With this we may take Lords amendment No. 46 and Government amendment (a) in lieu thereof, and Lords amendment No. 47 and Government amendment (a) in lieu thereof.
I understand that amendment No. 45 was designed to address the concern that, when a local planning authority considers the length of time a planning application should remain valid, it will not always take into account such matters as the length of time it takes to assemble the site and organise funding. Currently, under section 91(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and section 18(1)(b) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, the local planning authority is required to consider "any other material considerations". If a local planning authority, in considering the duration of time needed for a planning permission, thinks that the time needed to assemble finance and land is relevant, that matter will be a "material consideration" to which the authority must have regard. The proposed amendment is therefore unnecessary.
The Minister will know that in Committee the concern expressed about the duration of consent was that, although it is currently variable, councils do not vary it. If we are frank about it, most of the planning officers are not aware that they can vary it, or of what counts as a material consideration. Is there not a case for inclusion of the amendment as a means of sending a message to planning officers that they can vary the length of the consent? Whether it is three or five years, they need to be convinced of the need to vary it. In Committee the Minister agreed to ensure that planning officers would be told once again that they could vary the length of time granted.
I share the hon. Gentleman's desire that local planning officers have proper access to information about the contents of the Bill and the powers available to them under it. I do not share his passion for loading everything—one is tempted to say "even the kitchen sink"—into the Bill. That tendency has re-emerged from our exchanges tonight. For that reason, we believe that the amendment is unnecessary.
Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 would leave out the suggested provisions, making the default period for the duration of planning permission and listed building consent three years. The position is that the Government proposed through clause 50 to reduce the period of validity of a planning permission, listed building consent and conservation area consent from five to three years. Local planning authorities will be able to agree longer periods where appropriate—for example, for complex regeneration projects. There is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State.
The clause also prevents a developer from seeking to extend a permission by submitting an application to vary a condition. Any developer wishing to extend the time limit will have to submit a new application for planning permission and the local planning authority will consider the entire application afresh. Reducing the default period for permission and consent from five to three years is a crucial part of our agenda to speed up the operation of the planning system. A three-year default period sends a clear signal about the importance of delivery. We are pressing local authorities to speed up their planning processes, and we are showing an even-handed approach towards developers with our proposal for a three-year default period.
Of course, circumstances can change and a three-year default period will allow changes to national guidance to take effect more quickly. We previously introduced an amendment whereby if planning permission were granted, but the grant of permission were subsequently challenged in judicial review proceedings, the duration of permission would be from the date of grant until three years—or other period as directed by the determining authority—after the completion of the proceedings.
The amendment was inserted in response to concerns raised by developers that the shorter validity period, coupled with the removal of the provision that enabled developers to extend the life of the consent, could mean that the validity period had expired before judicial review proceedings had been completed. During consideration of the Bill in another place, it was argued that even expert lawyers would find it difficult to calculate when judicial review proceedings would conclude. We have been persuaded by that argument, and we tabled amendments to deal with the problem—another example of the Government's fair-minded and reasonable approach.
Government amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 46 allows that where planning permission is granted subject to a three-year time limit by virtue of a condition imposed under section 91(1)(a) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, or by virtue of section 91(3), as amended in each case, and the grant or deemed grant of that planning permission is challenged, the period of three years is statutorily changed to a period of four years in relation to that permission. Government amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 47 makes a similar change to the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.
The Government have listened to criticism during the consideration of the clause, and we have proposed amendments to deal with problems arising from legal challenge. However, a three-year default period for planning permission is a central part of our programme of speeding up the operation of the planning system, and we are sticking with it. The Government therefore cannot accept Amendments Nos. 45, 46 or 47.
It is a pity that at the end of these proceedings, the Minister has not listened to many of the outside bodies that expressed concern about the change. There is general happiness with the present five-year period. As Matthew Green pointed out, there is already scope for planning authorities to vary the length of planning permission if they so wish.
The Government have on occasion overstated their argument about land banking. Indeed, most people who apply for planning permission with the intention of developing wish to do so as quickly as possible, but there are a vast number of hurdles to get over these days before people can start building, and sometimes planning permission is only the start of the process. People often find that things go rather slower than they had hoped.
If the reduction to three years is made, planning authorities may become more caught up with many more applications. Already, in the south of England, some authorities are having great difficulty in determining the applications that they already have within a reasonable number of weeks. The upside would be that authorities would get more in planning fees, but the downside would be that some hard-worked planning departments would have much more work.
I do not believe that three years is enough. There are a number of complications associated with development, especially with brownfield sites, and where land has to be decontaminated. The shorter period for planning permission could impact on the viability of many marginal and complex schemes. Funding would also be affected, especially where there is a mix between commercial and other development, and that could cause problems.
I do not believe that the Government have made their case. Almost all the outside bodies that have made representations, such as the CBI, the Law Society and the Housebuilders Federation, say the same thing. I again draw the Minister's attention to the letter from Michael Snyder, the chairman of the policy and resources committee of the Corporation of the City of London, who sets out the problems he foresees, and says:
"Not all commercial buildings will be vacant when planning permission is granted and achieving vacant possession takes time and invariably entangles developers in protracted negotiations. The position can be exacerbated where part of a site has to be subject to a compulsory purchase notice—compulsory purchase notices can themselves take up to three years to be finalised. Some schemes will also require road closures, which are of course subject to separate proceedings, adding to the delay."
We all know that there are particular problems in the City of London and other places in our inner cities where development is taking place, but I suspect that shortening the duration of planning permission will make life rather more difficult for developers in those cases. The City of London in particular has been very successful, because over the past 10 years nearly 50 per cent. of the City's 8 million sq m has been rebuilt or subject to major refurbishment. That shows a great deal of success in managing things under the current regime, and I wonder whether changing the length of time that planning permission lasts from five to three years will really improve the prospects for development, especially where there are complex and difficult sites to develop.
I support amendment No. 45, which seeks to make it clear to local authorities that they have to consider all areas when deciding the length of a planning permission. The Government may be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but I have more sympathy with them on this issue than the Conservative spokesman seems to have. There is a problem with land banking, and part of that problem is that 99.9 per cent. of applications for planning permission receive five years for consideration. Local authorities have the power to vary the period, but they never do.
The Government have decided that they need to tackle that and think that the only way to do so is to change the default period from five years to three. I have some sympathy with that idea, but if they are going to do that, they need to make it absolutely clear that local authorities can vary the period and that periods should on many occasions be varied to allow longer periods, particularly for complex applications or where, in a town such as Bath or York, there might be a reasonable expectation of finding archaeological remains, which is exactly the sort of situation in which a developer might reasonably expect to take more than three years.
The Government have a case, but they have pushed it too strongly without giving the other side. I have some sympathy with the reduction to three years, but the position would be more acceptable if amendment No. 45 were accepted, because that would make it clearer to local authorities that they must take all sorts of considerations into account, such as the complexity of a development or archaeological or environmental considerations such as a need to deal with contaminated land. All that should be taken into account in deciding whether to allow more than three years—whether it is five years or even longer in some cases, particularly if there is a need to put a financial package together.
Mr. Syms over-egged the pudding when he said that there appeared to him to be "general happiness" with the existing provisions for consents of five years. In our consultation, there was substantial support for a reduction from five years to three on the part of local authorities and non-governmental organisations. I reiterate that we have offered considerable scope in the Bill and in our general approach for flexibility on the part of local planning authorities.
If I may say so without intending unnecessary provocation, in what was a somewhat cavilling speech from Matthew Green—that was very uncharacteristic—he mentioned contaminated land, which is exactly one of the provisions that we accept may lead to an extension of the period of planning permission, which I think the hon. Gentleman well knows.
The Minister has much knowledge of this issue, so can he assure me that included on the list of criteria alongside contaminated land will be the possibility of an archaeological find? Will evidence have to be provided, or will the mere possibility be enough? Such archaeological finds are fairly frequent in local authority areas such as Bath.
The hon. Gentleman offers an enticing prospect of interpretation and definition around the possibility or likelihood of an archaeological find. We would expect local authorities to show reasonable openness and flexibility in relation to potential developments, and that is well established in existing approaches to the granting of planning permission over various periods. We do not wish the Bill to challenge such existing practice.
The Government have shown openness in response to representations made in the other place on extending the period of permission in cases of judicial review. In general terms, the Government have sought to adopt an even-handed approach. The Bill offers a more democratic, more flexible and faster planning system. I must point out that in our final exchanges the Opposition parties have shown only limited commitment to those principles.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment disagreed to.
It being after Ten o'clock, mr speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.
Lords amendment No. 46 disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) in lieu agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 47 disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) in lieu agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 130 and 139 disagreed to.
Remaining Lords amendments agreed to.
Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Paul Clark, Linda Gilroy, Matthew Green, Mr. John Hayes and Keith Hill; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.—[Paul Clark.]
To withdraw immediately.
Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.