports on applications that are taken over in advance of when he hears representations and makes his decision, and to publish the reasons for his decision. The Mayor is also content for the meeting at which he hears representations to be open to the public and broadcast over the internet. He is also happy to take his decisions on any applications he has taken over in public.” I do not think that the Mayor has given a firm commitment to have the same open, transparent process as local authorities on planning procedures.
The fatal flaw in the Mayor’s submission, which has already been mentioned, is that he fails to understand the planning process in this country and the quasi-judicial nature of decisions, saying, “Under the proposed changes, planning in London will continue to be accountable, as the Mayor is ultimately accountable through the ballot box.”
Imagine again the worst-case scenario of a Mayor who does not believe in any affordable housing. The Mayor meets developers in private, possibly while on holiday in Cannes, and says, “Well actually, I’ve made my decision—like it or lump it. You can always get rid of me in three and three-quarter years’ time at the next mayoral election”.
Mr. Slaughter: Given the hon. Gentleman’s concern for the probity of the planning process, does he think it appropriate for the chairman of a planning committee to meet a developer immediately before a major development comes before that committee to insist on significant changes to an application?
Mr. Hands: I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring, yet again, to the Prestolite site, although far be it for me to extend discussion about that case, which seems to have dominated our proceedings in recent days. I am not aware of the allegation that the hon. Gentleman is making, but if he wants to make it, I suggest that he put it in writing and I shall consider it.
The changes are ill conceived and ill thought through. They are a knee-jerk response to a perceived political need to give the Mayor of London more powers. They will fundamentally change many of the ways in which planning operates in the capital, which will inevitably affect how planning is viewed in this country. It is dangerous to combine the regeneration role with the inevitable role that local authorities can and must play in determining appeals and making determinations on individual planning applications in public. For that reason, clause 30 should not stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Slaughter: I shall also try to be brief. I rise only to comment on the long contribution by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. He is not here at the moment, so I hope that I shall not misinterpret anything that he said. He took a curious approach to the provisions. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has returned, so I hope that he will not mind my saying that he set out to spook the Committee in his contribution to frighten it into believing that the powers that the Mayor will inherit will result in some terrible wrong. I believe that he is wrong. I do not know whether it is just his new oratorical style—a gothic style—that he has introduced in Committee. Perhaps matters of housing, and particularly London housing, are getting the hon. Gentleman down and are a little too dry for his palate.
I should like to open a cellar door and spread some light into the rather gloomy world that the hon. Gentleman has created of a Mayor who will interfere aggressively in many applications, who will misappropriate funds under section 106 agreements, who will take all his decisions while cloistered and hidden away, whether in Cannes, in the bath or wherever, and who will impose iron, unachievable targets on the poor borough councils by way of affordable housing and other matters. I have looked as closely as I can at the Bill and the regulations, and I cannot see any of that. What I see in the Bill is a modification of the strategic powers of the Mayor in an appropriate fashion and, in particular, to help to achieve important London targets in the area of affordable housing.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington gave the game away. Fewer than 300 applications have been referred to the Mayor, and in only four cases has an intervention been necessary. The hon. Gentleman foresaw a possibly significant increase to perhaps five or even six such cases under these powers. Surely, if there is any strategic role for strategic authority, the powers set out in the Bill do not go beyond that. It is disingenuous of the boroughs and, indeed, some Opposition politicians to try to spook local residents’ groups and others involved in the planning process by saying that what will happen is a sea change.
I say the same in relation to section 106 agreements. On determining applications or section 106 agreements, the key point, even where the Mayor has intervened, is collaboration with the boroughs, adherence to local plans as well as strategic plans and taking the boroughs along with him on section 106 agreements.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham has referred to the decision-making process. It seems to me, looking at what the Mayor has said and what the regulations say about that, that it is just as consultative and democratic as any process that the boroughs undertake. Indeed, a number of boroughs—I mention Wandsworth, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham—do not allow the public to make representations at their planning committees. The Mayor’s intention in publishing and consulting on his proposals probably goes further than many of the boroughs in that respect.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with considerable interest, and I am particularly interested in his argument that section 106 agreements are democratically accountable locally. I do not have the record in front of me. Did he therefore vote against the Planning-gain Supplement (Preparations) Bill last night—a Government Bill that would take that power away from local authorities?
Mr. Slaughter: I will have to check Hansard, but I have a feeling that I voted with the Government. I am so pleased to hear Conservative Members being so keen on section 106 agreements and on getting additional resources from major planning decisions into local communities, which is an extraordinary sea change. The last time that the Conservatives lost power in Hammersmith and Fulham, they did so with a huge bang in which they granted several billion pounds of planning applications on one day, a week before they lost power, with virtually no section 52, as I believe it was, agreements attached to them. I think that with Chelsea harbour, a not inconsequential development on the riverside, a footpath was the planning gain. It is therefore good to see that Conservative Members keen on planning gain. I wish they had supported the Bill last night and would support these powers, because these powers can only assist local communities in getting proper additional community facilities in their area.
Finally, I said that I would not be long.
12.30 pm
Tom Brake: I hear the word “finally”. The hon. Gentleman said that the spokesman for the official Opposition has sought to spook hon. Members and that he does not recognise Opposition Members’ concerns in relation to planning changes. He may be able to dismiss our views, but what are the views of Labour authorities and councillors in London on the shift of planning powers from them to the Mayor?
Mr. Slaughter: There are not many around me at the moment, so I would have to go some distance to find that out. There is survey evidence of Londoners undertaken by the Mayor, but I know from the hon. Gentleman’s comments that he prefers anecdotal banana stall evidence from his constituents.
Tom Brake: There are relatively few banana stalls in my constituency, but what I was referring to was the survey carried out by London councils that interviewed 1,000 people.
Mr. Slaughter: Questions can always be asked in a particular way, but I tend to prefer the questions and evidence from the GLA, which was the Mayor’s survey on those matters. That showed that an overwhelming majority of Londoners supported the need for the Mayor’s affordable housing target and that a clear majority supported his intervention, particularly when it was necessary to ensure that those targets were achieved.
There is a complete abdication of responsibility by some borough councils. They are not tackling a clear statutory responsibility, which those who elected them wish to see carried out. That goes to the heart not just of discharging statutory duties, but of good governance in a local area. Where there is a failure to achieve affordable housing and an abdication of responsibility by local councils, it is often on a nimbyist and parochial basis. Surely, we have reached the point where we need some strategic direction on precisely that issue.
Michael Gove: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s appeal that strategic powers be exercised. In his own constituency on the Goldhawk road he will be aware of the Allied Carpets planning proposal. Hammersmith and Fulham council, which is Labour controlled, rejected that planning application because aspects of it were not in conformity with its local development plan. However, the Mayor suggested that the application should be agreed. Presumably, the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Mayor and thinks that the statutory powers should have been in existence to enable the Mayor to direct the local authority to approve the Allied Carpets scheme on Goldhawk road.
Mr. Slaughter: If the Prestolite scheme, which is at least as major a development, has received too much attention, the Allied Carpets scheme, which is a small development, should receive as much attention. Hon. Members who do not live on the Goldhawk road—I know that is a minority in the Committee—may begin to get bored. I am not sure what more I can say on that issue. I spoke about the Allied Carpets development at length on Second Reading and in Committee last week. I have given my view very clearly on the matter. It is a small government issue.
Michael Gove: And the hon. Gentleman disagrees with the Mayor.
Mr. Slaughter: I do. The Mayor intervened because he believed, wrongly in my view, that a building of merit would be put on the site. It may well be a building of merit, but not on that site. The Mayor did not pursue the point. As I have said, he believed that it was a sensible development for the site, but he did not appear at the public inquiry and the matter was not pursued. It is a red herring.
In the Mayor’s polls, and in the London councils poll as well, which is rather more self-serving, Londoners take a clear view that strategic powers are needed, particularly in housing. However, I suspect that more Committee members than care to say so share a common-sense view that major developments—for example, the White City opportunity area in my constituency—should have a regional and strategic role. I wish that rather than being in thrall to a political mantra, whether it is supporting Conservative boroughs or opposing a Labour Mayor, Opposition Members would articulate that a little more clearly.
I was pleased to hear what Liberal Democrats said about supporting the Mayor’s housing targets, but the fact remains that Conservative and Liberal Democrat boroughs particularly, although not exclusively, are not meeting those targets and have no incentive to do so. If London is to be properly planned with proper accommodation for all its citizens and not only those on incomes of £60,000 or £80,000 a year, the powers are necessary.
Robert Neill: One thing has been established absolutely beyond question in our debate so far. We all know now what the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush would choose as his specialist subject if he ever went on “Mastermind”. I do not intend to go into quite the same detail on the history of the London borough where I once served, but I will bear it in mind in commenting on the Bill’s planning package.
My comments have two parts. First, there is the question of the Mayor’s strategic role. I do not have a problem with the Mayor having a strategic role, but the point is that nothing that we have seen so far—neither the proposed primary legislation nor the draft order—has defined “strategic”. That concerns us.
There is also an important philosophic point that the Government’s proposals seem to breach. When the Greater London authority was created, it was argued in its favour that there would be a distinction between the Mayor as a driver of strategy and the delivery of service. What we are seeing in housing and planning is the Mayor moving, albeit in certain circumscribed areas, into service delivery. That is a change in philosophy and in tack, and the histories of the old Greater London council and London county council demonstrate that there is a risk of conflict with the boroughs if it is not handled properly. One of the reasons why a number of the Labour London boroughs did not weep as much as Ken Livingstone would have liked over abolition in 1985 was the long-running conflict under administrations of all parties between the boroughs and County hall, involving rather more limited planning powers than are proposed here.
It would be undesirable not to learn the lessons of history and to repeat that mistake. That can be avoided by keeping the Mayor to broad-brush strategy—by keeping him away from detailed target setting, which failed on the national stage, leaving the broad issues to the Mayor’s strategies and letting the boroughs deal with delivery. That is not only important for basic philosophy and accountability; it is important to public confidence. I think that we would all agree that there is no area in which it is more important and perhaps more sensitive to maintain public confidence than in planning. My experience as a member of a planning committee of a London borough council reinforces that.
For people in outer London, there are substantial geographic units. People who live in Orpington regard Bromley council as a pretty large unit, and their community is a smaller unit than that. They can live with the idea that Bromley council takes their planning decisions because they send their representatives to it. However, to have a significant number of decisions taken even further away will undermine their confidence that the system works for them and listens to them. That is an important point that is missed.
Ms Buck: Is not the point of the whole debate that there will be instances—not many, but some—in which it is entirely reasonable for a local community to have concerns about a planning decision, for or against, but where their local interests conflict with the strategic interests of Londoners as a whole? There are occasions when their local interests have to be overruled in the strategic interests of the city and it is right that the Mayor should have that power. Therefore, however powerfully the hon. Gentleman makes his argument, I am not sure that he actually deals with the central issue.
Robert Neill: With respect, my argument deals with that point. On those rare occasions—there should be every endeavour to ensure that they are rare—people will accept their interests being overridden only if there is the maximum transparency and they have the maximum assurance that they have had a fair crack of the whip, to use a colloquial phrase. My concerns are related to the definition of “strategic”, which is potentially too wide and will therefore be used in too many such cases, and to the procedure by which it is done. People will not have confidence that they have had a fair crack of the whip before that hard decision is taken.
Norman Baker: Speaking as a Member of Parliament who does not represent a London area, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can help me. As I understand it, the argument is that the powers will be exercised rarely on a strategic basis, and strategic was the word that was used. None the less, we have heard the Mayor apparently commenting on the Goldhawk road, with which I am not familiar, and Allied Carpets. We were told by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush that it was a very small matter. Therefore, the Mayor appears to be ready to intervene on small matters already.
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he helpfully brings me on to my next point. The point has been made by Members of all parties that we should try to base our decision making on the evidence, and I agree with that. I have two points on that. First, the evidence amply demonstrated and submitted by London councils and other bodies does not prove that there is an overriding and crying need for change to the current system. Secondly, as the hon. Member for Lewes points out, the evidence does demonstrate that the Mayor has not always used his existing powers wisely, consistently or, dare I say it, sensibly.
The Mayor has intervened in a much larger number of applications under his current limited powers than he tells us he would with his new powers. I am sorry to say that his track record does not give us any cause to believe him. Frankly, he has sometimes been capricious in the use of his current powers. In the Second Reading debate, I instanced a number of examples in which he used his planning powers in what appeared to be contradictory manners. Therefore, the Mayor is his own worst enemy. People are sceptical about the way he plans to exercise his powers in the future, and we can only go on that evidence that we have thus far, so that is a concern.
Let me give one further example, which relates to the Mayor’s philosophy about seeking to increase densities in London. My concern is that the Mayor drives that philosophy with an exceedingly rigid and almost fanatical approach. We all know that London is going to have to increase densities in the appropriate places to accommodate the growth in population, but the key test is “appropriate places”. There is concern that the Mayor does not—[ Interruption. ] There are parts of Bromley where it can be accommodated. Bromley council has approved and is pushing ahead with a very high density scheme in Bromley town centre, which is a transport hub. It is close to the stations and shopping centres—exactly the right place to put high-density development. So that comment does not work, if I may say so.
Equally, there is a lack of similar discernment by the Mayor. In outer London there are places where significant densification can take place, but there are established suburban areas of a settled physical and environmental character where it is not appropriate. The Mayor, however, perceives any application in such areas that comes within his purview as being driven overwhelmingly by questions of number and density. That lack of discretion and of concern for local context and character gives real cause for concern.
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There was a specific recent example in my constituency on the Ravensbourne college site in Chislehurst. A planning application has been allowed on appeal, but the Mayor had argued to the developers for a higher density than the inspector ultimately thought was appropriate. That does not give Chislehurst residents much confidence in the way in which the Mayor would use his powers. He is seen as desiring to drive things up even further. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath said, that is a real concern for many of us—that the Mayor will be dealing with the developers and pushing them in his political direction in a way that is not transparent. He handled that application by seeking almost to ratchet up the densities, which is clearly harmful to the local environment. That is a clear demonstration of the dangers of granting the powers without significant checks and balances, which are not currently present.
The final matter relates to amendment No. 52.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot debate that now.
The planning clauses are part of a package, and the concern is that the package is a centralising rather than a devolving measure, which takes away power from the boroughs. We do not like the principle, but if we do not have the numbers to change it, there are some specific practical details to consider that I hope the Government will re-examine. The points on the order, its contents, and whether the need for transparency should be in the Bill are important matters of principle and important to public confidence. Ultimately, planning systems work and are kept clean only if the public have that confidence.
Debate adjourned.—[Jonathan Shaw.]
Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to One o’clock till this day at Four o’clock.
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