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Planning In Towns And Cities

Volume 130: debated on Thursday 31 March 1988

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2.59 pm

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to introduce a short debate on the subject of planning in towns and cities. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier) is here. As he is a conscientious and diligent Minister, he will be delighted to be here at this late hour on the last day before the recess when many of our hon. Friends are jetting away to the sun or the slopes in Switzerland.

I have not initiated a debate on the issue of planning per se because the issues surrounding planning in the countryside and in rural areas are complicated, difficult and contentious. I do not wish to get involved in the great debate about how far we should encroach on the green belt and how far we should allow house building into the countryside, but I should point out that it is not only the south of England which is under pressure to provide more houses in green field sites. Areas such as the Holme valley in my constituency are also increasingly sought after and popular. My concern is specifically about how the planning system relates to towns and cities in Britain.

Despite the fact that economic prosperity is increasing and spreading rapidly under the present Government, there is clearly a major problem of deprivation and decay in many of our cities and towns. As we all know, the Government have embarked on a number of significant programmes to reverse that trend. Clearly, the Government, with their many schemes, are doing all they possibly can to improve the fabric and conditions of those areas of urban decay.

There are many reasons for the rundown in inner cities and certain parts of the towns. The decline of the old traditional industries and the appalling municipal housing policies of the 1960s created so many social problems such as increasing lawlessness.

A number of factors are hindering the resurgence of those areas. Not least is the fact that the vast majority of them are dominated by Left-wing Labour councils which spend more of their resources on the policies of social engineering and less on essential services such as road repairs. Included in the factors holding up progress are the planning regimes which do so much to decide the future of developments within those areas. My experience of talking to industrialists and entrepreneurs is that the planning regulations and restrictions cause them more problems than practically anything or anybody else when they are trying to set up new enterprises or expand existing ones.

My hon. Friend is aware of my interest in this matter as I have raised it in the House on a number of occasions. I make no apology for raising it once again. While planning is not a particularly exciting or sexy subject, particularly when compared with setting up a new enterprise zone or a new urban development corporation or handing out millions of pounds in urban development grants, I believe that planning plays a vital part in the regeneration of our inner cities and towns.

Good, imaginative and helpful planners who do not stick rigidly to the regulations will certainly help to oil the wheels of economic progress. By the same token, however, inflexible planners can do more than probably anything or anybody else to hinder economic development, to stop enterprises getting off the ground and to stop the process of urban regeneration.

I included "towns" in the title of the debate because towns such as Huddersfield have problems similar to those that are to be found in the inner cities, yet they do not enjoy the benefit of urban development corporation, enterprise zone, or assisted area status. The Colne valley is another example. That old industrial valley has taken something of a hammering because of the decline of the textile industry over the last 20 years. Huddersfield and the Colne valley are good examples of the fact that not all Britain's problems are confined to the inner cities. Unemployment is still in double figures—10 per cent.—in the Huddersfield travel-to-work area.

When I referred in my maiden speech last July to planners impeding progress—and what a long time ago that now seems to be—I was stongly criticised by a few local Labour councillors. It appears that I had touched on a raw nerve. A number of other people, particularly business men, congratulated me on voicing sentiments that they had never ventured to express. I acknowledge that it was perhaps unfair of me to single out Labout councils alone as having been responsible for creating planning obstacles. There are restrictive planners in Conservative councils and there are progressive planners in Labour councils. For example, Conservative-controlled Harrogate council harassed the marvellously innovative dairy farm in Weeton when it started to be too successful at producing an alternative product, ice cream. Another example is a small vilage shop in Killinghale, where I have lived for many years. It was told to remove a sign outside the shop that simply said, "News." The fact that it had been there for at least 15 years and had drawn the attention of passing motorists to the fact that newspapers were on sale was wholly irrelevant to the bureaucrat who decided that the sign should come down. The proprietor of that village shop appealed to the Department of the Environment and won his case but not before he had suffered a great deal of worry, hassle and expense.

I know of a brewery in Manchester that wanted to expand one of its pubs. It made an appropriate planning application but then had to wait two years before it could get any sense out of the council. The lesson to be learnt is that eventually the brewery decided that it was not prepared to put up with the hassle. It said, "To hell with this development" and dropped the proposed extension to the pub. The jobs that would have been created by building that extension and increasing the bar staff were never created, not to mention the increased social amenities that were lost to the local people.

Such problems can arise all over the country, but it is natural that I should talk about the ones in my constituency and in the surrounding areas. I referred in my maiden speech, all that time ago, to a small printing company that had been refused planning permission to move into larger premises because its application went against the local plan that specifies that any change of use of existing buildings for office purposes will not be allowed unless the buildings are in the town centre. That was despite the fact that those premises had been used for commercial purposes, though not as office space, for more than 20 years. I regret that the Department of the Environment also refused permission on appeal.

The firm is still in its cramped offices looking for somewhere to move to and unable to expand and develop its business as it would wish. Who knows how many jobs might have been created by now had that firm moved into larger premises and had it been able to chase the extra business that it would undoubtedly have needed to survive in its expanded form? That is just one example of planning regulations having stopped a firm expanding.

One cannot directly blame the planners for sticking strictly to the local plan, although one would wish them to show more flexibility. My concern is that the planners want to be too involved with development at times and that they sometimes impose conditions that can reduce the effectiveness of the enterprise. Let me give an example. A garden centre in my constituency was granted planning permission, but with the proviso that the majority of the products that it sold had to have been grown on the premises. On the face of it, that may seem a reasonable enough request, but it was a direct and unnecessary interference in the commercial life of the enterprise, and it could have seriously jeopardised the firm. The proprietor is extremely unhappy that he has to abide by the conditions.

On the subject of garden centres, it seems extraordinary to me that the Colne valley local plan should say :
"garden centres will be acceptable within rural locations and on land not allocated for development only if retailing is ancillary to the main activity of plant production".
That is a wholly unnecessary bureaucratic restriction. The plan further states:
"retailing of goods from farm shops, mill shops and similar establishments"—
the very sort of activity that we need to encourage to develop new jobs—
"will only be permitted if the goods are produced wholly or mainly on the premises, and if the area devoted to sales is small."
That seems to me an unnecessary interference in a company's commercial life, which should be a matter entirely for its manager or owner.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reconsider the drawing up of local plans. Perhaps there is an argument for the Government's laying down that unnecessary restrictions which interfere with the commercial running of an enterprise must not be included in the local plan.

Does my hon. Friend agree that all too often planning is looked upon as a professional discipline in itself, rather than as a means of serving local communities?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I fear that that is true in many areas of the country. Clearly that needs to change. The planners must realise that they are part of the economic process : that is one of the important lessons to be learnt.

I hope that I have explained why I am concerned about the planning regulations. I have mentioned only a small number of the problems that people have brought to my attention. I could have cited many more. In all the cases that I have described business men, enterpreneurs and industrialists are having unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles placed in their way, which either completely halt new developments or slow them down.

Having outlined the problems, let me suggest some solutions. I fully recognise the Government's efforts to simplify the planning process. The circular issued to local planning authorities by the Department of the Environment in 1980 clearly recognises the important part that planning has to play in economic development and calls for efficiency and speed in decision-making. That is wholly admirable, and I agree with practically everything that the circular says.

The Government have taken a number of initiatives to reduce planning obstacles still further. Firm planning policy guidance on development and employment was given to local authorities in 1985 and the Housing and Planning Act 1986 tried to simplify and improve the planning system.

The Government have recognised that there is a problem. More changes are needed. Planning restrictions are still too great. One of the key components of an urban development corporation or an enterprise zone is an enormously simplified planning system. That demonstrates that the Government are aware of the problems.

Neither Huddersfield nor the Colne valley is designated as a special area, so they have to live under the full panoply of planning regulations. I welcome the introduction of simplified planning zones, and I strongly urge Kirklees council to consider whether it would be appropriate to turn some of its area into SPZs.

The problem with all these designated areas is that they apply only to certain areas. The advantages of a simplified planning system are not enjoyed by other areas. My hon. Friend the Minister should consider how we can make planning law, especially that which affects built-up areas, more relevant, responsible and positive in terms of the development of enterprises.

Planning authorities should be stopped from making any commercial judgments or imposing conditions on how an enterprise is run. They should not be allowed to impose conditions that relate to how an enterprise takes commercial decisions.

We must put the onus on planning authorities to justify refusals and the conditions that they impose when they grant permission. I realise that reasons have to be given already, but it should be for planning authorities to justify each negative decision.

We must reduce non-essential and petty regulations and change the environment in which decisions are made. We must make planning officers and councillors realise how important they are to the economic development of their area. They should feel more responsible for economic development. Perhaps an authority which refuses a permission should have to calculate and publicise the number of jobs that have been lost because of the refusal.

Councils with economic development departments —most have them in some form — should put their planning departments under the direct responsibility of the economic development people. We might thus encourage a more responsible and positive attitude.

Planning is an immensely complicated subject. Having put a bit of work into the subject this week as a result of getting this debate, I have come to realise just how complicated it is. The fact remains, however, that the application of planning law will continue to play an important part in the country's economy. In my experience, entrepreneurs are good at saying what can be achieved and why new jobs will be created. Planners can be just as good at saying why something cannot be done, perhaps because a plan does not comply with a certain regulation.

If today's planning controls existed 150 years ago, Britain would never have enjoyed the industrial revolution. We cannot have a development free-for-all, but the restrictions have gone too far and planners have too much power. Although the Government have made excellent endeavours, more must be done to free entrepreneurs so that they can create the extra wealth and employment in areas such as Colne valley which we all want.

3.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. David Trippier)

I am delighted to respond to the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and I congratulate him on obtaining this Adjournment debate. I know, both from his maiden speech last July and from the questions that he has put to me in the House, that he takes a close interest in this topic. He has quickly earned himself a reputation as a first-class constituency Member and a powerful advocate for those whom he represents.

I set the scene for my response by emphasising that the Government are committed to lifting the burden of regulation on industry. My hon. Friend mentioned several times the importance of small businesses or enterprises and I hope that it will be a comfort to him that, in the four years preceding the general election — when, I am delighted to say, he was elected to this House—I was responsible for small businesses and for deregulation. I am delighted to say that I played quite a part in the two White Papers introduced by the Government, "Lifting the Burden" and "Building Businesses … not Barriers". Given my present responsibilities for inner cities, it is important that I should recognise that development has an important role to play in regenerating our inner cities through providing offices, factories and homes and in creating an environment in which people will want to invest.

I also stress that there is no conflict between that objective and our equal concern to conserve the environment of urban and rural areas alike. It is the responsibility of local planning authorities, when they determine proposals for development, to achieve a reconciliation between the twin aims of enabling development and protecting the environment.

On one hand, there is a general presumption in favour of development. That has come with this Government and my hon. Friend has acknowledged that. That has been inherent in the system of town and country planning since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, but has been emphasised in the White Papers to which I referred. It was included in a Government circular to local planning authorities as far back as 1949. We reiterated it in a planning policy guidance note issued in January this year.

On the other hand, it has long been recognised, and the Government fully accept, that the presumption in favour of development does not give developers carte blanche. It is subject to a proviso that development should not cause demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance.

What does that mean in practice? It means that those who decide whether to grant planning permission —whether local authorities or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on appeal—have the important and critical task of weighing various factors before they reach a conclusion. They have to consider what weight to give to local policies in development plans, which may be several years old, or may have been adopted or approved only recently. They have to assess the importance to attach to relevant national planning policies. Against this background, they have to appraise the intrinsic merits of the particular development proposal because the courts have held that every planning application must be determined on its merits in the light of all material considerations.

I hope my hon. Friend will agree that in some respects the judgments which have to be made about individual development proposals are very daunting. It is pithily, if not glibly, said that one man's development opportunity is another man's chance to raise an objection. That may be true in some instances, but I believe the beneficial effect of development is generally acknowledged, especially, as I have said, when it brings investment and jobs to a deprived area.

I should like to deal with the specific points raised by my hon. Friend. He said that he would like to see every planning application form contain a space to show how many jobs would be lost if the proposed development does not proceed. That is an interesting idea which, I am sure, local authorities will consider. The Government have considered a standard application form in the past. We want to avoid imposing uniformity just for the sake of it, but there could be advantages to large developers and we are continuing to consider that.

My hon. Friend also mentioned urban development corporations. Although I understand the point that he is trying to make in regard to UDCs, I have only a limited budget. As he well knows, there are now 11 UDCs, one in Cardiff bay and 10 in England. The Government are supporting the UDC programme with funding in excess of £200 million in 1988–89, but there is a limit to how much we can spend effectively in this way. Alternative approaches are necessary. I shall turn to one of them in a few moments.

I recognise that the developer and the local planning authority will not always agree about the merits of development proposals. Often, that can be a failure of communication. The developer may not have discussed his proposal with the local authority. If he had done, he might have been able to modify it to meet points to which the authority attached considerable importance and which the developer regarded as mere trifles.

Equally, the authority may operate a policy which discriminates in favour of one kind of development and against another. I know that some authorities are seeking to restrict office development because they want to preserve sites for industry. That may be understandable in some parts of the country, but in general the Government believe that the planning system should reflect the reality of the national economy in 1988. That is why we introduced a new business use class in the Use Classes Order 1987. It means, broadly, that a developer can change between general office use, use for research and development, and use for a light industrial process, without obtaining planning permission. My hon. Friend will welcome that.

Inevitably, there will be some weak spots in the way in which policies are translated into practice. Some local planning authorities may be slow to come to terms with the reality of economic life in 1988—my hon. Friend touched on that and what he said was right—just as, no doubt, some developers will obstinately withstand reasonable argument and refuse to accept that the development control system cannot, by its nature, say yes to each and every development proposal. But to be fair to my hon. Friend, he was not suggesting that. He did not want a free-for-all.

Urban development corporations have successfully encouraged, physically, the redevelopment of large tracts of land in inner-city areas. I have already mentioned that there are 10 in England and one in Wales. Six UDCs are already under way in England and we have announced proposals for another four. Obviously, other initiatives will be coming forward which will contribute considerably to inner-city development.

Three weeks ago further initiatives were announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome those. In particular, I am sure that he will welcome the new city grant within the Department of the Environment, which streamlines the grant mechanism and gives easier access to the private sector, particularly those in the construction industry—the developers—and cuts out much red tape, very much in line with what my hon. Friend would wish.

We are also stepping up our drive to bring on to the market unused and under-used publicly owned land — not just that of local authorities but of some of the large public organisations which are part of the Government. We introduced the land register system in 1981. Since then, some 50,000 acres of publicly owned land recorded on the register have been sold or brought into use. But the new proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will, I hope, speed up the process and bring land that is currently not in use on to the open market.

My hon. Friend mentioned simplified planning zones. The measure we introduced to bring those about has obviously gone through and we are looking now to Derby as the first local authority to be granted SPZ. The Act places a duty on local planning authorities to consider as soon as practicable whether part or parts of their area could, with benefit, be designated an SPZ, to prepare schemes for those parts, and to keep the matter under review. It is important that Kirklees should comply with that Act. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will make sure that it does.

However, my hon. Friend may not be aware that individuals or a private sector company can also apply for an SPZ. The Act provides specifically an opportunity for any person to request the local planning authority to make an SPZ. If the authority refuses to do so, or does nothing within three months of the request, that person can require the authority to refer the matter to the Secretary of State. Following proper consideration of the issues, the Secretary of State can direct the planning authority to make a scheme. That might be appropriate in my hon. Friend's constituency. We shall have to see.

Criticism has been directed at the procedures which the statutes lay down for consulting the public, prior to designation by the local council, but those are necessary safeguards to protect the wider public interest in the absence of any requirement for approval of SPZ schemes by the Secretary of State. After all, SPZs provide planning permission for 10 years.

The SPZ mechanism is a very flexible one. Authorities can choose to designate schemes at any time, unrelated to progress on their development plans. Alternatively, they can prepare SPZ schemes in tandem with the preparation of local plans and unitary development plans in metropolitan authorities.

I mentioned earlier the changes that we made in the use classes order last year. They were only part of many reforms that we have made to the planning system. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the progress that we have made.

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that this is a useful, even an impressive, list of achievements. I want to reassure him that we are by no means complacent. We shall constantly, and with vigilance, look at all the proposals, including those that he has put forward in this excellent debate today. I thank him for once again bringing this important subject to the attention of the House with his customary skill.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Three o'clock till Tuesday 12 April, pursuant to resolution [25 March].