Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The noble Baroness, Lady Ford, made the interesting and basic comment that there is a shortage of experienced planners, which there is. I sit on an authority which constantly trains development control officers. They then move on to bigger authorities which pay more money or to the private sector and we have to train up more. That is the only way that we can possibly keep an establishment of development control officers in the authority. This is a basic issue. Saying that the really good planners should go and work for the HCA and concentrate on the parts of the country that the Government think are important is not an answer to the problem of not enough planners. The answer to that problem is to train more planners and perhaps pay them more.

Baroness Ford: The point that I was trying to make, although I may have failed, was not just about the quantum of planners, it was the fact that, having started life as a planner, I know that sometimes very complicated schemes come your way once every 10 or 15 years. For those more complex and special schemes it is sensible to concentrate scarce skills in a single agency that is able to help local authorities. We both agree on the overall quantum of planners, but my point about specialist schemes may be more compelling.

Lord Greaves: I understand that perfectly fair point. It is equally fair to say that if a local authority is to get an eco-town or another new development of that scale, it is not a one-off that comes and goes, it will be there for a considerable number of years and the answer is to staff that local authority properly with the skilled people required in those circumstances. There is no dispute about that.

Some of the rest of what the noble Baroness said related simply to the conflict between local democracy and involvement and how far national objectives should be imposed on local communities. That debate will go on and on, but there is something of a clash if the answer is imposition of national decisions, when we have a Government who constantly tell us how they are in favour of devolution of policy-making and everything else to local government and strengthening local government and local democracy. The Government have to decide which side of this argument they are on. It is clearly not an absolute matter and it never can be, but many of us would say that the balance has shifted to the centre so much in the past 35 years that if the Government are serious about shifting power back to the local level, they cannot keep saying “Yes, but it does not apply here and there”. We will continue to have that argument on Bill after Bill and in debate after debate.

4 Jun 2008 : Column GC98

Finally, this feels a bit like old-fashioned legislation. When the original generation of new towns was planned in the 1940s and the 1950s, the planning system by modern standards was rudimentary. There was very little planning structure in place and development control tended to be a fairly simple, hit-and-miss affair. Slowly, over the years, development control has become much more complex. For example, in the 1950s many planning decisions were made with no conditions at all. They were simply passed. Now even decisions on quite straightforward applications for kitchen extensions and so on will have a page of conditions attached, while decisions on complicated applications will have page after page of conditions.

Linked to that is the development of plans. Town maps developed in the 1960s and plans for the use of land within towns became common, but outside towns there was little other than the national parks, the AONBs and the green belt around London. That should be compared with the detailed plans we have now and the complex planning policy statements. We have PPGs issued at national level; regional spatial strategies are being put together and agreed; we have county structure plans which refer to parts which have been saved and included in the RSSs and so on; we have local plans which are of themselves detailed and complex; and we have the process of local development frameworks, which perhaps is using up all the planners who the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, talked about, who are not available for development control. It is a complex and intricate system. The question that has to be asked is: how does an old-fashioned, top-down approach to taking over an area and developing it fit in to the modern system? If the modern system cannot cope with these sorts of developments, is there not something fundamentally wrong with it? I return to what I said on another amendment: some of this seems like old-fashioned legislation.

6.45 pm

Lord Willoughby de Broke: I add very briefly to what my noble friend Lord Cathcart said on eco-towns and local authorities’ views on them. Could the noble Baroness be clear about what weight will be given to local authorities’ views on this? After all, this is not a nimby issue. This is not a few people with nice houses who do not want a development near them; this is the result of extensive consultation. It has been the main story on the front page of all local newspapers for two or three months. Local authorities have debated the matter at length.

On local elections, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that Stratford-on-Avon was one of the few councils that threw out some Conservatives and elected some Liberal Democrat members. This goes across parties—Conservative, Liberal Democrats, Labour—and I think there is even a Green on the Stratford-on-Avon District Council. So the decision is consensual and agreed unanimously, as I said yesterday, by the local council. I know Stratford; I do not know what the complexion of the Wychavon District Council is, but it too has come out unanimously against proposals, as have both Members of Parliament who are involved in this.

4 Jun 2008 : Column GC99

What will the process be? Will those expressions of public opinion and the responsibilities of local authorities to their electors be ignored, in the sense of, “Yes, we listen to what you say; we hear what you say, but actually you are going to get the medicine anyway, whether or not you like it”? Is that what is going to happen with eco-towns?

Currently 15 sites are shortlisted. I take it from the response we received yesterday that in the end 10 will be chosen—five and then probably another five—which means that the chances are two to one of getting one. I cannot speak for all of them, but two or three local authorities have come out very strongly against the proposal to have an eco-town. How will the Government deal with this very strong democratic feeling that local authorities do not want eco-towns? Will they be imposed on them? That is the question my noble friend asked. It will be an important answer for people involved in this argument. The consultation period ends on 30 June, so there is not much time for further debate. Therefore, a strongly indicative answer now would be of great help before the next stage of the debate.

Baroness Andrews: This is an important part of the Bill and an important debate. I shall try my very best to feel my way through and make as clear as I possibly can some of the principles, the nature of the evidence that we are dealing with and the historic powers that we are taking forward, and to try to reassure noble Lords, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who seems to be very concerned about the nature of the powers we are taking. I am very anxious that she understands not only how proportionate and important they are, but also how well they are grounded in evidence, participation, consultation and negotiation of partnership.

Before I get on to that, I will deal with eco-towns. I completely understand the seriousness with which the issues are raised. We had a major debate on this yesterday. I cannot make myself much clearer than I did then, except to say to the noble Lord that the discussions on eco-towns have reached a preliminary stage. All views will be taken into consideration—certainly the views of local authorities, which are very important. Alongside the consultation which is going on at the moment into the eco-town choices and the 15 sites, we are consulting separately on a sustainability appraisal and a planning policy statement.

I am conscious of the concerns that have been raised by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, and I offer noble Lords a meeting with officials to take them through the process which will surround and contain the planning of eco-towns. Yesterday I said that it would not run alongside or be a separate part of any other process—that it is a planning process. The final decision will rest in the context of a planning application which will be open to every form of democratic representation, should the site about which the noble Earl is concerned get that far. It is a planning process that we are talking about.

I would like to be assured that every Member of the Committee has read the document that sets out the prospectus for the eco-towns because in it, in a

4 Jun 2008 : Column GC100

detailed appendix, the planning process is clearly explained. However, there is an issue to be addressed here and I will organise a meeting for noble Lords to be taken through the process by the relevant officials quite separately from any other considerations they may have about the local situation. I hope that they will take advantage of that offer.

Let me deal with the specific issues raised by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart. When we talk about development in this context we are not simply talking about housing but about the ordinary meaning of development, which includes infrastructure and everything else contained in community development.

On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, the term “person” in its legal definition means, for example, the things we cannot encompass simply by talking about local authorities. It involves the Broads Authority or the National Park Authority, for example. I hope that clarifies those specific points.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I take it then that ordinary people are not involved in the consultations at all. Under that definition, if any “person” is not a person but some other body, that avoids individuals.

Baroness Andrews: We can impose the statutory requirement to consult only on designated agencies. I think it means the collective person. I shall write to the noble Lord in case there is a bit of a loophole.

I turn now not only to the substance of Clause 13 but to the range of amendments which have been tabled, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I shall do this in the following way. Buried in the range of amendments is an indication that noble Lords are going to oppose Clause 13 standing part of the Bill, so perhaps I may continue as if this were a clause stand part debate, relate to the amendments as briefly as I can—although they raise important issues—and give my responses in that way. I hope I can do it justice.

It is extremely important that we are as proportionate and collective as we can be. I am grateful for the way in which my noble friend Lady Ford described how this power, which we have inherited from previous legislation, has been used exceptionally in the past. When she was referring to the Milton Keynes partnership, she was talking not about the construction of Milton Keynes as a new town but about the partnership that we have put in place to take further the next stages of growth in the south-east in the context of Milton Keynes. It is a very specific partnership.

The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, raised a series of issues about the politics of partnerships and the inability sometimes of local authorities to address serious issues because they are incapable of doing so. Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Ford, drew on her experience.

When we look at the very rare occasions on which we might use the powers of designation, we can see that this is an option that will already have been rejected by the Government, for the reasons my noble friend gave, because there are other vehicles and other

4 Jun 2008 : Column GC101

opportunities. As we look across the growth areas in the greater south-east where we hope to achieve our ambitions for many more houses, because that is where we need them and where the affordability gap is greatest, we are looking at partnerships between local authorities—for example, in Corby in Northamptonshire—at partnerships that are UDCs and are appropriate for what is necessary; and at cross-border bilateral partnerships. Those are all perfectly sufficient for what they have to do. None of them raises issues of designation. That underlines the exceptional nature of what it is we are allowing for.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that he wanted to frame his response in the context of the issues he raised around Amendment No. 51D, which we addressed yesterday, and he is right to do so. At the heart of these many different amendments is the respect that we pay to local authorities. That issue is extremely important, and we have had an interesting and positive debate about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, is not in his place, but everything I want to say is about the essential nature of partnership in what we are delivering, and the designation power is not an exception to that. That itself constitutes a partnership; it is not an imposition. When it was agreed in Milton Keynes that this was the right and necessary way forward, it was done in partnership, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has pointed out. It was not an imposition. That is how it would be conducted. How could we possibly go forward with some of these major challenges if all we had at our disposal were a power to impose? It would not work. That is the most important thing I want to say.

We need to retain the option of using this power in case we are faced with circumstances in the future that mean this is the only way forward. I shall come on to the amendment that talks about “necessary” and “appropriate” in that context. Why would it be such a case? As I say, it is certainly not a question of taking powers away. If you look at where we are working in the growth areas, over 70 local authorities have volunteered to work with us on growth in the first round of the new growth points bidding. We are working now in partnership in different ways with 200 local authorities, half of all the local authorities in the country. Nearly all the major towns and cities are working with us on the growth agenda. They know that we cultivate partnership, and that is how we are going forward. They have the experience, but often they do not have capacity. That is where the point about skills comes in. Of course it is a question of growing more skills. Our planning departments and universities are doing their best. We are putting bursaries in and trying to create a cross-disciplinary flow of people to come into the profession. It is opening up in different ways.

We are faced with local authorities that do not have the capacity and yet need it. We had a graphic example of that. They come to our department and say, “Give us more help with this”. This is the ultimate way in which we would say, “Okay, if this is the only way forward. We have a big challenge here. We need 5,000 or 10,000 houses, or whatever it is, and we need to build that community”. That is the sort of discourse we have.

4 Jun 2008 : Column GC102

Lord Greaves: I do not think anyone in the Committee is saying that when a local authority asks for help, there should not be the capacity to provide that help. The worry is about when the help is provided but it is not required or wanted.

Baroness Andrews: The chances of that happening are so small that I can reassure the Committee that it would be a recipe for failure. I do not think there are any circumstances in which that could, or would, happen. However, with our collective experience, with my experience as a Planning Minister for three years and that of my noble friend Lady Ford for much longer than that, we know that it is in these circumstances that we have to think, “How can we best help this local authority, or perhaps this group of local authorities and other agencies, deliver what is necessary?”. That is the option.

It is true that the Bill talks about designation in terms of development control, but it talks also, in Clause 14, about taking on some planning powers and maintaining the local development framework. I stress that taking on the plan-making function would occur in circumstances that would be even more exceptional, because the HCA is not set up to do that—it has neither the resources nor the will. It would be a major distraction from its main responsibilities. The plan-making function would be conferred only when it was considered to be absolutely vital to delivery and where the development plan was so out of date that it could not deliver what was needed. It would be imperative because the plan-making function was not in place and the authority could not fulfil its responsibilities. That is all I shall say in relation to Clause 14.

7 pm

In each case, the type of planning powers that would be needed would have to be determined case by case. In some cases, all the powers would be required; in others, it would be only part of them. The decision about what powers were needed would rest always with the Secretary of State. That decision would be negotiated with the local authority, which would give its view on what was necessary to take forward the development. Designation and planning powers will not simply be imposed whenever there are decisions to be made, even in the case of large-scale developments. It will be about bringing many more skills and assets to the challenge.

Perhaps I may address the amendments in that context. I do not think that I need address Amendments Nos. 67, 68 and 69 in great detail, because everything that I have said about working with the local authority has made it clear that it would be contradictory to substitute the local authority for the Secretary of State. We are looking at exceptional circumstances that could be dealt with only by the Secretary of State. As I have explained, that would be on the basis of consultation. Not least of the consequences of removing the Secretary of State from the frame would be the removal also of parliamentary control. The noble Baroness may think that parliamentary control is not very strong—we will discuss that in the context of the

4 Jun 2008 : Column GC103

relevant amendments—but it exists. It would not be there if her amendment were to be won.

The noble Baroness’s Amendment No. 68C goes to the heart of the question of when the Secretary of State might get involved and the choices that would need to be made. It looks like an arcane legal point, but it is not. The noble Baroness argued that if we were to replace “appropriate” with “necessary”, it would have little practical effect but give tremendous comfort to local authorities. However, it would not give comfort to anyone. It would be unlikely to make any difference to the number of occasions when the Secretary of State designated an area, but it has the potential to introduce much delay, uncertainty and unnecessary expense into the designation order-making procedure.

The general dictionary definition of “appropriate” is “suitable” or “fitting” for a particular purpose. “Necessary” is defined as “essential”, “indispensable” or “requisite”. There is therefore a major difference. Our learned judges would need to be convinced that the HCA was following the only route available in fulfilling its responsibility. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, nodding. As a lawyer, she will know that that high test would give great comfort to her profession, but not to anybody else. We need to maintain the term “appropriate” for all those reasons.

I turn to Amendment No. 70 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I appreciate the context in which he raised this matter but, because any designation order would have to be made on the basis of consultation, there is absolutely no way that the Secretary of State would fail to give reasons. The consultation procedures set out in the Cabinet Office’s code of practice would apply and with those would come a requirement to give initial feedback regarding any responses received. That feedback would have to show how the consultation process had influenced the policy. There would be a series of questions to which summaries would have to be provided, and therefore, for the noble Lord’s purposes, the process would be extremely transparent. The reasons would be given on a case-by-case basis and would have to be specific and local to the situation. I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied with that.

I turn to Amendment No. 73. The Secretary of State may make an order only with the consent of the local planning authority responsible. This is part of the larger debate that we have had about how effective this consultation would be. The Secretary of State would need to have this residual power to make a decision on designation in exceptional circumstances, but it would follow consultation. However, if we were to accept the amendment, we would again have a contradiction in terms. Effectively, the local authorities would have a veto, and that would not make sense in terms of what we need to be able to provide and do.

I turn to Amendment No. 73A in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and Amendment No. 73E in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, concerning the development plan in force. The noble Baroness has been arguing that it is only in areas that do not have a development plan that conferring

4 Jun 2008 : Column GC104

planning functions on the HCA could be of use, and she discussed issues of cross-boundaries. The problem is that there would be rare cases where, having considered the issue and consulted, we would feel that regeneration was such an important issue and such a challenge that we would have to confer certain planning powers on the HCA. In those rare cases, local authorities might lose some of their planning functions. However, the noble Baroness’s amendment would prevent the Secretary of State ever designating any area, because there is no part of the country without a development plan in place, even though it may be an old or saved plan.

I would be the first to agree that local development frameworks have been slow in coming on stream. They were probably a greater challenge than we anticipated at the time because of the notion of spatial planning and so on. They have been a big cultural change for local authorities. Nevertheless, plans are in place and the amendment would mean that we could never designate anything.

Turning to Amendment No. 73C, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to an earlier amendment in his name that we did not debate. The development plan is certainly the starting point but, as the noble Lord knows only too well, it is also possible for proposals which are not in accordance with an area’s plan to be granted planning permission. This amendment does not make allowance for the assessment of any other material considerations. I know that he raised the amendment to provide an opportunity to debate the issue, but it would have a rather catastrophic effect. I am going as fast and, I hope, as coherently as I can through this long list.

Amendment No. 71A covers the plan-making function, and I shall address the point that this is an extension of the powers that could be conferred on the predecessor bodies. The plain fact of the matter is that the inclusion of the plan-making role reflects the legislation in force today. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act, which established the LDFs, put greater emphasis on development needs. We have said that this power will be used very rarely.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page