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Written Statements

Volume 574: debated on Friday 24 January 2014

Written Statements

Friday 24 January 2014

Communities and Local Government

Redundant Planning Policy

In 2010, the coalition Government cancelled the Labour Government’s top-down eco-towns programme, as part of our commitment to localism and to supporting locally led development.

Despite a pledge of 10 new towns by Labour Ministers, the eco-towns programme built nothing but resentment. The initiative was a total shambles, with developers abandoning the process, application for judicial review, the timetable being extended over and over, and local opposition growing to the then Government’s unsustainable and environmentally damaging proposals. The last Administration’s own assessments admitted that only three of its original proposals were viable without public subsidy. Merely one of the eco-town proposals were considered environmentally-friendly based on their assessments.

As the programme became ever more bizarre—from the then Health Secretary wanting to turn them into “fit towns”, to proposals for compulsory fortnightly bin collections or bin taxes in the new developments. No gimmick was left unturned.

Labour’s eco-towns were to be imposed from above, with the locations determined by a national planning statement issued by Whitehall. This planning statement is still technically in force (DCLG, “Planning Policy Statement: eco-towns: A supplement to Planning Policy Statement 1”, July 2009).

The coalition Government have undertaken a comprehensive programme to streamline and remove unnecessary Whitehall planning guidance to help streamline the planning system and make it more accessible to local firms and local residents.

The publication of the national planning policy framework in 2012 cut over 1,300 pages of policy guidance down to less than 50 pages. We have revoked Labour’s volumes of regional strategies which added complexity and confusion to the planning system, and which suppressed local decision making. The new planning practice guidance website, currently in draft, is replacing 8,000 pages of impenetrable guidance documents with one simple, concise and accessible online resource.

In the context of the cancellation of the programme and the consolidation of planning policy and guidance, we are therefore proposing to cancel the 2009 eco-towns planning policy statement and will undertake a strategic environmental assessment to comply with the EU law on this issue.

We are minded to save, for now, the policies for north-west Bicester until Cherwell district council has an up-to-date local plan in place. This is because, since May 2010, the council has made good progress with its plans for large-scale, locally supported development. This local work shows that a top-down process is not needed.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who is responsible for housing outlined in his recent answer—17 January 2014, Official Report, column 694W—we are opposed to top-down Whitehall planning and do not support the central imposition of new towns, however they are branded.

It is the coalition Government’s policy to support communities with their ambitions to deliver large scale local development. So far, our local infrastructure fund has unlocked locally led large housing schemes capable of delivering over 69,000 new homes, and we are working to finalise investment deals for a further 10 stalled schemes capable of delivering up to 35,000 more homes—over 100,000 in total. A prospectus on bids for that fund was published in February 2013. The autumn statement committed a further £1 billion of funding to unlock locally led housing schemes capable of delivering up to a further 250,000 new homes. A further prospectus inviting bids to this fund will be issued this spring.

In short, this is a further step in removing Whitehall red tape, abolishing top-down planning, and working with local communities to build locally supported homes and safeguard our local environment and countryside.

Energy and Climate Change

Oil and Gas Licensing

I am pleased to inform the House that I am today inviting applications for petroleum licences for unlicensed seaward blocks, in the 28th new round of offshore petroleum licensing.

The UK oil and gas sector plays a vital role in the UK economy, supporting around 350,000 jobs and with record capital expenditure in 2013 of around £14 billion, and in meeting our energy needs. Indigenous oil and gas production supplies the equivalent of about half of the UK’s primary energy demand. It is vital that we continue to do all we can to maximise economic recovery of indigenous hydrocarbon reserves. The licensing of new areas forms an essential part of our long-term economic plan by enabling the exploration necessary to ensure we fully realise our remaining reserves which could be as much as another 20 billion barrels. This will boost growth, energy security, and jobs.

DECC’s plan to offer licences for offshore oil and gas exploration and production through further licensing rounds was the subject of a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) completed in 2011 and the environmental report can be viewed via the following link:

The SEA includes commissioned reports on various components of the natural environment and effects of previous activities.

Following consultation, DECC considered all responses and a post-consultation report for the latest SEA was published. The report can be viewed here: 2-oesea2

In deciding to proceed with a 28th offshore licensing round, DECC has had regard to the conclusions and recommendations of the environmental report and consultation feedback. As a result, blocks in the deepest waters of the south-west approaches are currently not being offered as part of the 28th round because of inadequacy of data including potentially vulnerable components of the marine environment.

A number of blocks excluded from earlier licensing rounds on the basis of recommendations of previous SEAs are currently not being offered as part of the 28th round of offshore petroleum licensing. This includes the blocks in or overlapping with the boundaries of the Moray Firth and Cardigan bay special area of conservation.

In addition, some blocks are currently withheld from this round of offshore petroleum licensing at the request of the Crown Estate as they overlie the Cleveland potash mine, and some at the request of the Ministry of Defence due to their use for intense military testing and training.

Licensing of the blocks not currently included in this round may be revisited in the future as more information on those blocks becomes available.

In addition, a number of blocks may be licensed but with conditions attached restricting or prohibiting certain marine activities. It should be noted that the Offshore Petroleum Production and Pipe-lines (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1999 (as amended) and the Offshore Petroleum Activities (Conservation of Habitats) Regulations 2001 (as amended) variously require that all major activities undertaken in connection with UK offshore hydrocarbon exploration and production are subject to environmental assessment before consent can be given for these activities.

Before any licence awards are made, DECC will assess whether the grant of licences applied for is likely to have a significant effect on the management of any protected conservation sites. Where such effects cannot be excluded in respect of any proposed award, a further detailed assessment will be needed to determine whether there are any adverse effects on the integrity of these protected conservation sites. This is required under Council directive 92/43/EEC on

“the conservation of natural habitats and wild fauna and flora”,

and the UK implementing regulations.

Applications in the round will need to be submitted by 25 April 2014.