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Crown Prosecution Service

Lord Lester of Herne Hill asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Solicitor-General (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): The Crown Prosecution Service has explored the use of suitable consultants to assist with internal communications as part of the change management associated with implementation of those recommendations of the CPS Review Team which are accepted by the Government. After a selection process, the CPS has identified Crown Business Communications Ltd. as the most suitable, but I am informed by the CPS that no contract has yet been signed and there is no commitment to any specific expenditure. The extent and value (if any) of the work which that company may be asked to undertake has yet to be determined and will be dependent, in part, on decisions to be taken in the light of the report of the CPS review team once it is received.

Special Areas of Conservation: Maintenance of Safe Navigation

Lord Amherst of Hackney asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): All harbour authorities must have regard to nature conservation in the exercise of their statutory functions, which include the maintenance of safe navigation. Where a port is included in a Special Area of Conservation, designated under the Habitats Directive, the Conservation (Natural Habitats, Etc.) Regulations additionally give authorities a specific duty to exercise those functions to secure compliance with the directive. In addition, the regulations require the statutory nature conservation agencies to advise on these matters.

Audit Commission for Local Authorities and the NHS

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede asked Her Majesty's Government:

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Baroness Hayman: My right honourable friends the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Secretaries of State for Health and Wales have agreed to set up today a financial management and policy review of the Audit Commission for Local Authorities and the National Health Service in England and Wales, as part of a programme of reviews of non-departmental public bodies.

The review will be conducted in two stages. The first will be a "prior options" study focusing on whether the functions carried out by the Audit Commission are needed and, if so, whether those functions are best undertaken by the Audit Commission or some other body. Subject to the outcome of this first stage, the second stage will consist of a more detailed review of the Audit Commission's structure, funding, financial management and methods of operation.

I have appointed Paul McQuail, a retired senior civil servant in the former Department of the Environment, to lead a small team to undertake the prior options study. To oversee the review, I am establishing an Advisory Group, on which we are inviting representatives from the Audit Commission and the health and local government sectors to join representatives from central government.

In carrying out the study, it is intended that the review team will consult with a wide range of interested parties and would welcome written representations from anyone who has views on the Audit Commission and its work.

Planning and Affordable Housing

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to issue a revised circular on planning and affordable housing.[HL1481]

Baroness Hayman: The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has today issued Circular 6/98: Planning and Affordable Housing, which replaces Circular 13/96. The circular is intended to provide a clearer framework for preparing plan policies on affordable housing. It should help local planning authorities adopt a more consistent, plan-based approach, which will facilitate speedier and more effective negotiations and decisions on planning applications involving affordable housing.

The Government wish to optimise the contribution that the planning system can make to the overall supply of affordable housing. However, they also want to ensure that affordable housing policies in development plans are consistent with government guidance and that they are consistently applied.

The new circular lowers and further revises the existing thresholds, confirms a preference for providing affordable housing as part of the proposed development, and clarifies further the use of financial contributions in lieu of on-site provision. It also clarifies that the policy in the circular applies to all types of new housing proposals.

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The circular revises the existing threshold arrangements so that local planning authorities should only seek an element of affordable housing in:

    (a) housing developments of 25 or more dwellings or residential sites of 1 hectare or more, irrespective of the number of dwellings; and

    (b) in Inner London, in housing developments of 15 or more dwellings, or to residential sites of 0.5 hectare or more, irrespective of the number of dwellings.

In settlements in rural areas with a population of 3,000 or fewer, the local planning authority should adopt appropriate thresholds. The new arrangements also provide, in exceptional circumstances, for local planning authorities in those areas where the higher threshold at (a) would apply to seek to adopt a lower threshold, through the local plan process. These threshold arrangements should be based on assessments which include local needs and available supply of land for housing, and adopted only through the local plan process.

Where a local planning authority has not yet adopted its local plan or UDP, it will have to have regard to Circular 6/98 in preparing its plan. However, PPG1 makes it clear that, where development plans are very close to adoption at the time that new information (including guidance) becomes available, it may be preferable to adopt the plan and then start an immediate review. Therefore, in cases where plans are close to adoption (for example, where a modifications stage has already been held and no further modifications on other issues are proposed by the local authority), it may be appropriate, in order to prevent further delay, for the local planning authority to adopt its plan and to prepare proposals for early alterations to the plan having regard to the policy guidance in Circular 6/98.

Local planning authorities should prepare such proposals for alterations expeditiously and agree timetables for alteration with the Government Office for the Region. In cases where local planning authorities fail to take such action promptly, the Secretary of State may well consider it appropriate to direct them to prepare alterations to their adopted development plans within a specified period.

All local planning authorities will have to take into account the policy guidance in the new circular in determining applications for planning permission.

The Government will monitor the implementation of the affordable housing policy and intend to incorporate the advice in the new circular in the future revision of PPG3: Housing.

Environment Agencies: Review of Legislation

Lord Shepherd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will review the legislation relating to the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency as recommended by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.[HL1482]

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Baroness Hayman: My right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment is today setting in hand a review, jointly with my right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Secretary of State for Wales and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It will examine the legislation relating to the Environment Agency in England and Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, with a view to identifying any barriers preventing the agencies from taking an integrated approach to the environment. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended in its nineteenth report (Cm 3165) that such a review should be carried out within three years of the agencies' taking up their functions, in April 1996.

The terms of reference of the review are:

    To investigate the possible rationalisation of the regulatory mechanisms which the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency operate, and the opportunities for integrating regulatory regimes which currently operate on a similar basis but under different legislation, so as:

    to identify any significant barriers to integration within each of the agencies whose removal would improve the quality of regulation by producing worthwhile improvements in environmental protection and enhancement, customer service and business efficiency,

    to establish whether such barriers could be overcome by administrative means or management action by the agencies; and

    in so far as this is not the case, to recommend legislative changes to enable them to be removed.

The review is not intended to consider the integration of the philosophical approaches underlying the different regulatory regimes, which are often bound up with European Union legislation. Nor is the review considering integration of the agencies themselves.

The review will be carried out by the relevant Government Departments and the Agencies. Interested bodies will be invited to contribute their views at an early stage. We envisage that the review will take about a year to complete.

Any legislative changes in England and Wales arising out of the review would be considered by Parliament. Since the results of the review will be submitted around the time of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, it would fall to Scottish Ministers to consider whether to put corresponding proposals to the Scottish Parliament.

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