To be published as HC 309- i

House of COMMONS



Communities and Local Government Committee


Monday 17 June 2013


Evidence heard in Public Questions 1-68



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee

on Monday 17 June 2013

Members present:

Mr Clive Betts (Chair)

Simon Danczuk

Mrs Mary Glindon

James Morris

Mark Pawsey

John Stevenson

Heather Wheeler


Examination of Witness

Witness: Nick Boles MP, Parliamentary Under­Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Minister, welcome to our session this afternoon on permitted development planning issues. You are most welcome, as usual. You have brought a good audience with you as usual, as well, who are hanging on your every word. Thank you very much for coming to talk about this. It is clearly an important issue, and we had a discussion about it a few months ago when the Government announced its consultation. The first question I would like to raise is that it is sometimes difficult to work out where the direction of travel of Government policy is in planning matters. We had a very interesting statement the other day about on­shore wind farms in the Chamber, where the Government was making it clear that they were giving more powers back to local communities, in a sense, to decide what happened in their areas. On permitted development rights, it appears that we are going in the opposite direction, and while it might be easier for an individual to get permission, communities are going to have much less say in this policy in future, are they not? They are not even going to be consulted on some of the changes, and for others, it will only be next­door neighbours who get a say at all.

Nick Boles: Good afternoon, Mr Chairman. It is a great pleasure to be back here again, talking about one of my favourite subjects.

The best way to demonstrate to the Committee the coherence of the Government’s planning policies is to look back at a concept that the Conservative Party made quite a lot of play of in opposition, and that was this idea of double devolution. It is, perhaps, not a phrase that is going to attract much attention on the doorstep, but it did have a very clear idea about what the intention behind the decentralising mission of the Conservative Party was, which we have now brought into Government. We wanted to devolve power to two levels, not just to one. We did not believe that just passing power and responsibility from central Government and its agencies to local government was sufficient. We also wanted to pass power through local government to individuals, families, households, and to business, and indeed also to pretty much strong­arm local authorities, if they were reluctant, to in some cases pass power from their own hands through to households and businesses in their area. It has always been a twin­track, and I believe that there is absolutely no conflict between the thrust of the national planning policy framework, which was to pass quite substantial powers and responsibilities to local authorities, and the thrust of successive changes to the use classes order and permitted development rights. That is about expanding the kinds of decisions that individuals-whether families, households or businesses-should be able to make themselves, without reference to some bureaucratic or political authority.

Q2 Chair: You are describing it in terms of making life easier, but in terms of the rules out there now, most people can understand that you need planning permission; you put in an application, and it gets dealt with in a certain way. We have now got two types of planning permission, one through the normal route and one through this easy route with a bit of neighbour consultation. We have got 17 designated areas that are exempt. We have got some permitted development rights that you can just have; some are subject to transport and other assessments; and local authorities can use article 4 directions as well. It is a complete mish­mash, is it not? Most people would now scratch their heads and say, "Where does my authority fit in it? Why is one scheme dealt with one way, and another scheme completely differently?"

Nick Boles: I do not think that is fair. There is nothing new about article 4. That has been around for a while, and is well­understood and pretty well­used as a way of suspending the application of certain permitted development rights in a particular area. That has been the case for some time. It is fair to say that we are expanding the concept of a "prior approval regime". This is with a very clear purpose that there are certain kinds of decisions that do clearly require some consultation on some specific issues. It is our clear view that on, planning grounds alone, there is no reasonable objection, because there is no substantial impact on land use grounds. That is what the planning system is meant to capture. Rather than going through a full-blown planning process and having an opportunity for the local authority to object to something or refuse something on planning grounds, we believe it is sensible to narrow down the range of issues on which the local authority can form a view and take a judgment, so it is clear that the planning change of use is something that is acceptable.

It is simply a question of whether other issues come to light, and those issues will of course vary from one category to another, so perhaps it is not surprising that the prior approval regime is not identical in every case. The underlying theme is the same, which is that we are trying to expand the freedoms available to individuals, households and businesses, while giving local authorities a proper role where the impact justifies it.

Q3 Chair: One person’s freedom may be different to the view that might be taken by a wider community. When we were setting up the session this afternoon, as well as the Committee and our advisors thinking of some questions, we actually went out to the wider public. Your officials have probably drawn your attention to the "Ask Boles" Twitter and website set up to enable us to receive those questions, and indeed your officials may have put one or two in for us to ask you, just to give you one or two easy ones to throw back at us.

One thing that came across very strongly was this issue about people feeling in control of what happens in their area. People have said to us that a local planning area could just have been formulated that came out against larger extensions because they affect the appearance of a neighbourhood altogether. The Government, when it came in, took measures against garden­grabbing, and now it seems to be moving in exactly the opposite direction. What do you say to those two things? It is a change of tack on garden­grabbing, and what you are proposing could allow development that is completely contrary to an agreed local plan that the community signed up to.

Nick Boles: I do not think either of those concerns is justified. In the first place, it would be an entirely reasonable use of local plan policy to say, "Here is a particular area or neighbourhood where we feel, as the local authority, that a permitted development right would be inappropriate. We are going to consult with local people widely; it will go to the inspector for examination, but there will be a policy to bring in an article 4 in relation to a particular permitted development right for that particular area." That would be an entirely reasonable thing, and you can either do that through the local plan, or you can have a supplementary planning policy. I know that the city of Cambridge has introduced such a thing with regard to change of use of pubs. It was challenged in the courts, and the courts found that that was an entirely legitimate thing for them to do. I do not see that there is an inconsistency. What we are saying is that in general, in England-which is where these rules apply-certain freedoms are appropriate, but it is perfectly reasonable for a local authority to say that a particular rule in a particular part of their area is not so appropriate.

As for garden­grabbing, that always referred to separate developments: distinct new dwellings that were being created at the ends of people’s gardens. It was being actively promoted by the previous Government’s rather crude "brown­field first" policy, which did not actually reflect the fact that gardens were classified as brown­field land. That is what we campaigned against, because those gardens are often the crucial environmental lung for neighbourhoods. I think that most reasonable people would understand that flogging off the end of your garden for somebody else to build an apartment block or a couple of houses in is very different from extending your own property at a single­storey level-no higher than four metres-in order to cater for your own growing family. Those are two very, very different cases, and that is why we have very different policy responses to the two of them.

Q4 Chair: That policy would also apply to extending a HMO, which many more people come and live in.

Nick Boles: They cannot, of course, go above the limit. I think the limit is six for a small HMO, and then they cannot take advantage. If they are going to try and import more people in it, so that it effectively becomes a large HMO, then they cannot do that under the permitted development right.

Chair: Yes, they can, Minister. If it is not three storeys, it does not count as a HMO that is required to be licensed under the legislation.

Nick Boles: I may have to come back to you. My understanding was, as I say, that it is an opportunity that can only be taken advantage of if it is a small HMO that is not above six. I think it is six, but if I can come back to you with the detail, I will.

Chair: It is that, and storeys. There are two requirements.

Q5 Simon Danczuk: Your impact assessment says the new general permitted developments order is designed to achieve "a boost for growth". What evidence do you have that this is what will happen, Minister?

Nick Boles: There are, in a sense, two answers to that question. We have undertaken impact assessments. We have revised them, not least following various concerns raised by the Committee, to which we were grateful for the suggestions. The Regulatory Policy Committee, which is a pretty tough arbiter of these things-and, I promise you, does not approve all impact assessments done by Government Departments-has agreed that these impact assessments provide a reasonable estimate of the costs and benefits.

However, I would also make a broader argument. While an impact assessment can capture the specific anticipated reduction in cost as a result of not having to go through a regulatory process, I do not think it can ever capture people’s and businesses’ response to new freedoms. If a Government only ever did things if it had a projection of the benefit, I think it would be a pretty poor Government. We are doing these things and have put in place these policies because we believe that individuals, families and businesses should have as much freedom as possible, consistent with the impact on their neighbours being acceptable. We are not doing it because of the impact assessment, but the impact assessment does capture rather well the specific costs that we think would be saved by individuals and businesses.

Q6 Simon Danczuk: You are doing it-as it says here in your document-to boost growth. Irrespective of the impact assessment, I am talking about evidence. Does the Government have any evidence to suggest that this will boost growth? They are your words: "boost growth."

Nick Boles: I believe that all deregulation boosts growth. I believe that when Margaret Thatcher got rid of capital controls, nobody knew how people were going to react, but she was absolutely right to think that it would have a dramatic effect on the level of activity in that particular market, and it did. When we privatised British Telecom, nobody knew exactly how people’s use of telephones was going to change, but we were right to think that it would have a dramatic effect on people’s behaviour. I do not believe that you do these things just because you can anticipate with great accuracy exactly how many people are going to do it. Of course, we put an estimate in. I think we put in an estimate that an additional 3,000 extensions will happen, but the truth is that that is not why we are doing it. We are doing it because we believe it is the right way to balance the interests of the community and the interests of individuals and families.

Q7 Simon Danczuk: Your Department has actually relied upon some United States research to justify its position. It cites two studies, one in 1971 and one in 1977. Why not commission an English study, so that you can be more sure about the impact of this policy before implementing it?

Nick Boles: Mr Danczuk, it is important to distinguish that we have not justified the policy on the basis of those two studies. We have justified the numbers in the impact assessment, and the purpose of the impact assessment is to reassure the Regulatory Policy Committee that these measures are deregulatory, i.e. reduce costs on individuals and businesses, rather than imposing additional costs. We are doing it because we believe it is the right balance of freedom and control. That is why we are doing it. If we went off and commissioned new research every time we wanted to do anything, we would not be getting public expenditure under control as well as we are, or as badly as the previous Government did.

Q8 Chair: The Coalition Government appears confused, in that in November 2012, the Government was talking about 20,000 new extensions that could generate £600 million of construction outputs and support 18,000 jobs. In the impact assessment of this year, it talks about-as you have just said-just 2,800 additional extensions, saving between £24 million and £48 million. You were previously saying that it would save up to £100 million. I am very confused: which is it?

Nick Boles: We revised the estimates based on new research and based on some suggestions from the Select Committee, which were welcome. As I say, they have been approved as being a reasonable estimate of the costs and benefits by the Regulatory Policy Committee. I do not think we should elevate impact assessments into being something more important in the justification of policy than they are. They are a way of reassuring an important Committee of Government that we are not imposing additional burdens; that we are, indeed, relieving businesses and families of burdens. They are not an attempt to project with absolute certainty the precise response of millions and millions of families and millions of businesses to particular measures. Most families are too busy to respond to surveys; most businesses are too busy to respond to consultations, but the fact that they did not respond to the consultation saying, "Yes, I am definitely going to build an extension" does not mean they will not when they are confronted with the freedom that they now have to do so.

Simon Danczuk: There has been a total lack of research to justify this policy and a complete downgrade of the figures and estimates that your Government initially predicted. You reduced by half, if not more, the savings that would be made. Does this not prove that you as a Government and you as a Minister do not believe in evidence­based policy?

Nick Boles: No, it does not prove that at all, Mr Danczuk. It simply proves that I do not believe that either civil servants, however intelligent and farsighted, or politicians, however well meaning, can capture the full benefits and the full effects of particular measures through impact assessments. We have to go necessarily on the rather limited information that we have, because you are projecting a response to an as yet untried liberalisation. Now, we have looked at the report benchmarking the cost to applicants of submitting a planning application that was commissioned by the Department. We have looked at the price elasticity of demand for housing.

Now, Mr Danczuk, I am sure that you are familiar enough with price elasticities to know that one thing is certain about them, which is that they are very, very speculative. They do not provide an absolute prediction of how people are going to respond to particular liberalisations. That is why the approach of this Government is to do what is sensible to maximise, as far as is consistent with neighbourhood amenity, the freedoms available to businesses and individuals and then let them get on with it. If they delight us on the up side, great, but if, frankly, nobody takes use of it, that does not mean it is not justified, because people should have the maximum freedom that is compatible with the amenity of a community, not just those freedoms that we politicians think are worthwhile.

Q9 Mrs Glindon: Minister, the changes in use of out of town centre buildings to A1 use and of buildings within town centres from A1 to A3 use did cause a lot of concern amongst the respondents to our call for questions. People warned about the serious impact on the viability and vitality of shopping in town centres. How would you respond to those concerns?

Nick Boles: Well, of course, there are quite a number of different proposals involved in this, Mrs Glindon, but as a general response-and then I would be very happy to go into the detail of any particular change- there are two things that we are trying to achieve here. We have both a longterm secular shift in the way in which people buy stuff and in the way in which retail behaviour happens. That is a result partly-largely, perhaps-of the internet, but also changing working patterns: if two partners are working in a household, they probably do their shopping in a different way than they did when one of them was not working.

We have also had a very, very severe and rather elongated recession, and so the proposals for the temporary uses of buildings are more of a response to the recession, because what we are trying to say is, at a time when there is quite a lot of empty property on high streets, we want to make it easier for people to try new approaches. If those approaches work, great; then they can go and apply for planning permission for permanent use. If they do not work, then we should be in the business of minimising the costs so that they can try new things.

In respect of the other changes, the change from commercial to residential is intended to be a more longterm response to the decline in the values of commercial property relative to residential and the rise in the number of empty properties. If you want to go into the detail of any particular change, I am happy to do so, but that is the broad context: a secular change in the way that retail activity is happening in town centres, and then the recession that we have had as well.

Q10 Mrs Glindon: One of the big concerns is that the change from A1 to A2 could possibly lead to a greater increase in betting shops, in payday lenders and pawnbrokers springing up in town centres. How do you assure us that that will not happen?

Nick Boles: I am not going to pretend to be able to promise that something will not happen. However, with these temporary changes of use, it is important to understand that they can only be used for a limited period of time: for three years, until May 2016. Is that right? I just want to make sure I have given it to you absolutely accurately. Yes. The investment involved in converting something from a shop to being, say, a betting shop is quite substantial. Not that I am any more a regular attendee of betting shops than I am sure you are, Mrs Glindon, nevertheless, I look through the doors and there is quite a lot of kit in there. There are quite a lot of television screens and consoles and most of the big companies tend to have their own fitout. It is very unlikely, I think, that you are going to find people doing that just for a very limited period of time when they have no guarantee of being able to secure longterm planning permission for that change of use.

So the sort of thing that this is intended to facilitate is the popup shops that can come in pretty quickly, that do not require a huge amount of investment in infrastructure and that can be kitted out pretty quickly with a lick of paint and some furniture, or a cafe, which again probably does not require the same amount of investment. Ultimately, though, if there is a concern about betting shops, then it is always possible for the general conversion to be suspended through article 4.

Q11 Mrs Glindon: With regard to the optout for the conversion from offices to dwellings, only 17 of the local authorities that applied for optout of the 165 got the exemption. Could you explain to us what criteria you used and perhaps give us an example of a criterion from those criteria?

Nick Boles: I would be delighted to, but because I do not want to make a mistake, I hope you will give me two seconds to find the right piece. While I am doing so, we had a great many applications for exemption from this permitted development right and so what we decided that we needed to do was to have an absolutely uniform set of criteria against which each application would be judged. Indeed, we retained an outside consultant to do the scoring of each application and so, before I give you the detail, there was absolutely no political judgment involved by Ministers or special advisers in the scoring of any of these applications.

They were all scored against four criteria: the scale of the adverse impact in absolute terms; the significance of the adverse impact at a national level/the level of the local authority, because, as you will remember, there were two forms of exemption, a national one and a local one; the degree to which there is likely to be a strategic and longterm adverse economic impact; and whether the proposed area of exemption is the smallest area necessary to address the potential adverse economic impact. Those four criteria were used in each case and basically each application was scored twice on each criteria: once for the strength of the case and once for the robustness of the evidence base, because sometimes you might have a situation where an application had a very strong case but they presented very poor evidence for their case or vice versa. Each application was scored on four criteria on those two measures, so that meant eight scores of up to five on each one, so each application ended up being scored out of 40 and they were literally just ranked according to their scores of 40.

We agreed the criteria and the way in which they were going to be assessed. We then retained an outside consultant who assessed each of these very, very, very many applications according to that and they produced a scale. At that point, the only Ministerial decision-and it was not an easy one-was simply to work out at what point we were going to draw the line between what was a valid exemption application and what was not. That is the only other time in which we got involved. The scoring was done entirely neutrally and, indeed, outside the Department.

Q12 Mrs Glindon: Can I ask why you are withholding the Government’s letters to the local authorities that applied for exemption? The reason you have given is that they are not deterred from participating in similar exercises in future, but in what way would such a potential learning exercise deter authorities from future participation?

Nick Boles: As a general rule, any local authority is at liberty to publish that letter if they choose to and no doubt some of them have and some of them will. We certainly will not object to it if they do, but we do not think that it is for us to say, "You have applied for something, you have been rejected and we are now going to publish for the world the reasons why it was rejected". I think that that is for them to do and, if they choose to do so, that is fine by us.

Q13 Mrs Glindon: Was that made clear to the authorities?

Nick Boles: They had full reasons in that letter and a detailed scoring breakdown of their application. As I said, that information is there, local authorities can make a copy if they want to, we just felt that we did not think it was entirely fair on them to publish that unless they chose to.

Q14 Mrs Glindon: Can I finally ask you about the Government impact assessment? The survey was based on Saint Consulting and they said that the intention of the Saint Index that they use is to benefit companies that want to understand from where their active opposition is coming and what they can do to get more projects approved. Is this an example of the Department’s approach to evidencebased policymaking?

Nick Boles: I am afraid I did not really understand the reference you made.

Q15 Mrs Glindon: The way that your survey was conducted was about looking at active opposition, seeing where it was coming from and using that as a base to go forward to get more projects approved. Is that a good formula for trying to move forward? What the Government said was that 33% of people oppose housing development compared with 67% who oppose office development.

Nick Boles: I am sorry. I am not sure if I have understood what this consultant said, but if I could just be clear about what the motivations were behind this. It is very simply that commercial property across the country tends to have lower values than residential property-not everywhere, but in a lot of the country. The vacancy rate of commercial property has gone up quite significantly and remains quite high. At a time when we have an absolutely acute housing need, which I think is shared and recognised by all parties in the House of Commons, we think it is responsible to try to make maximum use of the property that has already been developed, not least so that we then have to develop fewer new properties on currently undeveloped land. That is simply the motivation for doing this, nothing else.

Q16 Mrs Glindon: In the "Ask Boles" questions, people were concerned about how the impact assessment was carried out and how the changes could be justified.

Nick Boles: Right, okay.

Q17 Chair: This is a follow up to Simon. These letters, surely they are not really private letters, are they, for local authorities? This is about public policy. What we do not know and no individual authority knows is why some authorities have been scored in a particular way because of particular reasons and why others have been scored with a lower number of points for other reasons. Surely, at least in terms of the importance of public policy, this should be all out in the open.

Nick Boles: As I say, we decided that it is for local authorities to determine whether they want to publish the letters. They are entirely at liberty to do so. No doubt if any of them are looking to challenge the decision that will be something that the courts will look at, but in the meantime it is for individual authorities to decide.

Q18 Chair: But this is a Government policy decision.

Nick Boles: It is.

Q19 Chair: These are individual letters to individual authorities, but it is a Government policy decision overall, which the public as a whole and this Committee in particular is not allowed to know the results of.

Nick Boles: No, you absolutely do know the results.

Q20 Chair: We know the outcome. We do not know how you got there.

Nick Boles: I have explained in some detail, Mr Chairman, what the criteria were, what the scores were attached to each of the criteria, how it was conducted and you know which the successful applications were. That is what we can tell you. We do not believe, and I do not believe, that if you were to check with other Departments, when authorities apply for money, when they apply for various other Government schemes, it would be normal practice to publish the reasons why they failed.

Chair: Okay. Well, I will have a further think about that.

Q21 Simon Danczuk: Minister, I have a couple of very simple questions.

Nick Boles: They are always the ones I hate most.

Q22 Simon Danczuk: The 2012 consultation on permitted developments only lasted six weeks, instead of the usual eight weeks for consultation, and finished on Christmas Eve. I am sure that is just coincidence. What is the reason for the reduced consultation period?

Nick Boles: It may have been slightly my fault, because I think on my first appearance at the Select Committee, which was barely hours after I had been appointed, I might have indicated that it-

Q23 Simon Danczuk: I hope you are not blaming us, Minister.

Nick Boles: No, no, I blame myself. I might have indicated that I thought it was going to be eight weeks. My understanding is that the Cabinet Office undertook a consultation on consultation times across Government, just because there was this slight sense that we were in this endless planes-circling-around-waiting-to-land of consultations. They decided, therefore, that six weeks would be appropriate for certain kinds of consultation and it was decided that this was one for which six weeks was sufficient. All I would say to you is that there certainly was no shortage of responses as a result of the reduced period, so the views were fully expressed even if some were less lengthy than you might have hoped.

Q24 Simon Danczuk: There might have been more if it had not finished on Christmas Eve and if it had gone on for longer.

Nick Boles: I do not know, Mr Danczuk, how many people you know who would have been likely to have spent the period between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day answering consultations on permitted development rights, but I do not know many.

Q25 Simon Danczuk: Okay. The second question was: only 15% of consultees agreed with the Government’s proposals; 85% did not agree with the proposals. What is the point of doing the six weeks’ consultation if you are not going to listen to the overwhelming views of the public?

Nick Boles: Well, of course we did listen and took them all very seriously, but there is a fundamental imbalance in consultations. It is that it is human nature that, if you currently enjoy a particular power or a particular level of control, and there is a proposal to remove that from you, firstly, you are more likely to be aware of the proposal, because you are the person or the institution that currently enjoys that power. Secondly, you are quite likely to object to it. Thirdly, you are quite likely to think that it is worth submitting a response to a public consultation.

The people who are going to benefit from this change are millions of individuals, families and businesses, who have no idea that there was a consultation taking place on this particular permitted development change; if they had an idea, probably relatively few of them would feel sufficiently excited by the prospect as to want to submit a response. That is an inbuilt bias in all consultations, which is why one should always take all of the responses very seriously for the quality of their arguments, but any attempt to play a simplistic numbers game about the number in favour or the number against should be viewed with great suspicion. I would say the same even if we had had a majority approving it. The truth is that most of the people who will be affected will not respond.

Q26 Simon Danczuk: On that basis, you may as well not bother consulting at all.

Nick Boles: Not at all. I just pointed out that what you should do in a consultation is pay huge attention to the quality of the arguments and, indeed, the evidence presented. In the particular case of the extensions on homes, as you know, we did in the end make an adjustment, partly because of the strength of the response in the consultation and also because of representations from council leaders and from Members of Parliament. We adjusted our proposals, but we adjusted them because of the quality of the arguments that were presented, not because of the precise number of people who had responded to a consultation.

Q27 Simon Danczuk: Why did you not choose to consult on the neighbourhood consultation light touch scheme even though 85% of respondents objected to the original proposal?

Nick Boles: That would be a recipe for never doing anything. You are suggesting that because we decided to adjust our proposals in response to a consultation, we should therefore issue a new consultation on our adjustment. One would never end up doing anything. No. We brought forward that compromise because of arguments made that were very strong arguments and that we decided to accept and we believe, certainly since then, that they have gone quite a long way to alleviating some of the concerns that were expressed during the consultation responses.

Q28 Mark Pawsey: Minister, sticking with consultations and the new neighbourhood consultation scheme, this was a concession that was brought in after the original proposals for permitted development rights were brought forward, because many, including Members of this Committee, were concerned that these proposals would lead to disputes between neighbours and would probably end up coming to visit us as Members of Parliament trying to resolve matters for them. I am just wondering: when that analysis takes place a local authority will only consider the impact on the amenity of adjoining premises; why not social and environmental factors, as occurs with conventional planning applications?

Nick Boles: I am not a planner and I am always rather nervous about straying into the-I was going to say dark arts, but that is the wrong phrase-particular science and art of planning. My understanding is that "amenity" is quite a well-developed concept in planning terms and that one of the advantages of it as a concept is that it captures a number of different things. The root of the concept is simply this: if you live next door to a property, you have the right to, in the fullest sense of the word, enjoy your property. If something that happens next door to you is going to interfere with that enjoyment, then it is something that you might want to object to.

Now, not absolutely everything is captured in planning terms, because other things would be captured in environmental health or whatever, but planning has the ability to capture a range of different issues that would interrupt your enjoyment of your property and that is what "amenity" does. What the objections focused on, both in the consultation and in the discussions in both Houses of Parliament, was people living next door who were going to feel that their enjoyment of their property was deteriorating as a result.

Q29 Mark Pawsey: Right, so it is purely "amenity" in respect of the neighbour rather than any broader assessment of what "amenity" might be.

Nick Boles: It is, yes.

Q30 Mark Pawsey: Alright. On our "Ask Boles" questions, we have had one or two people trying to pick holes in this and find ways around this new proposal, Minister. One of these is somebody suggesting that there is a limit of 21 days in which the notice may exist and that somebody, perhaps with a neighbour on only one side, aware that that neighbour was going to go away for 21 days for some reason or other, might bung in an application and then there would be no protection from the planning system as exists currently. Is that a valid concern?

Nick Boles: There may be people who are lucky enough to go on holiday for more than three weeks at a time and we should all envy them, but they would also be caught by the time period on normal planning applications, which is also 21 days.

Q31 Mark Pawsey: In this instance, of course, Minister, there will not be a normal planning application.

Nick Boles: No, but all I am saying is that if we had done nothing and the extension were proposed as a part of a normal planning application, they similarly would have had only 21 days to respond.

Q32 Mark Pawsey: But the householder adversely affected in that case, Minister, could rely on the assessment of the planning officer and the decision of the planning committee.

Nick Boles: It is an established practice that there is 21 days’ notice and, frankly, if you are going away for that long, you should make arrangements for your mail to be forwarded to where you are or to be reviewed by somebody else.

Q33 Mark Pawsey: In which case, Minister, may I also ask about clarification on another point, which is the business where the person planning to do the development provides the addresses of properties adjoining. Is there any check on that?

Nick Boles: Yes and, of course, local authorities have a very, very clear idea of what are the properties and the addresses in their area, for all sorts of purposes. But it seemed to be a reasonable thing to expect somebody proposing to do something like this to confirm what they believed were the adjoining addresses, because it is, as you say, a new, very specific fact that it is only the adjoining neighbours who will be consulted and not people who are near but not next to.

Q34 Mark Pawsey: For a proposal covered by this arrangement one would expect the local planning authority to verify that the neighbours that are specified are appropriate.

Nick Boles: They will have a record. As you know, they have very detailed maps of the entire area, so yes, but hopefully this will be a shortcut for them.

Q35 Mark Pawsey: That brings me neatly on to the issue of costs to local authorities in this new regime. Currently, each planning application carries a fee of £172 and the Government estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 applications will come through this new permitted development right. Effectively, that means a loss to planning departments of between £3.4 million and £6.8 million in lost fee income. Do you agree with that?

Nick Boles: No, not at all. Not at all. We have to be very, very clear to be entirely consistent in what we believe to be true with respect to planning fees and cost to local authorities. Local authorities are consistently clear-and there is strong evidence for this-that they lose money on planning; i.e. the fees do not cover the full cost of a planning application and the full consideration of it. Indeed, that is why they are consistently lobbying for greater powers to be able to charge higher fees. If each planning application loses money for an authority, then a reduction by one in the number of planning applications that you have to deal with saves you money as an authority, because the fee that you would have got for that planning application does not cover and would never cover the costs of dealing with it.

This reform, even with the neighbour consultation, will dramatically reduce the number of extensions that will require a planning process, because of course the process in its full sense of the consideration of the effect on neighbour amenity will only be triggered if one of the immediate adjoining neighbours objects. Of course, in many cases they will not object. So the reduction in cost for local authorities, from the fact that a very substantial number of things which currently require a full planning process will not, will be substantial.

The cost that we estimate of dealing with the neighbour consultation is between £6 and £30 per notification, based on an official spending half an hour to two and a half hours on each consultation. The half hour is obviously, broadly speaking, if you send out the letters and nobody objects; and the two and a half hours if you send out the letters, somebody objects and you then have this much more focused process. It is not going to be a fullblown planning process. If, of course, the local authority chooses to take it to planning committee, which they do not need to, because many local authorities deal with these under delegated powers to officers, then there may be further cost, but that is their choice.

We do not at the moment accept that netnet there are going to be any increased costs. In fact, we rather believe that local authorities are going to save money on all of these reforms, but we have made clear-and we have been in close consultation with the LGA on this-that if they can present evidence that indeed they have incurred increased costs that are greater than the fall in costs from the number of planning applications they are receiving, of course we will take that into account in the general discussion of new burdens.

Q36 Mark Pawsey: Therefore the cost to the local authority revolves around the number of neighbours who object. Have you made an assessment of the proportion that are likely to object?

Nick Boles: No.

Q37 Mark Pawsey: So if they all object, have you got-

Nick Boles: If they all objected, there would be a process that would still be less expensive than the planning process, but as you say, there would be no fee. But the idea that all of them are going to object to every single one of these things-I do not think you would want to base policy on that kind of projection.

Q38 Mark Pawsey: Alright, so you are adamant that there will be no additional cost to local planning authorities.

Nick Boles: We have not been presented with any evidence or arguments that persuade us that that is the case, but as I say, if the LGA is able to present us with evidence that in fact there has been increased cost as a result of this process, we will obviously be very happy to look at that and take that into account if we are persuaded that it is accurate.

Q39 Mark Pawsey: I wonder if I might ask you just to clarify the position on article 4 directions where local authorities pay compensation unless 12 months’ notice has been given. There is some concern that this is just a shortterm, threemonth term for this new permitted development. What is the position going to be for local authorities there?

Nick Boles: Sorry, I missed the proviso.

Q40 Mark Pawsey: What would be the cost to the local authorities of the new article 4 regime?

Nick Boles: We have not changed the article 4 regime. The article 4 regime is operating as it always has done, which is that you can put in place an article 4 with 12 months’ notice and there is then no compensation risk, or you can put in place an article 4 immediately, but then there is a compensation risk. In the event that you have put in place an article 4, because you have chosen to deprive an individual or a business in your area of a freedom that other businesses and individuals around the country enjoy, we do not believe that it is right that the local authority should be able to charge a planning fee for those applications.

Q41 Mark Pawsey: You are encouraging local authorities to bring forward more article 4 directions, but still want them to live within the 12 months. This proposal comes forward much more quickly.

Nick Boles: There are a few things you have said there, Mr Pawsey, that are not quite right. First of all, we are not encouraging local authorities to use article 4. We are simply pointing out to them that it exists, that many of them have used it in the past, so it is clearly not quite as complicated as some people have suggested, and that it is entirely appropriate in response to individual circumstances locally. Secondly, there is nothing new about article 4. We have not changed it in any way. It operates with regard to this permitted development right just in the same way as it has done before, and they have a simple choice: if they want to suspend this particular permitted development right or any other immediately, they can do so, but then there is this compensation risk for 12 months; or they can go through a consultation with 12 months’ notice and then introduce the article 4 at the end of 12 months.

Q42 Mark Pawsey: Is there any assessment of what the cost might be to local authorities of this compensation risk?

Nick Boles: No. There is a way it is defined, and if I was quicker than I am I would be able to find the particular briefing, but it is basically the loss of value to the applicant that is resulting from the article 4.

Q43 Mark Pawsey: But if payable, it would be a cost to local authorities that does not currently exist.

Nick Boles: No. It is not a new cost. It has always existed if you take advantage of this immediate article 4, which is something that we did not bring in with this set of permitted development rights. It preexisted this set of permitted development rights, the ability to put in place an immediate article 4 with the compensation risk, so nothing has changed about that.

We do not have a lot of evidence. I think there are 270 article 4 directions currently in place that over the last three years have been submitted by 122 planning authorities, so it is quite a wide range. We have not attempted to resist any of them. We have not questioned any of them. We are not aware of evidence of substantial compensation sums having been paid or claimed. Obviously, if anybody wants to present us with that evidence, we will look at it. We are looking at the whole approach to article 4 in Matthew Taylor’s guidance review, on which we have had other discussions, but we do not anticipate making any substantial changes to it.

Q44 Chair: Just to get the points clear, in terms of what is an adjoining property, is it a property on either side and also properties which have, say, the bottom of one property’s garden where the extension may be built and the property beyond that whose two gardens abut at the bottom?

Nick Boles: Since I was last with you, Mr Chairman, I have finally got my head around the concept of curtilage. I think the best way of putting it is where the boundary of the curtilage of one property abuts the boundary of another property. So, as you say, it could well be that the back of the garden at the back of you abuts the back of your garden and if you share a boundary, then it is adjoining. "Adjoining" means literally that-adjoining. It does not just mean your two neighbours either side of you, so it might be three or four; it is quite likely to be.

Q45 Chair: So you might have a situation where you could have a property with a very long garden and their neighbour’s adjoining some couple of hundred yards away, who have a right to be informed and express a view. But take a terraced property-and we have them in my constituency-where you go down the alleyway between them. The first property, if you turn left, wants to build an extension. The next door neighbour in the middle terrace has a right to have a say, but the next property, the end terrace-so only a matter of 10 yards from where the extension is going to be built-has no say at all. Is that right?

Nick Boles: The extension, Mr Chairman, as you know, I suspect, cannot be more than four metres high, cannot extend to more than 50% of the curtilage of your property. The suggestion that it will have a significant impact on a property that is 10 yards away I think is fanciful.

Q46 Chair: But a property 100 yards away over the garden wall at the bottom would be consulted.

Nick Boles: It is right to give all adjoining neighbours the possibility of passing comment. Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a 200foot garden and your house is at the far end of it, I imagine you are unlikely to object.

Q47 Chair: But you still have a right.

Nick Boles: You have a right because we have defined it as adjoining properties, because it is the people in adjoining properties who potentially are most likely to be impacted. Somebody further away is not likely to be impacted by a single storey, limited scale extension.

Q48 Chair: Just coming on to what a neighbour is, is it the person living in the property or the person who owns the property?

Nick Boles: I am sorry for taking advice, for phoning a friend. It is an owner or occupier.

Chair: Owner or occupier.

Nick Boles: Apparently in the same way as for a planning application. I am very happy to write to the Committee. As you can tell, it is not something on which I was previously knowledgeable, but I understand it is the same as for a planning application. It is the owner or occupier. So for a planning application, equally, if you were consulting, it would be the owner or the occupier.

Q49 Chair: In terms of the changes to permissions for statefunded schools to be built, again we have had some questions in from the public. There is a little bit of concern that the Department’s stated policy of giving communities more power in local planning development is being completely overturned by this proposal. I understand in particular it has been drawn to our attention that there has been one quite high profile case in Stoke Poges where an application to convert a building into a school was put in. The district council was recommended to refuse before it got that far. The applicant withdrew the application and said, "I do not have to go down planning. Permitted development is the name of the game these days. I can do it despite the opposition of local communities." There is not very much about empowering local communities in there, is there, Minister?

Nick Boles: Simply, it relates to our earlier, more general discussion, which is that it is a balance between the rights and freedoms of businesses, of institutions, of families and, in this case, schools and the rights of communities. It is simply a question of: is there a sufficiently different impact from a building being occupied by a school than by one of the uses that the building, under its current use, might have that cannot be captured by the prior approval process in the case of the permanent change of use? Our view very clearly is that there is not a good planning reason why having a leisure centre or a residential institution should create dramatically different land use impact, which is, after all, what the planning system is meant to be about, than it being a school. There may of course be transport issues and those will be captured in the prior approval regime before any permanent change of use is accepted.

Q50 Chair: You said earlier in response to a question that Ministers and civil servants did not have all wisdom on these matters, but it appears in this particular case that Whitehall is going to know best, is it not? In terms of any balance, local communities are going to be completely excluded from any of the decisionmaking about what happens in their community on matters like this. Their views are going to count for nothing, are they?

Nick Boles: I do not accept that because, as I say, there is a prior approval regime, which will need to capture some of the things that could indeed have an impact on the community and which might then lead to something not being given prior approval. That is indeed a role that the local authority will properly play. Equally, we have to recognise two things. The first is the Government’s support for free schools and for the idea of being able to introduce new schools into areas that have a basic need and where the current number of schools available do not provide parents with a choice of good schools to send their children to, which is a very, very strong commitment.

Secondly, we do not believe that land use impact of a school is so dramatically different that local authorities need to make a planning decision in the case of every school going into a building that is currently used in one of these different ways. I am afraid that we do have some evidence of some local authorities-their political persuasion is one that I suspect needs no further elucidation-using the planning process as a way to resist proposals for new free schools because of their disagreement with the policy. That is not an acceptable use of planning powers and it is not one that we are going to allow to derail the free schools policy.

Q51 Chair: So, because you may be concerned about one or two authorities-and the case I mentioned I do not think is one of those authorities-all of which matters could be corrected through the appeals system in the current planning process, you are going to take away from every community in the country the right to have any say about whether a building in their community is converted into a school.

Nick Boles: We have given every community in the country a right to have a say through the prior approval process, which covers transport, highways issues, contamination and noise, which are many of the impacts that I think we would all genuinely believe that a school could have: there could be quite a lot of noise from a school, there could be quite a lot of cars coming and going. Those are absolutely reasonable issues for a local authority to form a judgment about through the prior approval process. We do not believe that the fullblown planning process of land use impact is sufficiently different between the different uses to justify that process.

Q52 Heather Wheeler: I do not think I am allowed to say whether I agree with this or not, am I? Okay.

Nick Boles: Of course you are.

Q53 Heather Wheeler: Extending this now, it is going to run for three years, so I am interested in the criteria that you will look at for judging whether impacts have been good, bad, or otherwise-particularly, say, changing from industrial to housing-looking at the numbers. You have said that you are going to review this on an ongoing basis. I wonder whether you have any headlines of criteria that you are going to use for that ongoing review.

Nick Boles: We have not thought that out in detail, partly because we have rather assumed that what will happen is that the LGA and others and individual councils will almost certainly come forward with particular schools that have opened, in places that they felt were inappropriate for whatever reason, but in a way that it was not possible for them to capture in the prior approval process. Over that threeyear period it is likely, I think, that people would come forward if there were such problems. Our belief, which is why we have done this, is that, once a school has opened and is educating children in one of these buildings that previously had another use, it is much less likely that we will hear from people saying, "The school should never open there, because of the following land use impact." But if they do, of course that will be part of our review.

Q54 Heather Wheeler: There is also the classic: it is a threeyear thing, it is meant to get growth going, so somebody starts an extension but they do not finish it within the three years. Do you have any view, if you do not extend it for longer than the three years, because it was meant to be the big push, how you deal with that? Are they in breach of what would have been planning except they did not have planning?

Nick Boles: I think technically they would be in breach. This is back onto the extensions policy. Given the limited scale of these permitted extensions, you would be a pretty lazy builder not to be able to finish something within the period that we have allowed. If you cannot get yourself organised and nor can your client, then your client runs the risk of having an enforcement process and, at the very minimum, being required to undertake a retrospective planning process, which will have a cost attached.

Q55 Heather Wheeler: I would have thought it might be an interesting idea, as part of your ongoing review of the process, of the impacts and what have you, 24 months in, to put out a statement saying, "We have not come to a decision about whether we are going to extend this or not, because it was meant to be a one or threeyear period" and people will know that there are these risks ahead.

Nick Boles: That may be a reasonable idea. We are not yet thinking about how and when the review will take place of that, but the idea of giving people some notice of whether the period is likely to be extended or, indeed, whether the permitted development right is likely to be made permanent or not would be sensible, as you say, so that people have a bit of time to get their acts together.

Q56 Chair: Just on the prior approval process, does that apply to an application for change of use for just one year?

Nick Boles: Is this on the schools?

Chair: Yes.

Nick Boles: The temporary use does not require a prior approval process, and the reason for that is twofold. First, the Department for Education, in its decision about whether to sign a funding agreement with a free school, goes through an elaborate process not just of reviewing the quality of the education proposal, but also reviewing the appropriateness of the site where the school is proposed to be set up. Secondly, given the costs involved in setting up a new school, it is almost inconceivable that you would go through a temporary occupation of a building unless you intended and had pretty strong grounds for thinking that you would pass the prior approval regime on a permanent. It is only a year and the idea of setting up a school for a year, only then to have to move because you could not satisfy the prior approval requirement, seems to us to be, while a theoretical risk, not a realistic one, given the level of due diligence that is done by the Department for Education before it signs a funding agreement with a new school.

Q57 Chair: In terms of the prior approval regime, you mentioned noise being a factor that can be taken account of. If there is a proposal to convert to a residence a building used for another use at present, which might be in an area with other similar buildings around with, say, night time activity going on, will the prior approval be able to take account of the potential impact of other existing buildings and their uses in that area on any residences that are created, so we do not get to the problem where a building is converted to residential use and then you get complaints about statutory nuisance, which have to be acted on by the local authority to shut down the businesses adjacent?

Nick Boles: This is a commercial to residential conversion in an area that already has some established uses that might have some noise impact.

Chair: Yes.

Nick Boles: I have to say it is an extremely good point and I would agree instinctively with the thrust of what you are saying, which is that, by and large, if you decide to convert that building into residential, you take the rough with the smooth of the area that you have decided to do it in.

Q58 Chair: But you do not, Minister. That is the problem. The local authority would have a duty, if there is a statutory noise nuisance, to take action against the business not against the new residence.

Nick Boles: I understand the point. The prior approval regime will no doubt reveal that, yes, you propose to turn this to residential in this building. Your eyes need to be open about the area you are in and, bluntly, the same rules are not applied to every single residential property across the country. If you are in a leafy suburb, the expectations of the environmental, the noise and other impacts that you have to cope with are different than if you are in a street in Peckham.

Q59 Chair: I think you are wrong, Minister, I am sorry. If there is a statutory nuisance being created, even though you convert your property to residential use, you do not have to be aware-

Nick Boles: If it is a statutory nuisance, then it is an egregious breach that is happening sufficiently close to you that it breaks the limits of acceptable noise. What you were referring to was the general environment. I used to be the councillor in Soho and I lived in a property in Soho. My right to be able to object to a specific noise pollution emanating so close to my property that it penetrated my property during the hours of the night of course was entirely undimmed. It was the same as anybody else has. But the way you set up the question was to suggest: did I have a right to object to the fact that Soho is the premier centre for restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other less salubrious activities in London? Of course, the answer is no. That was what I was referring to.

You could not object, if you converted an office building in a place that was a busy town centre, to the town centre continuing to be busy. But if you had a specific breach of noise regulations or others that penetrated your property during the hours of restriction, then of course you have the same rights as anybody else does, but I think they are different.

Q60 Chair: But if that was likely to be the situation that was created, would the local authority be able to address that issue as part of its prior approval process and refuse permission?

Nick Boles: The prior approval process that we have established considers transport and highways, contamination and flooding with regard to commercial to residential.

Q61 Chair: Not noise.

Nick Boles: Not noise, because of course the question for prior approval is, "Is the new use going to cause negative impact on the surrounding area?" not what you were asking, "Is the surrounding area going to cause negative impact on the occupants of the new use?" In the case of schools, obviously noise is a potential product of the new use-lots and lots of small children running around. Somebody having a home, the risk of them causing egregious noise is not one that is sufficiently great that it would be normally taken into account in any process. You are asking for, in a sense, prior approval to take account of the impact of the community on the property rather than the other way around. The prior approval regime is intended to capture the impact of the new use on the community.

Q62 Chair: Except, Minister, I once had a planning case in my constituency with properties built with planning permission and things went wrong, so it happened under the existing system. But if converting to residential use with a property, say, commercial or industrial next door and, as a result, that industrial property has noise from working at 12 o’clock at night, which affects on a statutory basis the new residences next door to it, then it will have an impact on that business. The council’s officers are likely to come along and close that business down and stop them from working during those hours. Is that going to be taken account of or not in this prior approval regime? You seem to be saying it is not.

Nick Boles: I am very glad we have gone here, because what this reveals is a fundamentally different world view. You believe, Mr Chairman-and probably most members of your Party believe and I entirely respect it-that unless you regulate to stop things happening that are bad, lots of bad things will happen. I believe that unless you can demonstrate that people acting freely have an interest in doing bad things that therefore require regulation, you should not have those regulations. In the specific case you have just suggested, you are suggesting that somebody, a property owner, will find it an economically sensible thing to do to take a property that is valuable as an office but that happens to be sited next door to a noisy factory and convert it to a block of flats. I would put it to you that that person would be an idiot, because they would never sell the flats, because no mug is going to buy a flat that is next to a noisy factory.

Q63 Chair: Come and talk to my constituents, Minister, if you really want to.

Nick Boles: This is a theoretical risk that does not require regulatory intervention by the state. I am trying to resume due humility, Mr Chairman. If, of course, it happens and there is evidence that it happens as a result of this permitted development right, then we would be happy to review the evidence and look at the prior approval regime, but I think it is highly unlikely to be something that will arise as a result of this.

Q64 Mark Pawsey: Minister, with respect to these changes to permitted development rights in the round, what would you say to those who say that the planning system is complicated, lots of the general public do not know and understand it and what we are doing here is tinkering with it and changing it and taking away whatever certainty previously existed for a short period and then we are going to go, possibly, back to the old certainty? How do you answer those concerns?

Nick Boles: I understand, because change is always, to some extent, disruptive and, to some extent, confusing to people. On the other hand, when a change is in the direction of dramatically reducing the number of instances where you have to put in an application to an authority for permission to do something, though it may be shortterm confusing, in the long term it is liberalising and simplifying. If you put it in the context of our broad reforms and the fact that planning policy has now been reduced down to something that anybody could read in a couple of hours and planning guidance is about to go down from 7,000 pages to a website, you would be hard-pressed to say that the planning system was not now much simpler and much more accessible as a result of this Government’s reforms.

Q65 Mark Pawsey: If it is a good thing, why are we not making a permanent change?

Nick Boles: Because we do believe in reviewing the evidence. As I said, although Mr Danczuk disagreed with me, I am innately a sceptic about projections of how people are going to behave in an impact assessment. I prefer to try something, see, and if Mr Betts’ or others’ objections and concerns are proved to be real, then we can adjust them.

Q66 James Morris: You mentioned the website for planning practice guidance. How is it going?

Nick Boles: I have just started my homework, of which I suspect I am going to have a great deal, and I have just started reading the drafts of replacement guidance.

Q67 James Morris: Is it going to be up by July?

Nick Boles: We agreed, in a sense, with you almost–

Q68 James Morris: I think you said July when you were here before.

Nick Boles: Do we call it a beta version? Anyway, a great deal of it we hope will be on the website by the end of July-not absolutely everything, but a great deal of it. There will then be a period of time when there will be room for people to comment-members of the public, professionals and others-and then we intend to-

Q69 James Morris: So the beta version will be available in July.

Nick Boles: Exactly. The beta version will be available, and when I say "in July" I would like to say "by the end of July," not implying at any particular point in July, but yes, we are hopeful that we are on track for that.

Q70 James Morris: Will that also contain technical guidance on household permitted development?

Nick Boles: Yes, I think it will. It is already on the portal, apparently. The planning portal already has guidance on the new consultation procedure.

Q71 James Morris: Will there be any further guidance on the new permitted development regime beyond the technical?

Nick Boles: I hope not, but if there is needed to be then there will be. On the specific extensions point or on the broader permitted development?

Q72 James Morris: On the broader permitted development.

Nick Boles: It will be covered in the chapters of guidance.

Q73 Chair: I have just some final points. The Director of National Parks England, Paul Hamblin, just dropped me a note as part of the consultation and said, "What about national parks in these changes?" They are particularly concerned about any impact on the change of use to residential. They, obviously, have very clear policies about residential development in national parks, and they are not going to be given any specific protections in these arrangements. Could you reassure him in any way?

Nick Boles: National parks are planning authorities. These permitted development rights will apply to them as planning authorities, but like all planning authorities they can set them aside if they think they are inappropriate, through the normal procedure, through the article 4.

Q74 Chair: The national parks were not authorities that were exempted.

Nick Boles: They are exempted from lots of things, but they are not exempted from these particular permitted development rights.

Q75 Chair: Finally, just a point of clarification: when Mark Prisk came to answer questions about wind farms and new rights for communities in the Chamber on 6 June-this is a point of clarification that you may have to take away and have a look at-he made reference to applications that were with the Planning Inspectorate for consideration and said that they would now, where that was the case, be able to take account of the new guidance in reaching a decision. I wonder whether you could give some clarification to that point. My understanding would be that, if the Inspector has already started hearing or collecting evidence on a particular application, on a particular appeal, then it would not be appropriate halfway through that process to suddenly introduce consideration of the new guidance. He would almost have to go back to square one and inform all the interested parties that that was what he was going to do and take further evidence from them.

Nick Boles: Mr Chairman, I am afraid I am going to have to get somebody to write to you on that, simply because I do not deal with wind planning policy. The Secretary of State has been dealing with it, so I would not want to give you a misleading answer.

Q76 Chair: It would be helpful just to clarify, because the issue has been raised with us. Finally, when are you coming again to tell us about the next lot of changes to planning policy?

Nick Boles: I have elsewhere, Mr Chairman, said that if anybody comes with a suggestion of further legislation on planning I would want to shoot them, but that does not mean that there will not be any further changes in other ways, in other nonprimary legislation ways. When we have a package, of course we will come to you as soon as you would like us.

Chair: Thank you very much for coming this afternoon, Minister.

Nick Boles: Thank you.

Prepared 28th June 2013