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Lord Sheppard of Didgemere: I shall speak in favour of the amendment but not because I have been involved in local government. I seem to have been electing various authorities all my life. Sometimes I have agreed with them; sometimes I have not.
I am a great believer in democracy. I can assure the Committee that the feeling on this issue of citizens who have not been directly involved in local government is very strong. They wonder where democracy is going. I do not talk as a Londoner. In London we have an elected authority. I am not certain which party the mayor is in; perhaps we know now. But it is at least an elected authority and I have no right, therefore, to complain about what my fellow citizens want on the London plan.
Lord Rooker: I suspect that during debate on the Bill we shall discuss the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act ad nauseam. People want to keep re-visiting it. The Liberal Democrats do not believe in choice anyway. They would impose regional government on the remainder of the country. They can shake their heads all they like. I am on my feet now and I shall not give way.
We seek to do it a different way. Some regions may not want regional elected government. We are giving the people the choice. The first three referendums will be held later this year. One cannot assume what will happen after that. The Liberal Democrat policy is clearly to impose regional government.
Having listened to noble Lords, there has been a big squeal of vested political interest in virtually every speech. People listening to our debates could be misled. No noble Lord mentioned that the planning authority which will deal with the planning applications for the citizens of this country is the elected district council. Nothing is changing. Anyone would think that we are wiping out the district councils: they are the planning authorities which will make the decisions on the planning applications. No one mentions that because we are having a different debate: one of political vested interest from the county councils. Heads may be shaken but that is the reality.
Viscount Ullswater: I wonder whether the Minister heard my speech. I devoted at least a third of it to local development plans and queried the need for the Secretary of State to involve himself personally in the new development framework. Local development plans which I said have worked well have already been mentioned in the debate.
Lord Rooker: I have not come to that. We shall have similar debates about the accretion to the Secretary of State of so-called powers which, frankly, is not of the scale which has been alleged compared with the status quo. There are no substantial massive changes there. The district councils are the planning authorities. They are democratically elected. When citizens put in a planning application, they will deal with their local council as they do now. Nothing will change. But the debate so far is clearly designed to prevent the reform of the regional planning system, which is what we are talking about here, and not development control. It is a fair point to make; it is a fair way to begin debate on the Bill. I do not object to that.
Lord Rooker: If the noble Lord believes in regional government and calls his regional government Essex, that is his choice. I do not think that anyone, including the noble Lord the leader of his county council would claimI invite him to do sothat Essex is the region. One has to be realistic. I do not believe that that is a realistic proposition. Nevertheless, many legitimate points have been made and I shall do my best to answer them.
The bottom line is that this group of amendments, important though they are, is designed to prevent the reform of the regional planning system, which is what the Bill is about. To that extent, they are wrecking. I do not mean that in a pejorative sense, but it would simply undermine the whole purpose of the Bill.
Earl Russell: When the Minister begins a speech in so belligerent a manner, he creates the suspicion that he may be trying to distract the attention of the Committee from something. He has increased the Committee's curiosity as to what that might be.
Lord Rooker: So far as I am aware, the noble Earl was not here for most of the speeches that I have just listened to. Therefore, I am in no position to look into the window of his mind to see what he thinks I am about.
I have not been belligerent at all. I have made the point that I have heard a lot about political vested interests. I do not think that anyone is denying that. There are people here representing county councils, which they see as under threat. I do not see it that way, but it is a legitimate point to make.
I think the Liberal Democrats take the view that there ought to be regional government. They say that; indeed, they would impose it. We want to give people a choice on regional government. There is nothing belligerent about that. I do not have to sit here, listen and accept everything I hear. I want to try to make a legitimate response to what has been said. I have no hidden agenda: everything is out in the open. I am not trying to sugar-coat the Bill. I would not try to do that anyway.
The point about this group of amendments is the proposition that there should be regional spatial strategies and regional planning bodies only in areas where we have elected regional assemblies. I do not want to go over the previous Act now, but it is a step-by-step process if people decide whether they even want to have a referendum. One cannot assume what the end-game might be. Everyone knows that there will be three referenda later this year. That is the effect of this new clause in Amendment No. 1.
To say that I am disappointed by these amendments is a fair assessment of the situation, though not in any kind of belligerent way. They offer no solution whatever to the problems with our planning system and our system of plans. They appear directly to undermine the reforms. The existing system is bogged down by too many plans that are often out of datewe have heard some examples of that in previous legislationand not in line with one another. We also have three tiers of plans, which we believe to be simply too many.
We acceptand I do not think there is any difference between any of us on thisthat we need strong regional planning. For the avoidance of doubt, when I say "regions" I am talking about the regions as set out by the previous government, not the counties. Regional planning policies that form part of the development plan are needed to address the particular opportunities and challenges faced by an individual region. In effective regional planning policy, we think it is vital to tackle the historic regional disparities that exist and to respond to the challenges of a modern economy. The point made by my noble friend Lord Haskins is wholly legitimate in this respect, given those figures that I, too, saw this morning on the front page of the Financial Times.
We need strong local plans at a level where the community can really engage with the process of plan making, where proposals to develop particular sites can be properly debated. That situation is absolutely fundamental. We want to make regional spatial strategies statutory and so part of the development plan. We do not think we should continue with a system where outdated lower-level plans can take precedence over more up-to-date regional plans in key planning decisions. That is the position that exists today. We want a system for strategic planning that is based around areas that are interdependent on the ground, not one constrained by administrative boundaries. I believe I said in a previous debate that when I visited the Thames Gateway, I flew over it at 500 feet as a lot of it is inaccessible. The great advantage of that is that you do not see administrative boundaries. You see it in a completely different way. I am not knocking the boundaries, but the fact is that we are tied down to some of the historical administrative boundaries and we need policies that are not necessarily constrained by those boundaries.
The regional planning process needs to be driven forward by a body able to represent the region and to take a strategic view. The regional chambers are best placed to fulfil that role. I do not accept that some sort of democratic deficit now arises as a result of regional chambers having responsibility for regional planning.
This does not represent a new departure. Responsibility for preparing regional strategies already rests with regional planning bodies which, since 1 April last year, have been the regional chamber in each region. We are proposing that these arrangements should continue, provided that the chamber is sufficiently inclusive. We are not suddenly transferring powers from counties to regions.
Under the existing system, county structure plans should be in line with and follow the strategic planning framework set in the regional planning guidance. What we are doing is removing a filter that has slowed down the expression of strategic regional planning policies in local plans. We are clearing out a system that allows out-of-date structure plans to take precedence over up-to-date regional plans. Now, hands up anybody who is in favour of that continuing? It is barmy. You cannot explain to the public that out-of-date structure plans, years old in some cases, should take precedence over up-to-date regional plans. You would have a hell of a job explaining that to the general public when they were concerned about their particular locality.