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Planning Decisions (Local Accountability)

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

Our proposals for nationally significant infrastructure projects will involve the public at every stage—on the development of national policy, on project proposals as they are being developed, and at the inquiry stage. We propose to create a legal requirement for promoters to consult the public before submitting an application for a nationally significant infrastructure project. That will be a big step forward, bringing about the early engagement of people affected by proposals for new or changed infrastructure.

The question is who takes the decision, and although the Secretary of State has helpfully suggested that there should be less control on local authorities, through reduced targets, which I very much welcome, the fact is that in recent years responsibility for planning decisions has moved away from local councils to regional government, then to unelected regional development agencies, and now to a national body. Does she not agree that local decisions are best taken locally by elected people?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming our increased flexibility for local government. There will certainly be both ministerial and parliamentary involvement in drawing up the national policy statements, which will provide a robust, accountable framework for the policy for major infrastructure projects. Through that system, we want to achieve increased certainty, more transparency and key accountability. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that five years to get major infrastructure proposals agreed to is far too long for the future of the country. If we want to ensure economic prosperity, balanced with environmental sustainability, we need a new planning regime that gives us certainty, timeliness and accountability.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the planning policy guidance note that Opposition parties largely hold responsible for reducing councils’ room to manoeuvre was replaced some time ago with planning policy statement 3 on housing? That planning policy statement largely leaves local councils discretion on housing planning matters, including on the density of development, and on garden development policy. Every time that a Tory or Liberal Democrat councillor—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the way in which local authorities have increased flexibility to meet the needs of their local communities. I am sure that he will agree that the best local councils do exactly that through housing and planning decisions for their neighbourhoods. Coincidentally, those best councils, who are in touch with their communities, may well be the kind of councils that my hon. Friend mentioned.

As a result of Government diktat, Kettering borough council has had a statutory duty placed on it to draw up plans for an extra 13,100 houses. That will increase the number of homes in Kettering by one third in the next 15 years. If there were a local referendum on whether local people agreed with those plans, would the Secretary of State take a blind bit of notice?

I am disappointed and rather shocked by the hon. Gentleman’s way of expressing himself. He said that there is a diktat that requires the homes to be built. I would ask him to think a bit more carefully about the views of his community and the people whom he represents. Many of those people will have families—sons and daughters—who are in desperate need of new homes. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he does not want to provide new homes for first-time buyers, and that he will continue to betray them?

Recently, Bolton’s planning committee turned down an application to erect a mobile telephone mast right in the heart of Little Lever precinct in my constituency. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to the angry residents of Little Lever, who found that T-Mobile turned up early one Sunday morning and erected the mast without planning permission? Should not firms like that be fined for their absolute arrogance?

My hon. Friend raises an issue of importance to local communities, and it is vital that the companies that are involved are sensitive to the needs of local people, conduct their business in a proper way with integrity, and consult the local community. If in the instance that the hon. Gentleman mentions, local views have simply been ignored and trampled on, clearly that is a matter that we will want to look into, because the basis of the system is trust and confidence. Where that is lacking, decisions will not have the support of the constituency.