House of Commons
|Session 2007 - 08|
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General Committee Debates
Housing and Regeneration Bill
Housing and Regeneration Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 15 January 2008
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
The HCA as the local planning authority
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 2, in clause 14, page 7, line 10, at end add
(8) Before exercising its powers under this section the HCA shall undertake formal consultation with the local authority and organise public information and consultation meetings with local community organisations and local people, in respect of any development in the designated area.. [Grant Shapps.]
Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): I was outlining the purpose of the amendment, which more or less says that formal consultation should take place. Rather than being the informal process that the Minister referred to, whereby this benign agency and benevolent Minister in the future always look to do what is best for the local areas, it should be enshrined in law. A presumption of consultation should be built into the Bill; indeed, more than just a presumptiona requirement. That is what the amendment would do.
It is true to say that from everything we know of the Bill so far, much of its structure replicates that of, in some cases, the authority that it might replacein this case, the local authority. As such, it can circumvent a large number of requirements that are incumbent on a local authority before it pushes through its plans. I am thinking of district or local plans, which are years in the making. The plans go out to consultation and the authorities talk to local people, consider a variety of different aspects, publish the plan in draft and then publish the final copy. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House have been involved, at one time or another, with their areas district or borough local plan. We know that that document takes a huge amount of time, energy and effort to prepare. As its requirement to exist is already laid down in law, it is reasonable that that should mean something. The problem with the clause without amendment No. 2 is that the Homes and Communities Agency can ride right across whatever has been decided locally. That endangers the fabric of local democracythe purpose of electing people who carry out a district plan or, depending on the area, a local planand the good work that is done in the plan, and there would be no point in having it in the first place.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. It is good to see you.
The hon. Gentleman has got to the crux of the argument on the clause and the amendment. Does he agree that if the agency has local development plans conferred on it, it will be required under the statutory planning framework to go out to consultation if it wishes to amend them? It will have the same responsibilities as the local planning authority, and that is where consultation would come in. Is that not the case?
With all due respect to the Minister, that is not really the issue that we are debating. We are saying that there is a form of retrospective consultation, which comes in only after the HCA has, in effect, ridden into town and taken over some of the responsibilities. Before that happensbefore it gets that powerit should first have a duty to consult local authorities. The argument that the Minister presses is that once it has decided to take over those powers it will then, under other clauses in the Bill, have a duty placed on it to consult. Our argument is that it is right to consult up front, and with good reason. For example, in an area where the local authority has already looked at its district or local plan and decided that building houses in a particular location is a good or bad ideait has already gone through not only the consultation to create that local plan, but also a great deal of local consultation to discuss the issue with local residents and has come to a determination, which let us say in this case is noit is perfectly possible, with the legislation as it stands, that the HCA will be able to ride into town and override all that local decision-making process.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I urge the hon. Gentleman to be careful about using emotive words. My concern relates not just to this amendment, but to others that we have debated. There seems to be a competition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to see who can be most slavishly loyal to the local community. Can he see any circumstances in which the local opinion of which he is so supportive might not be appropriate? If we look back a long time to when his party was last in government, it rode over any local opinion in relation to setting up out-of-town shopping centres.
Grant Shapps: The hon. Gentlemans intervention gives me an opportunity to say that I am absolutely, slavishly loyal to the desires of local people, but that simultaneously I want more houses to be built. An easy way of squaring the circle is to say that local communities must have the power in their own handsthey must have the abilityso that they are incentivised and know that the services are going to follow where the houses are to be built. In particular, as is the case in my constituency, they must be reassured that their local facilities, such as hospitals, are not going to be closed down when the Government are insisting that thousands of homes are built in the local area. It is pretty much common sense to say that if the Government were to frame legislation that incentivised local communities, rather than bash them over the head when they suspect them of being nimbies, they would find that much more housing was built. The problem with the entire direction of the Billthe clause in particular is a good way of highlighting itis that the
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend take into accountis he aware, indeedthat the operation of housing finance and local authority taxation has now reached the stage where in some areas building more houses costs the council money? They do not get anything back from it in local tax and more money goes out of their area. What incentive is there for them to build houses, which we all want to see, and to reach the Government target? Surely the approach that bottom-up is best is the right way to go.
Grant Shapps: My hon. Friend makes an outstanding point because it shows precisely where the Bill has missed the game in town. It should enable communities to expand where they want towhere they are incentivised to. One of the ways to do that would be to allow them to take the gain from having a wider and larger council tax base, but the Bill does not address the issue. It fudges it; it insists that those matters have to be run centrally. They do not. If 10,000 more homes are built in ones patch, those people will pay council tax. If they pay council tax, politicians can stand for election in that area with a reasonable expectation of offering lower council tax or improved services, but only if the Bill allows for it. However, it fudges it and it misses the point.
Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the word incentivise a number of times. Will he therefore welcome the concept of the housing and planning delivery grant of around £510 million, which my right hon. friend the Minister for Housing announced several months ago? It is precisely for that purposeto ensure that where local authorities have the responsibility to identify where housing needs are necessary, they will be incentivised. Why did his Front-Bench spokesmen go out and say that that was blackmail? Surely those statements are at odds. The grant is either incentivising or it is blackmail. I do not understand the Conservatives position on this.
Grant Shapps: I thank the Minister for that as it gives us a chance to clear something else up. I welcome the grant. It is a small wayrelatively small, in housing termsof incentivising. It takes over from the earlier grant, which was, I think, the housing plan and I welcome that. However, I was also the one who said that it looked like blackmail becauseI shall explain this clearly to the Ministerit comes from the same Government who still fail to recognise that local people should be put in the driving seat. The figures involved when compared with the cost of building 3 million homes over a period of time, or even the limited time when the grant is available over the next few years, are relatively trivial. It is symbolic of how the Government think that all they need to do is to hand down money from above. That is not how we should go about incentivising communities. I am pleased the Minister has a real interest in incentivising and that the clause has sparked his interest in the subject.
The way to incentivise communities is to use the money from within the community with reformed section 106, the wider council tax base and by not having one part of the Government working against
Grant Shapps: I want to ensure that we address the detail of the clause. I will take an intervention if it is on that.
Mr. Raynsford: I refer the hon. Gentleman back to the evidence session, our third sitting on the morning of December 13. I think he was in Committee then. He will recall me asking representatives from the Campaign to Protect Rural England about the individual circumstance of a development on a brownfield sitean infill development in an urban area with more than adequate infrastructure, hospitals, transport, all the restthat was turned down by the local authority because of the feelings of local people who did not want housing on that site. Without the ability of the developer to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and its decision that the development was in accordance with the London plan, those houses would not have been built. Does he recognise that it is not just a question of incentivising communities? There are tensions and conflicts, and we have to have a framework where the Government can ensure that the overriding need for housing is met where it is essential, and that where communities are wrong to oppose new housing, that can be overridden.
The Chairman: Order. I must ask members of the Committee to make their interventions a little shorter.
Grant Shapps: I am grateful for the intervention none the less because it gives me the opportunity to say that the problems in the market are a result of the marketplace as it isof our planning laws as they are. When those circumstances happen, and I recall the right hon. Gentlemans exchange with the CPRE, they are because of the status quo. However, the Bill is not about the status quo; it is about changing the future. There is barely a politician in this country who is not elected on the basis of being anti-development, because politically that makes sense in their areas.
Grant Shapps: Surely the right hon. Gentleman recognises that he is one of the very few exceptions up and down the land. The reality is that local people have legitimate concerns. The problem with the framework of the legislation in terms of planning and housing is that it fails to recognise those legitimate concerns. I am trying to describe a situation, with the help of the clause, that would shift us to a position in which people in this country could, finally, be elected on the basis of being pro-development politicians. When that happens over
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is moving slightly away from the amendment. There has been a tendency to do that. I am trying to be as free as I can, but we must stick to it.
Grant Shapps: I am grateful, Mr Benton. I am slightly goaded by questions that take me off into the wider area, as you rightly point out.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
What I want to reflect on is the Ministers earlier intervention, which suggested that, because consultation would take place after the HCA had taken over a development, that would be sufficient. We on this side of the House argue that that is not sufficient; that, for all the reasons that we were debating and discussing for the 10 minutes before the Division, it makes sense to require that sort of consultation in advance. The amendment simply states:
Before exercising its powers under this section the HCA shall undertake formal consultation with the local authority and organise public information and consultation meetings with local community organisations and local people, in respect of any development in the designated area.
The purpose is quite simple: to ensure that local people cannot be ignored in a process that might otherwise ride roughshod all over them.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has just said, and he need make no apologies for the passion injected into some of the earlier sections of his speech. I want to support amendment No. 2, which seeks to soften any injustice that might be done between the existing local plan and the proposals that the HCA have for that area.
I think I am right in saying that every part of the country is now covered by a local plan. The plan has gone through an exhaustive procedure, the Minister has had the power to intervene and amend it if he so wishes, and it is then adopted. The thrust of planning policy for the past 20 years has been to inject more certainty into the planning process, so that people know that what is in the local plan is going to happen, and it is less likely that an appeal will succeed. That is the context in which clause 14 and amendment No. 2 should be placed, as clause 14 allows the HCA to become the local planning authority.
We discovered this morning that the Government have at present no plans to use those powers in any part of the country. I found that a helpful comment. In an intervention a few moments ago, the Minister said that the HCA would have the same responsibilities as the local planning authority. Will he confirm that when he replies? The local planning authority has to go round quite a protracted course in the preparation of the local plan. The Minister said that the HCA has the same responsibility: will he confirm that it will have to do exactly what the local authority does when it comes up with its alternative proposals for the designated area?
It would also be helpful to know whether the Minister can call in something that the HCA proposes to do as the local planning authority. Is it susceptible to the same power of interventionin respect of what it is seeking to doas a local authority? Is it the case that, under this clause, the HCA, if it were designated for the whole of a local authority area, could simply produce a new local plan? As I understand it, that is exactly what is proposed.
In an earlier debate, the Minister said that the objective of the HCA in this part of the Bill was to give additional help and support to a local authority. I take that to mean help and support in enabling the local authority to deliver what is in the plan, which is a wholly admirable objective. But this is something slightly different: the proposal is not help and support for the local authority in doing something that it is struggling to do, but a change to the land use of the area of the local authority. Will the Minister sketch in the circumstances in which those powers will be used, and the process that the HCA will go through as the local planning authority? Will he confirm that it will indeed have to do exactly what the local authority did when it came up with its original local plan?
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): If the Minister is confident that it will be incumbent on the HCA to respect the responsibilities outlined by the two previous speakers, will he cite where in legislation that commitment is enshrined? Such a commitment would ensure that the HCA fulfils the obligations that have been highlighted and that the amendment seeks to put back in.
Mr. Wright: May I ask the indulgence of the Committee, and of your good sense, Mr. Benton? We were talking about something this morning, and I promised to go for a walk and look into the skies to seek clarification. I had a very pleasant walk in St. Jamess park, and I would like to put on record the issues raised by the Committee regarding my amendments to clause 14.
The Chairman: Order. I have no objection in principle to putting those matters on the record, but I doubt whether it is appropriate to do so under this amendment. I suggest to the Minister that he refers to them in the clause stand part debate.
Mr. Wright: That is extraordinarily helpful, Mr. Benton. I do not want to undermine your authority, but Mr. Gale gave the Committee the impression that we would not be having a clause stand part debate. However, I am happy to take your point on board.
We have had a very interesting debate and teased out an awful lot of the fundamental, if not ideological, differences between the two main parties. I was fascinated by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfields somewhat contradictory position: being in favour of incentivising local authorities, but when it happens saying that they are being blackmailed and that it is a top-down approach. The £8.5 billion that we have pledged to affordable housing, which is a 50 per cent. increase on the previous comprehensive spending review period, is a massive incentive that will be spent locally. Local authorities are key to this matter.
Grant Shapps: I do not want the Minister to remain confused, so I will try to explain what he views as an contradiction. It is not a contradiction. One element is the reality of the situation as it stands at the moment. We welcome the money that will come down in order to encourage development, but I ask him to keep it in mind that that is not the reality that we would like. We are able to dream that in the future we will have legislation under which that would not be the best way to handle housing development. Therefore, we can both praise the amount of money and call it a cynical bribe if future legislation is not very different from this Bill.
Mr. Wright: I maintainI saw this on Second Readingthat the hon. Gentleman fully agrees with more homes as long as they are nowhere near his area. That is the sense that I get from Tory Members: We do need more houses, but nowhere near us. There is an element of, Lord make me pure, but not yet about it. I think that there is a touch of hypocrisy.
Lembit Öpik: If the Minister holds that point of view, surely he should take on the amendments to ensure that the Conservative party cannot mess up the noble plans that we all claim to have for building new houses.
Mr. Wright: That is an interestingand shortinterjection. [ Interruption. ] Obviously, I fully agree. To be fair, the Liberals do not have many supporters, so they have to say themselves that they are brilliant. However, I am happy to concur with that point. This has been an important debate about quite an important amendment. The whole Committee would share the view that public engagement, including consultation on policy development and service design, is an important part of a modern, representative democracy.
Alistair Burt: I cannot let a particular point go. The Minister was keen to indicate that Conservative Members are fierce in defence of their local areas if they feel that they are inappropriate for development. He used that to indicate that we are against development. He must address the point that Cabinet Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), have been featured in the press as being fierce opponents of planning developments in their constituencies. He cannot avoid the point that
Mr. Wright: To that I say that it is entirely consistent for hon. Members to reject planning developments in their areas when they are inappropriate in terms of poor designthat is a particularly important pointor if they do not think that they are in the right areas; I would encourage hon. Members to reject such planning developments. That is not inconsistent with saying that we need more homes. On my own patch, there is a real need for affordable social housing and I can think of a particular area where it would be appropriate. I do not think that the local authority will put something there, but I will be campaigning for more homes in that area. It is right and proper for Members of this House to be representatives for our own constituencies. Hon. Members should have a view as to where appropriate developments could take place. That is not contrary to my point.
Alistair Burt: May I just finish my point? If what the Minister says is the case, he should move away from rhetoric that says, Oh, its only Members on the other side who do that, because that was what he said. It is like using a year zero argumenthe suggests that nothing happened before 1997, and only Conservative Members object to housing developments. That is not the case. If he is now making the point that Members act correctly when they defend the interests of local communities over a development that they think is inappropriate, or when they support planning developments that they think are right, he should acknowledge that that affects Members on both sides of the House. It is not a party matter as he indicated.
Mr. Wright: I appreciate that comment. I respect the hon. Gentleman enormously and I think that his views are sincerely held. However, I spend a lot of my time answering correspondence from Members on both sides of the House. A high proportion of correspondence from Opposition Members relates to development and housing, and says, We dont want development in our area. Contrary to that, I receive letters from Labour Members that say, Can we have more houses please? There is a dividing line between the parties on this matter. We welcome the need for more homes and embrace it. To address the significant challenges that we have had for a generation, we need more homes, but I think the Opposition believe that we do not.
Alistair Burt: We must finish this point, because we will not agree on it. He made a strong point, but it sits ill with the action taken by the former Secretary of State for his Department, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West, because she would cause the Minister concern on those grounds. The Opposition do not accept what the Minister said. Those on the Conservative Front Bench have made it clear that we want more development. As my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfieldhe is leading the fightsaid, we want to encourage more development and to help the Government. We are doing that by indicating that a bottom-up approach is better than a top-down approach. That is the issue between the parties and I do not believe that we will agree on it. For the record, that is the appropriate description of the position of the Conservative Front Bench.
Mr. Wright: I acknowledge the hon. Gentlemans point, and I too want to move on. However, I reiterate that my correspondence tells me that there is a party political divide on the matter.
It is right and proper that consultation is recognised as a key stage of engagement with public and stakeholder organisations. It ensures that decisions are informed, because we will listen to those who might be affected by new proposals. I would suggest that the Government have done more. We are going back to the year zero approach that was described in an earlier sitting. Since 1997, the Government have done a lot to ensure that local people have much more say on decisions that will affect them, which is right and proper.
I believe that that was the sentiment behind the amendment. Although I fully respect the intentions of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield, there is a danger that the measure would lead to a situation in which consultation is an end in itself. The purposes that would be served by such a consultation are served via other routes, and the amendment would add another layer to an already robust process, and a level of unnecessary bureaucracy.
To provide an example, I shall address a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. If development plans are conferred on the Homes and Communities Agencythat is a big if, because such a situation would be rareit would have to engage in consultation before preparing the development plan documents. The agency would need to undertake a formal procedure for accepting representations on plans, hold a public examination of the plan, and comply with the inspectors binding recommendations on it. In short, it would involve exactly the sort of thing that a local planning authority, possibly a local authority, is required to do. That level of consultation would be required if the agency took over planning powers.
Mr. Wright: I should be happy to look at the Bill afresh on that matter, but I can say that the sentiments of the Bill are entirely in keeping with it. The clause goes into some detail on the matter.
Placing on the agency a requirement to undertake formal consultation with the local authority, and to organise public information and consultation meetings with local community organisations and local people in respect of any development in a designated area, as set out in the amendment, is unnecessary. Any development would have to be in accordance with the development plan. I have already set out the level of consultation that would be required for the agency to make changes to the development plan documents. In addition, it would have to publicise any applications for development that were made, including any that it was involved withthat will help to address the potential conflict of interestso that interested parties could comment, as they can with any other proposed development in any part of the local planning authoritys area.
The requirement for additional consultation would be of no benefit to local communities, as it would add no value to existing consultation requirements, and
Grant Shapps: I have listened carefully to the Ministers arguments. The only one that I want to refute is the idea that I am against development. I am in favour of 6,000 new houses being built in my constituency, 2,000 of which have already been built. I invite him to come to Welwyn Hatfield and explain to local people why we should have 10,000 new homes at the same time as our hospital was last week slated for closure. I hope that he will accept my invitation. In return, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 28, page 7, line 10, at end insert
(8) The Secretary of State may by order amend the definition of planning-related provisions or relevant functions in subsection (7)..[Mr. Wright.]
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Wright: I sought clarification and enlightenment over the lunch break and I should like to update the Committee regarding Government amendments Nos. 23 and 27. I think it may help if I put things into context. When an area is designated under clause 13, functions may be conferred on the Homes and Communities Agency. Clause 14 sets out the functions that may be conferred, including local planning authority functions, for all or in specified permitted purposes, and functions that are non-local planning authority functions but are planning-related.
Government amendment No. 27 sets out which non-local planning authorities have those planning-related functions. In this mornings sitting, I gave the example of a district planning authority function in relation to enforcement notice registers. Another example would be the hazardous substances authority. If functions are conferred concurrently, the HCA would continue to have a role in the designated area for which it has planning powers, but it will also have some responsibility regarding hazardous substances. Those would work together.
As I said this morning, Government amendments Nos. 23 and 27 are intended to clarify which functions that are not local planning authority functions may be conferred on the agency under the designation order. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield mentioned the Mayor of London. We had an interesting debate on the Floor of the House during oral questions about the Mayor. The hon. Gentleman seemed concerned that the planning functions of the Mayor could be conferred under the Government amendments. I assure him and the Committee that that is not the case. The powers of the Mayor are not touched by the amendments.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I wish to raise the issue of section 106 agreements and money. If the agency took over an area of a borough, it would effectively, as the planning authority, have to negotiate
Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman is extremely courteous in not expecting an immediate response. His presumption is correct, but I will clarify that, and ensure that he and other Committee members have sight of anything with regard to that.
Clause 14, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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