I accept that there is a resource scarcity in planning departments around the country. The Government are addressing that problem. We want to incentivise improvements in planning performance by means of our £350 million planning development grant over the next three years, £50 million of which has been disbursed already. I am very pleased that, although the grant is not ring-fenced, many local planning authorities are putting the grant money back into the planning system. Despite the scarcity of resources at local level, the latest figures show that planning performance in all categories is at its highest levels for 10 years. A problem exists, but I am delighted to say that the planning system is responding to it.
We are engaged in preparing further guidance on the availability appraisal, the strategic environmental assessment—the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal will be interested in that—and on monitoring and indicators. We are working with a range of organisations to spread the message about the new system and to train planners in it. Those organisations include the Planning Officers Society, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the British Urban Regeneration Association, and the Town and Country Planning Association. We are engaged in a major programme of communication and training. The aim is to develop knowledge and appreciation of the Government's new proposals, so that planners have the attitudes, skills and resources they need to practise our new spatial planning proposals effectively.
I have attempted briefly to describe the Government's new planning framework and the planning reform agenda. However, I take seriously the Opposition's alternative proposals, and I shall focus on some of the detail.
The task has not been easy, as I have had to study two new clauses that are similar but not identical. In light of the problems clearly experienced by the hon. Member for Cotswold in drafting the new clauses, it is slightly ironic that they are supposed to be a simpler alternative to the Government's, and easier to understand.
Flexibility in revising the local plan is at the heart of the Government's proposals. It is not clear that the new clauses offer that. I was confused by the fact that both new clauses have a plan containing documents. It is not clear whether the local planning authority would be able to prepare or revise one document at a time—and we believe that to be of critical importance, as noted by the hon. Member for Ludlow—or whether it would have to tackle everything at once, with all the problems that we know that that causes. Both new clauses suggest that the authority would not be able to do that. That is a fatal flaw that would perpetuate the problems of the existing system.
One might have expected that the alternative plan would be about planning policies, but I could not see what it was supposed to be about. Although there are various elements that the alternative plan must include, neither new clause says that that plan must set out the authority's spatial or land-use planning policies. As far as possible, there must be a separation between the purposes of real planning and the process by which real plans are put in place.
Admittedly the Opposition's schema—the plan, its document and any changes that the local authority wants to make—will have to go through an independent examination. However, the plan and/or documents will include practical matters too. What these will be depends on which of the new clauses one examines. In new clause 10, the practical matters included are joint working, joint committees, the timetable, and the role that county counties and—oddly, because they are planning authorities—unitary authorities would play. In new clause 19, the list has been cut to joint committees and the role of the counties. Why subject these processes to independent examination? I simply cannot see the justification for such an onerous procedure for any changes to these matters.
The hon. Member for Cotswold has attempted to address that point in new clause 19 by specifying that the examination would consider whether an examination was necessary. Therefore, a proposal that a county council should do something more or different would have to go to an examination, and then the inspector would carry out an examination to decide whether an examination was needed. Perhaps I have got it wrong, but that hardly seems a sensible approach. It would be a barrier to county-district co-operation and partnership. This approach, which mixes real planning with how it will be done, is also incompatible with our plan-led system in which planning applications are determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations dictate otherwise.
The hon. Gentleman accuses the Government of complexity, but he wants every authority to have at least six separate documents or plans within the overall plan dealing with various subjects. The approach to particular planning issues under our proposals is far more sensible.
Let us consider settlements, for example. The core strategy will set out which settlements in a local authority's area will be a focus for new development, such as housing and employment, and will take into account national policy guidance and the regional strategy. It will apply other strategic policies to different settlements, such as restrictions on the scale of growth that can take place in villages in the countryside.