Planning White Paper

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Public Accounts Commission – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 21st May 2007.

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Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Secretary of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) 3:31 pm, 21st May 2007

First, I thank the Secretary of State for letting me have a copy of the White Paper at the same time as the statement.

It is just three years since the Government's last attempt at planning reform and some of the guidance reached councils only last month. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government are having to re-do the exercise because the Act designed to speed up the process and engage local people has only made planning more sclerotic and left communities feeling more disempowered?

How does the Secretary of State explain that, after 10 years in power and with all the rhetoric about increasing home ownership, the number of home owners is declining for the first time in recorded history and the number of houses being built fell again last year?

Of course we all want to see a planning system that is simpler, swifter and seen to be fair. So why not start by abolishing the Deputy Prime Minister's regional planning bodies, which are unelected, unaccountable and unwanted? Does she not realise that the centralised planning, micromanaged targets and plethora of contradictory edicts that have snarled up the planning system have emanated from the Government and reflect their core philosophy of top-down control, with the bureaucrats in Whitehall knowing best?

It was the Chancellor who hired Kate Barker to review the planning process and he has bought her case for a centralised and undemocratic planning quango. How does that square with his promise last week to

"devolve power to localities and listen to the people"?

The promised engagement and consultation are not the same as decision making, so why are local people being offered less say under the Prime Minister-elect than under his predecessor?

We all accept that there are some projects of strategic national importance that have been too delayed in the past, but is that a reason for creating an unelected and unaccountable quango as a means of passing the ministerial buck? Conservatives will vigorously oppose this erosion of local democracy.

We welcome the news that the Government have rejected Kate Barker's recommendation that regional planning bodies should review the green belt, but is that rejection meaningful when the present regional spatial strategies propose housing targets that compel the use of green belt to meet the housing quota?

I am sure that Members on both sides will be concerned about plans to relax restrictions on out-of-town retail development. How can the Government justify abolishing the needs test for out-of-town shopping when so many of Britain's towns have been turned into ghost towns by the dominance of retail parks on their peripheries? My right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer created a life support machine for high streets with planning policy guidance note 6—PPG6—that the Government are about to switch off.

We welcome more relaxed planning on home improvements, particularly the green energy measures that would have made the life of my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron a lot easier. Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that the huge increase in such applications arises when people have to extend their homes because they cannot afford to move? Should not the Government apologise for presiding over a house price crisis stoked by increases in stamp duty and a doubling of council tax?

On the subject of tax, I shall turn my attention to the planning gain supplement. We support the campaign to put i before e—infrastructure before expansion—but how can the Minister be so sure that infrastructure funding will find its way out of the Treasury and back to the local community? We accept that more homes need to be built, but why not seize the opportunity and regenerate the suburbs around Britain's cities and use vehicles such as community land trusts to get local homes for local people in Britain's towns and villages?

I am disappointed that there is no recognition that garden-grabbing is an ongoing problem. The White Paper praises the increased use of brownfield sites, but what percentage of them are, in fact, gardens? Is it any wonder that appeals are up, when such development is so unpopular?

The Government have presided over a housing crisis of monumental proportions. Despite all their schemes, targets and meddling, key workers cannot afford to live near their work; the young cannot get a foot on the housing ladder; homelessness is higher than it was under the last Conservative Government; and the rate of social house building is down.

Only last week, the Chancellor pledged to stop politics being a spectator sport and to provide a voice for communities, but does not this White Paper show that the reality falls far short of the rhetoric and that when it comes to planning this Government choose centralised bureaucracy over local democracy every time?