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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


[Mr. Edward O’Hara in the Chair]

Greater London Authority Bill

Clause 30

Local development schemes
Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.
4 pm
Question again proposed.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking clauses 31 to 35 stand part and 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.’.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. O’Hara. We paused before lunch by agreement not to have an interrupted response to what has been an extensive debate on the planning clauses before us and also, of course, to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North a little more time to sharpen up his stories about Scottish footballers. I understand that he has four remaining members of the team to get through by the end of the afternoon.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): It is unfortunate that the Minister is emulating players such as Neil Simpson and Mark McGee in getting her retaliation in first, but I admire her for it.
Yvette Cooper: The clauses that we have before us and the new clause that we were debating are important components of the Bill. That part of the Bill is about giving the Mayor more responsibility to ensure that housing and affordable housing needs in London are delivered in practice. Currently, the Mayor only has the right to block things and he should be able to support much-needed major strategic development in the interests of the capital as a whole. It is important that there are safeguards to ensure that the discussion is focused around those major strategic applications. I will come on to discuss those because we have set out the order in an attempt to give effect to that intention.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): The Minister talks about the importance of the clauses in delivering affordable housing, but what happens if the democratically elected Mayor has a totally different view from her on the issue of affordable housing? How would she deal with that?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Affordable housing is now so central to London that it will always be of importance to an elected Mayor. However, affordable housing also has wider repercussions across the country in terms of the impact on the London economy and the impact on the wider housing market in other regions. It is an issue that the Secretary of State would always expect to be dealt with properly in London and in other regions. Affordable housing has much wider repercussions.If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that a future Conservative Mayor would not see affordable housing as such a priority, shame on such a future Conservative Mayor—he would certainly struggle to be elected on that basis.
Mr. Hands: No, I am certainly not arguing that. I am arguing that there may be a scenario in which there was a maverick Mayor who decided that there should be no affordable housing in London, passed a London plan accordingly, and intervened in the boroughs to try and prevent affordable housing from being built. He may then say that he is able to do so because of the Bill as amended here today and that if people did not like it, they would have to vote him down in the next election.
Yvette Cooper: I should inform the hon. Gentleman that to achieve such a scenario, there would have to be, if not a Conservative Mayor, some kind of maverick right-wing Mayor who was hostile to affordable housing. There would also, in fact, have to be a Conservative or right-wing Government in place who were hostile to affordable housing. We have made clear the importance of affordable housing within the national policy framework and the planning policies that need to be picked up as part of the London plan. Therefore, under the current policy framework, it would simply be impossible to produce a London plan that could pass the planning process and that did not take seriously the needs of Londoners for housing, including affordable and social housing. That is the policy framework in which we operate.
Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I hate to criticise my hon. Friend, but I support the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham because the scenario is perhaps not as unlikely as she is making out; in fact the new Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham is doing exactly that. It has a principled opposition to all forms of affordable housing. No affordable rented housing, and shared ownership housing only if it is out of the reach of any—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman is trying to make a serious point.
Mr. Slaughter: Thank you, Mr. O’Hara. Affordable housing needs to be higher up the political agenda so that those putting themselves forward for the position of Mayor would have to make clear where they stood on this issue. I doubt whether we would see any Conservative mavericks, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham calls them, or any Conservative Mayors elected for the foreseeable future.
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Opposition Members may wriggle at the suggestion that perhaps Conservatives might not be as enthusiastic about social housing as they like to protest, but the evidence does not support their protestations.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Our debate on affordable housing ignited my interest in my own borough of Merton where a Conservative group is now in power with no overall control. I had a phone call from the leader of the Labour group only an hour ago who explained to me that currently Presentation housing association is considering suing the council as a result of the Conservative group’s decision not to pursue a scheme on which it had already spent quite a large sum of money. As a result of the sitting of the overview and scrutiny panel last night, some cases where the Conservative councillors were trying to get rid of affordable housing will now be referred to the Standards Board. It would seem that there may be a pattern here. It may not just be afflicting trendy west London, but also quieter south London.
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not know the circumstances of the individual case and obviously there are limitations on the ability of Ministers to comment on individual cases that may be going through the panel or the standards procedures. However, I am aware from reports that have come to us via the Housing Corporation, which we have asked to look into the current provision of social housing in London, that Merton has been considering adopting a policy that identifies particular areas where it does not believe that there should be additional social housing. Mitcham, for example, is considered an area where no social housing should be built. Concerns have also been raised about the approach from Hammersmith and Fulham council, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush has mentioned, and Barnet council too.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Further to the points that were being made by Opposition Members on this very matter, I checked the figures for affordable housing provision for some of those boroughs and discovered that Barnet, which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath cited in aid of his argument, produced only 8 per cent. affordable housing as against the Mayor’s preferred target of 50 per cent. My own borough of Westminster produced only 11 per cent.
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Certainly some of the figures that I have picked up included Bromley, which in 2004-05 delivered 14 per cent. affordable housing. The Committee will be aware that I previously quoted the example of Wandsworth, which in 2005-06 seems to be delivering only nine social homes as supported by the Housing Corporation. In an area as large as Wandsworth that clearly raises some concerns.
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I entirely share the hon. Lady’s concern about the lack of provisionof social housing. Perhaps she could remind the Committee what the figures are for the delivery of social housing overall nationally since 1997. Is it not the case that in every year since 1997, the Government have presided over fewer social housing completions than the preceding 10 Conservative years?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman should be rather cautious about calling on the experience of the early ’90s as the defence of Conservative housing policy. He is certainly right to say that there was a period in the early ’90s when it was rather cheaper to buy back social housing than it was more recently. The previous Government and the housing associations decided that in order to step into what was an extremely shaky housing market, it might be wise to start buying properties that developers were unable to sell because the housing market had gone into freefall. We had a devastating housing market crash and a collapse in land values, triggered by the economic management of the previous Conservative Government. He will appreciate that we would not want to follow that approach to bringing down the costs of delivering more affordable housing.
Michael Gove: I am grateful to the Minister for taking us down memory lane once more. There are two important points to make. First, I was talking about the completion of new houses, whereas she was talking about an entirely different process. Secondly, we all agree that there was a period of economic turbulence in the early ’90s, but that period came about because of our entry into the exchange rate mechanism.
The Chairman: Order. That is enough from memory lane. Let us return to the present and the future.
Yvette Cooper: I would point the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to some of the interest rate decisions and economic management decisions that were made in the late ’80s, in advance of the exchange rate mechanism, as being contributory factors. Either way, we are agreed that the economic policy of the previous Conservative Government threw the housing market into freefall and had a devastating impact.
The hon. Gentleman raised a wider issue about overall house building and housing delivery. He tried to claim that the Conservative boroughs in London were doing well. It is certainly true that Wandsworth, Bromley and Westminster have done better on overall housing than some other boroughs, although they have done relatively badly on affordable housing. Kensington and Chelsea delivered 43 per cent. of its housing target, while Barnet managed 86 per cent. and Redbridge managed only19 per cent. Before the hon. Gentleman tries to parade the Conservative boroughs, he should accept that there is a mixed picture among the London boroughs and that many of his Conservative colleagues are not quite as enthusiastic about additional housing as he might like them to be. Indeed, his colleagues on the Conservative Benches are not as enthusiastic about additional housing as he might wish them to be.
Michael Gove: According to the figures for housing completions in 2003-04 and 2004-05, the boroughs with the weakest performance were Waltham Forest, with 45 per cent., Merton, with 54 per cent., and Lewisham, with 55 per cent. Those three boroughs at the bottom of the league—the Partick Thistle, the Greenock Morton and the Gretna, in Scottish football terms—were all Labour controlled during those years.
Yvette Cooper: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for using the figures for 2005-06, which, being the most recent available figures, seemed to be the most appropriate. As I said, Kensington and Chelsea delivered 43 per cent. of its target and Redbridge, which seems to be one of the worst performers on the list, delivered 19 per cent. of its housing target.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The Minister is illustrating the point that it is risky to cite individual examples. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush was the leader for Hammersmith and Fulham, although he does not frequently mention his constituency in his interventions. He referred to Islington, which has not sold land at nil value, as Hammersmith and Fulham did when he was the leader, but which has occasionally sold land at market value, so as to get capital receipts that can then be spent on new schools, for instance. When the Minister deals with individual cases, it is important that she should compare apples with apples.
Yvette Cooper: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing that Islington had failed to deliver on housing because it was building schools. His intervention did not sound like a ringing endorsement of Islington’s housing approach.
Tom Brake: It is in line with the Mayor’s targets.
Yvette Cooper: Islington is in line with some of the Mayor’s targets, with 93 per cent. in 2005-06 and 76 per cent. in 2004-05. I cannot find the figures for affordable housing swiftly enough for the hon. Gentleman, although some of the other Liberal Democrat boroughs might not have been so successful.
4.15 pm
Stephen Pound: Is my hon. Friend not aware that the disparity in performance between boroughs that Opposition Members are parading before us makes the most powerful case for a central strategic role? Does she agree that Opposition Members have made the case for us? Might it not be an idea to move to a Division, given that they will certainly support us on this occasion?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We have before us wide variations. Some will be one-year variations due to land supply issues in a particular borough while others will be more systemic and reflect a borough’s ongoing failure to deliver enough homes to meet the needs not only of the borough, but of the city as a whole. That is a reason why the strategic issues—the wider needs of the city—should also be considered by the Mayor.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I implore the Minister not to listen to the entreaties, siren-like though they may be, of the hon. Member for Ealing, North. While not wishing to go down memory lane, I wish to explain to the hon. Lady that in the ’80s and early ’90s, when I used to advise Gosteleradio, the state television and radio agency of the Soviet Union, I walked every day past Gosplan, the central planning agency of the Soviet Union. It had five-year plans and a central scheme, but not one time did they ever work.
Yvette Cooper: They clearly could have learnt a few lessons from Islington with its achievement of 93 per cent.
Members of the Committee will recognise the importance of the strategic powers that we have discussed many times. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North was entreating me to speed up and put matters to the vote, so I will try to accelerate, although I cannot resist the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who asked a series of wider questions about attitudes towards development. As he said, he wants to champion his party’s credentials in favour of development. However, such matters involve not only the boroughs, but the attitude of MPs towards development.
I would certainly not criticise Conservative MPs who oppose individual planning applications that may be badly designed or inappropriately sited, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman may have taken such action in his constituency, but several of his hon. Friends—not only those on the Back Benches, but those in London—are opposing increased housing overall, especially the shadow Chief Secretary, who has said that suburbs such as Barnet are under attack from the Deputy Prime Minister’s excessive targets for new house building. Moreover, the shadow Minister for London has complained about over-development in Beckenham.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath challenged me to come up with a single incidence of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) arguing against increased housing. I could not resist the temptation to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the words of his right hon. Friend, who said:
“Oxfordshire does not want—and cannot manage—the extra ... houses Labour wants to impose.”
Obviously, I would not have brought the right hon. Gentleman into the debate had the hon. Gentleman not raised such matters. However, I am happy to furnish him with a copy of the right hon. Gentleman’s election manifesto, in which he made those claims. The purpose behind the Bill is to ensure that the overall strategic issues behind the London plan can be delivered, regardless of the politics of individual boroughs or MPs.
Clause 30 deals with local development schemes, which set out what issues the borough will address and what the time scale will be. That will not include the content of the plan, which is an important point, because the clause allows the Mayor to direct the boroughs on what should be in their work programme. For example, if a borough is not planning a strategy on waste, it might be reasonable—given the city’s difficulties in dealing with waste and its importance under the London plan—for the Mayor to consider directing a borough to include a waste document in its planning scheme or to draw up a waste strategy.
The clause will not allow the Mayor to draw up a waste strategy for the borough; it will simply allow him to direct that the borough should include a waste strategy in its planning process.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath argued that the mayoral power of direction duplicates the Secretary of State’s power of direction. I do not think so. Without the power, the Mayor would have to ask the Secretary of State to intervene on his behalf to deliver the London plan, and things would become more bureaucratic and duplicative. The Government want to devolve to the Mayor and to remove the need for the Secretary of State to intervene in regional issues. The Secretary of State will still be able to direct on national policy issues, but regional issues should be a matter for the Mayor.
Subsections (2) to (7) of new clause 12 would remove the requirement for borough unitary development plans to be in general conformity with the spatial development strategy and replace it with a requirement for them to have regard to it. In practice, the change would apply to the old system of unitary development plans, so it would not have much effect as we are replacing those with local development frameworks. However, I shall address the intention behind the new clause rather than its practical effect.
The Government think that the new clause does not take the right approach. The requirement for general conformity has been part of the planning system for many years, stretching back well before the Greater London Authority Act 1999. The new clause would effectively reduce the boroughs’ requirement to look beyond their borders and do their part in meeting new housing and other development challenges faced by London and the country.
Michael Gove: Is the Minister aware of the briefing from the Mayor’s office discussing the general conformity clause? It says that the clause, which she is defending,
“is a legal minefield that will mean local authorities and the Mayor could end up embroiled in judicial reviews, with London council tax payers footing both sides of the legal bill. This will rightly be seen as a waste of public money.”
Yvette Cooper: I have some shocking news for the hon. Gentleman: we do not agree with the Mayor on everything.
Michael Gove: Only when it is convenient.
Yvette Cooper: The legislation that we have introduced reflects the best approach, as set out in much wider planning legislation. As I said, it involves a principle that has been in planning legislation for a long time.
There is a difference between conformity and general conformity. General conformity does not mean slavish adherence to individual details of the plan. Only where a borough plan contains an inconsistency or omission that would cause significant harm to the London plan’s implementation should it be considered not in general conformity. The fact that a borough plan is inconsistent with one or more of the plan’s detailed policies, either directly or by omission, does not necessarily mean that it is not in general conformity. The test is how significant the inconsistency is to overall delivery of the London plan.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): In that case, if the phrase “general conformity” is legally clear, how clear is “have regard to”?
Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The phrase “have regard to” is used not just in the Bill, but in other aspects of legislation, and I think that it is seen as weaker than “general conformity”. Clearly, judgments must be made about the strength of the relationship for different aspects of the Bill, the planning process and other development processes. We think that “general conformity” captures the relationship that ought to exist between individual borough plans and the London plan. It has done so for some time, and it reflects the long-standing planning policy relationship between local and regional plans.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am interested in that point. This morning, we were told that an obligation on the Mayor to “have regard to” the assembly’s views will strengthen its position. Now we are told that that is a rather weaker concept. Clearly, what is good enough for the assembly is not good enough for the Mayor. Do I take it that the Minister wishes the Mayor to have a greater hold over the boroughs than the assembly has over the Mayor?
Yvette Cooper: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is following the details of which issues we are discussing, but I think that it is right that the Mayor should have regard for the assembly’s views. The expectation that the Mayor be in general conformity with the assembly on a series of issues is challenging. The role of the assembly is to scrutinise; the role of the Mayor is to be the executive force in the city.
Robert Neill: The Minister has missed my point. If the use of the term “general regard” is good in one context, why should the Mayor not have general regard for a borough’s development plans in the same way that he should have general regard for the assembly’s comments?
Yvette Cooper: Okay, now we have a third variable. We have “have regard to”, “have general regard” and “have general consistency”. We also have the possibility of “consistency”. There is a series of variables that we could apply. The point I made earlier was that different variables will apply to different sections of the Bill, because we are talking about different relationships and the different roles that the executive and scrutiny parts of the GLA must fulfil.
As we made clear on Second Reading, we are strengthening the position of the assembly. The independent inspector who examines a borough’s draft plan is the final arbiter of general conformity, not the Mayor. The Mayor can give his formal opinion, but the inspector rules on the issue.
New clause 12(8) would remove the power of the Mayor to refuse a planning application that was contrary to the London plan. It would not be right to remove that power, which is about dealing with major strategic planning applications. However, the issue goes to the heart of the disagreement between us. There are some strategic issues that affect London as a whole, over which it is important that we take a London-wide view. The decisions of an individual borough can have an impact not only on neighbouring boroughs, but on the city as a whole, its housing market and its prosperity. On that basis, it is right that the Mayor should continue to have the power to direct that planning applications be turned down.
Mr. Hands: Will the Minister reassure us that the proposed procedures conform with the Human Rights Act 1998? She will be aware of controversies in recent years concerning that Act and the right to make representations in person when a planning decision is being taken.
A House of Commons Library paper states:
“Case law from both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights has accepted that the taking of planning decisions by democratically elected politicians does not breach the convention. However, that conclusion is partly dependent upon procedural guarantees of fairness.”
Will the Minister tell us what the “procedural guarantees of fairness” in the proposed process are, given that it appears that decisions could be taken in behind-closed-doors meetings that nobody else is allowed to attend?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I will say more in due course about the procedures that need to apply and the safeguards that need to be in place, as well as about the safeguards provided by the Human Rights Act and the common law. First, I shall finish my remarks on new clause 12.
In the past six years, the Mayor has carried through 18 directions in London—an average of three per year. That number is out of an average of about 90,000 planning applications per year. I calculate that0.003 per cent. of planning applications in London are so directed by the Mayor. I am sure that a correction will flutter its way toward me if I have miscalculated my percentages, but 0.003 per cent. seems like a small proportion of planning applications. Therefore, it is right that the Mayor continues to have the power of direction.
Clause 31 introduces a parallel positive power. The Mayor currently has the power to block applications—what are effectively negative, anti-development powers, which can stop things that are important to the London plan. Those powers should be balanced bythe ability to support things that are important to the London plan, as against taking an unbalanced, anti-development approach.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): The Mayor is arguing in favour of the Bill on the basis that he will have involvement with only 1 per cent. of planning applications. If the Minister’s calculations are correct, that suggests that the number of applications he considers will go up by 333 per cent. If that is the case, surely it is too radical a change in approach to all planning applications.
4.30 pm
Yvette Cooper: Okay, I said that the Mayor had taken a decision on 0.003 per cent. of applications—not 3 per cent., but 0.003 per cent. That applies to the average number of cases on which he has taken a decision as a proportion of the planning applications in the most recent year; there may have been more applications in a previous year, which would change the percentages accordingly. Either way, 0.003 per cent. or 0.001 per cent. both seem pretty small figures to me.
Mr. Pelling: I apologise for misleading the Committee. The figure of 333 per cent. was far too low—the number of applications that the Mayor would consider would be 333 times larger. The Mayor is arguing that he should have control of 1 per cent. of total applications; if the Minister says that he currently controls 0.003 per cent. of them, 1 per cent. would represent a huge change.
Yvette Cooper: There may be some confusion about the number of decisions that the Mayor has taken and the number of cases that pass the threshold set out in the schedule. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall come to those issues later, rather than go round in circles discussing different small percentages.
Opposition Members are uneasy about any planning—
Mr. Hands: Will the Minister give way?
Yvette Cooper: Yes, but I shall then make some progress.
Mr. Hands: I thank the Minister for giving way. May I take her back to Boxing day? It is worth considering how the Mayor is going about rejecting planning applications. Does she approve of a press release being issued to the Evening Standard on a no-approach basis on Boxing day? Is that the correct way for an elected person to determine planning applications in this country?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman obviously has concerns about the Mayor’s work-life balance and the timing of his holidays. Many of us would not want to issue press releases on Boxing day. Nevertheless, it is not for me to discuss with the Mayor exactly when he chooses to issue them.
Mr. Hands: One advantage of the existing planning system—I mentioned it earlier—is that a planning report comes before a democratically elected and open committee that considers the officer’s recommendation and determines “yea” or “nay” accordingly. In turn, that recommendation will have been made after an investigation of the planning document, whether before a plan or a Bible.
The application that I mentioned was rejected by the Mayor on Boxing day. The report in front of him stated,
“on balance, the application will deliver substantial numbers of affordable homes, significantly above the overall strategic target for boroughs.”
Is the Minister still such a fan of the new process? Under it, the Mayor will be able to determine hundreds of applications across London in that way.
Yvette Cooper: No. I want to respond to that specific point, but only after I have made a little progress. The hon. Gentleman will know that obviously I cannot comment on individual cases that may yet go through the appeal process. He should also take into account the parallels with the Secretary of State’s planning process and not simply that of planning committees. However, I shall come back to the issue.
What we are discussing involves a city-wide role; big developments have an impact on the city as a whole, and that is why there should be a positive role for the Mayor—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order. If Committee members wish to conduct audible conversations, I would prefer them to do so outside.
Yvette Cooper: Thank you, Mr. O’Hara. We want the Mayor to intervene in and take decisions on only a small handful of cases; we do not think that he should decide a large number of cases. The order is designed to achieve what we want. It will be consulted on, and we will take into account the views expressed in this Committee as part of that consultation.
I should clarify the most recent figures. Some 90,000 planning applications are ongoing in London—there are sometimes as many as 100,000—and the current arrangements for the Mayor’s negative powers mean that about 300 cases a year are over the size threshold. That is about 0.3 per cent of cases—less than 1 per cent. of cases. The Mayor has on average used his powers of direction on three cases a year, because the fact that a case is above the threshold does not mean that it is necessarily an appropriate one for intervention. We are also applying the same threshold to the positive powers on housing, retail and commercial development. We are changing the thresholds on waste, and I hope that hon. Members will support our proposals, given the significance of waste issues for the Committee. I know that we shall discuss those later.
Michael Gove: On a point of clarification, of those applications that passed above the size threshold, what proportion did so as a result of the space that they occupied—the square footage or square meterage—what proportion did so because of the size of the development, by which I mean the number of dwellings, and what proportion did so because of their height?
We are changing the thresholds on waste and our approach on casinos and bus depots, and there are specific reasons for our doing so in each case. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made a specific point about casinos. He will be aware that the decision to issue a casino’s premises licence still rests with the London borough, as the licensing authority. It would not be possible for the Mayor to give the go-ahead to a casino and for a casino to start running in a borough that did not want one, because the borough retains the ability to license the casino in the first place.
Mr. Hands: I think that the Minister omitted tram stops and depots. Can she confirm whether they are included, as that is of particular interest in west London, given the Mayor’s controversial proposal for a west London tram?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will have seen the wording of the draft Town and Country Planning (Mayor of London) Order 2007. We have added the specific reference to bus depots, because the Mayor has a concern that bus depots might be under pressure from housing or retail development and they are desperately needed to provide for the increase in buses and transport in the capital. If I may, I shall wait for the detailed clarification on trams to spring into my mind. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the order is not specifically being debated in this Committee. We will consult more widely on it, and I am happy to get back to him on that matter.
I return to the core issue of the number of cases to be decided by the Mayor. We are not increasing the number of cases that will pass the threshold. We are making it clear that there are additional tests in the order. The Mayor will need to demonstrate that a development is
“of such a nature or scale that there would be a significant impact on the implementation of the spatial development strategy.”
He must also take into account how far the council is delivering on the “relevant targets”. “Relevant” is important, because if the application were a housing application and the borough were meeting its housing target, that would be something that one would expect the Mayor to take into account—rather than him simply saying that there were grounds for intervention because the borough was not meeting its waste targets, for example. If a borough is delivering well on both affordable and overall housing, the application may be less significant to the London plan than if the borough is persistently failing to deliver the homes that are needed. That is the kind of territory around which the Mayor will need to make the case.
Michael Gove: On Second Reading, the Minister said that the Mayor would be able to exercise his powers only over planning applications that went to the heart of the London plan, whereas in the order a new form of words is used that covers applications with a “significant impact.” As we all know, going to the heart of the London plan would mean tearing it apart, or propping it up. Significant impact is a lesser threshold. Will the Minister say why the threshold was weakened between Second Reading and the order?
Yvette Cooper: As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have consulted extensively across and beyond London on a series of different possible tests, and we will consult further as part of the order. We are attempting to find a workable form of words that will allow some kind of clarity for developers, for the boroughs and for the Mayor as well. We are open to responses during the consultation, and we shall continue to consider. For example, we looked at whether there should be a geographic test—that was one of the issues on which we consulted as part of the earlier review. I think that there are still significant merits to that test, but London First argued that it would lead to greater uncertainty, and it was uneasy about it. Nevertheless, we will listen to the consultation response. Our clear intention is for the Mayor to decide on a small handful of cases—the same as for the negative powers, and the order should properly support that. The cases should be the right ones, and the right strategic focus should be delivered, but we shall continue to listen. After representations from London Councils and from London First, we have also changed the process so that the Mayor does not take over cases at the beginning, and can intervene only after the borough has dealt with the case in the normal way.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked some questions on the schedule, and there was an issue about whether category 3B included a wider category of cases. The provision simply transposes the thresholds and categories that were in place for the negative power. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I do not want the order to end up covering cases in which—simply coincidentally—there is a development in the same area as one that is completely unrelated yet happens to have occurred in the previous five years. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, however, that there are also cases in which the planning applications for major developments are submitted in phases. Individual applications concentrate on a section of the plan, but the overall development may be extremely significant, so that overall strategic importance needs to be considered.
We believe that the existing definition of negative powers has not caused problems and we are therefore inclined to retain it, particularly as people are used to working with it, but I have asked officials to consider that and examine the cases that are emerging in practice. I am happy to examine further representations from boroughs if problems are being caused in practice.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington also asked some broader questions about the schedules. May I say to hon. Members that as far as possible we have replicated the criteria for the negative powers, because that allows for consistency and a simple standard, and tends to simplify the planning process? However, we recognise that in some areas the categories have been designed around the negative powers and therefore might not apply as appropriately to the positive ones. So we envisage certain adjustments and changes and will listen to the consultation responses to ensure that we give best effect to our policy intention, rather than produce confusing or perverse consequences owing to the way in which we have replicated the approach to the negative powers.
4.45 pm
Hon. Members asked about propriety, which is important. The Mayor will indeed be an individual decision maker and we have made it clear that he cannot delegate his powers to someone else if, for example, he has a conflict of interest, financial interest or development conflict. He will be the decision maker in the same way as a Secretary of State, but there will be some applications on which he should not and cannot make a decision, such as those on certain Olympic developments because he has clearly championed the Olympics. That is one of the reasons that the Olympic Development Agency’s powers will not be one of the areas in which he can take control of decision making—clearly he cannot play both roles. That is important.
Michael Gove: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for that clarification. As well as championing the Olympics, the Mayor has championed tall buildings. Yet the Bill contains a provision for him to intervene on planning applications for buildings more than 30 m high—10 storeys. If the Mayor cannot intervene in Olympic planning applications because he has, in technical terms, a predetermined view, why on earth should he be given the freedom to interfere in tall building applications when he has, in planning terms, an explicitly predetermined view?
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the process contains a series of safeguards, which I shall spell out to Opposition Members. It is important that decisions be taken fairly, that people do not take them on matters in which they have a personal or financial interest, where they have not considered all the evidence or where they could be said to have prejudged the application. In the current process, those safeguards apply to planning committees and the Secretary of State and are in common law as well as codes of practice—they are not in primary legislation. The Mayor must abide by that common law in precisely the same way as Secretaries of State and planning committees. He must also have a clear code of practice to ensure transparency in the way in which he operates.
Mr. Hands: But if those safeguards are so strong—from what the Minister says, they sound very strong—why is it still necessary to exempt the Olympics? My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath asked about the difference between predetermination in Olympic applications and those for tall buildings.
Robert Neill: Will the Minister help me? I have been following her argument carefully and I understand what she is saying, but I am concerned about a practical matter. She said earlier that the Mayor would not be able to delegate his planning powers. I agree that, equally, there are certain circumstances in which on the face of it, applications that pass the test and should be determined by the Mayor, should not be, because of the championing role. But who then would take the decision? Would it go upwards to the Secretary of State or should somebody else deal with it? The Mayor has no junior Minister.
Yvette Cooper: Indeed, so the borough would take the decision unless the Secretary of State called it in for some reason. The issue is simply about the Mayor having to choose under which circumstances he can exercise the powers that the Bill specifies. The Bill does not simply operate as a constraint on the cases in which the Mayor can intervene; there is also the common law and issues about propriety.
Hon. Members have raised questions about the Mayor taking decisions on his own. We must recognise that Secretaries of State are individual decision makers, and that they can take decisions on their own, in the bath or while shaving, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath suggested. I caution hon. Members about the idea of having to take the decision in public, because we could end up with an awful lot of people having a boring time while the Mayor sits and ponders matters. Important issues have been raised about whether evidence should be heard in public. There is no substantial issue in principle about the Mayor being an individual decision maker, however, as those provisions exist in our current system.
The Mayor would not be able to take over an application on the basis of small concerns about section 106 disagreements; any takeover would have to be on the basis of an application’s significant impact on the London plan. It would be hard to argue that a limited section 106 disagreement had a significant impact on the London plan. That is the crux of the decision making. The resources from the section 106 agreement would go to the organisations responsible for providing those services, just as they do normally.
It is sensible to provide for a positive power that matches the negative power. It will apply only to a small number of cases, and we will continue to consult on the order and how we ensure that we get the details right. The provision will help with the delivery of the London plan, which is important, and it will allow a sensible, strategic approach to an important capital city that requires good planning for its economy and its housing market.
Mr. Hands: I made a specific point, which the Minister has not answered, about the compatibility of the process with the Human Rights Act 1998.
Yvette Cooper: We believe that the legislation is compatible with the Human Rights Act, and one of us has signed a declaration to that effect. The hon. Gentleman knows that there is an obligation on every public body to interpret the legislation in compliance with the Act, too. There are some interesting issues about being able to hear evidence in public, and the taking of the decision in public may be impractical. We do not require the Secretary of State to take her decisions in public, with people sitting around her as she does so. The legislation before us complies with the Human Rights Act, and all powers would need to be exercised in compliance with it.
Mr. Pelling: The current Mayor would be very happy to take those decisions in public. Does the Minister think that he has shown a misjudgment as to its practicality in expressing that view?
Yvette Cooper: If the current Mayor wants a load of people with him as he pores over documents, he is welcome to do so. We are cautious about requiring it in legislation, but it is important to provide transparency of process. I am not sure how much transparency there is in sitting in a room and watching someone’s face twitch while they read particular pages of a document. That is slightly different from a public committee. Nevertheless, the Mayor will have some scope to choose how he interprets certain aspects of the Bill. With that, I urge hon. Members to allow the clauses to stand part of the Bill, and to reject new clause 12.
Michael Gove: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. O’Hara. I begin by giving notice to the Committee that we would like to press new clause 12 to a Division at the appropriate moment later in the Committee’s proceedings. I would also like to give notice that we are disappointed that the Minister, after the force of logic deployed earlier in the debate, still feels that she has to stand by the clauses and has not recognised how poorly drafted they were by those whom she charged with that duty.
I want to mention three things in emphasising why we feel that it is important to insist that the clauses be removed. First, I congratulate the Minister on noting that the hon. Member for Ealing, North had managed, in the debate this morning, to mention seven members of the Aberdeen football team who won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1983. She pointed out that he still had four to name. I have to correct her on a point of fact—it is always painful for me to do so. There are in fact five whom the hon. Gentleman still has to name because, as she will be aware, there was a late substitution that materially affected the result of that football match.
Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman is defending his position much in the style of Neale Cooper. Does he realise, in using the tactics of Eric Black and Peter Weir and being slightly more aggressive, that he should actually be retrenching rather than attacking? Done it!
Michael Gove: Like me, Mr. O’Hara, you will be delighted to know that the hon. Gentleman has managed to write himself into the history books by managing to mention in the course of one day’s debate on the Greater London Authority Bill all 12 members of that winning team. For the consideration of the Committee, I have produced a research paper on what happened to every member of the team. I shall not go into those matters now, but I would be happy to share it with hon. Members afterwards.
I want to raise two points briefly. The first is the Maginot line argument, and the second is the “Minister falling at the first hurdle” argument. In the order that has been laid for our consideration as part of the clauses, the Government have gone into some detail as to what might be termed a strategic application. Indeed, several of the categories mentioned would seem to anyone to qualify as strategic: aircraft runways, heliports, railway or tram stations crossing over or under the River Thames. All of us would acknowledge that those were strategic. It therefore seems as though a defence has been created in the order against the arbitrary exercise of mayoral powers—that we have an effective defensive line, as it were.
The problem, as we all know, is that one can always move around defensive lines. The Maginot line can be outflanked. The Ardennes in this Bill, as it were—the area that is thickly wooded but can be penetrated by a determined attacker—is in article 8 of the order, which states that
“the Mayor may ... if he considers that any of the issues raised by the development”
would have
“a significant impact on the implementation of the spatial development strategy”,
determine that planning application. The Mayor can say, “Well, it may not meet any of the criteria”—so carefully laid down by the Government in their order—“but I believe that it will have a significant impact.”
As the Minister has conceded, “a significant impact” is a lesser threshold than going to the heart of the London plan or the spatial development strategy, which is the test that she introduced on Second Reading. Despite the fact that she insists that she does not always agree with the Mayor, the Mayor’s desire to have more planning powers has been acceded to by the fact that we already have a weaker order than we were promised on Second Reading.
5 pm
There will be many planning applications and many areas of potential development where an irreconcilable balance between aspects of the London plan may arise, and the Mayor will be able to decide which aspect he considers likely to have a significant impact on the London plan. The licence for him to intervene will be considerably greater than a casual reading of the order would lead us to believe. In that respect, we simply cannot support a transfer to the Mayor of powers that would give him the opportunity to interfere in a significantly greater number of planning applications than that on which he has already chosen to express an opinion. We rehearsed at length this morning the reason why the Mayor might wish to interfere in planning applications.
Having dealt with the Maginot line, I want briefly to discuss falling at the first hurdle. These comments relate to the Minister’s admission during her remarks on the Olympics and tall buildings, when she got herself into an uncharacteristic fankle. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Ealing, North, “fankle” is an old Scots word that manages to combine both tangle and twist, but with a particularly parochially appropriate and alliterative power.
The Minister got herself in a tangle and a twist, much as I almost did in that etymological diversion, on the question of the Olympics and tall buildings. She said that the Olympics—and, for that matter, the Thames Gateway development, but particularly the Olympics—were taken out of the order because the Mayor has a view on them; he is a champion of the Olympics and we cannot have him interfering there. But we can have him interfering in all sorts of other areas where he has a predetermined view. The Minister cannot have it both ways. Either the Olympics can be included because we can trust the Mayor to deal with them—the Minister mentioned common law and other guarantees—or it cannot be included if we cannot trust him. Indeed, this Mayor or a future Mayor cannot be trusted if they have expressed an opinion.
Yvette Cooper: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Olympics and the ODA refer to specific sites, whereas policies on tall buildings, zero-carbon buildings and affordable housing apply across London as a whole? Those policies affect the city as a whole, as opposed to something that affects individual sites, which was the issue that he raised at the beginning, and the provenance of the ODA.
Michael Gove: I fear that the Minister probably is not as familiar with the order as she should be, because if she were aware of precisely how tall buildings are dealt with in it and in the pre-existing one, she would recognise that tall building legislation does apply to specific sites: those that are adjacent to the Thames and those that are in the City of London. The order is geographically specific, and it includes other details.
I take the Minister’s point, but her Department has a generalised policy on, for example, zero-carbon development, and the Secretary of State exercises his or her power on specific planning applications within that framework. The Minister introduced the Olympic exception, as it will become known hereafter, so she is the person who has erected the hurdle, and she is the person who will fall at it. We cannot allow the clauses to become part of the Bill when they have such a weakly defined and contradictory order as their basis, and that is why I reluctantly confess that we shall vote against them.
Tom Brake: The Minister made a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince Liberal Democrat Members that there was no possibility of mission creep in respect of the Mayor’s planning powers. His track record so far is one of intervention in matters that are of a non-strategic nature, and she is giving him scope to intervene to a greater extent in such matters. Therefore I shall certainly join the official Opposition in voting against the clauses.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 10, Noes 6.
Division No. 13 ]
Buck, Ms Karen
Butler, Ms Dawn
Cooper, Yvette
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Linton, Martin
McDonagh, Siobhain
Pound, Stephen
Shaw, Jonathan
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Brake, Tom
Fabricant, Michael
Gove, Michael
Hands, Mr. Greg
Neill, Robert
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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