Previous Section Index Home Page

10 Dec 2007 : Column 35

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that Milton Keynes has been one of the forerunners in developing effective section 106 agreements to ensure that infrastructure can be funded. I am sure that we have a great deal to learn from my hon. Friend and from her constituents.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Hazel Blears: I will give way, but then I must get on.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. She has spoken about the potential for a greener approach through the reforms. Part of the legislation relates to tree protection. Is she aware of the fact that some of the finest trees in the country still have no protection? Is she planning to widen the protection through the reforms, or simply to devolve the present inadequate protections to local authorities?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend will know that the Bill contains a number of provisions on tree preservation orders. He will probably agree that the whole system of tree preservation orders is at present unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic, and very difficult to understand. There will certainly be no less protection for trees under the proposed system. As the Bill goes through, perhaps he will be able to bring his considerable tree expertise to these problems, so that we can make some progress on the matter.

Sir Paul Beresford: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Hazel Blears: I want to make a little more progress, as I know that many hon. Members want to speak in the debate and I do not want to squeeze them out.

On town and country planning, I want to mention a couple of areas in which we are going to make changes. They are minor issues in the context of the Bill, but they are actually very important. We are going to make it easier for families to extend their homes. Planning permission under permitted development will be there in certain fairly constrained circumstances. We are trying to minimise the impact of extensions on other people’s enjoyment of their own property. Planning permission will not be required for small-scale extensions and conservatories. At the moment, 80,000 applications go through without any objection each year, and we want to free up the planning system to concentrate on applications that will cause a problem, rather than on the 80,000 that do not. Through secondary legislation, we will allow householders to install small-scale renewable technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines without planning permission, where it is clear there will be little or no impact on neighbours. I hope that that will be broadly welcomed across the House.

The final aspect here—something that I know my hon. Friends hold very dear—is that there will be a requirement for local councils to take action on climate change when preparing their local development plans. Some people have portrayed the Bill as being anti-environment, but a whole range of measures in it seek to enhance our attitude towards climate change and ensure that local government and local planning authorities put it at the centre of their concerns.

10 Dec 2007 : Column 36

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentions the question of local authority permissions for renewable devices on roofs. As the Bill makes its way through the House, will she ensure that that permission is genuinely widely based and is not constrained by various considerations such as the nature of the protection of the particular zone that a house is in or the way in which the house relates to other properties in the area? Will she ensure that there is a genuinely clear definition that enables renewable devices to be placed on houses without hindrance by local authorities on a variable basis across the country?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As the Bill proceeds, we want to ensure that we enable people, wherever possible, to install not just solar panels and wind turbines, but a range of fairly small-scale technologies that can contribute to this agenda. It is very important indeed that we do that. We have to be aware of noise and its impact on neighbours, but by using accredited products, ensuring that we get those that are recognised to be the best and introducing a new helpline for householders to get the right products, I believe that we can make significant progress. In fact, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has estimated that about 250,000 households will want to take up such technology in the years to come. I hope that we see an expansion of such use.

Several hon. Members rose

Hazel Blears: I want to get through more of my speech, if hon. Gentlemen do not mind.

It is important to realise that we consulted on all these proposals in the summer and had 32,000 responses. In fact, we have changed our policy in three areas as a result. We sometimes hear complaints that the Government ride roughshod over consultees, but I can tell my hon. Friends that I took the decision to change the policy in advance of the Bill rather than waiting for concessions to be dragged out of us. That is absolutely the right thing to do. As I say, we have changed the Bill in three areas and, I think, very much for the better.

First, on participation, we have changed the original policy so that people will have more than one chance to get involved. They will now have three chances in the new system and there will be a transparent debate in public—and in Parliament, which is crucial to the House. We have also listened to the consultation and taken steps to ensure that every party has a right to be heard orally, both at the examination stage of the inquiry and where the commission decides to probe a specific issue. Provided that people have registered the fact that they want to give their information and evidence, they will be entitled to do so.

Secondly, on sustainable development, many consultees said that they were worried that the Bill might emphasise economic objectives at the expense of the environment. Now, however, the Bill provides for a duty to ensure that national policy statements contribute to sustainable development. I hope that that will reassure people who are concerned about the environment that we are very serious about sustainability. As I say, the Bill will ensure that many of our new technologies to enable sustainability can get through the planning system quicker than they
10 Dec 2007 : Column 37
can now. Presently, many applications are being held up—literally for years—before they come through the system.

Thirdly, the Bill will now, in my view, deliver proper accountability. I know that many of my hon. Friends, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), have been particularly concerned about accountability. I hope that as the Bill progresses, I will be able to persuade him and others whose opinions I genuinely respect that there will now be stronger accountability under the Bill than in the previous system. I look forward to having that debate.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend was talking about planning permission. Where there is more than one type of equipment that may need to go through the planning system, will exactly the same piece of equipment require a different planning permission to be granted in each area or will one planning permission for that device suffice for every area in the country?

Hazel Blears: Is my hon. Friend referring to permitted development for solar panels and wind turbines?

John Robertson: I mean anything to do with energy.

Hazel Blears: The Bill provides that planning permission for things such as wind turbines and solar panels will not be required, provided that we get the system right and it does not impact on neighbours. It will enable people to embrace this method of tackling climate change in a big way and not require planning permission.

Several hon. Members rose

Hazel Blears: I shall give way again to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), as I was not entirely sure of the point that he was making.

John Robertson: My right hon. Friend has hit on one area that I was talking about. The other was nuclear power. If it came about that a company was going to build two or three nuclear power stations, would it need planning permission for each type or would one planning permission be needed for the whole range?

Hazel Blears: I am clearer about my hon. Friend’s question. In the national policy statement phase, there would be a debate on what was the nation’s need for nuclear power. Some of that debate might be specific to locations and it might say that it would be likely that certain places were suitable for nuclear power, but every application would then need to go to the commission to be considered. The commission would weigh the local impact against the national interest and have the opportunity to involve the public so that they could have their say. I can give my hon. Friend what is, I hope, the assurance he is looking for: those things will be inquired into in great depth and great detail.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The Secretary of State is being generous in giving way. Following that exchange, can she confirm that, in terms of nuclear power and the specifics on renewables technologies,
10 Dec 2007 : Column 38
what she has said will not apply to Scotland? Indeed, the Bill’s only application to Scotland is the construction of cross-country oil and gas pipelines. In relation to clause 187(3), does that extension require a consent to legislate motion from the Scottish Parliament?

Hazel Blears: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, planning decisions in Scotland are devolved, and there is no intention to change the devolution settlement through the Bill. However, he is also aware that some matters, such as aviation and energy, are reserved. We cannot have designated national policy statements because Scotland will not have the planning commission, but there will be national policy statements around those reserved areas. Clearly, when individual decisions are being made in Scotland on those big issues, some national policy statements might be considered as material considerations in those decisions. The hon. Gentleman can be reassured that this is not an attempt to change the devolution settlement in those terms. I understand that cross-border pipelines would not require a legislative motion, but no doubt we will continue to discuss those issues as the Bill goes through Parliament. I hope that that gives him reassurance.

I have spoken for far too long, but I should say a word about accountability, which I know has greatly exercised my hon. Friends. Ministers will take the political decisions when we do the national policy statement and the commission will take the individual decisions, but it will have to do so on the basis of the political decisions reached by Parliament and, indeed, by the Government.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to say that the Bill is also about efficiency. We think that it will enable us to save a considerable amount of money. Instead of every local inquiry rehearsing all the arguments, that debate will take place at the national policy statement stage. We think that the Bill could deliver benefits of nearly £5 billion by 2030, as well as getting the proper long-term decisions in the interests of the country. That is why we think it is a good Bill.

Our planning regime needs to be fit for the 21st century. Going back to the 1947 Bill, Hugh Dalton closed the debate on Second Reading by saying:

We have listened to the people who responded to our consultation, and today’s Bill will provide for a fairer and faster planning system—one that delivers for the economy and the environment, and that gives everyone a fair chance to have their say. Those are indeed great things, and I commend the Bill to the House.

4.19 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): I beg to move, To leave out from “That” to the end of the Question, and add instead thereof:

As always, it is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I was a little concerned about her well-being throughout the process. It might have been a bit provocative to suggest that the opening speech in 1947 went on for two hours. I feared that Labour Members were going to keep her here answering questions for that long. I noted the references to Napoleon. I hope that the Bill is not her Waterloo. If that is the case, perhaps a statement on the extension of the runway at St. Helena would mean that it is ready in time for her eventual exile there.

The right hon. Lady speaks with great expertise on the subject. She had a distinguished record as a local authority solicitor dealing in the planning process, among other things. Her practical experience of planning is welcome. Time spent with Salford city council, Rossendale borough council and Wigan metropolitan borough council will have given her valuable experience of the many failings of the current system, not to mention her intimate knowledge of the many additional flaws introduced by the Government in recent years. It is therefore all the more puzzling that her journey from Wigan pier has transmogrified into a canter down the yellow brick road. How did we go from a noble intention to improve the delivery of essential infrastructure for this country to a Bill that strips local communities of a voice on planning, and fails to address the burdens and the obstacles in the planning system created by her Government?

It is only three years since the last planning Bill. In the words of the then Minister, the aims of that Bill were:

That could well have been taken from the right hon. Lady’s speech today. However, just a few months on from those words, and without the measures being fully implemented, we are off again. She knows the planning system and must know in her heart that this Bill is not the answer to the problem.

In a press release, the right hon. Lady said that the Bill is

process. She went on to say that the Bill is

The only way in which she can achieve greater community involvement through the Bill is to arrange for representatives of the public collectively to wave goodbye to local accountability and their ancient right of a hearing while they watch a more powerful and unsackable quango take the lot. The Bill gives communities the same amount of involvement in planning as there is openness in a cheque from one of Mr. Abrahams’ patsies.

With the right hon. Lady’s expertise, she must surely question the Bill when the coalition of environmental groups that oppose it says:

10 Dec 2007 : Column 40

Bob Spink: May I add this quote from the Campaign to Protect Rural England? It says:

Mr. Pickles: I agree with that and thought about using the quote in my speech. I obviously agree with my hon. Friend in quoting it.

The reason why we do not oppose the Bill outright but propose a reasoned amendment is because we want to take the best out of the Bill and build on the strengths of the existing and familiar system. We want to work constructively with the right hon. Lady to develop a system that will meet the needs of the country and help the economy to grow.

Let me start with what we agree with. We support the idea of national policy statements. We feel strongly that Parliament must have responsibility for devising and testing those vital statements. Matters of vital national importance, such as airports, nuclear power stations, other types of power stations, the disposal of waste plants and major transport links, should be decided by the House.

In making such decisions, we must recognise that we are removing some of the public’s right of argument and delay. The public may take that removal better if Parliament oversees the process, rather than the Government or an agency on their behalf. Some will say “What is the difference? A Government with a good majority can get just about anything they want”, but I think that there is an important difference. In my experience of this place—admittedly it is only 16 years or so—when we are given a real scrutiny role we take it seriously, and in Committee we will table amendments to strengthen parliamentary scrutiny.

Paul Farrelly: Will the hon. Gentleman clear up a small matter of curiosity? He said that the Opposition did not oppose the Bill outright, but the amendment states:

Mr. Pickles: That is how a reasoned amendment is worded. I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman would like further instruction, the Table Office will be able to take him through the basic procedures. There is also a very good paperback called “How Parliament Works”. Christmas is coming, and I dare say other Members will want to play Santa and offer it to the hon. Gentleman.

Emily Thornberry: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to patronise me as well. Given that the Opposition do not oppose the Bill outright, will there be a vote this evening?

Mr. Pickles: If I did patronise the hon. Lady, I should be amazed if she noticed. However, I thank her for her intervention.

Next Section Index Home Page