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Lord Judd: My Lords, I hope that my noble friends will take very seriously the issues being put forward. For me there is an issue of joined-up political thinking. Currently, we are spending a good deal of time in this House considering how we can re-engage a wider proportion of the electorate in the political systemmaking the voting processes more accessible; and trying to get a higher participation in those processes.
It is difficult to think of many issues that affect more people more significantly than planning issues in terms of the whole character of the area where they live. I believe that what is sometimes referred to as the alienation of the public about the political process is, in fact, a feeling that, in the end, it is not worth trying to do anything because, inevitably, the powers that be will prevail. Considering all that the Government are doing in other spheres, I cannot conceive that they do not believe deeply that it is very important for people to feel empowered and able to be significant in the evolution of policy. To relegate how that is to happen in this context to regulations seems to me to miss an opportunity. To have on the face of the Bill the fact that community engagement and involvement can be an important part of a democratic society would have provided a stronger position.
I accept the Government's commitment in that direction and their intention. I do not accuse them in any way of bad faith. Therefore, if there is a vote on this amendment, I shall not vote against the Government. However, I feel sad that an opportunity to include, in very specific terms, a statement on the face of the Bill that reasserts the importance of the community in this crucial matter is being missed.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I fully accept the reason for returning to this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, politely said that in Committee the subject came up just after a votethe first defeat of the Government this year. I have here all the arguments that I rehearsed in Committee, which clearly did not impact in any way on the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, or my noble friend Lord Judd, so I shall not use any of those. I shall turn to the last page of my brief.
It goes without saying that we are absolutely committed to proper community involvement and consultation in regional plan making. We remain to be convinced about adding to the Bill in the way that the amendments propose, but in view of the depth and substance of the debate today, I shall take these amendments away and seriously consider whether we can find a way of meeting the desire. My noble friend said that trust is a key point and that the powers that be always get what they want. I shall take the matter away and return at Third Reading with something that will satisfy the House.
There has to be a test: whether the powers will provide additional safeguards, generate more community involvement, and restore or improve the trust of people. We believe that we have in place means to do that in a secure waywe have been sincere throughout. In view of today's debate and the fact that I have no arguments other than those that I used in Committee, it would be superfluous to use them again because they did not make an impact. I do not think this will cost us a great deal but it could have a major impact. Therefore, we shall take the matter away, give it serious consideration and hope to satisfy the House at Third Reading.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that answer and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for his support. As I said, there appears to be much agreement on this matter, and very few words to add to the Bill, but they would give much reassurance to many people in what is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, a new planning system that one imagines will last a long while. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will return with something quickly as we shall want to consider our strategy for the future. I accept what he has said today, but I hope that we do not have to wait until Third Reading. Perhaps he could let us know the Government's thinking before we get to Third Reading. If he can give me that assurance, I will withdraw the amendment.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am conscious that in the past few days I have flooded noble Lords and colleagues with paperwork, trying to answer the points that they made previously. Part of the motive was to avoid long speeches at Report stage, and part of it was to give information and explanation of issues that were raised in Committee and to give advance warning of what the Government propose to do with amendments as far in advance as possible. Naturally, that applies to what I have just said regarding the community involvement in relation to the two amendments in this group.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, on this amendment we revisit the Government's justification for the policies that the regional spatial strategy will contain. As before, this amendment would change the nature and content of the regional spatial strategy. The RSS would have regard to the Secretary of State's policies rather than simply setting them out. We believe that the amendment is necessary because if the Government are determined to establish regional planning in the form of regional spatial strategies, they must allow RSSs to be fully owned by regional planning bodies.
As I have said previously, it is not unreasonable to interpret Clause 2 as conceiving a regional spatial strategy as nothing more than a planning document which sets out the Secretary of State's policy agenda for a particular region. The amendment is aimed at freeing up the regional planning bodies via regional spatial strategies from being simply the mouthpiece of Whitehall policy. The amendment addresses the concern expressed by many interested parties that unless there are changes to the way that regional spatial strategies are established in legislation, there will be no space for local accountability as planning policy is implemented on the ground.
Of course, we recognise the importance of the Government's role in giving strategic leadership to the planning system. We do not understand why the RSS must set out the Secretary of State's policies in relation to the development and use of land within a region. Why can it not set out its own policies while having regard to the framework of national policy? Is it not obvious that if one is to set up regional planning bodies, they should be accountable for their own policies rather than for the Secretary of State's policies?
It is vital that we bolster the capacity of regional planning bodies to respond to local conditions. At the moment this legislation simply fails to recognise the enormous differences and variations between and within regions in current land use and development and future needs. As it stands, Clause 2(2) would lead to the accelerated fossilisation of regional spatial strategies because they would constantly have to keep up with the rate at which new demands emanate from Whitehall in order to satisfy the requirement to set out the Secretary of State's policies.
If the Government are serious about devolving power to the regions and about devolution, how can they square that with a policy that makes regional planning bodies, even after the establishment of elected regional assemblies, simply the agents of Whitehall and Westminster? Not only is democratic accountability being sucked out of the system by transferring powers upwards, away from counties, but it also leaks out at the regional level. As I said, regional planning bodies may find themselves accountable for policies that they do not support and over which they can exercise no control.
In the brave new world of devolution and elected regional assemblies, one cannot simply transfer the old accountabilities on to the new regional structure. The regional spatial strategy should not be a vehicle for simply setting out government policy; it should be a strategic vision that meets the planning needs of local communities. Their elected representatives should agree it. Of course regional spatial strategies will still have to have regard, as I said before, to the Government's priorities, which is accepted. The amendment maintains that important dimension.
The amendment ensures that regional spatial strategies are permitted the necessary flexibility to respond to conditions in their areas. It would go a small way towards restoring a better balance between local accountability and central control. By establishing
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, we on these Benches support the amendment. I looked back to see what the Minister said on this issue in Committee, and I must say that it was a little difficult to relate his remarkswhich were to a group of amendmentsto this point. I confess that I have struggled with this subsection and whether by altering it we would in any way affect the potential vacuum to which the Minister drew our attention at the last stage, if the regional planning guidance did not morph straight into the regional spatial strategy. I do not think that that is so, but it is significant that the provision is in Clause 2, which is essentially the clause that sets us off down the road of regional spatial strategies and will remain in there. This is the Secretary of State top-down from the top of the Bill.
Our concern is to get the right balance of observance of national policies, so there is an issue of the extent to which they can be debated, given the form that they take. We must get the balance right between national policies and local and regional interests. I include localities and local areas because they must be in conformity with the regional spatial strategy. The interests run all the way up and down society.
This is the Secretary of State top-down from the top of the Bill. We made that point time and time again, probably to the point of tedium, at the last stage. The fact that we will not make it on every amendment this time does not mean to say that the issue has gone away. We support the amendment.
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