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1 Jun 2009 : Column 78

Colleagues may not know—I did not until comparatively recently—that it is legally possible for one council to try to meet its housing targets by seeking planning permission to build in another local authority area. They may think that, even if it is legally possible, it does not happen in practice.

Kelvin Hopkins rose—

Mr. Lilley: I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman because his council is one of the guilty parties.

Kelvin Hopkins: I understand precisely what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about in our locality. However, would it not be sensible when, for example, a large town needed to expand to accommodate its population, for the land to become part of the expanding authority—for a transfer of territory to take place from one authority to another? That seems the most sensible way forward.

Mr. Lilley: That would mean even more ambitious plans to invade and take over local authorities.

Mr. Garnier: I sympathise with my right hon. Friend’s point, even more so now that I have heard what the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) has just said. My constituency goes up to the city boundary of Leicester, but Leicester city council would like to expand its authority into the suburban area of my largely rural constituency, in a borough called Oadby and Wigston. The city council does not want the area to build houses in, but it would like to get hold of its council tax base.

Mr. Lilley: That would probably add to the incentive. I have enormous admiration for the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), but we need to think hard about the consequences of what he has suggested. If an authority was told by the Government, rightly or wrongly, through their regional planning policy, that it needed to build a certain number of houses in its area and if the neighbouring authority needed to build another number of houses in its area, it would be wrong for the first authority to be able to say, “Well, we’ll build that number of houses, but not in our area. We’ll build them in someone else’s.” Wherever the borders ought to lie, such matters should be decided quite separately.

As will become obvious to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a recent example of the problem is that the local authorities in Luton and South Bedfordshire decided to try to meet their housing targets by making an area in the neighbouring district of North Hertfordshire one of their preferred locations for house building. The area that Luton and South Bedfordshire have chosen was not included in the original Milton Keynes and south midlands spatial strategy, so no one in North Herts was consulted while the strategy was going through. The area in question was not even one of Luton and South Bedfordshire’s preferred options when they were considering how to meet that broad strategy, once it had been decided. It was only when it suddenly dawned on local councillors in Luton and South Bedfordshire that there would be some opposition—there is always some opposition—to building where they had originally thought it would be sensible and right to build, and that they could avoid that opposition, in electoral terms, by transferring their ambitions to a neighbouring area, that they went ahead with the proposal.

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Luton and South Bedfordshire have selected the area of Lilley Bottom, as it is known, near the eponymous village of Lilley in my constituency. Not many hon. Members have villages in their constituencies that are named after them, still less parts of their anatomies— or after which they are named—but there we are. The area is a particularly beautiful part of my constituency and probably one of the most attractive valleys in the constituency, which makes it even more abhorrent to those who live there that it has been seized upon in this way. The area provides a vital resource to the inhabitants of Luton, South, who have a beautiful area of countryside on their boundaries, which they greatly want and, by and large, want to keep. Should the plan go ahead, there would be a double loss, for the inhabitants of both North Herts and Luton.

It is not only that area that is affected, however. There is another area where a neighbouring local authority is planning to build, in St. Albans, in the southern part of my constituency, although that plan has recently been stopped. My point is that although the problem may not be common throughout the country, if we do not stop it, we will open the floodgates. There will not be a council in the country with housing pressures in its area that will not think, “How much more preferable to seek planning permission in another area.” I do not know whether there is even any limit on councils choosing areas in entirely different parts of the country. Could the inhabitants of Kent seek to meet their housing targets by building in Northumbria? As the law is currently phrased, I think they could. That is an absurdity. We should take the opportunity provided by this Bill to close that loophole and ensure that local authorities try to meet their targets in their areas and for their constituents, to whom they are responsible.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. The problem arises where there is no possibility of accommodating those who need housing within the boundaries of the authority in question, which is certainly the situation in Luton. Perhaps 1,000 more houses might be built in in-fill, but we need much more than that, with 8,500 people on the housing transfer and waiting list. The problem is uncomfortable, but it has arisen from necessity, not perversity.

Mr. Lilley: I hate to tell the hon. Gentleman about his own constituency, but his constituents—his councillors—first identified sites in various parts of Luton and neighbouring areas that were sufficient for housing targets. In my view those areas are quite sensible places to build, but it is up to those councillors. It was only when there was a degree of opposition from some locals in those areas that the councillors thought, “Let’s put the houses in someone else’s area where it doesn’t matter if there’s opposition, because they can’t vote against us as they’re not in our constituency.” There are plenty of areas in the Milton Keynes-to-Luton region, which is what the target covers, where building could be undertaken, without going into another county.

There has recently been a welcome High Court decision that, at first sight, has a bearing on the issue. Hertfordshire county council and St. Albans district council took the eastern area regional plan to the High Court and won,
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which is the first time that a regional housing plan has, to a degree, been overturned by the High Court. The decision affected both the proposal for Dacorum to spread beyond its boundaries into land owned by St. Albans—the land is the other side of the motorway, so most people do not realise that it is owned by St. Albans—and building work in Welwyn and Hatfield. Knowing that I was going to raise the issue today, my local newspaper, the Herts Advertiser, made the helpful suggestion that we could rely on the court case to achieve what I want to achieve through parliamentary measures. Unfortunately, my understanding is that we cannot do so, although I look forward to a response from the Minister if I am wrong and if the case has indeed solved the problem.

My understanding is that the court said that the east of England plan was wrong because of a failure to carry out a proper strategic environmental assessment of urbanising the belt between Dacorum, St. Albans and Welwyn and Hatfield, and the fact that they would begin to merge into each other if building took place. The decision was not based on a rejection of the right of one council to build outside its own area. I therefore hope that, in summing up, the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. Indeed, I would be delighted if I were wrong and if the case means that the threat from Luton and South Bedfordshire in North Hertfordshire has disappeared.

I hope that the Bill will be amended to close that loophole; otherwise, the Bill’s very objectives will be threatened. I am concerned that it has emerged that the Committee stage of the Bill will be so brief as to inhibit the time to amend it appropriately and close that loophole. I know that the Minister cannot give me a commitment today to table specific amendments, but I would ask him to give a commitment in summing up at least to give serious consideration to introducing an appropriate amendment in Committee. Unless he does so speedily, the opportunity for the House to do its job and amend the Bill to improve it will be lost. I hope very much to hear from the Minister at the end of this debate that he will do that.

I shall briefly make some broader points. The Bill purports to promote local democracy. How does it do that? It does so by telling local authorities what they must do and how they must do it, and then monitoring them and sanctioning them if they do not do it. What is the cost? What are the resources? What is the time frame? How many extra officials will need to be employed to ensure that authorities are meeting the 3,000 words of obligations imposed on them? What resources will be made available from central Government to enable those officials to do those things? If they are already doing them, no extra resources will be required, but then no extra legislation will be needed. The presumption must be that many officials are not doing those things and that extra resources will therefore be required.

At a time of economic crisis, the one thing we ought not to be doing is adding to the enormous deficit that this country faces, which exceeds the entire budget of the Department, as well as the budgets of the defence system and the education system. I cannot believe that we are going to add to it, albeit in small ways, by imposing extra obligations, which will require extra resources, on local authorities. This is a sign that the Government have no idea of the scale of the crisis that
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we face, not just this year but for years to come. If we are to bring total public expenditure back into line with the taxable resources of this country, why are they seeking to place on local government additional costly obligations that no one in the Chamber has so far suggested are necessary? Nor have I heard any call from outside the Chamber for these duties to promote this, that and the other.

The second thing that the Bill does is to promote local government by transferring power away from elected and partly elected bodies. It moves power from regional bodies—which are pretty bad, but at least they contain some indirectly elected members—to leaders’ boards. We are not told what the composition of the leaders’ boards will be. The presumption is that they will consist of the leaders of the local authorities, although that is not spelled out in the Bill. They could consist of the chief executives of the local authorities—or their wives and girlfriends, or husbands and boyfriends. The composition is not spelled out; we are simply told that a board will be established and that it will be called a leaders’ board. One thing that we know is that people will not be directly elected to the leaders’ boards. The boards will have a constitution and duties imposed on them by the Government. In practice, they will be supervised and monitored by the Government, and they will be dissolved if the Government do not like them. This seems to be going in exactly the wrong direction.

I would like a Bill that genuinely lived up to its title, and that promoted local democracy, economic development and the construction of houses in the right places, but I fear this Bill will not do that. Unless it is modified, it will be undermined by the growing exploitation of a loophole that threatens all its key objectives. It promotes additional burdens on local authorities—and, ultimately, on the local taxpayer—for which there is no demand and no need, and it removes power from the people to central Government and to unelected bodies in a wholly undesirable way, for which the House has so far shown no support.

7.13 pm

Keith Hill (Streatham) (Lab): The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) ended his speech with a number of wide-ranging considerations that were in line with the thoughtful, even philosophical, tone of many of the contributions that we have heard this evening. He began, however, by expressing a number of highly specific and—as he said himself—narrow concerns. In so doing, he has paved the way for the contribution that I wish to make to the debate. I wish to raise a narrow but important issue about part 5 of the Bill, which deals with the duties and powers of county councils in relation to the economic and spatial planning role of the so-called responsible regional authorities—that is to say, the regional development agency and the leaders’ boards drawn from local authorities in the region.

Let me remind the House that under the current legislation—the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004—there is a duty on the responsible planning body when drawing up the regional strategy to seek the advice of county councils in two-tier areas, and elsewhere of unitary authorities, national park authorities or the Broads authority. There is a reciprocal duty on those
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authorities to give advice. Further provisions relate to the key role of upper-tier authorities in drawing up sub-regional plans. Those reciprocal roles and duties will be removed by the Bill, and I think that that is wrong. I wish to argue for the inclusion of those roles and duties in the Bill.

I ought perhaps to explain my interest in the matter. It so happens that, five years ago, almost to the day, as the nation’s then Planning Minister, I had the doubtful pleasure of piloting through this House the final stages of the aforementioned Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act. I call it a doubtful pleasure because certain clauses concerning the role of county and unitary councils—the so-called section 4(4) authorities—were the subject of a somewhat acrimonious dispute between this House and the other place. That dispute led to my—I confess it—highly reluctant, even churlish, acceptance of amendments to strengthen the role and duties of the upper-tier authorities. Those amendments went further than I thought strictly necessary at the time, but they were needed to secure closure on the legislation for the benefit of all concerned in the planning system.

I said at that time that I looked to local government, and to the county councils network in particular, to ensure that the arrangements worked and to engage constructively in the regional planning process. Indeed, I put it on record that if the arrangements that we were agreeing to through those amendments proved unworkable because of a lack of good will from the parties concerned, we would come back and amend the law.

I raise this point about the debates on the 2004 Act because I now want to put it on record that, despite my earlier scepticism, I believe that the section 4(4) authorities on the whole have made their best efforts to ensure that the current arrangements for regional and sub-regional planning succeed. My scepticism about the intentions of those authorities was misplaced. In other words, I was wrong. It is not often that one hears a politician say that, at least about a policy decision. I am therefore very surprised that the Bill, if enacted in its present form, would remove from primary legislation the regional and sub-regional planning roles of those section 4(4) authorities.

Mr. Garnier: The right hon. Gentleman might think that this is a rather impertinent intervention. He has said that, as a Minister, he at least thought about the legislation that was being enacted. One problem that concerns me about this Bill and so many others is that Ministers bring them to the House apparently without having thought about their contents or their implications. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on thinking about the Bill with which he was concerned. He might well have changed his mind since; that does not matter—at least he applied his mind to it.

Keith Hill: I hear the hon. and learned Gentleman, but I would not for a moment accuse my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench of presenting this Bill without having given it the most serious thought and consideration. I am sure that that applies to all the Ministers we have seen here today, including the Secretary of State, and not least to the Minister for Local Government, who will respond to the debate and to whom I am determined to offer the greatest possible blandishments in the course of my remarks.

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Kelvin Hopkins: I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could explain further his conversion. The earlier legislation placed a restriction on shire counties, perhaps to prevent urban unitaries from expanding, and he now seems to think that that legislation was right, even though he did not do so at the time. This matter is obviously of concern to me, as I represent an urban unitary authority that wants to expand into a shire county.

Keith Hill: I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I have misled him. It was certainly not the purpose of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, so well remembered by the House, to exercise any discrimination or to make a judgment about the relative merits of county councils or unitary authorities. As I shall explain, the changes to the present Bill that I am now proposing are designed to benefit county councils and unitary authorities equally.

This is an important issue for local government, and I know that the County Councils Network has spelled out its concerns to the Government on more than one occasion. As the House will be aware, the County Councils Network is a cross-party body and its concerns are shared by its membership across all three major parties, so I hope that the Government will give far more weight to its views than they have been prepared to do so far.

The truth is that the present statutory arrangements have worked pretty well up to now and it makes eminent sense to retain a statutory role for county councils in the two-tier areas. They provide much of the infrastructure needed to implement spatial plans—for example, schools and local transport—and they also have a key role in ensuring coherence with other public sector agencies such as policing and health that are organised on a sub-regional basis.

Let us be clear that this is not only about appropriate roles, as it is also about resources. In two-tier areas, much of the technical support to regional assemblies on regional planning is provided by county councils, which also have a key responsibility for sub-regional planning. This resource is vital to ensuring sub-regional differentiation within the regional strategy. I put it on the record for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who protested about such phraseology, that what that means is different provision in different parts of the region. These councils also have a vital role in supporting the development of the regional strategy itself. Let us be clear once again that regional teams are not resourced to undertake this work and they would lack the detailed sub-regional and local knowledge to make such planning effective.

The section 4(4) role is essential in order to retain capacity and expertise in strategic planning, including the research and intelligence functions, which provide a key evidence base for the regional and sub-regional planning process. I put it to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government that we are in the paradoxical position whereby the upper-tier authorities want to ensure a continuing and strong statutory foundation for them to undertake work in support of the regional development agencies, while the Government are putting at risk the provision of that resource by removing the existing statutory duties through the Bill. It is a risk. Who can be at all confident that in the absence of a
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duty written directly into the Bill, these functions will be preserved by local authorities under pressure to cut costs?

I think I understand what my Front-Bench colleagues will say in defence of the Government’s position. I have, of course, read the remarks of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary—both in Committee and on Third Reading in the other place—and I have read the letter sent by the Minister for Local Government to the county councils network management committee on 21 May. In general terms, Ministers have offered the assurance that these roles and duties will be set out in guidance and regulation. Indeed, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary—an excellent Minister, by the way—went so far as to say that the counties will have a number of “clear statutory roles”. Those roles are arguably—one would have to see the detail—close to the status quo. If that is the case, let me say to my right hon. Friends: why go through the time-consuming trouble of laying separate regulations before the House? Why not restore directly in the Bill the roles and duties set out in the 2004 Act, which I do not believe would be a contentious proposal?

It may be that the reluctance to include these detailed provisions on the face of the Bill is defended in the name of local democracy. In other words, it may be argued that the regional leaders’ boards should be allowed to draw up their own schemes, but what if such a scheme omitted a proper role for the upper-tier authorities? That would not be very democratic, would it? Indeed, would it not be likely to attract the centralising intervention of the Secretary of State in order to ensure appropriate roles and duties for these authorities? If such roles and duties are to be anticipated—or, indeed, in the words of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, to enjoy statutory status—why not save a lot of trouble, why not spare the county councils the uncertainty and why not restore these roles and duties directly in the Bill? The relegation of the county and unitary councils’ role to as yet unspecified regulations and advice notes seems to me to be both pointless and harmful.

Now the Minister for Local Government knows that my position is not a veiled attack on the need for regional planning of the economy, housing, transport and the environment—I leave that to the Conservative Opposition, whose policies are in my view a prescription for nimbyism, and I believe that there would be only a minimal level of house building under a Conservative Administration. On the contrary, I want to see strong regional and sub-regional planning, owned by as many as possible of the key players. I thus conclude by asking my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government to consider having further discussions with the County Councils Network with a view to rethinking this part of the Bill.

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