Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Thursday 11 June in the House of Commons.
“The Government are committed to maintaining public confidence in the probity of the planning process at all levels, including the Secretary of State’s role in deciding called-in planning applications and recovered appeals. Rightly, Parliament has, through the planning Acts, delegated to local planning authorities the powers to determine things at their level. However, Parliament has also created provisions whereby a small proportion of cases are determined by central government.
The Written Ministerial Statement of June 2008 sets out clear criteria for the use of the powers. For example, some decisions are recovered because of the quantum of housing they involve and thus their potential effect on the Government’s objectives for sustainable communities; others are recovered because of non-determination by the local authority. The involvement of Ministers in the planning system is a very long-established process that is clearly guided by both the published Ministerial Code and the guidance published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on planning propriety, which focuses on the duty on Ministers to behave fairly and to approach matters before them with an open mind.
The vast majority of planning decisions are determined at a local level by local planning authorities. However, as I have said, the planning system provides for decisions to be sent to Ministers for determination, including on the grounds that they involve developments of major importance. In fact, Ministers were involved in 26 planning decisions out of a total of 447,000 planning cases last year. The small number of cases that are referred to planning Ministers for determination are often among the most controversial in the planning system: for example, the 500 dwellings in the Oxford green belt that were recently allowed, and the 500 dwellings in the York green belt that were refused.
Given the nature of the cases before them, it is not uncommon for Ministers to determine against the planning inspector’s recommendation, as has happened in around 20% of cases in recent years. In conclusion, I stress that each planning decision is taken fairly and on its own merits.”
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that he believes in the principle of the rule of law that everybody is subject to the law and no one is above it? How is it justifiable that Mr Jenrick is in his post, having acted so blatantly and having accepted that he acted unlawfully?
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State followed entirely the planning guidelines that were set out by the MHCLG. I do not accept the way that this has been put to me —that he in any way broke the law. He sought to ensure that there was no inference of bias and that the planning decision would be redetermined. That was agreed with the local planning authority in Tower Hamlets and the Mayor of London.
My Lords, I declare my relevant interests as a councillor and vice-president of the Local Government Association.
Failure to declare lobbying, failure to provide reasons for planning decisions and failure to make such decisions in a public session by local planning committees could result in allegations of maladministration. Does the Minister agree that those requirements should also apply to the Secretary of State—and, if so, will the Government disclose all such documents in the Westferry decision process?
Of course these requirements apply to the Secretary of State, but it is absolutely clear that at every step of the way, he disclosed all that he needed to disclose to the department, and that he followed the rules set out in the MHCLG’s propriety planning ethics.
My noble friend will be aware that public confidence in planning appeals and called-in decisions on appeals depends on speedy and independent reports from the Planning Inspectorate. Considerable progress was made last year, following the Rosewell review, in speeding up Planning Inspectorate decisions, but we may have lost quite a lot of that in the last few months. How might the Planning Inspectorate speed up its decisions in the months ahead to give greater confidence in these decisions being made?
My Lords, probity in the planning system is absolutely critical to its function. We are also aware of the delays in making decisions on the part of the Planning Inspectorate. The Secretary of State and Ministers have insisted on the Planning Inspectorate responding to the current environment and delivering decisions from mid-June by virtual means.
Is the Minister aware of another example of what appears to be a breach of the guidance on planning propriety, and less than impartial behaviour by the department? There have been a number of meetings between Ministers and representatives of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, who are in effect appealing to the Minister to permit this controversial project. On 29 October, Mr Jenrick met with the co-chair of the foundation and its QC. The very next day, the foundation, without consulting Westminster City Council, wrote to the department to ask that the project be called in—and, within a week, it was. Was there, at this meeting, any discussion of the application being called in for the Secretary of State’s own determination?
I do not feel that it is appropriate to comment on a live planning application. I am sure that the Secretary of State followed the MHCLG guidance on propriety matters in planning absolutely to the letter and disclosed all that he needed to, in this application and in all the others that he determined.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the probity of the planning system and its integrity rest on the integrity of the Secretary of State? Will he therefore urge his right honourable friend Mr Robert Jenrick to explain why he took the very controversial planning decision on Westferry Printworks on 14 January, the day before the CIL came into force in Tower Hamlets, thus saving the developer £40 million? Why did the Secretary of State then decide to quash his own decision, and why will he not fully and publicly—not just to the Cabinet Office—disclose all correspondence relating to that development?
Let us be clear. It was the letter from the department that was sent out on 14 January. The determination by the Secretary of State was made a considerable time before that—certainly before the end of the year—and the planning application went on to his desk with the planning casework in December. As the noble Baroness will know, only a small proportion of decisions have ministerial involvement. Of the 447,000 applications, we are talking about 26 ministerial decisions, which is a tiny fraction. There are many occasions when the Secretary of State will decide to go against the planning inspector or the local planning authority to encourage the supply side of development—so I do not recognise what the noble Baroness says.
My Lords, I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
Does the Minister agree that cases such as this, in which the judge found apparent bias and ruled against the Government, fuel fears that the country is not being run for the common good, and that the underlying problem is large private political donations? Is not the only way to protect Ministers to ban large private political donations?
This is about the probity of the planning system. It is quite right that currently we do not have taxpayer funding for political parties. All the fundraising by the Conservative Party adheres to the guidelines around donations. Ministers have no part in that. That is a topic for another day, but, regarding probity in this matter, it is absolutely clear that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State followed the guidance on planning propriety, as outlined by the department, every step of the way.
Following on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, I pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust that some dozen years ago took me on an inspirational yet horrifying visit to Auschwitz. However, Victoria Tower Gardens is the wrong place for an educational centre. Again, there is huge local opposition. It would cause congestion and pollution and destroy a precious green space in central London. Will the Minister take back to his department the message that the planning application should be sent back for local decision-making?
I note my noble friend’s point about the strength of feeling locally about the location of this memorial, although I will not comment on a specific planning matter. I am sure that the decision will be determined entirely appropriately and in line with the department’s guidelines on ministerial involvement in planning decisions.
For our planning process to work effectively, it must be transparent, and decisions balanced and fair. However, for the public to read that both the Prime Minister and Mr Jenrick had private discussions with Mr Desmond or his team to sponsor a development worth hundreds of millions of pounds shortly before consent was granted is unacceptable, regardless of any questions of probity. Does the Minister not agree that this case should be reopened and reviewed?
To be absolutely clear, those discussions over the development simply did not occur. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State was seated next to Mr Desmond. That was not of his choosing. The matter was raised by Mr Desmond and the Secretary of State refused to comment on the planning application. The position that we are now in is that to ensure that there is no inference of bias, as I said in a previous answer, this matter will be determined, as agreed, with the Mayor of London and the planning authority for Tower Hamlets.
My Lords, with respect, the Minister has not answered any of the questions put by my noble friends and others. Unless he does so now, will the House and the public not be justified in considering that the £12,000 that Richard Desmond gave to the Tory party at that Carlton Club dinner will be seen as cash for influence?
With respect, I have been absolutely clear that fundraising by political parties is currently highly regulated and all the fundraising issues associated with this have entirely been followed. The Secretary of State was not aware that he was going to be sitting next to Mr Desmond, but made that fact and the fact that he refused to engage in a discussion on that specific planning application known to the department. Therefore, I can guarantee that the Secretary of State behaved with absolute probity and takes his duties as Secretary of State responsible for these planning matters seriously.