Motion to Take Note
My Lords, most decisions on planning are taken at a local level against a defined plan and in consultation with local people. Planning helps to protect the environment and ensure appropriate development, and helps with growth in the economy through business expansion. I wish to concentrate today on measures that the Government are taking to reform and speed up the planning system. We are undertaking these reforms because the planning system that we inherited as a Government was deficient in two key areas.
First, many local people did not feel involved with or sympathetic to the decisions that were being made. Policies such as imposed regional housing targets created antagonism. Local people saw only the disbenefits of growth, not the improvements it could bring. In the end, the real costs were borne by local communities, with fewer jobs, and fewer homes—an unsustainable future. Secondly, the system could be slow in reaching decisions. Not only did this create uncertainty, it did nothing to encourage the growth and housing provision that this country needs. Some change was required.
We took as our starting point Open Source Planning, a policy document that proposed a new approach to planning. This was adopted in the coalition agreement, with a promise to radically reform the planning system. We have already achieved much of this aim.
Last November’s Localism Act has reshaped the way in which planning is carried out. That was a major milestone towards achieving the commitment at the very heart of the coalition agreement. Its measures put power in the hands of local people and groups to engage in and shape their communities. Particularly in this respect, it introduced neighbourhood planning, which, backed by incentives such as a meaningful proportion of receipts from the community infrastructure levy being passed to neighbourhoods, will give local communities both the opportunity and the encouragement to think positively about future development.
We are keen for local people to take the opportunities to influence their local plan, as well as bringing forward a neighbourhood plan for their immediate area. It may be of interest to noble Lords that over 200 funded neighbourhood planning front-runners are now under way, and more than 100 non-front-runner neighbourhoods have begun the process. By mid-October, 52 neighbourhood planning areas had reached the first stage in the process of formally designating their neighbourhood planning areas, and another 100 had submitted applications for designation. We expect that up to three of these could reach independent examination stage this year. Thirty-five areas are aiming to go to referendum by 2013, and we expect around 80 to have plans in place by the end of next year.
Through a £3.1 million programme, four support organisations are providing advice and support to communities on neighbourhood planning. We are providing a £50 million programme to support local authorities in making neighbourhood planning a success, including funding new local authority burdens.
A further requirement will be for major developers in particular to undertake pre-application consultation with local residents and members of the neighbourhood forum. The new duty to co-operate ensures that councils have to collaborate when producing their local plans, so that issues such as the needs of strategic housing market areas that straddle local authority boundaries are addressed.
In March this year the National Planning Policy Framework streamlined over 1,000 pages of policy down to 50, reducing duplication, making it easier for ordinary people to understand the system and setting the strategic context to guide neighbourhood planning. The framework includes the presumption in favour of sustainable development, reinforces the role of local plans in meeting the needs of each area and ensures a positive approach to applications where up-to-date plans are not in place. The new, simplified framework was published in March and is already helping to deliver the homes and jobs that the country needs and an enhanced built, natural and historic environment. The emphasis on local plans in the framework, and the new incentive provided by the presumption to have an up-to-date plan in place, have resulted in intensified plan-making activity.
By May 2010, six years after Labour’s 2004 Planning Act, only 57 core strategies had been adopted out of 335 local planning authorities. By contrast, 65% of all local planning authorities now have at least a published plan, and 44% of all authorities have completed all the statutory stages and have agreed plans in place following community consultation. The framework also underlines the importance of town centres, while recognising that business in rural communities should be free to expand. However, it also guarantees robust protections for our natural and historic environment and protects the green belt. It also ultimately achieved the accolade of being praised by organisations across the planning spectrum, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England through to the CBI; and from the National Trust through to the British Property Federation. I readily acknowledge that many changes were made to it after close co-operation and consultation with those and other organisations.
In July we announced a package of measures to speed up and simplify the planning application process, many of which take forward the commitments in last year’s Plan for Growth. An effective planning system is a key part of the Government’s growth strategy. All too often we heard that the planning system is a brake rather than a motor for growth, but it should not be. Planning can help create the conditions for economic growth but only if it works in a cohesive way, recognising that opportunities in each area are different and that proposals are for local decision.
We are proud of the achievements to reform planning since 2010, but it was felt that more was needed to help trigger the provision of new housing and business development, to ensure that opportunities could be seized to encourage investment for the future. Therefore on 6 September we announced a major package on housing and growth. This included measures such as the Planning Inspectorate being given power to decide applications where local authorities consistently perform badly; the increased use of planning performance agreements for large schemes; planning inspectors being able to award costs at appeal—for example, where councils have refused schemes with little justification—the Planning Inspectorate prioritising those appeals that will help deliver growth; continuing the policy that enables planning authorities to allow unimplemented permissions to be extended easily; enabling developers with sites with unviable numbers of affordable homes the right to appeal against these obligations; a consultation on allowing developers to renegotiate non-viable Section 106 agreements; a review to rationalise local and national building standards; considering the use of call-in for major new settlements with larger than local impacts; encouraging councils to use flexibilities in the NPPF to tailor the extent of green-belt land to local circumstances, while continuing to preserve its protection; introducing permitted development rights to enable a change of use from commercial to residential; and consulting on a significant relaxation of planning controls over residential and commercial extensions, but for a limited period. Some, including this letter, will need consultations, and where that is the case we will be undertaking them shortly.
Some will require primary legislation, and these are included in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill that is receiving its Second Reading in another place today and will come to this House thereafter. However, I assure noble Lords that the measures in that Bill do not mean that we are throwing the planning system up in the air again and starting afresh; it is not a change of direction. These measures build on our existing reforms.
We have given councils and communities more power to plan and to identify, after widespread consultation and taking of views, what development their areas need and where it should go. With power, though, comes responsibility—the responsibility to get on and plan, to focus on the key decisions that affect the future of their areas and to deal in a positive and efficient way with individual planning proposals.
This is a long list of reforms but there is still more that we will do. Having streamlined the policy documents, we are doing the same with the 6,000 pages of guidance that has built up over the years. We have recently launched the review and my noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor is leading a group of practitioners in identifying what can make this less complex.
It is not just a case of changing the rules, however; there needs to be good or better co-operation. We want developers to invest time in helping local authorities and planners understand the economic benefits of their proposed development and, most especially, to give local communities the opportunities to discuss and shape those plans in advance of the plans going forward. We are making clear to elected members and council officers the circumstances in which they can speak to developers without raising propriety issues. In turn we want the developers to seize every opportunity to make it easier for councils and local communities to understand their aspirations and be positive about economic development.
By developers and business working together with local authorities and local communities we firmly believe that we can deliver the sustainable development the country needs without treading on the toes of local communities and their absolute need to protect their environment into the future. Everyone involved in planning—whether a homeowner with a small-scale addition, a developer of small or larger projects or the planning authority itself—has to remember that the decisions that they make today will still be there scores of years later.
The noble Baroness did not mention at all by name the affordable housing obligation, and she only referred to it very obliquely, as if it did not really exist at all or had no significance. Is the report in the current issue of Private Eye—that the Prime Minister’s office in 10 Downing Street put out a statement that the affordable housing obligation could be abolished without the loss of any affordable houses, even though there is a ministerial Statement which states that the result of that abolition would be loss of 10,000 affordable homes a year—correct?
My Lords, I did not know whether the noble Lord was going to intervene in the gap; this is a debate, not Question Time. However, I am not aware of the Private Eye article. I have not seen it, nor have I been advised about it. I usually take Private Eye with a fair degree of scepticism. I beg to move.
Briefly but, I am sure, stunningly successfully. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, served on a local authority as well, so there are many of us with some local authority experience. I was, for a couple of years after I was leader, chairman of the development committee. I declare an interest as a current member of Newcastle City Council and, once again, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
Despite the moderate tones in which the Minister opened the debate, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Government are really viscerally opposed to planning. They are essentially an anti-planning Government in many ways, and that shows through their policies—not just strictly in the planning field. They have adopted wholesale the Treasury fantasy that the planning system is somehow responsible for low growth in our economy and for the lack of new housing. This is not an evidence-based approach; it is one that they partially successfully sold to the previous Government as well as the present one. However, the fact is—it is well known, although whether it has appeared in Private Eye I am not sure—that 400,000 outstanding planning permissions are available for residential housing to be built. Moreover, 87% of planning applications were approved in 2011; that is a significant statistic.
There is not, in general, a huge backlog in terms of the way in which planning applications are dealt with. The bigger problems actually come with the bigger schemes. We have now an almost interminable debate about a huge infrastructure project, on if and where to have additional airport facilities. This is taking years. It was to try to deal with these major problems that the previous Government introduced the Infrastructure Planning Commission which, of course, the present Government have abolished. However, if there were to be delays in the planning system it would partly be a function of the staffing which is having to be curtailed. Of course, the Government abolished the planning development grant, which encouraged and facilitated the adequate staffing of appropriate people in local authority planning departments.
Local government has a good record of promoting economic and housing development: witness the enormous regeneration of many of our provincial cities over the past couple of decades under, it must be said, Governments of both political colours. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, who certainly was instrumental in moving on this agenda during his time in office. It is interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, is not in his place tonight—indeed, one hesitates to say it, but he is rarely in his place, which is unfortunate because he has much to say and contribute, and was an outstandingly successful Secretary of State for the Environment in many respects. He does not cite the planning system as a major obstacle to growth in the interesting and idiosyncratic document which he has published with recommendations for a new approach to growth in the economy. He makes some recommendations about planning, but they are pretty modest in relation to the general thrust of his report.
One aspect of that report, of course, is the regional imbalance which is again becoming a current topic, and which the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, certainly addresses. It is interesting that, in some respects, he seems to seek to revert to previous practice. He refers to the abolition of regional development agencies; he does not call for their reintroduction, because it is quite clear that the Government have set their face against that—unfortunately, in the view of some of us. However, he talks about having local growth teams, which arguably could be said to replace the government offices which have, alas, also been abolished and which I and others have commented on in debates in this Chamber before. He calls also for, as he puts it, Ministers to be associated with local enterprise partnerships. Some of us are somewhat sceptical about local enterprise partnerships, certainly in terms of their accountability. However, he is almost turning back to the inner city partnership days when there was a Minister—the noble Lord was one of them—who was closely associated with a particular area. I do not know quite how many Ministers would be required to cover the 38 local enterprise partnerships but, whatever the mechanism, the intention is clear that you have to see the country as a whole and not simply leave it in an unstructured way, which has led to the imbalance that we are all familiar with.
Indeed, one aspect of this matter is that there is simply no planning framework for England. I have referred before in debates in your Lordships’ House to the report of the Town and Country Planning Association some years ago, which strongly suggested that we needed a national planning framework for England so that there could be a deliberate attempt to secure balance in development. I recall that when I pressed the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, during his second term as Secretary of State for the Environment, to support a particular development in Newcastle relating to a brewery site—since demolished and subsequently redeveloped—his officials said that it was of no concern to government as to where this investment should go. There was a rival contender for this investment in the Midlands, and the department was simply not concerned about where it should go. That seems to me an abdication of responsibility indicative of the failure to have a sensible national framework for these decisions to be made.
Coming to the current proposals, my noble friend Lord Davies has referred to one aspect which is a matter of concern—but only one of a number of issues which arise in terms of the Government’s apparent dilution of the current system. Affordable homes are no longer apparently to be required. There is to be a relaxation, perhaps, of Section 106 agreements and, of course, we have the wonderfully developed thought, translating Marie Antoinette into housing planning terms, that the answer is of course to “let them build extensions”. This seems to be the answer to both the housing problem and the plight of the construction industry. I suspect that that is a recipe for considerable difficulty between neighbours and around authorities as people fall out about unsightly or large extensions which would not otherwise get planning permission. I note that apparently it has been suggested that the Secretary of State is counselling people who still find difficulties in obtaining such permissions that they might sue their local authority for damages, which strikes me as a little excessive. There is also a suggestion from Mr Nick Boles, who is now a Minister in the department, that the three-year period for this absurd policy might well become indefinite.
Other matters also concern the Local Government Association and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, including the notion that applications might be made in certain circumstances direct to the Secretary of State rather than to the council. One might think that that is not the most localist approach to planning. Another matter of concern is a limitation of the power for local authorities to require information with planning applications. How they are supposed to deal properly with planning applications on sketchy information is not at all clear. Of particular concern to the CPRE is the fact that major business or commercial projects might be regarded as nationally significant infrastructure and therefore would be taken out of the local planning regime altogether. That also poses considerable threats—one thinks of large warehousing and other developments —which could significantly damage local authority areas.
There are many questions about other aspects of policy. What sort of housing are we to have in the Government’s view? Again, this is well known and I have referred to it in previous debates. In the past couple of decades—this occurred under the previous Government as well—houses and accommodation have been built with much smaller areas and lower space standards than most of the rest of Europe. Generally speaking, we have worse design features and less concentration on environmental aspects of housing. None of that apparently attracts the Government’s attention. It is carte blanche to build what you like where you like, which is not a satisfactory way of dealing with the substantial problems of local economy, housing need or the construction industry.
Although there are certain sensible ideas in the Government’s national policy framework—I know that my noble friend will address those later—the current atmosphere is one in which the Government are clearly potentially creating a situation in which we will see unsatisfactory development. We will not see the right number of houses built or the right kind of houses built that are desperately needed. I do not see the Government’s proposals at all achieving the aims which they profess they wish to see implemented. I regret that the role of local authorities in all this is clearly very much under threat. We are capable of producing a new partnership with the private sector and others with the right kind of development in the right place at the right time, given the power to do so.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his clear and convincing analysis of the situation. Does he agree that the abolition of the affordable housing obligation will lead to windfall profits for developers who will have signed the Section 106 agreement and costed in performing their affordable housing obligation, which they now will find retrospectively they do not need to perform? They will be able to write back that provision straight to their bottom line. Does my noble friend think that the public interest should in some way be allowed to share in these windfall gains?
My Lords, I should first declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to have this debate, albeit at very short notice. The reason is that we shall not be discussing the Growth and Infrastructure Bill for several weeks and, given the importance of growth to the economy, this is a valuable opportunity to debate the background, particularly the proposals around planning, which exist in the context of the Localism Act.
The period after the Summer Recess, and through the party conference season, is often one for announcements. There is a tendency for ideas to be floated and an equal tendency for some of them to start to sink when the detail is examined. So it was with announcements on planning made on 6 and 7 September, many of which were welcome and were described by the Minister, but some of which most certainly require further thought and revision.
I agree entirely that the Government’s overriding objective should be growth and to get Britain building again. That is right. Growth drives jobs and it drives higher tax income to spend on public services. Therefore, we should welcome the £300 million to provide 15,000 affordable homes across the country and the extension to the refurbishment programme to bring an extra 5,000 empty homes back into use, together with the £280 million for FirstBuy, the shared equity scheme, to give a further 16,500 first-time buyers the chance to own their own home. We should welcome the £10 billion of loan guarantees to housing associations, property management companies and developers to enable them to secure lower borrowing costs, which should lead to thousands of extra rental homes being built. All this creates jobs and helps to deal with the shortage of affordable homes.
There are many positive aspects in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, such as bringing the town and village green legislation into line with the planning system, some positive proposals around the importance of broadband to growth and the short-term postponement of business rates revaluation. However, we need to be clear what the problems are that we are trying to solve in the planning system and to secure broad agreement to these. The main barrier to growth seems to me to be access to finance, not the rate of determinations and approvals. For example, we debated at length in the Local Government Finance Bill the need to extend tax increment financing. We know that the lack of investment finance in construction and mortgages is the major cause of the low number of housing starts. The Local Government Finance Bill contains a clear incentive to local councils to drive growth, in which they themselves will share. It is in everyone’s interests for development to succeed.
We should note that there are existing permissions for 400,000 new homes yet to be built by developers and that planning approvals for residential and commercial applications ran at 87% in 2011-12. Indeed, approvals for major office, general industry and retail distribution were more than 90%. It is no surprise that the British Property Federation has commented that the reforms proposed to the planning system would increase uncertainty rather than reduce it, because it does not ring true that the main problem that we need to solve is a failure of local councils to manage the planning process speedily or well enough.
The Bill seems too centralist in its thinking at the very same time that the Localism Act is coming into effect, encouraging local decision-making and neighbourhood planning. I am very pleased that the Minister has been able to announce this evening that 200 neighbourhood plans are in the process of being developed. However, the Bill would give much greater power to the Planning Inspectorate than seems justified and it is unclear why this is thought to be necessary when it is likely to increase conflict with local authorities. An unintended consequence could well be to increase the time taken to determine applications. I think that the involvement of the Planning Inspectorate would be of positive benefit with very large schemes that cross several council boundaries. Under the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, the Secretary of State would be able to direct that some major infrastructure developments, such as energy, transport and waste projects, would require consent under the major infrastructure planning regime. I understand and support that, but clarity is still needed on what would fall within the national framework and what the role of local planning committees would be. I hope that the Minister may be able to give some greater clarity today, because the power of the Secretary of State should not be used to remove from local decision-making, for example, retail and business applications. Such a proposal would in any event be contrary to the aims and ambitions of the Localism Act.
I would like now to address the issue of the so-called poor performers, who could lose the right to determine applications. It is true that some planning departments are less good than they should be. It is also true that some planning committees can make poor decisions. But the majority are good and deliver to time. The DCLG has stated that large-scale commercial projects would be fast-tracked for determination within 12 months, but we should note that councils currently approve over 90% within 52 weeks. Planning magazine for 19 October 2012 listed the slowest decision-makers for all applications in 2011-12, and even the slowest got nine out of 10 applications determined within 26 weeks. I do not feel that the accusation of slowness is proven here. On major applications, the slowest decision-makers are spread across the country, with the lowest being Torbay at 31% within 26 weeks and the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with 33% within 26 weeks, with the 25th slowest being New Forest, determining 58% within 26 weeks.
The Minister will be reassured that I do not think that statistics such as these should be taken at face value. I would prefer to know more about why the figures are as they are, because they might reflect complex Section 106 negotiations; there may be Highways Agency delays, of which there are far too many; and they might relate to any one of a number of government agencies that are not subject to the same standards of response times as local government. I am at present unconvinced that action is required by the Secretary of State as long as advice and mentoring are available to authorities deemed to be slow.
However, there is another test that we should pay more attention to, which is that of planning authorities with the highest proportion of defeats on appeal. There is some evidence that too many councils lose too many appeals, which suggests that an improvement may be justified. Of course, it could be that some planning appeals are incorrectly judged. Whatever the case, the first step should always be to enable a poorly performing council to improve, with special measures being introduced only when there is a very serious failure in the quality and speed of decisions. We have just passed the Local Government Finance Bill. That encourages growth, because local authorities can share in it. Councils have a clear reason to drive growth, so I remain puzzled as to why so much emphasis is placed on giving the impression that councils are doing a poor job when the evidence does not really justify that.
On Section 106 agreements, I understand the problems faced by developers financing affordable housing, but I would not wish to see enforced renegotiation meaning that benefits from Section 106 agreements are lost for ever. We support the Government’s objective to get the construction industry moving, but there is a significant body of evidence to show that councils are responding to local conditions and trying to find local solutions. Enabling the Secretary of State to give the Planning Inspectorate power to override Section 106 agreements in terms of the number of affordable units and to decide the number of affordable homes in schemes seems to me to be over the top. Central government’s role must be to make sure that there is a demand for housing by addressing the financing for social housing and access to mortgage finance for private buyers.
There has been a cross-party LGA response asking the Government to rethink their proposals to force renegotiation of Section 106 agreements with developers that provide an element of affordable housing. Councils can do this anyway and many are. Councils can in any case be purchasers of last resort to rent out the homes that they buy. If these proposals go ahead, there is a possibility that developers could try to delay building to pursue renegotiation. Section 106 in any case can relate to community facilities such as schools, street lights and access roads and there are clear dangers in taking power over such matters from local planning committees. Anyway, who will be the judge of viability of a scheme containing affordable homes? Is there evidence that central government knows better than local government? I do not think that the case is proven. There is now evidence to suggest that, when voluntary renegotiation has happened, on average councils are accepting a level of affordable housing around one-third lower than stated in their local plan. If plans in relation to Section 106 renegotiations are continued, a system of independent verification of claims of unviability should be established, possibly through the Homes and Communities Agency.
I also suggest that the HCA scoring system for the allocation of the additional funds announced—the £300 million cash and £10 billion loan guarantees that I referred to earlier—should reflect the willingness of a local council to renegotiate a Section 106 agreement in its area. I also support consideration being given to HCA funds being used to make viable an otherwise unviable site so that the full measures in a Section 106 agreement can be maintained. I recognise that guidance will be given once the Bill is agreed about how viability of Section 106 agreements should be assessed. I hope that the Minister will agree that there is a danger that a national assessment undertaken outside the area might not reflect local circumstances and, secondly, that while the affordable housing element is the one emphasised so far, new schools, roads and community facilities can be just as important.
I refer now to the amendments proposed to the Communications Act on 7 September, when it was announced that broadband street cabinets could be installed in any location other than a site of special scientific interest without the need for prior approval and without any conditions. These are large junction boxes, so surely there has to be some local and neighbourhood consultation in the spirit of localism. I understand that this change may have to include—and I seek the Minister’s clarification of this—that all telecommunications equipment and infrastructure could be part of this. I hope that the Minister will agree that this should not give rise to the uncontrolled installation of mobile phone masts and related equipment in unsuitable locations, particularly areas of natural beauty.
Finally, there are proposals on extensions and permitted development rights. On these, it is not clear what problem the Government are trying to solve. It would not increase the number of extensions by very much, but it would increase the number of disputes between neighbours. Once built, such extensions would stand for many years. In any case, Article 4 directions could be used in such cases, so I question why this proposal has been made and why there have been suggestions that it could last longer than the three years initially proposed.
I conclude by saying that these issues need full debate, involving all parties. We need clear statements and agreements as to what the problems are that we have to solve. With agreement to those, solutions can be found, so I hope that the Minister will agree that we need further discussion and that we can build on that further discussion to devise the right way to proceed.
I declare interests as president of the Local Government Association and chair of the Hanover Housing Association, which puts in for planning consent on lots of sites, as well as vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association. I find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on a number of points that he has made, as well as with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. I shall try not to repeat too many of their points but to underline them.
I shall start with a positive. I am grateful to the Minister, who I know has been part of the process. The good news in forthcoming legislation is that the town and village greens legislation is to be amended. This will be more than helpful in getting rid of the mischievous objectors who have used this legislation in the past, while still protecting genuine green spaces, which is very important. I put down amendments to this effect in the Localism Bill and was assured that forthcoming legislation would address these matters, and so it has, so many thanks to Ministers for that.
In relation to the ways in which planning may encourage or inhibit growth, it is true that the Local Government Association does not believe that planning is the real barrier to growth. As we have heard, there are 400,000 homes with planning consent sitting there. Local authorities are proud of their record in approving 87% of all applications for planning consent in 2011-12. It does not sound as if local authorities are putting up unreasonable barriers to housing activity. Indeed, this leaves us with the suspicion that at least some housebuilders are hoarding land with planning consent. Their shareholders like to see land with planning consent on the balance sheets. It is rather like gold bars; you do not always have to develop the sites in order to give yourself the advantage of those planning consents. It is not helpful if developers are holding out for easier terms than were earlier negotiated with the Section 106 agreements that we have been hearing about. I think that 75,000 homes are supposedly held up because the Section 106 agreements now look too onerous. The hope on the part of many developers is that, having got their planning consent, they will be able to negotiate down the affordable elements within those sites and therefore obviously increase the profit margins for those developments.
At the moment, housebuilders are not doing so badly. Profits are up again, and the housebuilding industry has moved away from the rather shaky times immediately after 2008. It would be unwise for local authorities, and unwise for central government to encourage local authorities, to be too generous in now renegotiating terms that have already been agreed under those Section 106 deals. In any case, it must be essential for those negotiations to happen at the most local level. These are very site-specific discussions regarding what is viable and what is not viable. Local negotiation is required here and not central government intervention. I hope the Minister can reassure us that the powers that the forthcoming legislation may introduce are there as reserve powers to be used only in exceptional circumstances and that one will see local authorities left to get on with the job of granting planning consent without having to think about the Planning Inspectorate marching in and without having to renegotiate Section 106 agreements where that really is not necessary in financial terms.
Wearing my housing association hat, I know that the processes can be very frustrating. Delays are a reality in a number of places. I think that local authorities do not wish it to be that way, but we sometimes wait inordinately long to get the consents that we need, even if in 87% of cases the answer is going to be yes. In the mean time, it is tedious and costly to have to wait. In the past, I have been told that I must expect delays because the council has staff shortages, maternity leave is a problem and the cycle of council meetings means that nothing can be done for a few more weeks yet. All those delays are frustrating, but they may be a necessary part of ensuring that local opinion is taken with development and is not left on the outside.
Hanover Housing Association has a development where I am told that, having put in for planning consent in February, it is likely to get a definitive outcome in January. This is after a year of prior negotiation on this cohousing scheme for senior citizens who have clubbed together and will be living in the homes. It is very tough to be in the middle of this and to keep telling these elderly people that unfortunately it will take a bit longer and a bit longer. However, I understand the political pressures faced by local authorities. It seems that the culture in this country is always on the side of those who want to say no, not on the side of those who want to get on with the job. Real leadership is required by local authorities, and that is not always easy. My advice to local authorities, for what it is worth, is that one needs leadership at the council level. One cannot expect the local councillor, put on the spot by his or her local electorate, to side with good council policy and be pro-development when that is suicidal in terms of their electoral future. So one has to expect leadership at the council level, with positive planning at the council level, and not at the level of the individual ward councillor.
With that backdrop of local opposition, how can one achieve more growth? The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, points out that a lot of the problems in getting more homes built and development of all kinds undertaken are financial and not concerned with planning, but there are some planning elements here. Starting at the top, one needs a robust planning Minister. I note that the Minister in the other place, Nick Boles, is not afraid to speak his mind and is taking a robust attitude towards those who obstruct the need for development. I believe that central government is seized of the need for more homes. This is not just talk. There is a genuine desire to try to address the acute housing shortages and to get economic growth going on the back of that. That is a good start. Central government has given local authorities the new homes bonus not just to give them extra funding when they say yes and schemes for new homes go ahead, but to bolster leadership at the local level by enabling councillors to tell local communities that if they are positive about new development extra resources will come into their area and there will be local benefits. I see that the CPRE is suggesting that the new homes bonus might be increased if the homes are built on brownfield, not greenfield, sites. As long as the new homes bonus is not used in places where new homes are not needed, it can be an incentive to get councils on side, and for councils to get local people on side as regards the requirement for more growth.
Neighbourhood plans involve people intimately in drawing up their local plans. The Minister has told us that 200 are now in advanced stages of negotiation. I am keeping an eye on one particular neighbourhood forum and its work and seeing how this is working through. It is a way in which lots of local meetings can bring people together instead of the usual total opposition to any development anywhere around here. Being part of building up a community-based neighbourhood plan can get people onside, and it is a useful way forward. At the time of the Localism Bill, I wanted an amendment to say that if a local plan has been devised, has been through the proper processes and has been properly inspected and if all three of the county council, the district council and the parish council—where there are three—agree that this neighbourhood plan is fine and give it a tick in the box, there should be no need for a local referendum involving all kinds of local people who have played no part in the discussions to date, who come out of the woodwork and say “no”, who get up a petition in the local shop, who are opposed to anything happening anywhere near them, who have had their chance to be involved in the consultation exercise and have rejected that chance, but who turn up at the last minute. We have not yet had any referendums, but I fear they will undermine the very good way of approaching the creation of a neighbourhood plan that people feel better about than they usually do.
There are many financial ways in which growth and the housebuilding that could flow from it could be generated. I will list the ones that appeal to me in particular. Those housing revenue account freedoms for local authorities could be extended so that local authorities that have retained council stock could be allowed to use their capital assets to borrow against that stock, just as housing associations are allowed to do. As long as that borrowing is prudential, and there is no reason at all to believe local authorities would go wild if they had that opportunity, it would be safe and sensible and they could be part of the much needed development of land, including land that they own themselves. The housing associations can borrow. My own has a big headroom, and we could borrow lots more money but we can only borrow what we can repay. There is a continuing need for some grant. Grants have been cut back, but if we had more, we would take up the opportunities we have to borrow more, and the Government get terrific gearing out of that. Most of the money is private money, but it needs some public money to make that happen.
I would like to put on the table one last financial way in which growth in housebuilding can be encouraged. I would recommend that, as well as the FirstBuy and NewBuy initiatives which help first-time buyers into a new flat by helping with their deposits and guaranteeing their mortgages, we should also have a scheme that enables first-time buyers to buy the homes that older people are leaving so that they can move into brand new, specialist, retirement housing. That gives you two bangs for your buck. The elderly person gets a much more manageable home which is cheap to heat and maintain as well as all the things that older people need, such as accessibility and companionship, and the young family can buy into a family home with, probably, three bedrooms and a garden which is just what they want and just what housebuilders are seldom building these days. You would get two for one if we could encourage a move of that kind.
It is good news that the Government want more action, are serious about the acute shortages of new homes and want to get Britain building, but the most important measures for central government will not be in diminishing the role of local government on the planning side. I hope the Minister and her departmental colleagues will be open to other positive ideas as well.
My Lords, I have a meeting tomorrow with some people who are seeking to extend the life of a ragstone quarry in Kent, ragstone being a stone which is widely used in repairing and building public buildings. There has been substantial opposition to that but I learnt today, from the local Member of Parliament, that the largest element of opposition has come from people who have absolutely no connection whatever with the land in question. Indeed, they have come from areas considerably apart. That rang a bell with me. When the M11 motorway was built through my constituency and we had to face protestors who declared themselves the “Free Country of Wanstonia”, it turned out that all but about 5% were from outside the borough. The point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, about the need to make sure that you have local support and not pay too much attention to others would be a very big and valuable step towards getting away from development always being opposed.
I am very glad that my noble friend, when introducing the debate, referred to the National Planning Policy Framework. It has been an almost unqualified success. Some of the people who were initially extremely hostile to the first draft are those who now sing its praises most loudly. Some of them must feel slightly ashamed that they went over the top when the first draft was issued. My noble friend is absolutely right; this has been a great advance.
I am very aware that the Second Reading of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill has been taking place in another place today. I expect that it will not reach this House for some while. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will forgive me: it is not really appropriate to go into too much detail about that Bill this evening, but I should make one or two points. The House knows that on the recent Localism Act and Local Government Finance Bill I found myself, with others, repeatedly championing the cause of localism and arguing that central government must be prepared, having given local authorities a general power of competence, to allow them to get on with it and make up their own minds. The Localism Act gave that power not only to local authorities but, as we have heard, local neighbourhoods. They have much more autonomy in how their local plans are drawn up and, when my noble friend opened the debate, I was encouraged by the figures she gave on the number of neighbourhood plans. Of course, we did not get all that we wanted. There were other measures that one would have wished for, but the general thrust was very much in the right direction. All the amendments passed in this House were accepted by the other place, as were, only a few days ago, the amendments to the Local Government Finance Bill, including the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. It is a pity that she is not in her place.
However, on first reading, the Growth and Infrastructure Bill appears to go in the opposite direction. My noble friend said that it did not represent a change of policy. A good deal of persuasion is to be done if local authorities are to be convinced of that. The Local Government Association has given us some early indication of its views, and has stated:
“The Bill in its current form represents a blow to local democracy, as well as being at odds with the Government's localism programme”.
That may be a misreading of the Bill, but the fact of the matter is that that is widely believed, and we will have to look at the Bill carefully when it comes to this House.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Beecham, Lord Shipley and Lord Best, said that it is not the planning system which is holding up development, but it is primarily a matter of builders and developers, and particularly house buyers, having access to finance. However, the Government seem determined to believe that it is the fault of the planning system. If there really is a dispute about that, is there not a case for some serious inquiry looking at this matter? We may well look at this during consideration of the Bill, but it is not satisfactory when the great mass of local authorities say, “Look, we really are doing our best”—the figures have been quoted—only to be told by the Government that it is all their fault. This tendency to reassert some form of centralism is rather unfortunate. Although this is not the occasion for debating the interesting report prepared by my noble friend Lord Heseltine, he again has said that the thrust to localism is exactly the right way to proceed. Local authorities becoming more responsible for growth in their area and having more say is very much part of my noble friend’s recommendations.
My next point relates to the duty under the Localism Act of local authorities to collaborate with each other, which my noble friend mentioned. Noble Lords who took part in consideration of that legislation will remember that there was a good deal of scepticism about that. However, the experience of even the most recent period since then is showing that those fears were misplaced. There are now many examples of collective cross-boundary plan making. Indeed, the Planning Advisory Service, funded jointly by the Local Government Association and my noble friend’s department, is supporting this work and is a powerful voice for sharing experience of cross-boundary planning. I have been furnished with a list of very good examples of where that is happening. I shall not weary the House by reading it all but I take one example at random. The North Northamptonshire Joint Core Strategy is a statutory joint committee covering Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire and involving Northamptonshire County Council. This is the first core strategy to be adopted in the East Midlands and currently it is under review, but the joint committee has been supported by a joint planning unit. That is a perfectly good example of collaboration and there are a number of others.
I spent a good deal of last weekend reading the report of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, in between reading a report about how this building is falling down, which perhaps is even more alarming. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, made the point that not only do we need collaboration between local authorities themselves but that there is a demand for collaboration between local authorities and local enterprise partnerships. Accounts reaching me suggest that most of these are getting under way extremely well. It is very important, particularly with the emphasis on seeking to build policies of growth, that the LEPs and the local authorities get on well.
Finally, I have a couple of detailed points for my noble friend that are of particular concern to London. I declare my interest as a joint president of London Councils and, along with almost everybody else here, I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The first point is permitted development rights for converting commercial property to residential property and the second one is the question of the localisation of the fixing of the level of planning fees. I shall say a word about both.
The Government are proposing to allow developers to convert commercial buildings to housing without the need for planning consent. That may be acceptable in many parts of the country but the idea is deeply opposed by London Councils and, in particular, by the City of London. In London generally the arguments seem to me to be pretty strong. London houses significant low-value but important design and creative industries which add a lot to the country’s GDP but whose ability to continue to function would be hampered seriously if developers simply bought them out and changed the use to housing. In parts of east London that is an important sector of an increasingly thriving part of the country. That automatic right to convert would be pretty unsatisfactory.
The City has even more specific anxieties. Over the years, the City authorities have handled the residential estates, which are a very small part of the whole, extremely skilfully. They have sought to confine that to quite specific areas on the periphery of the City while they remain determined to encourage commercial development to provide for the financial services industry’s crucial contribution to the nation’s GDP. Recently, I had an opportunity to raise this with the new Planning Minister, my honourable friend Nick Boles, and he confirmed that the City officials are in close touch with my noble friend’s department and I am expecting proposals to come forward for there to be exemptions from this automatic right to convert from commercial to redevelopment. I hope that my noble friend may be able to give me an update on this. Will the exemptions go wider than the City and include the London boroughs? To my mind, they have made a strong case.
Finally, I turn to planning fees. New draft regulations are coming before the House tomorrow. They are primarily a consolidation measure that was asked for by our committee. Sadly I cannot be at the debate because I have other commitments in the House. However, I will talk about not what is in the statutory instrument but what is not. Is there not a case for letting local authorities establish planning fees rather than for operating, as we have in the past, a “one size fits all” policy? The figure for planning applications in London is much higher. Inevitably, costs are higher, and some local authorities are making a significant loss, which has to be paid for either by council tax payers or by the taxpayer. It is thoroughly undesirable that that should happen.
Local authorities have been told that many developers would welcome a higher charge if it meant a prompter service, perhaps with more staff handling planning applications more quickly. Would that not be a better policy? I wonder whether my noble friend will reassure me that although that suggestion has been set aside the moment, for reasons that were spelled out in the Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations, the decentralised option will continue to be studied. Of course I understand that it is more complicated than just putting up fees to compensate for inflation. However, it would be appropriate.
I hope that local authorities will be given the chance to make a significant contribution to the growth agenda of the country. At the moment they are being held back by a number of measures—not necessarily planning measures—that reflect an increasing tendency to centralise. No doubt we shall have further opportunities to discuss this when the growth Bill comes before the House in two or three months’ time.
My Lords, we all want a strong economy; that is obvious. In so far as planning is essential to getting that right, we want a planning system that facilitates rather than delays. But why do we want a strong economy? Is a strong economy an end in itself? Or do we want a strong economy so that we can have a decent, civilised Britain, in which we are able to value and enjoy our heritage, our environment and the aesthetic dimensions that make life worth living? Do we want a Britain in which there is room to regenerate our spiritual and physical batteries? Do we want to preserve and protect the challenges of wild spaces and the glory of the countryside?
There is a tremendous amount of technical and wealth-generating preoccupation—understandably—in what is being discussed about planning. I sometimes feel that we are neglecting the soul of Britain, and what will make Britain a country worth having. I want a planning system that values that soul every bit as highly and is determined to ensure that it will be not only preserved but regenerated for our young and their future. Perhaps we should look at the nightmare of the last industrial revolution. With hindsight, we can see that it could all have been done without scarring the countryside and without ruining lives to the extent that they were ruined. Surely we have learnt from that and are determined for the future of our economy that the same mistakes will not be made again.
I have always learnt from life, and I had an experience a few years ago. I may have it shared it with the House before, in which case, I apologise. It made a profound impression on me. I was at that time national president of the YMCA, which had a training centre on the edge of Lake Windermere. I was talking to one of our workers there, a very fine woman with a great sense of vision and commitment. She told me a story which has always stayed with me. She said that not long before my visit a youngster aged about seven or eight had been there and had come back very invigorated from a day out. She said, “What did you do today?”. With a sense of awe and excitement, this youngster said, “I saw far”. A few days later, she saw the youngster coming back again looking even more enthusiastic. She said, “And what did you do today?”. The youngster said, “I saw very far”.
That story certainly brought home to me that still, for countless youngsters in our society, life is stunted because they do not have the opportunity to experience the imagination, challenge and regeneration of open spaces, the countryside and all the glories there. I would like an absolutely firm undertaking from the Minister tonight that she and her colleagues will set to it to ensure that these considerations are given the same priority with all that is being done in planning as any other considerations.
To give specific indications of where that would apply, we are going into a new generation, and we are preoccupied with future energy—how we will make it possible and enable it to happen. This is not just a matter of new plant; it is a matter of the infrastructure—the pylons and wires that will criss-cross the countryside. There is also the matter—and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to it so firmly with all his experience—of the need for affordable housing, which is something that we all recognise. Surely, it is important to ensure that where affordable housing is provided it is done without actually scarring the landscape and doing damage to the total creative experience across the land. Therefore, brownfield development is obviously crucial in this context.
All that I am saying suggests, as in so many other walks of life, frankly, that it is all too sensitive and complex to be left to the vagaries of the market. We need more than that. Nimbyism plays too strong a part in how things are in the free market interplay. The articulate and already strong can look after their interests by saying, “Not here thank you”, and the less articulate get landed with everything. We have to keep this in mind and make sure that we have a just and even-handed approach that looks to the interests of society as a whole.
What all this demands is a master plan for what will be right in the interests of Britain. Take, for example, the generation of alternative energy. We may have targets. We may have aggregates that we are certain that we want to achieve, but exactly how will they be achieved? That is not something to be left to the haphazard interplay of unco-ordinated local planning authorities. It requires a national plan. That is why it is so important to take this interplay between the different approaches as seriously as I suggest.
Only last week I had an assurance from a colleague of the Minister—from that Bench—that, as far as the national parks were concerned, the Government were determined that in all aspects of development, progress and future work the interests, well-being, traditions and role of the national parks and society would remain inviolate and that this would be respected by all departments of government. I got that specific assurance. It is there in Hansard to read. I hope it has been internalised within the many different departments of government and local government involved. It is crucial. Of course, the same goes for areas of outstanding natural beauty.
However, this affects not only the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—and, of course, I have been very much involved in the life of national parks—but the countryside as a whole. That is why in post-Second World War Britain, when we were talking about the rebuilding and regenerating of Britain, the green belts were seen as an essential part because the spiritual, imaginative and creative side of life was seen as important as the material-side priorities that were operating. I am afraid that that side of the argument, as I have been suggesting, has been neglected of late, and we need to make sure that it is reprioritised. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me on this.
I should like to take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for whom I have a great and enduring respect. It is not the planning systems that matter but the priorities of the people who are driving things and taking them forward. We will not get this right until there is a culture which says that it is not only about numbers and the materialism of our society. We do not want to be judged as a nation that became wealthier than ever and increased its GNP by this or that amount as though it were an end in itself. This is about building a society worth having, and national planning should be there to support, encourage and ensure that.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Leader’s Committee of London Councils and as leader of a local authority, which is a planning authority and which, working with neighbourhoods and villages, will fight to remain a local planning authority using all necessary means, including resort to the law on some matters if we must. I hope that we shall not have to.
I also declare an interest as one who believes that if you want to see the reasons for locally led planning you should compare the green 20th-century suburbs and back gardens of British towns and cities and their proud preservation by local communities—I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said—to the sprawl of high-rise, abusive building that girdles the city of Rome, for example, not to mention the third world. That is a success for planning.
I, too, am grateful to the Government for enabling a short-notice debate on a very short-notice policy. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Hanham for the typically wise and emollient way in which she introduced it, reflecting, quite rightly, a number of positive steps taken by this Government since 2010. One always knows with her—unlike certain colleagues, perhaps—that she knows something about planning and understands the good reasons for it. She does not see local councils, as some Treasury officials seem to, as institutionalised conspiracies against the people by bureaucrats, so-called jobsworths and enemies of growth.
Most local authorities are fighting day in and day out to support business and growth. In fact, unlike the expanding phalanxes of unelected inspectors which are implied in some of the Government’s new measures, local councils are directly responsible to local communities for the policies they make and the decisions they take. People, as my noble friend rightly said in her introduction, want local involvement and not remote decision-making.
That is why I am puzzled, as was my noble friend Lord Jenkin, that despite the fine words, it looks as though the Government have changed their mind on localism. If so, the policy change has been hasty, the analytical basis obscure and, although it is not his fault that he finds himself where he is, the new Minister’s views have sometimes appeared predetermined. Predetermination does not make for good planning decisions, and the patent lack of evidence or prior consultation behind some of these ideas will inevitably raise the spectre of judicial review.
We are told that some of the changes proposed are temporary, but some who are involved have made no secret of the fact that they hope they will be permanent. I have to say that I find that dismaying. I will not follow others in addressing the details of the growth Bill. I have not read today’s debate in the other place and many other noble Lords have already commented on it. Like others, I support the provisions on the misuse of village green powers, but also like others, I am far more cautious about the policy on affordable housing and negotiation on Section 106. This is already possible and many local authorities are doing it; some developers engage and some do not. I am not sure that we should reward speculators who are unwilling to play by the rules that other developers accept. I also share the concern about the switching of commercial property to residential with no requirement to provide parking or amenity space, or make any contribution to essential infrastructure such as access roads and schools. In some areas, the loss of commercial space will be keenly felt as the economy revives.
It may surprise few noble Lords that I want to concentrate on gardens. I have the honour to represent a suburban ward in a suburban borough, and like suburbs up and down our land, it is the character of its housing and its green spaces and gardens that make it what it is. People look to those they elect to preserve that character, and why should they not? They also detest the idea of selfish and uncontrolled garden grabbing. It is a practice which both my party’s manifesto and the coalition agreement pledged to curtail. Let me remind noble Lords and Ministers—I know that my noble friend will listen carefully, but some in other departments might care to note this—that the Conservative manifesto in 2010 said:
“To give communities greater control over planning, we will abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans … allow neighbourhoods to stop the practice of ‘garden grabbing’”.
The 2010 coalition agreement states:
“We will return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop ‘garden grabbing’”.
That seems pretty clear to me, so on the basis of what evidence or consultation are the Government now abandoning that promise and opening the door to the very practice they promised to check? I confess that I could not wear my election promises quite so lightly. In effect, the Government now seem to be saying that they want to permit more garden grabbing by doubling the size of permitted development and allowing what, if they come to be built, may risk becoming known as “Boles blocks”.
As the LGA statistics have exposed, this policy is not rooted in the facts. As others have said, contrary to what you hear and read, it is already perfectly possible to apply for an extension that goes beyond the current permitted limits. Thousands of families do so, and of the hundreds of thousands of planning decisions that are taken, most are approved—many, of course, with modifications in the course of the planning process. In my own small authority in 2011-12 we had more than 4,000 planning applications, 1,730 of which were for household extensions—not all in gardens, of course. Of these, 80% were passed and more than 80% of applications were dealt with in fewer than eight weeks. Just 346 applications were refused. Of these, 79 chose to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, and of those, only 34 were allowed—not all rear extensions.
The LGA’s emerging evidence shows a similar picture across the country. So, if coolly analysed, where is the problem? Where is the injustice to the aspirant families, many of whom, frankly, are rather more deterred from getting a larger house by penal rates of stamp duty? The truth is that those who play by the rules have a very good chance of getting most or all of what they want. Where is the blight on growth? Many firms doing extensions in London already have waiting lists. It is quite absurd to say that breaking election promises and relaxing controls on garden-grabbing will revive the economy, although it may do some good for remittances to Krakow and Belgrade.
I recognise that there are examples of poor planning and poor planning departments, and there is sometimes impatience with the time that negotiations can take. We all need to work to improve that. The local authorities also face some of these delays. Like my noble friend Lord Shipley, I think that bad cases do not make good laws—or in fact justify the abandonment of such clear election promises as those I have reminded the House of.
It may be that some of the officials who devised this policy do not understand the character of the suburbs of Britain. Perhaps some others find suburban values a little old-fashioned. Yet, as one my residents recently wrote to me:
“The squashed suburbs are governed by rules precisely because people live cheek by jowl and like to be informed and have a say when something which might impact on them or their neighbours is proposed. It doesn’t mean they demand a veto, just a sensible process in which their voice is heard”.
Was that not precisely the point?
The planning process exists to ensure fairness between neighbours and to accommodate differences, which are often sharpest in the case of extensions, while protecting the overall character of the place. Incidentally, I agree with what my noble friend Lord Shipley said about broadband boxes: the argument is not quite as simple as has been presented. A garden-grabbing free-for-all in some areas will just set neighbour against neighbour, as others have said.
The Government are fond of saying that they want to help those who play by the rules; that they act for the hardworking majority. I agree with that; it is why I am a Conservative. But this policy seems to promote the precise opposite. It is a policy for those who happen to be rich enough to be able to throw up a quick, expensive extension during a policy window in a recession. It is a policy that helps the minority who do not want to play by rules, those whose extensions have been refused because they are so overbearing or so out of character and who can now come forward again, or those who do not want to be bothered with respecting their community’s views at all. It is a policy not for the many but for the few.
I fear that some of the palliative ideas suggested are ineffective. Light is rarely a single determinant feature in planning decisions and it is very open to appeal and challenge. Extending conservation areas is a lengthy process and has other consequences for people’s ability to improve their homes; in fact, it is an increase in regulation of a different kind. Article 4 directions are even more cumbersome, need government approval, are subject to compensation, and would lead to loss of planning fees—more than £250,000 in the case of our authority alone. Intensifying building control to prevent abuse by cowboy constructors would impose potentially heavy new burdens on local authorities in employing new staff—just when we are all, quite reasonably, being urged to cut our costs.
The Government have a wide enough range of ideas for change and improvement in planning without the need to break their election promises on this specific one. Unlike a tax break, it will leave a legacy in breeze blocks that cannot be reversed. For every fairweather friend they might make by an extension so incongruous or overbearing it would never have been allowed under existing rules, the Government will lose two, three, four, five, six—how many?—friends. It is not even clever politics.
I have been from the outset, and will remain, a vocal critic of this unnecessary idea if it is carried forward. I dislike intensely being publicly at odds with my party—it goes against every instinct that I have. Indeed, it was the first time in my political life that I found that all I had said was soon endorsed by a vote of the Liberal Democrat conference. That had me worried for a moment, but I am very grateful to my Liberal Democrat friends for it. I also note of course the Local Government Association’s clear and resonant views on this subject. Few issues have more united local government and all parties in local government, and I have had a most enormous postbag of support.
I welcome tremendously what my noble friend, who is so respected in this House and by me, appeared to say about potential consultation on this specific aspect. I hope that she will take that back and urge colleagues to reflect further and change their minds. Of course, I do not ask her to answer on that when she replies, but I do ask without prejudice to any reconsideration how and when this idea might be brought before Parliament for determination if the Government go ahead.
I remain wholly opposed to this proposed extension of garden-grabbing, and I would beg on behalf of those many people who have written to me in support that the eventual answer to that question would be never, so that this idea, however well intentioned, might quietly be laid to rest.
My Lords, it has been very interesting listening to the excellent speeches from all sides of the House tonight criticising or worrying about the Government’s policies on planning or various bits of them. I have been reflecting on the lack of business confidence, which may stem from projects taking too long to get permission or uncertainty about what will happen. I do not see that as improving in spite of some good changes in the planning system in the past few years.
I shall speak mainly about big projects such as rail, road and strategic freight interchanges, but my comments probably apply to other developments as well—I declare an interest as chairman of Rail Freight Group. On nationally significant infrastructure projects, the Planning Act 2008 and later revisions by the Government have improved things, but there remain major delays and uncertainty which are making it very risky for the many larger developments to proceed—the ones that the Government appear to want to encourage. We could say, “Well, if these are government-funded, it probably doesn’t matter very much; if the Government want to do it, they will find the money and it’ll take time”, but a large number of such projects are now being financed in the private sector. That, of course, is much better because it does not go on the government balance sheet, but the message that I get from developers is that they need confidence that their investment will be realisable at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time, provided that they stick to the rules, the planning laws and the guidelines. I suppose that most of them fall into what one might call the “difficult” category, be they road, rail or interchanges, and getting planning permission for such sites has always been notoriously difficult. I shall come on to railways later, but, for the interchange sector, it is difficult finding sites; they have to be road and rail-connected; they may be in the green belt; and the scale of them tends to lead to local opposition. If there is a need to invest in local road and rail networks as a planning condition, a site may become unaffordable.
In terms of our logistics sector, the retail sector is moving into these properties and developments significantly. Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer are taking lots of areas in those sites. The one at Daventry is probably in the forefront of that change. Luckily, the local authority is very enthusiastic because it started with a small one that was rail-connected about 12 or 15 years ago. The second one was entirely taken by Tesco and has been built and opened and there is a third, even larger one under development. They are clearly popular with retailers, whom we must try to help.
The Government need to recognise the successes in the Planning Act. Sites over 60 hectares are included as nationally significant infrastructure projects. The National Planning Policy Framework 2012, issued this summer, supports sustainable development. The Department for Transport and DCLG jointly issued a strategic rail freight interchanges policy statement last November, which can be cited by developers in planning applications. However, there are still policy framework documents missing. Robbie Owen, who is the secretary of the National Infrastructure Planning Organisation, has written a letter in the Times today saying that when you have all these documents in place, you can build airports very quickly. I will not get on to airports tonight, but with the right documents there and the national planning policy framework in place, he says that wherever it is going to be, you could do it very quickly.
Compare that with the policy on national networks, which relates to rail, road and strategic interchange, which has a bad history. It was first promised to be published in draft form in autumn 2009, then in autumn 2010, then in December 2011 or January 2012. That is three years with still no date for publication, even in draft. Can the Minister give a date, a year, a 10-year span or something for publication? It is very difficult when developers cannot have any comfort that their application complies with a document that does not exist. As I said before, many of these projects are privately financed, so it puts those projects at risk. I wonder—perhaps the Minister could comment—whether, as the national policy statement for national networks remains delayed, the policy statement could be upgraded to NPS status. That is a suggestion.
Secondly, after all those processes have been followed and only a ministerial decision is left, as several other noble Lords have said, it takes a very long time. The noble Lord, Lord Best, cited a year for a housing project—I can cite several years for bigger projects—when Ministers seemed to sit on them. In some cases, a clear political bias is finding its way into something which I think should be a straight decision based on the merits of the case. Again, if a developer is spending tens or, sometimes, hundreds of millions of pounds on getting a project approved, that timescale can wreck the project and make him withdraw.
That element of cost is confirmed by the report by Infrastructure UK, 18 months or two years ago now, which compared the cost of building and engineering projects in the UK with those in Germany. It found that the costs here were 40% higher but that the actual costs of construction were much the same. The conclusion is that the extra cost is entirely on getting there, which, in the round, probably mostly comprises planning applications. I hope that the Minister will look urgently at speeding up appeals, including options for mandated timescales, such as in the Planning Act, for ministerial decisions. I hope that the Town and Country Planning Act will also have some revisions put in. It would be nice to see some flexibility in the 60-hectare limit under that planning Act. With experience in seeking permissions through that route, I wonder whether there is merit in allowing some flexibility in that figure. It might help the developers to choose, if not the easiest, the quickest and probably the cheapest way of getting development while still providing appropriate scrutiny.
My next issue is with the Transport and Works Act. There is a terrible story about the railway line between Oxford and Bicester, which is probably 15 miles or so. It was single tracked by Dr Beeching and Chiltern Railways put in an application to redouble it. I think there was general support from everybody; I went and gave evidence in favour of it, which I suppose is unsurprising. It very nearly got approval under the Transport and Works Act. Then, suddenly, it was decided that there had to be a second public inquiry because of bats. The Minister may laugh but I am afraid it is true.
The problem was that in the 40 years since this tunnel in Oxford had been single-tracked, the bats had got used to perching in the bits that were not too close to the trains. The people that looked after these bats decided that if two tracks were reinstated, the trains would be closer to the bats and it would affect their habitation. In the end, after a second public inquiry—and God knows how much it cost—Chiltern Railways came up with a scheme so that when a train was half a mile from the tunnel, it triggered a light. That lit up the tunnel inside, then the bats flew away and were therefore safe from the train. When the train got out of the tunnel, the lights went out and the bats were able to fly back. Is it a sensible use of government money to go through all this absolute rubbish? I am very fond of bats but somebody has been very cautious and that has probably delayed the project for a year and added goodness knows how much to the cost, which will probably end up in the fares box eventually. We have to be a bit more practical about these things.
There is a lot to talk about and there will be more to talk about when we see the new Bill. I hope that Ministers can take particular care when looking at the delays to and extra costs of projects if the private sector is investing some or all of the money—be they rail, road interchanges or major schemes such as that—because we need to build confidence to resolve cases speedily, by ministerial decision or otherwise.
We really do not want to be in a situation such as energy is in. As I think my noble friend Lord Judd alluded to, a lack of policy in energy is stopping many projects that some people want and probably allowing some to go ahead that others do not want. There is a big article in the Times today about a biomass plant in Yorkshire. A power station is to be converted from coal to 100% biomass, which sounds awfully good. There will be lots and lots of new jobs and biomass coming from wherever, and it will all be wonderful. A little note at the bottom says that it will not go ahead unless the Government come up with a final policy on the buy-in level of that energy. That applies equally to other private sector projects; they need confidence. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some assurance about some of these projects and ideas for small improvements to the planning Acts. I look forward to her response in due course.
My Lords, I have some comments to make that perhaps are to some extent conflicting. I am a huge supporter of our heritage, and I agree with much that has been said on that front this evening. In the course of my lifetime the green belt has preserved London from becoming a sprawling mess like Paris and other cities, so you have to tick that box. I can see that you have to have a planning process.
Then, though, I look at the issue from the other end of the telescope, and I say, “This country badly needs a lot of infrastructure investment pretty quickly in terms of at least economic common sense, and while the economy is flat it is a sensible time for that to occur”. The infrastructure plan contains about £200 billion of basically, transport and other related areas and another £200 billion for energy. I asked the Chief Secretary how much he expected to be spent in any of the next five years, but he could not give me an answer. His answer was, “Well, we just don’t know how long it will take to go through not just the planning processes but, in particular, the environmental aspects of many of these things”. I cannot help but say in that context that we need that investment as soon as possible, both because we will need the energy and because it will be an opportunity to help to kick-start the economy.
I also observe that it is my children’s generation that is paying for this. Housing is hugely expensive in this country, in essence because supply is limited. That is particularly relevant in Birmingham South, obviously, though not so acutely relevant in other parts of the economy.
I agree with a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has just said. It is certainly the case that the reason why a lot of infrastructure investments are so much more expensive in this country is the add-on costs; it is not because the construction costs are hugely more.
I also observe that the great buildings of this country were all built before planning existed. I cannot say that planners had a pretty good track record in the 1960s and 1970s, when they positively encouraged a load of rubbish buildings, most of which are mercifully now rotting because they are flat-roofed and built of concrete, and if they have not already been demolished, they soon will be. I then swing back and say, “I see what has been done in the past 10 or 20 years with a lot of city centres; in terms of much more attractive buildings, there has been a significant renaissance”. So both sides have it.
I see that the Government are trying to set a sensible middle course, both to help the economy and, in particular, to encourage localism. I am a great supporter of localism, and in a sense I say, “Get it right or wrong but basically it’s likely to be a better decision if it’s made locally than by a civil servant in Whitehall”.
I want to comment on the experiences of two of my children, who are at the stage of settling down. One has settled down rather late, at nearly 40, and the other is a lot younger. One is in Islington and one is in Kensington and Chelsea, and both have scraped together every penny to buy what were built as artisan cottages, pretty small but perfectly nice. The case of Islington in particular makes me seethe with anger. There is this appalling bossy-boots planning officer going around saying, “Don’t bother to apply for this or that; I’m only going to approve this or that”, and stupidity in terms of the requirements for the interior of the building. I can see the logic of keeping the exterior entirely sympathetic, but when it comes to the interior—“No, you can’t open this wall up”; “When you’re replastering, you can use only original lath and plaster”; and, “No, you can’t raise the height of the roof so it won’t show from the front but it’ll give you a bit more space at the back”. There is a stupid little box room on the roof that is useless for anything but has been deemed to have been a maid’s room and therefore to be historically important. There are hundreds of thousands of these sorts of houses all over the place; there is nothing architecturally unique about them. It is hugely intrusive for—to speak candidly—planning officer bullies to go around frightening young people in particular about why they cannot do with the inside of their houses what they would like to. This has gone far too far, and I can scarcely contain my fury at what these young people have to put up with. They have to spend a fortune on planning, let alone on what the houses cost in the first place. Conservation areas, again, are a great idea. You do not want to spoil areas. In essence, you want more Grosvenor Estates, and you want what happened to Bloomsbury. That is a point readily taken. The requirements being practised in terms of the insides of buildings are wildly beyond the pale and excessively intrusive.
This is a useful debate. To sum it up, you need to look at different times from both ends of the telescope in terms of the good and the bad. We certainly have done better with our heritage than have Rome, Paris and America. However, do not forget the price and do not be too heavy in imposing on people’s ability to at least do what they want with the insides of their houses.
My Lords, despite the short and unexpected notice for this debate, it has turned out to be comprehensive and fully informed on a subject of considerable importance. We have had some high-quality input from a range of noble Lords, some expressing their concerns with the direction of government policy. We have heard, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Best, some expansive thoughts on housing finance and how the Government might get further leverage from the system that we have. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, touched on the issue of decentralisation of planning fees; he is right that that is something that we are considering tomorrow with the SI. From reading the Hansard of the other place, the Minister did not take it off the agenda for some future progress. That is probably encouraging.
My noble friend Lord Berkeley brought to bear his expertise on nationally significant infrastructure projects, explaining the gaps that are still in the system if confidence is to be built with investors. I was rather sorry that he chose to talk about bats rather than airports, because I have some knowledge of the latter and none of the former.
It was not many months ago that we were debating the Government’s new approach to planning, encompassing the National Planning Policy Framework, neighbourhood planning and the duty to co-operate in replacing the regional spatial strategies. Noble Lords will recall that the draft NPPF drew fire from all sides, causing chaos and initial inertia in the planning system. However, to their credit, the Government did listen to the powerful cases made and the resultant NPPF is certainly a considerable improvement on the original. The noble Baroness said that it had garnered accolades from across the spectrum of organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, called it an unqualified success. I am bound to say that it does not address all our concerns, despite that. We support the strengthening of the definition of “sustainable development” in the NPPF along with the five principles of sustainable development, although there is still some lack of clarity over how local authorities will have to apply this. It is not strong enough on prioritising brownfield development, a point stressed by my noble friend Lord Judd. There are no effective strategic planning mechanisms, no vision for England bringing together housing, economic development and infrastructure; my noble friend Lord Beecham made this point. It potentially downgrades the importance of affordable housing.
We strongly agree with the plan-led approach being at the heart of the system, but consider the 12-month transitional period to be too short, especially given the struggles of cash-strapped local authorities. As supporters of neighbourhood planning, we were concerned that the lack of resourcing presented risks that this will become the domain of the better off. However, I am bound to say that I am encouraged by the numbers that the Minister gave us.
However, the NPPF captures what we would support as the essence of a fair planning framework: contributing to building a strong economy while supporting strong communities and contributing to protecting and enhancing our environment. These mutually dependent roles are underpinned by local engagement and with the local plan as the means for local people to empower and shape their surroundings. My noble friend Lord Judd expressed that in much more powerful terms than I can manage. The noble Lord, Lord Flight, recognised that in the way he called it looking through two ends of the telescope.
However, there is a fundamental concern about whether the reduction of the NPPF to just 50 pages will bring greater clarity to the system overall. We fear not, especially when there has been some lack of clarity around ministerial announcements that planning policy guidance notes and planning policy statements are to be abolished; then they are not; and then they are to be reviewed. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is expected to complete his review. The concern of many is that the brevity of the NPPF, coupled with the vagueness of language, will increase uncertainty, leading to more appeals and, as some have argued, a lawyers’ paradise.
The Government have set great store in the demise of regional spatial strategies, arguing that the top-down approach negated local commitment and engagement. This was to be achieved eventually by a two-stage approach, as a result of a late amendment to the Localism Act. In a Written Statement, slipped out on 25 July just before the Summer Recess, we learnt that the Government were going to have to undertake further consultation on updated environmental reports, starting with a report relating to the east of England. Will the Minister let us know the position on all the environmental reports and the status of each of the regional spatial strategies? Do we have any evidence as yet as to how extensively the duty to co-operate is working in practice? The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, was certainly enthusiastic about the progress that he had heard.
The ink is barely dry on the Localism Act and the Government are back beating the drum of,
“unnecessary bureaucracy in the planning system”,
hindering sustainable growth. As we have heard, their new approach is reflected in part in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which had its Second Reading in another place today. We consider it to be a knee-jerk response to the Government’s panic over lack of growth and that it fails to address the root cause of the Government’s economic failure or the housing crisis.
When the then Planning Minister, Greg Clark, commended the finalised NPPF, he said that it would support growth and allow “communities back into planning”. Seven months on we have this new Bill, which, as the CPRE states,
“marks a dramatic shift away from the Government’s commitment to localism”.
It would give unprecedented powers to the Secretary of State to strip any authority which is deemed to be failing of its planning powers so that developers could have their applications decided by the Secretary of State without ever being reviewed by the local authority. Seemingly—perhaps the Minister will confirm this—failure will be based on the number of decisions overturned on appeal and the length of time taken to decide applications. Would this have regard to circumstances where a planning performance agreement is entered into which would extend the time norms to ensure, to the benefit of the developer and the planning authority, that a proper assessment can be made of the case? Despite all the rhetoric about localism, this Government are proving to be a centralising Administration at heart—no one more so than the Secretary of State at CLG. I think that we heard concerns expressed to this effect by the noble Lord, Lord True.
This attack on local planning authorities seems particularly unreasonable given the dramatic cuts that they have endured to their budgets, which were made worse by the pressures from the inadequately funded local council tax schemes and which we have debated extensively recently. But the assertion that it is the planning system which is the root cause of poor growth and the housing crisis does not bear examination. Is it not the case, as the LGA has stated—the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and my noble friend Lord Beecham reiterated the statistics—that there is a building backlog of 400,000 new homes for which planning permission is extant but building has not yet commenced? Builders are not building because people are not buying and banks are not lending.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to the possibility of hoarding sites by developers. Last year, councils approved 87% of all planning applications with over 90% of these being determined within 26 weeks. What additional resources are to be made available to the Planning Inspectorate to carry out these duties? It has the responsibility of the abolished Infrastructure Planning Commission and the examination of draft CIL charging schedules, as well as the examination of local plans. We can add the designation of failing local authorities to its workload and the determination of applications going to the Secretary of State.
The Bill will also enable developers to appeal against affordable housing requirements of Section 106 agreements, notwithstanding that local authorities can already amend these by agreement. It is illustrative of government thinking that it is only the affordable housing contributions of such agreements which can be appealed in this way. We strongly oppose this measure, which will lead to fewer affordable homes when we need more. The Government’s promise to deliver homes for first-time buyers and young families looks shallow indeed when they have cut the budget for affordable housing, increased the threshold for rented affordable housing up to 80% of market rents and are now decreasing the obligation on developers to build such housing. Can the Minister give us an estimate of not only how many sites are currently stalled due to commercial viability but specifically the number that are stalled due to affordable housing requirements?
Yet a further centralising change in planning policy relates to the proposed extension to the major infrastructure planning regime to include business and commercial projects. It would appear such projects would not necessarily have to be of proven national significance, nor be of a nature covered in a national policy statement, but perhaps the Minister will put us right on this. The process would certainly bypass the local community and the local planning authority. What is the possible justification for this? The Planning Officers Society has commented that,
“there is no evidence that going down the major infrastructure route would be any quicker than applying to the local authority, given that over 90% of applications are being determined within target”.
Can the Minister provide such evidence?
During the passage of the Localism Bill, we considered the operation of the town and village green provisions and the extent to which they were being used to thwart development. Although there may have been a number of cases in which legislation could have been wrongly used to prevent unwarranted development, we would question whether this warrants a heavy-handed change in the law such as that provided in the infrastructure Bill. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Best, believed that that was the right way in which to proceed. There are, of course, other changes in the pipeline outside of the infrastructure Bill. We have had the announcement of the three-year extension of permitted development rights following a consultation. However, the consultation has not yet appeared, and there seems to be a little local difficulty within the coalition. Given the comments of the noble Lord, Lord True, this evening, I suspect that the little local difficulty extends beyond the coalition. Will the proposal ever see the light of day?
The Government have not announced any proposals to change the law in relation to protection of the green belt, although they are encouraging local councils to use existing laws to review and tailor the extent of green-belt land in their local areas. The reward for doing so appears to be some prioritising of local plan submissions. Can the Minister give us any feedback on the extent to which councils are actually doing so?
In planning, as in so many other areas of government policy, confusion and contradiction abound. The policy is thrashing around to try to find a solution to growth without focusing on the real causes of weak growth. Along the way, it is undermining a planning system which emerged from a robust process, including a parliamentary one, for which a consensus was broadly intact.
My Lords, as I expected, this has been an interesting and challenging debate at short notice, and I am very grateful to everybody who has been able to take part. We have covered a fair amount of ground today on all planning aspects.
I would like to start with the extremely thoughtful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on the conflict, if there is one, between country openness and the town. I reassure the noble Lord that we are as interested and concerned about open spaces and those parts of the countryside where planning permission should not be granted as those places where it should be granted. The NPPF contains policies on agriculture, farms, open spaces, areas of outstanding natural beauty, the green belt and national parks. It is all there and the expectation is that those policies will continue. I recognise exactly what the noble Lord is saying. We cannot grant planning consent all over the place. We must have areas where people are free to learn about agriculture, if nothing else, and to grow our food. After all, that is what we will need in the future. The noble Lord made a very adroit speech.
This is as good a moment as any to pick up on the fact that the noble Lord mentioned the green belt. As I have tried to say, policies on the green belt are in place. We have made it abundantly clear that councils are in control of the green belt and always have been. It is up to them to determine the boundaries of it. That has not changed. However, the expectation is that the amount of green belt will not change. The previous Government said that they had increased the green belt although there was a fair amount of eating into it from time to time. However, now and in the past other areas of green belt have been established. We have to ensure that there is green belt round the major city areas so that there is space between cities to provide the openness that we have described. The green belt is still a major policy of the Government.
I always expect the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, to be challenging, but there we are. This Government are not viscerally opposed to planning, nor are we opposed to affordable housing. A number of noble Lords have tried to indicate that we are against affordable housing. That is manifestly not the situation. We have made it clear from the outset that we recognise the need for affordable housing. The policies we have put forward are all about trying to ensure that more affordable housing is available. We will continue to put forward such policies. It is absolutely right that we need growth as much as anything else to ensure that people have houses in which to live and in the right areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, who I see is back in his place, referred to an article in Private Eye. I do not know what that article was about and, frankly, I do not care very much. At present, there are more than 1,400 stalled sites with 75,000 units of affordable housing across the country. We have talked about renegotiating Section 106 and making sure that land, which the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to as land retained in land banks, is freed up. We cannot go on having great chunks of land on which housing could be built being retained. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, wishes to intervene but I hope that he will let me finish as I have a very short time in which to speak. I accept that not all the housing which is approved is affordable housing. A great deal of housing is for shared ownership or ordinary private housing. However, there are 1,400 stalled sites and 75,000 units of affordable housing across the country. We need to unlock that as soon as we can.
There are 1,400 sites with 75,000 units on them. It does not necessarily say that they are stalled for any reason. They need to be unlocked to get that housing out but there may be other things that are also tied up with it as well. However, that is the number of units that we know could be built.
To move as quickly as I can through this, there have been a number of comments about the extension of permitted development rights for homeowners. Rather than go into a whole diatribe about that, I can confirm that a formal consultation on it is about to come out. I know that there is a variety of views on this and we will receive those views under the consultation. The purpose is to enable people who want to extend a little bit and just want to make residential improvements. We know that there are almost 200,000 applications for residential improvements for things such as conservatories or small extensions which actually do not upset anybody very much. As one would expect, they would be expected to discuss the applications with their neighbours. As always, there are protected areas. Those protected areas are within the general permitted development order and include conservation areas, national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest.
I will come back to the noble Lord, Lord True, in a minute; he was asking about exceptions to this. I know that I have the answer to that within my hundreds of notes here and perhaps I can dig it out before we get to the end.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, raised a number of questions. He made the point that the proposals would result in poorer design and use-of-space standards for buildings. The National Planning Policy Framework makes it clear that good design is absolutely essential and that is part and parcel of any discussion that people will be having on planning approvals.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, along with a number of other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, made the point that the Local Government Association has, perfectly reasonably, pointed out that a lot of authorities are working extremely well and efficiently. Sometimes when they are not getting planning approvals in a certain length of time there is a perfectly good reason for it. Our proposals to extend some of the areas under the growth Bill will affect only those authorities where it is perceived that they really are not trying. No one would deny that there are certain councils which are very slow, not because they are negotiating or for other reasons. They are just very slow. We hope that the proposals in the growth Bill will encourage them to quicken up and provide a bit of an edge to move forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, was very kind to start with about the Bill though it veered off a little bit. I am beginning to know the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, very well: he fights a sturdy battle. He also made the perfectly reasonable point that the lack of housing development was not entirely due to lack of permissions. A lot of it is due to the economy and the fact that money is not available and not being lent in the same way. However, it is important that those permissions are there because there will come a time when it will be necessary to move them on. While it is an issue, it is not the total issue.
As regards Section 106, the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, also talked about overriding original agreements. As he and others rightly said, councils are free to reconsider the Section 106 agreements on a voluntary basis at any time. As with all things, we would rather that councils did this and did not have to be encouraged to do so. However, we found that 80% of councils would be willing to negotiate, but we want to ensure that this good practice is as widely spread as possible. Again, there is no undermining of what local authorities can do, but there is an expectation that the best should be followed by the least good, and that the least good should be encouraged by legislation to get on with it—if I can put it that way.
The noble Lord also commented on the process whereby some applications should be sent directly to the Planning Inspectorate. Once again, we are back to the limited number of authorities that do not act within a reasonable time, are slow with planning decisions and turn down some applications for no good reason. These delays are bad for communities and the economy. This measure will deal with the places where planning is not effective and local councils do not deal swiftly and effectively with applications. The powers are a last resort. We hope that they will not have to be used and that we can get enough encouragement through what I was going to say was the threat of legislation—although it will be there—to enable councils to get on and deal swiftly with planning applications.
As regards the points made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, on town and village greens, I agree that we made a promise some time ago that we would put such provisions into legislation. There has been misuse of the main proposition regarding town and village greens, and bits of land were suddenly becoming part of mischievous objections—as I think they were called—to applications regarding town and village greens. Again, that issue will be dealt with, and it is important that we should do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, said correctly that, as with all planning for economic growth and development, leadership is required from local authorities. I know that many take that position and lead in the right way. However, some need a little encouragement to do so.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, for his kind support on most things to do with planning, but I have answered his points about getting on with it. However, the important matter he mentioned, as did the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, was the collaboration with local enterprise partnerships. The provisions on collaboration in the Localism Bill were pretty wide. They concerned next door councils being consulted on any applications that were cross-border, but of course there was the expectation that the public services will respond quickly to any of the requests put to them.
Local enterprise partnerships are the new scene. They are finding their way gradually and becoming quite a force in the way in which the land is dealt with. I totally agree that they need to be kept fully involved in what is going on and encouraged to take the necessary stance to ensure that the planning in their area is as well co-ordinated as it can be.
The noble Lord, Lord True, asked me why we have dropped the commitment to guard against garden grabbing. I am interpreting this as a sort of roundabout way of saying that he was objecting to extensions. The noble Lord knows, as I do, that we have already ruled out in the previous policy change the ability of local councils to class gardens as brownfield sites. They are not; they are now considered to be greenfield sites and therefore they are subject to planning permission and people cannot just build a mega building in their back gardens. I want to make it clear that garden grabbing is not allowed now and I am not sure whether I accept his point about extensions being garden grabbing although I think it is a neat way of raising the problem.
The noble Lords, Lord True, Lord Best and Lord Jenkin, were all concerned about the change of use between commercial and residential property without the need for planning permission. They specifically asked whether there were going to be exemptions to that. We have made it clear that there are areas where that form of development would be inappropriate and that local councils will be able to opt out. The national policy strongly supports business needs, and local councils should meet the need for offices and other business uses in full. They are not compromised by limited site availability but if there are proposals to change from commercial to residential then, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, that will affect such places as the City of London. I can give more information on how that can be done and how they can opt out in due course.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for smiling a little about the bats. I was not taking that for granted at all and I know that there are serious points to be made about natural habitat. I think his main point was the delay to major infrastructures. I can confirm that the national infrastructure planning system is starting to work and the national network, NPS, which he raised, is in the process of developing a high-level transport strategy. It may not quite be the firm answer that he wanted but it is as near as I am able to get.
The noble Lord, Lord Flight, referred to overzealous heritage controls. There are some areas with grade I listed buildings and others where local authorities will have to hang on to what goes on inside properties but that is not so for all properties. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke about the green belt and I hope I have dealt with that.
We shall reflect on what has been said and if any questions have not been answered I will do so in writing to all Members. If I do not write it is because I do not think that the questions are there. If the questions are there I shall make sure that there is a response. I wish to thank everyone for taking part in the debate which I have found extremely useful.