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My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the flaws in the unelected regional assembly process of regional spatial strategies. My constituency is almost as close to Scotland as it is to his, yet we are in
the same south-west region, which imposes too much housing on relatively prosperous towns such as mine but does not give Cornwall the housing that it wants and needs.
Dan Rogerson: Absolutely. My hon. Friend and I have discussed at length the odd situation in which we find ourselves, with one community wanting more housing and the other having housing that it does not want thrust upon it. However, that does not reflect on those in the regional assembly and its partners, who have taken the process forward; rather, they have been given an impossible job to do.
The concept of a third-party appeal has been raised, including by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who made a good contribution to the debate. He paid tribute to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who was in the Chamber earlier, and they both made the point that, as my party has maintained for a number of years, there must be a form of redress where a community can show that a decision adversely affects it. All the cards are currently in the hands of the developer. If the developer loses, a further application can be submitted, albeit in slightly changed circumstances, that may win approval, or the decision can go to appeal. The same cannot be said for those in a community who have to live with the results of a bad decision.
I spoke earlier about this time of change. I can give some examples of how changing patterns are affecting my constituency and of how the planning system is not providing the local authority with the tools that it needs to address them. The issue of studentification has been raised, and might also be mentioned by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), if she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Studentification happens where a group of people is encouraged into an area in a perhaps unsustainable way, because the market is allowing developers who wish to provide student housing in that way, but where the local authority has no tools to prevent that from happening.
The example in my constituency is second homes. We have coastal communities that are ghost towns in the winter, and shops, businesses, pubs and schools that are under threat because rural communities have become dominated by second homes and holiday homes. Fiscal measures will not be enough to tackle those issues. In Rock, for instance, where semi-detached houses change hands for millions of pounds, a small increase in council tax or something of that nature will not deter those sorts of purchases. What is required is the ability of a local authority to distinguish types of residential accommodation through use class orders. I am aware that that does not require primary legislation, but I would like something in the Bill explicitly setting out a route for a local authority to interact with the Secretary of State in order to ask for different use class orders that are appropriate to that local situation and which the Secretary of State could consider and respond to.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, St. Minver near Rock has an excellent community land trust, and I say that as a born and bred Cornishman. Does he agree that the tools relating to definitions of types of housing that are available to local authoritiesin his case North Cornwall district councilare indeed
helpful, but that related laws, such as the charities laws, often hold land trusts back? Cornwall has an excellent reputation in developing such trusts. Does he agree that it is often the failure to understand the holistic bounds or, as it were, restrictions of the law that holds trusts back?
Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman refers to community land trusts and the provision of more affordable housing. He is right that Cornwall has led the way on that. Indeed, there are some exciting schemes coming forward in my constituency. However, we would perhaps not need so many community land trusts if the houses that are already there were not being used as second homes. If that housing was available to be occupied by local peoplepeople who are often on low incomes, but who have strong connections in the areawe would not need further development. However, of course community land trusts are welcome, and I share the hon. Gentlemans enthusiasm for them.
In all those ways, local communities and local people are suffering the ill effects of the market not delivering in a way that meets the needs of that community. Local authorities do not have the tools to stand against the market and intervene so as to secure a future that their communities would like. Some process for discussing the use of use class orders would therefore be useful.
A further example is Newquay in my constituency, where family hotels have become bunkhouses, which are used for events such as stag dos and end-of-term parties by people seeking cheap accommodation. The owners rip out the kitchens from the hotels so that they can put in more bunk beds. What was a hotel that was part of the community changes hugely, with late-night disturbances occurring. My constituents find that a problem. Again, however, there is no distinction between types of hotel in planning law. I would like a change in that respect.
The Bill does not seem to be driven by that local desire to strengthen and enrich communities, but by a top-down commitment to dictate where houses can and cannot be sited and where, for example, nuclear waste dumps can be located. We have talked about communities with nuclear generating facilities in them. Those communities are used to the issues and can see what is coming, but we as a country still do not have a solution to the waste problem. People will look carefully at the Bill and at what it means for those debates.
I would prefer a planning system to emerge from the Bill that gave greater opportunity to people at the local level and that encouraged them to participate in the planning process, in order to be part of shaping communities that are fit for purpose and sustainable. I am delighted to welcome the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who is in his place, for pushing it through. That Act will of course contribute to the process. I would like a Bill that reclaimed the word planning from the list of dirty words and made it synonymous with community engagement. As it stands, the Bill does not do that. I hope that it will be improved as it moves through the House, although at the moment I remain to be convinced that it should continue in that process.
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). I agree with a number of his points about the lack of balance in some of our communities. However, I start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who is not in his place now, in one respect, namely on the importance of planning to our communities. I represent a beautiful historic city, and I definitely receive more queries and hear more concerns about planning than any other issue.
I welcome most of the Bill. Perhaps quite unusually, I want to address my comments to parts 9 and 10. Before doing so, however, I want to comment on the climate change issues. It is obvious that more needs to be done through the planning system to tackle climate change. I am pleased that the Bill puts a duty on councils in preparing their local plans to take action on climate change, which is very much missing currently. Also, the proposals to allow householders to install small-scale renewable technology such as solar panels and wind turbines without planning permission but subject to safeguards and standards is to be welcomed, albeit with one major proviso, namely that the process must not contravene conservation area policies. I should like the Minister to give some reassurances in that respect.
The environmental impact of large-scale infrastructure projects will also need to be adequately evaluated against climate change criteria. Although the Bill goes some way towards improving the responsiveness of the planning system to the climate change agenda, unless the Government are careful, major infrastructure projects could work in the opposite direction. I hope that the legislation will make it clear that any large-scale infrastructure projects will need to contribute to our efforts to tackle climate change, rather than exacerbating it.
The voice of local people will need to be adequately represented to the infrastructure planning commission. The Minister will know that the need for a local community voice to be heard, and for adequate parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements, is extremely important. Indeed, that issue formed a large part of the correspondence received about the Bill. Members from all parties have stressed the need for it to be made clear how the voice of the local community is to be heard by the infrastructure planning commission, and for that voice to be seriously taken on board.
I want to address most of my comments to parts 9 and 10. Part 9 seeks to amend the present system in regard to delegated powers for assessing planning permissions, and the appeals process that flows from that system. I appreciate that it is necessary to speed up and de-bureaucratise straightforward applications, especially when they are not contested. Nevertheless, I have concerns about this part of the Bill on which I would like the Minister to reassure me. First, will he assure me that delegated powers will be used only when a planning application is minor and when it faces no objections? It will be essential to establish that an authority has adequately informed all those who would be affected, and that proper processes are in place for doing so. It is not clear what would happen if objections were not received because the authority had not sent out accurate notices to all concerned. In
addition, councils will need to be sure that incremental changes do not take place, and that, for example, policies to protect conservation areas remain intact. Certain incremental changes could perhaps go relatively unnoticed by a local authority.
I have grave concerns that appeals in such cases are to be referred to a local member review body, especially as things stand at the moment. The experience of the operation of the Licensing Act 2003 at local level shows that not all authorities are able to rise to the task of judging local licence applications. If the Government are to give a greater role to local councillors in judging planning applications, they will have to ensure that adequate training is put in place to enable them to undertake that role effectively. In particular, they must be able to gain access to external expertise if necessary; otherwise, we shall be placing a role on local authorities that they simply will not have the capacity to deliver.
I am also deeply concerned that the Government have made no effort to introduce third-party rights of appeal, even in a limited way. I understand that they are very nervous about that, and that the idea is horrendous to the civil servants involved. The Bill provides an opportunity, however, to implement very limited third-party rights of appeal and to test their significance on the whole planning system. We could then determine whether they would result in the horror that is sometimes anticipated. Surely it would be possible to allow them in clearly defined circumstances, to root out frivolous claims. Importantly, this would allow people to feel that they had a greater say in a system that at present often appears developer-led.
The Library briefing paper on the Bill notes that the response to the proposal for local member review boards was largely negative, mainly because of concerns about political bias. I understand that the Government have overturned that argument by saying that the boards could strengthen local accountability. On balance, I agree with that, but with the caveats, which I mentioned earlier, about the increased need for training and the need for absolute transparency in the process. I am not sure how that would be achieved, as Opposition-run councils often blame the Government of the day for their decisions anyway. I am not sure that the Government have worked out how to ensure that local authorities are made responsible for the decisions that they make.
My biggest problem with the Bill is the lack of any proposals to monitor the quality of decision making by local planning authorities. That is a huge missed opportunity. Current methods of assessment have a number of ways of evaluating local planning authorities, but they are largely target-driven. The decisions made by planning departments are really important, but I believe that we understate the importance of planning in general. The nature and form of the built environment affect us all. Decisions that are made in the planning process affect not only ourselves but future generations, because of the long-term nature of building. It has social justice, heritage and economic dimensions, as well as aesthetic and cultural factors, but little attention is paid to what is delivered or to whether it meets not only the objectives of the local plan butmore importantlythe expectations of the local community.
At present, there are few powers to intervene when something appears to be going wrong in the planning process. I do not see why the planning system cannot have something similar to the local involvement networksLINkssystem that has been set up for health. In such a system, local people, as part of a citizens panel with local experts, could scrutinise the actions of the local authority and produce a report once a year that had to be debated in the council. There would have to be a response to any recommendations that were made. It is important that such a panel should not consist of local councillors.
I want the Secretary of State and the Minister to give serious consideration to this proposal. It would not be expensive to implement, and it would do much to highlight and embed good planning practice across the country. In specific areas, it could also address some of the imbalance relating to pro-development policy, and deliver much-needed accountability into the planning system at local level. As with LINks, local councils could be charged with putting such a scrutiny panel together, under Government guidance.
Part 10 of the Bill introduces the community infrastructure levy. That seems a good idea, but like other Members I am not clear about how it will interact with section 106 agreements. I realise that clause 172 of the Bill relates to this issue, but I believe that further clarification is needed. It is a pity that the Bill does not insist that section 106 agreements be delivered by local authorities. I am sorry to have to criticise the Liberal Democrats, but they have said much about affordable housing in the debate. My area is faced with a Liberal Democrat council that took three years to adopt the affordable housing section of the local plan. Furthermore, since it did so in April this year, it has not put through one planning permission that has attracted affordable housing. The point that I want to make to the Minister is that it is good that we have section 106 agreements, but they need to be applied by local authorities. We also need to be clear about how they will relate to the community infrastructure levy.
I also welcome support for Planning Aid, but I would argue that it is not yet fit for the purpose outlined for it in the Bill. It has too much professional capture and in my opinion does not adequately address community issues or adequately support local community groups. If the Government are going to give greater support to Planning Aid, I hope that they will look very seriously at how that organisation is equipped to support community organisations as they seek to make their voice heard in the planning system.
I want to raise the issue of trees. A recent report from the London School of Economics states that, apart from Ireland, we are the most deforested country in Europe. It is a pity that the Bill did not take a greater opportunity to ensure that our trees are adequately protected. There are many examples from my own authority where tree preservation orders are simply disregarded in the planning system. I would really like to see a strengthening of legislation to protect trees.
One point about the community infrastructure levy that, as other Members have argued, is not clear at the moment is whether it is a betterment tax or a levy on the value of the whole development. Will the Minister say something more about that?
Lastly, I come to the issue of the need for sustainable and balanced communities. As mentioned earlier, we need an amendment to use class orders, whereby communities that have gone out of balance, as with some student areas or others, can be brought back in. Local authorities need additional tools to be able to tackle areas that have gone out of balance. I would like the Minister to make some proposals on how that issue can be addressed.
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): I begin by mentioning my entry on the Register of Members Interests as a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. If I may, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would also like to offer my apologies to you and indeed the House for being absent for 90 minutes; it was due to my making a contribution in a Committee upstairs. I am particularly sorry to have missed the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). He mentioned Swampy in a question, but I gather that his later contribution to the debate was a little more historical; I believe he gave us a gentle canter through history with reference to Oliver Cromwell, so I look forward to reading the record tomorrow.
As we have heard in a number of contributions, planning is one of those peculiar subjects that excites little interest in the abstractindeed, we can see that on the Government Benchesbut real passion and debate in practice. To be fair, I thought that the contribution of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was exemplary. He was a doughty fighter, who showed what he can do in standing up for his constituents, and I applaud him for that. The reason for the contradiction between the abstract and the practical is that planning shapes the world in which we both live and work. It determines what is built in our communities, and indeed where it is built. As we all know to our cost, bad planning decisions leave a permanent scare with which, frankly, many of have to live on a permanent and daily basis. That is why it is so important that we get the balance between efficiency and accountability right.
Over the past 10 years, the current Government have been in a muddle about how to manage the planning and development system. Instead of focusing on making development control function better, Ministers have commissioned an endless tide of studies and reviews. They have held consultations and briefings, but in the end have often ignored the findings of the whole process. They have wasted millions of pounds. Somewhere, there are acres of files of all those studies and reviews; in all that time, they have achieved almost nothing towards their proposed purpose.
Meanwhile, the Government have restructured the responsible Department no fewer than five times since 1997. That has cost a fortune, demoralised the staff and undermined effective policy development and implementation. As we have learned from recent biographies and so on, much of that upheaval, as Tony Blair has suggested, has simply been to accommodate the ego of his former deputy, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott).
Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend agree that planning and the environment must be part of the same Department if we are to bring together the needs of growth and the overwhelming needs of climate change?
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