Before I come to the substance of our disagreement with the other place, I wish to sound a note of recognition of and appreciation for their lordships' scrutiny of the Bill. As the House will be aware, the Bill was subject to lengthy and detailed scrutiny in the other place, where there was a total of 45 hours of debate. Almost 150 amendments were tabled, 50 of which were substantive and responded to serious concerns expressed at various stages in the Commons and the other place. I do not doubt that in many respects the Bill has emerged as a better measure as a result of their lordships' scrutiny, which is why the Government will signify their acceptance of a large number of Lords amendments today.
The amendments fall into 26 groups, and we propose to accept 19 of them, which is a fair-minded and reasonable response. A fair-minded and reasonable observer, however, would concede that the planning system that we inherited is prone to excessive delay and inefficiency in delivery. In our proposals to expand the opportunities for community involvement in the front-loading of the system we are making the planning system more democratic and efficient, but we are also determined to create a faster and more flexible planning system. Our disagreements with the Lords revolve around the issue of greater speed and flexibility, and those disagreements are at the heart of the first group of amendments.
The right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that the regional planning system, which includes the identification of housing numbers, was introduced by the Administration of whom he was such a distinguished representative way back in 1990. Since 1990, regional planning bodies have indeed had those powers. Local authorities are required to pay attention to the guidance issued by regional planning bodies, and in many respects that is a material consideration in local planning decisions.
Surely, the Minister acknowledges the desirability of making those powers democratic. He argued for democracy, but how can it be democratic to give powers to regions without an assembly?
If the hon. Gentleman is patient, in due course we shall come to the Opposition's interesting commitment to elected regional assemblies in connection with the Bill.
The Minister has raised one of the most contentious matters in the Bill—housing targets, which are completely different from those set under the existing system. Under the new system, housing targets will be handed down by the regional planning body, and must be implemented by the local authority, whether it likes it or not. Will the Minister admit that that is quite different from the present system?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Since the introduction of the method by his own Administration, housing targets have been identified by regional planning bodies. How else was the figure of 930,000 extra houses in London and the wider south-east identified under regional planning guidance note 9? Housing targets have always been in existence, and it is for local authorities to pay heed to them. Powers exist to influence local authorities in the delivery of those targets.
Having been fairly generous in giving way to official Opposition Members, I shall now address the amendments before us. They would prevent the reform of the regional planning system. The proposition arising from the amendments is that there should be regional spatial strategies and regional planning bodies only in areas where elected regional assemblies have been established. In such regions, the regional spatial strategy would have to have regard to the Secretary of State's spatial policies for the region. The amendments offer no solutions to the problems with our present system of plans. Instead, they would directly undermine our reforms.
We need strong regional planning. Regional planning policies that form part of the local development plan are needed to address the particular opportunities and challenges faced by an individual region. Effective regional planning policy is vital to tackle historic regional disparities and respond to the challenges of the modern knowledge economy. We need strong local plans at a level where the community can engage with the process of plan making, and where proposals to develop particular sites can be properly debated.
It is vital that we make regional spatial strategies statutory, and therefore part of the local development plan. We cannot and should not continue with a system where outdated lower level plans can take precedence over more up-to-date regional plans in key planning decisions. We need a system for strategic planning that is based around areas that are interdependent on the ground, not one that is constrained by administrative boundaries. County boundaries do not work as the basis for effective strategic planning. Many strategic planning issues cut across county boundaries and are best dealt with at regional or sub-regional level.
The Minister said that older local plans should not be allowed to block more modern, up-to-the-minute regional plans. In many parts of the country, out-of-date Government regional plans are blocking up-to-date modern local plans. Does he not want the latest plan, regardless whether it is local or regional, to have preference?
The hon. Gentleman is right. There are plans at various stages of development, but a large proportion of local plans—I do not recall the exact proportion, but I know that we adumbrated the figure in Committee—are out of date. The Bill, when enacted, will provide the opportunity for regional plans to be developed. In a sense, they represent the first stage in the sequence that we seek to introduce. There is a clear chronology, which begins at the regional level of planning.
The regional planning process needs to be driven forward by bodies able to represent the region and take a strategic view. Regional chambers are best placed to fulfil that role. This is not a new departure. Responsibility for preparing regional strategies already rests with regional planning bodies, which since
We are not suddenly transferring powers from counties to regions. Under the existing system, county structure plans should be in line with and follow the strategic planning framework set in regional planning guidance. What we are doing is removing a filter that has slowed down the expression of strategic regional policies in local plans. We are clearing out a system that allows out-of-date structure plans to take precedence over up-to-date regional plans. Chambers are, of course, not directly elected, but they are representative of both of local authorities and wider stakeholders in the region. Local authority members represent their local authority on the regional planning body. Members from other stakeholder groups, such as business or the voluntary sector, will equally speak up for the interests that they represent. Through legislation and guidance, we are ensuring that everyone in the region with an interest can get involved in the regional planning process. There will be consultation, representations and, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, an examination in public conducted by an independent panel.
Ultimately, the regional spatial strategy is the Secretary of State's document and he is democratically accountable for it to the electorate and the House. It is for that reason that the Bill specifies that the regional spatial strategy must set out the Secretary of State's policies for the region. The Secretary of State has regional planning policies and is accountable for them, now and under our proposed new regional planning system, because that is the best approach with our current governance arrangement. If an elected regional assembly were in place to play that role, the Secretary of State would not need any spatial policies for that region.
The Minister talks about public consultation, and we would all welcome that provided that what the public say is occasionally listened to and acted on, but is he aware that my constituents had to travel some 80 miles up to Northampton in order to give their views on the plans currently in force for south Bedfordshire? Does he think that that is an acceptable distance for local people to have to travel?
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but a regional body must always operate from a particular location, which, in some circumstances, may be as far as 80 miles away, and I strongly suspect that in other parts of the country it could be even further away. I am sorry for the inconvenience to the hon. Gentleman's constituents—I mean that quite seriously—and I dare say that we will be hearing more about their concerns both today and at oral questions on Wednesday, but the important fact is that the opportunity to make the representation is there and that will be strengthened under the Bill in the context of amendments passed in the other place that we propose to accept.
The official Opposition, in their new-found passion for elected regional assemblies—I shall resist further comment at this stage—now apparently want us to delay our reforms until elected regional assemblies are in place, but that would simply delay putting into place the more effective planning system that we so urgently need. There are too many plans and too much confusion. Our reforms will produce a simpler, faster, more flexible system that creates plans and delivers policies at the right level. They are the right thing to do and they are the right thing to do now.
The Minister has made a slight error. He talks about the official Opposition being fans of regional assemblies. He is teasing them of course, but he would acknowledge that it was a Liberal Democrat amendment in the Lords, which the Conservatives, Cross-Benchers and, I believe, some Labour Members in the other place, voted for, that was the main thrust of the sunrise clause that prevents the powers from being transferred.
I certainly acknowledge that the Liberal Democrats have shown unusual consistency in this matter.
Our planning reforms will produce a simpler, more comprehensible system. The amendments will, I fear, just cause more confusion. Where elected regional assemblies are established it is right that they should take over responsibility for regional planning. But we should not conflate that with reforming the planning system. That is something that needs to happen now, and for that reason the Government resist the amendments.
The Minister, as ever, made a worthy effort to advance a weak case. The great constitutionalist Bagehot said of Peel that he was a first-rate man with a second-rate creed, and the Minister, rather like him, has struggled to convince this packed House. I see that Labour Members in particular have turned out in considerable numbers to support the Minister, probably mindful of the weakness of the case. He knows that the Bill is at best a wasted opportunity to reform a planning system too cumbersome and bureaucratic for developers, often too insensitive to environmental and aesthetic considerations, and too esoteric for almost everyone. At worst, it erodes the powers of local government and the influence of local people, and the amendments are an attempt by the Lords to improve an unacceptable Bill. That aspect of the Bill lies at the heart of the problem—the weakness of the Bill and the weakness of the Government's approach to local democracy. The proposals that the Lords seek to amend transfer vital planning powers to the regions without providing the necessary democratic accountability. If the Government have their way, regions will exercise planning functions that are currently in the hands of counties, irrespective of whether any corresponding elected authority exists.
In the course of our debates, many have suggested—frankly, I am among them—that it is extraordinary that the regions should exercise that additional power. I make no case from this Dispatch Box, either personally or on behalf of my party, for regional assemblies in any way, shape or form, but to transfer such powers to them without democratic legitimacy is undesirable, unpalatable and unacceptable. Yet that is what the Minister is prepared to endorse. With a bitter irony, he told us that his intention is to make the system more democratic. He said that local people should have a chance to make their representations at the most appropriate level; but, as we heard from my hon. Friend Andrew Selous, his constituents—of whom he is a doughty defender—will have to make a round trip of 160 miles to make their concerns known. That is hardly a move towards making the system more people-friendly, more accountable and more democratic.
It is likely that the south-west regional assembly will sit in Exeter. The distance to Exeter from the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson, which is in the northern part of the south-west region, is probably more than 200 miles, so somebody who wanted to make representations to that assembly would face a daily round trip of well over 400 miles. Does my hon. Friend have a view on that?
I try to travel as little as possible, because I have heard that it broadens the mind. Nevertheless, my constituents are in a similar position, because people in Lincolnshire will have to go to Nottingham. From south Lincolnshire, that represents a round trip of well over 100 miles—not quite as great as the distance that my hon. Friend describes, but on poor roads that are, I hasten to add, unimproved by this Labour Government.
Moreover, the people of rural Lincolnshire are, culturally speaking, a world apart from Nottingham. This is not simply a question of distance, but of where people are governed from. In my view, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I know that it is shared by you and by most Members of this House—political power is best exercised as close to people as possible to enable them to have an influence on local affairs. People want to have faith in, and to keep an eye on, those who govern them; they cannot achieve that effectively over a great distance.
So loathsome is this aspect of the Bill, and so appalling is its effect on people's proper entitlements and rightful expectations, that it has driven the Liberal Democrats into my arms. I try not to hold anything against Liberal Democrats, because I do not like to get that close, but it is fair to say that, in this place and in the Lords, the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition have come together because we share a profound concern about these proposals. It is extraordinary that we face the prospect of powers being exercised by regions, some of which may have corresponding democratically elected chambers and some of which may not: inconsistency can be added to our charges against the Government. The Government are prepared to let matters proceed before they know what is going to happen in relation to regional assemblies. We may end up with no regional assemblies at all, yet these powers will still be vested at regional level and taken away from the local community.
Is it any wonder that the weight of considered opinion outside this place supports the Lords so strongly? I would be interested to hear the Minister's observations about his friends and colleagues in local government who oppose the proposals as strongly as my friends. The Local Government Association states:
"The government has been given a stark warning that in its hurry to streamline the planning system, it risks eroding democratic control over future developments . . . A key reform underlying the Planning Bill . . . is the removal of statutory planning powers from county councils."
The Planning Officers Society, the Town and Country Planning Association, the Civic Trust, the county councils network and the Council for the Protection of Rural England all acknowledge that to be unacceptable, believe that it is unlikely to improve the planning process and have firmly argued the case to the Government. Yet all have been ignored.
The argument is therefore about democratic legitimacy and local accountability but also good planning, because bad planning decisions will result from their being made outside the compass of local people and the orbit where local opinions and sensitivities can be made known. We are also considering the status of counties and planning officers. I agree with the comments of Liberal Democrat peers in the House of Lords. Baroness Hamwee has already been mentioned in our discussions today. She said that the measure would mean that
"county council resources and expertise will slowly wither away and . . . political commitment will decline as a core function" and become,
"at best, an ancillary activity in future years."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 20 January 2004; Vol. 656, c. 921.]
In joining together to table the amendments that we are debating, Lords of all parties and none—Cross Benchers were also involved in the move—recognised that there would be
"massive haemorrhaging of experienced planning staff from county councils".
"emasculated county council planning function"—[Hansard, House of Lords, 20 January 2004; Vol. 656, c. 924.]
would therefore kick in and damage not only local accountability but local professionalism.
My hon. Friend quoted the Liberal peer, Lady Hamwee, who tabled amendment No. 1 in the other place. It is worth putting it on record that, for eight years, she was chairman of the London planning advisory committee, which was an unelected quango. Her occupation of that position means that we should take notice of her remarks.
As I said, I do not praise Liberal Democrats lightly. No wise or measured man does. However, on this occasion, they have got it right. Our objection to the measure is not born of any support for regional assemblies but of the Bill's leading to an indefensible position, unless the Government, at the eleventh hour, accept the Lords amendments. The unamended measure would mean that power rested with officers and would be removed from local communities. It may lead to the crazy result that some parts of the country, which have regional assemblies, have a route to influencing power through elected representatives whereas other parts have no such opportunity. That is ludicrous. The Minister knows that. He made the case with charm but unconvincingly. His heart was not in it because he knew that he was arguing a pretty weak case.
If the Bill did not proceed, the existing regional planning structure remained in place and a regional assembly was accepted, does the hon. Gentleman believe that regional planning powers should pass to that elected assembly?
I hope, and will work to ensure, that regional assemblies are not elected. I look forward to the day when we can dustbin the whole regional agenda and a Conservative Government will reinforce their commitment to local democracy through supporting county councils and district councils. I look forward to the day when we can say good-bye once and for all to regionalism. So I do not want to take the fanciful road, down which the hon. Gentleman seeks to lead me, of looking at a future that I do not believe will come to pass.
I shall give way again, because as the hon. Gentleman knows, in the list of my many qualities, generosity is near the top.
There is nothing wrong with fishing for compliments, particularly when we fish successfully and get them. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman agrees with my assessment of my strength of character.
Of course the system should be democratised; of course there is a problem with a system that I have described as esoteric, cumbersome and bureaucratic, and in which people do not feel that they have sufficient influence over planning decisions. I want the planning system to be reformed, and the Government have the opportunity to do just that. So, yes, there should be democratisation of the planning system and greater public involvement. There should be many of the provisions to which the Minister claims to aspire, but none of them is contained in the Bill. Nothing in the Government's proposals will make the system more democratic. Indeed, if David Wright were to follow his principles and have the courage of his convictions, he would vote with us and with the House of Lords, which has—not for the first time—stood up for the people against a Government who have lost touch with the people they govern.
I should like to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the most likely outcome, which is that there will be no elected regional assemblies because he and I and our friends will be successful in persuading people that they would represent an unnecessary bureaucratic intrusion in their lives. Does he therefore agree that the House can tonight either vote for the Lords amendments, which would mean that we should not have these nasty regional planning bodies and their extra powers, or vote with the Government to establish the bodies, over which there would be no democratic rights or controls of any kind?
My right hon. Friend is as incisive as ever. He is right to suggest that we are not being offered the chance to vote tonight for regional powers or regional elections; we are instead being encouraged by the Minister to vote against Lords amendments that would temper the Bill and to vote for a transfer of power or, at the very least—if the Minister will not accept the argument that these measures represent a transfer of power—the maintenance of power at regional level with no guarantee of matching accountability through elected structures.
The Bill represents a challenge to proper local democracy. The hon. Member for Telford claims to be an advocate of good local democracy and, given his ability to judge character, he probably is such an advocate. I think that he is on the cusp of coming with us tonight and voting with those on the Opposition side of the House who really do support good, strong, healthy local democracy, and with those fellow travellers, the Liberal Democrats, who are going to vote with us. I am delighted to see Matthew Green in his place, and I look forward to his speech, which I hope will be supportive of the arguments that have already been made.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting a cogent and amusing case. Does he agree that the Government's case for this proposal being more democratic has been completely blown out of the water by the Minister's statement today, and that of his predecessor, that the regional spatial strategy belongs to the Secretary of State? If it belongs to the Secretary of State, how can it possibly be democratic?
Like a good prompter, my hon. Friend brings me to my next point. He is right; this is not simply about a lack of democratic legitimacy. It is not even just about the resulting bad planning decisions that are likely to emerge. The Lords have also properly recognised that the Bill greatly increases the power of the Secretary of State. They oppose that, as do we. It was recognised by my noble Friend, Lord Hanningfield, that the Government are seeking not only to suck power up from localities to regions, but to allow it, in his memorable phrase, to "leak" back to the Secretary of State.
When the Minister, to whose words I listen carefully, speaks of decisions being made at the "appropriate level" he does not mean the low level, as he described it, of communities; what he really means is his level—or perhaps not even his level, but a level above: a level to which he aspires, a level that he may expect one day to occupy so that he can exercise such powers. We say that not just the transfer of powers to the regions, but the further transfer of powers to the Secretary of State is unacceptable.
As I said at the outset, the Minister has made a charming case—he is always generous, and his delivery is always silky—but a wholly unconvincing one. The Government's position is as unconvincing as it is inconsistent. If this is new Labour democracy, I say: bring back old Labour. If this is new Labour democracy, let us bring back Bevan and Benn. This will mean local councillors with little power and local people with less. Communities will be emasculated, and planning professionals either overridden or ignored.
Better still, let us bring on a Conservative team—convinced about local democracy, committed to serving local communities and determined to deliver politics and planning on a human scale. My colleagues will support the Lords tonight, because the Lords speak for the people. The Government speak against the interests of the people. I look forward to seeing the whole House support us and our noble Friends.
The Bill started off as a terrible muddle. When the Minister took over he cleared away a few of the muddles, and the Bill left its second Commons Committee stage much improved. The Lords have improved it further, but there is some way to go before it will be workable. If we cover that ground we shall have a Bill that will speed up the planning system, make it more accountable and democratic and better reflect people's needs. The Lords have made some excellent changes; if the Minister accepts them, he will find that he has a Bill that he can be proud of for the next decade—for I suspect that it will be a decade before the House gets round to amending the planning legislation again.
Lords amendment No. 1 attempts to let the Government live up to their own spin. "New localism" is a phrase that has been bandied around the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for the past year or so. If this part of the Bill is new localism in practice, the Government have not quite got it. I understand the term to mean people making decisions at the lowest possible level and being accountable at the lowest possible level, not decisions being made at the centre on a one-size-fits-all basis.
Unlike the Conservatives, I am a believer in regional government. We are arriving at the same point from two entirely different directions, but I am a firm believer in regional government because it can bring power closer to the people by taking it away from Westminster, not by taking it up from councils. I would be much more reassured by the route that the Government have taken if they accepted the sunrise clause, which says "Yes, transfer the powers, but do so when there is an elected regional assembly." If they did that, I would not have an argument with them—well, I might have a little argument with them over which powers should be where, but in general I have no problem with a regional tier of planning provided that it is democratically accountable and elected, which next year it will not be in most regions. I hope that we win the three northern regions: I shall certainly campaign for that, and I believe that they will be won. However, that will not involve the southern and midlands regions, which will have unelected regional planning bodies rather than elected ones.
The Government admit that those unelected planning bodies will not even be completely indirectly elected. Their draft regulations say that funding for those bodies will be dependent on at least 30 per cent. of the membership with voting rights being other than from local authorities. The Government want to maximise the element of the regional planning bodies that is not elected—not even indirectly elected. It would be slightly more comforting if they said that 100 per cent. of those bodies were to be indirectly elected, but even that would not go far enough, as was alluded to by my noble Friend Baroness Hamwee in the other place. She served for eight years on, and chaired, the London planning advisory committee, a completely indirectly elected regional planning body, and she set out a good case for why such bodies do not work particularly well in the interests of people in the area.
I urge the Government not to resist Lords amendment No. 1, because it seeks to ensure that there is no democratic deficit, and that when the powers are transferred—we can argue the detail of which powers should be at which level—there is democratic legitimacy. Surely the Minister wants to be remembered for having stood up for democratic legitimacy in the Bill.
Lords amendment No. 2 was a Conservative amendment, with a great deal of merit, which the Liberal Democrat peers supported. It would change the emphasis in the Bill in respect of what the regional planning bodies could do with national planning guidance. At the moment, clause 1 says that the RSS, the regional spatial strategy,
"must set out the Secretary of State's policies (however expressed) in relation to the development and use of land within the region."
It will have no choice about that, but must set those policies out. The amendment, moved in the Lords by Lord Hanningfield, would change that "must set out" to "shall have regard to". That is about democracy, and about trusting an elected regional assembly to take the best decisions for its area, in the context of guidance from the Government. To say that the body must have regard to those policies is a much better way of doing that than to say that it "must set out" those policies.
I am not going to go down the route of saying that we must take all planning powers down to the lowest possible level and decide on housing numbers at street level, because we would not then build the houses that we need. It is easy rhetoric—I say this with all seriousness to Mr. Hayes—to say that we should take all decisions down to the lowest possible level. The Conservatives did not do that when in government, and I suspect that if they were ever in government—unfortunately—again, they would still not do so. That is because some things have to be driven from national level, and some from regional level.
It would be unrealistic to leave district councils to set out housing numbers. Virtually no houses would be built, because people do not want houses built in their area. If we walk down the average street, we will find that people say, "Oh yes, we need affordable houses for people. It is a great shame that young families cannot afford to buy houses these days". However, if we respond, "What about the field behind you—why don't we put some affordable housing there?" they say, "No, no, we can't possibly put any there, it's beautiful countryside." There is always tension in the planning system, and it is foolish to pretend that there is not.
I do not want to encourage the hon. Gentleman to go down a tributary, rather than sticking to the main thrust of the debate, but I am not sure that what he says is absolutely true. The truth of the matter is that people are worried about the scale and character of development. Part of the resistance to development of the kind that the hon. Gentleman describes has come about because historically—at least in recent history—the scale and nature of development have not always been desirable. That is probably a fairer reflection of local opinion than that which he suggests.
The hon. Gentleman would do well to talk to local groups in, say, the south-east about where they would like to see houses built. Very few people want any houses anywhere near them; they want them somewhere else. That is part of the nature of local planning. I am not suggesting that everything could be done at a local plan level, which would be misleading the electorate. However, I do not believe that the Government should be giving themselves the power to dictate from the centre; that is the very one-size-fits-all route that, in other areas of government, they seem to be rejecting.
I support Lords amendment No. 2 because, to an extent, it would chop away the power of the Government while allowing them to set out guidance and recommendations. It would require the RSS to "have regard to" the Secretary of State's policy, and would remove the words "must set out". It would be a considerable step forward if the Government accepted the amendment. If the Bill remains as it is, there is a great danger that a Secretary of State could misuse his powers. I am not suggesting that this Secretary of State would dream of doing that, but if the powers remained, it is possible that we could have a centralised and imposed planning system.
Is not the hon. Gentleman belittling his constituents and those of other hon. Members somewhat? My constituents are very concerned about the supply of affordable housing locally and they will reflect that pressure in terms of the councillors they elect. Surely it is a question of providing local housing for local people across all the areas about which we are talking. Does that not contradict what the hon. Gentleman is saying?
I do not think it does. As the Minister knows, I have been arguing for an increase in our housing numbers because we have too few. The local authority and local people are arguing for greater housing numbers because we cannot build the affordable housing that we need in the area. Potential changes to planning policy statement 7 would make the situation even worse by removing exception sites, but that is not a subject for this debate.
Even in my area, where there is strong demand for extra houses over and above our allocation—we want more; we complained about what the county and the regional system allocated to us—people will say that they do not want 20, 30 or 40 extra houses in a field near them. They will say that they want the houses somewhere else. That is a fact of life. None of us particularly wants extra houses built immediately around us.
Sometimes the tensions locally can be too great. I am not trying to be flippant, but in areas under immense housing pressure—unlike south Shropshire—such as parts of the south-east, I suspect that the extra affordable houses that are needed would not come at the rate that is needed if it were left to local authorities to provide them.
Lords amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are concurrent with amendment No. 1 and would be necessary only if amendment No. 1 were accepted; they would delete what would be unnecessary words.
I hope that the Minister has thought about this matter, which is the biggest area of contention in the Bill. Debates are coming up on other issues, but it is this part of the Bill that has the potential to lead to ping-pong between the two Houses. I say to the Minister in all seriousness that he needs to look at this issue again. If he cannot accept our proposals, he needs at least to move some way towards our position, because not only politicians and local councillors but the public themselves think that the Bill involves an unacceptable transfer of powers from directly elected bodies to unelected ones. The public do not want to stomach that.
I know that the Minister cannot say with confidence that there will be elected regional assemblies throughout the country within the next 12 months. So for many years to come, regional planning bodies appointed by Secretary of State will make decisions on behalf of large parts of the country, and at least 30 per cent. of those bodies will not consist of directly elected councillors. The public find that unacceptable, and that is why we shall continue to support the amendment successfully moved by Liberal Democrat peers.
I rise to support the four Lords amendments before us, and I share the view of Matthew Green that this issue is crucial. The Government claim that they are devolving power downwards, but part 1 of the Bill does the opposite by transferring power upwards. It enables the structural plans made at county level to be made at regional level.
The Minister says that there are excessive delays in the current town and country planning system—a point to which I shall return briefly—but it is my fundamental belief that those delays are mainly caused not by its structure, but by its operation. Of course, there is a vast difference between a directly elected body and an indirectly elected one. No regional spatial strategy should be left to unelected—and perhaps unknown—people, who will take decisions that affect everybody in a given authority. That will sever the link between the elected and the overall structural plan for the future.
We should all be worried about the fact that even today, many people feel disaffected and alienated from the planning system: they feel that they have no part to play in taking decisions. It pains me to say so, but I still get far too many letters from constituents who believe that there is corruption or fraud in the planning system. I am sure that there is not, although of course, there are bad apples in every basket, and perhaps it happens on one or two occasions. However, handing over powers to unelected regional bodies—that is what we are talking about—will in no way improve the public's recognition of the planning system as above board and fair.
My hon. Friend is a great expert on these matters and as ever, he is making a very valuable contribution to our deliberations, but has he considered the fact that many of the misapprehensions about the planning system arise because it is regarded as esoteric and outside the scope of many who come into contact with it? If it also becomes distant, which is precisely the Bill's effect, that problem will be exacerbated, not eased.
My hon. Friend puts it perfectly, and I envy him his eloquence in forcing home the point that I am trying to make.
If the Bill goes through, it will scale down the importance of local plans, which I think are a vital part of our planning system. They will not be replaced, but they will lose their influence. If this part of the Bill is enacted, local plans will have to have regard to the regional spatial strategy, but the Bill also says that the RSS must set out the Government's policy. It is as simple as that—there is a direct link to the views of the Secretary of State.
Unlike the hon. Member for Ludlow, I am against regional assemblies per se. They will only bring about yet another tier of government, and we have quite enough tiers. Ministers may say that we are the odd ones out in Europe and that most other countries have directly elected regional bodies, but we are a densely populated island, and it is not as if there were 3,000 miles between Berwick and Cornwall. We do not need regional authorities. My seat is in the Greater London area, and it is true that I have a regional authority, but I regret that I do, because I do not think that it is needed.
Unless we radically changed the whole local authority structure for our capital city, a regional authority for London would probably have to extend as far as Brighton to the south, Bath or Bristol to the west, Northampton or wherever to the north, and Southend to the east. What cannot or should not properly be decided by counties in the south-east or by London boroughs should in fact be decided by the Government, because of the huge conglomeration that is the metropolis of the greatest city in the world.
If regional bodies come about, they will be weak; they will have little to do; they will be relatively expensive—anybody who doubts that should be aware that the first four years of the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly have meant an increase in Londoners' precept of 96 per cent.; and they will empire-build, trying to take further powers from the counties and district councils.
Of course, planning applications are still dealt with by district councils, or in London by the 32 boroughs, but any significant application is referred up and is therefore not determined at the local level of administration. The Minister in the Lords said that county boundaries do not work as the basis for effective strategic planning. If they do not, regional boundaries will not do so either. I do not believe that a case can be made for taking planning powers from the counties, which I believe were the one angle of local government that people could really identify with until a Conservative Government, I regret to say, introduced new counties that bore no relation to the historical background of the people of our country.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hayes has dealt with the Minister's rather strange point—I have a great regard for the Minister, but I agree with my hon. Friend that he has been speaking valiantly on a very bad case—in saying that these structure plans are just as likely to be up to date as any regional plan. In any case, not all structure plans are out of date. They are, by their very nature, brought up to date and revised.
The prestigious Town and Country Planning Association supports the Lords amendments. I do not believe that the Government's proposals, particularly in part 1 of the Bill, are creating a simpler, fairer or faster system. It will not be simpler because there will be an additional layer of government; it will not be fairer because power is being transferred upwards; and it will certainly not be faster because the extra layer will bring about even greater conflict between the county or district level and the new regional level.
I support the Lords amendments and want to speak out against more bureaucratic control of the planning system at the regional level.
I was intrigued by the Minister's failure to respond to my earlier point. He tried to change the subject by saying that I had once supported a Government who had also allowed a Secretary of State to provide some guidance and to interfere in planning through unelected regional bodies and our elected councils. That is quite right, but the Minister should also know that I have always been against that system and have fought many battles against it on behalf of my constituents. I am sad that the Minister does not seem inclined to take advantage of the reformed legislation passing through the House to introduce more democracy into our planning system.
In common with my hon. Friend Sir Sydney Chapman, I believe that there are already too many tiers of government. Like him, I would like to shed a tier or two of this country's government and get by with rather less of it. The most obvious area to remove is that of artificial regional government—regions that mean little or nothing to most of the people dragooned into them, and which are too extensive geographically. My hon. Friends have pointed out the long distances that people would have to travel to make representations in person. Regions also create tensions between the great cities and counties lumped together within them, as they jostle for position and try to have their interests properly represented.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that I see no need for regional planning tiers in England. I believe that it would be much better if counties or unitary authorities and boroughs put forward their proposals and engaged in dialogue with the Secretary of State on important issues of national significance. We may also need a system that provides incentives to counties and districts to allow certain quantities of development. Such incentives could be built in to provide some balance in the system, so that communities could see some of the advantages of accepting more development, while retaining the ultimate right or power to forgo those advantages and opt for less development than a Secretary of State might wish them to have. I do not accept the view that without draconian powers from the centre and from the regions, nothing would ever get built.
We have already heard that Mr. Green has been urging his local authority and the national system to build more. Several hon. Members have voiced similar opinions in previous debates on planning matters—they want more development in their constituencies, and that is often endorsed by their local elected authorities. That can be achieved through an electoral process and if a Secretary of State felt that the balance was wrong, he could, under my model, increase the incentives—perhaps financial incentives, allowing authorities to keep rather more of the tax revenue that would flow from greater development or allowing them to keep or develop the grants or extra money that comes through developer agreements—in return for the acceptance of further development. That would create a balance where both judgment and democratic rights were possible.
I support my right hon. Friend on that point. In my experience, local people rarely oppose the building of anything lovely or useful; they oppose building that is out of scale or out of character with their community. As he says, people do not oppose development per se, but they usually oppose unsuitable development.
That is my view. Having been a dweller both in London and in Berkshire, I know that if development proposals are made in my area in London, I often think that they are an enhancement, particularly if they will improve or replace old derelict buildings, or sites that have not been properly used or have fallen into disuse.
I am often in favour of an intensification of use, because I accept that I am living in a city where there are lots of facilities. However, if I am considering a proposal for a village in my Berkshire constituency that has already faced more development than it would like as a result of regional guidance in the past, I am often sympathetic to the case made by the parish and the district unitary authority that a limit should be put on development—particularly in the light of the Government's failure to provide more trains, boats, planes and roads for the transport links, and their failure to expand the hospital and school systems sufficiently, or rapidly enough, to accommodate the planned development that regional guidance may be urging, or forcing, on reluctant local communities and local authorities. As my hon. Friend implied, we need to consider the circumstances on the ground in each city, town, district, parish and village. Surely that is an argument for more democracy in our planning process, and more of it being returned to local communities through their elected representatives, rather than for more powers being taken away to the centre.
I am happy to speak out in praise of the nimbys. I remember being interviewed on that subject and explaining the kind of view that I am now setting forth about how the planning process could be reformed, with more local democracy, but also with reasonable amounts of development in the right places being encouraged and permitted. The interviewer thought that he had come to his clinching point when he turned to me and said, "But then, Mr. Redwood, you must be a nimby." I astounded him by replying, "But of course—and I suspect that you are too."
Indeed, I suspect that most Members of the House of Commons, too, are secret nimbys. We all have different thresholds for our nimbyism, but I suspect that even most Labour Members, who are about to vote against people's right to defend their local communities from overdevelopment, would, if under pressure themselves, turn out to be nimbys when pushed in the wrong direction. I wonder how many Labour Members would like an abattoir next door to them. I wonder how many of them would say, "How wonderful!" if a fireworks factory were to be sited next to their house. I wonder how many of them would welcome one of the asylum camps that the Government have a passion for and wish to dot around Conservative areas. I suspect that we would find that there was quite a lot of nimbyism in Labour then—and if there were not, Labour Members would not be speaking up for their many constituents who often rightly wish to defend their rural views, their quiet residential streets, their local amenity, or the beauty of their local parks and green spaces.
What we want from the Bill, and what the central Lords amendment is about, is a system that allows local communities to express their views on the scale, pace and nature of development, and then to have some chance of those being reflected in the underlying reality. I am not saying that people should have the absolute right to decide in each case. There are, of course, occasions when national issues and considerations have to be taken into account, and should properly be put before this House and be debated and reflected on through the right kind of procedure. There will also be occasions when matters need to be referred from the local community to the Secretary of State for adjudication. However, we do not want a new regional planning tyranny cemented in the concrete of this statute, unamended by their lordships' amendment.
I like the wit and wisdom of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance—an unusual alliance, and not one that I would normally encourage. The wit and wisdom lies in the fact that the Lib Dems will dream on, thinking that the amendment from their lordships' House would mean elected regional assemblies having an influence over the planning process, whereas we Conservatives know that it should be an easy task for us to see off the threat of regional assemblies—an unnecessary and expensive level of government that the Government seek to impose. The amendment would mean an end to the statutory regional interference that the Government have in mind under the Bill if it is not amended as their lordships suggest.
I urge all those who wish their local communities to have a voice, all those who believe that a balance needs to be struck between the understandable wish to defend what we have and the need for growth and development and new ideas, and all those who do not believe in too much bureaucratic control and interference from a high level, to understand the importance of backing their lordships' amendment, and I urge them to join us in the Lobby.
I, too, support the amendment. I speak on behalf of an area in which the Government intend to build possibly 51,000 extra houses, in spite of the fact that there are 2,000 people on my council's housing waiting list and that plans are already in place to build 7,000 extra houses to meet local housing need. I point out to Matthew Green that sensible, proper plans had already been put in place in my area by my district council to meet local housing need.
My constituents are concerned that there will be a massive expansion of housing not to house local people or even to house people in local jobs but to bring people into the area who will probably commute some 35 or 40 miles to work somewhere else. That does not make sense for those new residents, and it does not make sense for my part of Bedfordshire. It is that lack of local democracy—the democratic deficit—that the amendments go some way to remedying and that my constituents have raised with me time and again. [Interruption.] In case the Minister or anyone else thinks that this is a personal ego trip from some green field-loving, nimby, Conservative, I should say that I have presented a petition to the House on this matter, particularly on the point of local democracy, which was signed by 17,000 constituents, which is only about 1,700 fewer than voted for me to become a Member of Parliament. When I speak on their behalf, I know that I do so with significant local support from all parties. Leading Labour and Liberal councillors back what I am saying, as do local representatives and community bodies with no political interest. We are not nimbys. We want to meet local demand, but the scale, nature and lack of sustainability of the Government's current plans cause us great concern.
I represent a new town. There was consensus from the end of the second world war, under all Governments, that we should, through the planning system, build new housing in certain local areas to meet major regional and national demand. The new towns were one of those strategies. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is perfectly reasonable in a coherent regional planning structure to require areas to consider large-scale housing development? That happens to be occurring in his area. In my area, there was originally large-scale opposition to the new town of Telford, but it has turned out to be an absolute success as far as most people are concerned in Shropshire and the wider west midlands.
The hon. Gentleman persuasively puts forward one way to solve the nation's current housing problems, which I accept are serious. He is absolutely right to say that we have to find radical solutions. There are alternatives, however. Even in London and the south-east there are around 150,000 empty properties. It is possible to develop existing communities organically so that there is some proper sense of community. If the hon. Gentleman thinks of developments on the edge of Glasgow, such as the Easterhouse estates, he will know that many people say that putting down vast numbers of houses on the outside of towns without proper community infrastructure has not worked as there is no proper sense of community. We need to think more seriously about that.
My hon. Friend will agree that there is a massive difference between what is being proposed for his part of the world and the new towns, which were devised and implemented as self-sustaining communities. What is being proposed in his part of Bedfordshire is an influx of people who will not be sustained locally and who will travel to work, increasing wage inflation and environmental pollution and doing untold damage. They will not be building the sort of communities that we all want to develop and thrive.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is at the heart of my constituents' objections to current housing proposals for south Bedfordshire, which the four amendments would go some way to addressing.
I have put all these points to the Minister before, in an Adjournment debate, and I will continue to raise them on behalf of my constituents. It seems that I am the only elected person to whom my constituents can turn on these matters, because power has been taken out of my local planning authority's hands. I shall quote briefly from a letter and an article that the Chiltern Society recently sent me. This local society looks after environmental and planning issues in the area and has no party political stance. Its chairman, Mr. Robin Rowland, wrote to me with a magazine last month:
"If you have time only to read just one article, can I ask you in the interests of democracy to read the article on page 14 by Helen Whitmore. This epitomises the current almost total disregard for local community views. It can not be right to empower Central Government and unelected Regional bodies this way. I am personally very much a non-political person as is the Chiltern Society, but it would be very wrong for us not to express our views strongly on this subject. I hope you will also feel it necessary to raise awareness on this matter."
I certainly do feel the need to raise awareness of it.
I should like also to quote from the magazine concerned, because it is relevant to the four amendments that we are discussing. In the excellent article, my constituent Helen Whitmore, who is planning field officer in south Bedfordshire for the Chiltern Society, wrote of her considerable concern that the examination in public process, which is all that we have been offered, is inadequate, and she comments:
"At the Preliminary meeting to discuss the draft matters, a Government officer made it quite clear that it was not the job of the EiP to question Government Policy on growth in the South-East of England. We're stuck with it, like it or lump it.
This is not democracy. All we in South Bedfordshire are to enjoy out of this thoroughly undemocratic process is the overwhelming of our communities by thousands upon thousands of people for the benefit of" people from outside our area,
"but with little or no opportunity to even temper" the proposals put forward
"never mind rein it back to realistic . . . requirements . . . What appears to be happening to the planning system in this country with the stealth surrounding the destruction of true public involvement deeply frightens me. In relation to the devastation facing communities in South Bedfordshire, the process of an Examination-in-Public is inadequate, undemocratic and disempowering. It is a process which no longer allows individuals, local groups or for that matter voluntary organisations such as the Chiltern Society to put their case except in writing, unless specifically invited by the Examination Panel, nor to have convenient access to the debates. It is a disgrace."
So writes a thoroughly respectable local organisation of excellent people whose members are people of all political parties and none, but who are concerned for the good of our area.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful that the examination in public at Northampton is considering major housing proposals for his constituency and mine without any rights for local amenity groups or parish councils to make their views known? Is he aware that, according the Aylesbury Vale district council, the Government office for the south-east proposes to bring forward from the second half of the communities plan yet more housing for the first half of the plan? The Government office will not even accept any responsibility for telling local people that that is what it plans to do.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point with the lucidity that we have come to expect from him. He is right, and similar affronts to the feelings and needs of local people occur in every area we look at. We are all concerned about the low turnouts in local elections, but many of my constituents ask why they should bother to vote in local elections again if those who are elected have no power over some of the most significant issues that affect our area most deeply. The Government try to assume the mantle of new localism, but that is far from the truth.
Concern has been expressed from different standpoints by my hon. Friends and myself today, but the theme of lack of concern for local areas is the same. More people come to see me about housing than about any other issue, and I am concerned that the housing needs of my constituents should be fully and adequately met. All that I ask is that other areas act as responsibly as my area is acting, and that housing supply is spread across London and the south-east, where it is needed, instead of being rammed into a few areas—as currently proposed.
I declare an interest as a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. As such, I have practised within the planning system. I shall speak briefly so that the Minister has an opportunity to reply to some of the points that have been made ably by my hon. Friends.
My principal concern is the motion to disagree to Lords amendment No. 1, which says that the provisions on the regional planning body and the regional spatial strategy
"shall apply only if an elected assembly for the region has been established."
That amendment would make a bad Bill marginally better. The Bill will be a testimonial to the Minister and I call it Hill's Bill. The problem is that its insidious effects will not be felt until long after he has ceased to hold his present position. Only then will the country reap the problems that the Bill will sow.
The Bill has two fundamental disadvantages. First, it will do nothing to improve the democratic accountability of the planning system and, secondly, it will not speed up the planning system. In fact, it will do the reverse in both cases. I do not know how anyone, least of all the Minister, could believe that placing planning control under a regional system will improve matters. I have already demonstrated how my constituents will have to travel many hundreds of miles to make representations. Even if my constituents could discover the identities of the indirectly elected representatives, they would have great difficulty making representations about Gloucestershire matters to people living in Dorset or Cornwall. I do not know how my constituents would realistically be able to take part in a regional planning system.
The regional planning system is not democratic. The Minister even said today that the regional spatial strategy would be the property of the Secretary of State. The Minister's predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, said that it would be the creature of the Secretary of State. If the RSS is the creature of the Secretary of State, how can it possibly be democratic for local people? The system would be hugely centralised, not democratic.
The second issue is whether the Bill will speed up the planning system. Any developer will confirm that the reason we are building the lowest number of houses a year in peacetime since 1927 is the length of time that it takes to get planning permission for a residential development of any size. In most cases, it takes at least five years. We desperately need to speed up the planning system. The Government could speed up the existing system by ensuring that the structure plans and local plans were drawn up more frequently. That would also mean that people would feel more involved in the system. At present, when a controversial planning application is made, the people who would live next door to it often find out that it was contained in the structure plan or local plan that was drawn up four or five years ago and has been long forgotten, except by those experienced in the planning system. I have tabled a written question to the Deputy Prime Minister on that very point—it is No. 39 in the list of notice of questions in the Order Paper today. I have also asked about the strategic role of county councils, which are a vital part of the planning system and have been for 10 centuries. Shire counties have been in existence since the Norman conquest, but this vandalising Government propose to discard all the knowledge and experience of county councils.
The Bill will not speed up the planning system. I have also tabled a question—No. 36, as listed on the Order Paper—about the number of planning officers. The lack of qualified planning officers is one reason for the slowness of the system. Does the Minister think that he will get more qualified planning officers by tearing up the county council system? If he does, he is living in a different country.
I recognise that time is running out, so I shall conclude my remarks. This is a bad Bill and the effects of which will be felt for years to come, until a future Government rip it up and start again. It will mean a paradise for lawyers, with case after case to establish the law. The Bill will greatly slow down the planning system and alienate people from the democratic process, at local, district and county council level. We should not, therefore, be surprised when we see lower and lower turnouts at elections. It will all be the Government's fault.
With permission, I shall reply to the debate. I am grateful to Mr. Clifton-Brown for his generosity in abbreviating his speech to allow me to respond briefly to the debate. I wish to scotch a couple of canards that have been heard today. No hon. Member in my experience has ever done more to try to shore up a tiny majority than Andrew Selous, and he expressed outrage about the issue of distance in cases of examination in public, as did Mr. Lidington. However, under the Conservatives, there was no examination in public whatever: the Government simply imposed policy without debate. If it is any reassurance to the hon. Gentlemen, I can tell them that in future there will be sub-regional sessions under the public examination arrangements if the panel deems them appropriate. That should serve to reduce the distance that people have to travel.
We have heard a lot of hot air and some breathtaking claims, perhaps the most breathtaking of which was the new Tory doctrine that power should be as close to the people as possible, as proposed by Mr. Hayes. One thinks of the more than 50 Acts of Parliament in those 18 wasted years of Tory rule which in various ways removed power from local authorities and placed it in the hands of central Government. In the presence of Mr. Redwood, we remember the Conservatives' bitter opposition to any form of devolution, including the creation of a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament. Indeed, they far preferred to administer those nations and regions from a distance of hundreds of miles.
It is interesting that there was no response to the question posed by my hon. Friend David Wright to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings on whether he would support regional spatial strategies even if they were produced by elected regional assemblies. The stuff that we have heard could be described as the Jenkins hypothesis of power to local people. It is hot air. The Conservative party remains, as ever, the party of state power and centralisation.
Matthew Green made a sensible contribution on the need to have a balance between national, regional and local interests. He gave a franker recognition of the problems of nimbyism—the old localism, as we might call it—than we heard from the Conservatives, although the right hon. Member for Wokingham did give a positive espousal of nimbyism. The fact of the matter is, however, that in practice the hon. Member for Ludlow is supporting a denial of the need for a regional dimension in planning. The amendments would eliminate regional planning bodies altogether unless there is an elected regional assembly. That would turn the clock back to a situation prior to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, introduced by the Conservatives.
We have heard a great deal from the official Opposition about the weakening of local plans, but under the existing system, introduced by the Conservative Government, the lower tier development plan must have regard to regional planning guidance. Furthermore, it was the Conservative Government who directed local planning authorities, in particular county councils, to implement the regional planning guidance housing figures.
There has been much hot air about democracy, but we have cause to be anxious that that is a bluff, designed to destroy the regional dimension in planning altogether. The first group of amendments would ensure that there was no regional planning body unless there was an elected regional assembly, but even if there were a regional planning body because there was an elected regional assembly, the second group of amendments, which we have not had the opportunity to debate, would mean that it still fell to the county councils to define the contents of the regional spatial strategy through sub-regional plans. A na-ve observer might think that even with an elected regional assembly, there is not much point in having a regional spatial strategy. That is the bottom line in the Conservative party's representations.
We heard much from the hon. Member for Ludlow on amendment No. 2—