Local Authorities (Planning Departments)

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6 May 1981.

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Photo of Mr Robert Elliott Mr Robert Elliott , Newcastle upon Tyne North 12:00, 6 May 1981

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will advise local authorities to review their staffing establishment in their planning departments.

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Secretary of State for Environment

I am constantly reminding local authorities of the need to review their staffing levels and make reductions in all departments, including planning, if the Government's expenditure targets are to be met. The net effect of the changes that we have introduced to make the planning system more efficient should be a reduction in the overall numbers of staff required.

Photo of Mr Robert Elliott Mr Robert Elliott , Newcastle upon Tyne North

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that ratepayers, particularly in large cities, will welcome any reduction in the extent and scope of planning procedures? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that private firms are being used sufficiently by local authorities in their planning procedures?

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Secretary of State for Environment

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are many opportunities in the public sector, including local government, to use the private sector on a larger scale. I agree that the extent to which local government keeps down rates will have a direct beneficial effect on investment and job creation. One cannot help noticing that Labour authorities are largely bent on increasing rate levels to unjustifiable levels.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , Liverpool Wavertree

Is my right hon. Friend aware that East year about 8,000 houses in the principal towns and cities were demolished because of planning approval, and that at the same time, according to the second land utilisation study, about 60,000 acres of good agricultural lard were destroyed because of urban sprawl resulting from planning decisions? Is my right hon. Friend happy about that arrangement?

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Secretary of State for Environment

My hon. Friend raises two important issues. There is, unavoidably, a certain amount of demolition of old and inadequate housing, particularly in urban areas. There is no way to escape the irreducible minimal destruction that takes place. Wherever possible, we want property to be restored. That is happening with the new freedom that local government has to apportion its housing allocations more to renovation and improvement than to the new build that characterised earlier programmes.

On the second question, I am aware of my hon. Friend's concern about land in the countryside that could be protected if better use were made of urban land. He is aware of the initiatives that have been taken by the Government to put mechanics on the statute book, for the first time, to enable much publicly owned land to be driven into the market place, where more profitable use can be made of it.

Photo of Mr James Dunn Mr James Dunn , Liverpool Kirkdale

Is the Secretary of State aware that, although some of us share his apprehension about what has happened, we hold his Department partly responsible because when a clearance order for demolition is submitted it must always have his Department's permission? Can the Secretary of State assure the House that when planning matters are being considered every effort will be made to ensure the complete impartiality of those who are employed as servants and agents of councils?

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Secretary of State for Environment

I have no doubt that this country enjoys as impartial a Civil Service and local government service as it is possible to find anywhere in the world. I would defend that statement against all arguments. However, we all realise that the demolition of large parts of our inner cities went too far. With hindsight, we should probably have pursued other policies. I believe that we are right to have moved the emphasis away from demolition to rehabilitation.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell , Hemel Hempstead

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the number of planning staff that are required to monitor our elaborate building regulations? Can he say what measures are being considered by his Department to simplify the regulations?

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Secretary of State for Environment

My hon. Friend will be aware of the announcements that we made about the simplification of the planning system and the new regime that we propose to introduce for building regulation procedures. I have not sought to give specific directions to local government about the ways in which it should seek to economise on staff. I have given general directions. I think that it is right for individual authorities to pursue their own staff economies as their local priorities demand. I have no doubt that there is still room for considerable economies.

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Rother Valley

Will the Secretary of State advise his hon. Friend that good agricultural land is consumed and developed, not because of the existence of hundreds or thousands of planners, but because of the demand that exists because agricultural land may be cheaper than inner urban land? The planning legislation is grossly inadequate to afford proper protection for good quality land in many areas.

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Secretary of State for Environment

I do not agree that planning procedures are inadequate to protect land. A rigid system of planning constraint exists, particularly for green belt land—and rightly so—and it is administered by my Department. However, another phenomenon causes even greater concern, namely, that it is easier to use agricultural land because it has few constraints or past dereliction associated with it. Too often we have gone for the easy option of agricultural despoliation, as opposed to reclamation in inner cities, where large acreages of publicly owned land have not been used because of the apparent difficulties of using it. I want to reverse that policy.