I beg to move, That this House
insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendment.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment (a) in lieu thereof, in page 2, line 7, at end insert—
'(2A) The Secretary of State must not give a direction under subsection (1) in relation to a body unless not less than 60% of the persons who are members of the body fall within subsection (2B).
(2B) A person falls within this subsection if he is a member of any of the following councils or authorities and any part of the area of the council or authority (as the case may be) falls within the region to which the direction (if given) will relate—
(a) a district council;
(b) a county council;
(c) a metropolitan district council;
(d) a National Park authority;
(e) the Broads authority.'.
Lords Reason 3B and the Government motion to insist on disagreement.
Before we move on to the substance of the Government's proposed amendment in lieu, I would be grateful if I could detain the house for a few moments in order to draw hon. Members' attention to just how willing my colleagues and I have been to listen to genuine issues of concern during the passage of this Bill through both Houses. Hon. Members will recall that we did not get the opportunity at the previous stage of the Bill in this House to debate those issues on which the Government had listened and tabled amendments when we could see that such genuine concerns had been raised.
So let me remind the House that we have introduced amendments that guarantee a statutory role in the regional planning process for county councils and other authorities with strategic planning expertise, through changes to clause 4. These amendments followed extensive discussions with the Local Government Association and the county councils network, and those organisations have undertaken to play their full part in making the new strategic planning arrangements work.
We have also introduced amendments that give more influence to the community and other interested parties through the new clause, introduced on Third Reading in the Lords, introducing the regional public participation statement. We have accepted the removal of statements of development principles provisions—that is in clause 41—and retained and strengthened outline planning permission in schedules 6 and 9.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has just said that he did not get time in the earlier stages of the Bill to discuss some of the amendments that the Government have accepted, and which he is now detailing. Perhaps he did not get time because the Government had imposed a timetable on those proceedings, which meant that discussion was not allowed. Surely it is an abuse for the Minister to start going through those measures now.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will realise that that is not a matter for the Chair. I suspect that it is more a matter for the usual channels.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I might say to the hon. Gentleman, through you, that, as one former Deputy Chief Whip to a current one, I know exactly what game he is playing at this juncture.
We have strengthened the application of the sustainable development clause—that is clause 38—and introduced amendments to the standard application form provisions to require access and design statements in appropriate circumstances. That is in clause 42. In addition to these amendments, we have also again listened to the debate and brought forward amendments on mezzanine floors, on the requirement to give reasons for substantive decisions, to introduce provisions for temporary stop notices and for appeal on second applications, and today we are also seeking the agreement of the House to amend the major infrastructure provisions to require an economic impact report.
Against the background of this substantial package of concessions, I have to express my strong disappointment that we are here again today to debate Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 3. I find it difficult to understand the grounds on which these amendments are being pursued. The effect of amendment No. 1 would be to end any system of regional planning where there was not an elected regional assembly. I cannot believe that that is the serious intention of either the official Opposition or the Liberal Democrats, and I am particularly surprised that the Lib Dems continue to cleave to this amendment. I am absolutely certain that they share the Government's belief in the need for strong regional planning.
Regional planning policies that form part of the development plan are essential 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 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 simply 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 region that produced the Minister and in which I still live, the east midlands, has no elected regional assembly. There is some merit in the amendment—although I shall not appear in the Division Lobby with those who are promoting it—in that our region has a Nottingham-Derby dominated caucus that is dumping on the northern parts of Leicestershire the adverse implications of uncontrolled airport expansion, which would be covered by this type of approach to planning. Does the Minister not see that, in the absence of an elected regional assembly, such circumstances can sometimes emerge?
I share my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for an elected regional assembly for the east midlands, the region of his and my birth. In the meantime, however, before that particular utopia is secured, we are best to go forward with the existing regional planning structures, which provide precisely for the kinds of exchanges that could limit the undesirable development mentioned by my hon. Friend. As ever, he and I essentially are on the same tack: two souls with a single mind on this subject. I am grateful that he will be joining me in the Division Lobby; that has not invariably been the case, as he and I well know.
There are many examples of the existing regional planning bodies coming forward with solutions to the cross-boundary problems that have bedevilled us for years. But under the current system those solutions are hard to put into practice. The system itself is a barrier. However good the solutions are, however much work has gone into preparing them, and however much support they have, they will be only a material consideration when it comes to deciding planning applications, and structure plans can delay them or prevent them from happening.
I know that Matthew Green, who speaks for the Lib Dems, has concerns about accountability, which I understand and appreciate. I have reflected very earnestly on a practical way to respond to these concerns, and I hope that the democratic guarantee that I offer in amendment (a) will commend itself to the hon. Gentleman. I have to say that the alternatives that one might contemplate offer a recipe for delay, obfuscation and perhaps litigation.
Most uncharacteristically, the approach of the Conservative spokesman, Mr. Hayes, smacks just a little of cynicism and opportunism. The Conservative party appears to combine support for regional planning for regions with elected regional assemblies with an equally avid determination that none will actually be established, and with an express intention to campaign against them in regional referendums. He and I both know that this amendment would effectively mean no regional planning. However, regional planning guidance was introduced by the Conservative Administration in 1990, with the publication of RPG15. The Conservative party is the parent of regional planning. This is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, and I invite the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the inconsistency of his position.
Lords amendment No. 3 is not acceptable because it imposes the burden and bureaucracy of blanket sub-regional planning irrespective of whether it is needed or adds value. Surely it is also defective in that it would require those plans to be drawn up by county councils and other authorities with strategic planning expertise, but would exclude others who may have an essential and valuable role to play: district councils or the regional development agencies, for example.
Our package as a whole is the right approach to sub-regional planning and gives a properly central role for county councils and other authorities with strategic planning expertise. The Bill and our draft guidance to regional planning, planning policy statement 11, in dealing with sub-regional strategies, makes it clear that those should be prepared for areas that are interdependent on the ground and that therefore need a distinct set of sub-regional policies. The Bill and our guidance guarantee that county councils and other authorities with strategic planning responsibilities will advise, and they make it clear that, where appropriate, those bodies are expected to lead on this work.
I appreciate that this is an important issue to many, and particularly to county councils. There are anxieties about decisions on which areas on the ground warrant a sub-regional strategy. There are concerns about ensuring that counties and other authorities play a full part, and I appreciate them and the fact that perhaps they have not come much to the fore in earlier debates because of the importance of other issues. I believe, however, that our approach to sub-regional planning, which is flexible and practical, is the right one for our communities and our planning system. It does not prescribe an across-the-board, universal requirement for sub-regional plans but fully supports the involvement of sub-regional partners where there is a clear case for sub-regional structures and planning. That will happen within the overall framework of advice from and consultation with local authorities and a local government-led regional planning body.
I am reasonably confident that it would be otiose, as we say in this place, to make specific provision in the Bill for an essentially flexible and locally and regionally driven arrangement. I note the concerns on the matter, however, and in the light of those, let me say that I am prepared to review the package ahead of the Bill's return to the other place.
Meanwhile, we ought to reflect on what these Lords amendments would mean. Lords amendment No. 3 would provide for sub-regional plans as part of the regional spatial strategy, with boundaries chosen by the regional planning body because the boundaries of counties do not fit for this purpose. I think that I have made it clear that the difference between us relates to how extensively this principle should be applied. I need to point out to the House, however, that that approach would simply not happen or would be considerably delayed under Lords amendment No. 1.
I shall now turn to amendment (a). 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. We are not suddenly transferring powers from counties to regions. We are 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 local authorities and wider stakeholders in the region. Local authority members represent their local authority on the regional planning body. Equally, other stakeholder group members, such as business or the voluntary sector, will speak for the interests that they represent.
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 reform needs to happen now. Of course, we need the safeguard of democratic accountability, and it needs to be the best one possible, consistent with our current governance arrangements. Local authorities speak for their communities—that is what they are elected to do. This Bill, along with its regulations and guidance, guarantees that theirs will be the loudest voice in regional planning. Local authorities are in the majority on regional chambers, which will be the regional planning bodies. Where there is consensus, the local authority's view will prevail in the RPB's work.
I recognise the views expressed, and I am willing to move, as in so many other areas, to deal with the concerns. Amendment (a) therefore highlights the leading role of local authorities and provides a statutory guarantee for the future. The Secretary of State will not be able to recognise a body as a regional planning body unless at least 60 per cent. of its members are drawn from county councils, unitary authorities, district councils, national parks authorities or the Broads Authority. I commend the proposal to the House.
As ever, the Minister for Housing and Planning makes an eloquent and persuasive case. He started by listing the concessions that the Government have already made. I needed no convincing of what a decent man he is, or that he is prepared to listen to the Opposition's arguments, which are also persuasive, as he has acknowledged. He is moving ever closer to the position articulated by Conservatives and even by Liberal Democrats. Indeed, it is such a persuasive case that it has driven the Liberal Democrats and us—I speak personally in this respect—into a union. Members of the House who know me well will know how difficult that is to achieve, and how important these matters must therefore be.
The Minister says that his whole strategy would be destroyed if he accepted the Lords amendments. That is not true. The proposals on sub-regional strategies, as requested by Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members in the other place, would add to the Government's intent of producing a system that is coherent and consistent. He says that they will lead to obfuscation and delay. If the price is a system that is effective, truly representative, and that allows properly for the sensitivities and considerations of localities to be taken into account in drawing up these plans, it is a price that we, as democrats, are obliged to pay. Democracy is often inconvenient and sometimes slower than systems that are less democratic, but it is none the worse for that. All Members of the House must defend the right of ordinary people to have their say in these matters, which affect the quality of their lives so directly, and I know that the Minister would be first in the vanguard of that defence. He therefore, ultimately, makes an unconvincing case.
I find—[Interruption.] I see that the Minister is taking advice from a senior colleague, and perhaps he is going to move even closer to our position. I cannot believe that with his good offices, and with the spirit in which he has spoken to the House today, knowing that the other place is ever willing to try to find a way through these problems, a solution cannot be found. Perhaps it will not be found until this House—or the Opposition at least—has taken the opportunity to press these matters to a vote.
The Minister must, I think, acknowledge that, not for the first time, the Lords speak for the people and the Government speak merely for themselves. That is not just my view. Perhaps surprisingly, the Minister's noble Friend Lord Rooker said in the other place
"Noble Lords are much more in touch in some ways with what is happening than is sometimes the case elsewhere in this building."
He recognised that the Lords are often able to articulate a case on behalf of the common man in a way that is sometimes lost to those who have grown grand and privileged on the luxuries and benefits of office. That is not, of course, a position in which we find ourselves, but perhaps one day we shall be subject to the same temptations. I hope that we will resist them in true Tory spirit.
I note that when word goes out around the Palace that Hill and Hayes are talking again, the Tea Rooms and Restaurants empty and Members flood the Chamber. The Labour Bench is particularly well populated for this debate, by Members who knew that they would be subject to a rare treat in the form of the Minister's peroration.
The Minister accused me of cynicism, but let me say this: the Lords have properly identified the substantial democratic deficit that lies at the heart of the Government's intentions. I hold no candle for regional assemblies, but I do make a robust case for democratic legitimacy and proper accountability, and that is what we are really debating today.
Three points need to be made. To avoid repetition, for as a matter of habit I try to do that—for the sake of clarity and the record I should perhaps say that, as a matter of habit, I avoid repetition—let me say that the case that the Lords make is threefold.
First, we have the argument about democratic legitimacy, well made both here and there. The idea that we should transfer or indeed confirm powers—I know the Minister makes the case that they were originally given to regions by a Conservative Government—to bodies on which there are no elected people seems to me unacceptable, and I suspect that it is unacceptable to many Labour Members. We heard, for example, the concerns of David Taylor, who often speaks and, as the Minister says, votes with his conscience rather than merely on the instructions of heavy-handed Government Whips. Paul Clark shakes his head. He is not one of those; he is one of the more human faces at the Whips Office. There must, however, be others who are altogether more heavy-handed.
The second key issue is that of effective accountability. That means having access to where decisions are made, and having faith in the process. The further we move the exercise of political power from the people, the less trust the people are likely to have in the exercise of political power. The plans must be made close to people, and people's loyalty, faith and adherence must be inspired. They must believe in the plans. For, as my noble Friend Lord Hanningfield said in the other place, this is a distinctly personal matter. That gentleman, who has a distinguished record both in the upper House and in local government, said:
"There is no more personal thing in local government than planning. The Government should not think that they can ignore the democratic processes."
Lord Marlesford, who spoke persuasively, said:
"the Government somehow believe that the higher the level at which strategic planning is done, the better."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 26 April 2004; Vol. 660, c. 565–9.]
In fact, the opposite is true. It is of course important for us to have a bigger view, but that bigger view must take proper account of the concerns of local communities; and the lower down the system those concerns can be expressed effectively, the better. The involvement of local communities confers legitimacy on the plans that ultimately emerge.
That brings me to the third issue: sensitivity to local people, understanding of local needs, and responsiveness from a system that, as the Minister has acknowledged on previous occasions, is often seen as esoteric, bureaucratic and excessively burdensome—one might even say Byzantine.
We remain unconvinced by the Government's case, although we welcome the Minister's spirit and tone. I do not find that surprising. I have found the right hon. Gentleman to be a receptive Minister who genuinely listens to a proper case put from any part of the Chamber. Now is his chance to show just how responsive and receptive he is by taking on board arguments that he has acknowledged to have been well made.
I know that Matthew Green wants to speak. I look forward—I almost said "for once", but that would have been uncharitable—to his speech, because I know he has many good and useful points to make. Let me end on this note. As I said, the Minister accused me of cynicism; but he knows that romantics like me are immune to cynicism. This is not a matter of cynicism. It is a matter of good government, good planning and good leadership. I hope that what the Minister does today and hereafter will show all three.
I recommend to my colleagues that in this instance we support the Lords. We will be voting "No", not because we do not think that there is good will, but because we feel that the time has come to stand our ground on these important matters in defence of the common people of our country. I hope that, ultimately, the Minister will reach the same conclusion.
I, too, congratulate the Minister on his approach, not just in the past week but since he took charge of the Bill. We could say that considerable concessions have been made; we could say, if we were being charitable, that people of like mind have reached agreement. There has been movement on the Government's part, and also on the Opposition's part, since we embarked on the Bill nearly 18 months ago. Some of us have served all 18 months, and it seems a very long time.
Mr. Hayes and I agree on the fact that this is about creating a good planning system. As the Minister will know, a good planning system carries the confidence of the people who use it, and people are most confident when a system is democratic. The Minister cannot suggest in any circumstances that the Government's proposals or the amendment make this system democratic.
Rather than going over ground that we have been over many times, I want to comment on the Government's proposed amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 1B. I am afraid that, for once, the Minister has produced a smokescreen. The Bill proposes that 30 per cent. of members of the regional planning body should come from the business sectors rather than the councils. It is now being suggested that 60 per cent. should come from the councils, so there is presumably 10 per cent. of flexibility. That will mean that many councils that are losing powers—the primary tier, the county councils, the metropolitans and the unitaries—will not be represented. Indeed, the Minister's amendment includes district councils, which are not losing powers. It is an odd amendment, which for once lacks coherence and intellectual clarity.
The Minister knows that there is potential for common ground, but his amendment is not that common ground. I do not think that he will be surprised to hear me say that. He will, I believe, struggle to justify the continued removal of powers from directly elected councils, and the granting of those powers to, at best, a partly indirectly elected regional planning body, which will have a considerable influence on what happens. Democracy is not, perhaps, always the quickest form of government, but it is the best that we have, and I am surprised that the Minister is prepared to overlook democracy in the name of expediency, which is exactly what is being proposed.
There is some room for common ground, and the Minister knows that a sensible compromise could be reached. I welcome the fact that he is prepared to reconsider the other part of this group of Lords amendments, which affects the sub-regional plans, and that again shows the spirit that has been evident from him so far. If he will show the same sort of flexibility on the Lords reason, then we are very close to considerable agreement on the Bill. However, the Minister will have to move further than the amendment that the Government have tabled. That does not move; it just states what exists on the ground in regional planning bodies at the moment, and does not in any way increase their democratic involvement.
I hope that the Minister thinks again. We, too, will vote against the Government's insistence on disagreement and their amendment in lieu. I hope that he will take the opportunity before this matter returns to the Lords again to reflect on the position that has been outlined, and see whether a more sensible compromise can be reached.
I feel that I need to respond briefly to the points that have been made. I first turn to the remarks of Mr. Hayes, who dwelt on democratic accountability. I am pretty certain that I am accurate in saying that he claimed that our proposals would mean a transfer of powers to bodies with no elected members. For reasons that I shall demonstrate, there is no transfer to the regional bodies in the proposals, because the powers are already there. I contend that we are introducing a process that is more transparent and has more community involvement. The regional spatial strategy will be tested in public by examination in public—again, evidence of the extent to which we are introducing a process that is more transparent and, I assert, more democratic than that which prevails at present.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the existing bodies have elected members. They all have a majority of elected members. Indeed, on six of the eight regional chambers that act as regional planning bodies, the Conservative party has the largest number of members. They are hardly institutions immune to the expression of representative opinion at local level, opinion that might be not entirely sympathetic with Government views on regional development.
Surely even the Minister will admit that that is a somewhat cheap jibe at the Conservatives—I say that as a Liberal Democrat—for the simple reason that we are talking about the principle of whether something is democratic, not about which party currently has the largest number of councillors on an indirectly elected body. Those members are elected to their council, but then appointed to a regional planning body, not necessarily from all the councils in turn. The Minister should admit that he is not being fair in his reflection.
My comment was not intended as a jibe, and was more of a reminder of the opportunities that exist. I accept that there would be an even more compelling case if there were to be elected regional assemblies, and I certainly welcome the Conservative party's new-found enthusiasm in the amendments for elected regional assemblies. They will be aware that elected regional assemblies are not yet proposed for the entirety of England. Although we anticipate the success of the referendums for regional assemblies in the northern parts of the country, we recognise that there might be some slight delay in their introduction elsewhere, and it is in the regions without elected assemblies that it would be nonsense to scrap the regional planning function that was the child of Conservative Government policy making way back in 1990.
I turn to the charge of loss of democracy in the new system made by Matthew Green. What really matters to people is that they can have their say, and have their views listened to in the planning process. He will know that central to our reforms at regional and local level is greater community involvement, and he has welcomed that on many occasions. Our amendment would require the regional planning body, as he knows, to prepare, publish and comply with a statement of its policies for involving interested parties in preparing draft revisions of the regional spatial strategy. Draft regulations require the regional planning bodies to consult a wide range of bodies while the draft revision of the regional spatial strategy is being prepared and after it has been published.
The logic of what the Minister has just said is that an autocratic regime that consults its citizens is better than a democratic one, and that consultation is a substitute for democracy. I am sure that he did not mean to say that to the House.
I certainly did not mean to say that, and indeed I did not. Of course consultation is no substitute for democracy. However, greater consultation and greater community involvement, within the framework of a democratically accountable process—which is exactly what our planning reform agenda and our regional spatial strategy proposals are all about—certainly strengthens democratic and popular involvement in the process. That is not there at present, but will be introduced by these measures.
Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that clause 7 provides for independent public examination of the draft revision of the regional spatial strategy, during which people will be invited to speak. That will take place in all but exceptional circumstances. I have mentioned draft planning policy statement 11, which sets out ways in which the regional planning body can and should involve stakeholders and the wider community on an ongoing basis, as initial ideas and options are turned into firm proposals.
We are not squeezing democracy out of the system. Under the Bill's provisions, as now, it will be for the regional planning body to propose the number of new dwellings that should be provided in its region. We are simply changing the basis on which those figures can be allocated down to the next level, and instead of that being determined by county boundaries, regional planning bodies will be able to make allocations on a sub-regional basis, taking account of housing market needs.
We are at the end of an exceptionally long process with the Bill, which was first introduced to the House in December 2002, and that process has been a great pleasure. The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, is to pick up the reins and steer this great carriage forward. I regret the fact that the Opposition parties continue to oppose these measures, but I hope that the winning post is now in sight, and that, with a further burst, the endgame can be secured.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 1 agreed to.
Lords Reason: No. 3B
The Lords insist on their Amendment 3 to which the Commons have disagreed, for the following Reason—
Because regional spatial strategies should be based on the views of local communities
Motion made, and Question put, That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Keith Hill.]
The House divided: Ayes 235, Noes 141.
Question accordingly agreed to.
It being more than one hour after the commencement of proceedings on the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [
Lords amendment No. 41B agreed to.
Committee appointed to draw up a Reason to be assigned to the Lords for insisting on disagreeing to their amendment No. 3; Paul Clark, Matthew Green, Mr. John Hayes, Keith Hill and Linda Gilroy to be members of the Committee; Keith Hill to be the Chairman of the Committee; 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.