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Local Government (Planning)

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), is clearly having a busy morning. He was kind enough to say that he would visit Nottingham at the end of the previous debate, so perhaps if I extend an invitation to him he will visit Lewes to deal with planning functions there. He has been to Lewes but he has not, as far as I know, spent five years there. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), is responding to this debate, but I would be happy for them both to visit Lewes if they wish.

This is an important debate for local accountability, which is why I have raised the matter. If local people are asked what are the functions of their local council or local government, the first thing they say is that the council empties the dustbins. The second thing they say is that the council deals with planning. People associate planning with local councils and, indeed, they think it ought to be a local council matter, but I am concerned that we are moving to a stage at which there is undue Government interference on a micro level with local councils’ planning functions.

There has always been Government regulation of local authorities and planning functions. It is right that there is planning policy guidance and statements, and it is not unreasonable of the Government to set an indicator of eight weeks in which the outcome of an application is to be determined. However, we have moved into other areas, which are of more concern. Not very long ago, I spent some years sitting on the planning committee of my local authority, as you may have done in Portsmouth, Mr. Hancock. The committee dealt with a wide range of applications, and it dealt with them well. A range of members served on the committee, some of whom had been around for a long time and knew the history of the area. Other members were brand new and had some good ideas. The chemistry of the committee was successful in delivering the planning function through the committee process.

In recent years, however, the Government have moved almost to exclude elected members from taking decisions on planning applications; there is a push to delegate as much as possible to officers. Why should unelected officers be more accountable than elected councillors? Of course, some applications fit in to a system and are clearly within the terms of the local plan. Such applications are either controversial or uncontroversial, so they can be clearly rejected or accepted. In my day, about 50 per cent. of applications were delegated, so I am not suggesting that councils should take every single decision. However, we are now getting to the stage where 80 or 90 per cent. of applications are dealt with by officers—the figure is even higher in some local authorities.

Council members find that frustrating, but so do members of the public. They do not understand why, when they elect local councillors to take decisions on planning matters and lobby them to that end, a decision on an application that is important to them should be taken by an officer of whom they have never heard in a room that they did not know existed. It might be a small matter in the big scheme of things, but if a person’s next-door neighbour gains permission for something that will intrude on them, it is a serious matter to them. The least that such people would wish to do is to lobby the local council and have some influence on the matter, but that is increasingly rare under the current system. Will the Minister explain why there has been a move to exclude local councillors from the majority of planning decisions taken by local planning authorities, as I believe that that is undemocratic and unaccountable?

The system has become corrupt—I do not mean corrupt in a financial sense, but in the sense that local authorities chase targets that do not necessarily deliver the best planning result for their area. The grant system in my local authority is known as a “game show” approach. Councils are forced to chase targets—often arbitrary targets—that they know will attract grants and which will therefore improve their financial position, rather than focus on the key planning issues in their area. What is worse, grants are managed on an annual drip-feed, which means that it is uncertain from one year to the next exactly how much will be coming forward. That makes it difficult for planning authorities to retain and, indeed, to attract staff.

Lewes district council in my constituency is so thin on staff, so tight is the ship being run, so few are the officers employed, that the director of planning, because of staff illness, is now determining simple household applications on his own. There is hardly anyone else in the department—that is how thin things have become because of pressures on finances and because of the drip-feed of planning grant. It is an issue for local authorities in London and the south-east in particular, but perhaps it applies more widely. The problems are going to get worse in times ahead.

I query, too, Government interference as regards the call-in procedure. I call it interference, but the Minister might regard that as pejorative: perhaps he would prefer to call it micro-management, or perhaps to use neither of those terms. Ministers say that they rarely call in applications. I do not know what the statistics are—perhaps the Minister has them—but my perception is that the call-in procedure has been increasingly used in the past couple of years rather than diminishing in frequency. I should be interested to hear the figures from the Minister if he has them.

An example from my patch is the controversial proposal for a wind turbine at Glyndebourne. I understand that the Minister cannot comment in detail on the issue because it is live, but he might address the general point. The proposal is for one wind turbine to provide sufficient energy to power Glyndebourne opera house, which is a prestigious building in my constituency. It has been called in by the Secretary of State, despite the fact that it has been subject to significant local consultation and debate involving local councillors, who are elected to represent people in the area, and despite the fact that the decision to allow permission was reached by the council committee following a long presentation featuring petitions and opportunities for comment from both sides. The decision was made on a cross-party basis, but the Government nevertheless decided to call it in. Worse, Glyndebourne subsequently applied for permission to erect a temporary meteorological mast for a period of one year only so that it could provide supporting information for the wind turbine application. For example, the mast would measure wind speeds in the area, which would affect how the turbine would react if and when it was established. However, the application for temporary permission, for one year, was also called in by the Government, despite the fact that it was again given approval on a cross-party basis by Lewes district council. The Government have called in applications for temporary permission that last for only one year, so one must wonder what is the purpose of local councils. Apart from being an instance of micro-management, that practice has hade an adverse effect on the applicant which, legitimately to establish the facts, set up the forthcoming public inquiry.

I wrote to the Secretary of State on 29 November to ask her on how many occasions the Government had called in applications for temporary permission in the past 10 years. Replying on her behalf, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester, who has left the Chamber—I had thought that he would reply to the debate—said that it was not possible to provide information on how many applications for temporary permissions had been called in during that period. The Government ought to use the measure sparingly, but they do not so much as keep a record, which concerns me.

Another relevant issue is the development plan system, to which the Government are wedded. The Minister might be aware of a recent survey by the Planning Officers Society that shows that the new system is widely believed by practitioners to be too onerous, inflexible and resource-hungry—those are the society’s words. It says that the system has become process-dominated and over-complex, to the point that even the Government’s regional officers and planning inspectorate are unsure how to interpret the legislation. As a result, local authorities receive inconsistent and ever-changing advice on procedure. The requirement for an auditable process—in other words, a tick-box mentality—overrides local authorities’ ability to plan creatively. The Government’s intention to improve the planning system is good, but the consequence is that local authorities are tied down in bureaucratic manoeuvres, which weakens rather than strengthens the planning process.

The Government are responsible for various negative impacts on the planning process. I have not even mentioned the plan for large numbers of new houses in my area, which by and large does not have the support of the local population. Leaving aside the question of whether it is right, it is seen as a top-down proposal under which the houses are imposed on the area by central Government or by an unelected quango representing “the south-east”. The question is not whether it is right to have the housing, but who makes the proposal and how it comes down to the local people. My constituents believe that they are being told what to have in their backyard and they do not like it. They think that that is undemocratic and so do I.

Occasionally, however, we look to the Government—I shall now argue against myself to some extent—to intervene on a major issue of national significance. I am referring to the proposal for an incinerator on my patch, which is opposed, unlike the Glyndebourne wind turbine, by thousands and thousands of local people. The application for an incinerator in Newhaven has major environmental, transport and economic implications. Controversially, the county council both made the application and granted it, but the Government said, “We are not interested in interfering in that matter.” People in my part of the world have therefore concluded that as far as planning is concerned, the Government are micro-managing when they should not do so, and on the rare occasions when they should interfere with a decision, they have failed to do so.

One policy the Minister may wish to consider is preventing local authorities from giving permission for an application that they themselves have made. When an application is made by a local authority, a different but comparable local authority— another county council, or the local district council for a county application or vice versa in a two-tier area—should be responsible for giving permission. It is not consistent with natural justice for the county council in my part of the world to act as judge and jury on its own hated incinerator, but that is what it has chosen to do.

The good news—I hope that it is good news—is that the Government have committed themselves to local area agreements, and I hope that that will reduce the micro-management that I have discussed. If the Government can follow through what they have said on local area agreements, that will be very welcome step that my party colleagues and I will support. I do not wish to suggest that the Government are anything other than well intentioned, but sometimes, in their genuine desire to improve matters and the planning function, their actions have the opposite effects to those that they intended. I hope that the Minister will take this not as an unhelpful rant from me but as a genuine attempt to raise issues that are of concern to my constituents, and will respond constructively.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I wish you and the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) a happy new year.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I commend the non-negative manner in which he presented his arguments. He has raised an issue that affects us all. Planning is of fundamental importance to the quality of people’s lives. When planning is done well, it allows us all to raise our game, to lift our spirits, and to achieve our hopes and ambitions to build thriving communities in which people want to live and work. It supports the economic development that is vital to create jobs and ensure our continuing prosperity as a nation—prosperity that should be widened to include all in society. Planning helps us to protect our natural and historic environment and to ensure that everyone has access to green space and unspoiled countryside. It facilitates the delivery of essential infrastructure, which allows us to travel and enjoy access to clean and affordable energy, water and waste facilities. It also supports us as individual citizens in improving our homes and property while protecting us from over-intrusive development. Planning does all that by helping us to ensure that development meets economic, social and environmental objectives in an integrated and sustainable way. The use of planning functions to facilitate place shaping—for want of a better phrase—particularly at a local level, is crucial.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, most planning decisions are best taken by those who directly represent local communities and understand their needs—and, I would add, through close and effective engagement with those local communities. That is essential. “Strong and prosperous communities”, the local government White Paper published in October 2006, sets out our proposals for giving local government and its partners more freedom and greater powers to meet the needs of its citizens and communities and to enable those citizens and communities to play a part. Planning is a core function of local authorities and is central to their role as place shapers. I have already made that point and I want to reiterate it again and again in my contribution because it is vital. We are committed to ensuring that decision making happens at as local a level as possible so that it can fully reflect local circumstances and needs. Planning functions undertaken locally also help to speed up decisions, which is helpful to all concerned and injects more efficiency into the whole planning process.

What is done locally? A tiny proportion of planning applications are decided centrally. Those cases are appeals that are recovered or planning applications that are called in for decision by the Secretary of State, typically when the proposed development is large or controversial, or has more than a local significance. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the vast majority of planning applications—we have calculated that the figure is 99.9 per cent.—are determined by local planning authorities. In addition, local planning authorities take the lead in drawing up development plans for their area, shaping the vision for their locality and determining how their area can best create sustainable communities.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we are taking a number of steps to strengthen the role of local authorities both in deciding planning applications and in forward planning. I want to mention plan making at local, regional and national level in a moment, but before I do so, I shall highlight three current proposed changes with regard to planning applications.

First, we announced in November a new approach to permitted development for householders. There will be a new national baseline from which local authorities will be able to relax or tighten controls in particular areas, according to local circumstances. Local authorities will be able to introduce local variations by using local development orders to provide greater freedom for development and by using directions under article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 2005 to provide further restrictions on development where local circumstances permit.

We will take forward two proposals from the planning White Paper, “Planning for a Sustainable Future”, that are designed to facilitate the use by local planning authorities of article 4 directions. The Planning Bill, the consideration of which starts in Committee today, contains a clause to strengthen the ability of local authorities to use article 4 directions when they see a need to protect specific neighbourhoods. If local authorities give 12 months’ notice of an article 4 direction, they will no longer be liable for compensation for the withdrawal of permitted development rights. We will also withdraw the requirement for the Secretary of State’s approval of article 4 directions. We will introduce secondary legislation in respect of householder development later this year.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman, in an important part of his speech, mentioned the use of call-in. He talked about his perception that that has been increasing as the years have gone by in terms of numbers and the proportion of planning applications affected. I have to reject that—it has not happened. Let me give him the figures for cases considered and called in. In 2002-03, the number of cases considered was 1,459 and the number called in was 118. In 2006-07, the number of cases considered was 977 and the number called in was 51. Both the number of cases considered and the proportion called in are reducing, which is important. We want to go further and faster with that, which is why we published yesterday a consultation paper reviewing the existing suite of call-in directions whereby local authorities refer cases to the Secretary of State for consideration of whether they should be called in. We want to reduce both the number of referrals and the number of cases ultimately called in. That is part of our wider package of measures that are based on the fact that decisions are best made as locally as possible.

Thirdly, most minor appeals—for example, on householder development, new shop fronts, small change-of-use proposals, advertisements and works to protected trees—should be dealt with locally by elected councillors. As a former councillor, I was intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s point about delegation to officers, because although I was not a formal member of my local authority’s planning committee, I substituted on it on many occasions. I should like to put it on record the important point that it is up to a local authority to determine the specific delegation to officers. The idea behind the principle is that elected councillors are there as strategic ambassadors for their area. It is important, in terms of the minutiae, for that to be dealt with as much as possible at officer level.

Does the Under-Secretary accept, however, that although the exact scheme is in the hands of local authorities, the direction of travel and the pressure from the Government have increased delegation to officers and away from council members?

I reiterate what I said a moment ago. It is important that councillors are effective in their communities and directly accountable to them—that will play a part in planning applications—but this is also about place shaping, which is the theme that I really want to reiterate and strengthen today in terms of determining what is important for particular areas.

That brings me nicely to the changes to our suggestions on the planning application process. Most minor appeals could be dealt with as locally as possible. Such planning applications would be dealt with in the first instance by a planning officer, before becoming eligible for review by a local member review body made up of local councillors, thereby injecting local democratic accountability. A review body could be established for specific authorities or on a joint authority basis

We are seeking an enabling power in the Planning Bill to allow the creation of local member review bodies. We are talking to the Local Government Association and other stakeholders, including through a working group, about how this might work in practice. The detail will be set out in secondary legislation, which we aim to have in place by April 2009, with a view to having local member review bodies fully operational by 2010.

It is important that we have local democratic accountability in respect of councillors and, more importantly, that voters and the electorate can go to councillors to air their concerns. We want that to happen. It already happens in practice, but we want to strengthen the process as much as possible.

I have dealt with the planning application process. It is vital that local authorities step up to the plate, are ambitious and aspirational, and have a key role in plan making. We are trying to strengthen that role in a number of ways.

Perhaps the Under-Secretary could just respond to my suggestion that one local authority should not be able to determine its own application.

I understand the potential perceived conflict of interests there. However, that point leads me nicely to my suggestions on the plan-making role.

Local councils will have a key, if not central, role in determining what areas will look like in 15 to 20 years and the process by which they are going to get there. That place-shaping role is important, as I have mentioned many times. There is a local aspect to that, but there is also a regional aspect, which is why all these decisions cannot be made locally. There is a regional perspective as well, which is why regional spatial strategies are so important. I shall mention that in a moment or two.

We are strengthening local authorities’ plan-making role in a number of ways. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 introduced a new system of local spatial strategies that were designed to foster positive place making and to address problems with the former system. A single local plan has been replaced by the local development framework, which consists of a suite of development plan documents. The key document is a high-level core strategy that is supported, where necessary, by other development plan documents intended to deliver that core strategy. The reforms included changes to the production of these documents to achieve greater flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and more meaningful community and stakeholder involvement—real involvement, not merely a tick-box exercise.

We published a consultation document in November 2007 proposing amendments to local development regulations and a draft replacement for planning policy statement 12 further to streamline the process and improve consultation arrangements. In particular, that change provides greater freedom for local authorities to decide what arrangements are best suited to their specific and often unique circumstances.

The local government White Paper, which I mentioned earlier, makes it clear that local authorities have a key role to play in shaping the vision for their locality and determining how their area can best create sustainable communities. The planning system is there to help local authorities achieve that: it is a plan-led system, because we need a proactive and integrated approach to development and place shaping, as opposed to a reactive, ad hoc and unco-ordinated approach. That addresses the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about local planning authorities deciding their own applications. It is important that that should not be done on an ad hoc, reactive basis, but as part of the local development framework.

The LDF core strategy is a key strategic document that determines the future shape and development of a locality. It should sit alongside and accompany the sustainable community strategy for a local area. Local authorities have a clear opportunity to lead the process of place shaping and to work with key stakeholders, such as developers, on the place-shaping agenda through their local development framework. We are urging local authorities to do this and to rise to the challenge, rather than allow the future development and shape of their areas to be determined purely by private developers, which is not in anybody’s interest, particularly in respect of house building, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and I am passionate about.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary. He is generous in letting me come back on this matter. I understand his comments about place shaping and, of course, the need for local authorities to plan ahead. However, with respect, he has not dealt with the fact that some local authorities wishing to give themselves permission for a particular application have their planning function compromised, because they will be aware of the financial benefit, or some other benefit, of giving permission and will end up giving themselves permission for something that they would not give anybody else permission for.

I think that I have covered that point quite comprehensively. I should like to see such things done as part of a coherent and strategic approach on which the local community has been fully consulted, with people having had an opportunity to discuss it. This is all part of the process. We need an approach whereby a local area can develop in a strategic, ambitious manner over the next one or two decades. So, in that respect, with the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that I have covered that point as much as I can.

In the time available to me, I want to move away slightly from local planning considerations to talk about regional and national considerations, which are an important part of a coherent approach. As I have mentioned, although local authorities have by far the most important role in planning, it is important that decisions are taken at the right level. That is why we have regional policy, as set out in regional spatial strategies, and national policy, as set out in planning policy statements, to provide the wider context that we need, within which local authorities make local decisions.

Regional spatial strategies are important. Some matters, including housing, which we have mentioned, and transport and the natural environment, are not confined to local areas. It is important that we consider a wider perspective. That is why regional spatial strategies are so important and why the planning system operates at two levels: regionally, through the regional spatial strategies; and locally, as I mentioned earlier, through the local development frameworks. The RSS and the LDF constitute the development plan, with the RSS providing the broad development strategy for a period of 15 to 20 years, where various matters are taken into account, including the identification of the scale and distribution of the provision for new housing. I am a member of the Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee. On Thursday, we will be considering the Bill in detail, clause by clause. It is important that we have a local, regional and national basis for the provision of badly needed new housing.

We also have priorities for the environment, such as countryside and biodiversity protection, and for transport infrastructure, economic development, agriculture, mineral extraction, and waste treatment and disposal. The RSS provides the vehicle through which regions can promote sub-regional plans that reflect their real human geography, covering housing market areas or travel-to-work areas, and implement planning policies that are designed to deliver sustainable development at the sub-regional spatial strategy level.

I do not have time to mention the national planning considerations, which are vital and are, as I speak, being examined in detail by the Planning Public Bill Committee.

We are strengthening the leadership role of local authorities as place shapers for their communities. Working with local strategic partners, they are setting out a shared vision for their area over the next 10 to 15 years in respect of providing sustainable community strategies. I reiterate that planning has a central role in this process.