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7 Apr 2010 : Column 321WH—continued

That would be a small but useful change. It would put the onus on the person making the application to go the extra mile to ensure that their accompanying drawings
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and other information adequately illustrated what the thing would look like in relation to things around it. The applicant would be worried that it might otherwise be alleged that their application had been in some way misleading. If they knew that the application would not be valid if it were judged that the information accompanying it had been misleading, they would want to go that extra mile to ensure that it was not misleading. Surely it would be better to build that incentive into the system.

I believe that there is a general principle in our law, constitution and political practices that if something has gone wrong, there should be a remedy. Many of my constituents in West Bexington, as well as objecting to what happened and to the state of the law, object on the grounds of unfairness because they feel that there is no remedy. I hope that the Minister is willing to acknowledge that there is a need to ensure that there is a remedy in such circumstances, that at present a remedy is not available, and that that is bound to generate a sense of unfairness of the kind that my constituents, many of whom live in West Bexington, feel.

Christopher Fraser (in the Chair): Mr. Bill Cash would like to make a contribution. I have cleared it with the Minister, if you are happy, Mr. Letwin.

Mr. Letwin: Of course.

11.11 am

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am most grateful, Mr. Fraser. I had not intended to speak in this debate, but the subject matter is of enormous interest to many people throughout the country and, indeed, in my constituency. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for securing this debate, and I look forward with interest to what the Minister has to say.

My right hon. Friend ended his remarks by saying that this House and Parliament are here for the purposes of remedy and clarification. I asked him in an intervention whether anyone had raised the issue of judicial review, and they clearly have. I am still somewhat fascinated-I await the Minister's reply-by why, in this case, if indeed the application and the information that had been provided to the planning officers and the council were misleading, and leaving aside the question of costs, to which I shall refer later, it was deemed that an application for a judicial review somehow would not have succeeded.

I would have thought that there were ample grounds for quashing an application on judicial review, and that, by definition and as a result of that, the original planning permission would be deemed invalid. There are great experts on all this, and my right hon. Friend may well have taken the most expert advice from people who would disagree with me. I have some difficulty in understanding the matter, but we shall see-perhaps the Minister can explain it.

However, I want to deal with a broader political question that arises in the context of planning applications. Having practised in this field-on a far more reduced basis in the past 26 years, for obvious reasons-I have in the past raised the issue of costs. My right hon. Friend was right in suggesting that, in matters of this kind, a small amenity group or people who are trying to protect themselves from some utterly horrific monstrosity that
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is about to be deposited on their doorstep should have the right to go through appropriate legal procedures; otherwise, the law is an ass or, at any rate, an extremely ineffective donkey.

I therefore proposed way back in the days of-dare I say it?-Margaret Thatcher that there ought to be an arrangement, if there are sufficient grounds in the public interest, for persons to oppose the almighty coffers of a massive company, a public authority or whatever. On a certificate of public interest-an application to a judge that there is sufficient national/public interest-a proper analysis could be made which could come only from the kind of judicial expertise in chambers such as Harcourt and Landmark. There are distinguished chambers that deal in such matters, and their people tend to be the ones who end up in the House of Lords.

Where there is a matter of principle and a degree of unfairness on the scale that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has described, a certificate of public interest warranting the use of legal aid for the amenity group would seem to be a solution of a kind. It does not deal entirely with whether the law should be clarified, which would be the best way of tackling the matter, but it would deal with circumstances in which it was impossible, simply by producing another line of legislation, to alter the fact that there is an issue of public interest about whether something was misleading in a matter of law. A certificate of public interest would be one way of dealing with the matter because, ultimately, everyone would be affected by the outcome.

I merely offer that suggestion, and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed her mind to it as well. I am not in favour of massive amounts of unnecessary legal aid. However, if there is a massive amount of financial artillery on the side of the public authority, which, after all, is paid for by the taxpayer, or on the side of some monumental company that can bulldoze its way through, the people who have a right, in the national interest, to raise a serious question of law and of fact should have the right to apply for some assistance with funds because it would be in the public interest for them to do so.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser, for the first time and, I fear, possibly the last time, as you and I will both be leaving the House in a few days' time.

I thank and congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing this debate on a matter that is of such importance to his constituents and to my Department. I shall attempt to address the questions that he and the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) have asked, but, as this is not my area of expertise, I may at some stage have to get the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), to fill in the gaps that are left by my answer.

As the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman know, the Government have been working for some time to facilitate and encourage an effective and efficient planning application process. I am sorry to hear that in West Dorset it appears not to have worked in the way that we would have liked. The problem is that the devil
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is in the detail, as the constituents of the right hon. Member for West Dorset have discovered, and individual actions on the part of the applicant and the people who receive the application are crucial. In other words, they can make the difference between extending a chalet in a reasonable fashion or building a replica of the Empire State building on a beach in an obviously inappropriate fashion.

The Government set the framework and make clear their expectations, but, in the end, it is the behaviour of those who engage in the process that determines whether the system will work well. When the system does not work, there are various kinds of redress, but let me look quickly at the information that is required.

We have tried to be clear about the information that is required to minimise unnecessary information and give local authorities the flexibility to set their own information requirements because, obviously, each area has different requirements. Our aim is that all users of the system find it straightforward, and feel that they have been treated fairly, whatever the outcome. With the chalet extension, there appears to have been multiple layers of problems. Because of the quasi-judicial nature of the planning process, I will not comment on the individual case, but in all cases we would like people to feel that they had got what they wanted, in general, and that they had the right of redress.

A valid application is one that meets the statutory requirements, and it is in the applicant's interest to provide both sufficient detail for the scheme to be fully understood by the planning officer, and sufficiently high-quality information for the officer to be assured of the type and quality of the proposed development. Applicants are expected to act honestly. If a factual error is found in any of the submitted documents, it is up to the local planning authority to decide whether that materially affects the proposed scheme or its anticipated impacts. If the authority considers that it does, it is within its rights to refuse the application or to ask the applicant to provide supplementary information. If the local planning authority identifies the error before the application has been validated or determined, it can refuse to validate or determine it until the correct information has been supplied.

If, however, the error is undetected and the planning application is subsequently approved, the planning permission will, as the hon. Member for Stone said, be at risk of a challenge by way of judicial review from anyone with sufficient interest in the decision. The right hon. Member for West Dorset pointed out that that sufficient interest has both resource and time costs, and he suggested a way forward that might solve the problem. All of us in this House are well aware of the cliff facing us. Once we come through the other side of that cliff, it will be up to the party in power-the Government of the time-to consider that suggestion. If the right hon. Gentleman's party is in power, the suggestion will obviously be considered. We also will look at it, in the spirit of trying to ensure that people get what they want out of the system. As the hon. Member for Stone said, the people pay for it, after all, and it should therefore not be something that is set up against them, but that works with them.

Mr. Cash: The Minister suggests that in the public interest she will seriously consider my point, to ensure a degree of equality and responsibility in the system-the
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Equality Bill has just gone through Parliament. People affected, such as the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and others in the country, would at least then know that they were not just abandoned to the monopolistic money that is available to the great engines of enterprise and to public authorities.

Barbara Follett: It is important that the Government are seen to act on behalf of the people that we all represent, but I cannot commit a future Government of any kind to considering the matter. I do, however, understand the hon. Gentleman's point.

If, once planning permission has been granted, the subsequent development is not in accordance with the application and the permission, the local planning authority can use the available discretionary enforcement powers to rectify the situation. I do not know if that has happened in this case, and I do not wish to get too far into the details, but if the right hon. Gentleman wishes, he may intervene.

Mr. Letwin: I can understand why the Minister does not want to dwell on this particular case, but the issue that it raises is that the building, at least in the referred respect, conformed to the permission; the problem lies in the basis upon which that permission was given.

Barbara Follett: This is a very difficult situation, and once again I am going to move away from the particular and go to the general, not to evade the issue but simply because of the need for Chinese walls. A local planning authority cannot unilaterally withdraw a permission that has been granted. It does, however, have the power to revoke or modify a permission, if that is considered expedient. That action is subject to certain limitations, and requires the authority to pay compensation, which could in this, and in any other case, cause it problems.

If a third party feels that it has cause for complaint about how a local planning authority has handled an
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application, a concern in relation to the conduct of members of the local authority can be directed-as I am sure both Members know-to the Standards Board for England, the district auditor or the local government ombudsman.

Mr. Letwin: Again, I know that the Minister does not want to dwell on this particular case but, to illustrate the general point, I point out that there has indeed been an application to the local government ombudsman. The general problem lies in the fact that it is not at all clear whether whatever ruling the local government ombudsman might eventually give, in any case, would have any effect on the validity of the planning permission. We are, therefore, back to another process that does not seem to solve the problem.

Barbara Follett: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is now even more difficult for me to comment on the case because it is going through the complaints procedure, the outcome of which we will have to await. I know that if the right hon. Gentleman is returned to this House, he will continue to pursue the matter.

It is vital that applications for planning permission are accompanied by sufficient information for the local planning authority, third parties and all others to be clear about what is proposed, and the likely impacts. To ensure that that happens, local authorities provide lists of local information requirements for planning applications, which are intended to provide certainty about the type of information required, and to ensure that that requirement is proportionate to the type and scale of the application. I realise that in this case something has gone wrong in the process. The case is, however, going through the complaints procedure, and I regret that I cannot comment any further on the matter that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to this House on behalf of his constituents.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Transport (North West)

[Mr. George Howarth in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr. George Howarth (in the Chair): According to the timetable motion, there could be Divisions on an hourly basis. Each of the three debates this afternoon will be given its full allotted time, regardless of any Divisions.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr. Howarth. You have a justified interest in this debate as a north-west Member. It is always good to have the opportunity to discuss our great region, especially its transport links. This debate will be a journey round the north-west and down its links to other parts of the country.

Last week, there was a debate on the wonderful high-speed rail link to which the Government are committed. I tell the Minister that we welcome that link, but we do not like the low-speed build that the north-west faces. When the east and west of America were joined by the railways, construction did not start at one end and end up at the other, but started at both ends and met in the middle. Starting with the UK's third city of Birmingham instead of its second city of Manchester is a disaster. We need to link the great cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Preston. I would like construction to start in the north-west and the south and meet at Birmingham in the middle.

I would welcome that, because it would provide much-needed construction jobs in the north-west. It would not only benefit our transport communications, but it would provide vital construction and engineering skills. The high-speed link with the low-speed build can be changed. The challenge is to build from both ends and provide construction jobs. It is strange that London will have the benefit of the construction for the Olympics and Crossrail. Many jobs could be created in the north-west by the high-speed rail link.

There must also be electrification of the triangle of the three cities of Liverpool, Preston and Manchester, as that would ensure that our region not only contains the second city in the UK, but rightly becomes the most influential region. Every economic indicator tells us that the link should go to the north-west first and benefit the north-west. The route must then go on to link the major cities of Europe with the north-west. I welcome the high-speed rail link, but I would like to see some manoeuvring so that it is recognised that the north-west should not be put at a disadvantage. The north-west is the engine room of the economy, and we cannot afford to fail it. If we are serious about ensuring that we come out of recession and do not have recessions in the future, we need skills and transport links.

I was pleased when the Government recognised the importance of the Blackpool to Manchester line, as electrification is greatly needed. That line is a misery for commuters because it is over-crowded and the rolling stock needs to be extended. With electrification, the trains will not only be faster, but greener. It will also bring the benefit of linking Blackpool, Preston, Manchester and Bolton in the middle. Within that hub is Chorley and we must not forget its importance and relevance. It is well placed logistically at the centre of the three cities and can offer great benefits.

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I am pleased that there is good cross-party turnout for this debate. I look to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), to confirm that if the Conservatives win the election and form the next Government, they will support the electrification and place as much importance on it as this Government.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con) rose-

Mr. Hoyle: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to put that on the record. I know that he is an honourable man and I am sure that he can be tempted to do so.

Mr. Goodwill: I thank the hon. Gentleman for tempting me to expand on that matter. There is a section in my speech on electrification, but I am sure that Mr. Howarth would think it too long to read now. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will refer to electrification in my winding-up speech.

Mr. Hoyle: I welcome that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will distance himself from the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), who, I understand, in an interview for a railway magazine, could not commit to the electrification. That was a major disappointment for people between Blackpool and Manchester, as a huge population relies on those trains. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will put right that wrong, and I look forward to him doing so.

On jobs, it is unacceptable that Jarvis is laying people off when we should be investing in the railways, as they have a great future in this country. I am disappointed with Jarvis, and many hon. Members have rightly signed up to the early-day motions that have been tabled on that matter. However, I want to dwell not on that, but on transport. The other great link to the north-west is the M6, which is important to us. Some people say that they do not want the M6 to be widened, but I tell the doubters that we have the stupid situation of having the four lanes at Warrington going down to three lanes and then back up to four north of Chorley. That bottleneck is not good for the environment because queues develop. There is nothing worse than standing traffic with the engines running. That happens because there has not been investment between south Preston and Warrington. I say to the Minister that it should be a priority to put that right. I know he is taking that on board and that he will consider it seriously because it will make a difference. The problem of exhaust fumes in the Chorley area is caused by slow and standing traffic. We could improve the lives of the people who live near the motorway, so it is important that we try to stop the bottleneck and the traffic jams.

Along with the widening, Chorley would welcome a link to the M6. Chorley has a population of more than 100,000 people and there is no doubt that it plays a major role in the economy. It is the 34th richest constituency based on disposable income. However, more than 50 per cent. of the working population travel out of Chorley to work so there must be good transport communications. That is why it is so important that electrification, environmentally friendly trains and the M6 link all come together.

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