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|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 11th March 2011|
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The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Sarah Davies, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Amess. Unfortunately, I will not be here this afternoon, because I will be attending a family funeral, but I want to put on record my thanks to you and Mr Bayley for the wonderful way in which you have chaired the Committee. Like a good football referee, you have not used your whistle very much. I thank the Clerks for the great help that they have offered me, and I am sure that my colleagues will say something similar later. I also, of course, thank other members of staff, such as the Doorkeepers.
I thank the Ministers and members of the Committee as a whole for making this a good Committee. We have scrutinised many areas well, but we may still want to come back to some of them on Report. This has been the first time that I have served on a Committee as a Front Bencher, and I particularly thank my Back-Bench colleagues for the quality of their enthusiasm and support.
The Chair: We extend our sympathy to the hon. Lady regarding the funeral this afternoon. She made kind and generous remarks, and perhaps I shall make my own comments at the end of our proceedings. I thank her very much indeed for the way in which she expressed herself.
Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): The clause creates a new arrangement within the Greater London authority by making the mayoral strategies subject to an assembly vote and enabling the assembly, by a two-thirds majority, to override the Mayor’s strategy. On the face of it, that might seem a curious proposition. Why two thirds; would not a simple majority be sufficient? To understand the logic, we have to go back into history, and I hope the Committee will not be too upset if I make a short historical diversion. On Tuesday, I threatened to make a very long speech, and while the matter needs to be covered, I shall try to keep my speech as concise as possible.
From the mid-1960s, with the creation of the Greater London council and the larger, more powerful London borough councils, we saw a change in the governance of London that, unfortunately, never really bedded down satisfactorily. From the outset, there was tension between the GLC—the strategic body—and the more powerful London borough councils that were flexing their muscles. That tension existed whether or not there were political differences between the GLC and the boroughs, or whether they were from the same party. I well remember rows between a Conservative GLC and Conservative boroughs, and between a Labour GLC and Labour boroughs.
Those conflicts, which continued for about 20 years, undermined the credibility of the governance of London. Although they were not the cause of it, they nevertheless made it easier for the Conservative Government in the 1980s, irritated by the constant pinpricks coming from County hall, to abolish the GLC. We all—even the Conservative party—now recognise that that was a serious mistake. It was the ultimate act of centralisation. It was a case of central Government saying, “We don’t like what is going on at local level beneath us, and we are going to abolish the body.” That was an untenable proposition from a party that advocates localism, so I hope that a lesson has been learned.
I do not wish to rub people’s noses in this, but we had the task in the late 1990s of restoring city-wide governance to London. I found that activity intensely stimulating. It occupied three years of my ministerial life, and I gave great thought to the sort of structure that needed to be put in place.
We had two overriding objectives. First, we wanted to restore a democratic, city-wide body that would be able to look after the interests of London as a whole. It was widely accepted that a number of services, such as transport, policing, environmental oversight and economic development, could not be provided on the basis of
Putting those two thoughts together, we opted for a directly elected Mayor to give strategic leadership and a clear democratic mandate. However, we also wanted to limit the new Greater London assembly’s remit to a relatively small number of strategic functions and to avoid the GLA treading on the boroughs’ toes on local service delivery, which is best dealt with locally. That was the basic thinking behind the GLA’s structure, and it gave effect to the principle of subsidiarity, which was increasingly in vogue, as I hope remains the case. We sought to retain at city-wide level only those responsibilities that must be handled London-wide and to ensure that local service delivery was devolved.
The other key decision about the structure reflected the need for a Mayor who would enjoy one of the largest democratic mandates in Europe—I was advised at the time that only the Presidents of France and Portugal would have larger personal mandates—to have appropriate executive powers. If the decisions of a Mayor who had been elected by millions of Londoners could have been overturned by a simple majority vote in the assembly, it would have seriously undermined the Mayor’s effectiveness and undoubtedly irritated the London electorate.
The structure we devised envisaged a powerful Mayor—albeit that his or her powers were limited to specific strategic issues—who was able to give leadership to London. To ensure that the Mayor’s powers were not untrammelled, checks and balance were of course fundamental, so we gave the assembly the power to override the Mayor’s budget, but only if it could achieve a two-thirds majority.
We came to that conclusion after taking advice from many other countries, including the United States and European countries that operated mayoral systems. One of the strongest pieces of advice that we received was that it was essential that there should be a budget and that it should never be possible for deadlock to arise because the Mayor and the assembly were in conflict, meaning that no budget was set. A number of American cities told us frankly alarming stories of how long periods of deadlock had elapsed between the mayor and the council, as it is generally called in the States. The two-thirds majority was a mechanism to ensure that if the assembly was able to meet that high hurdle, it could substitute its budget for the Mayor’s, but that otherwise the Mayor’s would prevail. The mechanism was designed to ensure that there would always be a budget and that there would never be deadlock, and it seems to have worked pretty well.
The assembly was to be elected on a proportional system to prevent the Mayor’s proposals from being overturned by a simple partisan vote, which might have happened if a different party from the Mayor’s had just 50% of GLA members. That was another reason why the two-thirds majority commended itself to us.
The system has been in place for a decade and appears to have worked reasonably well. The Mayor has had to moderate excessive budget aspirations in the past because of the assembly’s power to substitute its budget for his,
The structures that we put in place in 1998 were opposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, albeit for different reasons. The Conservatives opposed the creation of a city-wide authority until it became a reality, while the Liberal Democrats opposed the creation of a mayoral system of government; they did not like the idea of the Mayor. Despite such opposition to the structure, the arrangements have generally worked well, and I am delighted that those parties now recognise that they are appropriate for London. As the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, said on Tuesday, we now see the process of the development of a model that has come to greater maturity as a result of the experience of the past 10 years.
Having said that, I am the first to concede that any model of governance might benefit from some tweaks and reforms. I welcome the principle in the clause that the Mayor can be overruled by the assembly if it musters a two-thirds majority, and that that power should extend to not only the budget, but the Mayor’s strategies. If I am critical of any elements in the 1998 structure of the GLA, it is the degree to which the assembly felt under-powered. Yes, it had an important scrutiny role and could override the Mayor’s budget with a two-thirds majority but, without greater involvement in the process of governance, several assembly members found their role rather limited. I am comfortable with the proposals that have led to the provision for the assembly to be empowered to override the Mayor’s strategies, as well as his budget, on a two-thirds majority.
The changes that the Bill will make to the GLA structure might open the door to damaging and destabilising influences in the longer term, which might undermine the structure of London governance. We need to be very careful to avoid shifting the balance of power in London, and indeed within the GLA, in ways that might seriously damage the effectiveness of our capital city’s governance.
I want to highlight three concerns. The first is the risk of transferring too many powers to the GLA and thus destabilising the balance between the GLA and the boroughs that was correctly set in 1998, with a structure that gives strategic powers to the GLA but all service delivery to the boroughs. As I have said, the overlap of, and lack of proper distinction between, those two elements were a cause of friction in the 1960s, which is why I am cautious about the proposals to extend the powers of the Mayor. I should probably have spoken about that on Tuesday evening, when we dealt with the clause that will transfer the Homes and Community Agency’s responsibilities to the Mayor. However, I sensed that the Committee would not have welcomed a long speech at that point, so I thought it best to touch on the matter this morning. I hope that you will not rule my remarks out of order, in making my remarks, Mr Amess.
My key point is that housing was always a flashpoint between the boroughs and the Mayor. It was a main and serious cause of the conflict in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s—not between the boroughs and the Mayor, but between the boroughs and the GLC. With the GLA being given substantial housing powers, there is a risk that the balance will tilt in favour of the GLA and against the boroughs, which are housing authorities. There is now an overlap, and the Mayor has a substantial degree of control over the boroughs, including on resource allocation. That is not going to be easy, and I see scope for conflicts and disagreements between the boroughs and the Mayor in years ahead. It is important that we do not allow that to take us back to the unproductive conflict that existed under the old structure of the GLC and the London boroughs. I issue a warning that that point must be considered carefully. I am not opposed in principle to the Mayor having a greater strategic function on housing, but how that is operated might trample on individual boroughs, so that should be kept under watch.
My second concern is that the extension of the power of the assembly to overturn the Mayor’s decisions not only on the budget, but on his strategies, might—I do not want to overstate this—subtly change the balance of power between the Mayor and the assembly to the disadvantage of effective government in London. I do not begrudge the assembly a bit more of the action, as I have said. I fear, however, that the changes in the Bill might open the door to the kind of horse-trading that there is in other cities across the world—something that we were warned about when we were taking evidence on the creation of the Greater London authority. If we have a situation in which the Mayor chooses to buy off sectional or local interests through allocation of resources to an area in exchange for a vote on a critical decision, perhaps on a mayoral strategy, we begin to open up the scope for pork-barrel politics of a sort that we have, mercifully, kept out of London—we do not wish to bring back it back.
The provision risks creating such a situation; I put it no stronger than that. I am not saying that the provision is the wrong thing to do, but we should keep a close watch on what happens. If there is an indication that the assembly is flexing its muscles in ways that lead to deals between individual assembly members, or groups of members, and the Mayor to further other objectives, rather than to get the best strategies in place for London, we will need to reflect further on the matter.
My third concern is the remit of the Mayor’s powers. I have already stressed that we did not want to create a situation in which the Mayor began to get into detailed service delivery responsibilities and lost the strategic emphasis, as it was very much our perception that that strategic emphasis was the correct role for the Mayor of London. Under the change, there is a risk that there will be mayoral aspirations to acquire more and more powers and services. Those might relate to housing, to which I have already referred. It may be all right, but there is a risk.
That is not the end of the road, however, because mayors have a tendency to be ambitious for their cities. That is fine, but if such ambition involves trying to
I was alarmed, therefore, when I heard a proposal to transfer the royal parks to the Mayor of London. I am partly alarmed on the principle that if something is not bust, we shouldn’t change it, which seems to apply very much in this case. I am also worried about the Mayor rather enjoying having what might be regarded as glamorous projects—the royal parks are certainly glamorous—and getting into service delivery, as used to happen with the old GLC. In those days, a variety of entertainments and art and sporting activities were run by the GLC. Under the new model, the parks should not be run by the Mayor of London; they should be for the boroughs.
I do not know where the Government got this idea of transferring the royal parks. I can see no great logic behind it; I see a dangerous trend if it is implemented. I hope that the Government will take stock of the matter, because I hear from the Ministers’ colleagues in DCMS that they intend to transfer the parks to the Mayor of London, but they do not have any legislative opportunities for doing so. It has been suggested to me that an amendment to the Bill might be tabled to effect that. I do not see such an amendment in the offing, but Ministers may like to tell us whether that is the case. If it is suggested that an amendment be made in the Lords, I hope their lordships will consider carefully the issues that I have raised.
My concern is not just about doing something simply for the sake of change, which, unfortunately, is one of the hallmarks of the new Government, who have a “year zero” tendency to believe that everything has to change. It is also about creating an imbalance between the GLA and the boroughs. For reasons that I have already spelled out, I am not opposed in principle to the changes made by the clause, but I am a little worried about the direction of travel, and the risk that the changes now being made could undermine the fundamentally sound principles on which the mayoralty of London and the GLA have to date been based.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): I would agree with a good deal of the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but not with everything that he said. When we got to about 1985 in the history, we parted company. The fact that there are inevitably tensions, which are sometimes constructive and sometimes less so, between the two levels of government in London is well documented. Perhaps I ought to warn the Committee that my public law dissertation, which I did at the London School of Economics in 1973, was about the tensions implicit in the old GLC’s legal settlement, but I will not go through
Robert Neill: I was reflecting on how I have often thought that, intellectually, the right hon. Gentleman would be a more credible candidate for Mayor of London for his party, but I am happy with the chances of the current Mayor, good as they are, given the current opposition; so I will not encourage the right hon. Gentleman too much.
The extension of the assembly’s ability to reject the mayoral strategy, which comes at the end of a process that is well set out—I will not go into that, unless the Committee wishes me to—seems logical. That was not in the original 1998 proposal, but I am a pragmatist. We all learn with experience. I advocated such an extension when amendments were made to the GLA Bill in 2007, so I have been pretty consistent. It may be that—I will put it as neutrally as this—at that time, the degree of maturity and experience of the then Government did not permit them to adopt the extension, but I have always felt that there was a case for it, and it is logical.
In practical terms, the two-thirds majority rule has generally worked well in relation to budgets. It has always seemed logical that we should not have a different system for the strategies that drive the spending priorities and for the supply, in terms of the budget. In our eight years on the assembly, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and I were very conscious of the frustrations that all members of the assembly felt about the limited leverage that they had, so I am glad that the proposal has support. It is sensible and rational and puts everything on a consistent basis; that is the key thing.
I understand the point about the balance between the GLA and the boroughs. As somebody who served on the boroughs, the old GLC and then the assembly, I have lived with the balance, and I am conscious of the need to maintain that. That is one of the areas—this is slightly tongue in cheek—where perhaps the first Mayor was sometimes a little more aggressive than the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich in his desire to extend the Mayor’s powers. It is interesting that Mayor Johnson has been much more restrained in the use of the powers that he has. Perhaps that says more about the way that individual Mayors—they are all big personalities— tend to operate.
The clause, which is pitched at where we are, is not a rebalancing between the Mayor and the boroughs. I understand the point the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich made about previous clauses, but on
Clause 199 rebalances the internal arrangements of the GLA. As we referred to in another context, there is merit that, in a more mature and settled system. I had some discussions on the issue in New York, when I was in opposition, and I reflected on my thinking on the subject. I came to similar conclusions to the right hon. Gentleman on how one ensures that a genuinely strategic view is taken. I understand the point, which was also raised by others in our original debate on the subject. Nothing in the clause increases the risk of factional trade-offs.
This is not the right hon. Gentleman’s fault—he was not advising the previous Mayor of London—but my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and I could point out that the only serious, obvious and blatant example of pork-barrel politics being indulged in for factional advantage was when the previous Mayor did a deal with the Green group in the assembly to get his two-thirds majority, so that he could get his blocking third on the budget. It has happened once, so it is right to raise the issue, but it was a single instance, and it does not seem to have happened thereafter. We hope that it will not again.
Mr Raynsford: I accept entirely the Minister’s point that the arrangements have not proved a problem with the budget, but we are talking about only the budget, which has been the nuclear option, so both sides have tended to approach the matter in a responsible way. With the extension to the strategies, one will be dealing with a lot more instances where there will be the temptation to try to buy, or prevent the formation of, a majority that could endanger the strategy. That is why I issued the warning. I am not against the clause in principle, but the scope for slightly unwelcome practices of the kind that I mentioned may be increased. I would welcome his views on that.
Robert Neill: Where a mature attitude is adopted, that need not be the case. It is perhaps indicative more of the personalities and attitudes of the politicians concerned that Mayor Livingstone thought it appropriate to buy the Green party’s support for his budget by giving the money to oppose one of his strategies—the Thames Gateway bridge. Not many politicians will get themselves into that situation, so we should not read too much into it, although we should always be alert to the issue, as the right hon. Gentleman says. Broadly, assembly members have behaved in a responsible fashion, as have Mayors. We can ensure that that is done. After all, if there were to be cases of abuse of that kind, the electorate ultimately have the ability to demand a price from members who behave in that fashion; that can be dealt with.
It is true that Mayors are ambitious. I think that the right hon. Gentleman and I would agree that that is not a bad thing, provided that the ambition is constructive and channelled. Leaders of councils can be ambitious
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the royal parks, and I am happy to set out the position, although interestingly it is an issue that was first raised by the previous Labour Mayor, who had an interest in taking on board the royal parks. It is not, in fact, a partisan point in any way. He is right that hon. Friends the Ministers in DCMS accepted, in a statement on 18 January, that they had the ambition of devolving the royal parks. We have, however, taken the view that that should happen by consensus. We have not included proposals in the Bill, because it has become apparent that the boroughs—of all parties—that have the parks have an alternative view to the Mayor, and indeed his predecessor, on how that might be achieved. We are seeking to facilitate discussions between the Mayor and the boroughs, because if a long-term decision is taken, it is best that it be taken on the basis of a consensus. I hope that that reassures the right hon. Gentleman.
Stephen Gilbert: It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, and I am sure that I speak for the whole Committee when I say that it is a pleasure to have reached the last day of this Public Bill Committee. As it has been my first ever Public Bill Committee, I feel that I have learned a huge amount about the Bill, the issues surrounding it and the processes of this House. As a new Member, I thank you for your patience and guidance, and I also pass on my thanks to the Clerks and the various officials who have supported us in our deliberations. That said, I have also realised that I must have been a very inefficient new Member before this Committee sat, because I have absolutely no idea what I did on Tuesdays and Thursdays before the Committee, or what I will do on those days in future. I hope that the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire, does not get ideas.
New clause 11, in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East, would, in short, introduce a community right of appeal. It has become clear as we have considered the Bill that the Government’s intention is, quite properly, to devolve planning powers to local communities. Central to this very radical reform is the intention to give neighbourhoods far more power to determine the shape of the places where people in the neighbourhood live. That is, of course, a welcome move, but there is a missing piece of the puzzle, and that is a community right of appeal. When decisions are taken that are not in line with the local development plan, and that are therefore against the wishes of the local community, new clause 11 would enable the public and their representatives to challenge the decision.
This is not a view peculiar to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East. I remind the Committee of the words in Liberal Democrat and Conservative documents from May last year. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto stated:
I do not profess to be an expert in coalition negotiations, but I would have thought that one of the first things that my right hon. and hon. Friends would have done
From our many debates, we know that planning reform is key to the Government’s agenda on localism. It is my view—I hope to convince the Committee and the House in due course—that a community right of appeal would sit well with the other rights that are being devolved to local communities and neighbourhoods by the Bill. The current situation is quite clear. At the moment, only applicants for planning permission may appeal, with no restriction on the grounds of the appeal, to the Secretary of State when a local authority refuses permission. The community and its representatives have no such right of redress. Those issues have been raised with Ministers by other Members of the House. In an answer to a question from my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said:
“The Government’s reforms to the planning system seek to avoid the need for appeals to the Planning Inspectorate by all parties. Planning permission should be secured by consistency with plans rather than by development control.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 480W.]
The proposed system of neighbourhood planning and neighbourhood development orders will present several challenges, as has been discussed. Crucially, the system will be voluntary. While Ministers expect between 20% and 60% of the country to move to the new system, we need to do more to drive up the take-up for the Bill’s measures. Key among that would be putting in place a system of checks and balances. A community right of appeal against planning applications submitted under the current regime could be a key element in pushing local neighbourhoods to fulfil the Government’s desire.
Of course, we have to guard against vexatious appeals and appeals driven by commercial interest, which is why in new clause 11 I have tried to set a high threshold for the issues that could trigger an appeal and the bodies that would be able to appeal. A community right of appeal as defined in the new clause could be triggered only where a decision to grant a planning permission is not in line with an already adopted plan, or where the local authority itself has a particular interest in the application and so could be construed as conflicted in its ability properly to determine the application. There are many controversial planning issues, such as one in my constituency regarding an incinerator and energy from waste recovery facility, which the local authority is pursuing. It has been rejected by the local authority’s planning committee, but there is a clear interest in
We need to be absolutely clear. As the Bill is drafted, developers will still be able to submit planning applications that are contrary to a local or neighbourhood plan, as well as appeal against any refusal based on the provisions of that plan. The changes put forward in the Bill may reduce the chance of appeals being successful where neighbourhood plans are in place, but we should not lull ourselves into a false sense of security and think that the Bill, as it stands, will eliminate appeals in the planning system.
Indeed, over the past 10 years, appeals have become a more prominent part of the planning system. It is estimated that over 8,000 planning applications were deemed to have significantly cut across agreed development plans. That is a tiny part of the 6 million applications in the period, but those 8,000 cases are likely to have had a more significant impact on local communities, because they go outside agreed plans and are therefore controversial enough to be referred to the Secretary of State.
Right hon. and hon. Members might be thinking that there is a different way of levelling the playing field. Indeed, there is; we could remove the developers’ right of appeal. The Conservative party’s quality of life policy group, in their publication “Blueprint for a Green Economy”, suggested that exactly that course of action could be taken to remove the disparity between the rights of the applicant, the developer and the community. However, the Bill does not do that. I ask Ministers to reflect on which avenue they would prefer to take to equalise the rights.
Not only does the Bill not prevent applications and appeals that are outside the neighbourhood planning framework, but it does not prevent local authorities granting permission for applications that are outside the frameworks, provided that they can prove that there are “material considerations” that are significant enough to cause them to override the neighbourhood development plan. In such circumstances, the community, which had come together in the now infamous Dog and Gun to prepare its neighbourhood plan—[Hon. Members: “Dog and Duck.”] It is clearly not infamous enough. The community could be overruled by its local authority and would then have no right of appeal. That is against the spirit of what the Government are trying to achieve. New clause 11 would help to redress that.
Community rights of appeal exist in other countries. In Ireland, 8%—almost one in 10—of all planning applications were appealed against in 2008. Ireland has a community right of appeal, and the split in that 8% was roughly 50-50. New Zealand has an established right of public appeal against the grant of planning consent, and it acts as an incentive for developers and planning authorities to focus their efforts on plan making and pre-application discussion. Australians also enjoy a community right of appeal. In none of those countries has a community right of appeal been an impediment to economic growth. Indeed, by forcing developers and communities to work together, it has acted as an incentive for properly managed economic growth and properly discussed community plans.
Too often, local planning can be characterised by large developers railroading unpopular proposals through the planning system, using their unrestricted right of
Where decisions are taken that are not in line with an agreed development plan, and that can therefore be considered to be against the wishes of the local community, representatives should be able to question those decisions through an appeals process. That is my view, and it is the contention of new clause 11.
I noted the response that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, gave to my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on the timetable for further reforms. He said—I hope that he does not mind if I paraphrase slightly—that the Localism Bill came first, then the national planning framework, and then we would
I welcome the fact that the Government have signalled their intention to leave the door open for further reforms to the planning system, but that is not as good as getting it right first time. As the Minister knows from his long years of service in local and regional government, planning legislation changes infrequently. Thirteen years passed between the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. The House may not get the chance to take this issue forward, and deliver on the coalition parties’ election pledges, for some considerable time.
It is my contention, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East, that new clause 11 will deliver on those pre-election promises made by Government Members. I am hugely grateful for the support of a number of external organisations in helping to develop the clause and research the issue. We believe that new clause 11 would help to underpin the Government’s commitment to localism, and that it would be an added incentive for developers and communities to work together through the neighbourhood planning process that the Bill will deliver. I believe that community right of appeal will be a more efficient and effective method of resolving controversial planning cases, and more in keeping with established planning practices. It will right an imbalance in the system, which will deliver real power and real control to local authorities.
The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship on this last day of the Bill Committee, Mr Amess. I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay that we have learned a lot in Committee in recent weeks. We have had a daily history lecture from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington. I said that that this would be a historic Bill when we started, but I did not realise that the history would be topped up every day.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich has also warmed to the theme. He deprived us late on Tuesday of his history lecture, but he gave us a potted version today. I was astonished to see his conversion to an instinctive conservatism, which I had, in the past, doubted would take place; I thought of him as radical. When he said that we should not change things if they are not broken, it recalled the words of the third Marquess of Salisbury, who said, “Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough already?” I have never thought of the right hon. Gentleman as a latter-day Cecil, but one never knows.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bradford East is not with us to speak to the new clause that he tabled with my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay. I have learned something about the Whips as a result, because the hon. Member for Bradford East, as we know, was initially noted for his wisdom and his sage-like remarks in Committee. That gave way to a certain rebellion, and I am reliably informed that he woke up in Shanghai a few days later, so I have learned to be wary of the power of my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay may bear in mind the further absence today of the hon. Member for Bradford East.
We have before us three disparate new clauses, and I will address them in detail. They are a rather curious set, in that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay invites me to remove the one piece of agreement that I have with the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. It is the only clause where the right hon. Gentleman has congratulated me on resisting a third-party right to appeal, which he did on the Floor of the House. It is rather churlish of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay to dissent at this late stage, when we have reached a happy conclusion to our discussions in Committee. I will say more about the detail of that new clause, but I think it is appropriate to talk about the other two new clauses as well. Am I right in saying so, Mr Amess?
The Chair: Order. I think that there has probably been a slight misunderstanding, which is why I look towards the Opposition. Opposition Members are going to speak to their two new clauses, so for the moment, will the Minister respond only to the new clause that has been moved?
Greg Clark: I will happily do that, Mr Amess. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay is absolutely right that when we were in opposition, we considered, in our reforms to the planning system, whether it was right to establish a third-party right of appeal. At the time, however, there was not the degree of progress in devolving power to neighbourhoods that the Bill proposes. We want communities to have much greater ability to use plans to shape their future. We want to move away from a reliance on the appeals mechanism for resolving such matters; my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that.
The question then arises: do we allow no departure, under any circumstances, from an adopted local plan, including a neighbourhood plan? Discussions that we have had with parties representing a wide range of interests suggest that it is important to have a degree of
The next question is: if there are to be exceptional departures from the plan, who should decide whether that is in the community’s interest? We have a choice between an unelected body—the Planning Inspectorate based in Bristol—or elected local councillors. It is consistent with the type of approach that we want that that power should be vested in local democratically elected and accountable people. They have access to members of the community. They represent the community. They can make a more sensitive judgment than would be possible if the matter were contracted to a third party.
We have safeguards in place to ensure that the interests of the community cannot be ridden roughshod over. First, there is the importance of the plan. Secondly, there is the fact that any decision to depart from the plan must be in limited circumstances and can be taken only by representatives of the community in the planning committee. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell
It is necessary to reflect on the need to make the planning system more plan-based and less subject to the appeals mechanism, so that it is more fit for purpose, less costly and more accessible. I would regret my hon. Friend’s new clause resulting in extra cost, delay and uncertainty in applications, when part of the point of pre-loading things into plans is the ability to reduce some of that uncertainty and delay.
Business organisations and many of the developers that will need to invest in our infrastructure, particularly in local infrastructure, are concerned that the proposal would introduce greater expense and delays into the system. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich described it, or a previous incarnation of it, as a barmy measure. I would not go that far, because coming from a system in which there was little confidence in local people’s ability to have their say and their way, I understand its provenance.
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 11th March 2011|