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8 Jan 2008 : Column 59WH—continued

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I wish you and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) a happy new year.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I commend the non-negative manner in which he presented his arguments. He has raised an issue that affects us all. Planning is of fundamental importance to the quality of people’s lives. When planning is done well, it allows us all to raise our game, to lift our spirits, and to achieve our hopes and ambitions to build thriving communities in which people want to live and work. It supports the economic development that is vital to create jobs and ensure our continuing prosperity as a nation—prosperity that should be widened to include all in society. Planning helps us to protect our natural and historic environment and to ensure that everyone has access to green space and unspoiled countryside. It facilitates the delivery of essential infrastructure, which allows us to travel and enjoy access to clean and affordable energy, water and waste facilities. It also supports us as individual citizens in improving our homes and property while protecting us from over-intrusive development. Planning does all that by helping us to ensure that development meets economic, social and environmental objectives in an integrated and sustainable way. The use of planning functions to facilitate place shaping—for want of a better phrase—particularly at a local level, is crucial.

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As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, most planning decisions are best taken by those who directly represent local communities and understand their needs—and, I would add, through close and effective engagement with those local communities. That is essential. “Strong and prosperous communities”, the local government White Paper published in October 2006, sets out our proposals for giving local government and its partners more freedom and greater powers to meet the needs of its citizens and communities and to enable those citizens and communities to play a part. Planning is a core function of local authorities and is central to their role as place shapers. I have already made that point and I want to reiterate it again and again in my contribution because it is vital. We are committed to ensuring that decision making happens at as local a level as possible so that it can fully reflect local circumstances and needs. Planning functions undertaken locally also help to speed up decisions, which is helpful to all concerned and injects more efficiency into the whole planning process.

What is done locally? A tiny proportion of planning applications are decided centrally. Those cases are appeals that are recovered or planning applications that are called in for decision by the Secretary of State, typically when the proposed development is large or controversial, or has more than a local significance. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the vast majority of planning applications—we have calculated that the figure is 99.9 per cent.—are determined by local planning authorities. In addition, local planning authorities take the lead in drawing up development plans for their area, shaping the vision for their locality and determining how their area can best create sustainable communities.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we are taking a number of steps to strengthen the role of local authorities both in deciding planning applications and in forward planning. I want to mention plan making at local, regional and national level in a moment, but before I do so, I shall highlight three current proposed changes with regard to planning applications.

First, we announced in November a new approach to permitted development for householders. There will be a new national baseline from which local authorities will be able to relax or tighten controls in particular areas, according to local circumstances. Local authorities will be able to introduce local variations by using local development orders to provide greater freedom for development and by using directions under article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 2005 to provide further restrictions on development where local circumstances permit.

We will take forward two proposals from the planning White Paper, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”, that are designed to facilitate the use by local planning authorities of article 4 directions. The Planning Bill, the consideration of which starts in Committee today, contains a clause to strengthen the ability of local authorities to use article 4 directions when they see a need to protect specific neighbourhoods. If local authorities give 12 months’ notice of an article 4 direction, they will no longer be liable for compensation for the withdrawal of permitted development rights. We will also withdraw the requirement for the Secretary of State’s approval of article 4 directions. We will introduce secondary legislation in respect of householder development later this year.

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Secondly, the hon. Gentleman, in an important part of his speech, mentioned the use of call-in. He talked about his perception that that has been increasing as the years have gone by in terms of numbers and the proportion of planning applications affected. I have to reject that—it has not happened. Let me give him the figures for cases considered and called in. In 2002-03, the number of cases considered was 1,459 and the number called in was 118. In 2006-07, the number of cases considered was 977 and the number called in was 51. Both the number of cases considered and the proportion called in are reducing, which is important. We want to go further and faster with that, which is why we published yesterday a consultation paper reviewing the existing suite of call-in directions whereby local authorities refer cases to the Secretary of State for consideration of whether they should be called in. We want to reduce both the number of referrals and the number of cases ultimately called in. That is part of our wider package of measures that are based on the fact that decisions are best made as locally as possible.

Thirdly, most minor appeals—for example, on householder development, new shop fronts, small change-of-use proposals, advertisements and works to protected trees—should be dealt with locally by elected councillors. As a former councillor, I was intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s point about delegation to officers, because although I was not a formal member of my local authority’s planning committee, I substituted on it on many occasions. I should like to put it on record the important point that it is up to a local authority to determine the specific delegation to officers. The idea behind the principle is that elected councillors are there as strategic ambassadors for their area. It is important, in terms of the minutiae, for that to be dealt with as much as possible at officer level.

Norman Baker: Does the Under-Secretary accept, however, that although the exact scheme is in the hands of local authorities, the direction of travel and the pressure from the Government have increased delegation to officers and away from council members?

Mr. Wright: I reiterate what I said a moment ago. It is important that councillors are effective in their communities and directly accountable to them—that will play a part in planning applications—but this is also about place shaping, which is the theme that I really want to reiterate and strengthen today in terms of determining what is important for particular areas.

That brings me nicely to the changes to our suggestions on the planning application process. Most minor appeals could be dealt with as locally as possible. Such planning applications would be dealt with in the first instance by a planning officer, before becoming eligible for review by a local member review body made up of local councillors, thereby injecting local democratic accountability. A review body could be established for specific authorities or on a joint authority basis

We are seeking an enabling power in the Planning Bill to allow the creation of local member review bodies. We are talking to the Local Government Association and other stakeholders, including through a working group, about how this might work in practice. The detail will be set out in secondary legislation, which we aim to have in place by April 2009, with a view to having local member review bodies fully operational by 2010.

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It is important that we have local democratic accountability in respect of councillors and, more importantly, that voters and the electorate can go to councillors to air their concerns. We want that to happen. It already happens in practice, but we want to strengthen the process as much as possible.

I have dealt with the planning application process. It is vital that local authorities step up to the plate, are ambitious and aspirational, and have a key role in plan making. We are trying to strengthen that role in a number of ways.

Norman Baker: Perhaps the Under-Secretary could just respond to my suggestion that one local authority should not be able to determine its own application.

Mr. Wright: I understand the potential perceived conflict of interests there. However, that point leads me nicely to my suggestions on the plan-making role.

Local councils will have a key, if not central, role in determining what areas will look like in 15 to 20 years and the process by which they are going to get there. That place-shaping role is important, as I have mentioned many times. There is a local aspect to that, but there is also a regional aspect, which is why all these decisions cannot be made locally. There is a regional perspective as well, which is why regional spatial strategies are so important. I shall mention that in a moment or two.

We are strengthening local authorities’ plan-making role in a number of ways. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 introduced a new system of local spatial strategies that were designed to foster positive place making and to address problems with the former system. A single local plan has been replaced by the local development framework, which consists of a suite of development plan documents. The key document is a high-level core strategy that is supported, where necessary, by other development plan documents intended to deliver that core strategy. The reforms included changes to the production of these documents to achieve greater flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and more meaningful community and stakeholder involvement—real involvement, not merely a tick-box exercise.

We published a consultation document in November 2007 proposing amendments to local development regulations and a draft replacement for planning policy statement 12 further to streamline the process and improve consultation arrangements. In particular, that change provides greater freedom for local authorities to decide what arrangements are best suited to their specific and often unique circumstances.

The local government White Paper, which I mentioned earlier, makes it clear that local authorities have a key role to play in shaping the vision for their locality and determining how their area can best create sustainable communities. The planning system is there to help local authorities achieve that: it is a plan-led system, because we need a proactive and integrated approach to development and place shaping, as opposed to a reactive, ad hoc and unco-ordinated approach. That addresses the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about local planning authorities deciding their own applications. It is important that that should not be done on an ad hoc, reactive basis, but as part of the local development framework.

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The LDF core strategy is a key strategic document that determines the future shape and development of a locality. It should sit alongside and accompany the sustainable community strategy for a local area. Local authorities have a clear opportunity to lead the process of place shaping and to work with key stakeholders, such as developers, on the place-shaping agenda through their local development framework. We are urging local authorities to do this and to rise to the challenge, rather than allow the future development and shape of their areas to be determined purely by private developers, which is not in anybody’s interest, particularly in respect of house building, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and I am passionate about.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary. He is generous in letting me come back on this matter. I understand his comments about place shaping and, of course, the need for local authorities to plan ahead. However, with respect, he has not dealt with the fact that some local authorities wishing to give themselves permission for a particular application have their planning function compromised, because they will be aware of the financial benefit, or some other benefit, of giving permission and will end up giving themselves permission for something that they would not give anybody else permission for.

Mr. Wright: I think that I have covered that point quite comprehensively. I should like to see such things done as part of a coherent and strategic approach on which the local community has been fully consulted, with people having had an opportunity to discuss it. This is all part of the process. We need an approach whereby a local area can develop in a strategic, ambitious manner over the next one or two decades. So, in that respect, with the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that I have covered that point as much as I can.

In the time available to me, I want to move away slightly from local planning considerations to talk about regional and national considerations, which are an important part of a coherent approach. As I have
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mentioned, although local authorities have by far the most important role in planning, it is important that decisions are taken at the right level. That is why we have regional policy, as set out in regional spatial strategies, and national policy, as set out in planning policy statements, to provide the wider context that we need, within which local authorities make local decisions.

Regional spatial strategies are important. Some matters, including housing, which we have mentioned, and transport and the natural environment, are not confined to local areas. It is important that we consider a wider perspective. That is why regional spatial strategies are so important and why the planning system operates at two levels: regionally, through the regional spatial strategies; and locally, as I mentioned earlier, through the local development frameworks. The RSS and the LDF constitute the development plan, with the RSS providing the broad development strategy for a period of 15 to 20 years, where various matters are taken into account, including the identification of the scale and distribution of the provision for new housing. I am a member of the Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee. On Thursday, we will be considering the Bill in detail, clause by clause. It is important that we have a local, regional and national basis for the provision of badly needed new housing.

We also have priorities for the environment, such as countryside and biodiversity protection, and for transport infrastructure, economic development, agriculture, mineral extraction, and waste treatment and disposal. The RSS provides the vehicle through which regions can promote sub-regional plans that reflect their real human geography, covering housing market areas or travel-to-work areas, and implement planning policies that are designed to deliver sustainable development at the sub-regional spatial strategy level.

I do not have time to mention the national planning considerations, which are vital and are, as I speak, being examined in detail by the Planning Public Bill Committee.

We are strengthening the leadership role of local authorities as place shapers for their communities. Working with local strategic partners, they are setting out a shared vision for their area over the next 10 to 15 years in respect of providing sustainable community strategies. I reiterate that planning has a central role in this process.

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Election Expenses

1.30 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the issue of candidates’ spending before dissolution, as it is a matter of great concern to many of us. I do not know whether any of my hon. colleagues ever look at the register of political donations on the Electoral Commission website, but if they have done so recently, they will have seen quite a rush of Tory donations in the past few months, particularly to Tory candidates in marginal seats. I cite at random £55,000 to Harlow, £47,000 to Regent’s Park, £27,000 to Gillingham and £18,000 to Selby. Colleagues attuned to the issue will recognise those as marginal seats.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), who will be fighting his seat at the next election, tells me that £15,000 has been donated to Dumfries and Galloway during the past few months. Hastings and Rye is another case in point, and there are also some Liberal Democrat seats to which large amounts of money have been donated recently.

Overall, Tory associations have raised almost as much from individual donations since the last election as they did in the whole period between 2001 and 2005. On the much more important matter of donations to Conservative central office, which is at a far higher level, the Conservatives have already raised more since 2005—£15 million in individual donations, never mind other kinds—than they did between 2001 and 2005, when they raised £14.8 million.

With no election expected this year, why the sudden rush? The truth is that many Conservative candidates are starting their campaigns now. In doing so, they are importing two of the least desirable characteristics of politics in the United States. We are spending a lot more money than we used to, and we are starting to spend it earlier, although we are nowhere near the obscene amounts spent in American politics yet. Spending has practically doubled in every US election this century. Bush spent $95 million on his primary campaign in 2000 and $269 million, nearly triple that, in 2004. Overall spending by all candidates on primaries, elections and conventions rose from $649 million in 2000 to just over $1 billion in 2004, and all the signs predict that it will rise even higher in 2008.

American politics, I readily confess, is now so distorted by big money that merely saying that we are not as bad as the Americans is not saying very much. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that candidates are following the American example by starting to campaign a couple of years before the election is remotely likely to occur. From all over the country, we hear reports that candidates are starting to deliver regular newsletters, not saying what they are doing—because, of course, they hold no position—but attacking the Government and the incumbent MP. That is exactly what we expect them to do during an election campaign, but they are starting two years early.

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