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Planning Reform

Volume 532: debated on Monday 5 September 2011

12. What discussions he has had with heritage bodies on his Department’s proposals to reform planning legislation. (69930)

I and my officials have met representatives from English Heritage and other heritage bodies several times to improve the neighbourhood planning aspects of the Localism Bill. I am pleased to say that that has resulted in several helpful amendments that have enjoyed cross-party support.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his reply. Would he now like to take the opportunity to apologise to the 3.6 million members of the National Trust, whose concerns over the Government’s charter for sprawl were dismissed by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), as a left-wing smear campaign? Before the right hon. Gentleman explains whether Sir Simon Jenkins is a Tankie or a Trot, would he not agree that this is just further proof that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with the British countryside?

I noticed that my hon. Friend described some of the leaders of some of these organisations as “left wing”. If it is untrue, it is a great insult; and if it is true, it is a great shame. The hon. Gentleman is a passionate defender of the historic environment, but so too are we on the Government Benches, and we are determined to preserve the character of middle England—but young England needs a roof over its head too.

In those discussions with heritage organisations, was the Minister able to clarify whether local plans will be able to designate grade I agricultural land with a specific value?

As has already been said, there has been considerable concern across the country that the Government are trying to steamroller through policy affecting future planning decisions. We were promised that the draft NPPF would be published alongside the Localism Bill. It did not happen. Then we were told that it would be published in Committee. That did not happen either. Then we were assured that it would definitely be published before the summer recess, but that did not happen either. Does the Minister recognise that by trying to bypass Parliament and dismiss legitimate concerns, he has undermined efforts to reach consensus on future planning policy?

That is total nonsense. The commitment was to publish the NPPF by the end of July, and we did that. On not showing it to Parliament, I should say that I was looking at the record of the previous Government, and I noticed that there was a press release on 6 August 2009 about a new Government consultation on planning regional strategies. The idea, then, that the way we have done this is not in accordance with practice is for the birds. It is nonsense.

I am afraid that that answer was not very helpful. I hoped that we could have a constructive discussion. It is in all our interests to have a planning system that can provide jobs, homes and growth in a sustainable way, and we want to work with the Government to put this situation right and reach consensus. In order to move forward, therefore, will he extend the consultation period on the NPPF, hold a debate on it in Government time and allow a vote on the final document, so that Parliament and the country can debate the reforms properly?

We have put in place extensive consultation arrangements: we put out a call for evidence in January; we invited a practitioners group to publish its suggested draft a few months ago; and we have had the standard consultation period. The right hon. Lady will also know that I have committed to holding a debate here, and have asked the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee to look into the matter. It is very clear—I am completely open about this—that we want to have the fullest possible debate. I welcome her constructive approach. It is much needed because we have a crisis in housing and growth in this country that needs to be addressed by reforming the planning system in order to provide those things.

Under the strategic housing land assessment process started by the previous Government, developers can nominate potential sites to go on a list in a way that does not seem to engage heritage organisations or heritage issues. Given the presumption in favour of development, does that mean that heritage issues cannot be brought to bear as reasons for refusing applications on sites on that list?

I am happy to give my right hon. Friend an assurance that the primacy of the local plan remains, and that national policy will continue to require rigorous protections to be in place for heritage assets.