|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
If I may say so, the hon. Lady characterised the planning system in quite an ill-informed and illegitimate way. The fact is that a large majority of planning decisions are taken by the local planning authority and are not challenged or taken to appeal, and do not lead to a Planning Inspectorate inquiry. The majority of cases that reach the Planning Inspectorate, where a judgment is made, are found in favour of the local authority, or are simply dismissed. In other words, the local authority makes a majority of decisions that hold, and wins the majority of cases that go to the Planning Inspectorate. It is much better placed to do so if it has
done the job of putting a clear plan, and a clear set of local policies, in place, as a reference point for itself and as an important reference point for the inspectorate.
The hon. Lady describes what is happening in her area as half-hearted consultation, and mentions outcomes that are uncertain. She should look hard at her local authorities and at whether they have done the job of making sure that local people are properly informed and know what is going on, and have done the job of putting together proper policies and plans so that applications can be considered properly. Applications have to be considered. They may not be popular, but decisions need to be taken; that is part of the responsibility of any elected council. The hon. Lady rightly described that as being at the centre of the planning system and planning responsibility. As she said, it is about balancing environmental, economic and social considerations.
Before I finish on the hon. Lady's major concern about the role of local councillors and MPs, let me touch on four or five areas where we have taken steps, particularly over the past couple of years, to do exactly what she has been urging, essentially reinforcing the accountability and openness of the system and ensuring the involvement of local people.
Each local authority, as part of their preparation of the local plan, has to prepare a statement of community involvement at the outset, so that the council can set out clearly the approach that it will take to involving and informing local communities from the outset. The statement covers the whole plan-making process, from early scoping and the options right up to the point at which any plans are submitted to the Secretary of State for independent examination in public.
I am happy to accept that, in the view of planners, there are still weaknesses in what the hon. Lady describes as Labour's planning regime, but I have to say that there are fundamental flaws in the Conservatives' proposed planning regime, and not just in the eyes of planners, but in the eyes of businesses, investors and house builders-and in the eyes of local authorities that understand that their proper role is not simply to say no to anything that comes on to their desk. It is no surprise that a major national construction company described the plans as "scary as hell"; it is no surprise that the British Property Federation describes some of the measures in her proposed regime as "a recipe for chaos"; and it is no surprise that the British Chambers of Commerce says:
"On balance, we question whether the Conservative proposals do enough to deliver a planning system that underpins short-term recovery and long-term economic development."
The hon. Lady does not speak for her party on those issues, but she is well informed and an expert on them, so I suggest that she takes a long, hard look at those proposals, because quite honestly they risk bringing down the shutters on the development and long-term prosperity that many areas, including hers in North Yorkshire, need to look forward to.
I shall move on to improvements, which the hon. Lady may be interested to note. First, on the role of statutory consultees, we have set out and, following a consultation, now produced an updated and strengthened policy statement, so that we improve the arrangements regarding when and over what those organisations that either need to be consulted, or it is desirable to consult, should have influence. She will know about that issue in relation to the role of the Environment Agency, flooding
risk and the important expert assessment that it can bring to any potential planning application. She will know also the role that it now plays in the overhauled system of decisions on developments that might be proposed in potential flood-risk areas.
Miss McIntosh: On that point, I am delighted that, after kicking and screaming, the Government have allowed the Environment Agency to become a statutory consultee. Will they similarly allow water companies to be acknowledged as statutory consultees in developments that impact on SUDS-urban drainage systems-and flood plains?
So, there is the process of improving the influence that statutory consultees and organisations with expertise can bring to bear. Secondly, there is the process of improving planning application publicity for local people. Having consulted on that last summer, I decided to maintain the requirement that local authorities publicise certain planning applications in local newspapers. I stand by that, but I have also introduced a new requirement whereby, from 1 October, local authorities must publish on their websites specified information on all planning applications. That is one way in which we can ensure that more people are better informed about proposed planning applications in their area.
Thirdly, we have to beef up involvement at the stage before an application is lodged with a local authority. The hon. Lady will be aware of the provisions that I put in place for that pre-application stage-for nationally significant investment projects-when I led through the House what became the Planning Act 2008. We are looking to follow through that principle locally, because when developers and local authorities seek views, open up discussions and are ready to be informed and influenced by local views at an early stage, applications are likely to be better crafted and potentially more acceptable, if not universally popular.
Fourthly, there is the role of elected councillors, and I know, as the hon. Lady said, that many local councillors feel hesitant about becoming too involved in planning applications. They fear the bounds of propriety, but we need to strengthen the support, advice and guidance to councillors on that issue, and that is why a recent Government-endorsed plain guide to the role of councillors was produced. I was not responsible for the title, because it is called "Positive Engagement"-two words that I tend to avoid. Nevertheless, the sentiment behind it is clear, and the Local Government Association also recently updated its guidance on probity, planning and the role of local councillors.
If the hon. Lady has specific criticisms or suggestions for improvements instead of the rather sweeping generalisations that she gave, I encourage her to write to me with them, because I do see an ability for local councillors to let their local residents, whom they are elected to serve, know about potential planning applications. I see as two sides of a very important coin their role in being able to represent the concerns of their electors and to serve their purpose and their proper role as decision takers as part of the local planning authority.
As for MPs, I am reluctant to follow the logic of the hon. Lady's argument in suggesting that we should somehow specify, at a national level, the precise role that MPs should play in planning applications. That has to be a judgment for the locally elected Member. All of us, as Members of this House, can play a part in and have an influence over these matters, but clearly, as constituency representatives, we are not the decision takers. None of this will work well in future unless local authorities, councillors and officers-not just officers in the planning department-better understand the nature of the planning process and the nature of their responsibilities and act better to deal with the concerns of local people in consultation and information exercises.
That is why when I published the new policy planning statement on climate change and renewable energy a couple of weeks ago, I also made available nearly £10 million in order that councils can step up and improve their ability to understand the responsibilities involved and conduct those responsibilities rather more effectively locally than we may have seen in the past. It is also because of this desire to reinforce the ability of the public to be well informed, to have an influence and to make their views count in the planning process that I have increased the funding available for planning aid. That is designed to support local community groups and residents' groups who want to understand the
planning system better and want to use their position, and the planning system so that their views count.
In the end-perhaps the hon. Lady will pass this on to her Front-Bench colleagues who have prepared her party's policy proposals-it is simply not good enough to think that giving a green light to those who largely want to oppose any development in their area is the proper discharge of elected office or responsibility in the planning system. To design a planning system based on that type of reform would lead to the chaos that some of the concerned organisations talk of, but also to letting down the very people who need decisions to be taken about long-term development so that they can have the homes that their children or elderly parents need, so that businesses can bring them jobs and so that they can have leisure facilities that may improve their area and their life for the future.
There are tough decisions to be taken, and as the hon. Lady said, the planning system has to be about decisions that balance often competing and conflicting interests, whether they are environmental, social or economic. In the end somebody has to take those decisions, and the principal people taking them should be the elected councillors on the local planning authority.