Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I will explain why the general powers are just as important as the specific powers, which reflects what I have just said. The general powers are not somehow going to drive a coach and horses through everything else that has to be done; far from it. Because the HCA can use only the powers given to it—as I have said, we have to make sure that it does not go beyond those powers—Clauses 3 and 4 are very interdependent. They work together with the specific powers in Part 1 to ensure that the powers are proper and complementary. If the HCA had only general powers, by definition it would not be able to undertake specific actions, and the other way round. Clause 3, by giving the HCA a general power to do anything that it considers appropriate in support of its object, effectively fills any gaps that may exist unintentionally in the specific powers in Part 1. It is, if you like, a failsafe opportunity. We cannot foresee situations in which it might be used, but we have to allow for them. It provides the necessary flexibility that we would want to take all its functions across a wide range of ambitions and targets.

Clause 4 has a specific role, because it clarifies the relationship between Clause 3 and the specific powers in Part 1 to make sure that they complement each other and do not cancel each other out or override each other. Subsection (5) clarifies that by providing that the specific powers do not limit Clause 3. We can use Clause 3, as I have said, to fill in some of the gaps, should they be identified. Because the amendment seeks to remove subsection (5), the effect would be that the specific powers in Part 1 could be interpreted as limiting the general power, and it would deny us the opportunity to have the flexibility that we need. It is an important subsection. By its nature, it is rather obscure, but I hope that what I have said will help.

Amendment No. 45 covers the same sort of issue that we are wrestling with, but in a rather more specific context. Clause 4(6)(a) disapplies the HCA’s requirement to exercise its powers for the purposes of its objects where it is exercising any local planning authority functions conferred on it by a designation order under Clause 13. The amendment removes subsection (6). In layman’s language, that means that where the HCA is acting as a local planning authority in relation to all or part of a designated area, those powers have got to be exercised in accordance with existing planning legislation and administrative law principles. The effect of removing subsection (6) from Clause 4 would be that the agency’s exercise of local authority functions would be restricted in any circumstances where its planning laws did not coincide with its objects. The noble Lord might say, “Fine; that is perfectly reasonable”. Unfortunately, it does not actually work like that. Where local authority planning powers are conferred on the HCA in respect of a designated area, it is essential that it fulfils the role of a planning authority, not of a delivery agency, because that is where we may find some genuine conflict in the way in which things would work.



3 Jun 2008 : Column GC24

For example, imagine that the HCA as a planning authority has to decide on a proposal to deliver a number of houses in a greenbelt location. The proposal is contrary to the development plan and national greenbelt policy. It would not fulfil the requirements of good planning in any sense. As a proposal to increase the supply of housing, just like that, it would not be contrary to the object. It is extremely important that we retain the power so that the primary role of the planning authority does not conflict with the objects of the agency.

I am sure that in exercising its powers, its planning functions, the noble Lord and I are of exactly the same mind in seeking assurance that the agency will operate in the same way as any other LPA. That is indeed the case. It will operate like any other planning authority. The amendment would have the opposite effect: whenever the agency operated as a local planning authority, it would be bound to do so within a framework that is fundamentally different from any other local planning authority. Clause 4 has been drafted in terms that ensure that when the HCA operates as a local planning authority, it will have no more or less power than any other authority in the planning system.

I hope that that provides the clarification that the noble Lord sought. The amendments would also delete subsection (6)(b), which prohibits the powers conferred by Clause 3 being used to override a restriction imposed on the exercise of a specific power. Again, that would have very perverse consequences, because the purpose of paragraph (b) is to ensure that the agency does not abuse its powers against the wishes of Parliament. The noble Lord would not want that to be removed.

Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 49A, tabled by the noble Baroness. She asked why we need to do things in this way. I was slightly puzzled by the amendment, which seemed to be aimed at precluding the HCA from using its powers outside Chapter 2 to bring about the more effective use of land, but when she raised her questions, I could see what she was trying to get at.

Perhaps I can explain more about the power to bring about the more effective use of land. Certain pieces of land may not be used as effectively as they could be; if the land was used in different ways, it could provide greater benefit or greater returns. For example, let us think of a centrally located piece of land that has been derelict. A local community group might have a much better idea for its use, for example, turning it into a community park, with community buildings.

The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness seems to suggest that the HCA should not be able to use the powers conferred on it outside Chapter 2 to do that. That includes Clause 22, which is the crucial clause that allows the HCA to provide financial assistance. It also suggests that all the important powers in Chapter 4—Clause 33, for example, which gives the HCA the power to act to support communities—would not be available. The HCA might also want to act with other relevant persons or bring in other support services under Clauses 46 and 47, but the amendment would preclude it from doing

3 Jun 2008 : Column GC25

that and mean that the HCA would have to take on the central role of regeneration or providing housing itself.

During Committee in other place, Clause 6 was debated alongside Clause 7, which allows the HCA to provide or facilitate the provision of infrastructure. Assurances were sought that regeneration included social as well as physical development. That is why we provide powers throughout the Bill to bring social and physical infrastructure together. That is why the Bill is framed as it is.

That was a somewhat lengthy explanation, but I hope that it makes it clear. If not, I am happy to write to noble Lords to confirm and perhaps even explain at greater length what I have just said.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who will presumably respond on their amendments, will allow me to intervene. I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the really complicated amendments. This is in no way a disparagement of what the Minister said, but I am bound to say that my mind went back to those puzzles in one’s childhood where you were told that Mr Black, Mr White, Mr Brown and Mr Green lived in houses that were—not necessarily respectively—black, white, brown and green and you were then given further information and asked to discover in which colour house each of them lived.

I am perfectly content, with a towel round my head, to reread what the Minister said to verify that it is now pellucid to the man on the Clapham omnibus. I hope that, if he is so minded, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will return to this on Report if he does not feel that the man on the Clapham omnibus will be able to follow it.

5.15 pm

Baroness Hamwee: It might depend on how many hot towels are handed out to travellers on London transport. As regards my Amendment No. 49A, the noble Baroness is right that “chapter” is the wrong word to use. I should have referred to “part” or perhaps even “Act”. I will come back to that at the next stage because my underlying concern that somehow powers are being given that are not spelt out still remains.

Lord Greaves: I am most grateful for the care and attention that the Minister has given to these matters. I am afraid that journeys on London transport are not long enough certainly as regards looking at Hansard and trying better to understand what the Minister has said. That will be my homework reading when I am on the train to the north of England tomorrow evening. No doubt the other people in the carriage will all think that I am crackers. Never mind, that often happens.

I am grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, and of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I was not sure which house the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, thought Humpty Dumpty was living in, but perhaps that will become clear in due course. I am a lot happier with the wording of Clause 3 following the explanation that was given,

3 Jun 2008 : Column GC26

particularly as regards the word “appropriate”, which is clearly testable in court. That is reassuring. As regards Clause 4(6)(a) on the designated areas, I tabled the relevant amendment as a probing amendment and the matter has been duly probed. I am entirely happy with the answer that I received. We can discuss whether the HCA ought to have planning powers at all at a later stage. If it is to have them, clearly it has to operate within existing planning legislation, which differs from the objectives stated here. I am grateful for the explanation that was given on that.

However, I am still bewildered by the rest of Clause 4. It seems to me that parts of it are frankly contradictory. I hope that the Minister will look again at the wording to make it easier for most people such as me who are not professional lawyers, or even for some professional lawyers, to understand. Having said that, I am very grateful indeed for the care and attention that the Minister has given these matters and for the contributions of other Members. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Powers: general]:

[Amendments Nos. 44 and 45 not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Powers to provide housing or other land]:

[Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Powers for regeneration, development or effective use of land]:

[Amendments Nos. 48 to 49A not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Powers in relation to infrastructure]:

[Amendment No. 50 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Earl Cathcart moved Amendment No. 51:

(a) to consult with, and have regard to the views of, the local authorities in whose area they propose exercising their powers;(b) to have special regard to the desirability of preserving gardens and urban green spaces;(c) to undertake site-specific flood risk assessments before acquiring or disposing of housing or other land and ensuring any new development undertaken or procured by it is appropriately flood resilient and resistant provided that there will be a presumption against inappropriate development on flood zones adjacent to rivers, the sea and tidal sources.(a) land laid out as a public garden;(b) land used for the purpose of public recreation; or(c) an area of open space which benefits wildlife or biodiversity.”

3 Jun 2008 : Column GC27

The noble Earl said: I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 53 and 77. Amendment No. 51 is largely a probing amendment. I have written in brackets on my notes, “depending on the Minister’s responses”. It comes in three parts. The first paragraph obliges the HCA,

In other words, it must listen to local authorities. There have already been concerns that the powers of the HCA are too extensive, as discussed on the previous group of amendments, and come at the expense of local authorities. On Second Reading, many noble Lords from all round the Chamber addressed the dangers of top-down government and imposing the will of the Government on local communities. I know that the Minister has recognised the importance of local government and local people in the decision-making process, and on Second Reading stated the importance of local involvement. She and Sir Bob Kerslake recognised that at the useful pre-Committee stage meeting.

We have also heard excellent contributions from the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, on the need for strong leadership and local involvement when dealing with the regeneration of urban areas. Again, that was fully acknowledged by the noble Baroness, so I ask myself in what circumstances there would ever be a need for top-down decision by the Government or the HCA. Is it all just scaremongering?

There is an area with potential for top-down decision-making, and that is the 10 proposed eco-towns. The Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, has promised a full consultation so that nothing will go ahead without the backing of local communities. What constitutes the backing of local communities? What if local communities do not want an eco-town? Will the Government, through the HCA’s powers, insist that they go ahead and carry on regardless on the basis that the Government know best? There are already tens of thousands of anti campaigners— 60,000 or 70,000 at the last count, and I believe the number is increasing by 2,000 a day—and the prospect of legal challenges against the building of eco-towns across England. The outcome of the Housing Minister’s full consultation will determine the final 10 sites, but what criteria will be applied to make these judgments? How many locals will have to sign a petition saying no before the Government will think again, or will the approval of the Minister, the developer, the land owner and one man and his dog swing the argument in favour of the new town? Will the Minister’s judgment ride roughshod over local feelings? Will the Government carry on regardless on the basis that they know best? That is the concern.

Critics have claimed that the plans expose the eco-towns scheme as a ruse for allowing housing development to avoid normal planning controls. If I were cynical, I would mention that at least half the 15 sites belong to the MoD, so the Government stand to make hundreds of millions of pounds from the sale of the land. By overriding the planning system, if that is what happens, the sites’ values rocket to

3 Jun 2008 : Column GC28

development land values. The Government therefore have a vested interest in developing these sites.

According to a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph, the developers of the proposed eco-town site at Curborough, near Lichfield in Staffordshire—incidentally, a former airfield owned by the MoD—have already submitted plans to the local authority, but the plans apparently fail to match the standard set out in the Government’s eco-town prospectus. The article then lists half a dozen or so areas where they fall short. Will the Government, through the HCA, require or encourage the local authority to insist on the developer raising its standards to comply with the Government’s eco-towns prospectus, or will the developer get away with it simply by promising to come back later with environmental features to add to the proposals? If it goes to appeal, will the inspectors back the local authority, or will the overriding desire for new housing water down these green standards?

Surprising as it may seem, I am not against the principle of eco-towns, provided that they have the support of the locals who have to live with them and provided that they are truly green and sustainable. This part of the amendment is aimed at clarifying how the Government are going to play it. After full consultation, will the Government, through the HCA, listen to local concerns and work with them to achieve the desired number of eco-communities, whether on the Government’s preferred sites or on other sites preferred by the locals, or will the Government bash on regardless and ignore local concerns?

The second paragraph of the amendment would place an onus on the HCA to recognise,

I am sure that many noble Lords are aware that often the biggest complaint that people have about new developments in their area, especially in more rural areas, is the so-called phenomenon of garden-grabbing, when a perfectly good house sitting in its own gardens is demolished and a number of new houses are crammed into the space. This can really change the character of an area. Whereas it might be appropriate for urban areas, it is absurd when applied to villages, as such overdevelopment can spoil the way people feel about their street or neighbourhood. It looks cramped and is incongruous.

I believe that the term “brownfield development” first appeared in PPG3 on housing in 2000. Behind the document was a desire to force planning departments and developers to look at the use of previously developed land before greenfield sites. To this end, local authorities were given targets to meet for the percentage of new housing that was built on brownfield sites. I think it is generally agreed that the principle is good, but, as with everything, the devil is in the detail. It is difficult to argue against the redevelopment of a rundown industrial site in the middle of an urban area, which has the double benefit of sorting out the eyesore and protecting an alternative piece of greenfield land.

The definition does not stop there. The most contentious issue has always been that brownfield now includes garden land. This has led to the garden-grabbing

3 Jun 2008 : Column GC29

headlines. When the PPG was introduced, it was clear that the development of brownfield sites was almost impossible to stop. The priority that has been given to such sites was so high that it was almost impossible to mount an argument that would result in the plans being turned down on appeal. If it was brownfield, it got permission—and very soon. With costs being awarded on appeal, local planning authorities had little option but to approve schemes of garden-grabbing.

The pendulum has swung too far. Schemes that did not enhance the appearance of the area were driven through in this way. Breckland Council, of which I have been a councillor for the past 10 years, has noticed lately that the preservation of the character of the area is now being given more weight by inspectors and we have won some appeals recently on that basis. These tend to be edge-of-settlement sites, which is a good sign, but in village centres, which are equally valuable, developments are still being allowed on appeal. These spaces are equally important to the character and the appearance of the area, not only in visual terms but also for biodiversity reasons. The green corridors through our towns and villages are being lost, with the obvious degradation of the ecology of those areas. The subsequent effects on wildlife are well documented and, at the same time, there can be a reduction in the quality of life and sense of place that people have enjoyed for years.

Incidentally, there was an item in the news last Friday saying that a recently completed two-year study has concluded that people’s health is improved by being within a green or rural area, including general feelings of well-being and an actual lowering of blood pressure and feelings of stress. I hope the Minister will feel able to look at this subsection with a view to declassifying gardens as “brownfield” and agreeing to preserving urban green spaces. Our Amendment No. 77 would place a duty on the HCA to monitor and promote the re-use of genuine brownfield sites.

The third sub-paragraph in Amendment No. 51 deals with flooding and I can link it with Amendment No. 53, which can be viewed as an alternative clause. Both would place the Homes and Communities Agency under an obligation to undertake full risk assessments of flooding of any new development. As a result of last summer’s rain, 55,000 properties were flooded, 7,000 people had to be rescued from the flood waters, 5,000 businesses were flooded, 850 schools were damaged, over 100,000 acres of agricultural land were flooded, 13 people died, 600 were injured, almost half a million people were without water or electricity and transport was brought to a standstill; 6,000 people still cannot get back into their houses and l,400 are living in caravans. Last week, we saw flash flooding in Somerset. We are told by the experts that these are not going to be one-off events but part of a worsening trend.

Over the past 10 years almost 10 per cent of all dwellings built were in designated flood risk areas and, in 2005 alone, over 21 major planning applications were approved against the Environment Agency's guidelines. There is no doubt that we need to take greater care over where we build our houses and if they have to be built on flood plains—such as

3 Jun 2008 : Column GC30

the Thames Gateway—then more thought ought to be going into how we build them.

In response to last summer’s flooding, the Government—I think it was Defra—appointed Sir Michael Pitt to assess what went wrong, what we might do differently as a country and to identify what changes need to take place. Pitt says that flooding is a “blind spot to society” and,

An interim report on his findings has been published with 15 recommendations and over 70 interim conclusions. His final report will be published later this summer, once he has had responses from government and non-governmental bodies. I raise the Pitt report as there is an excellent section in it relating to new buildings and how we might do better as a country to avoid the traumas of flooding.

Although the review reports to Defra, it has a direct bearing on the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the HCA’s remit in particular. I have no doubt that the Minister and the HCA will be looking closely at the final report with Defra and others to see how the recommendations can be implemented as a matter of urgency as part of their joined-up government.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page