Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 5th November 2012.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 4:15 pm, 5th November 2012

I say to the hon. Lady that it is not ridiculous; it is what clause 1 says. If she has not read the clause, I suggest that she does so carefully. On housing targets, the truth is that under the new arrangements the figures that local authorities will have to come up with for housing numbers in their area will not be very different from the figures produced by the regional spatial strategy, because there is still the same housing need. That is certainly the case for the authority in Leeds, because I have spoken to the chief planning officer about that.

The truth is that if hon. Members read the Bill, they will see that the Secretary of State will decide which authorities will lose the right to decide applications for themselves, he will decide what kinds of applications will come to him for decision, and he alone will take the decision in the place of local councillors. Of course, there will be no right of appeal—something the Bill also states.

I want to turn, as my hon. Friend Angela Smith invited me to a moment ago, to the grounds on which the Secretary of State may designate authorities. Clearly, he has made up his mind; he is just not telling us how he has done it. The clause gives him the power to do that anywhere, on any basis, for as many authorities as he likes, and there will be no check or balance from anybody else.

As for the criteria, when the Minister with responsibility for planning appeared before the Select Committee he said that speed and poor quality measured by decisions overturned by the Planning Inspectorate would be the factors that Ministers would take into account. On speed, I am genuinely puzzled. First, councils currently decide 82% of applications within eight weeks and 93% within 13 weeks. Those are the facts. The percentage of applications approved reached a 10-year high in 2011-12. Secondly, developers can already appeal to the Planning Inspectorate on grounds of non-determination in the required time under section 78(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. What does the Bill add to that power? Thirdly, there is a practical problem, as the planning Minister had to admit. He said that there was a wrinkle in the statistics. The data on timeliness do not take account of planning performance agreements. As hon. Members will know, that is where developers and councils jointly reach agreement to say, “Hey, this development could take a bit more time to approve. Can we agree, in effect, to set aside the time limits?” Instead of there being a simple measure, the Secretary of State will have to decide whether he thinks the reason given by an authority, when decisions are apparently slow, is good enough to justify his not taking the power away from them.