Publications on the internet
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 16th February 2011|
Publications on the internet
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sarah Davies, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I would like to raise a couple of quick points with the Minister with regard to the provision of written notice, although the situation was perhaps cleared up somewhat during our earlier discussion on what happens when the owner of the land cannot be traced by community groups wishing to nominate land.
Under subsection (2)(a), the owner is required to be notified in writing by the authority. If the owner can not be traced, does this preclude an asset’s inclusion on the list of community assets? What safeguards are there for untraceable owners, who are addressed under subsection (5)(c)? Will the land simply not be included? Will the Minister explain why local authorities are not being encouraged to use existing powers under section 16 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 and why this new power seems to be discretionary, certainly as the consultation suggests.
Furthermore, would the owners themselves have to be notified or would an agent acting on their behalf suffice? It is not clear from clause 87 whether it is likely that an agent could be likely. For example, if a community in Westminster wished to list a piece of land, it might well find it belongs to one of two people: the Crown or the Duke of Westminster. In the first cases, clearly the Crown Estate would be the most appropriate body to be notified, whereas Grosvenor Estate would be most appropriate in the case of the Duke of Westminster. However, the Bill seems to indicate that written notice must be given to the owner of the land—to the individual. I am sure there is precedent for this in legislation, so would be grateful if the Minister would enlighten the Committee and clear that one up.
Will the Minister tell us why there is a need for the Secretary of State’s powers under subsection (5)? Why will not the clause work without that addition? We would like to hear the explanation because that is another one of those powers of the Secretary of State that may or may not be necessary.
Given that the Minister is already discussing the Bill’s focus on the importance of social value in the community, what he is considering as the local connection as set out in paragraph 4.3 of the consultation paper that is linked to this clause? Will he give us some idea of the possible criteria, which we started to discuss in previous debates? Would a business based in the area be considered as having such a connection? Where would the burden of proof lie and who would adjudicate if a connection was considered to be too tenuous? Is there any legal basis for the term “local connection,” given that it will impact on those able to be given written notice under this chapter of the Bill? I would also welcome the Minister’s advice to the Committee on whether he feels there is a need to set out in subsection (3), which cites
The Mineral Products Association has drawn to my attention to the fact that the Bill gives the right to anyone to nominate an asset of community value, but there is no requirement to inform the owners, including leaseholders of any land, that such a nomination has been submitted. It would appear that the first an owner might know about the matter is when he is informed that there has been a designation. Will the Minister confirm that that interpretation is correct?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is good to be resuming our proceedings on the Bill. First, an agent could accept information or notice on behalf of an owner, as with other proceedings. As the hon. Lady says, there are established procedures to follow. Quite a number of her questions are about precisely the issues covered by the consultation, such as what might be defined as a local connection. We touched on that in our debate last week when we mentioned British Waterways and canals that might span several local authorities, and the kinds of situations that might arise as a result; that relates specifically to local connection.
Regarding untraceable owners of land, a provision will be made in the regulations for local notices and notices on land, and that topic is also raised in the
On a connected point, the hon. Lady asked about informing the owner of the land. We plan to put into regulations that local authorities should tell the owner before they decide to list land. That, again, is in the consultation. The hon. Lady raised a number of good points, all of which we have mentioned in the consultation. We are not saying that we have exactly the right answers to all those questions, and we are waiting to see what responses we get. It is our intention, however, that there should be notification of owners, local notices and notices on land.
Alison Seabeck: The Minister’s response flags up our deep frustration with the whole process, whether in this clause or any other clause. A good consultation is out there, but it should have taken place well in advance of the Bill to enable us to legislate having considered the responses, which I am sure will be many and varied. It is difficult to produce a good piece of legislation without having that evidence before us. Does the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 need amending? Is it ineffective? Why should it not simply be used by local authorities, in relation to this clause?
Andrew Stunell: I do not believe that the 1976 Act is ineffective, but it is right for us to consult on exactly what procedures we employ. The legislation may require some amendment to deal with the processes that we are discussing, but those are exactly the kinds of issues with which the regulations will be designed to deal. I understand the hon. Lady’s concern that she has not got every i dotted and every t crossed, but I am sure that if we had come with every i dotted and every t crossed we would have been criticised for not being in a position to respond to the comments of right hon. and hon. Members in Committee and in the House.
I remind the hon. Lady that the consultation includes her and her colleagues in the Labour party as well as members of the public and other organisations. I am sure that the points that she has registered in the Committee will also be taken into account during the consultation. I hope that with those assurances the Committee will adopt clause 75.
Alison Seabeck: Amendments 109 and 110 would introduce two small but important changes to the Bill. They would create important safeguards in the review process by ensuring that a review must take place relatively quickly and that any appeals process must be independent. Neither amendment would change the intention of the clause, but both would increase public confidence in the process by making it more transparent and efficient.
Amendment 109 would require any review to take place within a 12-week time frame. That would not be arduous, and it would reassure landowners that they will not be left hanging while awaiting the outcome of a review, which could drag on. We have suggested a precedent of 12 weeks—approximately three months—because that is the length of time that the Government believe would be necessary for the Secretary of State to make major planning decisions, which are referred to him under the planning provisions of the Bill. If the Government believe that the Secretary of State can make a decision within three months on a major, complicated planning process, I can see no reason why a local authority could not conduct a review in a similar period. From the CBI’s evidence, it seems that it is keen for Ministers to amend the Bill to make that three-month deadline compulsory. We need to wait and see what the Front-Bench team do next week in their response to that evidence. However, we have a chance here to put a time limit in the Bill that would offer some reassurance to landowners.
Amendment 110 seeks to ensure that any review of the appeals process is appropriately transparent and independent. We want the powers and processes that facilitate reviews to be credible and to be trusted by the public. In their consultation document, why do the Government seem to feel that an owner whose asset has been listed will accept an internal review by the local authority? To that end, we have concerns about subsection (6)(d), which states that the Secretary of State must make
An appeals process is appropriate, but we would be far more comfortable if the review process was independent and if that independence was clear. The Co-op expressed its concerns in its submission, which stated that it supported the right for an asset owner to make representations as to why an asset should not be on the list in cases where, for example, there is a clear case that inclusion would harm their commercial interests or free operation. It went on to discuss the implications of costs incurred, and we will come to that under the provision on compensation. The Co-op believes that the process could, as it stands, damage the relationship between the local authority, the community and commercial interests. If the local authority also manages the appeals process, that could further damage that relationship, which is why we would like an independent appeals process.
Will the Minister clarify whether the right to review applies only to land that is included, whether the community has no right to request a review, and whether that right sits solely with the landowner, in a similar way to third-party right of appeals? If that is the case, an independent review would strengthen the process and be more acceptable to the wider public.
Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I rise to speak to amendment 190, which deals with vexatious applications. From the evidence that we have received, we know that there is real scope for abuse here. There is scope for people to try to use the arrangements to stop developments or proposals to which they object. We heard convincing evidence from a variety of sources, including the CBI, business interests, country landowners and others, about the danger of that provision—desirable as it may be in principle—being abused. The Minister recognised that, because on Thursday he said that the process for considering applications for registering assets of community value
That is fine as an expression of intent, but the Minister’s expression of hope will not deter people if they see the process as a means of stopping, or at least delaying, something to which they are opposed. It is therefore essential that we have a clear sanction to ensure that people who have abused the system have to pay compensation. That is a proper safeguard.
Looking at the provisions in clause 82 that deal with compensation, there is nothing there that deals with vexatious applications. That is why I tabled the amendment and why I have used the same language as the Minister, to a degree. I used the term vexatious; I did not use the word “silly”—I thought I might have difficulty with the Clerks in getting that agreed as parliamentary language. The purpose is to give effect to the Minister’s intention to deter vexatious, silly or inappropriate nominations. I hope, therefore, that the amendment appeals to the Minister. I certainly hope it will appeal to the hon. Member for Bradford East, who spoke very forcibly about interference with property rights. I am sure that he will be attracted by this safeguard for individuals who might see their property under threat as a result of a vexatious application to register a particular asset as an asset of community value.
I hope that the amendment will get a sympathetic reception from those on both sides of the Committee, and that we can incorporate a specific provision to deal with the issue, if not necessarily in the wording that I have put forward. I accept entirely that, as the Minister says, clause 82 is where such a provision ought to go, but as I have pointed out, there is no specific provision in that clause for measures dealing with vexatious applications. At the very least, I hope that the Minister will say that the Government will bring forward an amendment to include such a provision in the relevant clause—that is, if my amendment cannot be accepted; it would be much easier if it were accepted.
As far as amendment 109 goes, I was interested to see that the hon. Lady thinks that 12 weeks should be the number. I refer her to the wording in paragraph 9.4 of the consultation document, leading to question 23:
“We propose that there ought to be a consistent timescale for the internal review to take place and we suggest that this should be completed within 6 weeks of the local authority receiving a written request for an internal review by the landowner.”
The intention expressed in the consultation document is that the interval should be six weeks, rather than the 12 weeks that the hon. Lady suggests. I am ready to take her amendment to be a response to that question, indicating that she thinks six weeks is perhaps drawing it too tight, and that 12 weeks would be more appropriate. Would she like to indicate whether that is the case? We also see the need for such a safeguard, but we would draw the line a bit tighter than she would. I advise the Committee not to accept her amendment, but to await the consultation responses and see whether something nearer to six weeks is better than 12 weeks. However, I assure her that it is our intention that there should be such a limit.
Amendment 110 is not necessary. Clause 76(5) and (6) provides for owners to have a right of appeal if they are dissatisfied with the outcome of the internal review in any case. If a right of appeal is added, we would see that as being an independent appeal to a court and tribunal. Again, we have posed that question in the consultation document, asking whether provision should be made for landowners to appeal to a court or tribunal if they are dissatisfied. We think that that is appropriate, but we await the consultation responses. If there was not an external right of appeal established by regulations, a person who was dissatisfied with the outcome of the internal appeal would still be able to use the nuclear weapon of judicial review.
We think it right to have a simple internal review process, to fix the problem internally, as one would with other complaints coming to the council about performance or provision of services, and that there should be reference to an external body only if that fails. The consultation document refers to a court or tribunal. If it were decided not to go down that line, of course there would still be the ultimate safeguard of judicial review.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, also asked whether the right of review would apply only to land included in the listing. The answer is yes. If she asked a more sophisticated question that I have misunderstood, perhaps she would come back on that.
I turn to the amendment of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, which I recognise is designed to be helpful. However, it seems to be based on a misunderstanding of how the process works. He refers to a vexatious application. I think he means—if he thinks a little more about it—a vexatious nomination. It is not an application in the sense of a planning application by an owner. We are talking about an external party nominating a building or a plot of land for listing. The essential feature of the decision on whether to list land will relate to the nature of the community asset, not to the person who has made the nomination. If a local
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that under clause 72, which we agreed last week, regulations setting out the criteria that local authorities should consider when deciding whether an asset is of community value are now part of the Bill. We have suggested that one of the criteria for assessing what is an asset of community value could be evidence of the strength of community feeling about supporting the asset’s being maintained for community use.
Let us describe the vexatious applicant as Mr Vexatious. If Mr Vexatious puts in front of the local authority the idea that a particular piece of land or building should be listed, the local authority would not take his nomination at face value. It would apply the tests set out in the regulations provided for under clause 72. An important part of that would be evidence of the strength of community feeling. If Mr Vexatious is on his own, that criterion will obviously not be met. There will be other criteria, excluding the kind of building and land that cannot in principle be included, such as homes and housing, and giving guidance about the nature of community asset value, which we also discussed in relation to clause 72.
Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): Can the Minister foresee a situation where the local authority’s judgment on whether an application is vexatious results in a huge amount of controversy, frustration and contention about the process?
Andrew Stunell: A decision would not be, “This is a vexatious application”—or more correctly, a vexatious nomination. The decision would be taken after looking at a particular piece of land or building and assessing it objectively against the criteria in the regulations provided for in clause 72; the question would be, “Is this in fact an asset of community value?” As hon. Members will see from subsequent clauses, there is a requirement to list decisions reached, both in favour and against, together with reasons. We will discuss, no doubt, why that is a good idea at the appropriate time.
The transparency of the process is the protection that there is against what might be described as wildcat acceptances of a nomination, which are not supported by the use of the objective criteria in the regulations. So, really, the nature of the nominator is irrelevant to the subsequent process. If an authority takes a decision that is unreasonable for any reason, the owner will have—as we are also discussing—an opportunity to seek an internal review and if still dissatisfied by the outcome of the consultation, to take the matter to a court or tribunal. Indeed, if the consultation moves in another direction without a separate external reference point, it can be taken to judicial review.
So I want to say to the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich that I appreciate his helpfulness and the spirit in which he has tabled the amendment. But I think that it is based on something of a misunderstanding about the process that the local authority has to undertake whenever an application appears on its mat for consideration as an asset of community value. So I would say to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View that I do not think that we need her
Mr Raynsford: I am afraid that I do not find that convincing. The real world is not like the scenario that the Minister has painted. It is not a question of “Mr Vexatious versus a community”. Very often there are different community groups that have a different view about what is desirable in a particular area. I can give the hon. Gentleman a real-life example that I have lived with for the last five years. The equestrian Olympic events are going to take place in Greenwich park. The large majority of local residents in our borough—including me—welcome this and see it as a very attractive proposition. But there was a relatively small but extremely vocal group of people, very well-heeled with access to legal expertise, who were strongly opposed to this. Had this provision been in place, I have absolutely no doubt that, among those people, some would have sought to designate part of the course proposed for the Olympic cross-country equestrian event as an asset of community value in order to make it impossible for this to happen. That would have been a complete show-stopper for one of the most important Olympic events taking place in this city in 2012. That is the risk: people will try to abuse these provisions in order to stop developments that they regard as undesirable. The Minister must be aware of that and know the likelihood of the use of this provision by groups of people, who may appear entirely sincere and well intentioned, in order to stop something probably supported by a larger number of people in the area and, even if that is not the case, which the local authority would simply not be able to proceed with if they listed the asset as one of community value.
Now, the gist of the Minister’s argument is that it is up to the authority to take a decision. But he and I know that, when pressed by very vociferous community groups, which possibly even threaten legal action, as is not unknown, local authorities can bow to such pressure. He will know of many cases where local authorities have refused planning applications possibly because of very strong pressure from vocal community groups, despite, in their heart of hearts, probably thinking that they should have been approved.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Maybe I just do not understand this, but it is being taken in a direction that I was not aware that it was going in. My understanding is that the whole purpose of this is to include assets on a list so that when it came to a point of disposal, the local community could have a say in what happened to that. If the right hon. Gentleman is right—what he is suggesting is that assets will not show on a list—it seems to be that it can actually influence what the owner of that asset does while in ownership, even if there is no sale contemplated. I did not know that was the case.
The response that the Minister has given has simply been a process-driven approach, which seems very unconvincing in a real-world context, so I ask him to think again. He knows that clause 82, which deals with compensation, makes no reference whatsoever to circumstances of a vexatious application. Unless there is a clear steer from this House or, in the absence of a decision here, from the other place that any vexatious application can be challenged and will be subject to compensation claims, I think we will see misuse of this provision—which most of us welcome—because of the lack of clarity in the detailed arrangements. Many of us have said this in previous debates.
It would be far better if the Minister—even if he cannot accept the amendment—did not just say it is not necessary, but gave a very clear indication of what the Government intend to do to deter vexatious applications. His earlier answer implied that it was simply a matter for the local authority to assess on an objective basis and decide whether this was an asset of community value. As I have said, under pressure from highly vocal elements in a community, local authorities will often take the line of least resistance and place something on a register. That would have serious adverse consequences in the long term that many people would regret. At the moment there appears to be absolutely no safeguard against that and, if the Bill proceeds without the kind of provision that I am advocating, I fear that all of the anxieties—voiced by the CBI, business interests and others—that this will be abused in order to stop desirable development, will come to pass. That would be a tragedy.
Andrew Stunell: It might be helpful to the Committee if I did. I gave a process-driven answer because this Bill is about setting in place the mechanics—a process. Of course a process must take the real world into account, but so too must the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. I say again, there is no such thing as an “application”—the word does not appear in the Bill. I think he means nomination, which, like a nomination for an Oscar, can mean anything or nothing. It is not until you receive the Oscar that it actually comes into play.
It is extremely likely that Greenwich park will turn out to be an asset of community value in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I do not want to prejudge any consultation or legislation, but if ever there was an asset of community value in his constituency I think that is it. The listing of Greenwich park as an asset of community value has absolutely no bearing on whether part of that park is used for a horse show for three or four weeks during the Olympics. The right hon. Gentleman knows that he is stretching the point to reach an argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East made it
Alison Seabeck: Let me respond briefly to the Minister’s comments on the 12-week period. We thought 12 weeks was more realistic and appropriate in the circumstances in part because of the pressure now being placed on local authorities to reduce staff numbers, and I would like that recorded. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my amendment.
Alison Seabeck: I have a quick question. If a land has been unsuccessfully nominated, various processes and appeals may have been gone through. Will the Minister explain the logic and reason for maintaining the list? The Federation of Master Builders thinks it particularly onerous, which links in with my previous concern, and its written evidence says:
“The provisions will create an additional administrative duty for local authorities already struggling to meet their current obligations on drastically reduced budgets. The administrative duty is likely to be considerable as they will have to resource the maintenance of two registers, processing of applications for land to be listed, communication with applicants, management of the review process, monitoring, and enforcement.”
Andrew Stunell: It is important to take a look at subsection (1), which makes it clear that the list relates to nominations made by community organisations. Although I accept the point made by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich that there could be a vexatious community organisation, those nominated by communities would be on the unsuccessful nomination. There are two overlapping reasons why that register will be useful. First, it will enable communities to view the reasons why a community nomination was unsuccessful, thus making the decision transparent and accountable. Secondly, it will help community organisations to prepare any subsequent nomination more effectively—not necessarily a subsequent nomination for that particular item—because they will understand more fully what the criteria are and how they apply in the circumstances of their neighbourhood and community. From the local authority’s point of view, if it receives a nomination for an asset that has already been unsuccessfully nominated, it can easily check the reasons for that, and consideration of the subsequent nomination can then be speeded up, focusing if necessary on any fresh evidence or fresh reasons given. In itself, I do not see that as onerous. The data will exist. No doubt, in this day and age, they will be computerised as they are dealt with, and their maintenance will be straightforward.
The clause allows for regulations to be made that specify the form of the list, the content of entries, how an entry can be modified or removed, and what should be done in cases where there are multiple owners, occupiers or estates with interest in the asset. There is no reason that the list should not run on from a list of successful nominations with a second part, which would be a list of unsuccessful nominations. That does not need to be the bureaucratic nightmare that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View hinted that her representations had dredged up. In the interests of transparency for the community, and for efficient administration on the local authority’s part, I hope that she sees that this is the appropriate way to go.
Word has reached me that I need to make it clear to the Committee that, in regulations, it is likely that a community nomination will include a local individual, so, perhaps I gave a misleading impression that Mr Vexatious would not have the refusal of his application listed. Then again, perhaps in the big picture, it might be just as useful for people to understand why Mr Vexatious was unsuccessful as it is to understand why others were successful.
Alison Seabeck: It is important that the Committee has an opportunity to debate fully some concerns that groups have expressed in their written evidence. At this stage, the amendments are likely to be probing, unless the Minister says something outrageous. He has not done that yet.
Amendment 117 would introduce the right of first refusal for community groups on land that is to be disposed of, where it is listed as land of community value. A similar system exists in Scotland, where the community has the right of first refusal, and it has time to try to raise the necessary funds before an asset is placed on the open market. That model, however, has been criticised for the bureaucracy involved and the way that private sector interests have been marginalised. The amendment, therefore, does not propose to introduce that model.
We seek to introduce a community right of first refusal on an asset that is already used for public benefit. The right of first refusal would relate only to assets that were on the list of land of community value and which were held by the public or third sector. The amendment specifically would not give the right of first refusal to communities in relation to privately held assets. That should reassure business, because such assets would still go to the open market, in which the community would bid after a moratorium period, as in the Bill. We feel, however, that where a community asset is held by the public or third sector for the community’s benefit, there is a strong case for giving the community the chance to bid for that asset in advance of it being subject to competition on the market. We believe that where an asset is used for the public benefit, the presumption should be in favour of maintaining the asset for public benefit.
“The initial moratorium (interim window) period of a suggested 6 weeks may be unnecessarily ‘long’ where it is clear that there is no community interest from the outset. Therefore there is a case that the length of time could be reduced or removed by Local Authority discretion. Relevant community groups should be able to express an interest in a shorter space of time given that the full ‘window of opportunity’ would then come into effect. Communities should be given as much support as possible by local authorities to bring forward a business case to ensure that the ‘full window’ mechanism is not invoked unnecessarily or simply used to delay the valid private sale of an asset.”
This limited power, which will not damage private landowners’ interest in their own land, will add an extra level of community protection. We hope that the Committee will give it fair consideration and its support.
The Real Power for Communities campaign, which is supported by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, London Civic Forum, Runnymede Trust, Age UK and many other voluntary and community organisations, has expressed genuine concern that, without this power, community groups would have to compete against others in the open market. It flagged up that
Community Matters goes further in its belief that this clause is a threat to youth and community centres, libraries—despite the rather interesting comments at the weekend from the Culture Secretary in which he eschewed localism in favour of central control over libraries—and heritage buildings.
However, I have also mentioned that in 2000-01 Bradford sold off some 57 former middle schools because we were desperately in need of funds for the reorganisation of schools from three tier to two tier. We sold those schools at the market rate to get as much money as possible. There is an argument, and I hope that people are not too offended by it, that it was a deeply conservative act, because many of the schools that we sold off were created by the school board formed in 1875 following the great Liberal William Forster’s Elementary Education Act 1870. I will bore you to tears on that subject very soon.
One could argue that using the funds generated is a very useful way of recycling an asset into other assets of community and public sector value. Perhaps I have misunderstood the amendment, but the recycling of the money that we received at market value enabled us to extend and build new schools, which was a very good use of the money. The money was not lost to the community; it was recycled into other purposes.
Alison Seabeck: This is not about giving the community a cut-price deal; it is about giving it the right of first refusal. The community may well have to pay market rate for an asset, but it will get the first bite of the cherry.
Mr Ward: This might strike up a conversation or dialogue, but I am not sure what “first refusal” then means. Without going to market, how does one know that one is receiving as much as possible for an asset?
Alison Seabeck: The right of first refusal gives the community an opportunity. Generally speaking, a community group is not a business going to market looking for properties. The property is on the list and, therefore, is up for disposal. A community group will need a little more time than the average business to organise, plan and decide whether it wants to buy the asset. There will need to be community-wide discussions on such things. Giving communities the right of first
Heidi Alexander: I have a short comment and a short question. The amendment proposed by Opposition Front Benchers is particularly important with regard to the next couple of months. While the Localism Bill has yet to be enacted, local authorities all over the country are taking decisions in setting budgets for the next financial year. As we know, possibly hundreds of libraries may have to be closed—fortunately, I hope, not in my local authority, as we may have found other community solutions. It is incredibly important in the next two months, indeed year, to allow community groups in the new world of localism the time to get to grips with what assets may become available and exactly how they might finance a bid for them.
As for my question, the Minister of State and I touched on the matter at the Communities and Local Government Committee yesterday. The question is relevant to the clause, but also more generally to this area of the Bill. Will the Under-Secretary of State say a little more about the work that the Department is doing on the definition of best value? That will be an important consideration for local authorities in relation to this area of legislation. What progress is being made on possibly reworking the definition of best value, as I see it having a direct impact on this area of the Bill?
Andrew Stunell: I make it clear that the Bill already provides a power to enable, through regulations, community groups the right to make the first offer. In other words, both public and private owners will be able to sell their assets to a community group while that window of opportunity is open.
I am not sure that we have precisely explored the window and how it works. The principle of it is that there will be an interval during which that asset, if it is about to go on the market, cannot be sold until the community groups have had an opportunity to consider whether they want to proceed and make an offer. There is a six-week initial period when there is an opportunity for any relevant community group to come forward and say it is considering making an offer. Then there is the moratorium, on which we are consulting for three to six months—we will wait to see what views come back—during which time the community group can put an offer on the table. That, therefore, gives those community groups an advantage over other purchasers, who would have to wait until the end of the moratorium. To that extent, amendment 117 does not grant additional rights to such community groups.
or part of it, to be caught by this? Therefore, a business that is simply proposing a transfer of an element of a landholding to another party for a particular consideration, with no intention of marketing on the open market, could be caught by that.
Andrew Stunell: The right hon. Gentleman is right that it covers leaseholding as well as outright ownership. That is simply to reflect the fact that if there was a leasehold of longer than 25 years, it would be treated under the Bill in the same way as outright ownership. I hope that is an accurate answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question. In other words, the shape of the Bill at the moment achieves what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View wanted to achieve with her amendment. So whether we call it a right of first refusal or a moratorium during which a bid or an offer can be made, one gets essentially the same outcome.
The hon. Lady quite rightly pointed out that the Scottish system has turned out to be rather slow moving and not to have produced the benefits that people expected of it. It was also specifically a rural rather than an urban policy. The hon. Lady and I are on the same page here—that is not the way to go. There would be a cost in introducing a formal proposal along the lines that she has suggested, which is estimated to be £14.7 million every year in new burdens cost to local authorities. It is right that the matter should be aired and I hope that, having heard the discussion, the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment.
I can be brief. This amendment would add a requirement for consultation into the process that the Secretary of State has to follow before prescribing regulations pertaining to the moratorium period. It is an added protection for business, which was slightly concerned that this clause is anti-growth whereas the Bill is designed to support economic growth.
The standard length of time for a consultation is 12 weeks and that is the period that we have put into our amendment. I know that occasionally the Government ignore that 12-week period, as we saw over Christmas with the housing consultation process. We think that the 12-week period is appropriate. We want to ensure that consultations, where possible, are held to a high standard and are carried out with time for considered responses to be presented.
Andrew Stunell: The amendment would commit the Government to consult on the length of the interim moratorium, the full moratorium and the protected period. The protected period is the interval of time after an unsuccessful nomination has fallen and before a new nomination can be made in respect of that asset. I do not think that point had been made in the debate. We absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I should point out that we have started that consultation. That is what the consultation document is. It will run for 12 weeks and it seeks views on the length of the interim moratorium period, the full moratorium period and the protected moratorium period.
So we have anticipated what the hon. Lady wants to achieve with the amendment. I can certainly assure her that when we draft the regulations, we will carefully
Alison Seabeck: I am sure that assiduous readers of the Committee papers and the proceedings in Hansard will pick up references to the consultation and rush out to put submissions in. Clearly, it is important that people participate, and I am sure that a number of those who have already submitted documents to the Committee will want to make submissions to the consultation. My amendment was probably tabled before the consultation was released, so I am glad that we were on the same wavelength on that one at least.
We have had short debates on the amendments, but other issues have been raised about the clause. This is where the chapter starts to have some teeth, and it would be remiss of the Committee to let the clause go without looking again at some of its implications. The submissions received on the subject were wide-ranging, and the queries and concerns that were raised by outside organisations and groups deserve our attention and consideration.
The Development Trusts Association and bassac, which are soon to merge to form Locality, do not feel that the clause is strong enough, but conversely, groups representing pubs think that it goes too far. I am concerned to hear from the Minister that he is satisfied that he has struck the right balance. If he is not, will he further consider some of the later submissions, before the clause is considered again on Report?
A submission from the Development Trusts Association states clearly that the moratorium must be a minimum of six months, and all such comments can be fed into a consultation process. The association would also like to have a provision for an extended moratorium for when community groups initially make progress and then stall, as we have seen in some of the Scottish examples. It says:
“Our experience across the country is that community asset acquisition, even by the most capable and well-established community organisations, takes typically from six months to a year to progress to the point of purchase…Anything less will mean that community efforts will end in frustration.”
In contrast, the British Beer and Pub Association is worried that the moratorium, far from allowing for the preservation of pubs as functioning community assets, will prevent them from continuing in business:
“This would mean that when an asset is put up for sale a ‘moratorium period’ would come into play during which time the Community would have the chance to get together a group and the means to buy the premises or the lease or tenancy in order to prevent the pub or other asset from changing use. This would
I am sure that the pubs Minister, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who is not in his place at the moment, will want to look into that, and we have a debate in the House tomorrow that I am sure will revisit some of the matters. Both sides of the Committee probably agree that it would be the worst possible outcome if the provisions backfired and ended up depriving communities of community assets.
“Our concern there, again, is whether that could be used as an anti-development tool. One view is that assets such as land that are put up for development could be given a sort of village-green status, which has happened previously, especially around Bristol. The moratorium could impact on the value of an asset that a business owned, and it might make it difficult for the business to dispose of or expand on that asset.”––[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2011; c. 114, Q191.]
I am interested to know what the Minister thinks about the moratorium period. There are conflicting and extremely polarised views, and it will be interesting to see just how much consensus there is, and who will adjudicate, when ultimately we get the result of the consultation.
The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who will lead the debate tomorrow, made a strong case on Second Reading about the moratorium, and I am sure that he will be encouraged to respond to the consultation as well. He felt that a six-month moratorium was appropriate and would give communities enough of a chance to seek the necessary finance.
Given the divergence of views on the matter, I just want reassurance from the Minister on what will happen when we have the outcome of the consultation. It will be helpful to know when he expects that to be. Will it be at a time when we can give further views, perhaps following consideration of the Bill in the Lords? Is there a time scale on the consultation? Will the Minister please bear in mind the concerns raised outside the House?
I agree that clause 79 is crucial to this part of the Bill. It affords something that has not been available before and which community groups, and often councils themselves, have wanted for a long time. That is the capacity for local neighbourhoods and communities to get a handle on and safeguards over the facilities on which they depend.
The clause creates a window of opportunity for eligible community groups to organise themselves to get a business plan together and raise the funding that they need to buy an asset that they wish to keep for their local neighbourhood. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View is right: there are tensions in the process, which we discussed, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East brought them into sharp focus in the debate.
There is tension between different rights and interests, and there is potentially tension between the wish of a local community to use the assets in its neighbourhood and the wider interests of economic growth. Therefore, we have spent some time working through a provision that balances those interests effectively, and various aspects of that have already arisen in the debate. There has been discussion about exactly what an eligible community interest group is, and we have a route in the legislation to deal with that.
This is the main debate about the periods of time for the different windows in the Bill. Our view is that a full window of opportunity of six months represents an achievable time frame for community groups to organise themselves and to raise finance, and it would not be a disproportionate inconvenience for asset owners. However, that is part of the consultation. The interim window should be six weeks, which is the time in which a community group has to register an initial interest.
If no community bidder has come forward, the protected period beyond the moratorium, in which the owner is free to sell the asset, should be 18 months. However, we are very keen to receive views on the suggestions. I agree with the hon. Lady that, in that respect, the consultation, which ends on 3 May, is important. It is also important not to put in place something that displaces existing good practice, because local authorities and other owners are often willing to collaborate with community groups.
Alison Seabeck: I am pleased to hear that the consultation is likely to end before we complete our deliberations on the Bill. It would be helpful for the Committee to have some sort of breakdown of the submissions that are specific to clause 79, and ideally to have sight of some of those submissions when we are preparing for the final stages of the Bill.
I was about to say that, according to the information at the Department, in 2010 87% of local authorities in England reported that they were already engaged in some community asset transfer action. We know that well over 200 rural communities have taken village shops into community ownership, so we should not assume that nothing has happened anywhere so far. We need to build on good practice, and we certainly do not want inadvertently to create a system that prevents any of that.
The hon. Lady has made the point that it might be necessary in some circumstances to have longer than six months. If it is public land—if a local authority or a Government Department holds the asset—there is nothing to prevent the owner of that asset from saying to a community group, “Of course you can have longer. We will let the process take whatever it takes.” It is right for owners of assets in the private sector to have some certainty, which is why we propose that window of six months, responding to some of the concerns that lay behind what my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East had to say. Again, if strong voices in the response to the consultation document said that the moratorium period should be longer, we would want to take that into account.
We have thoroughly rehearsed what I consider to be an innovative and powerful new tool to empower local communities, the heart of which is in clause 79. I hope that the Committee is ready to approve it.
Mr Raynsford: Earlier I raised the question of the definition of disposal, and I would be grateful if the Minister said a little more about the implications of clause 80. As he acknowledged in his response to my intervention, it is not simply a question of open market disposal of a freehold property. The drafting of the clause allows grants, assignments or surrenders of qualifying leasehold interests to fall within the provisions. I specifically identified the potential scope for a transfer of assets within a company for commercial purposes, which, if it involved a transfer of a leasehold interest, would—as I read the provision—be caught by that.
Let us look at a real-world scenario in which, let us say, a developer is assembling a package of land with a view to carrying out some future development. Very often, that is a long process in which different elements have to be acquired, and some possibly have to be sold as part of that process of exchanges of land. I can well imagine a circumstance in which either a local community group that was hostile in principle to the concept of a development, or—this is where it becomes much more complex—a competitor or rival commercial interest that sees the scope for a development by one of its competitors and sees the opportunity to frustrate that development if certain elements of land within the area being considered were designated assets of community value, might try to use the procedure to frustrate the potential of their competitor to assemble the land for development.
All those possibilities should give us pause for thought, because we have been warned repeatedly by many interests, including business interests, that this particular provision could be used to frustrate desirable and necessary developments. This pretty loose definition seems to me—perhaps the Minister will tell me if I am wrong—to cover a whole range of circumstances, not just open market disposal of assets. There is considerable scope for these provisions to be abused in order to pursue purely commercial interests, using a front group of community activists to get a particular building listed as an asset of community value.
A Henry VIII power once again. The Secretary of State—because that covers the Secretary of State: it is only written that way because it also applies to the
I was not happy with the Minister’s previous response on the issue of vexatious applications or nominations for inclusion on the register. The uncertainty that is implicit in the definition already set out in the clause, and in particular the scope for that to be amended in any way that the Secretary of State chooses, could prove very damaging. It could contribute to the purposes of this part of the Bill—which we support as being generally well-conceived—being frustrated by abuse and by inappropriate use for purposes that are different from those the Government say they support. So I hope the Minister can explain exactly how wide the scope is for the application of these provisions, what circumstances will be excluded, and how the Secretary of State may intend to use those extraordinary powers in subsection (7).
Andrew Stunell: I will certainly say to the right hon. Gentleman that there are many circumstances where it is open to members of the public, community groups or whatever to recommend to local authorities that they should take certain action. That is particularly the case with heritage buildings and conservation areas. I am sure he is right that some of those nominations are made with secondary intentions about the preservation of heritage. But local authorities have a set of criteria that they apply as to whether a building should be heritage listed, or whether they will designate a conservation area, or whether they will introduce an article 4 direction in respect of heritage features. We should be more aware of the capacity of local authorities to deal with those matters than the right hon. Gentleman suggests.
I do not dismiss, however, the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the assembly of land for major redevelopments, for example. Particularly in the urban context, that may be a situation where there are going to be legitimate areas of discussion between community groups and developers about the future use of land. There will be an opportunity to examine some of those issues during the consideration of later clauses relating to neighbourhood and community plans. One would suppose that with the passage of this Bill, most communities that share the intention the right hon. Gentleman describes would want to pursue that through the planning route rather than the community nomination route.
What the placing of a piece of land or a building on the register will do—if a local authority decides to do it—is give a community group the right to an interval of time when it can make a bid to purchase that land. It does not give it an automatic right to succeed, or a timeless period in which to succeed.
We therefore have a proportionate mechanism that gives local community groups the opportunity to get their toe in the door, but which does not unreasonably constrain landowners in going about their proper and appropriate business. The ring-holder will be the local authority, which will decide whether a building or piece of land is accepted on to the register. As we have
I do not, therefore, discount the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and it is important that we have a mechanism that deals with them. The clause does that, but his words today and any that he submits on the consultation document can clearly be taken into account as we proceed.
That brings me to clause 87. As the right hon. Gentleman said, that clause refers to “appropriate authority” because it concerns Wales as well as England. The provisions provide an opportunity to conduct a review of the operation of clause 80 and, if necessary, to make changes in future years without returning to primary legislation. Given that this is such a new procedure, and given many of the issues that we have debated, which involve complex decisions about the proportionality of the mechanisms, it is entirely right that clause 87 should be there to provide that opportunity.
I may have misled the Committee earlier when I talked about the protected period after an unsuccessful window. I may mistakenly have said that it was 18 months. In fact, the overall period is 18 months, and the period of the moratorium is 12 months. That should now be clear and on the record.
Mr Ward: The amendments are in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay. Let me make this short and sweet. The amendments are about replacing “may” with “must”. I have made my point about the inclusion of private ownership ad nauseam. I was battered down by the weight of opinion on that, so the very least that we can do is insist that compensation is made available, rather than suggesting that it may be made available.
The need for compensation could derive from a number of situations. There may be a loss of value as the result of the very fact that an asset is listed. There may be a lost sale as a result of the moratorium. The moratorium may delay a sale or result in a loss of value. The amendments would make it clear in the Bill that there was an obligation to pay compensation. I am aware that there is an argument that the courts may provide for people who are adversely affected, but I would hope
Alison Seabeck: The hon. Member for Bradford East makes a very interesting point, together with his colleague the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay who is at the other end of the Bench—they are a bit like bookends at the back there. I am surprised that the clause does not at any point set out the circumstances in which compensation might, or indeed would, be granted. We heard in relation to clause 79 that business clearly has a major concern. We know how strongly the hon. Member for Bradford East feels about business concerns, and I do not think anyone on the Committee wants to see businesses or landowners being done out of a fair deal or not being able to claim, quite properly, compensation. I, too, am not quite sure why there is a permissive nature to the clause. We will wait to hear what the Minister says before deciding whether we will support the amendment if it is pressed to a vote.
Andrew Stunell: I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford East and for St Austell and Newquay for their amendment because it gives me the opportunity to say that we have already indicated the Government’s commitment to establishing a compensation scheme. I reassure my hon. Friends that there will be a compensation scheme. We had some interesting semantic discussions at an earlier stage about the “may” and “must” and “might” and “will” language that appears in legislation. I am certainly not a parliamentary draftsman—for which I am rather grateful, to be honest.
Andrew Stunell: Yes. I want to assure my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford East and for St Austell and Newquay that their amendment is not necessary because we are extremely sympathetic to their intention. We have already said that there will be a compensation scheme. I say to my hon. Friends that it is right to put on the record that that is the case. Of course, in that familiar document much referred to today—the consultation paper—views are invited on some of the issues surrounding how that scheme might be arranged. Section 12 of the consultation document and questions 36 to something like 42 cover that. I encourage my hon. Friends to respond specifically to those questions and to withdraw their amendment.
Alison Seabeck: Some of the concerns that Labour Members had resulted from evidence that we had received in writing and orally during the course of the witness sessions. We were concerned that within the process there was no scope for an independent review of these decisions. We had a discussion earlier today about the need for an independent review, and the Minister said that there was an option to go to judicial review. I suspect
“If I may, I will pick up on the assets of community value. We hear the assets of community value described as pubs and post offices—things that are in existing, formal, community use. There is a desire to protect them, so we can understand the provision. We accept that that has gone into the Bill relatively late in the drafting and that therefore there is not an awful lot of detail. Our fear is that it has huge potential for abuse.”––[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 25 January 2011; c. 86, Q141.]
There needs to be a strong package so that business can have confidence and faith in compensation, but none of that is clear at present. I still think that on Report, obviously following the outcome of the much-vaunted consultation process, we may need to see something a little clearer on the compensation element, and I suspect that hon. Members who have already spoken are equally concerned. Therefore, I would like to come back to this on Report if we are not wholly satisfied.
Andrew Stunell: Clause 82 gives the appropriate authority—the Secretary of State, in the case of England—powers to provide for the payment of compensation to owners of listed land, if it should be necessary. It lists aspects of the compensation scheme that may be specified in regulations. I say that in respect of amendment 120, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East. We recognise that it is likely that payment of compensation will be necessary to balance the interference with the rights of property owners. Our current view is that such compensation should be available to private property owners and should relate to costs directly incurred as a result of the operation of the scheme, but we are keen to hear the views of interested parties through the consultation process and will be taking those views carefully into account.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View now knows that the consultation responses will have been published by the time we reach further stages of consideration of the Bill, and I look forward to her being satisfied by those responses and by the construction of the clause. I ask the Committee to give approval to it.
I am hoping that the Minister can shed some light on why minerals are included, as they are the software to the hardware of building and land. The Mineral Products Association has concerns that interchanging the terms “assets of community value” and “land of community value” is misleading—we touched on that earlier. It appears that the designation of “assets of community value” could apply not just to land, but to buildings and any uses of that land, including mineral working. The MPA would like clarification on that.
A similar concern is that such designations could be applied to areas with a mineral interest. The local authority with responsibility for designating assets of community value will not, in many cases, be the mineral planning authority. Therefore, to prevent the unnecessary sterilisation of mineral resources, it is essential that the agreement of the mineral planning authority is obtained on each decision, and that it is consulted and kept informed.
Mineral deposits, rather like rivers, are no respecters of boundaries. The minehead might be in one place, but the mine’s lode and underground workings could extend some miles further, so an asset of community value could apply to an area further along the mine shaft. The problem is similar to that with rivers and I would welcome the Minister’s comments on it.
Other issues have been raised with me. For example, a company might have a landholding that it intends to quarry at some stage, because it knows that there is a mineral deposit underneath it. The community, however, decides that it wants to list the land that it sees on the surface. The owner does not want to sell, but wants to dig a big hole, which will change the nature of the listed land. How does the Bill address such a scenario?
Andrew Stunell: First, items (a) to (c) simply relate to the standard definition in the Interpretation Act 1978. I am reliably informed that it covers every sort of land, and that mines and minerals are part of that. That represents the parliamentary drafters at their best again. The hon. Lady also asked a relevant question, drawing on the example of mineral extraction, about whether the provision may be used to sterilise future growth and development. The answer is that the land will still be in the ownership of the extractor. It will be dealt with through a planning application—having participated in a debate on Friday on open-cast coal mining, I have become slightly more expert on this—and the process includes a range of things, including environmental impact assessments and so on. In other words, the case of which she speaks will be covered by planning legislation, not a community asset listing.
Following that logic, one can apply for planning permission on land that one does not own, so, even in the event of a community holding land, it would not be out of order for an application to be made over its head in relation to that site.
Andrew Stunell: I think that it might be problematic, but not for the reason suggested by the hon. Lady. Clearly, that mine shaft would have to be on land that was owned either by the mine owner or by someone whom they had persuaded to give them permission to use it. That seems to me to be the relevant consideration, rather than whether there was land of community value in the general neighbourhood. That is covered by planning and, possibly, other legislation, but it is certainly not relevant to the clause.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): I have an example to add to the debate. My constituency includes an area called Chat Moss, which comprises 30% of the land area of Salford. It is the largest area of grade 1 and grade 2 farmland in Greater Manchester, but its main contention in assets of community value terms is that it is an ancient piece of raised wet moss land. The contention is between companies that want to extract peat from it and charities such as Lancashire Wildlife Trust that want to return it to peat bog.
I offer that example, and I am sure that the Minister knows Chat Moss. Such issues can become contentious, and I expect that this one will. Planning is difficult, but I am sure that Chat Moss will be one of the first pieces of land of community value put forward for listing by the local council.
Andrew Stunell: I cannot say that I know Chat Moss as well as the hon. Lady, but I have certainly travelled across it by train on many occasions. There are already plenty of situations in which one interest wishes a different outcome from another. Sometimes it is community groups or a wildlife trust on one side, and on the other might be landowners who want to exploit the land for one purpose or another. She has given a good example of a case in point.
However, such matters will be resolved by the planning system. I do not want to discuss specific applications too specifically, but, in principle, a wildlife trust that could show local connections and the participation of a relevant body would be in a position to bid if the land came up for sale. That is the point at which the legislation will become operational. The fact that land is listed as land of community value does not become a relevant consideration unless the land is being disposed of, or is intended to be disposed of, by the current owner. Whether it should be exploited by the current owner is a matter to be handled through the planning system, which will be dealt with in a subsequent part of the Bill.
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): The town and country planning system is, along with the national health service, one of the enduring monuments of the post-war settlement secured by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government. Such post-war legislation represented an acknowledgement of the need for Government intervention in certain areas, in the public interest. It was a classic example of good government acting to empower each and every individual, asserting crucially the public interest in the development and use of land. However, as with the national health service, the system faces an uncertain future as a result of major reforms proposed by the Government, particularly those set out in the Bill.
It is with some bewilderment that my colleagues and I have watched the unfolding chaos that has come about as a consequence of the Government proposals. I have no doubt that many on the Government Benches share our sense of foreboding. Certainly, almost every organisation that we have spoken to about the proposed changes is of the same opinion; the Government have
If chaos is the objective, Ministers should be congratulated on their delivery. The proposed changes to the planning system under the Bill and the actions taken by the Secretary of State to scrap the regional spatial strategies will deliver chaos by the bucket load. We accept that the planning system that the Government inherited was, like any planning system, capable of improvement. We agree that increased input by local people and local communities for the future of their areas and their built environment is absolutely vital to the success of any planning system.
John Howell (Henley) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way because this is an area of great passion for me. In the consultations that I have undertaken in the past two years, I found that the one thing that united everyone was the fact that the planning system was broken.
Jack Dromey: It is certainly a system capable of improvement. However, I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that it is broken. Later I will discuss the strong views that I have heard that favour the Opposition’s position. Our planning system needs not the chaos that will be unleashed by the Government, but sensible reform in the public interest.
Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that despite his comments on planning, one thing that was universally accepted—certainly by local authorities, people and a large proportion of the businesses that we have seen and that made representations, including the British Council of Shopping Centres—was that the end of the regional spatial strategy was a good thing? It was one of the core centralist things under the planning system, and ending it was a really big step forward.
Jack Dromey: The regional spatial strategies will go, but along with the Government’s proposals will come chaos, which I will expand on later. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt want to respond. The Bill as it stands will not deliver.
Jack Dromey: No, we do not. The regional spatial strategies will go, and with them a number of key objectives that will not be met by what the Government are proposing. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman listens to all the concerns, including those that have been widely expressed, and then he can intervene again later on.
Jack Dromey: It might help the debate if I could actually make the argument to which hon. Members can respond. The Bill, as it stands, will simply not deliver on many of the Government’s publicly stated objectives, which will harm the public interest in several areas. The Government claim—I summarise—that the planning reforms will contribute to economic growth, lead to increased levels of house building and empower local people. I am surprised that they have not claimed that they will wash whitest. It is clear, however, from the evidence given to the Committee, to which the Committee should listen, that without significant amendments, the Bill will lead to stasis in the planning system, stifle economic growth and house building, threaten advances on climate change and the protection of the environment, empower the few, not the many, institutionalise inequality in the planning system and downgrade democracy, particularly the role of democratically elected local councils.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): To pick up the hon. Gentleman’s last point about diminishing democratic control, I refer him to the situation in Milton Keynes, which had been told by the previous Government how far it should expand. In Milton Keynes, now that we have reached the initial planned size of the new city, we want to make that decision ourselves. Why is that not democratic?
Jack Dromey: We will come to the heart of the undermining of the role of elected representatives when we reach the rather extraordinary proposals on neighbourhood forums. Milton Keynes is an admirable city, and I wish it well for the future. It will no doubt want to meet growing demand for local economic and housing development, and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt share my view that the last thing we need is nimbyism that impedes either of those objectives.
The Opposition believe that tabling amendments to strengthen the duty to co-operate, which is currently nothing more than a duty to talk, is essential to put sustainable development at the heart of planning, to strengthen the duty to consider climate change, which does not apply to the provisions of the Bill on neighbourhood planning, and to provide a statutory basis for the national planning policy framework. All those measures are essential for the proposals even to begin to amount to a planning system that is fit for purpose. Making such changes is all the more essential as a result of the Secretary of State’s actions to date, because it is clear that we do not have a planning system that is fit for purpose.
The abolition of the regional spatial strategies and, crucially, how it has been handled has thrown the planning system into complete confusion. It has created a vacuum at the heart of the planning system that will not be filled until the Bill receives Royal Assent, which could be as late 2012. The way the current planning system has been torn up for the proposed new system has proved nothing short of a disaster for house building. The proposed replacement will not offer the necessary framework to resolve greater-than-local issues.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not concede that the old, top-down regional planning system was highly undemocratic? As a local authority leader, I remember it being a disaster in terms of the number of houses built, which was the lowest since the 1920s.
Jack Dromey: As I shall argue later on, the current system is capable of improvement, but what is being proposed will not even begin to address the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about substantially increased house building.
We can all agree that not everything can be, or indeed should be, decided at national level. Local decisions and local participation are all vital if we are to ensure the best outcomes for planning and service provision, but it is essential that we recognise that not everything can be decided and managed most efficiently at local level; in particular, housing, waste management and sustainability. They are all, necessarily, cross-boundary issues; they are larger than local. To ensure efficiency and quality, those types of services must be organised at a level that encompasses more than simply the local.
Fiona Bruce: How many layers of government do we need? We already have the influence of the European Union on those issues, and we have a national Government. Is it not sufficient that local communities decide their destiny on those issues without the intervention of yet another layer of government at regional level?
Jack Dromey: With respect, I find that intervention somewhat surprising, because what is being proposed is a duty to co-operate, which relates, at least in theory, to more than just one local authority area. As I will argue in some detail, as it stands the duty to co-operate is a vapid concept incapable of delivering sub-regional strategic planning on a range of key issues. If those key issues are not addressed properly, there will be serious consequences not just for the planning system, but for the Government’s own stated public policy objectives.
The Government’s decision to scrap regional spatial strategies and replace them with nothing more than a duty to talk poses huge risks to all the issues that require larger-than-local co-operation. The removal of the regional spatial strategies was sudden and no transitional mechanisms were put in place to help local authorities adapt to, or even understand, the new system. The negative impacts of the sudden removal of what was a regional spatial strategy planning framework have already been felt across different sectors, including housing, which I will discuss later.
For all their weaknesses, the RSSs provided crucial, much-needed guidance to local authorities on issues that cross local authority boundaries; in particular, housing, infrastructure, energy supply and waste management. I stress again that they are all larger-than-local issues that are hugely important to everyone, locally and on a sub-regional basis, and that, crucially, they require co-ordination at a level above that of the council to guarantee effective and efficient provision. The RSSs—again, for all their weaknesses—provided that much-needed co-ordination, yet the Government have scrapped them without putting in place any meaningful transition mechanisms, and as it stands the duty to co-operate will not work either.
“After the attempt to change RSS policy overnight, people shut up shop, not because they were anti-development but because they didn’t know where things were going.”––[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 25 January 2011; c. 80, Q131.]
He is one of many in the private construction sector who has said that, both to the House and certainly in meetings I have held. The hasty removal, therefore, of the RSS has created a dangerous policy vacuum that has left too many local authorities stranded, sometimes in a state of confusion, and unable to understand exactly what is now being proposed for the future. For housing, the removal of the regional spatial strategies has been nothing short of disastrous. We know from the evidence of the National Housing Federation that plans for more than 200,000 homes have been scrapped.
Heidi Alexander: My hon. Friend might be interested to know that when the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government discussed the research commissioned by the National Housing Federation, the Secretary of State referred to the numbers of new house builds pulled out of the planning system, and described the research as somewhat iffy. I was quite concerned that he characterised the research in that way, and wondered whether my hon. Friend had any comment to make.
Jack Dromey: I am surprised at the typically cavalier approach of the Secretary of State—if Henry VIII can be cavalier—because the evidence was painstakingly researched and, as far as I am aware, with the exception of the Secretary of State, no one has challenged its validity.
Greg Clark: Now is the moment. In fact the organisation that published the research gave it limited force. The report of Tetlow King said that the data were speculative, unofficial, subject to testing and examination, and only to be considered approximate, and that the majority of authorities are still sitting on the fence, or unprepared to comment. Even the people responsible for that evidence, therefore, caution against its being used as it was. I think that is what the Secretary of State had in mind when he said it was iffy.
Jack Dromey: I was not going to give these examples, but now I shall: it is not speculation that plans for 9,600 homes were scrapped by Bristol city council or that plans for 3,000 were scrapped by Exeter city council.
Greg Clark: The bulk of those examples are from the south-west, which has not even adopted a regional strategy, so it is hard to see how the revocation of regional strategies could possibly have influenced those decisions.
Jack Dromey: It is the uncertainty generated by the Secretary of State and the decisions that have subsequently been made. The evidence is clear. Does the Minister challenge the figures? They come from the councils themselves.
Mr Raynsford: Perhaps my hon. Friend will also bear in mind the fact that it is incontrovertible that the Secretary of State’s decision to try to abolish the regional spatial strategies last summer was struck down as unlawful in the High Court.
Jack Dromey: It was indeed, and the cavalier failure to consult is likely, unfortunately, to lead to too much litigation in the years to come. I stress once again that the abolition of the regional spatial strategies and the absence of any significant transitional arrangements have created a mess.
Fiona Bruce: From my experience in the north-west of England I take issue with what the hon. Gentleman has said. In my experience as a councillor in Warrington the regional spatial strategies throttled some of Warrington’s development plans. That sub-region—a term I use with some hesitation as it is not one I like—comprising the new Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester unitary authorities, and Warrington—has now been set free from the regional spatial strategy’s big north-west plan. The authorities are free to work together, and they are doing that well on a range of issues, from prosperity and waste to alcohol harm reduction.
Jack Dromey: I know Warrington well and have travelled there many times over the years, because of the British Nuclear Fuels Ltd centre at Risley, just outside Warrington town centre. With respect to the hon. Member for Congleton, it would be interesting to hear what the warm glow in Warrington amounts to in terms of practical steps, new homes and new economic development.
It is one thing to have a belief that is almost messianic in its fervour for what it can deliver—that is not the case for the hon. Lady, but it is sometimes the case for the Secretary of State—but it is another thing to point to what has been delivered or to argue convincingly that something will be delivered. Once again I stress that the body of evidence to the Committee was overwhelming and clear: unless the duty to co-operate is significantly strengthened, that vapid concept will not deliver on the Government’s stated public policy objectives.
Jack Dromey: The straight answer to a straight question is that if we believe there is a serious housing need that needs to be met, the idea that nimbyism should be allowed to frustrate the delivery of that much-needed housing is not acceptable. That raises difficult issues, including how to have a sensible sub-regional framework while also taking proper account of legitimate local concerns and sensitivities. I shall come to that issue later, but it is at the heart of the debate.
Gavin Barwell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that answer, which I think was yes, he does believe that someone should have the right to overrule the city of Birmingham. Will he clarify two points? Who is the “we” he referred to when he said that if we believe that there is a pressing need for housing, there is the right to overrule the people of Birmingham? Does he think that his constituents share his view?
Jack Dromey: On the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, the view of the constituency is clear and overwhelming, not least because of the mismanagement by Birmingham city council of its housing stock. There is a waiting list of 35,000 and growing, and a big demand for affordable homes both to rent and buy. On his former point, it will be interesting to hear from hon. Members who might believe with sincerity that the proposed framework will deliver more homes, for example. What is the evidence for that? How will they argue that point? How will they disregard the concerns expressed by those who have given evidence to the Committee? We look forward to that debate with some eagerness.
Gavin Barwell: The hon. Gentleman asked about the evidence. If he looks at other spheres in life, does he generally find that people are more likely to do something when they are incentivised to do it, or when someone tries to compel them? Which does he find more effective?
Jack Dromey: I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s speech later. The issue of incentive is important. However, the delivery of key public policy objectives such as housing, transport, waste management, infrastructure development or more general economic development requires sensible sub-regional planning arrangements, of the kind that are not included in the Bill because of the vapid concept of the duty to co-operate and to pick up the phone and talk, which is about as far as it might go.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): The hon. Gentleman keeps describing the duty to co-operate provision as vapid, but there are many examples of such things around the country. I am thinking of the area I represent in the black country where four local authorities have demonstrated their ability to work collaboratively on a range of issues. Why should they not be perfectly capable of making the strategic decisions that he is referring to when he talks about sub-regional planning?
Jack Dromey: Of course it is to be welcomed when local authorities co-operate sensibly to deliver what their communities need, but the key question is this. What happens if they refuse to co-operate with one another? What happens if the duty to co-operate simply stops at sending a letter and being told to take a running jump? Where do we go then? Hon. Members will have to address that in the course of this debate.
The new system that we are putting in place must deliver on the issues that require strategic planning. Those issues include housing needs, climate change mitigation and adaptation—in particular, flood risk—economic development including retail needs, energy needs and capacity, biodiversity, natural resource use including waste management, and transport. I stress again that the overwhelming body of evidence that came before the Committee in relation to all those issues—everyone was saying the same thing—was that without effective sub-regional planning, they would be immensely difficult to deliver.
Jack Dromey: Local authorities can and should take initiatives to meet needs. If that is right—unless the hon. Lady is saying that all those who have given evidence are suffering from a delusion about the need for sub-regional planning in relation to certain key issues, whether voluntary or structured—how will it be achieved through the Bill?
We now come to what the Bill does not say. Does it have anything to say about housing need? Nothing. What does the Bill have to say about economic development? Nothing. What does the Bill have to say about climate change, biodiversity and our country’s future energy needs? Nothing. The Government’s proposed resolution for those vital, greater-than-local strategic issues is a duty to talk and to shuffle paper. Not one of the organisations whose representatives we have met thinks that the duty to co-operate as proposed in the Bill is sufficient or in any way capable of dealing with the strategic issue that I have just mentioned. Indeed, if we look at the body of evidence that has been given to us, we see that we could assemble the friends of the Government’s proposals for a duty to co-operate in a telephone box.
The Federation of Small Businesses says that the Localism Bill lacks clarity as to how a new sub-national approach will work. It fears a regional planning system deadlocked by indecision or obstruction as a consequence of what is being proposed.
Liz Peace of the British Property Federation describes the duty to co-operate laid out in the Bill as “spineless”. There is no incentive to co-operate and no penalty for non-co-operation. Ms Peace warns of the danger that the duty as it stands will be a meaningless “tick-box exercise”. She says that
For pressing, larger-than-local issues, such as environmental sustainability, co-ordination at a larger-than-local level is crucial. The powerful evidence given by Dr Hugh Ellis of the Town and Country Planning Association, echoing those sentiments, was particularly interesting. He asked
“will the sum total of 350 individual local authority decisions on carbon deliver the effective action we need on climate change—or on housing or on retail development?”––[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2011; c. 140, Q231.]
Mr Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. Can I remind him that the Government do not even have the courage of their own convictions? Although they say that they are abolishing regional spatial strategies, there is one notable region of the country that will continue to have a regional spatial strategy: the London region, which is now presided over by the predecessor of the hon. Member for Henley, so he is probably very familiar with it. That is, in effect, the Mayor’s London plan. It will not be left to local authorities to take decisions, and they cannot take decisions if they contravene the London plan. If the Government believe it is right everywhere else in the country, why are they not doing the same thing London?
Jack Dromey: As far as I am aware, there is not a council covering the south-east of England. The hon. Gentleman will hear later about some of the concerns that are being expressed in the south-east of England
“At the moment, as the Bill is currently drafted, it is not clear how that duty to co-operate could be strong enough and enforced.”—[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2011; c. 118, Q201.]
Indeed, the CBI urged members of the Committee to strengthen the duty in terms who should be engaged, the activities upon which they should be engaged, and the engagement that is required. It has said that the duty to co-operate is not strong enough to ensure that sub-national infrastructure is delivered.
Are all those who have said those things suffering from a delusion? Are they failing to see something that the Government have seen? If that is the case, we shall wait for what will no doubt be a gripping account of why they all have it wrong and the Government have got it right.
Adequate infrastructure provision is under threat by the removal of the RSSs and, crucially, the weak duty to co-operate contained in the Bill. Again and again, fears have been expressed—not just by all those to whom I have referred, but by local councillors, developers and authorities—about how to co-ordinate infrastructure projects at the sub-national level. With the abolition of the RSSs, which played an important role in co-ordinating between the national and local level for infrastructure provision, how are local authorities to assess larger-than-local needs and provide adequate infrastructural access? It is clear that the duty to co-operate in the Bill as it stands is a poor and insufficient replacement to the co-ordination offered to councils by the regional spatial strategies.
James Morris: One of the missing links in the hon. Gentleman’s case is democratic accountability. The regional spatial strategies were deliberately remote from ordinary people, and there was no link between them and the level of democratic accountability that is provided for in the Bill.
Jack Dromey: I await with some eagerness the answer to the question that I posed earlier. If the hon. Gentleman is so confident that the new arrangements will work, why did all those who gave evidence to the Committee express the alternative view? Are they wrong and the hon. Gentleman right? As a man with an interesting past on these matters, I have no doubt that he will make an erudite contribution, which I look forward to hearing.
James Morris: I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about some of the contributions from business groups, but evidence from ordinary people—I am sure that he has knocked on their doors in his constituency—is completely absent from his comments. They have absolutely no idea who is making decisions about spatial planning in their area or why they are being taken, and they are frustrated by the system’s inflexibility to respond to their needs.
Jack Dromey: I believe in democratic accountability with a passion, so I look forward to the debate on neighbourhood planning—the capacity of three men, three women and a dog, in the Dog and Duck, to constitute themselves as a neighbourhood without any kind of serious accountability to the communities they represent. If we, as I do, believe in democratic accountability, it should apply to all the provisions of the Bill.
Instead of the duty enshrined in the Bill, there should be a framework for the delivery of development and services across a broad area, allowing for proper decisions to be made about housing, transport infrastructure, national resources, the most sustainable locations for particular projects, and protecting important social and environmental assets. Without such a framework, we risk losing many of the benefits of co-ordination that we had in the past, and this could lead to more local disputes, as well as piecemeal delivery of key national goals on climate change and the environment.
There is a crucial need for clarity and a strong strategic planning framework that includes the larger-than-local issues. How are they to be adequately addressed unless that is done? However, the duty to co-operate, as it stands, is passive. One hopes that people will come together and co-operate, but unless there is enthusiastic co-operation, which cannot be guaranteed under the Bill, the provisions will have at best a marginal impact on issues of concern expressed in evidence to the Committee. At worst, the Bill’s provisions could have a seriously negative impact.
There is no specific product, in terms of evidence or guidance, that the co-operation has to achieve. There is no indication of the important issues on which bodies should co-operate. The duty talks of co-operation with neighbouring authorities but makes no mention whatsoever of the need for much wider spatial co-operation. We have proposed an amendment to the duty to specify the kind of co-operation required while allowing the specific bodies to respond as they want to the issues in question. For example, we would involve local enterprise partnerships rather than neighbouring authorities only because otherwise the process will not work for issues that require wider spatial co-operation, such as landscape and catchment area planning issues.
In contrast to the Government’s policy, our proposal sets a spatial framework for local planning. That would ensure that there was a meaningful debate about the consequences of development and consideration of the cumulative impacts of local development. It would bring local authorities together, providing a forum for managing larger projects, such as transport schemes, that cut across local authority boundaries but are not large enough to merit national planning. Such strategic planning would provide the means of managing debate between local authorities and resolving disputes over the level and general location of development.
I have discussed some of the areas that the duty should cover, but it is important to look at what has happened in the past as a result of such co-operation and at what we may lose in the future. To return to the south-east, examples of necessary co-operation include the Thames basin heaths and the Dorset heathlands.
The Thames basin heaths delivery plan involves no fewer than 11 authorities. For it to work, all the authorities must adopt a common approach to mitigation, otherwise house building around the SPA will not be possible, even if local authorities want such developments to go ahead. However, under the Bill, it is highly unlikely, to say the least, that an effective mitigation solution could ultimately be delivered in the absence of mechanisms for mediation and the strategic approach provided by the regional tier. Such a solution can be provided at the moment, but that cannot be guaranteed in the future.
An analysis of SPAs in England shows that many cover multiple local authorities. Twenty-eight SPAs contain no fewer than five local authorities, and six contain at least 10. Many SPAs are in areas of development pressure where there are big demands for housing and economic development. Crucially, local authorities need to work together to ensure that the conservation objectives for SPAs can be met, as well as to provide the necessary economic, social and housing benefits for their areas. To achieve that in the future, there must be more than just a duty to talk.
I turn now to planning and the deployment of renewable energy. Regional strategies have provided a range of mechanisms to facilitate the planning and deployment of renewable energy by creating a strategic approach and mapping areas of opportunity and constraint in what were known as regional energy capacity studies. Their revocation will result in the removal of a range of targets, including carbon dioxide reduction targets, renewable energy generation targets and climate change adaptation objectives. Previously, those helped to translate EU and national aspirations into effective local delivery.
The Yorkshire and Humber regional spatial strategy, for example, contained the ENV5 policy, which promised to support growth in the microgeneration industry by promoting new building developments that made greater use of decentralised and renewable or low-carbon energy sources. The role of local authorities is central to enabling the Government to meet the legally binding target of securing at least 15% of all their energy from renewable sources, but it is unclear which mechanism in the Bill will help them to do so.
Renewable energy projects can be controversial. Local authorities will have different constraints and capacity, which will have an impact on site selection for renewable energy facilities. The regional tier provided a mechanism for mediation between local authorities, but that will no longer happen.
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