Under our plan-led system, local planning authorities are responsible for producing local plans and taking decisions on the vast majority of planning applications. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is reforming the planning system to achieve better and more up-to-date local plans, improve the processes for handling planning applications and ensure that local communities are involved in plan preparation from the outset. That will improve accountability, efficiency and effectiveness.
Why should the East of England regional assembly—unaccountable, unloved and unelected by those who are affected—dictate development policy? Why will the Government not trust local people to take the planning decisions that affect their environment through the local councillors whom they elect?
I might point out that the East of England regional assembly, which the hon. Gentleman castigates so comprehensively, is dominated by his party. The fact is that those decisions are taken by elected representatives from his own party. However, let me say to the hon. Gentleman, who has been so persistent on this issue, that the people of south Bedfordshire for whom he speaks will benefit from the economic growth associated with the proposals for Luton airport, and that they cannot be immune from the housing consequences of that. This Government will ensure that the transport infrastructure is put in place, and we will start with brownfield. We will accept no strictures from a party that, when in government, allowed developers to rampage over the countryside.
Can it be right that when some sandal-wearing lobbyists from London are the only objectors to new roundabouts on the A1, that automatically leads to a 12-month delay and a public inquiry, whereas when my constituent Mrs. Harvey and her councillor wish to object to a development in an adjoining property to hers, they are told that the decision will be taken by the local council on delegated authority because the Government have specified that 90 per cent. of all planning decisions must be made through delegated authority? Is that local democracy or is it not?
My hon. Friend is in fine popular—one is tempted to say even populist—vein. We are seeking to ensure that sandal-wearers from any part of the country cannot unreasonably impede planning developments. That is one of the central proposals of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. My hon. Friend is right to say that a substantial number of lower-order—if I may put it that way—planning decisions are delegated, but that is essentially a matter for local authorities and elected representatives. It is open to his local authority and councillors, I dare say at his excellent behest, to change that system if they so desire.
The Minister's words about local accountability and local consultation will ring pretty hollow with my constituents in the village of Cottenham, who have seen planning inspectors overrule local opinion and the local authority time and again to grant ever more Traveller permissions on greenfield sites over and above the 35 sites that have existed without dispute for many years. [Interruption.] It is not about Travellers; it is a matter of size. Why will the Government not take heed of local opinion about the number of people who can be integrated into a local community, and why do they consistently override the local accountability that the Minister apparently praises?
I do not share the impatience of some Members with the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman. We have followed developments in Cottenham very carefully and we wholly understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman is articulating. He will understand that those matters are still the subject of planning applications and in some cases before the courts, so it is difficult for me in my quasi-judicial capacity to express a view. Let me say, however, that we are aware that existing enforcement procedures are very time consuming, which is why the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, to which I referred earlier, will introduce the option of temporary stop notices. They should be helpful in cases such as Cottenham. We will also emphasise the opportunities available to local authorities through planning guidance.
Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the proposed changes to PPG6 on out-of-town shopping centres will not reduce the power of local authorities to refuse applications for them? In particular, will he assure me that developers will not have any greater ability to insist on one large single site for such developers, which naturally forces shopping centres out of town, and that local authorities will not have taken away from them their power to refuse extensions to centres such as Meadowhall in my constituency? If that were extended, it could damage not only Sheffield city centre, but Rotherham town centre and other district centres.
These matters are subject to case-by-case decision making, and it would be wrong to issue a general directive against extensions or developments in any circumstances whatever. However, my hon. Friend should understand what we have achieved since we came to power in 1997, and realise the purposes of PPG6—and, indeed, the revised PPS6—which are to continue to resist greenfield development and to protect our inner-city areas and town centres. The fact remains that, as the planning permissions granted by the Conservatives for greenfield development begin to run out, we are seeing increasing development in city centre areas. So successful has the return to the city centre been in our major cities that we are now turning our attention to the second tranche of smaller towns and cities, where we want to encourage the same revitalisation that we have seen over the past six to seven years in the larger towns.
On the subject of planning and development, the Minister knows that the green belt was always intended to be a tight belt of land to prevent urban sprawl. Since 1997, however, it has been less a belt than a piece of elastic, as the green belt has expanded further into the open countryside and from the places it is supposed to protect. Given that the Library told me that answers thus far to questions on that matter have been "imprecise"—indeed, it described them as "evasive"— will the Minister tell me how much urban sprawl has taken place since 1997 and explain to the House how many acres of inner green belt have been developed under Labour?
The answer is perfectly simple. Since the Government came to power, we have expanded the green belt by 25,000 hectares and there are plans to extend it by a further 12,000. It was the hon. Gentleman's party that allowed low-density development to destroy and concrete over our countryside, and it is the Labour Government who are committed to brownfield first. We are already achieving well above our 60 per cent. objective for development on brownfield sites, and we will continue with that purpose.