We have made many improvements to the planning system in recent years. We expect to make an announcement shortly about our conclusions on the future of the structure and local plan system.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the planning system is failing to prevent the over-development of our countryside and failing to encourage development in the inner cities, where we want it? Does she also agree that at the moment our planning system is developer-driven and is allowed to be driven by bodies such as Consortium Developments? Will she now look at the task of revising the planning circulars?
Later today we will give the House details of two new series of planning policy guidance and mineral planning guidance notes that are published today. I do not wish to anticipate the detailed written answer that will be given later, but the purpose is to make our planning advice clearer and more accessible. That should increase certainty for developers and others, and I think that it will be widely welcomed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the interests of good planning, the views of local people should be taken into account, and that the way to take them into account is to listen to what locally elected representatives have to say to the local planning committee? Again and again planning applications are overturned on appeal, and that is disillusioning for elected councillors, who are doing their best for local people.
I have read with interest my hon. Friend's views on changes in the planning system, which were published in "This Pleasant Land". I do not think that everything he proposes is practical or desirable, but there is widespread agreement about the need to encourage development in urban areas and to protect our countryside as much as possible. It is encouraging that nearly half the land for house building is now found from reused sites or vacant urban areas. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to "The Future of Development Plans", which was published by the Government in September 1986.
Is the Minister aware that the argument on the Tory Benches will make very interesting reading? It seems that the two strong interests within the Tory party — first, City financiers and developers and, secondly, farmers and those who represent the rural interest—are having a battle royal. Opposition Members, happily, are in favour of planning, but I must say that we look on this skirmish with more than a little amusement.
I cannot comment on any specific proposal for a new settlement for which an application may have been made, or is being prepared. [HON. MEMBERS: "No one asked the hon. Lady to do so."] The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned new consortia.
The argument is basically about the green belt. We have made clear how important we consider the green belt and its protection against inappropriate development. We have gone so far as to say that if developers propose schemes that are manifestly inappropriate in the green belt and there is an unnecessary planning inquiry, they risk an award of costs against them. I remind the House that the area of approved green belt has been more than doubled since 1979, from 1·8 million acres to 4·5 million acres.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposals, when they come forward, need to include developments by gipsies? Does she recall, from correspondence that I have had with her on behalf of Taunton Deane borough council, that the borough council and my constituents are embarrassed and affronted by the fact that, under existing regulations, gipsies may make developments which other citizens are prohibited from making?
Whether or not we have a new planning Act, what is the purpose of planning controls if the present Secretary of State for the Environment, having followed the procedures, then overrules the decision of inspectors? That has happened twice recently. The first instance was in Cumbria, at North Stainmore—an area of outstanding natural beauty — when the right hon. Gentleman overruled the inspector's report from the inquiry and allowed the Ministry of Defence access to and use of land, against the inspector's specific recommendation. More recently, in county Durham, when the inspector reported that it would be entirely against the environmental interests in the area to allow an application for opencast mining, the right hon. Gentleman again acted contrary to the inspector's recommendations and report.
What is the purpose of any planning controls, when that sort of thing is going on?
We have made it absolutely clear that we have no intention of dismantling any planning system. Our approach is purely to simplify and improve the system. Every application is decided on its merits. The inspector's role is to advise the Secretary of State for the Environment, and the ultimate decision lies with him.
On the theme of taking local views into account, will my hon. Friend consider the reform of the planning procedures? When local authorities give themselves planning permission for a particular development, should there not be a right of appeal to her Department if, say, 20 or 25 local electors wish for one? Should not local authorities and private individuals be considered on an equal basis in that regard?