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Planning Regulations

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

I thank the Minister for that response. She realises that it is extremely important for her Department to deal with investigations into planning regulations quickly. In the past, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sat on such cases for a great deal of time, and in the case of the livestock market in Shrewsbury, the cost to local council tax payers is £2 million in lost revenue. Will she do everything possible to speed up the adjudication on the proposed transfer of Darwin house to our council because it wishes to build a Darwin museum in Shrewsbury?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I cannot comment on individual cases and that there are restrictions on what we are able to say about planning cases that are going through the system. However, I can tell him that we are committed to passing cases through the system as swiftly as possible. We have introduced much tighter deadlines on both ministerial planning cases and the time taken for planning cases to go through appeal. I hope that that will assist his case.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that people feel that there is real injustice in planning inquiries and decisions. Applicants always have a right of appeal, but objectors have no right of appeal. When will she consider changing the regulations so that there is fairness on both sides?

Ultimately, we think that planning decisions need to be taken initially by local authorities, which are the democratic representatives of local communities. A right of appeal is built into the planning system because people have a right to appeal about how their own land should be used. However, we should also recognise that we should not have additional layers in the planning system that could cause planning decisions to drag on indefinitely and not provide proper certainty on, and democratic accountability for, decisions that are taken.

Why do not the Minister and the Government have more confidence in the decisions of local authorities? We elect them and they speak for their local communities, so why can they not make decisions about where buildings should go?

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, local authorities draw up their local plans. They hold consultations with their local communities and have to take decisions on planning applications that come forward. There will always be cases that have an impact that goes much wider than individual local authorities, and it is right that they should be considered through call-in processes or other processes. I have to say to Conservative Members that often what lies behind their anguish about local decisions is the fact that there is a local decision that they do not like because they do not want new homes to be built in their areas.

I appreciate the efforts that the Government have made, but the fact remains that it takes four months to conclude a written appeal and almost a year to conclude an oral appeal. Those are inordinate lengths of time. Would not one way of dealing with the situation be not to create additional layers, which the Minister has quite rightly turned her face against, but to appoint more planning inspectors so that such cases can be dealt with much more quickly?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We have tried to increase the number of cases that go through the written procedure because that process can be much swifter for all concerned. We have also invested additional resources in the planning inspectorate, which is dealing with increasing numbers of appeals. Just as there are increasing numbers of planning applications, there are increasing numbers of appeals on planning applications, which obviously increases the inspectorate’s work load. We have already put in train a programme of work that is reducing the time taken by planning appeals on housing so that decisions can be taken much more swiftly.

Does the Minister recognise that a crisis of housing affordability is affecting hundreds of thousands of families throughout the country? Will she take steps to amend planning policy guidance note 3 to empower local authorities to place a duty on developers to pay more attention to the affordability of the housing that they build and less to the profit margin that they will receive from it?

I agree that we need to do more to address the affordability pressures that are faced, especially by first-time buyers throughout the country. As a result, we need to build more homes. More than 200,000 new households are being formed each year, largely as a result of more people living alone, but we are building only about 160,000 new homes a year, which is unsustainable. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to reform the planning policy guidance on housing. We have already published a draft for consultation, and we will publish a revised version later in the year to support more housing, including not only more shared ownership and affordable housing, but more market housing.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what representations she has had from the major supermarket chains—or, indeed, the Treasury—in respect of the possible changes to and relaxation of PPG6? Does she agree that the changes made by the previous Government, including the introduction of the sequential test, have been an important factor in assisting the regeneration of our town and city centres, and that if the guidance were to be relaxed to allow more out-of-town shopping development, it could have a serious impact on our city centres?

My hon. Friend is right to say that planning policy guidance on town centres has had a big impact on city and town centre regeneration. There has been a lot more investment and development in town centres, and in the centres of our big cities, such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds—

And Sheffield, of course—particularly Sheffield. In those cities we are seeing a huge urban renaissance as a result of the guidance. We have no proposals to change PPG6. I have not had any representations from supermarkets; I do not know whether there are any in the Department, but the matter has not been raised with me personally.

It is a fact that since her appointment the new Secretary of State has overruled an average of one in five decisions made by her own planning inspectorate, and just now we heard what sounded like an attack by the Minister for Housing and Planning on the Secretary of State’s nimbyism. If she has so little faith in the planning system, why should anyone else?

Planning inspectors make representations to Ministers on a small number of cases, and Ministers take decisions based on the evidence that is put to them. It is right that they do so, and it is right that they should be democratically accountable for the decisions they take. We need more new homes across this country, but we also need to ensure that they are of higher quality and are built to good design standards in communities that are sustainable. We shall continue to take those decisions.