Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 11th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 10th Report from the Constitution Committee.
Clause 4: Permitted development rights for changes of use: prior approvals
51A: Clause 4, page 5, line 25, leave out “, or of the Secretary of State,”
My Lords, I should make it clear that this is a probing amendment. The Explanatory Notes to the Bill state that although Section 60(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 enables development orders for physical development to be granted unconditionally or subject to approval of the local planning authority, there is no equivalent conditionality which can be imposed where the development is a change of use. New subsection (2A) rectifies this and states that an order for development consisting of a change in the use of land,
“may require the approval of the local planning authority, or of the Secretary of State”.
The inclusion of the Secretary of State in those potentially needing to approve does not appear to apply where physical development is involved. May I therefore ask the Minister why this additional potential power has been given to the Secretary of State and why there is a disparity between those two situations?
My Lords, I should like to explain why the Government believe that it is both necessary and appropriate to include the Secretary of State within the powers set out in Clause 4. As the Committee is aware, we are keen to free up the planning system from unnecessary constraints to ensure that local planning authorities can focus on the most important planning matters in their respective areas. We want to ensure that economic growth is not suffocated by unnecessary constraints on development that is change of use. We have already announced our intention to allow for the change of use of offices to residential accommodation, measures to make better use of existing buildings, and to make it easier to change use to a new state-funded school. I shall come on to that in a moment. These will be secured through the granting of a permitted development right.
As the Committee is aware, the permitted development right regime is a well understood tool for granting national planning permissions for small-scale development. Indeed, Section 60(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 already provides for the Secretary of State to make a development order containing permitted development rights which require the approval of the local planning authority with respect to certain matters. This allows potential impacts from the development to be managed effectively.
Similarly, Clause 4(1) will allow the Secretary of State to provide that local authorities can ensure that, where permitted development is granted for a change of use, the impacts from that development can be managed sensitively. For example, this could include ensuring that adequate measures are in place to manage the impact of any additional traffic generation or noise created by the change of use.
We are clear that there is also merit in providing that the power within Clause 4(1) applies to the Secretary of State. By doing so, we are providing that the Secretary of State can further prescribe the scope of a permitted development night for change of use within the boundaries of the existing use classes. This could ensure that only those particular uses where additional freedoms would be beneficial, where there are sufficient safeguards and indeed where they would not impact adversely would be permitted. Therefore it would be possible that the effect of a development order could be limited to buildings or categories of building approved by the Secretary of State or other Secretaries of State.
Let me be clear that the Secretary of State’s power in Clause 4 can be used only within the context of a particular permitted development right set out in the development order made by the Secretary of State under powers in Section 60 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Permitted development rights very often have conditions and limitations attached. Clause 4 will enable those conditions to include the approval of matters relating to the change of use by the local planning authority, the Secretary of State or indeed both.
The matters to be approved will be clearly set out in the actual development order. We intend that the power will be used to bring forward our proposed permitted development right to support the creation of new state-funded schools. This will in this instance take account of a decision by the Secretary of State for Education to have considered and committed to the funding of a school. In doing so, we are ensuring that the planning system supports our priority to ensure that every child has an opportunity to benefit from a good state-funded education, something that I am sure the whole Committee wholeheartedly supports. Indeed, in response to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, I am sure that he is aware of a place not too far from his area of Luton—Bedford. I can think of no better words than those of the chairman of Bedford Free School, who said that,
“these new rules would have helped us move into the building quickly and easily, so we could concentrate on a new school that the community and local parents wanted, with an excellent head, in one of the most deprived parts of our town”.
Indeed, that was a very good example of where the actual development of the school was delayed but, had these rules been in place, that would not have been the case. It therefore remains the Government’s view that the creation and development of state-funded schools is strongly in the national interest and that planning decision-makers can and should support the objective in a manner consistent with their statutory obligations.
Clause 4 is a sensible measure and will ensure that development can take place quickly while also managing potential adverse impacts locally. As the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said, this is a probing amendment. I hope that, with the reassurances that I have given, he will be willing to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, the Minister has taken the opportunity to mention in your Lordships’ House a decision recently announced by the Secretary of State. The latest ukase from the tsar of Eland House goes even further in eroding the position of local authorities. The proposal that he has just announced would allow the Secretary of State to grant permitted development status—as I understand it, for a year—during which a planning application would be processed. That seems to be an extraordinary pre-emptive procedure. I cannot think of a precedent for something of that kind. It would be bad enough if it were a final decision. It is ludicrous to pretend that it is a temporary decision because it is almost inconceivable that the Secretary of State, having granted that permitted development, would not end up approving an application even if it had been turned down by the local authority and the matter went to appeal.
It is another example of the Government interfering and intervening in local decision-making, and in this case in a quite unprecedented way. I invite the Minister to indicate the basis on which this change is happening. I know in my own city a sort of school has been established in what are effectively domestic premises. I do not know how big the school is intended to be, but it is certainly not complying with a number of regulations, including of course the planning regulations. While I would not expect there to be many examples of wholly unsatisfactory buildings being used in this way, there clearly is a risk that schools will be encouraged by the order from the Secretary of State to proceed willy-nilly with their proposals, potentially excluding the local authority entirely. If that is what is envisaged in this context, in how many other areas will the Government seek to assume these powers, and with what effect on the local planning system?
My Lords, I saw this only a few minutes ago when I was alerted to it by an e-mail from the Bill team. I congratulate them on doing that, since, along with the Minister’s comments, it gives us the opportunity to debate this under a rather different and less dramatic amendment from that of the noble Lord on the Labour Front Bench.
Having now read the Statement while the discussion was taking place, the proposal that is being put forward seems quite extraordinary. Anything that is announced as a new state-funded school and has the support of the Secretary of State for Education goes ahead outside the normal planning system. That is, I understand, exactly what is being proposed at least for the first year. Presumably it will apply to all of them and not just to those which are said to have had problems opening on time because of delays in the planning system. Once again, we find that if there is a problem with planning—which is presumably caused by something real and is not invented by the planning authority—it is the planning system that is to blame. As the Prime Minister said quite recently, the planners should be removed from the scene. Those were not his exact words, but he said that they should be swept away—that they should get out of the way and let growth commence.
If that is what parts of the Government want, they should be fairly clear and overt about it and we can have debates about it. However, what is happening is that bits are being chipped away here and there. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said that it is eroding the power of local authorities. I would say it severely undermines the whole reason for and purpose of the planning system. If it is to be undermined for somebody who wants to run a small business that does not really affect anybody else, and that person wishes to run that business in very unsatisfactory circumstances—in a condition of squalor—I suppose that is their business. However, we are talking here about schools, children in schools and the people who live in the neighbourhood around schools. Even if it is a small free school, it will inevitably have some impact on the people who live around it.
I read that these changes will be subject to a prior approval process to mitigate any adverse transport and noise impacts. I am not quite sure how that will work. Presumably, if there are adverse noise impacts, they will come under environmental health legislation anyway, but I am not sure how the prior approval process will mitigate any adverse transport impacts and what that means. Perhaps the Minister can explain exactly how that will work.
For everything else that might result from a change of use to a school, not necessarily with changes of any sort to the building, presumably you just close down whatever it was previously and move in. It could have been offices, hotels, residential institutions, secure residential institutions—perhaps they are appropriate for some schools, but I will not comment further on that—or used for assembly and leisure. These uses can be converted overnight to a school without so much as a by-your-leave other than prior approval to mitigate any transport and noise impacts. Surely this is fundamentally wrong. It is stated that in a small number of cases free schools have had to delay their opening because there were planning problems; that may be the case. If there were problems, whatever they were, that suggests that that opening should have been delayed and those problems should have been sorted out, just as with any other change of use that would take place.
The Minister’s Statement, headed “Planning and Schools”, says that the Government believe,
“that the creation and development of state-funded schools is strongly in the national interest”—
—we all agree with that; it is a question of how you create and develop them—
“and that planning decision makers can and should support that objective, in a manner consistent with their statutory obligations”.
I think that is referring to the planning decision-makers, but this proposal would abolish their statutory obligations, at least for 12 months. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said, a free school supported by the Secretary of State for Education which opens without planning permission in the first year has to spend that year getting planning permission. If that planning permission is turned down because the premises are obviously unsuitable to be turned into a school, for whatever reasons, the idea that that will go to appeal and the inspectorate will uphold the decision of the local planning authority is not likely. The inspectorate will get its firm instructions. It is quite clear that the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are in cahoots over this. The planning system is being pushed to one side.
Yet the Statement goes on to say:
“Experience to date has demonstrated that with the assistance of the Education Funding Agency new state-funded schools, and free schools in particular, have been successful in identifying sites that have gone on to secure planning permission”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/1/13; col. 25WS.]
Presumably we can discuss this further on Report, but since we are discussing it now, it seems that at the very least the Minister needs to be clear and tell us how many instances there have been, out of all the free schools which have been set up, of them having their opening delayed because of planning problems? Where is the evidence that this is happening? What is the scale of the evidence, and what were the circumstances in each of those cases? I suspect that there are not very many of them.
This is a shambles. It is a Secretary of State for Education and a Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, as I said, in cahoots, driving a coach and horses through the normal planning system. The problem is that if government policy always trumps good planning, where will it end? It will not end with free schools, it will end with anything that any Secretary of State thinks is a good idea and pushes through, regardless of the effects on the people using the premises and on the local community.
Could I clarify one point in what the noble Lord is saying? He seems to suggest that this is something that the Secretary of State is imposing on a local community, whereas the whole point of free schools is that the demand for them comes from within the community; local parents of local pupils will have indicated their desire to see a school established. Contrary to the notion that this is top-down, this is therefore surely something that supports local people in their local community getting access to the education that they want for their children.
My Lords, I do not think that in this Committee we want to go too deeply into free schools and whether what the noble Lord just said is true or whether other factors are involved and to what extent. Free schools exist and, whether some of us like them or not, they are part of the system now. I am not in any way arguing about that in this Committee because I do not think that it is our business. What seems to be happening, however, is that in certain circumstances, when a proposal for a free school comes forward, whatever the instigation or motivation for it, the Secretary of State is saying that the normal planning system will not apply for at least the first 12 months. That is the problem.
I believe that the two Secretaries of State are clearly in cahoots over this, although people might want to use a slightly less emotive term than “in cahoots”. They are, perhaps, working together across departments, which some of us sometimes complain they do not always do. Nevertheless, they are clearly doing this and saying that in those circumstances the planning system will be set aside. That is obviously what is being said. If I want to set up a free school and Mr Pickles thinks that my free school is a good idea, I will not have to get planning permission before it opens. In the circumstances of a school, with children being educated and with the potential effect of a school on the local community, pushing aside the whole of the normal planning system seems to me to be outrageous.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his support for this amendment and to my noble friend Lord Beecham. When I drafted this amendment it was with a much more innocent approach than has appeared from this debate. It was simply looking at the wording and the disparity between change of use and physical development. However, given the debate that has just ensued, I am very glad that I drafted it. We have yet another example of something that runs through this Bill—an anecdotal approach to a perceived problem in the planning system, with the answer being to circumvent that planning system to deal with it. The issue is not the existence of free schools but their location, and why the normal planning process is not to be applied to that. Although this was a gentle, probing amendment, which I thought we might pass over swiftly with a clear explanation from the Minister, we have opened up something here that we will return to on Report, as well as having some wider debates about permitted development on amendments that come later in the Bill, as we try to remove some of the centralist approach that applies to those amendments and make sure that the local voice is heard.
Perhaps I can reassure the House. A number of issues have been raised and—as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, suggested—we have noted them, which I believe I made quite clear in the Statement. I do not want to delay the House too long but a number of points were made and I think it is appropriate for people to reflect on the responses prior to the next stage of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, referred to the one-year temporary right and how that is doing away with the planning process; that is not the case at all. This is very much geared towards ensuring that a school opens on time, and no planning application for a free school has been refused to date. In response to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, this is not about with doing away with the planning process; it is about making the issue in relation to free schools easier. Bureaucracy exists in the planning process. This is not about wiping away planning permission but ensuring that a local community’s demands are met, as my noble friend Lord Bates pointed out. We are seeking to ensure, through the Bill, that we highlight those barriers that prevent such free schools coming into being at the required time.
As a father myself, I assure the House that if you are planning for your children’s education—as many noble Lords around the House will agree—you want to ensure certainty as to when a school will start and when the term will begin, and these regulations that we are putting in place seek to ensure that that happens. I assure my noble friend Lord Greaves that this is not about going outside the planning system but about permitted development for a year, and does not override the need to secure full planning permission from the local planning authority.
A number of other issues were raised but, bearing in mind that time moves on and we need to press ahead with the Bill, we will write to the appropriate noble Lords about their specific questions. However, I go back to my earlier comments to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. I hope that I have addressed and cleared his initial concerns, and that, given the probing nature of the amendment, he will seek to withdraw it.
Lord Beecham: Can the Minister confirm whether the proposals apply only to free schools or whether, as I read them, they apply to any state schools, which could be academies or local authority schools? A county education authority could go into an urban district that has planning powers and put in a local authority school on the same basis. This is not just for free schools, is it?
My Lords, I thought about that and then thought that the present Secretary of State will not give permission if it is a local authority school. He will say, “No, you’ve got to do it properly and get planning permission”.
I am grateful that the Minister emphasised that the period will be only one year, and I think that we understood that. However, he also said that, to the best of his knowledge, no free school has so far been refused planning permission—those were his words—and, therefore, at least half the answer to the question on how many have been delayed is “none”, at least at one end of the spectrum of being refused. It would be helpful if, when he writes, he can tell us how many free schools—and where they are—it is claimed have been delayed because of what he calls bureaucracy in the planning system. We can then look at them and make our own assessment of whether this extremely draconian measure is in any way justified.
My Lords, when the Minister writes, will he also explain whether there are any circumstances in which, during this protective period, one of these schools could be established but not be in the right place or have the right safety environment for the children there? Can he absolutely guarantee that a school that is established without proper planning permission will uphold all the usual standards?
My Lords, again, this debate widens. I made the point earlier that these are not draconian measures. This is not about two Secretaries of State making policy on the hoof. This is about two Secretaries of State relevant to this issue working together to ensure that we get a policy that works for the local community. The measure applies to any new state-funded school.
As to the question raised by the noble Baroness, I have already alluded to the fact that any new application for any school is subject to the same criteria. Therefore, if the scenario that she indicated has arisen—historically, if it has happened previously and people have had to look at where to locate schools—I am sure that remedial action has been taken. The proposals do not contravene health and safety or issues of security and the safety of children because they are ultimately priorities for any Government of whatever colour or coalition. The measure does not compromise them at all.
I assure any noble Lord who is thinking in that way that while one can never plan for all probabilities, this does not do away with the planning process in terms of the health and safety of children—just to be clear, nor does the issue of free schools negate the role of local planning authorities. They will continue to play a key part in decisions on the location of schools. Let it be absolutely clear that a new school is only established where a community need is highlighted: our new policy allows people to set up a school in response to local needs.
The Minister is goading me into one final contribution—I apologise to him. Again, I will avoid the issue of free schools themselves, which I do not think is relevant to this debate. They exist and they can be built, but it is a question of the role of the planning system in relation to them.
I am lost for words when the Minister says that this clause will not negate the role of the local authority in deciding the location of these free schools. It clearly will, because they will be set up in a location without the need to get permission from the planning authority. When he writes to us, can the Minister set out what the role of the planning authority will be in relation to a free school? The “prior approvals” process applies to two particular things. Can he tell us exactly how that will operate and, in particular, what the timescale will be; will it be the same as a normal planning application, or will it be a very informal thing? Will he also tell us what will happen if there are strong reasons for opposing the location of a free school after it has been set up and is in operation? Presumably, it will be spending money, perhaps on the building. What will happen if that is turned down subsequently by the local planning authority?
My Lords, I fear that the Minister has raised more questions than he has answered in this debate. We should be clear that, as amended, the provision concerns “change in the use”—requiring the approval of the Secretary of State—and is not limited to free schools or schools. It could indeed be anything at the whim of the Secretary of State. I have absolutely no doubt that, on the basis of the exchanges that have taken place today, we must return to this and constrain this provision in a very meaningful way. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 51A withdrawn.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5 : Limits on power to require information with planning applications
52: Clause 5, page 5, line 38, leave out “be reasonable having” and insert “have”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 52, I shall speak also to Amendments 53, 54 and 55, and clause stand part. I am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lord Tope and that of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, on the first three amendments.
The amendment allows the Committee to discuss the proposals in the Bill to set limits on the powers of a local planning authority to require information from applicants for planning permission. My first two questions are general. First, what is the evidence that this is a significant problem? There seem to be a lot of assertions behind some of the changes in the Bill that this and that are getting in the way of development and growth. There have certainly been complaints—I have heard them from time to time in my own area—from applicants who say that they are being asked for too much information, and that this is slowing things down. So there is anecdotal evidence from applicants that they do not like the amount of information for which they are being asked. However, there is no significant evidence—certainly I have not seen any substantial evidence—that this is a significant problem in many places. We have to ask the Government for more than just assertions and anecdotes about how much of a problem this is. That is my first question: what is the evidence that this clause is needed?
My second question is about whether in this Committee we are wasting our time discussing this. I suspect that we might be. My question is: if this wording is put in the Bill, what difference will it make? Will it make any difference to the amount of information that planning authorities in general ask of applicants in different circumstances? There is already wording in legislation that is very similar to the wording here, including in secondary legislation and in guidance. I suspect that this perceived problem is a chimera, and that in practice this will not make any difference.
The amendments in this group probe one or two things. The Bill states that requests for information must be “reasonable”. Over the years, I—along with quite a few other noble Lords—have put down amendments to different Bills demanding that things should be “reasonable”, in an attempt to get the Government of the day to explain what they mean by their proposals. I remember being told by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is with us today, when I tabled amendments to past Bills, that putting wording about being “reasonable” in a Bill is not necessary—it is redundant and otiose. It should not be in legislation because there is an underlying principle to all legislation that people have to act reasonably. They have to make reasonable decisions on the basis of reasonable evidence. That goes across the whole of the law. Therefore, putting the requirement into a Bill is not something that one should do. Yet here the Government want to put it into a Bill.
What difference would it make? Amendment 55 attempts to define “reasonable”. If the Government want to put in “reasonable”, perhaps they should attempt to define it. In relation to the information that is required, my proposed new subsection states:
“The meaning of ‘reasonable’ in subsection (4A) shall include any information … required as a consequence of any enactment”—
I assume that I will be told that that is not necessary because obviously it would be reasonable—
“and … required as a result of the request of any government departments, government agency or statutory consultee including any other principal local authority that is consulted on the application”.
If this is going to be in legislation, it is very important, if an application is turned down and goes to appeal and the appellant asks for costs on the basis that the local planning authority was guilty of unreasonable behaviour, that the local planning authority should not be penalised in any way as a result of—in effect—having acted on behalf of another body. It may be the district council, it may be the county council or the Highways Agency that wants more information and more work done on highways implications, on a transport plan or whatever. The Environment Agency may want more information about environmental issues such as biodiversity or drainage. On the basis of the information and the decisions made, the inspectorate may decide on appeal that it was wrong and that the information was not a material consideration, should not have been asked for and was not relevant to the application. The local authority should not be penalised on the basis that the Environment Agency or the Highways Agency or another local authority or other statutory consultee has asked for this information. Once the local planning authority gets that advice from the Environment Agency it must follow it up. If it does not it will be dragged through the media for being irresponsible.
Amendment 53 concerns the issue of reasonableness again. The Bill suggests that information should be asked for,
“only if it is reasonable to think that the matter will be a material consideration”.
It is the local planning authority that makes that decision so I suggest that the Bill should read,
“if the local planning authority thinks”,
it should be a material consideration.
Amendment 54 is strangely worded, in my view. It suggests that if,
“the matter will be a material consideration”,
then particulars should be asked for. In many cases it is known to be of material consideration, which is why the information was requested, whereas in other cases it is marginal; the local planning authority will not be sure whether or not it is going to be a material consideration. It asks for the information, partly to find out whether it is material to that application. I suggest that instead of saying that it “will” be of material consideration the wording should be that it “is likely to” be of material consideration. Clearly, if it has nothing to do with the application the local authority should not be asking for that information anyway.
It is alleged that many local planning authorities are asking for all kinds of information. For example, when considering an application for a sports stadium the local authority should not ask for the football results of the teams that will be playing there; this is not a material consideration. However, the number of people attending, how they are going to get there and the effect of floodlighting on the neighbourhood clearly are material considerations. There are marginal issues which may or may not be and this clause goes over the top. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I would like to reaffirm some of the points we have just listened to. The provisions of Clause 5, which seek to limit the power of local planning authorities to require information in association with planning applications, seem to be not only unnecessary but pernicious. I am at a loss to understand their provenance. As has been suggested, the key word that reveals the drift of the thinking is “reasonable”. The Bill enjoins planning authorities to limit their demands for information to those that are reasonable. The implication is an aspersion that, hitherto, there has been a significant number of unreasonable demands for information. Where is the evidence that would support such an aspersion? I am sure there is no such evidence.
Rather than relating to the practice of planning, the clause seems to relate to a prejudice against the planning process. As such, it seems to accord with the general tenor of this Bill, which has little or no grounding in facts or in evidence. Perhaps the worst aspect of this clause, as has been suggested, is that it gives no indication of how judgments would be made of what is reasonable and what is not reasonable. The consequence of this is that it invites planning applicants to withhold information on the spurious grounds that it is unreasonable to request it. A licence to behave in this way would surely wreck the planning system. One can fairly ask the Minister whether that is indeed the intention of the Bill.
My Lords, I am totally supportive of this clause, but I am vague about how it will work as it is without any form of back-up information. It may be my ignorance of the planning system because I come to it from, as it were, the other side of the desk as an applicant rather than a local authority or planning officer. I am particularly concerned about small developments in rural areas, and here I ought to declare an interest for the purposes of this Committee as a farmer and landowner.
In many rural areas, which are of course underfunded as the result of an unfair and imbalanced central government funding system, planning departments have inadequate resources, staff and expertise. I believe that some local planning authorities are reluctant to engage in pre-application advice; indeed, they cannot afford to do so. I am concerned about the first encounter with the local planning authority for small applicants when they submit an application. It is likely that they will find themselves having to pay, say, 30% to 50% of the costs of a project—we must bear it in mind that these are small projects worth £50,000 or even less—in order to conform with the demands made by the local planning authority in terms of reports and consents. The project, of course, is also greatly delayed because they have to get all the answers needed to complete these reports. It seems to me that the belt-and-braces, tick-box approach applied by local planning authorities is not necessarily in order to cover themselves in case of a comeback on the result of an application, but all too often because they lack the expertise within the department to know what is relevant. That is why they take a belt-and-braces approach. The fact that, due to the costs, a small project is killed before it even gets off the ground is often the cause of a secret sigh of relief in an overworked and underfunded local planning authority. In these circumstances, you have to ask yourself where our much-needed development will come from.
In my experience when talking to councillors—I have never actually been a councillor—I have found that few of the reports that are asked for are read by the members of the planning committee. One might say that that is fair because they are reported by the planning officers who know all about them, but even that is not necessarily always strictly accurate. I have known reports to be asked for by planning officers which are already in the file; in other words, the officers have not read the file. I have some questions. How is an underfunded rural local planning authority without knowledge and expertise to apply this clause? How will an overworked planning officer apply it to the multitude of different sorts of application that he has to deal with in a rural area? Is this clause all there is? Should there not be more guidance, which is what I would really like to see?
As I say, it may be perfectly clear to those who have worked for a local planning authority and are used to being on the other side of the desk, but it seems that we need a bit more detailed guidance. However, I repeat that I am totally supportive of this clause.
My Lords, perhaps I can help the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. Lots of guidance on this issue is already available. I believe that Clause 5 is unnecessary in what, if I may say so, is a pretty unnecessary Bill, so I support the amendments, particularly Amendment 55 and, indeed, the proposal that the clause should not stand part of the Bill.
As I say, quite a lot of guidance is already provided in the NPPF to local authorities on information requirements, and we need to allow some time for that to bed in before taking any unnecessary legislative steps to control local authorities in the information that they may seek. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, it is possible to see what the evidence is that local authorities are being overly prescriptive and requiring information that is otiose, irrelevant or unreasonable. I have had experience across the planning system, mostly from the point of view of organisations requiring information from applicants through local authorities, and I would say that it is the lack of information, or delayed or poor quality information, which creates uncertainty and causes delays that result in poor quality decisions and make it virtually impossible for other interested parties to have a full and fair view of the impact of an application. That is particularly true for some of the environmental requirements that local authorities seek from planning applications.
With regard to “reasonableness”, I am sure the Minister will say that reasonableness is reasonable, but that the wording removes from the local authority the ability to be the final arbiter, to be in the driving seat and to be able to reduce the level of uncertainty that can cause these adverse consequences for decision making. It would be much wiser to allow the guidance that has been issued so recently time to work through in order to see whether local planning authorities are making overly onerous information requirements. If they are, the guidance should be tightened because this issue is much more appropriate for guidance than for primary legislation.
It is interesting that the Royal Town Planning Institute is against Clause 5. Even the Law Society, while supporting Clause 5, quite rightly notes that careful guidance will be needed to avoid this provision becoming a new judicial-review weapon for third parties to stall developments. As an old hand at judicial review as a weapon to stall developments, I would not like to think that we were creating more opportunities to do that.
The noble Baroness, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Hanworth have done a pretty effective demolition job on this proposal, without the benefit of planning permission.
Another issue arises from the impact assessment. That impact assessment purports to make another part of the case for the Government’s proposals, which relates to costs. On page 29 of the impact assessment, there is an analysis of the:
“Estimated savings for applicants under a central scenario assuming 10% reduction in costs”.
For the 347,800 annual applications, that comes down to something like £54.8 million, on the basis of a 10% reduction in costs. That is the net present value. The costs are £54.8 million and because of some mysterious rounding of the figures, the savings purport to come out to £6.5 million. It might be thought that that is not an inordinately vast sum of money in the scale of things, but it is perhaps worth saving if one could get it.
However, within that, it is significant that for major developments for dwellings, the annual savings would be £1.4 million, so it is hardly a material factor in holding up house building in the country. For a major development—not dwellings—the annual saving is even less, £0.9 million.
Where does the 10% figure come from? Why is 10% applied across the piece? Are the Government really suggesting that information required for a householder development, for which the savings per application are deemed to be all of £69 each, somehow will be of the same percentage order as those for a major development? That strikes me as highly unlikely. This seems to be a bogus figure plucked out of thin air to provide some sort of financial justification for this measure. In addition, the impact statement goes on to say that the Government intend:
“to introduce complementary changes to secondary legislation, which will have the effect of re-introducing a right of appeal where a council has failed to validate an application”—
presumably inter alia but not necessarily exclusively on the ground of lack of information—
“and the statutory time limits for determining a planning application has passed. This will address the impact of recent court decisions that have challenged the Planning Inspectorate’s ability to consider such appeals”.
If this is a significant issue—the Government appear to think that it is—why is there no amendment to the Bill? Why is it being done in the form of secondary legislation, which, of course, cannot be amended if it comes before your Lordships’ House? From time to time, the Government take opportunities to add things to Bills, sometimes in considerable numbers. Why is this matter not being added to this Bill but being left to secondary legislation?
My Lords, we have signed up to most of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, but did not sign up to his definition of “reasonable”, simply because one of his other amendments sought to delete that term from the Bill, which we thought was a better solution. Along with the noble Lord, we consider that the clause is superfluous, or unnecessary or pernicious, to use the terms of my noble friend Lord Hanworth. Again, we see a measure which is based on assertion and anecdote rather than on hard evidence.
The Government launched a consultation document entitled Streamlining information requirements for planning applications on 3 July last year, which they closed on 11 September. When are we going to get the Government’s response to that consultation? Will it be before or after Report? Interestingly, the consultation states:
“There is no immediate vehicle for further reforms to primary planning legislation”.
That was back in July and it somewhat reinforces our contention that this Bill has been cobbled together in pretty short order. The consultation focuses on three areas: outlying planning permissions; local informational requirements; and agricultural land declarations. In respect of local information, which, effectively, is dealt with in this clause, the document cites that, although the primary powers of local authorities in this respect are broad, they are constrained, in particular by the publication of local information equivalents and the evidence and particulars regarding what is required and by national policy requirements that state that,
“local planning authorities should only request supporting information that is relevant, necessary and material to the application”.
This is what the procedure order requires, as does the related guidance. The consultation document muses that recent changes, including the NPPF, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the demise of regional spatial strategies, will mean that the information requirements of local authorities are likely to be out of date and should be updated every two years. However, it is clear from this document that, if it is necessary to change the current requirements—for example, with a regular updating of information lists—there are already powers to do this.
This also raises the question of why the policy position set down in the NPPF is not sufficient and why it is considered that primary legislation—available, it seems, after all—is needed. There is already a requirement to be reasonable, so what does Clause 5 add other than confusion? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, that some planning authorities struggle and are under-resourced. However, surely the answer is to make sure not only that they have clear guidance but are supported in their endeavours. It seems to me that this clause does not help them or move them on one jot.
Specifically, from whose perspective does reasonableness have to be judged? Is that not the role of the local planning authority that has to consider the application? At the end of the day, I fear that this clause is, like too many in this Bill, all about adding another bit of pressure on local planning authorities so that they are encouraged to ask for less, to decide more quickly and to avoid risking appeals, so undermining the quality of decision-making. If the noble Lord is minded at a point in time during our deliberations to seek to have this clause deleted from the Bill, we will support him.
Clause 5 amends Section 62 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, just in case that had escaped noble Lords. The clause sets out limits to the general power, under Section 62(3) of the Act, of local authorities to request information in support of planning applications.
There has been some debate today about why the clause is necessary. The department published the consultation paper on 21 January—indeed noble Lords’ attention has been drawn to it—and I hope that provides some reassurance on this point. With regard to the other consultation paper that was concluded in September, the Government’s response was provided on 12 December, so a response has been made. The consultation paper demonstrates how the provisions in the Bill form a critically important part of a wider package of deregulatory measures brought forward with the purpose of simplifying the planning system. As well as ensuring a better alignment between the National Planning Policy Framework and the primary legislation that governs information requests by local authorities, the consultation emphasises the need to place limits on the broad power that currently exists in Section 62(3) of the Town and Country Planning Act. This is to address the impact of recent court decisions and ensure that applicants can access the planning appeals system where there is a dispute with the local authority regarding what information is necessary to validate a planning application.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, asked about the interrelationship between the National Planning Policy Framework and this clause. While the NPPF sets out a clear expectation on local authorities through policy, it is alone insufficient to overcome the interpretation given by the courts to the current legislative framework. The clause also safeguards the position of a local authority in requesting information, where a justification exists on the basis that the matter will be a material consideration when it comes to determine the application in question. Overall, I believe this change will bring a more balanced state of affairs whereby applicants and local authorities will work together to establish the amount of information necessary to get a particular planning application validated. Alongside our wider package, the clause will deliver a better and more proportionate approach to information requests and reduce the scope for disputes that can lead to delays at the validation stage.
Amendments 52, 53 and 54 would all considerably weaken the purpose of the clause and the achievement of the objectives I have just set out. Amendment 53 would amend the objective test in Clause 5 of whether a matter will be a material consideration in the determination of the application to become a more subjective test where the primary role is with the local authority to determine whether this is the case. That would undermine our attempt to address the broad powers of local authorities that have been the source of criticism by the courts. Similarly, Amendment 52 would essentially return us to the position that currently exists and has been found problematic: a subjective test decided by the local authority. A local authority would merely have to have regard to the nature and scale of the development when making an information request.
The purpose of requiring such information requests to be reasonable is to ensure that a local authority can justify whatever information it is seeking and can respond, if pressed, as to why it considers applicants should have to go to the often considerable expense of providing it. Presumably, that is something which we all agree is sensible and appropriate. Amendment 54 would continue in a similar vein, by weakening the requirement for local authorities to justify information requests on the basis that it is reasonable to think that they will be material considerations in the determination of the application to a looser requirement that they would be likely to be. Although I can understand the intention behind the amendment, we need to ensure that local authorities are clear, consistent and certain in why they think that information is going to be relevant to the determination of the application in question. Changing the test to “likely” will weaken the effect of this important principle.
Amendment 55 seeks to respond to the criticism that there is no statutory definition of what is “reasonable” by suggesting one. The definition attempts to set out circumstances which could definitively be considered “reasonable”. These would include information requests made by a government department, government agency or statutory consultee. As I have already said, the purpose of including “reasonable” in the tests is to require a local authority to justify why it considers information is necessary for the application to be validated. The likely requirements of a statutory consultee would clearly be a relevant justification as long as they are warranted by the circumstances of an application.
However, a tick-box attitude to the local list—there are indeed local lists of what information would be required—without consideration of the relevance of any particular item for a particular application will not do. Attempting to draw up in primary legislation a definitive list of what is and is not reasonable is not likely to be helpful and could create confusion. The tests that apply are already clearly set out in the NPPF and the clause as it currently stands clearly emphasises this.
What we really want is for local authorities and applicants to think these matters through together and, where differences emerge at validation stage, to have a sensible discussion about what is reasonable in the individual circumstances of the case. The concern that has prompted this change is that the law as currently drafted allows local authorities to refuse to validate planning applications indefinitely and simply to impose information requirements unilaterally on applicants.
In summary, I fully understand and respect the need for us to safeguard the ability of local authorities to request information from the applicant where it is essential to the determination of a planning application. Clause 5 and the associated proposed changes to secondary legislation achieve this. No harm will be created by the requirement for such requests to be justified and, if necessary, enabling matters to proceed to appeal for a decision. Indeed, we consider that Clause 5 will encourage both applicants and local authorities to work more closely together to ensure that the likely impacts of development are fully appraised in the documentation submitted with the planning application in question.
I assure my noble friend that many of us are very much in favour of this clause as it responds to a real need and an articulated concern. The Government have sometimes seemed to have felt that the planning system is a much more powerful deterrent to growth than many of us feel, but this change will be welcomed by those who feel that local authorities often have a standard list of things, whether it is applicable or not. I hope that my noble friend will be able to spread this approach to others, because many institutions, authorities and businesses constantly ask for a lot of information which is totally unnecessary but do it because they always have done. I hope she understands that there is great support for her position on this issue, although some of us are more unhappy about other parts of the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that contribution. I am not sure that I can commit other departments and other parts of government to doing anything, but I am glad of his support for what we are trying to do here. It is important that we get this right. I have been asked for the evidence on which the change is based. Not only have concerns been expressed on the part of the development industry about delays experienced at validation stage and the costs involved but this has been a long-standing issue and was a key theme in the Killian Pretty review, to which I am almost certain the noble Lord referred at Second Reading—somebody did anyway. That review, commissioned in 2008, was of the planning application process. Most recently, the department consulted on proposals to amend secondary legislation to streamline information requirements. It was clear from responses from the applicant community that they wanted us to go further and look at the primary legislative framework, which is what we have done.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, referred to the impact assessment. The savings predicted in the impact assessment are based on a reduction in costs generated by a shift in behaviour as a result of the clause and changes to secondary legislation. Both the clause itself and related changes to secondary legislation are necessary to introduce the ability for applicants to access the appeals system. If I am pressed—which I see the noble Lord is about to do—I will be happy to write to him on the detailed points made.
I have dealt with reasonableness and the impact assessment. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked me about guidance. We are considering further at the moment whether additional guidance is needed. The noble Lord has said that there is guidance, but as new legislation appears, it may be necessary to provide guidance for that. However, discussions about that are taking place.
The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, suggested that we were prejudiced against the planning process. That is not true. We are trying to ensure that the planning process is fair to both sides—to the developers and the planning authorities. The purpose of this clause is to ensure that applicants are not asked for information that is clearly unnecessary for their application. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, quite rightly said that there are requirements from statutory authorities, but those will either be relevant or not relevant. If they are asked for that information and are given it, it will come as part of these discussions.
We want applicants and local authorities to get together and we want them to discuss, as my noble friend Lord Deben said, a list. All local authorities have a list of information which they will require. The danger is that that list becomes an absolutely set piece, and that you have to tick every single thing on it irrespective of whether it is necessary. We would like to prevent that happening further. The NPPF has referred to it. We think that this clause will strengthen the NPPF and that it is relevant and necessary in terms of the planning process.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that very detailed discussion of the amendments and the clause. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have supported the amendments and to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, for raising a slightly different issue, which he himself suggested would not necessarily be solved by this clause. Some planning authorities are finding it difficult to maintain an adequate standard of service at the moment. There is no doubt about that. I am not sure that that is only rural councils. In the past few days I have been told of a council that has only a handful of development control staff. Most small councils are in the same position. The council has reduced the establishment and encouraged people to take redundancy and so on. A high proportion of its few existing staff have got jobs in other places, which means that that authority is now down to one development control officer. That is clearly a fairly parlous position to be in. I am not quite clear how this clause will assist that local authority.
Having listened to the debate, I am coming to the view that, even if I were in any way tempted to seek to divide the Committee on clause stand part today, which I am not, I would be less likely to do so because it is less necessary. The more I think about the clause, and what it does, and listen to the experience of noble Lords around the Committee, the more I think it will not make very much difference at all. It might cause one or two authorities, which take a fairly slapdash approach to this and send a list without thinking about what is on it, to think a bit more sharply. However, in most cases it will not make very much difference. The more I think about it, the more I come to the view that I cannot tell the difference between it being reasonable to think it will and to think it is likely to be. Nevertheless, it was a useful discussion.
I am not sure whether we have an infestation of animals here now. No, my noble friend has dropped a sweet on the floor.
While the noble Lords opposite are rummaging under the Benches, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, might like to comment on the worry of the Law Society that I raised. He seems to be weakening in his resolve about this clause being unnecessary. I would like him to ponder on the fact that the Law Society is worried a bit about it becoming new judicial review territory which, as we know, is a great source of delay in planning applications.
I do take that seriously. If I am weakening, it is as to whether this clause will have any significant effect in practice and therefore whether it is worth while making the effort to remove it. There is lots of legislation which has no real effect in practice; we just accept that it goes through, I am afraid. However, with regard to judicial review, the ordinary applicants, about whom the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, spoke, who might be having a modest expansion to their farm, business or whatever, are not going to go to judicial review. If there is a problem about too much information being required, I suspect it will concern those people. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, is probably right that it is that sort of level of applicant. I do not think the householder applicant who wants an extension will be asked for lots of environmental information, and so on.
The big applications will have to provide the information anyway. If you are building a sizeable new housing estate, you are not going to get away without providing information on all the things that will be on the council’s list because they will include things such as drainage, the impact on the local roads and access into the site. They will want traffic counts and all the rest of it. You are not going to get away without that, whatever this legislation says. I suspect that they are providing all the information anyway and will continue to have to do so, while on the question of judicial review—for the people who would have the resources to go to judicial review—that is not going to happen in practice.
Having said that, I said at the beginning that one of my questions was whether discussing this clause at all is a waste of all our time. I suspect that it is but, nevertheless, I am grateful to everybody who has debated and to the Minister. These are important issues. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 52 withdrawn.
Amendments 53 to 55 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.