Infrastructure Bill [HL]

 Written evidence submitted by Local Government Association (LGA) (IB 19)

1. About the Local Government Association

1.1 The Local Government Association (LGA) is the national voice of local government. We work with councils to support, promote and improve local government.

1.2 We are a politically-led, cross party organisation that works on behalf of councils to ensure local government has a strong, credible voice with national government. We aim to influence and set the political agenda on the issues that matter to councils so they are able to deliver local solutions to national problems.

2. Summary

2.1 The LGA is concerned that a number of the proposals in the Infrastructure Bill as currently drafted would adversely affect the work of local government and we would like to see the Bill amended in order to avoid this.

2.2 There should be a clear legal obligation on a strategic highways company to consult with local government, represent local communities and consider local road networks. Additionally, local highways authorities should be consulted regarding the structure of a new strategic highways company.

2.3 The proposals in the Bill for deemed discharge of planning conditions are unnecessary and clause 26 should be deleted. Joint working on planning conditions between councils and developers can already take place without the need for new legislation.

2.4 The Bill is an opportunity to streamline decision making over land release across the public sector and enable development to be brought forward more quickly. Simple amendments to clause 27 would allow land and assets to be transferred to a local authority, where agreed, in addition to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA).

2.5 The land charges service provided by local authorities should not be transferred to Land Registry, and clauses 29 and 30 should be deleted from the Bill. Centralising the service is likely to affect the quality of the data and introduce delays, and the proposals risk stripping councils of income while burdening them with many of the current responsibilities and costs.

2.6 Local concerns over shale gas extraction must not be ignored by national policy making. Part 5 of the Bill should be improved to put community benefit and compensation packages on a statutory footing, and also give local communities the power to decide through councils and the planning system if they want to host fracking operations in their areas.

2.7 The Bill provides an opportunity to reform the approach to the implementation of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS). We would like to see the Bill extended to put a statutory requirement on utilities companies to approve, adopt and maintain all SuDS on new development, regardless of who they are constructed by.

3. Part 1: Strategic Highways Companies

3.1 The Bill must put a clear legal obligation on a strategic highways company to consult with local government.  Highways authorities must be involved at the highest level of decision-making regarding the creation of a new strategic highways company. It should also be a requirement for a non-executive director from a local highways authority to be appointed to the board of a new company.

3.2 A local authority representative would provide increased oversight of links between strategic and local roads, ensure democratic representation for local communities and allow for further local input into any approach to road improvements. It would also go some way to ensuring that local authorities are able from the outset to influence the structure of a company, on which the Government has, to date, offered no comment on.

3.3 The Government has previously confirmed its intention to put in place specific requirements on a strategic highways company to cooperate with local authorities, emergency services and other stakeholders. This will be in the form of a duty in the licence to cooperate and consult with local authorities in the planning and management of their networks, which is to be welcomed. However, the Bill does not go far enough in embedding the need for closer cooperation. In reality, much will depend on how the new company is operationally structured and the degree to which new structures respect the geography of local highways authorities.

3.4 It is important for local transport networks and councils that the Bill requires the Secretary of State and a strategic highways company to consider the roads network as a whole and transport provision at the local level when devising the roads investment strategy. Evidence that this has been carried out should also be displayed in the final document.

3.5 The Secretary of State and a new company should make this evaluation at the very start of the production of a road investment strategy, and it should be based on a clear analysis of the state of the local roads network. However, it must be noted that the Secretary of State should not have to produce this analysis. This is deliberate in order to allow the Government to utilise existing surveys, while providing it with an opportunity to make its own survey should it wish to do so.

3.6 Cooperation in this form can help a new company in undertaking its duties, such as by working with local authorities to reduce the use of strategic roads for local purposes.  An emphasis on the local roads network is vitally important as the Highways Agency has only two per cent of the total road mileage of the country. Its roads create traffic for the local network and the local network feeds out on to the motorway at various points. Sometimes the most congested areas of the motorway are congested largely because they are being used as a local road by people for just two exits. 

3.7 The Bill should be amended to require Highways England (HE) to carry out Route Based Strategy consultations. The concept behind Route Based Strategies is to look at a route in its widest context, including local roads and other transport modes, and consider the most cost effective way to deal with demand on HE’s network over that route.

4. Part 4: Planning, Land and Buildings - Deemed discharge of planning conditions

4.1 Joint working between councils and developers is the most effective way of dealing with any concerns about planning conditions. Joint working can already happen and does not require new legislation to enable it. The LGA opposes the proposals for deemed discharge of planning conditions outlined in clause 26 and would like to see it deleted from the Bill.

4.2 In order to achieve this end without the need for legislation, the LGA is already working with the Home Builders Federation, Planning Officers Society and British Property Federation to share good practice and support effective approaches on the ground, which is the most effective way to deliver more starts on site.

5. Part 4: Planning, Land and Buildings - Property transfers to the HCA (Homes and Communities Agency) and the GLA (Greater London Authority)

5.1 Councils share central government’s focus on using publicly owned land to support housing development. A number of councils have made strides to pool land assets with central government departments and agencies, and councils should be further supported in this way. This could be achieved by extending the current proposals in clause 27 to allow land and assets to be transferred to a local authority in addition to the HCA, where the councils agree to such transfers taking place. It is important that the Bill should explicitly reference that a transfer should not take place without the agreement of councils.

5.2 The LGA was recently asked by the Cabinet Office to help transfer to local councils some 3000 separate land and property assets held by Government departments and agencies. They range in size and value, and it would be the intention to offer them as a package to councils, potentially with a small dowry. An amendment to the Bill would support this partnership working between councils, the LGA and central government.

6. Part 4: Planning, Land and Buildings – Land Registry

6.1 The LGA opposes Clauses 29 and 30 and calls for them to be deleted from the Bill. The land charges service to businesses and residents is best improved locally instead of going through a national transformation that is likely to have a negative impact on the conveyancing process and local authorities.

6.2 Centralising the system will result in a loss of local expertise and knowledge that is vital for the accuracy, consistency and coherence of the data and associated searches. This will not only undermine the credibility of the data that is critical in the conveyancing process, but may lead to delays and costs as queries are resolved. The case for this change has not been made. To the contrary, the overwhelming majority of the responses to the Government consultation opposed the proposal. Users are satisfied with the service on offer from local authorities and many authorities provide short turnaround times and integrated services.

6.3 Currently, the land charges officer ensures that land charges data collated from local services is registered correctly against each property, based on local knowledge. There is a genuine concern about the future accuracy and quality of the land charges data if it is submitted to a central system that does not have the local oversight of the land charges officer checking its integrity and accuracy. Splitting land charges from the more detailed CON29 search may add even greater risk of inaccuracies. The lack of quality will impact on future conveyancing services and the property market, introducing delays and adding extra costs.

6.4 In addition, we are greatly concerned about the extent and the timescale of the transition. There are currently over 20,000,000 entries on local authorities’ Registers of Local Land Charges and in October 2013, 350 authorities made approximately 65,000 updates to their Registers. Implementing a new system, transferring data and changing the process of land charges will take substantial resources and time which will cause disruption to the service and the property market.

6.5 The impact assessment conducted by Land Registry does not adequately cover the costs, and the timescales outlined are also inconsistent. Land Registry is planning a phased implementation with starting dates varying between 2015/16 and 2016/17 with completion extending up to 2020. However, in calculating the proposed savings the impact assessment assumes that new fees will start in 2015/2016 and Land Registry income will start in 2016/2017.

6.6 The costs and the impact on local authorities of the Government’s proposals have not been adequately assessed by an independent review. The current impact assessment carried out by Land Registry is biased towards the interest of Land Registry for a centralised system and lacks evidence for the assumptions made to assess future costs and benefits. As the proposals currently stand, councils will be left with the expense of adjusting systems, breaking existing contracts, matching data to the requirements and paying redundancy costs.

6.7 Over the longer term, the proposals are unclear on who will cover the costs to councils of compiling, checking and verifying data to submit to Land Registry, resolving queries and covering insurance for past liabilities. More importantly, valuable knowledge will be irrecoverably lost. Therefore the proposals risk stripping councils of income, while leaving them with many of the current responsibilities and costs.

6.8 To avoid a conflict of interest on the part of Land Registry, the LGA recommends that the Government initiates an independent review that engages local authorities and other stakeholders of the current service in order to assess options, costs and impacts of improving and standardising local land charges services. This would include the digitalisation of outstanding records where evidence suggests that this is necessary.

6.9 Should the proposals remain in the legislation, the LGA is calling for a firm commitment on the face of the Bill that the transitional costs are met in full under the new burdens doctrine, and all ongoing costs based on an independent cost assessment are funded by central government.

7. Fracking

7.1 The Infrastructure Bill provides an opportunity for all voluntary community benefits and compensation packages for fracking to be put on a statutory footing. Local concerns about fracking should not be overridden by national policy, which is why we would like to see the Bill amended to strengthen local safeguards and ensure local communities benefit from shale gas extraction.

7.2 Communities should not be short-changed by shale gas extraction and any financial benefits schemes set up for areas that accept plans should mitigate the adverse impacts of development and deliver significant public benefit.

7.3 The Bill should also restate that local communities should decide, through their democratically-elected councils and the planning system, whether or not to host fracking operations in their areas. Ensuring communities feel safe is essential and so any company which applies to frack must assure residents, via their council, that issues such as seismic activity and water pollution can and will be adequately addressed before planning permission is considered. This should include an ongoing programme of rigorous and independent monitoring after permission is granted.

8. Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SuDS)

8.1 The Bill provides an opportunity to reform the approach to the implementation of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS). The LGA is calling for a statutory requirement on utilities companies to approve, adopt and maintain all SuDS on new development, regardless of who they are constructed by. This would provide clarity and consistency across the drainage network, a single point of accountability, as well as transparency and equity in charging.

8.2 The role of water companies, as set out in the Water Industry Act 1991, can be extended to enable utilities companies to act as an approval body. This will allow the Secretary of State to discharge powers in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 to appoint a body as the approving body for SuDs. The legislation sets out that the approval body must also adopt the SuDs.

8.3 Some water and sewerage undertakers, for example, Anglian Water, already approve and adopt SuDS on new developments, using industry approved technical standards (CIRA), and this would formalise these arrangements.

8.4 This approach would also tie in with the proposal for mandatory sewer adoption for new lateral drains and sewers by Water and Sewerage Companies under Section 42 of the Flood and Water Management Act, providing a unified and accountable solution for drainage across the piece.

December 2014

Prepared 6th January 2015