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Regional Spatial Strategy

Volume 498: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009

To date six regions have published their final revision to their regional spatial strategies: the east of England, Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-east, the north-west, the east midlands and the south-east. The west midlands is taking a phased approach to the full revision of its RSS. Phase 1, covering the black country, was finalised on 15 January last year. I expect to consult on any proposed changes in phase 2 in the new year. The south-west strategy was due to be published last summer, but in light of a legal judgment on a sustainability appraisal, we have agreed to do some further work and consultation. We aim to publish it in 2010.

Given that the south-west RSS consultation has had, as one civil servant put it, more responses than any other planning proposal in British history, most of them raising objections, is it not about time that the Secretary of State listened to what those people are saying, took up our proposals, scrapped the RSS and gave those powers back to locally elected councillors?

No, I do not agree, for the same reason that the Home Builders Federation said what a threat the Opposition’s policies were to housing and growth in this country. The Government’s view is that regional spatial strategies are a vital tool in ensuring that there is sufficient housing for our families and children in the years ahead and that there is scope for industrial development and growth. The Opposition, in the middle of our current economic difficulties, are causing enormous damage and uncertainty through the ludicrous letter circulated by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on their behalf.

Twenty per cent. of Gypsies and Travellers have no legal camping place, which is why my constituents in Thornley are seeing large numbers of Travellers camping in the centre of their village, causing much tension. Do the Government have any plans to provide funding for legal camping sites in future? What pressure can my hon. Friend place on local authorities to follow their own guidelines, and will he or one of his team meet me to discuss the matter further?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss two things: first, ensuring that his local authority and the police are using fully the extensive powers that now exist to move on illegal encampments without undue delay; and secondly, using the money that is available to enable new sites to be created, which gives the police even stronger powers to move people on quickly.

Will the Secretary of State help me to explain to my constituents why the people of Suffolk cannot have their own spatial strategy instead of having to have one that is driven by Stevenage and Luton, neither of which is anywhere near nor has any of the same problems as them?

The right hon. Gentleman has considerable experience in these matters, and he will understand that providing sufficient land to house the people of this country in future is a challenge that has national, regional and local dimensions. His party’s policy of removing entirely any sense of national or regional consideration, or considering the interests of families that will need homes in future and people who need jobs now, is absolutely wrong.

Warwick district council has just finished its consultation period on its options within the RSS, which are being clearly rejected by the community. I believe that the council needs to reconsider and return with alternative proposals. Will my right hon. Friend support my suggestion to the regional Government office that the council be given some extra time to work on that without jeopardising its additional grant?

I set out a timetable earlier suggesting that in the next phase of the west midlands RSS, proposed changes would be published for consultation in the new year with a revision later in the year. I hope that that gives scope for proper discussion of these important issues in the way that my hon. Friend wants, but if he has further concerns, I invite him to write to me about them and I will give him more details on the likely time scale.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the regional spatial strategy process has undermined people’s confidence in the planning system? Why does he think that so many people are so angry?

It is quite understandable that people look at these issues from a local point of view and at questions about what communities want to see in an area, but I say to the hon. Lady—I hope that she will explain this to her constituents—that we need to ensure that we have sufficient land for housing, growth, economic development and jobs for the future. That cannot be a purely local decision; it must have regional and national elements. I hope that she is not joining with the incredibly damaging position of Conservative Front Benchers in saying, “Jobs don’t matter. Housing doesn’t matter. Growth doesn’t matter.” All they want is local populism. There are difficult choices to be made, and we need political parties in this country that, unlike the party opposite, will face up to those difficult choices.

Does the Secretary of State not realise that it is the lack of transparency and accountability in the process that frustrates people so much? I shall quote to him the comments of the planning inspector in relation to the south-west draft RSS:

“The emerging RSS has reached an advanced stage...and so its policies may be given significant weight.”

Why is a draft document that has not been signed off been given such importance when planning appeals are being considered?

The reality is that we have moved from the previous guidance to the regional spatial strategies and are now going through an extensive and, I believe, open process of consultation, as those strategies are developed. As the new leaders boards come into place, that will provide a further degree of oversight and scrutiny to the process. Inevitably, people will not always like what is in the strategies, but I reject the hon. Lady’s contention that there is something secretive about the process. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said earlier, there have been masses of public representations, a great deal of debate and a great deal of openness.

Given the curtailed debate last week on clause 67 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, will the Secretary of State ensure that planning guidance to the new regional development agencies on the regional spatial strategies will give weight to environmental as well as economic concerns?

Indeed. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the draft consultation paper and guidance on implementing the new strategies include an important quote about sustainable economic growth. It says that sustainable economic growth means

“economic growth that can be sustained and is within environmental limits, but also enhances the environment and social welfare, and avoids greater extremes in future economic cycles.”

Will the Secretary of State accept that his strictures might have a little more weight if his own Government were not failing by delivering less housing than at any time since the war? Before he misrepresents other people’s policies, will he consider withdrawing the guidance on the use of the draft strategy, which has been described by planning experts as

“driving a coach and horses through strategic environmental protection.”?

I tell the hon. Gentleman that it was not me but the chief executive of Taylor Wimpey who described his party’s policies as “scary as hell”—I hope that that does not breach any parliamentary code—because of the uncertainty being created. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has made available significant additional new money to kick-start private sector housing schemes and to get new social housing under way—all measures that his party has opposed in saying that our Department’s budget should be cut and that there should be no fiscal stimulus. He cannot criticise our record, and he has to admit that he would do far, far less.