Planning Bill

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Clause 147

Development plan documents: climate change policies
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mrs. Lait: We have raised on a number of occasions the importance of flood defence and the need to take it into account in future planning. On major projects and locally, we are at considerable risk from flooding, as we have seen this summer and again more recently, and much of the problem has been caused because the drainage system has not been able to cope sufficiently. Although Committee members will take it as read that sufficient precautions should be taken in all future plans to ensure that our drainage systems are adequate, given the importance of the perceived threat from flooding, it would be useful and sensible for the Bill to include references to flood defence and drainage. Would the Government be prepared to do that at this stage?
Mr. Dhanda: I appreciate the hon. Lady’s question, not least because I am the Member of Parliament for Gloucester, but I do not think that adding such a provision to clause 147 would be pertinent, especially when a great deal of work is taking place, led largely by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who works hard on the issue of flooding. At the same time, policy is evolving around the Pitt review. Clause 147 is important, not least because of its reference to a planning policy statement on climate change. Although I take the hon. Lady’s comments on board, it would not be pertinent to include such a provision in the clause, which I hope will stand part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 147 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause s 148 and 149 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 150

Determination of planning applications by officers
Mr. Dhanda: I beg to move amendment No. 447, in clause 150, page 72, line 16, leave out ‘under subsection (1)(a)’ and insert ‘by them under this section’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following Government amendments: Nos. 448 to 450, 457 to 460 and 467 to 470.
Mr. Dhanda: The amendments make minor changes and corrections to help to improve the drafting of the Bill.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 448, in clause 150, page 72, line 19, leave out ‘subsection (1)(a)’ and insert ‘this section’.
No. 449, in clause 150, page 72, line 25, leave out ‘subsection (1)(a)’ and insert ‘this section’.
No. 450, in clause 150, page 72, line 44, leave out ‘subsection (1)(a) of’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
Mr. Dhanda: I beg to move amendment No. 451, in clause 150, page 73, line 20, after ‘application’ insert—
‘(a) ’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following Government amendments: Nos. 452, 461, 462, 471 and 472.
Mr. Dhanda: Again, the amendments make minor changes and corrections to help to improve the drafting of the Bill. I appreciate that in chapter 2 of part 9 there are lots of these measures, partly because we are translating changes to existing town and country planning Acts.
Amendments Nos. 451 and 452 confer a general power on the Secretary of State to make provision by regulations about the determination of planning applications in cases in which a local planning authority or a committee or sub-committee decides to determine a planning application, by virtue of proposed new section 75A(6), which would otherwise have been dealt with by an officer of the authority under the mandatory scheme of deregulation required under proposed new section 75A. Such planning applications might include those that, although relatively small-scale, had already generated a high degree of controversy in the early stages of the application process. We do not envisage that there will be many of those types of application.
Amendments Nos. 461, 462, 471 and 472 make corresponding changes in clause 151 in relation to the determination of applications for certificates of lawful use and in clause 153 in relation to listed building applications by officers.
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend the Minister’s application amendments are to a clause that deals primarily with the determination of planning applications by officers. The Government amendments also refer to the determination of such applications by members of the council.
My hon. Friend rightly said that sometimes those issues will be controversial. For that reason, I should be grateful if he would spell out the responsibilities of councillors for communication in respect of planning issues of this sort and others. Does he agree with me that an important part of the role of the local councillor is communication with local people? On the one hand, he must listen to local views and, on the other, he must explain to people what is involved in an application. That is important because there is often serious misunderstanding about what is involved in a particular application, particularly of the sort to which he has just referred, which has already been a matter of some controversy.
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I approve of the emphasis that is placed by the Department on pre-application consultation by the developer, but that is not a universal panacea. In circumstances such as those that I have referred to, no amount of emphasis on pre-application work would take away the need for clarification and communication. A local councillor should be engaged in that, even if he or she is a member of the planning committee or in some cases the chair of it, as in the example that I have referred to. Of course they need to be professional. We need to avoid the impression of bias or prejudice, but in my experience, most councillors understand that and are very professional and objective. Indeed, recent research for the Department suggests that there is no major problem in that area.
What is worrying is that local councillors, especially those who are members of the planning committee, are being inhibited in carrying out their democratic duties as elected representatives by advice that is excessively restrictive and sometimes almost paranoid in nature. It seems that some officers feel that the silent councillor is the only type that they want to have around when it comes to planning issues. As anybody who is involved in democratic processes in any political party knows, a silent councillor is a dead councillor in political terms, just as a silent Member of Parliament is a dead Member of Parliament.
Will my hon. Friend assure me that it is the Government’s intention that public opinion be a material factor in the planning process? Will he assure me that the Government believe that councillors are under a duty to engage with this process in a professional and responsible manner, rather than by pretending to be Trappist monks? In the light of that, will he look at the publications that sometimes appear to be over-restrictive and over-cautious and at the advice that has been given to some councillors by some council officials? I do not pretend that that happens universally, but it is a serious issue.
I have looked at what is in many ways a very good document, called “Constructive Talk”. It has been drawn up by a series of organisations with the encouragement of the Department and it quotes Government advice. It says:
“Government advice is that Councillors should involve themselves in discussions with developers, constituents and others about planning cases, provided they observe the advice set out in Positive Engagement”.
“Positive Engagement” is, again, not simply a partnership document, although it bears the signature of a Minister, Baroness Andrews, as well as that of Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart of the Local Government Association, among others. It gives some really useful advice, but also among the “dos” it states:
“Hold discussions before a planning application is made, not after it has been submitted to the authority”.
That is a counsel of perfection. It is unrealistic to think that that can happen in all circumstances. It may be right to try to do that as frequently as possible, but there are many circumstances in which issues emerge only after the application has been made.
People will rightly turn to their local councillor and expect them to listen to their views and represent them. That does not mean that the councillor will necessarily swing into the camp of being a campaigner for or against something. It is that professionalism that is important. That advice, which in my view appears to go a little too far, is as nothing compared with the draconian advice to shut up and do nothing that is being given to some councillors and that is making many councillors feel that they are under a legal obligation not to carry out their democratic duties. I am sure that is not the Government’s intention, and I hope that the Minister can say something positive in response that will make that clear.
Mrs. Lait: Does the right hon. Gentleman think that this stems from the Standards Board advice about conflict of interest of councillors and does he think that advice is correct?
Alun Michael: It goes a little bit too far. As with many aspects of proprieties—perhaps I should mention that I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the principles of public life are principles of propriety, whereas the public expect good decisions, good service and action from their elected representatives. Of course, that activity on behalf of constituents should be done with propriety at all times. Sometimes we lose sight of quality while we are dealing with proprieties. I do not diminish in any sense the importance of doing things properly, correctly, without bias, objectively and all the rest. That is massively important, but so is doing things well and being seen to listen to the views of constituents. It is a question of getting the balance right.
Observing the proprieties and being careful not to give the impression of bias in what we do is as important for a councillor as it is for Member of Parliament, but so is the quality of the decision making, which means being fully informed, among other things, of the public views on an application. The visible representation of the interests of constituents is also important for the good reputation of democracy as well as the good reputation of the individual councillor. That should not be removed if that individual is a member of, or even the chair of, the planning committee. I have been the chair of a planning committee myself and I know that, in that role, one must be very careful about the words one uses. I do not think it should prevent anyone from engaging with the people they represent.
Sometimes the advice of officers can be too careful, so can that of officials in Government Departments. Having had ministerial responsibility for planning, I can say that from personal experience. That was in relation to Wales but the point is the same. Abrogating the responsibility to listen to all the arguments and to balance them in coming to the best possible judgment is the right way forward: pretending that one can close off all communications and that that is somehow safe is not. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to endorse this as the balanced way of dealing with the responsibilities of councillors in relation to planning matters.
Robert Neill: I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that the Government will take on board the point that this is not the first time that we have raised this issue. There was quite a lengthy discussion during the Committee stage of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. The same points were made and they were generally accepted. It certainly seems to most of us who have had experience of local government and who have seen how it operates now that an excessive restriction is placed upon members. Partly that is a result of the perverse workings of some of the case-law decisions in relation to the doctrine of predetermination. That has become something of a stranglehold rather than a guarantee of probity in many respects. It also stems from a gold-plating of cautiousness that is applied to the advice that comes pretty much at all levels.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend also agree that we are rather archaic in how we inform members of the public about planning applications? For example, we still require local authorities to inform on issues relating to listed buildings through the local paper. We are led to believe that a declining number of people read local papers, but there is no requirement in law to put such information on the council website, for example. My local authority would save £65,000 a year if it was allowed by law to modernise the way it imparts information to local people on these important matters. That equates to about £10 million for councils across the country.
Robert Neill: My hon. Friend makes a useful point. Most local authorities voluntarily publicise planning applications on their website; the London borough of Bromley certainly does so and, as time goes on, it must be the sensible way to proceed. However, that segment of the population— perhaps the more elderly people—who may not have access to the internet must be taken into consideration. There is a balance to be struck and there may be more practical ways of achieving our objective without increasing the considerable costs that sometimes arise.
The right hon. Gentleman made a significant point about the importance of planning decisions to many people and communities. In many localities, planning issues are one of the key matters; they are as important as anything else, especially in view of how local authority boundaries are drawn. There may not be any other major issue in a ward, but planning issues may arise. If the existence of an application in effect gags local councillors from expressing views—by keeping a sensible balance and speaking with care—on what is probably the most important issue for their residents, it will have the perverse effect of bringing local democracy into disrepute.
One example, which is not from my constituency, was in a local authority ward where the big issue was the potential development of a golf course. It was privately owned but it was the main open space, the green lungs for people who lived in the area.
When elections come round, planning is one of the key things that people want to know about. Even between elections they ask, “Where do our councillors stand on this issue?” It is pretty perverse if councillors are told, “If you tell your residents where you stand, you can’t say anything if you serve on the planning committee because you might be seen to have predetermined the issue.” With respect to the people who drew up those rules, the average man and woman in the street would say, “That is absolute nonsense. It stands democracy on its head.”
The issues were raised at some length by members from both sides of the Committee in previous discussions in planning and local government Bills. The Minister’s predecessor, the current Minister for the Environment, was sympathetic to a number of their concerns and there was hope that the Government would look at them, but there is nothing in this Bill that deals with those issues. However, I hope that the Government will not lose sight of them because there is a general groundswell on this important matter. We all want to strengthen local government and local democracy and to remove a huge chunk of the work on issues that affect people and to impose what, to the voter, are artificial constraints that damage, without very good reason, the institution that we seek to nurture.
I hope that the Minister listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said from his very great experience and that he accepts that we are not making a partisan point. We want to find a constructive way forward that would enable local councillors to exercise their democratic right in a way that is consistent with their difficult role in planning matters.
Dan Rogerson: I want to add my support to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. He is absolutely right to raise the issue, which is of huge concern to elected Members involved in the process but mystifying to those who want to contact their local councillor to discuss matters. When I was a councillor those rules were not in effect, but I know it is a source of frustration to colleagues. I was fortunate in being able to say what I wanted to. However, I do not know whether I should admit the fact that I always managed to avoid planning training, so I did not have to go on the development control committee at the time.
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Since I was elected as a Member of Parliament, I have noticed the number of times that people now come to their MP to express opinions. We have to say, “It is possible for me to write a letter but, to be honest with you, the experts who are trained in planning are your local members”. Great investment has been made to ensure that elected members of local authorities have the skills to consider these matters appropriately, and it is utterly ludicrous that they cannot perform their role as local ward members in addition. It cannot be beyond the wit of those revisiting the issue to come up with a solution that meets the need for fair decision making, but also reflects that important part of the role of local authority members.
I certainly add my views to those of hon. Members who have already spoken. As the Government move forward to reflect on how the Bill is progressing, bring forth further regulation subject to the provisions in the Bill and revisit planning, I hope that they will address the matter in the future.
Mr. Dhanda: This has been a useful debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth has taken an interest in such matters for a number of years. In fact, when he was a Minister, he had to help me with the odd planning application or two I recall. The frank answer to his question is: yes, public opinion is a material factor. It is important for local government and local councillors to be involved in local consultation. It is important to all politicians that we listen. The LGA is also very helpful in producing guidance, and I am happy to point hon. Members in that direction so that they can see some of the guidance that it has produced in that area.
Like the hon. Member for North Cornwall, when I was a councillor, I too steered clear of the planning committee. Little did I know that a few years later, I would be a Minister on the Planning Bill. That is the way it goes sometimes.
Briefly, on the subject of websites, a lot can be done to use them, as well as local newspapers, to get the message across. I am conscious also that the clause is about local member review bodies. I, and other Labour Members are keen on the idea of local members having greater involvement. I dare say that we will come to that wider debate when we come to the Opposition amendments tabled on the clause.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 452, in clause 150, page 73, line 22, at end insert—
‘(b) by a local planning authority, or a committee or sub-committee of such an authority, acting by virtue of section 75A(6).’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
Mr. Dhanda: I beg to move amendment No. 453, in clause 150, page 73, leave out from ‘particular’ in line 23 to end of line 30 and insert—
‘(a) disapply or modify any provision of, or made under, this Part in relation to such an application;
(b) impose requirements on the officer, authority, committee or sub-committee determining such an application.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 454, 463, 465, 473 and 475.
Mr. Dhanda: The amendments deal with minor corrections and changes to help improve the drafting of the Bill. Proposed new section 75B enables the Secretary of State to make regulations about the determination of a planning application under proposed new section 75A(1)(b); that is, those applications that are specified as reviewable by a local planning authority or local member review body after an initial determination by an officer of the authority.
Amendments Nos. 463 and 473 will make corresponding changes in clauses 151 and 153. Amendments Nos. 454, 465 and 475 will make similar technical amendments to other parts of clauses 150 to 152.
Amendment agreed to.
Robert Neill: I beg to move amendment No. 422, in clause 150, page 73, line 31, leave out from beginning to end of line 15 on page 74.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 407, in clause 150, page 74, line 10, at end insert—
‘(h) about the fee to be payable to the local planning authority.’.
No. 428, in clause 150, page 74, line 15, at end insert—
‘(7) A local planning authority may arrange for the discharge of their functions under this section by a panel of elected members drawn from other local planning authorities.’.
No. 423, in clause 151, page 76, line 45, leave out from beginning to end of line 27 on page 77.
Robert Neill: This group of amendments relates to the operation of member review bodies. We are interested in fleshing out how this process will work. The amendment looks draconian, but it is intended to probe how the process will happen. We start from the proposition that we are broadly in favour of anything that tends to pass down powers and decision making to a more local level, so I do not have an issue with the principle of the clause. However, if we are going to make it work and if it is to be viable, a number of questions remain to be answered. At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, I think that it is as well that we probe the arrangements a little now.
It is significant that the Local Government Association supports the idea of member review boards for minor applications. We will have to be careful about what the thresholds are. It used the slightly guarded phrase that the boards
“could provide a welcome opportunity for councillors to have the final say.”
As with many people in local government, it wants a bit more detail about how that would work in practice.
On the other side of the coin, there are people with legitimate professional concerns about how we can guarantee the clear independence of councillors from their officers and ensure that such a system operates effectively without there being any breach of natural justice for applicants. We must ensure that we deal with that not only in domestic law, but under article 6 of the European convention on human rights. We are concerned about how that could be done effectively. Some detail has been set out, but much more will be required.
When we discuss later amendments, we will postulate an idea for how to get over the practical problems of getting a viable pool of members to hear the applications. We must consider how many applications any local authority will hear. For some local authorities, it could be quite a lot. Should the board contain people who would ordinarily be on the planning committee or is there to be a distinction? It looks as if we will have two parallel systems. Will there be applications that are dealt with by officers that are referred to the planning committee in the ordinary way? Will there be a separate review board for decisions that are to be made by officers? Will it be like the planning committee with the same people, but wearing different hats an hour later? Will there be a similar training regime? Should we use people who are not members of the planning committee because they could be thought to be too close to the officers with whom they work on a regular basis? That is the other side of the coin.
Dan Rogerson: I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has tabled the amendment so that we can have this discussion. I see that he has proposed that members from a neighbouring authority should be involved. A number of authorities have raised concerns about the relationship between officers and the members of the authority. The proposal of bringing in members might, therefore, be helpful. Has he considered the possibility of seeking officer advice from the neighbouring authority as opposed to members, so that the democratic accountability remains with members who were elected to that body, but the advice comes from outside?
Robert Neill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that thought. I am open-minded on that issue. We would have to see what the implications would be in terms of the costs of an officer’s time being hired out to another authority. We tabled the amendments in a genuinely open-minded way. Perhaps something like that could be looked at. Many local authorities face the problem of a shortage of good, experienced planning officers. They are quite a scarce resource. In a number of authorities, planning departments are already thinking about ways in which they could operate to use their expertise. That might be something that we could look at.
Mr. Benyon: We had a debate last week about the difficulty of bringing together more Select Committees in the House to look at the responsibilities that have been given to them by Government. The same problem exists in local authorities. Those of us who have been councillors know how difficult it is, even in a pool of 50 or 60 councillors in a unitary authority such as mine, to draw together people who have the necessary training at a certain time and day to look at a particular problem in a professional way. A lot of them have jobs and other responsibilities at the same time. It would be good to tease out from the Government what would be the frequency of these member review board meetings, what they would be doing and what they would require—not only in terms of members, but in the quantity of work they would be undertaking.
Robert Neill: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We need to do more work on that before the Bill completes its progress. That is a further issue that needs to be considered. It links in to our earlier discussion about the issue of predetermination and the scope that there is for local councillors to express views. If, for example, one were to adopt the view that ward councillors, or those who have expressed an interest in an application, are to be excluded, the pool of available members who could serve on the review body will pretty rapidly be reduced. If the planning committee was also excluded, who else would be left?
There are also the practical points that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury made about whether members will be available at convenient times. One can see a lot of difficulties that could arise in practice. That is why we suggest in amendment No. 428 that it should be possible to bring in members from a neighbouring authority. We are flexible as to how the class of that authority should be defined. It could be another district in the same area or an adjacent borough in London. Again, there are swings and roundabouts on that issue. We are putting it up for discussion to see the ways in which it could be done. Some might say that, in a two-tier authority, members could be taken from a different tier. There are all manner of permutations.
We need to think the matter through if we are to end up with a potentially useful and enhancing role for local councillors. That role will set a significant precedent so we must get it right. With respect to the Minister, that is why I was a little disappointed in the reply that he gave to the points made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth. The Minister went into some detail about the issue of predetermination and related matters, but it would have been better to have heard a little more about where the Government see themselves going on that issue. I would be troubled if his brevity was intended for anything other than to make good progress in the Committee. I hope that it was not hinting at any rowing back from the willingness that the current Minister for the Environment showed when he was dealing with planning matters.
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Alun Michael: I regard the Minister’s brevity as clarity of the absolute determination to produce the assurance we seek. I know that my hon. Friend is not someone who wastes words and I am sure that he will reinforce that point in his response.
Robert Neill: The right hon. Gentleman puts things persuasively and I hope that he is right because, as I have said, this is not an area where we want to raise any partisan issues. I think people on all sides in local government and in the House want us to try to get things right, but there is a certain inertia factor in terms of unwillingness to change deep-seated practices and advice, which needs to be overcome.
Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Perhaps I might briefly add some useful observations in the context of what the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has just said. Predetermination is less of an issue than the public’s perception of independence. There are precedents relating to local authority councillors undertaking appeal-type work in fields such as school admissions, although I think that has now been moved completely away from councillors. However, in other areas such as school transport, where local authority councillors usually have their appeal work administered by the local authority’s legal wing, some separation, a Chinese wall perhaps, is provided between the planning service and the councillors making those decisions.
When a member of the public gets the letter telling them what the process will be, however independent that process is, I fear that when they see the council’s logo on the top of the paper they will not distinguish between what one bit and another bit will do, and we will be wrestling with that reaction, perhaps until the end of time.
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and his point is valuable and useful. The idea of different departments and Chinese walls is well worth looking at in practicality. I suspect that he is right about the scepticism that will remain, but we will just have to contend with it. When I was first elected to Havering council, I remember that it was suggested to me by someone who probably did not vote for me that I only did it because all councillors did not pay rates—as they were then called. There have always been some extraordinary misconceptions about local government, which one just has to struggle with as cheerfully as one can—[ Interruption. ] I did not realise that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport had not realised that was not the case.
I understand the point, which is helpful, and the Minister might be able to assist us a little more in fleshing out how we can make the process work if we are to go down that route.
Dan Rogerson: To comment on the discussion that has just been led by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I think that the proposal is interesting and that it can offer something significant with regard to democratic accountability. Although I know that some people have concerns about the prospects and think that everyone feels that the Planning Inspectorate is fair and does an excellent job, and that it is independent and seen to be independent, that might be only from the applicants’ point of view and not from the point of view of residents in a local area. One often hears people’s dissatisfaction that a decision has been taken by someone who is not elected locally, so people will welcome greater provision to return to that principle. Clearly, there will be issues around how the proposal will work, but it is useful that we are having that discussion under clause 150.
Amendment No. 407 relates to the issue of costs and would ensure that the burden for an appeal did not fall on the local authority. The Minister will say that if the Government pass a measure to increase the powers or responsibilities of a local authority they will ensure that money goes with it so that the local authority does not have to find it from elsewhere. However, when the Minister’s party was in opposition they probably said that the previous Government passed things down without giving the local authority the resources to carry them out. That is a tendency that people in local government would identify, so if we are to give them extra responsibilities it is important to ensure that provision is made for the local authority to recover the costs involved, as there will be such costs. The prospect of local member review panels is a good one but much examination of the details will be needed, which has yet to come.
Mr. Benyon: The hon. Member for Ipswich made a helpful point and he was absolutely right: these bodies have form in local government. The big question is how many and how often the member review boards will be required. As a local councillor, I sat on housing benefit review boards and we used to play Chinese walls with the revenue department when it gave evidence on which we had to make a judgment.
The hon. Member for Ipswich referred to school admissions, when people take evidence in a quasi-judicial way and make a decision. I want to press the Minister on the frequency of the boards, which will have to consider growing developments and increasingly complicated planning applications, especially in a constituency such as mine in the south-east of England. The whole system will grind to a halt because of the demands on councillors’ and officials’ time in processing them. I am at heart a localist; I want decisions to be taken locally and in that respect I welcome some aspects of the proposal, but the practicalities of what the Government are proposing cause us and a large number of councillors great concern.
Mr. Dhanda: Before considering the purpose, effect and desirability of the amendment, it might be helpful for me to say a few words about the clause and where it is heading.
Clause 150 introduces in a new section 75A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 a requirement for local planning authorities to make arrangements for certain planning cases to be determined by officers of the authority. Examples of the types of development we have in mind are small-scale things such as householder developments, new shop fronts, small change-of-use proposals, advertisements and works on protected trees. Proposed new section 75A(4) provides for the Secretary of State, by regulation, to specify the types of planning application which, having been determined by an officer in the first instance, would be eligible for review only by a local member review body.
For those delegated applications, a proposed new section 75C establishes the right of review of the officer’s decision by the local planning authority through a local member review body. Proposed new section 78ZA removes the right of appeal to the Secretary of State under section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
Amendment No. 422 tabled by the hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Beckenham would remove proposed new section 75C, and thus the provision for a review of a local authority officer’s decision on a planning application by a local member review body. Amendment No. 423 would remove proposed new section 193C of clause 151, and thus provision for review of an officer’s decision on an application for a certificate of lawful use of development by a local member review body. Either way we look at it, the amendment would, in effect, wreck what we are trying to do. We believe that the intention behind the amendments is to retain the right of appeal to the Secretary of State for such planning decisions. However, to make them fully effective, further consequential amendments would be required to clauses 150 and 151.
We regard the establishment of local member review bodies to review decisions on minor applications taken in the first instance by officers of the authority as a real merit, as does Sir Simon Milton of the Local Government Association, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned. The measure will determine local matters at the most local level. It is probably the same in Newbury as it is in Gloucester as it is in London; we all know many councillors who lobby us and say, “We could be doing more at a local level.” I think that this is an area where they could be doing more.
Robert Neill: I hope the Minister gathered that we are not wedded to any particular form of wording; these are probing amendments. I take his point regarding the support of the LGA.
During discussions on the matters the Minister has been referring to, have his advisers in either the Department or the LGA been able to give an idea of the quantity of applications that might be dealt with? Sir Simon Milton was mentioned; he is the leader of a London borough. It would be interesting to know if there is any idea of how many such applications a London borough or a district council might reasonably expect to deal with, to establish the scale, as a number of Members are concerned about that.
Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman has taken the words out of my mouth. I was just coming to that point.
As I said, the measure is about determining local issues at a local level, in line with the Government’s commitment to devolving responsibility wherever we can. At present, minor planning appeals are dealt with by the Planning Inspectorate on behalf of the Secretary of State. The existing appeal system is not equipped to handle the increasing volume of appeals—currently 22,000 per year, of which about 8,000 are minor appeals. We are talking about 22 cases a year in each locality, although that is obviously an approximation. If those cases could be dealt with by local member review bodies, users would benefit from a much quicker and simpler process, and local authority planning committees and the inspectorate would have more time to focus on the major cases, as we heard from the inspectorate when its representatives gave evidence to us in Committee what seems like many weeks ago.
Concerns have been expressed that it would not be possible to ensure an independent review process if the same authority was responsible for decision and for review; but it is not unprecedented for a local council to review its own decisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich and others have said. Examples include the review of decisions on applications in respect of homelessness and school exclusions. Officers involved in making the original decision would not be involved in the review process.
Any member of a review body with a personal interest in a case, would be required to declare their interest and, if necessary, to withdraw from the decision process, as we would expect. That is not dissimilar to the existing planning process. Local review bodies formed through partnership with other authorities would also help to ensure impartiality, as a proportion of board members would have no local interest—something Sir Simon Milton told us in the evidence session a few weeks ago. The LGA is very attracted to that idea.
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In addition, in clause 152, we have provided for appeal to the courts for anyone aggrieved by the decision of a local member review body. We are working with local government and planning professionals to develop the details of the scheme which will be subject to consultation. We still have all of that ahead of us, assuming that the clauses are successful and make it into the Bill. We have accepted advice from local government that local member review bodies are likely to work best when set up jointly by local authorities, acting in partnership. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will be familiar with that from his days on the London Assembly. Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972 already provides for that, too.
Turning to amendment No. 407, proposed new section 75C enables the Secretary of State to make provision by way of regulations for reviews of planning decisions carried out by local member review bodies. Proposed new section 75C(4) sets out some specific matters for which the regulations may include provision. Amendment No. 407 would enable the regulations on reviews carried out by local member review bodies, which the Secretary of State can make under proposed new section 75C, to include provision for the fee payable to a local planning authority for a review of an officer’s decision by the local member review body.
The Committee may be aware that clause 162 provides a power to enable a fee to be introduced for appeals. We will come to that in the fullness of time. That fee will be payable by the applicant to the Planning Inspectorate. We therefore propose that a local member review body would be able to charge a fee for reviews as well to be consistent. However, section 303 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 already provides the necessary power for that, so the amendment is not necessary.
Robert Neill: Will the Minister help me with an issue that has been raised by people in local government? Will there be a tariff for the fees or will the local authority have discretion as to what fees it sets within Wednesbury reasonableness principles? Will local authorities be able to recoup the whole cost of their appeals process or just a portion?
Mr. Dhanda: That is still a matter for regulation and discussion. It is something on which we need to consult. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a definitive answer, I am afraid.
Amendment No. 428 would enable reviews of planning decisions carried out under proposed new section 75C by a local member review body to be conducted by a panel of elected members drawn from other planning authorities, wider than just the local area. Local authorities already have the power under the Local Government Act 1972 to set up committees for the discharge of their functions, including joint authority committees. We have signalled that we would be happy for local authorities to establish those bodies on a joint basis should they wish to do so. The amendment is not, although I accept that it was tabled as a probing amendment. In conclusion, we are working with local government and planning professionals to develop the details of the local member review body scheme, which will be the subject of consultation and in which we see great merit. I therefore hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments further.
Robert Neill: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. It has been a worthwhile discussion on what is seen as an innovation. I note what he says and I am not at all unsympathetic, as I understand where he is coming from. However, if ever there was a classic case of the devil being in the detail, this is probably it, so it is important that we get as much indication of the Government’s thinking and as much clarity as possible. I appreciate that much of the detail will appear in regulations, but I hope that the Minister can update us on progress on some of those issues on Report. On that basis, I will not press the amendment.
Dan Rogerson: I realise that amendment No. 407 is not to be discussed formally now, because it is not the lead amendment, but I shall respond to what the Minister said with regard to fees, because he said that the matter was up for discussion. I hope that he will take this as a contribution to that discussion and an acceptance of the principle that the local authority is already seeking to provide all sorts of good, efficient front-line services that have a big effect on the local community. When someone triggers an appeal, the principle that they should make a significant contribution, if not cover the cost, ought to be taken on board. I hope that we will come up with a solution as those discussions continue that allows the process to contribute to local democracy and democratic accountability without imposing an extra financial burden on the local authority.
Robert Neill: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 454, in clause 150, page 74, leave out from ‘particular’ in line 44 to end of line 46 and insert—
‘(a) disapply or modify any provision of, or made under, this Part in relation to such an application;
(b) impose requirements on the local planning authority determining such an application.’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
Mr. Dhanda: I beg to move amendment No. 455, in clause 150, page 75, line 12, leave out from ‘if’ to end of line 16 and insert ‘—
(a) the local planning authority—
(i) have been required under section 75C to review the case, and
(ii) have failed to complete their review by the end of the period prescribed by regulations made by virtue of section 75C(4)(f), or
(b) the local planning authority have been required under section 75D to determine the application.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 456, 466 and 476.
Mr. Dhanda: As currently drafted, section 78ZA does not allow an appeal to the Secretary of State where the local authority or local member review body has determined a planning application following non-determination by an officer. There would be no form of appeal: the matter would be dealt with in the first instance by the local member review body and that would be it, so that needs to be amended. We believe that when a local member review body has taken the first decision on an application, rather than reviewing an officer’s decision, the right of appeal to the Secretary of State should be retained because there will no alternative opportunity for scrutiny of the original decision.
An example of such a circumstance is the local member review body stepping in and making the decision because officers were late in determining it. The purpose of Government amendment No. 455 is therefore to enable an applicant to appeal to the Secretary of State when a local member review body has taken the first decision on a planning application. Government amendment No. 456 is consequential to amendment No. 455. Government amendment No. 466 has the same purpose as Government amendment No. 455 in relation to lawful developments and appeals, as does Government amendment No. 476 in relation to listed building application appeals.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 456, in clause 150, page 75, line 18, leave out ‘such an appeal’ and insert
‘an appeal under section 78(1) brought by virtue of subsection (2)(a)’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
Clause 150, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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