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On the subject of local planning, I welcome the community infrastructure levy, which is making a somewhat surprise appearance in the Bill. It is not a million miles from the concept of planning contributions in section 46 of that seminal measure, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004—I shall leave hon. Members to guess which Planning Minister took it through the House. It just goes to show that you cannot keep a good idea down. It is a good idea that the local community should benefit from planning gain. That community bears the brunt of the development, so it makes sense that it should be the primary beneficiaries. Section 106 has served its purpose, but it did not apply across the board to all developments, its operation was often arbitrary and ad
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hoc, and its mysteries—for obvious reasons—were better understood by developers than by local authorities, which were often taken to the cleaners as a consequence. By contrast, the community infrastructure levy will strengthen the position of local authorities, because it will be a standard, transparent and across-the-board charge that applies also to minor developments. From the developer’s viewpoint, it will have the advantage of conferring certainty about costs as they approach development opportunities.

While I am still on the subject of the local scene, let me finally welcome the proposal for local member review bodies and the proposed article 4 changes, about which I will say a little more in due course. Local member review bodies seem an excellent idea. There is no doubt but that the present local appeals system imposes an unreasonable burden on the inspectorate. At the same time, the proposal responds to a real public concern about the accountability of local planning officers under the delegated powers system. We must make sure that works.

After so many welcomes, there is almost bound to be a “but”—and there is. But first, I am certainly not alone in welcoming the proposal for national policy statements. I was pleased to hear that welcome expressed on the other side of the House. The welcome has been general, and rightly so, for two reasons. First, the element of parliamentary scrutiny in the drawing up of the national policy statements, however that is managed, will serve to democratise the planning process on big national projects. Secondly, because Parliament will have expressed its will on behalf of the people, the national policy statements system must have the effect of speeding up inquiries on those projects.

It is ludicrous and unacceptable that a number of local inspectors’ inquiries should have become forums for debate about national policy. It is ludicrous and unacceptable that those inquiries have been protracted for months, if not years, by endless representations on the desirability or otherwise of proposed developments in principle. In future, under the national policy statements system, Parliament will decide whether we are going to have new nuclear reactors, and more airports, roads and railways. If the usual suspects disagree, instead of abusing the planning process, they can fight a general election on their policies. They can put up or shut up: that is the democratic way.

But—I said that there was a “but”—it has also been our democratic way to have democratically elected politicians, in the form of Ministers, make the final decision on the biggest and most contentious planning issues. I wonder how we have got to the independent infrastructure planning commission. I have looked at Kate Barker’s final report on land-use planning. Her third most important reason for advocating such an independent body is the slowness of Ministers in making planning decisions.

Members will be aware that the House approves a statutory timetable within which Ministers and officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government must issue their decision on planning appeals and called-in planning applications. The latest statistics, for 2006-07, published in the planning inspectorate’s annual report, show that Parliament’s target was narrowly missed—at 99.5 per cent—due to not meeting the deadline in one
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case out of 100. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench deserve the warm congratulations of the House on that splendid record.

That reinforces the rather unsubstantial basis for the recommendation for an independent commission. Nevertheless, we are where we are and some will argue that there is a kind of democratic deficit. I do not want to overstate this point, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was absolutely right when she argued that Planning Ministers, in their quasi-judicial capacity, have been accountable to the courts, rather than Parliament, in making their decisions. However, the truth is that, within the law, all decisions involve a balance of judgments. I believe that it is better that that balance of judgment be exercised by those who are accountable to the public. If that is right, it has implications for the balance of the relationship between the national policy statements and the infrastructure planning commission. I was somewhat reassured by my right hon. Friend’s remarks. The national policy statements must be as comprehensive and as well grounded in consultation as possible. It is absolutely essential that Parliament, via its scrutiny function, forms the judgment in the national policy statements on the balance among considerations of sustainability, climate change and economics in major infrastructure projects. In particular, national policy statements submitted to Parliament must identify the location of developments as specifically as possible. It would be quite unacceptable for the IPC unilaterally to make such critical decisions. The Government and Parliament must shoulder that responsibility.

Part of a national policy statement must be formed on the basis of thorough consultation with local communities, and clause 5(5) allows that to be done. In the relationship between NPSs and the IPC, the purpose should be to maximise what is democratically accountable and to minimise what is not—to maximise the national policy statement and minimise the IPC.

I turn rapidly from the national to the local, and from the general to the very particular. Clause 155 provides for the removal of the right to compensation when notice has been given of the withdrawal of planning permission. In line with the Government’s response to the consultation on permitted development rights for householders, which was published at the same time as the Bill, the clause paves the way for a new power for local authorities to restrict, when necessary, permitted development rights through the use of article 4 directions, without recourse to the Secretary of State. I congratulate Ministers on the subtlety with which they have dealt with permitted development. In principle, the Government are surely right to wish to reduce both the bureaucracy faced by householders making minor extensions to their homes, and the burden of casework on hard-pressed local planners. The proposed dimensions and limits for extensions look sensible. People in my constituency in Lambeth, south London, will especially welcome the new rules on setting back loft extensions from the eaves, and the ban on raised terraces, verandas and balconies.

More importantly, the Government have recognised that the question of permitted development poses itself very differently in different locations. In most parts of the country, householder permitted development might well be just what it says: householders legitimately creating more space in homes that will continue to be used as single dwelling houses. However, in my borough
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of Lambeth—and extensively throughout London as a whole—much of that type of development is carried out not by householders, but by commercial developers, who are abusing permitted development as a platform for the over-intensive subdivision of family houses into flats.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s points. In my part of the country, we have the problem that student landlords are converting houses with permitted development rights to cram in lots of students, thus completely altering the area’s nature. If we remove the need for planning permission in more circumstances, more student landlords will convert houses into student accommodation and create houses in multiple occupation by the back door.

Keith Hill: I certainly recognise the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies. Indeed, I dealt with it extensively when I was Planning Minister. We established a joint working party between Universities UK and the Local Government Association two or three years ago precisely to examine the way in which the issue could be managed. It is managed successfully in some university towns, but less so in others. However, if the hon. Gentleman’s authority uses the article 4 directions for which the Bill allows, it will be able to take a sensible and balanced approach towards studentification, which is a serious issue in many university cities.

Let me return to flat conversions, which often take place in quite small properties, yet on a large scale. I have heard estimates that there are as many as 20,000 such conversions each year in London. Sometimes, in my locality, it feels as though there is an epidemic of flat-conversions. Of course I accept in principle that the conversion of single dwelling houses to flats can make a legitimate contribution to meeting housing need, but all too often in my borough we find that modest three or four-bedroom properties are being subdivided into three or even four flats, which raises major questions about the quality of the flats, in terms of size and lighting. Such developments can have major impacts on adjacent households, and they can wholly change the nature of communities. In my constituency, I have seen the balance tip in certain streets, which have gone from communities primarily made up of family households to majority flatted communities; residents rightly see that as a deterioration in their local community and quality of life. Other streets in my area are at risk of that happening, too.

Where does the abuse of permitted development come in? Let me explain it in this way: if a developer were to make an application for planning permission to subdivide a property, the answer might be, “No, the property’s too small,” or it might be yes to two flats, but no to three or more. The developer would then lose money. Very often—typically, in my observation—the developer will first build out to the maximum tolerances for permitted development, with a new loft or rear extension. Then, when the property is far larger, the developer will apply for planning permission for a far more substantial conversion than would initially have been allowed. Nine times out of 10, the local authority will be obliged to grant the permission. That is a phenomenon universally recognised by planners, not to
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mention the residents who suffer from it. That is why the new proposed powers relating to article 4 directions are so important for some local authorities, and why I very much welcome them.

To conclude, let me put two or thee questions to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government about the use of article 4 directions. If he is not in a position to answer them in the winding-up speech, I am perfectly happy to have them answered in writing. First, unless there is a cleverer way of dealing with the issue than I have thought of, it may be desirable in some areas to withdraw permitted development rights in their entirety, in order to force developers to make initial applications. Is that allowable? Secondly, although the Government’s response seems to envisage the restriction of permitted development rights only in specific neighbourhoods, will it be allowable for a whole local authority area? Thirdly, it is completely reasonable to expect local authorities to justify the imposition of an article 4 direction, but what would be the status of that explanation, and will it be challengeable? I look forward to his responses. Notwithstanding one or two demurs, I regard the Bill as an important and useful measure that will help us to put our major energy and transport infrastructure needs in place more efficiently, and to create more sustainable—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Tom Brake.

5.2 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I start by thanking the Secretary of State, who is no longer in her place, for briefing me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) on the Bill a week or so ago. Her charm offensive was successful to the extent that it better informed us of the Government’s views on the Bill, but it was not entirely successful, as we have not chosen to join her in her big tent.

When I considered the Bill, my starting point was to find out what it should achieve. In its briefing, the Wildlife Trust sets out fairly succinctly what the Bill should do. First, it should

The Bill should ensure that we “value the natural environment” and that there are “rigorous environmental assessments” of the proposals. One could perhaps add to that a suggestion made by the Royal Institute of British Architects: the need for the Bill to ensure that we effectively entrench good design standards. We should not finish our consideration without making sure that the Bill provides an efficient mechanism for delivering critical national infrastructure.

A Bill’s strength often lies in its ability to command wide-ranging support from a cross-section of organisations, and I am afraid that this Bill fails that test. Liberal Democrats recognise the need to improve the way in which large planning applications are dealt with, as the current system is not working as effectively as it could. However, the key applications are often delayed by ministerial decisions rather than by those taken in any other quarter. We are worried that the Bill will stop local communities and local authorities challenging major projects and raising legitimate concerns. The way in which the Government have treated what they call campaign responses—responses to the consultation from
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individuals associated with campaign groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which responded to the White Paper—and the way in which those so-called campaign responses have been, to some extent, discounted, or at least set aside from the other responses, is a worrying indicator of how the infrastructure planning commission might deal with local communities’ concerns. What decision was taken about the weighting to be given to different responses to the consultation?

Those are not just our concerns—they have been expressed by several organisations. For instance, the Local Government Association is worried that the new arrangements for projects of national significance will undermine local democracy. Equally, the Royal Town Planning Institute has highlighted the fact that public service agreement 21, which covers building cohesive and empowered active communities, will be endangered by the proposals as they relate to the IPC.

Did the Government consider not going for this “big bang” approach to planning and instead reconsidering the changes proposed and adopted in 2005? Does the Minister think that the changes have had the necessary time to embed, and might not they be a better way of tackling the problem than making a completely new proposal in the shape of the IPC? Liberal Democrats will seek to table amendments if, in our view, the IPC is not suitably accountable and legitimate—and, perhaps most critically, if there is no evidence that it will be able to reject applications. That will be a key determinant of whether it is worth the money that the Government are to invest in it.

Another matter that we will want to consider carefully is the amount of money that the Government are giving to Planning Aid, which, under the new arrangements, will play a significant role in ensuring that communities can have their views heard and be effectively represented. The Secretary of State confirmed that £1.5 million has been allocated to Planning Aid, and we will shortly meet its representatives to discuss whether that is a suitable sum for the job that may be allocated to it. In the Government’s view, some £300 million per annum will be saved as a result of the Bill. That is welcome, but what percentage of that will relate to the private sector? It is interesting to see how much the Government expect the private sector to benefit from this and, on the other hand, how much they are willing to invest in Planning Aid to ensure that local communities have their views effectively represented. I hope that the Minister accepts that there are sincerely held concerns about the infrastructure planning commission.

The IPC is the first major proposal of the Bill; the second is that of national policy statements. There is more consensus about the need for the latter, and the principle behind them—that we should not repeat arguments about national policy in relation to a local application—is sound. It would be much more effective if agreement were reached following detailed consultation and parliamentary involvement instead of arguments being repeated at each inquiry.

There are, however, many questions about what will be in the national policy statements. For instance, National Grid has some very clear ideas about the role of the market in meeting UK energy requirements,
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the importance of securing energy supply and the Government’s view on electromagnetic fields. I hope that the Minister will give more detail about the content of the national policy statements.

Business supports the national policy statements. Certainly, the CBI has welcomed them, but, inevitably, the welcomes are not unanimous. The briefing hon. Members have received from the National Farmers Union raises a critical point, which others have made. There is some concern about, and a need for clarification on, how the national policy statements relate to existing planning policy. Will they overrule in their entirety planning policies on the green belt, or on playing fields, for example, or will they have to be taken into account in an appropriate fashion? I hope that the Minister will be able to provide more clarity on that point.

I hope that the Minister will clarify how parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements will work, although I understand the Government’s position. They may want to be discreet in the expression of their views about how Parliament should consider the process, as that is a matter for Parliament alone, even if the Government have a private view about it. If the Government are unable to tell us how they think parliamentary scrutiny should be performed, I hope that the Minister will tell us what discussions have been held with the Procedure Committee. When a proposal along these lines was last proposed, the Committee insisted that it could not proceed within the time scales sought. I hope that the Minister will explain whether those discussions have borne fruit, and whether parliamentary scrutiny could be subject to the same challenges.

Assuming the Bill becomes an Act, the time scales the Government have in mind for implementing the national policy statements are unclear. When would the Minister expect the statements to be in place? There is an indication that some of the existing statements—those relating to aviation, for example—may be adopted as national policy statements. I hope that the Minister will explain how that will happen. Clearly, the process used for national policy statements will be different from that adopted for the aviation paper. Simply adopting that process would not be acceptable to this House or, indeed, to anyone outside it. We require some clarity on that point.

The third major proposal in the Bill is the community infrastructure levy, whereby the Government propose to ensure that developers and others contribute a significant sum to the cost of local services and that it is not simply borne by local authorities. I am sure that hon. Members regularly receive representations from their local authorities or local residents worried about the scale of development and the relatively small contributions that are made, if any are made at all, towards local schools, GP practices and other facilities.

The proposal is sound, but it is not universally supported. The business community is split on the subject. Although the British Property Federation believes that the proposal commands the support of the business community, the property industry and local government, it does not command the support of the British Chambers of Commerce. Housing associations believe that section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 has been critical in ensuring that affordable housing is provided. If the community infrastructure levy is to replace section 106, I hope that the Minister will confirm how he can be
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certain that affordable housing will continue to be provided in certain developments. We will need reassurance. There is a broad agreement in all parties about the need to provide affordable housing, but if one of the key ways of delivering it is to be removed by the Bill, the Minister will need to justify it.

In my opening remarks, I said that the strength of many Bills is their ability to command overwhelming support. The Bill fails that test. Another test is whether a Bill answers more questions than it poses, but this Bill raises a large number of questions about its main proposals. So far, at least, there is no evidence that the Government will square the circle and speed up planning applications for infrastructure in the way that all hon. Members want while allowing local communities and local authorities to have their say. The infrastructure planning commission risks becoming the “in place of consultation” commission. We will fight the Government’s centralising tendencies and will fight for local communities’ right to have their views heard. We will vote against Second Reading today.

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