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Planning

Volume 508: debated on Monday 29 March 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Mudie.)

I am delighted to have secured this extremely important and timely debate on the planning process and accountability. I welcome the Minister, and I look forward to what I hope will be a positive, constructive response from him.

The purpose of the planning system should be to balance economic, social and environmental priorities at national and local level. However, the planning system currently tends to create bureaucratic barriers rather than support communities in their future development. Many local politicians, councillors and planning authority officers have tried to make the current system work, however, and I take this opportunity to place on record my praise for the role they play throughout the country in taking these very difficult decisions.

Since coming to office in 1997, the Government have taken power over planning away from locally elected representatives to a more centralised control, and have given decisions to Whitehall and regional government. As a result, during this period there has throughout the country been a growing mistrust of the planning system. The Government have transferred strategic responsibility for housing and planning from local councils to unelected regional quangos. Their policies have increased centralisation and further reduced local people’s say over planning decisions, and the abolition of the county structure plans has led to even more red tape. I would like to think that the Government have done one good thing, however, in recruiting a chief planner who has a better understanding than most hitherto of planning in rural areas, as his formative years were spent in a predominantly rural area.

Over recent years, a pattern has evolved in planning applications; in my experience, that is certainly the case in the rural area I represent. A developer, business or promoter of an application makes a planning application to the local planning authority, and a half-hearted consultation exercise follows, prior to a final, formal planning application taking place. Arguments are rehearsed as to why that particular application for that particular project fills a particular need for that type of project, which is missing in that local community. The planning authority may well then turn down that planning application for good reason, such as that it is contrary to the local development plan. It is a fact that the planning system in England is currently a plan-led system, involving following a plan that sets out what can be built and where the development should take place.

There are currently two main levels of plan. There is the regional spatial strategy. Each regional planning body such as the north-east of England—or Yorkshire and the Humber, with which the Minister and I are more familiar—prepares a regional spatial strategy setting out objectives such as how many homes are required to meet the future needs of people in the region or, perhaps, whether the region needs a major new shopping centre or airport. Also, each local planning authority should prepare a local development framework. There is a folder of documents that sets out how each local area may change over the next few years. There may be other types of plan too, such as on how to deal with waste, which are usually prepared by county councils. There is a bewildering array of plans, and each different type of plan is usually available in the local library.

The Government have passed further powers. They have passed powers over housing and planning to the unelected regional development agencies and the rebranded regional assemblies. Most recently, they have created a central planning quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will strip the local authorities and Secretary of State of their say on major planning applications. The IPC will quickly be bogged down in legal challenges, coming from judicial review in the High Court to the European Court of Justice, which will be costly and time-consuming. The regional spatial strategy process is in disarray. The regional spatial strategies of the east of England and the south-east have been subject to High Court review, and Ministers have delayed the publication of the final south-west strategy to pre-empt similar legal challenges.

This is nothing short of a fiasco, which has left the planning system in limbo. A huge number of councils and developers are unable to make progress on planning applications. Indeed, a survey of planners’ views on Labour’s planning regime—the local development framework process—found that 97 per cent. believed that it had not led to a quicker process. That survey was cited in Planning on 5 October 2009 and was undertaken by Cushman and Wakefield and the Town and Country Planning Association.

I believe that local communities should be given the greatest possible opportunity to have their say and for there to be the greatest possible degree of local control. As for the role of councillors, the Local Government Association has issued guidance, which takes account of the Local Government Act 2000 and the 2001 national model code of conduct for councillors. The most recent—2007—revision to the code does not affect these issues, but it covers lobbying, among other things. It says:

“It is important to recognise that lobbying is a normal and perfectly proper part of the political process. Those who may be affected by a planning decision will often seek to influence it through an approach to their elected ward member or to a member of the planning committee.”

It continues:

“However, lobbying can lead to the impartiality and integrity of a councillor being called into question, unless care and common sense is exercised by all the parties involved. When being lobbied, councillors (members of the planning committee in particular) should take care about expressing an opinion that may be taken as indicating that they have already made up their mind”.

These well-meaning codes of conduct remove the right of local councillors to form a view, to express a view or to listen formally to and consult those who are most affected by an individual project and planning application. As a result, the way in which the system works means that the electorate and those who live closest to the site involved in the planning application feel that their opinions on these applications and on the planning developments proposed are being totally ignored and that developments are being imposed on them without their views being heard. That sense of disfranchisement and of democratic deficit can lead to disenchantment and feelings of antagonism. Only radical change can possibly deliver the planning system that we need to secure in the years to come.

Rather than having one planning structure determined centrally and then applied without variation across the country, would it not be better to have a planning system with a basic national framework of planning priorities and policies but where the local plan is truly local? Should it not be a local plan for local people? That is precisely what the Conservatives are proposing. We would like there to be proper democratic checks and balances that are seen and have to be respected in the decision making on any planning application, not a plan that can be so easily overruled by a higher tier. Therefore, we would not work with the IPC. We would abolish it, while retaining its expertise. We would abolish and replace the entire bureaucratic and undemocratic tier of regional planning, including the regional spatial strategies, the regional planning bodies and the national and regional building targets. We believe that those targets should be set locally, as it is the local people who have to live with the consequences of any planning decision. We would re-enable proper planning inquiries and—yes—give back discretion to the Secretary of State.

Surely the Minister agrees that we should create a planning system where for local people the decision-making ability is seen to be transparent and accountable to local councils and that local government should be able to produce its own distinctive local policies to create communities that are enjoyable to live in, sustainable and attractive.

In my area, there are currently a number of very contentious applications at both district level, notably a residential community for the elderly, and at county council level, where there are several proposals for energy-from-waste facilities and, most recently, one for a wind farm. In each case, the code of conduct applies to those most affected—those who live closest to each individual planning application. I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that Buckingham is no different to the Vale of York in this regard, and we can each point to a village or to several villages—if not every village—in our areas that have a proposal. It could be an affordable housing proposal, for example. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to see more affordable housing, and the decisions should be about where it is most appropriate to put the housing and the number of houses that there should be. You will be familiar, Mr. Speaker, with the scenario in which residents write, “We have nothing against affordable housing; in fact, we welcome it, but we do not think it should be next door to us. We know just the site for it at the other side of the village.”

So, the arguments are well rehearsed and I am sure that the Minister’s constituency will contain many such examples, too. I am delighted that the Minister is here, as an outstanding alumnus of Lady Lumley’s school in Pickering, and he is deeply familiar with those aspects across rural North Yorkshire. I am sure that he will echo my experience with the residents in these circumstances, whatever the nature of the planning application. I try so hard to explain the processes involved in making planning decisions rather than to engage in a discussion of the merits of the application when the decisions are rightly taken elsewhere. However, the residents feel aggrieved and that their concerns are not being heard, and they approach their MP to intervene. That reflects the confusion over the role of both local and national Government in the decision-making process on planning applications, as well as over the roles of the Planning Inspectorate, of the planning authorities and of an MP.

Common practice is, as the Prime Minister said as recently as 17 March, that

“a planning decision is not a matter for this House but one for the planning authorities.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 877.]

In my view, MPs are best not taking a political decision on the merits of planning applications but can guide constituents and those who feel aggrieved by the planning process on where the decisions are taken and which authority is responsible. When Parliament has devolved power to a local authority, I believe that we should respect that decision of Parliament. Parliament has entrusted the local planning authority in each case to take responsibility for day-to-day planning decisions in its area. It is right that in general the authorities should be free to carry out their duties responsibly with the minimum of interference.

May I take the opportunity to ask the Minister to give an unequivocal statement this evening on what the role of an MP should be as regards planning issues, at what stage an MP should rightly intervene, on what the role of the Planning Inspectorate is and on what his interpretation is of the code of conduct advising councillors on what their role should be? Does he agree that there is a democratic deficit, and does he believe that the planning process should be revisited?

A Library note that was prepared for me, on 23 March, for this debate tells me:

“A Planning Minister should not discuss a planning case with any interested party to a decision. This advice applies, in particular, to decisions on recovered planning appeals and called-in planning applications…Ministers should decline requests for meetings from MPs, delegations of local people, parties to an appeal or a called-in application, pressure groups or any other party who wish to make representations about a particular planning matter. The same principle applies to other forms of contact with interested parties, including telephone calls.”

As I felt that was not sufficiently clear, I was given further clarification from an earlier note, dated 29 January 2009, that

“It is often the case that representations from MPs, pressure groups or other interested parties will be made to persuade Ministers either for or against the call-in of a planning application, rather than leaving the decision to the local authority.”

Finally, I was advised:

“Whilst such representations may be taken into account in the decision on whether or not to call in the application,”

the law states that

“ministers should act, and be seen to act, fairly and should not discuss the decisions with these parties.”

With all such planning applications, there is a feeling of grievance and that people’s views are not being heard. People feel that, in most cases, a planning authority is perfectly capable of coming to a sound planning decision, but that such decisions are then overruled, called in or looked at on appeal. A planning inquiry then follows and a planning inspector overrules the views of the democratically elected councillors of that planning authority. That top-down approach to planning has led to a real sense of disfranchisement and disenchantment and a feeling of democratic deficit. There is a feeling that the views of the electorate and local residents on many current applications in the Vale of York are being ignored. We must restore democracy and accountability to the planning system, and we must rebalance power back in favour of our local communities.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Since I called for this debate, much to the hilarity of the local papers and some of the national press, an aggrieved constituent of mine who felt that his views were not being heard chose to pour a perfectly good glass of local beer over his MP. I am delighted to tell you, Mr. Speaker, that I have since received the sum of money required to cover the cost of dry cleaning the attire that I was wearing on that occasion.

I want to convey to the Minister as forcefully as possible the message that there should be a local plan for local people and that sustainable development should be the key, rather than inappropriate development in inappropriate places. Regard should be had to whether functional flood plains form part of the site of such a planning application, whatever the project might be. Regard should also be had to green fields, green belt areas and the nature of areas that could be irrevocably changed for generations to come. The grounds for appeal against local planning permission should be limited either to the fact that the correct procedure was not followed in assessing the application or that a decision contravenes the local plan. The key tenets in planning policy should be restoring democratic and local control over the planning system, rebalancing the system in favour of sustainable development and sustainable communities and producing a simpler, quicker, cheaper and less bureaucratic planning system. In sum, let the people speak and let their voice be heard.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate and taking full advantage of the early conclusion of the previous business. I know that she is an active local MP. She represents a constituency that, in large part, I sought to represent in 1992, although unfortunately I was not elected. It is my home area and, as she said, I spent many of my school days there. I was slightly disappointed that her speech was not rooted in constituency concerns but ranged more widely across planning policy, but let me try to deal with the points that she raised.

The question of accountability is at the heart of the hon. Lady’s concerns. Accountability must be at the heart of any planning system if it is to command confidence and if the decisions taken as part of it are to be sustainable and acceptable, even if they are not supported by all interests, because in many cases that simply cannot happen. Accountability was at the heart of the reforms that we put in place through the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and, particularly with regard to national planning decisions on nationally important infrastructure, through the Planning Act 2008.

As accountability is a central tenet and requirement of the planning system, many of our reforms have been designed specifically to improve public accountability and public involvement. That applies equally to the tier of planning about which the hon. Lady was most concerned—planning at a local level, principally under the town and country planning network—as to the national planning system and the new Infrastructure Planning Commission. As an aside, may I say that her comments about the IPC spoke volumes about the contradictions that run throughout her party’s planning proposals? She says that her party proposes to abolish the IPC but retain its expertise, but that is a contradiction in terms. Such a statement simply creates uncertainty and a lack of clarity for the many people who are concerned about these matters and who want sound, clear and credible proposals from her party against which they may judge the policies that we have put in place.

Let me return to the main substance of the hon. Lady’s speech: local accountability for local planning decisions. The 2004 Act reformed the local planning system and the plan-making system. It introduced local development frameworks that would be prepared by local planning authorities. Whatever one might call local plans that have the democratic endorsement of an elected planning authority, they are at the centre of the system, so the local development framework is hugely important. We must have a policy and plan-led decisions, including decisions on specific applications, so that the necessary decisions, which are not always popular and easy to take, can be dealt with. The plan-making stage of the local development framework is therefore the time at which important decisions must be taken locally about such things as the need for local infrastructure and the need for additional land for housing, businesses and jobs, or a greater range of leisure activities for an area. Discussions need to be held about how necessary but perhaps unpopular developments are best planned for and provided in a local area. That, in my view, is the most important stage, where public views need to be made to count.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Mudie.)

I take great heart from what the Minister is saying. If I follow his logic, if a project is outside the local development plan that has been agreed, that is presumably grounds for the planning application to be turned down by the local authority, and for that decision to be respected by the Planning Inspectorate or the Secretary of State.

If a clear plan is in place, the planning authority will use it as a principal reference point from which to take guidance on the sort of decisions that are to be taken. It will also be relevant to, and a material consideration in, any Planning Inspectorate inquiry into an application.

If I may say so, the hon. Lady characterised the planning system in quite an ill-informed and illegitimate way. The fact is that a large majority of planning decisions are taken by the local planning authority and are not challenged or taken to appeal, and do not lead to a Planning Inspectorate inquiry. The majority of cases that reach the Planning Inspectorate, where a judgment is made, are found in favour of the local authority, or are simply dismissed. In other words, the local authority makes a majority of decisions that hold, and wins the majority of cases that go to the Planning Inspectorate. It is much better placed to do so if it has done the job of putting a clear plan, and a clear set of local policies, in place, as a reference point for itself and as an important reference point for the inspectorate.

The hon. Lady describes what is happening in her area as half-hearted consultation, and mentions outcomes that are uncertain. She should look hard at her local authorities and at whether they have done the job of making sure that local people are properly informed and know what is going on, and have done the job of putting together proper policies and plans so that applications can be considered properly. Applications have to be considered. They may not be popular, but decisions need to be taken; that is part of the responsibility of any elected council. The hon. Lady rightly described that as being at the centre of the planning system and planning responsibility. As she said, it is about balancing environmental, economic and social considerations.

Before I finish on the hon. Lady’s major concern about the role of local councillors and MPs, let me touch on four or five areas where we have taken steps, particularly over the past couple of years, to do exactly what she has been urging, essentially reinforcing the accountability and openness of the system and ensuring the involvement of local people.

Each local authority, as part of their preparation of the local plan, has to prepare a statement of community involvement at the outset, so that the council can set out clearly the approach that it will take to involving and informing local communities from the outset. The statement covers the whole plan-making process, from early scoping and the options right up to the point at which any plans are submitted to the Secretary of State for independent examination in public.

I am happy to accept that, in the view of planners, there are still weaknesses in what the hon. Lady describes as Labour’s planning regime, but I have to say that there are fundamental flaws in the Conservatives’ proposed planning regime, and not just in the eyes of planners, but in the eyes of businesses, investors and house builders—and in the eyes of local authorities that understand that their proper role is not simply to say no to anything that comes on to their desk. It is no surprise that a major national construction company described the plans as “scary as hell”; it is no surprise that the British Property Federation describes some of the measures in her proposed regime as “a recipe for chaos”; and it is no surprise that the British Chambers of Commerce says:

“On balance, we question whether the Conservative proposals do enough to deliver a planning system that underpins short-term recovery and long-term economic development.”

The hon. Lady does not speak for her party on those issues, but she is well informed and an expert on them, so I suggest that she takes a long, hard look at those proposals, because quite honestly they risk bringing down the shutters on the development and long-term prosperity that many areas, including hers in North Yorkshire, need to look forward to.

I shall move on to improvements, which the hon. Lady may be interested to note. First, on the role of statutory consultees, we have set out and, following a consultation, now produced an updated and strengthened policy statement, so that we improve the arrangements regarding when and over what those organisations that either need to be consulted, or it is desirable to consult, should have influence. She will know about that issue in relation to the role of the Environment Agency, flooding risk and the important expert assessment that it can bring to any potential planning application. She will know also the role that it now plays in the overhauled system of decisions on developments that might be proposed in potential flood-risk areas.

On that point, I am delighted that, after kicking and screaming, the Government have allowed the Environment Agency to become a statutory consultee. Will they similarly allow water companies to be acknowledged as statutory consultees in developments that impact on SUDS—urban drainage systems—and flood plains?

As we put in place that new system of sustainable urban drainage plans, which I think is what SUDS stands for, we would certainly consider that suggestion.

So, there is the process of improving the influence that statutory consultees and organisations with expertise can bring to bear. Secondly, there is the process of improving planning application publicity for local people. Having consulted on that last summer, I decided to maintain the requirement that local authorities publicise certain planning applications in local newspapers. I stand by that, but I have also introduced a new requirement whereby, from 1 October, local authorities must publish on their websites specified information on all planning applications. That is one way in which we can ensure that more people are better informed about proposed planning applications in their area.

Thirdly, we have to beef up involvement at the stage before an application is lodged with a local authority. The hon. Lady will be aware of the provisions that I put in place for that pre-application stage—for nationally significant investment projects—when I led through the House what became the Planning Act 2008. We are looking to follow through that principle locally, because when developers and local authorities seek views, open up discussions and are ready to be informed and influenced by local views at an early stage, applications are likely to be better crafted and potentially more acceptable, if not universally popular.

Fourthly, there is the role of elected councillors, and I know, as the hon. Lady said, that many local councillors feel hesitant about becoming too involved in planning applications. They fear the bounds of propriety, but we need to strengthen the support, advice and guidance to councillors on that issue, and that is why a recent Government-endorsed plain guide to the role of councillors was produced. I was not responsible for the title, because it is called “Positive Engagement”—two words that I tend to avoid. Nevertheless, the sentiment behind it is clear, and the Local Government Association also recently updated its guidance on probity, planning and the role of local councillors.

If the hon. Lady has specific criticisms or suggestions for improvements instead of the rather sweeping generalisations that she gave, I encourage her to write to me with them, because I do see an ability for local councillors to let their local residents, whom they are elected to serve, know about potential planning applications. I see as two sides of a very important coin their role in being able to represent the concerns of their electors and to serve their purpose and their proper role as decision takers as part of the local planning authority.

As for MPs, I am reluctant to follow the logic of the hon. Lady’s argument in suggesting that we should somehow specify, at a national level, the precise role that MPs should play in planning applications. That has to be a judgment for the locally elected Member. All of us, as Members of this House, can play a part in and have an influence over these matters, but clearly, as constituency representatives, we are not the decision takers. None of this will work well in future unless local authorities, councillors and officers—not just officers in the planning department—better understand the nature of the planning process and the nature of their responsibilities and act better to deal with the concerns of local people in consultation and information exercises.

That is why when I published the new policy planning statement on climate change and renewable energy a couple of weeks ago, I also made available nearly £10 million in order that councils can step up and improve their ability to understand the responsibilities involved and conduct those responsibilities rather more effectively locally than we may have seen in the past. It is also because of this desire to reinforce the ability of the public to be well informed, to have an influence and to make their views count in the planning process that I have increased the funding available for planning aid. That is designed to support local community groups and residents’ groups who want to understand the planning system better and want to use their position, and the planning system so that their views count.

In the end—perhaps the hon. Lady will pass this on to her Front-Bench colleagues who have prepared her party’s policy proposals—it is simply not good enough to think that giving a green light to those who largely want to oppose any development in their area is the proper discharge of elected office or responsibility in the planning system. To design a planning system based on that type of reform would lead to the chaos that some of the concerned organisations talk of, but also to letting down the very people who need decisions to be taken about long-term development so that they can have the homes that their children or elderly parents need, so that businesses can bring them jobs and so that they can have leisure facilities that may improve their area and their life for the future.

There are tough decisions to be taken, and as the hon. Lady said, the planning system has to be about decisions that balance often competing and conflicting interests, whether they are environmental, social or economic. In the end somebody has to take those decisions, and the principal people taking them should be the elected councillors on the local planning authority.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.