UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 940-i

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

Communities and Local Government Committee

Review of planning practice Guidance

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Nick Boles MP AND Lord Taylor of Goss Moor

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 63

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee

on Wednesday 30 January 2013

Members present:

Mr Clive Betts (Chair)

Simon Danczuk

Bill Esterson

Mark Pawsey

Andy Sawford

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Nick Boles MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, and Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, who led External Review of Government Planning Practice, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Welcome, everyone, to this one-off evidence session on the planning practice guidance and the announcement on permitted development rights made on 24 January. Minister and Lord Taylor, you are both welcome. I am sure, Minister, you are as pleased to be back as we are to see you here; you are certainly a regular visitor to us. Lord Taylor, I think it is the first time you have been with us, so thank you very much indeed for coming this afternoon.

Would it be fair to say, Minister, that, from the Government’s point of view, they generally have given a pretty warm welcome to Lord Taylor’s recommendations and, unless there are particular problems identified, you are going to implement them as quickly as you can?

Nick Boles: Mr Chairman, thank you very much to you and to the Committee for agreeing to delay slightly the start time so that I was able to respond to a Westminster Hall debate that was of some importance to a colleague of ours.

You are absolutely right, Mr Chairman, that the Government is very enthusiastic about the review that Lord Taylor has led and many, if not most, of the recommendations. As you know, we are consulting on those recommendations and on the package that they have suggested, so we start off very, very enthusiastic, but we make no absolute commitments to anything until we have properly considered the consultation responses, including, of course, from this Select Committee.

Q2 Chair: In terms of the big issues and the various categories-A, B and C-that particular guidance is put in, which is pretty crucial to the process, will the Government consider appeals by organisations or individuals that something is in the wrong category? How will you go about determining the criteria you will use to decide whether the right category has been chosen or whether it should change?

Nick Boles: There are probably three points to make. Firstly, we already have a number of responses to this consultation from organisations with particular interests in particular bits of guidance. The second is that just because something is no longer going to be planning guidance does not mean that there is not going to be an appetite for that guidance to inform planning officers, planning committees and other people-developers and the like-about their decisions. It may well be that when Government has a much slimmeddown set of planning guidance there will be more room for other organisations to put forward their ideas and for them to be taken seriously.

The third point I would make is that perhaps the most ingenious element of Lord Taylor’s recommendations is this idea that there will be a set of guidance on a website that is updated on a fairly regular basis by the Chief Planner and it can respond, therefore, to people coming in and saying, "This has changed" or "We see the need for this". Even if perhaps a particular element of guidance is not included initially in the package that goes on to that website, that does not mean the door is closed forever more; if a sufficiently good case can be made, it could be included. The main thing we do not want is, instead of 7,000 paper pages, 7,000 web pages of guidance.

Q3 Chair: We will come on to changes on the website and other ancillary guidance by the organisations in due course. In terms of the key issues about the guidance that will be removed, the guidance that will be amended and the guidance that will be kept-the A, B and C categories-is the Government open to changing any of Lord Taylor’s recommendations in the light of the consultation process? If so, what criteria are you going to use to determine whether certain guidance should be in a different category from what is now recommended?

Nick Boles: We are open. It is a proper consultation and we are open to suggestions. The criteria we will use are, bluntly: "Do they make a good argument?" and "Does it persuade Lord Taylor?" It may be appropriate for Lord Taylor to make a comment on the different categories, because he is the one who has created them.

Chair: Certainly, yes.

Lord Taylor: The answer is clearly yes. We do want to hear what people have to say; that is a really important part of the process. In fact, part of the concept of it running forwards is that there is a crowd-sourced element-people can easily put in their comments. The whole set of recommendations was informed by the pretty rapid recognition as we worked through 7,000 pages of this material that virtually none of it was up to date. That is why we said the whole thing is not fit for purpose. At that point we had to think, "What are the crucial documents that clearly have to be maintained until they are brought in to the new format and whose importance we need to signal?" There was not really a selectivity about the document-it can be better done, but it is an important document. Those are in the category that needs to remain until updated.

We then wanted to identify those documents that were really unnecessary. A lot of them are Chief Planner’s communications that are simply out of date; some are the kinds of documents that we do not think maintain the kind of guidance that should be Government guidance anyway, such as best-practice material. However, there was also a category of material that was very out of date and should not really be relied on, but there were things in it that would need to be in an updated form on the new site. That is the material that we signalled should go, but in which there are important elements. In signalling that, we are saying to people that until there is something new, we recognise the importance of that.

Things may shift between them. There may be an argument that people put forward convincingly that some of what we have recommended should simply go needs to be transferred on to the new website in some form; and there may be arguments put forward that were we to recommend a document be removed on an interim basis, the system would fall over. We did keep asking ourselves: "What will happen if this document is not here?" If it matters-for example, for the planmaking process that is prioritised at the moment-we would retain it. If it would not matter whether it was there or not over a six to ninemonth period, it should be recommended for abolition.

Q4 Chair: You also recommend, Lord Taylor, that there should be a second formal consultation at the point the new website goes live. That is a recommendation. Are Government going to follow that through?

Nick Boles: Yes. What is interesting about this proposal is that, in truth, it is a permanent consultation. That is just as it should be. The whole point about this is that this resource will be online; when decisions are made or other Government policies change that require an update to guidance, the Chief Planner and the Department will have a responsibility to bring that forward. Equally, in response to people saying, "We really think you need to do something on this," they will be able to make that proposal, and there will be an annual review of the website to take into account those suggestions. I would not want to suggest that somehow there is a window of consultation that closes forever. The truth is this is meant to be as open and consultative a process as possible, and so consultation will be permanent.

Q5 Chair: But at the time the website goes live, there will be a proper consultation on the whole of the guidance as it stands then?

Nick Boles: I would not want to suggest that that would mean the website was not somehow valid. People will be absolutely invited to respond to what is up on the website and make suggestions if they feel that some bit of it or another bit of it is not sufficient, but what I would not want the Committee to take away is an understanding that there will be a further consultation period in which the whole thing will be on hold for another couple of months. The website will be there; we are consulting now on the broad recommendations, and then it will be permanently open to further revision as people suggest good ideas.

Lord Taylor: The reason that we need that waypoint consultation at that period is there are going to be two things happening with this. One is the material itself in its revised form, so it is a good raincheck to invite people to say, "What do you make of that?" There will, of course, be all sorts of experts and practitioners involved in the drafting process along the way, but let’s invite that commentary at that point. Then the recommendation is that we do that every year as well, so there is a raincheck quite frequently on it. The second element and reason for consulting is that the functionality of the website will also be important, not just the material on it. We need to make sure that this is working for people in the format as well as the content.

Q6 Chair: The NPPF has now been in operation for 10 months. Like anything new, the wrinkles come out where people are not quite clear about what something means or something does not appear to mean what it may have been intended to mean in the first place. I just wonder whether, Minister, you have identified or had identified for you any words or phrases in the NPPF that require further clarification through the guidance. There are terms that have come to our attention such as "public benefit", "optimal viable use" and "valued landscapes", which are there as words in the NPPF but may not be absolutely defined there. Is that something the guidance ought to do?

Nick Boles: It is an interesting question. What we do not want to do is start pulling at the threads in the carefully constructed and well knitted sweater of the NPPF, though we have always said that it would be reviewed, and that indeed is the case. But it absolutely is the case that some elements of the guidance that have been suggested-for instance, on viability and on the housing assessments-will effectively clarify policies that are in the NPPF to make it easier for people to understand how they should interpret them. Yes, clarificatory guidance will be very much a part of what will be going up on the website, but not changes to the NPPF.

Q7 Simon Danczuk: Minister, the review believes it should be possible to get the revised guidance in place by July. Is that going to be achieved?

Nick Boles: I am an optimistic man and I believe in setting ambitious targets, knowing that one will not always meet them all in full. We are determined to get a move on because there is an industry and a profession out there who are waiting for this. On the other hand, some of the recommendations, particularly on the technical functionality of the website, may be quite challenging to produce immediately, so it may not be that it is the final form. I am not going to get into "beta" language and all of that, but it may not be the final form. However, I am determined that there will be a website with the bulk of the new guidance that has been specified on it in July; whether it is 1 July or 31 July may be an open question.

Q8 Simon Danczuk: So you can guarantee that it will be live and running properly by Christmas?

Nick Boles: I can guarantee that I am highly ambitious for the timetable, but I am not going to specify any particular deadlines. What is important is that it is right and it works.

Q9 Simon Danczuk: The review says the guidance should concentrate on what is essential. I am curious to know what the criteria will be to define what is essential.

Nick Boles: May I pass that over to Lord Taylor, who I think is probably better placed to respond?

Lord Taylor: If you look at the report, we seek to describe there the things that are essential for the planmaking process. I think at one point we possibly unhelpfully described them as "nuggets". If I can give an example, one of the representations we had very strongly from business was the importance of the "town centres first" document and its explanation of the sequential test and the decisiontaking process for that. Probably all of us would agree that is a really fundamental document. It became very evident in our discussions that actually what was essential was the sequential test, which is quite a small part of a very long document and a small number of paragraphs. That is the challenge that we are working through with the officials, because once we had that discussion, instead of defending the document, there was general agreement that lots of it was out of date, lots of it was descriptive and unnecessary, but there were essential elements. It is that that we are keying in on. We describe that in a series of paragraphs in the report that, if you gave me a moment, I could probably quote, but I do not think that is necessary.

On the timescale of that, one of the reasons that I and the group consciously recommended a tight timescale-after discussing it, it has to be said, with officials and others-was that the material is overwhelmingly out of date, some of it desperately so, and some of the gaps desperately need filling. We have recommended some of those priority areas. It is not helpful to set a long timescale for it.

Secondly, the nature of identifying what is important and honing it down is a really big sub-editing job, but that is what it is. A lot of the material is there; it is well understood. PINS, who were directly involved, were very clear about what is used at appeals and judicial reviews; others are very clear what the material is. I really wanted officials not to feel that they had to go away and do a lot of brainstorming and discussion; I wanted them to get down to it, so that we could then have drafts that could be discussed, worked through and put up. If that needs further improvement, we have got a rolling process for doing that, but I do think that doing this quickly is necessary. We are very nearly a year out from the NPPF already, and the sooner this is done the better. The group did talk with officials and others to get that.

Will we get all of it? The recommendation does not say we will get all of it; it says that most of it should be up and running and the functionality should be there. There are actually reasons why some things could not be done-there may be some areas that need specific consultation; there may be some areas where a legislative programme is interacting with the work-but I think it can be done, and that is what we mean by the "essential elements".

Q10 Simon Danczuk: Who will determine what is essential? Will Ministers sign off what is essential?

Lord Taylor: I am assuming that question is to me. What I understand the process to be is that clearly it rests with the Department to draft, and there are people whose role that is and who have that expertise. They will consult others-not official consultation, but that interaction with people with expertise and so on in the process. Assuming this goes ahead, the Minister has asked that the group, slightly expanded, work with the officials on that and then review those drafts and make our independent advice available to the Minister on whether we believe the job has been done effectively. The group itself contains a range of expertise, of course.

Nick Boles: I just want to remind the Committee-I am sure you all know-who else is on the group, because if none of these people think something is essential, there is a reasonably high probability that it is not. You have Trudi Elliott from the RTPI; Simon Marsh from the RSBP; Andrew Whitaker from the Home Builders Federation; Councillor Mike Jones, who is Leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council; and recently the group was expanded for this second phase to include Steve Ingram, who is a local authority planner from Huntingdonshire, and John Rhodes from the Quod planning consultancy. You have a range of perspectives there. They may not all agree with each other and they may not all agree with officials, but where there are disagreements, there will be advice coming to me-because I am the least expert in this process-to make final decisions.

Q11 Simon Danczuk: For clarity’s sake, Minister, will Ministers sign off guidance before it is published?

Nick Boles: Yes. Of course I am not going to suggest that I am going to sign off every sentence of the website, because that would require me to read many hundreds of pages, but there will be recommendations coming through; much of it, hopefully, will be recommendations that officials and the group have reached an agreement on and, while I will ask some questions, that will tend to suggest that that is a good idea. I think I will probably try to stick my finger in a bit more when there is a difference of opinion between the official advice and the group. That will be where we need to be tested. As I say, the most important thing is please let’s not all expect this to be absolutely right the first time. It is an iterative site; it is an iterative process; and it will, I hope, like all good processes in Government, be subject to constant improvement.

Q12 Mark Pawsey: I think the Committee understands that there is very broad acceptance of the need for this work and the sense of urgency on the part of both planning practitioners and those applying for consents, but can I just ask you about the status of existing guidance in the interim? We were hoping to get on with this and get stuff in place by the middle of the year, but what is the status of existing guidance? As things are being worked up, can you give some guidance to local authorities on where they should see things right now?

Nick Boles: I will give a general answer and then perhaps Lord Taylor would like to add to it. Firstly, as a matter of practice, it is very important for all of us to remember that the formal status of the vast majority of existing guidance is out of date and totally ignored by everybody who is involved in development. The idea that planning officials, developers and planning consultants are going around sifting through the 7,000 pages every time they have to look at a development is simply not the case. Of course, what the profession does already is focus on the things that really matter and are relevant to their current decisions. Lord Taylor has suggested a huge amount that can be cancelled immediately. This is subject to consultation on the total package, so legally they have not been cancelled until that has terminated, but I think everybody will understand the implication of that. On the important subjects that have been listed, people should look at the existing guidance until the new guidance is up on the website in July. Whether it is on viability or flooding-whatever it is-people should observe the existing guidance until there is something to work with in July. You have very successfully underlined why it is important that we get a move on.

Lord Taylor: The truth is this is only guidance and it cannot take the place of local discretion and professional input. That currently has to include the fact that the guidance is massively out of date, references the wrong documents, etc. The guidance is still guidance, but we also do not really have a definition of what guidance is at the moment, so it is really just all sorts of Government material that may be taken into account. What we will shift to is something that is very clearly the guidance suite. It will give strength to decisiontaking; it will help people be proportionate about what they ask for as well as understand what they need to do. In the interim, there will be, I hope, the cancellation of some of the material that is so out of date it is unhelpful. We have clearly indicated where there are some important elements nevertheless; the documents will not cease to exist, so people can be aware of those and professionally trained around that. The only thing that the Minister may not have touched on is that we have set some priority areas, and it may be that, although we see the website being fully functional in July, some of those priority areas come into use before that-and indeed I hope they can.

Q13 Mark Pawsey: That was what I was going to move on to: the nine priority areas. Is there an order of priority within those nine in terms of the urgency to get out certain advice and guidance?

Lord Taylor: That probably is a question for me, in the sense of whether I intended a priority-whether the Minister has a priority I do not know. The group did not intend to distinguish between those priority areas. There is one distinction within it, which is that some elements are about areas that need urgent updating, like the environmental impact appraisal work, and some of it is about filling in areas where Government really does not have anything to say in terms of guidance, such as duty to co-operate. In both cases, the reason we highlighted them as priorities is that we think they need to come in as early as is practical.

Q14 Mark Pawsey: Minister, are some higher on that list than others?

Nick Boles: Not formally, because it is a relatively short list and the group and officials are capable of advancing all of those priority areas quickly. But if I have a personal priority, it is to get rid of anything that rejoices in the name SHMA or SHLAA and replace it with something that has a name that normal people can understand. That was a frivolous comment, but underlying it is the fact that those are particularly important for people who are writing local plans, and planmaking is a core priority. Viability guidance is also particularly important, as is, as Lord Taylor said, the duty to co-operate. In a sense, that is my political gloss on where I feel people most need help, but there is no formal ranking of the nine; they are all priorities for work as soon as we can do it.

Q15 Mark Pawsey: Minister, if it helps, my local authority sees as the key priorities duty to co-operate, viability and identifying housing need, so that fits very neatly with yours. I know I have got colleagues who will ask about the first two, but in terms of identifying housing need, we all know the pressures on providing housing land and the challenges to increasing rates of housebuilding. How are we going to get that in place as quickly as possible to stimulate housebuilding?

Nick Boles: You have successfully communicated the political importance; perhaps Matthew can talk about how we are going to go about satisfying it.

Lord Taylor: It was not hard to identify the priorities you have just mentioned; I think we were all aware of the importance of that. It is the planmaking set that is especially important, because clearly that is key to things going forward from here. There has been a lot of thinking, both among the officials and outside. There is a lot of practitioner work going on. On housing need, for example, there is a broad group of practitioners who have been doing work on this, which I hope will come forward soon, and that will help inform the process. But the key is this: if the NPPF, as it does, says that at core, local authorities need to identify and evidence their need, guidance needs to help to explain what good evidence looks like. That does not just help the planmaking process in terms of the local authority, but also then informs the Inspectorate and any challenges that might take place. It is absolutely fundamental. In my mind, the NPPF is, in many respects, built on that. If we do not have topdown figures, we have to have a robust process building up from the bottom, and there is an active demand for better understanding on that.

Q16 Mark Pawsey: We know the key three; we know there are nine. The Committee has heard lots of other priorities, and I am sure people are coming forward with them in your consultation. How are you going to determine, Minister, which of those priorities are going to be pursued and which ones, unfortunately, are too narrow and need to be put on one side?

Nick Boles: I am going to take advice from a very, very good group of experts.

Lord Taylor: You have seen the evidence that has come forward: there is broad support, people want it to happen quickly, but there is scepticism about whether we can deliver. Well, that is the challenge, is it not? But also a lot of organisations have highlighted particular areas-in some cases, although not always, the areas that organisation has a particular interest in. The consultation itself will help reveal that. The big priority areas were, as I said, pretty universally put forward and then people tend to add another, or one or two others. If they make a convincing case for it, clearly that will be given some priority in the process, but we are not talking about a long period. This is not like, in the past, commissioning big documents that might take a year or a year and a half to come forward.

On the whole, I think those requests for priority are not so much that they are concerned about the timescale; I think it is mainly that they are concerned that their area is regarded as important. Bluntly, all of this is. At the end it will be a single suite; everything will be within that and it will not be the case, as it is as the moment, that each individual area is written as a separate document, as if that is the only important thing in the world, without crossreferencing against everything else. One of the advantages of a single suite is that that will not be the issue.

Q17 Mark Pawsey: May I just pick up on one particular area of concern that the Committee has had a strong representation on? That relates to changes to the use classes order in respect of houses in multiple occupation. The changes to legislation there are very, very recent and there is some concern that a further change may be about to happen. How can you put people’s minds at rest on that specific issue?

Nick Boles: We have consulted on a broad range-which no doubt we are going to go on to-of relaxations of the use classes order and the extension of permitted development rights. We brought forward a package of relaxations last week.

Q18 Mark Pawsey: Minister, I am particularly referring to the Article 4 declarations that some authorities are able to make in respect of houses in multiple occupation and changing the rights of people to choose where they may live-particularly student designations. Have you any proposals to make changes here?

Nick Boles: To Article 4?

Mark Pawsey: Yes.

Nick Boles: No.

Q19 Andy Sawford: You mentioned, Minister, that one key area of the new guidance is the viability test. You will know that Sir John Harman has been doing some work on this with the Local Housing Delivery Group that has been welcomed by lots of practitioners. We are interested to know whether you will follow Harman’s advice.

Nick Boles: I am very much aware of that piece of work, but I would not want to prejudge where it lies in the balance against other people’s work, because there are many views on viability, as I am gradually discovering. Matthew?

Lord Taylor: You mentioned Harman; he has done an excellent job. There is also the work that RICS have led on. In the representations we received and the discussions we had, there was lots of pressure to have the ultimate answer on viability. There is not an ultimate answer on viability, because it will always be a contested area, and therefore the question then is: how can we make the guidance help that? Do we identify a particular model? Does Government own a model? I think the balance of view at the moment-and we are not into the process of bottoming it out yet-is that what the guidance I hope can do is make sure that people are on the same page. It may not recommend a particular model, but it has to give people the borders within which they are working so that there is a common understanding of what will ultimately still be contested. A developer undoubtedly, in most cases, will have a different starting point from the local authority; you are trying to get them to come together. If that discussion is on the basis of completely different places and understandings of what counts, that is not helpful. If the guidance can help get them in to a constructive debate, that is important. So yes, we are paying a lot of attention to Harman and RICS; we are not necessarily adopting a particular model, but we are certainly trying to make sure that there is a common language in which those assessments can be made. But as I say, that is not my final conclusion or the group’s final conclusion, let alone where the Minister may end up.

Q20 Andy Sawford: You said this was quite contested. What would you see as the major contested space as this develops between what Harman is saying at the moment and whoever else is influencing this? His is the work that is out there that certainly local authorities are looking to.

Lord Taylor: It is not the only piece out there, as I said, but there are two senses of contested. The sense in which I was referring to it is that it is not possible to give a definitive answer on the viability of a particular site that will be agreed, because if it was, every developer would always make money. There is always a judgment call on the viability and the likely profitability of a development. In that sense, I do not think there is a magic wand that simply gives the definitive answer. You raised it in the sense of whether there are contested areas regarding how you go about it. Absolutely there are. There is argument about what factors count in how you judge it. That is where the guidance may be able to help, which is why I talk about getting them on the same page, so that we understand the terms of reference in those discussions that inevitably take place in assessing viability. At the moment, local authority after local authority and developer after developer tell me that is not the case. It will not be perfect, but I think there is a clear role for guidance. The group is very clear that that is what we have got to achieve. Have we got there yet? Could I give you a piece of paper that showed it? Unfortunately not, but that is the work that needs to be done.

Q21 Andy Sawford: Another key area for new guidance is the duty on local authorities to co-operate. How are you developing this guidance?

Lord Taylor: The short answer is we have not started yet, other than having discussed the difficulties in achieving it. Clearly, local authorities need to understand what is meant by the duty to co-operate, what co-operation looks like and what that process is. Some local authorities seem to have taken the view that merely writing to the neighbouring authority is enough; I do not think that is enough. Others have taken a view that telling other local authorities their conclusion and that the ball is in their court is enough, and I do not think that is what is intended by the duty to co-operate either. Given that those approaches are being seen-and there are some other very good examples of co-operation, I should add-I think we need possibly to help describe that. But if you were to ask me to identify the most difficult area to resolve-difficult because I do not think it is clear where we go, and difficult because it is immediate and necessary to do it-I would probably finger duty to co-operate.

Q22 Andy Sawford: You said that there are good examples. We see lots of local authorities already working with their neighbouring authorities on strategic planning issues and, indeed, on many, many other areas. The current Government has been keen to encourage local authorities to develop those relationships with neighbouring authorities-and "neighbouring authorities" can be quite considerable in terms of what other authorities have an interest-such as on the Local Enterprise Partnerships, where the message from Government has been, "You tell us what makes sense". I am particularly interested in the Minister’s view on how you will avoid making this guidance overly prescriptive for authorities, which may be some distance from London and from Ministers’ understanding of what communities of interest look like in planning terms.

Nick Boles: I entirely agree with the thrust of the question, which is that we do not want it to be overly prescriptive, and that will mean that there are, to some extent, slightly painful uncertainties for authorities, as indeed there are in interpreting the National Planning Policy Framework and implanting those policies into a local plan. It places a great responsibility on each local authority to work out what works best and is right for them.

I think the guidance should be reasonably lighttouch, and the whole site is expected to be crisp and not overly complex or prescriptive, but the other way that people will work out how this in fact works is over time, as they see local authorities practise the duty to co-operate and they also see how the Planning Inspectorate judges those interactions, there will build up a practice of the duty to co-operate. There will be good examples, which no doubt the Planning Inspectorate will give gold stars to, and bad examples, which will probably lead to an authority being asked to be rewrite a local plan or the process being gone through again. It is not just the guidance that will inform this. Over time, people will also see what processes seem to work well and which ones the Planning Inspectorate singles out as being effective. We certainly do not want to be in the business of writing guidance that prescribes that you have got to write to this person and then three weeks later you have got to hold a meeting with that person in order to fulfil the duty to co-operate. The whole point is to give them a duty, give them some broad guidelines about how to interpret it, and then get on and make it work for them.

Q23 Andy Sawford: How will you maintain the depth and the quality of the guidance, given that in some local authorities the relative levels of expertise and capacity may not be sufficient for them to handle particularly technical planning applications without there being good quality advice available through this process? We can see-and we are probing that today-how you are going to develop the guidance initially, but the maintenance of that guidance is very important.

Nick Boles: The first thing that is important is that the guidance should not be seen as the only source of advice. The Planning Advisory Service that the Government funds and the Local Government Association operates is an important source of advice. The Planning Inspectorate is a source of advice that many local authorities go to, not just when they are under examination but when they are dealing with different issues. Then, of course, there are planning consultants and many other nonstate providers of that advice. The guidance is, in a sense, there to set out the indications-the guidelines-that everybody, whatever their situation, should follow. Thereafter, depending on their situation or level of planning expertise-if it is a small district that does not have a hugely well resourced planning department and a particular application is particularly unlike anything they have ever received before-there will be other sources of advice available to them that will not have the status of guidance that applies to everyone but will still probably be good advice for how to deal with those difficult decisions.

Lord Taylor: I have observed in other forums that organisations will ask not to be told what to do, and when you take away the thing that tells them what to do in detail, they then say, "But what do we do?" There is always a conflict there. A good mentor does not tell someone what to do; they help them think about the questions they should be addressing. I am very keen on having those kinds of prompts-"these are the issues that you should be thinking about; this is how you might go about that"-but not telling people what the answers are. In that sense, I think the guidance site needs to be a good mentor, not that slightly bullying boss who hovers over your shoulder telling you you are doing it wrong. That is easier said than done, and I think it will lead both to some local authorities complaining that they are now not sure as well as quite a lot of organisations saying, "This is all great, except that in our particular area you have not told them how to do it enough." We should resist both those pressures, but we do need to make sure that it is sufficient so that people understand. This is really quite a radical recasting; that is why that process of feedback and consultation is so important.

I have to say that I am really pleased with just how positive the response has been. There has been a bit of a collective sigh of relief. One of the reasons-and the conclusion we came to-was that the present process just does not work. It just is not possible for the Department to manage 7,000 pages. The commissioning of individual documents that sit apart means they are not coherent, but also, inevitably, they are commissioned, they are published and then they are forgotten, and they very quickly become out of date. If people feel that there is not quite as much direction, that is actually a good thing, but where there is direction, at least it will be up to date and relevant, which is an even better thing.

Q24 Chair: Despite the general welcome, which I accept, there have been a number of comments to us that there are issues that simply are not covered at all now-they just are not mentioned. We have had a list that includes sustainable development; health and wellbeing; design; arts, culture and tourism; and simplified planning zones. There is just nothing on there for local authorities to look at and say, "That is helpful to us."

Lord Taylor: I should probably answer that. If you look at the list, they are all covered; we are not saying that there should be nothing on those things. There are two things that are not covered and are the things that have been really forcefully cut out of this. One is that historic accumulation of Chief Planner’s letters that are essentially reactive or drawing attention; it is just nonsense that they do not have a short life. Perhaps more fundamentally, in the area where there is potentially some pushback by those with a particular interest in that particular bit, is the best practice exemplar-type guidance-the quite lengthy documents of all different kinds. One area is design. My view is that design is incredibly important-in fact, I call it "good planning", not design. It is about placeshaping; it is about creating great places. There are quite a number of documents that set out examples of best practice around that, but they are overwhelmingly out of date and I do not think the Department is capable of maintaining that, nor has it got the best expertise to do it. We are saying that those kinds of resources will be elsewhere. What the guidance should do is talk about the importance of that process, the kinds of things that you should be considering, but not telling you that a particular town centre designed 20 years ago is an example of best practice. It probably was at the time-it may not have been-but it certainly is not now.

Q25 Chair: Simplified planning zones, for example.

Lord Taylor: For all the areas that planning covers, people should be able to go to this site and find out what it has to say. If it needs to say something, it will say it; if it does not need to say it, it will not. Nothing will not be considered for that; we will be looking at what needs to be said. Some of it may be very short, but I think simplified planning zones probably will need some guidance, yes.

Q26 Chair: So you will be looking at those issues as people raise them. That is helpful.

Lord Taylor: Yes, absolutely.

Q27 Chair: I just have just one or two points for clarification. What is going to happen to the administrativetype guidance on how to prepare a local plan and charging for planning information-those sorts of things that local authorities receive from the Department? Are they still going to be in place but separate and completely off this website?

Nick Boles: I would not want to jump, but Matthew may know the precise subdefinitions.

Lord Taylor: The whole process of localplanmaking is absolutely central, and it is central to the NPPF and I think a lot of the advice will come off it. You will look at different paragraphs of the NPPF and you will get menus and so on that tell you about that. Planmaking is very central to this, as I say. I think it is much more likely to be: "These are the issues you need to consider. These are the opportunities you have"-because I think people need to raise their eyes to how they shape places long term, rather than fighting the next 50 houses down the road-and it will also, very importantly, help local authorities be proportionate in what they ask for in that process. Consultants have a tendency to recommend a mass of new research that replicates material that already exists, and I think the guidance can help people be proportionate and appropriate in their planmaking process.

Nick Boles: But I am not sure about the example you gave of fees, because that truly is administrative, whereas planmaking is not really administrative; it is a core of the process.

Lord Taylor: Sorry, I misunderstood.

Chair: No, I can see the difference.

Lord Taylor: Slightly bizarrely, there probably is a need for fees, because there is not currently anywhere else that a definitive list of fees exists. That possibly should not be guidance; it possibly should be in some other format, but that is how it is and therefore it will need to be there.

Nick Boles: If it is not there, it needs to be somewhere else, but it is an open question as to exactly what status it has.

Lord Taylor: It is probably a good place for people to look it up.

Chair: Or for a link to somewhere.

Lord Taylor: Exactly.

Q28 Chair: In terms of ministerial statements, which we get a number of from time to time, as we understand it, the recommendation is that Government guidance will only be what is up there on the website. You will get a ministerial statement; it will be in Hansard and people will look at it and say, "Ah," but will it take a little bit of time to migrate on to the website? Will it become guidance as soon as it is issued in the House, or do we have to wait until it gets on the website before it officially can be taken account of?

Nick Boles: It is an extremely good question, Mr Chairman, and I hope that we will not be issuing, nor will any future Government, of whatever stripe, be issuing, so many written ministerial statements, but the Chief Planner, who will be the person who is the author and the controller of this site and everything that is on it, will be able to amend the guidance that is on the site at the same time as the written ministerial statement is laid. It may be that there are other things that happen elsewhere that require or trigger the need for an adjustment of guidance that may not be able to be done instantaneously, but anything as important as a written ministerial statement laid in Parliament should be reflected in the guidance online at the same time.

Q29 Chair: Probably the most optimistic recommendation in Lord Taylor’s review was that new guidance "should not unnecessarily restate regulations… rather these should be written clearly in the first place". But regularly they are not, are they? They are very often almost incomprehensible to anyone but the lawyers who wrote them. How can we get round that particular problem?

Lord Taylor: Firstly, I would stress the word "unnecessarily"; there are occasions when it is all too necessary. But I have to say we did also see quite a lot of examples where the original was perfectly understandable but someone had paraphrased it in some guidance and, in some cases, we were being told that that paraphrasing may not be an entirely accurate interpretation either. Firstly, resist the temptation where it is not necessary. We would also support the view of the House itself that regulation should be written more clearly in the first place. That has been a recommendation here, and there is a bit of discipline on Government. With legislation it may be necessary to amend previous Acts; with regulations, it should be possible to replace. The group was horrified by the number of things that amend the previous Acts and as a result are inexplicable in their own right. I would hope that Members here would increasingly fuss about that process, because it is just lazy government.

Q30 Simon Danczuk: Minister, what plans has the Government got to review the material produced by other Departments and bodies whose guidance or policy requirements are delivered through the planning system?

Nick Boles: It would be bold, even foolhardy, for a very junior, very newly appointed Minister to dare to tread on other Departments’ guidance.

Chair: Do not let that stop you.

Bill Esterson: You used that excuse last time.

Nick Boles: We want to make it clear that planning guidance is the stuff that is on this website. Other guidance might well be great guidance-it might be akin to the 10 commandments laid down on the tablet-but it is not planning guidance if it is not on this website. That is not to undermine its importance, but it is to clarify, for everybody involved in the planning system, that if it is going to be treated as planning guidance, it has got to be on this website, and if it is not, then it may be guidance of some other form but it is not planning guidance.

Lord Taylor: One thing you might be interested to know is that, while it was not in our terms of reference to cover anything that was not DCLGbadged, although some things are jointly badged with other Departments or organisations, my understanding is there is considerable interest in other Departments in these recommendations. Insofar as it relates to planning, they are keen to come on to this site, and that was part of the intention. I would like this to be effective enough and important enough that, if people want to be paid attention to, they would wish to be on this site, and then there is a process to make sure that it is in a suitable format and works with the rest, through the Chief Planner. Other Departments who have similar kinds of material are also looking to migrate to this kind of way of giving Government information and advice. In that respect, I certainly hope that this can provide a model for how we communicate from Government.

Q31 Simon Danczuk: Could I just ask for a bit of clarity there? There are clearly other Departments in Government that produce guidance around planningrelated issues that has a direct relevance to this. Are you saying that their guidance will not appear on the website? For example, the Department for Transport give guidance about cycle-infrastructure design; there is guidance around energy infrastructure-overhead power lines and things like that-and there is Environment Agency guidance on permeable surfacing of front gardens. Is that not going to appear on the website, Lord Taylor?

Lord Taylor: Some of that is within remit-permeable material in front of houses is, as it happens, though we are not convinced that it should be Government guidance in that particular case. The answer is the Department for Transport will have its views on transport. If it believes that it is important that it is taken into account in the planning process, it can simply have those views, but I think it would be wise to talk to DCLG and the Chief Planner about getting suitable material on to the planning guidance site, because that is where people will turn to for guidance. All things Government does may be taken into account, whether it is ministerial statements, other Departments and the rest, but my sense is that there is a keenness to make this work across the Departments. The Minister may be able to tell you more.

Nick Boles: That is exactly right. We are open to suggestions from other Departments of guidance that they produce that is nevertheless relevant to the planning process and that should be included, but we will subject any suggestions of other Departments to the same pretty ferocious examination-in terms of whether it is really necessary, clear, well drafted and concise-we are making, as you have seen and we have been discussing, of the historic legacy of planning guidance. We are absolutely open to that, but we will be quite testing in our demands about whether it is really necessary. If I could just clarify that further, even if we end up saying either that we only want something in very reduced form or not at all, that does not mean that another agency could not then maintain the full set as its own guidance; it just would not be planning guidance.

Q32 Simon Danczuk: Is not what you are saying a case of the tail wagging the dog? You are saying that it is for Government-DCLG, the Department for Transport and others-to determine what is on the website, but in reality, the website is there for others to use. It is not for Government to determine what might and might not be useful for people, is it? Surely if that particular policy and guidance around cycle-infrastructure design is relevant to people, it should be there.

Nick Boles: No, I do not agree at all, Mr Danczuk, because the whole point about this is that this is Government guidance on planning coming from the Department that is responsible for planning and the official who is called the Chief Planner. Any organisation, public or private, is entirely free to produce material-if it wants to call it guidance, it can call it guidance-that can inform, and no doubt if it is very, very welldrafted and helpful, people will rely on it. We do have a responsibility-there is national planning policy, fortunately now much simplified and much clarified, and we have a duty to maintain that and give guidance as to how people should interpret it and apply it. Others are absolutely free to publish whatever guidance they want, but if they want it to be planning guidance, they should come through the Department that is responsible for planning policy.

Q33 Simon Danczuk: You have touched already upon creating understanding for ordinary people and things not being too complex. Will the website have a house style that makes the documentation that is on there easily accessible to people?

Nick Boles: I hope that the house stylist would be George Orwell, and if it met that standard, we could all be proud. That might be quite hard when you are getting into some of the technicalities of viability tests, but I am sure that Matthew and his colleagues are up to it.

Lord Taylor: Definitely not George Orwell. We have, as you would expect, done a bit of playing around with how this might work, and that includes thinking about audiences. The primary audience is clearly the professional and the person interfacing with the planning system: local authorities, those proposing development, and those advising them. That is the guidance and it is to assist in that process that it will exist, but we also want it to have an element of being a guide, by which I mean that it should be understandable to intelligent inquiry, so in language that is not obscure, with an index that does not assume you already know what you are talking about so that it is readily searchable, and with SHMA and SHLAA being replaced by something about housing need or assessing housing need. All of those kinds of things are clearly there. I do believe it needs to be simple and accessible, but not to the point that it is not a professional tool, which is what its primary purpose will be. Primarily it is professional guidance, but it is also a bit of a guide, and if that helps a citizens advice bureau or a solicitor or a planning consultant take someone to it and show them, that is certainly far better than what exists at the moment.

One of the earliest concerns that was raised by the Daily Telegraph when it first heard about this inquiry was whether this was some kind of authoritarian, topdown strippingaway of the powers. Actually, one of the key things is that this makes the planning guidance infinitely more accountable than it has ever been before. It will be readily accessible; it will be one resource; it should be readable; it should be understandable, within reason; and it will be possible for people to put in their views. The one example I give on that is that there is currently guidance on tackling Dutch elm disease, which is a little late, but nothing at all on ash dieback. I suspect in this format people would have pointed that out quite early and it could have been dealt with. Similarly, the climate change data in the current document are out of date-they are not the current climate change data. That is partly because the commissioning of a new document is a lengthy process, but it has also not necessarily been spotted. Again, even if the officials had not spotted it, I am pretty certain that someone out there would have pointed it out within minutes.

Q34 Simon Danczuk: So there will be guidance on how the guidance is written?

Lord Taylor: I was talking to the Design Council yesterday and I think that they can help with that, but there are people very expert on this within Government. It would be fair to say that the group’s view is that it is clearly extremely important to get the material right, but if the web resource itself does not function effectively, it will not matter how good what is written is; the conclusion will be it has not been a success. Getting it right is incredibly important. It is not going to be a complicated thing; it is not some great vast Government IT project. Nevertheless, it needs to work and it needs to work well.

Q35 Mark Pawsey: Gentlemen, can I move on from guidance to signposts? Lord Taylor, in your report, you said that the new website "should signpost organisations providing best-practice guidance and other advice". It is quite interesting, Lord Taylor, that you have just referred to climate change, because the Planning for Climate Change guide had no Government endorsement in it. If we have got signposts in there, how will local authorities, whether they are in the planmaking role or determining applications, know how much weight to put when they are being signposted to an organisation other than DCLG that has given some best practice?

Nick Boles: If I might answer that first, Mr Pawsey, you have lighted on probably the one recommendation where we were not 100% persuaded. There are different layers, or levels, as it were, of organisation to which one might imagine having some kind of a links page. If it were the Environment Agency, which has its responsibilities, many of which are relevant to planning, then I can see how that might be sensible. We get into slightly more difficult territory if you start picking and choosing organisations that are not statutory bodies with statutory responsibilities and putting them on the list of signposts, because then immediately you will have lots of other organisations that will say either, "They should not be there," or "They should not be as high up the list as they are." As you know, all of these recommendations are open to consultation; the consultation runs for another couple of weeks. We would be interested in the Committee’s views and in anybody else’s views on all the recommendations, but that is one in particular where we are open to suggestions as to which approach is the best one.

Q36 Mark Pawsey: One of the examples that the Committee has got is that you could get conflicting advice, where two bodies with different views could be signposted. Lord Taylor, how would you reconcile that problem?

Lord Taylor: What we said about signposting has been quite widely overread as if we will be signposting lots and lots of organisations. The debate actually took place in the opposite direction, because some people had thrown around the thought that all guidance should be equal-that is all guidance out there as well as any Government guidance. Our view was that there did need to be a clear Government guidance suite. Then the question was whether there are documents out there, particularly around best practice-and I have said that we do not think that is fundamentally a role for Government, though they may support awards schemes and so on-and what we do there. Again, our view was the guidance cannot signpost individual documents, because our understanding is that at the point that an individual document is identified, that effectively gains the status of guidance, and of course if Government does not control it, it may change over time, it may have elements that are out of date, and so on. That brought us from particular documents to organisations, but really the organisations that we envisaged were the kinds of Government and public bodies that have been referred to and also the statutory consultees that exist in many areas. As you go across the various planmaking areas, there are bodies that do have status that people might look to to get further advice. I do not envisage it being a plethora of private, charitable and other bodies that may have just published all sorts of things, because the Department would have no reading of what they might be saying at any given time.

Q37 Mark Pawsey: We wondered whether this might be something in the way of preventing people reinventing the wheel, so one authority, placed with one set of circumstances, might have a look at how somebody else had done it. You are saying that they can do that, but there should be no particular weight attached to it?

Lord Taylor: No. I think others would signpost that-the LGA, the Planning Advisory Service and a range of bodies that are interested in planning, like the RTPI and others. There are plenty of professional sources for that kind of advice. To take an example, on heritage, there are a number of specific consultees. They do publish documents. We did not think that particular documents should be highlighted, because if it was thought there was necessary guidance, it should be on this site rather than in a separate document, but clearly it would be appropriate to draw people’s attention to the statutory consultees and the Government bodies that may be providing advice around it. That was really what we envisaged.

Q38 Chair: Let me be clear: there is going to be no guidance signposted or indicated in any way as approved by Government that privatesector organisations produce?

Lord Taylor: No.

Chair: I think there has been a misunderstanding about that.

Lord Taylor: Yes, there has been a misunderstanding. In these reports, there is always some bit that you might word slightly differently if you went back to it, but that has been helpful.

Q39 Bill Esterson: I think that goes with the point about crowdsourcing that you raised. Perhaps you would just clarify that is what you mean by it: that the crowdsourcing would only be to do with nonGovernment comments and that you are not going to crowdsource the Government’s own planning guidance-or maybe you are.

Nick Boles: Maybe we covered this, Mr Esterson, before you came in. We want the site to be a living thing. There will be an annual review by the Chief Planner. There may be changes in the meantime that will come as a result of changes in Government legislation or written ministerial statements, as the Chairman has suggested, but there will also be an annual moment where all of the comments that come in from the outside world-i.e. the people who actually have to do this job-will be taken into account. To that extent, suggested amendments or additions over time will be crowdsourced, but the original body of guidance that is going up there is being sourced from the combination of Lord Taylor’s group and officials, ultimately subject to ministerial decision.

Lord Taylor: It is a oneclick process of pointing out mistakes or requesting some further information.

Q40 Bill Esterson: But it will not update itself.

Lord Taylor: It will not be Wikipedia.

Bill Esterson: There was an implication along those lines.

Nick Boles: No, it is not Wiki-guidance.

Lord Taylor: We could have recommended that; it would be a whole different recommendation.

Q41 Bill Esterson: I think so. I have a few questions on the way the guidance will be kept up to date on the website. What will happen to the existing Planning Portal?

Nick Boles: The Planning Portal is, to my mind, one of the best websites operating within the broad realm of central Government. I am a huge supporter of both the website and the organisation. These two things are not directly linked, although of course you will point out that they cover some similar topics. We have not made any final decisions on it. I hope that we can learn from the flexibility and usability of the Planning Portal site in the design of the planning guidance site, and I think there is much we can do with that organisation, but it does not necessarily replace anything that they currently have.

Q42 Bill Esterson: So this is not about being a new Planning Portal?

Nick Boles: This is not about being a new Planning Portal, no.

Q43 Bill Esterson: You have touched on some of these points, but perhaps you can explain how you will make sure that whatever is on there is the latest, uptodate guidance, given that there is this rolling approach of updates.

Nick Boles: The way it will work is that firstly everything will need to go through the Chief Planner and have the Chief Planner’s approval. You will not have myriad people having diffuse accountability for adding, subtracting or amending. Secondly, to the extent that an amendment or an addition is required as a result of a change in policy or a piece of new legislation, there will be a very strong expectation that that is done pretty much exactly at the same time as that legislation becomes law or that change is implemented. To the extent that it is a result of a suggestion or a discussion out there in the world about how something is working-for example, ash dieback disease has suddenly arrived and we need to deal with it-that will be dealt with as soon as it seems necessary or at the annual review. It may be that you do not want to wait all the time for the annual review, but the commitment for immediate uptodate change will be simply those things that are a result of major changes in central Government policy.

Q44 Bill Esterson: So anyone going to the website will be clear that whatever is available is the absolute latest guidance?

Nick Boles: Yes.

Bill Esterson: You just said that you might have to wait for the annual review to update; that seems slightly at odds.

Nick Boles: No. Until it has been updated, it has not been updated. There may be a suggestion that has come forward for an addition or an amendment; until it has been adopted, it has not been adopted.

Lord Taylor: The current planning guidance is what is current on the site. I would just add that the most important thing in that process is that people can print out datestamped evidence of when they applied and took that guidance, if it comes to appeal or something of that sort at a later stage, because they do want to be able to evidence that it was current at the time; it may have shifted since. That is part of the necessary functionality of the site. It happens already with legal sites and so on, so it is not a complex thing to do, but it is very important that people know when it was current. Necessarily there will be some form of archiving process, but people need to be able to go to the site-equally for registered users; those who are regularly using it professionally-and have changes brought to their attention. Changes would be flagged to those who are regular users.

Q45 Chair: Just before we move on to the permitted development rights, I would like to make one brief comment and ask one question of the Minister, if I might. Lord Taylor, I thought your description of the importance and the methods of bringing new ways of measuring housing need on a consistent basis was spot on. It seems to be absolutely crucial we get that right as a matter of urgency; the Minister has indicated that as well. I thought that was very helpful indeed, among other useful things you have said to us.

Minister, one of the things it seems with the website is the importance of keeping it up to date, as you have said-making sure that it reflects the current guidance and it is there and does not have things that are irrelevant. One of the concerns that the Committee raised on the NPPF, which has not been enacted yet-probably for obvious reasons: a lot of change is happening-is that local plans are at the centre of the planning process, but they can very easily become out of date, so the measures of housing need that were relevant two or three years ago may not be relevant now and they certainly will not be relevant in four or five years’ time, but the local plan will still be there. I just wonder whether any consideration has been given, or whether you might be prepared to give it consideration and let the Committee have a note on it in due course, to how there could be a lighttouch way of updating local plans. In a way there is going to be an easy way of updating the guidance; can we do the same with plans without a complete need to revisit the whole plan in an elaborate process that will take another two or three years?

Nick Boles: Mr Chairman, I have total sympathy for that suggestion. I think it is extremely important that we do find such a way. If I could take up your offer of going away and perhaps doing a bit more work on it and coming back with a slightly more full response, I would like to do so. The thrust of what you are suggesting I completely agree with.

Chair: Thanks very much indeed. We will move on to permitted development issues.

Lord Taylor: Chairman, I am meant to be flying back home tonight. If the part that involves me is over, I will make my aeroplane, but I do not want to put you under any obligation.

Chair: You can make your aeroplane and we thank you very much indeed for coming. That has been really helpful to the Committee. Thank you very much.

Q46 Mark Pawsey: Minister, my question relates to the change in policy with regard to the conversion from commercial use to residential use. We all understand that there is pressure on housing, but we know that there are commercial buildings that are not currently in use and, in some instances, those commercial buildings may be effectively converted to residential. But there is a very strong steer in the NPPF for that to happen, so why the need to relax permitted development rights? Why not just allow the planning process to take due course?

Nick Boles: I am grateful for the question and was particularly grateful for Lord Taylor’s help, which I now do not have; on this I am flying solo. When we were all talking about our plans as a Government and as two separate parties for greater localism, both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats talked, if not in the precise phrase nevertheless in the intent, of the phrase "double devolution". Hence it was not just a matter of central Government devolving powers to and removing restrictions from local government; it was also a matter of all branches of government thinking about what powers could be devolved to people-to families, to communities and to households. It is absolutely right that we have, through the NPPF, created a strong steer to local authorities that they should look favourably upon such changes of use, but the whole point is that we do not enforce that in a policed way. It is an encouragement, like many of the things in the NPPF.

We also believe-and it is entirely complementary, not contradictory, to that suggestion in the NPPF-that there is a greater ability to give property owners, business owners and landlords a greater freedom to do what they think is going to be both socially and economically best with their property, subject to some restrictions, because of course certain changes can have certain impacts. That is why the liberalisation that we have brought in has been linked to the introduction of a prior approval regime, which we hope will be introduced through the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Once that has Royal Assent, then it will be possible for this to take place. The prior approval regime maintains the right for the local authority to have oversight over and some control of specific issues, but the general permitted development right will give a greater freedom to landlords and business owners to make the best use of their property.

Q47 Mark Pawsey: If such a change involves the best use of their property for broader purposes, the local authority will grant consent anyway, and there may be certain instances where it may not be a good idea because it may involve intensification and additional demand on local services, or it may have road transport implications. Why not just let it go through the process in the usual way-as a presumption in favour?

Nick Boles: I believe I have already explained that, and it may be a matter on which we do not agree, but I think my position is clear. To a very large extent, I think that we should trust people-either acting as households and families, or acting as business owners-to make good decisions. I accept that there are occasions when those decisions will impact on other people, and it is therefore right that some duly elected and accountable authority has some ability to review and adjudicate. I believe that the permitted development right that we are proposing is an absolutely proper level of trust in individuals to make good use, but we have been very clear that there are certain kinds of impacts that, if they were substantial, would need to be assessed and adjudicated by the local authority, and that, therefore, is the reason for a priorapproval regime. We do not believe that all of the impact that is taken in by the planning process is one that it is appropriate for some authority to judge. Authorities should intervene and should have a role and control where it is necessary, but not everywhere that they want to.

Of course, Mr Pawsey, you are right that many authorities are being very sensible and progressive in their interpretation of the policies of the National Planning Policy Framework, but we do not believe that the individual’s freedom should be dependent upon the benign nature of the authorities under which they live. There are certain rights and freedoms that people should have, and this is a small extension of personal freedom that we think is reasonable and balanced by the priorapproval process.

Q48 Mark Pawsey: Why apply it to some use classes and not to others?

Nick Boles: We have applied it to a number of use classes, as you will be aware-we made a number of announcements last week-and the use class system is one that we are constantly looking at and inquiring whether there is there an area of further liberalisation or simplification that would be fair to neighbours and fair to the community. There are not always common views on where to strike the balance, but we have never reached a conclusion on that, nor, I suspect, will any future Government reach a final conclusion on that. It is an ongoing process, but what we brought forward last week was a package of liberalising measures that we thought was a reasonable resetting of the balance between freedom and authority: control of the local authority and the property owner’s rights.

Q49 Mark Pawsey: Something that fits into B2-general industry-is not subject to this new freedom, but something that fits into B1-offices-is.

Nick Boles: As you know, we consulted very widely and for an extended period of time on this particular proposal, and we also had some discussions about the consultation responses, and there were some fairly strong suggestions that some of the broader commercial uses would be inappropriate-that the impact of that change would be such that it was right that there was a planning process to deal with them. But on this relatively narrow category of office uses, the impact described in the priorapproval process was all that needed to be looked at by a local authority, and the planning process itself was overly cumbersome and bureaucratic and therefore constraining on people-because it both costs and takes time-for that quite narrow change of use.

Q50 Simon Danczuk: The statement on 24 January said that the Secretary of State would "grant an exemption in exceptional circumstances". It gives two examples: "loss of a nationally significant area of economic activity" and "substantial adverse economic consequences at the local authority level". How would the exemption work?

Nick Boles: Thank you for the question, because it is useful to be able to explain this. The first thing I would like to make clear is that, as with every permitted development right, the Article 4 route will remain in existence, so any local authority will be able to look at how this permitted development right is working in their area, or how they anticipate it will work, and be able to look at whether an Article 4 direction is appropriate. What came back to us during the process of consultation was that that was an insufficient protection for some places because of the delay in introducing an Article 4 or the liability for compensation that can operate if you go ahead and introduce an Article 4 direction as soon as the permitted development right becomes law.

We listened to that and there was a suggestion that we needed to have a priorexemption regime as well as Article 4. We are writing, or may even have written today, or possibly will write tomorrow, to local authorities-indeed, I have the letter here, dated 24 January-to invite them to make proposals for where they think should be exempted in their area. It will be a reasonably high test that we will apply-you quoted the criteria-but we are open to good arguments about particular places. The one that everybody has talked about is the City of London, but that is by no means the only one that might well have a good case for an exemption.

Q51 Simon Danczuk: I am concerned about the vitality of town centres. That is something that the Portas review picked up on. That report by the Department talked about being in favour of sustainable development in town centres, and about the inclusion of offices as well as shops and businesses. This is going to have an adverse effect on that, is it not?

Nick Boles: No, I do not accept that. Some of the other recommendations of the Portas review were for a relaxation of change of use and, as you will be aware, we have already introduced the greater freedom to create residential property above shops, which was something that many people had suggested. It will be possible for local authorities to identify areas where they feel that it would be gravely damaging to the local economy to have this permitted development right, but the truth is that to some extent the free market does work, and so if commercial property is a very important part of a particular place, then it is likely a) to be occupied and b) to have relatively good returns for landlords.

I suspect we are all aware of areas in our constituencies where there are offices that are not occupied and perhaps have not been for quite a long time, due to changes in work patterns, a change of industrial structure and change in our economy-we live in a fastchanging economic world-and where residential values are substantially higher. It seems to us right that in those situations, people who own property can form a judgment about the best way to put that property to use. I am often somewhat criticised for what people represent as my desire to build houses on open fields, and I would point out that the more houses we can get into pre-existing buildings-offices among them-the fewer we will have to build on open fields.

Q52 Simon Danczuk: Did you carry out an impact assessment in relation to this policy?

Nick Boles: We did carry out an impact assessment on the original consultation. Forgive me for not being familiar with it, because this policy was announced really quite a long time ago and so it had been through many parts of the gestation process long before I was appointed.

Q53 Chair: The permitted development rights do not just apply to empty offices, do they? It can be a fully occupied office.

Nick Boles: They absolutely do not, but of course, as a landlord, it would be a higher test to your judgment about whether to run the risk of converting it to residential use if you already have a tenant in there who is paying you good rent. That is simply the point I was trying to make. You are absolutely right.

Q54 Chair: Does the office block have to exist? Could someone get permission for an office block and then decide to build flats instead?

Nick Boles: Apparently yes.

Q55 Chair: So there could be a situation where a council believes residential development is not appropriate in an area, has turned down permission for a block of flats, and permission is then given for a block of offices-

Nick Boles: You would be a brave man who would then go ahead and build a block of offices in order to then convert them into flats.

Q56 Chair: Why?

Nick Boles: Because surely it would be a slightly risky form of investment. You are going to have to put it up as offices and then change it.

Q57 Chair: You would not have to put it up, though; you could actually build the block of flats instead, could you not?

Nick Boles: The building has to be an office before you can exercise the permitted development right to convert it into residential.

Q58 Chair: So you actually have to build the office?

Nick Boles: You would have to build the office in order to then be able to apply the permitted development right.

Q59 Chair: An office could be a shell, could it not? Does it have to be fitted out as an office?

Nick Boles: Mr Chairman, you are pursuing an interesting and creative line of inquiry and I am sure that we could write to the Committee with some further thoughts on it, but I do not believe it is a very likely proposition to completely from scratch game the system by building an office that does not even exist.

Chair: It might be helpful to have a note, then, on precisely what is allowed.

Nick Boles: Absolutely right.

Bill Esterson: When you are writing that note, perhaps you would take on board the point that it would be very easy to build an office that was internally designed so that it would very quickly convert to flats.

Nick Boles: We will certainly address that in the note we write.

Q60 Bill Esterson: The question I wanted to ask you is about the economic impact. The presumption is about development; that is very much the thrust of your Government’s stated policy. I take your point about the fact that offices may have been empty for a long time, but is it not important that an attempt is made to regenerate in terms of growth and economic activity using those offices, rather than just saying, "Okay, we will have residential because they have been empty for a long time"?

Nick Boles: As I pointed out, there are two sources of exemption from this policy: firstly, the special exemption regime that has been created; and secondly, Article 4. For those authorities that right up front, here and now, anticipate that this could do damage to something that is either of national significance or of great economic importance to their locality, they can apply for an exemption now. Then, if there are other local authorities that go along with it for a bit and start getting worried about some of the impact that you are talking about, they can put in place an Article 4 direction.

It is simply a question about what you think the presumption should be. Our view is the presumption should be that, if a property owner thinks this is a worthwhile move and can satisfy the local authority on the very narrow set of issues in the priorapproval regime, they should be allowed to do it. If the local authority thinks, "This is undermining our local plan," they are of course at liberty either to take advantage of the exemption regime up front, or, if they do not realise that until after then, to do that through an Article 4.

I would just remind the Committee that this relaxation is timelimited to three years and it will be reviewed after three years. We are responding to the circumstance that we hear from many Members should be our first priority, which is the need to stimulate growth, but if in three years’ time people feel that it has not worked positively, there will be a review to look at it again.

Q61 Chair: Have you received lots of complaints from people that local authorities have been turning applications of this kind down?

Nick Boles: We have had complaints. "Complaints" is perhaps unfair. We have had evidence of that.

Chair: How much?

Nick Boles: One of the things I think is important is to establish whether you are doing something because of an application of a principle or whether you are doing it simply in response to lots of squeals. We do believe that it is a fundamental principle that property owners should be able to make the best use of their property so long as the impact on other people is not egregious or unfair or not capable of being mitigated some other way. I would not personally need to have had a single complaint to be persuaded that this is a better way of handling questions of the proper use of property than the requirement to go through a full planning process for something that may only have a very narrow range of impacts that can be judged through a prior approval process instead.

Q62 Mark Pawsey: Minister, I do not think people object to that principle-the Committee certainly does not object to that principle. The notion that our building stock should be more efficiently used at a time of housing shortage is entirely appropriate. I have got a particular view about retail; there is a lot of vacant retail because people are spending more money on the internet than they are in traditional methods of retail. It should be easier for retail at the fringes of town centres, much of which in my view was developed as housing and converted to retail, to go back to housing. Should not those things be dealt with through the planning system, because that is what the planning system is there for?

Nick Boles: The planning system is there for a substantial range of effects that a use of property or a change of use of property has upon the neighbours and the broader community. We want local authorities to focus on those planning applications that genuinely have that impact and genuinely, therefore, need to be managed, directed and adjudicated in that way. We do not want them to be gumming up the works with planning decisions that, frankly, do not need to be put through the planning system. The priorapproval regime that we are putting in place will be much more tightly defined and, therefore, swifter and less expensive for both planning authority and applicant. We think it is entirely right and proper to narrow it down and liberalise as much as is reasonable, while nevertheless allowing the impact that might happen to be assessed by the authority.

Q63 Chair: Can you help us by telling us when an announcement will be made on the issue of permitted development rights for extensions to dwellings?

Nick Boles: I am not sure if I know exactly when an announcement will be made. We had an extensive consultation, which I am glad to say attracted great interest, as one would hope every consultation would, and we are in the process of reviewing the responses to that consultation. You may be aware that the Growth and Infrastructure Bill is going through the other place, and there are indeed Members of the House of Lords who also have a great interest in that particular proposal, even though it is not in fact contained within the legislation; however, the priorapproval regimes for other permitted development rights are in that, so they have taken that opportunity to pass comment. I am advised that we had 1,400 responses to that consultation-I must be the envy of every other Minister-and we are reviewing those, but we do not have a date for our response.

Chair: Perhaps we can just say as a Committee that we produced our report on this matter on 20 December.

Nick Boles: The closing date was 24 December, I believe.

Chair: As I say, our report was produced on 20 December. The normal requirement is that Government replies to Select Committee reports within eight weeks, so by 20 February, allowing a bit of leeway, we would expect a reply to our report.

Nick Boles: I am sure that we would always wish to be polite and correct, Mr Chairman.

Chair: On that note, Minister, thank you very much for coming this afternoon and for giving evidence to us.

Prepared 11th February 2013