Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 5:16 pm on 5th November 2012.

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Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 5:16 pm, 5th November 2012

The point is well made. Investment in power should be for the benefit of the whole community; the aim should not be for the profits to go into the hands of a very few people.

The Government cannot lead by example abroad if they cannot back up their principles with deeds at home. I believe that the Bill condemns a whole generation of people who desperately need jobs and hope for their own future now to a waste land without jobs and homes, and no say whatsoever in local affairs. So much for localism. This way lies a real threat to our parliamentary participatory democracy.

We have a U-turn on localism, a set of incoherent proposals for the financing of investment in new homes, and an NPPF which, in the light of the Bill, we shall be hard-pressed to find fit for purpose. We have a Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—I am sorry to see that he is no longer present to listen to the argument—who is taking responsibility for the ability of his friends the developers to get their own way, and a fast track to development and the profits that come from that, without any of the responsibilities for the people, the places, the footpaths, the heritage and the environmental protections which his Department ostensibly promotes. That is a very flawed definition of localism.

I assume that Parliament will vote for the Bill tonight. Incredibly, just as we forgo all rights to planning safeguards and local democracy, it seems that the Secretary of State has not already taken enough of the cake. He is just not satisfied. As we heard from my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, the shadow Secretary of State, he is venturing to trump employment rights in the workplace as well. I feel very strongly about that. We need only read the notes issued by his Department to realise how justified he feels it is to prevent people from going to employment tribunals by the back door. He is dressing it up as employee ownership, but in all but a very few cases it will be a smokescreen for depriving people of rights at work. The Government ought at least to be transparent about that.

Let us look at what the Government are doing. They are introducing drastic measures to kick-start a building programme, or so they tell us. As we have heard, it is necessary to look no further than the Local Government Association to see that the Government have got it wrong. We have been told already that

“Approval is in place for 400,000 new homes and councils are green-lighting planning applications at the fastest rate in a decade. The big problem is that developers can’t borrow to build and first-time buyers can’t get mortgages. Taking planning decisions away from local communities and placing them in the hands of an unelected quango isn’t going to fix that.”

That was a quote from Sir Merrick Cockell. The Government should be listening to find out how to address these issues.

I have many concerns about the lack of activity in construction, but the Bill will not deal with them. I am also concerned about the Climate Change Act 2008. As well as centralising the system and undermining local government, the Bill will fail to tackle climate change. I hope that there will be an opportunity in Committee to see whether duties can be placed on the Secretary of State when national policy statements are drawn up to consider climate change, whether section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which deals with the duty on climate change and local plans, can be strengthened to link to the Climate Change Act, and whether an obligation can be created with regard to the survey of plans so that carbon issues are considered. Those are all issues that need to be addressed constructively in Committee and in the other House.

Mention has been made of the concerns of local authorities, as if they were not strapped for cash enough with all that is happening under the comprehensive spending review. How on earth will they be able to carry out their responsibilities? I fear that the Bill paints a picture of a local community where there are few affordable homes. We have seen already how people in London will be forced out of the capital to cheaper homes elsewhere. There is no joined-up consideration by the Government of where we need the social housing.

I believe that the Bill will create a situation in which commons and village greens become something to resist rather than to celebrate, where the community is busy trying to develop ideas for a balanced community through a neighbourhood plan but where those who want to develop in the area can go straight to central Government, and where it may be easier to reduce or block people’s access to the countryside by changes to procedures on rights of way. I have sat through many debates about rights of way, footpaths and stopping up orders and how to get people to keep their local footpaths. This Bill could take all that away.

Our Committee had real misgivings about the NPPF at the time. We did what we could to change it for the better. Now that it is in place, what is needed is stability to allow local authorities time to get their local plans in place and to develop procedures to co-ordinate with one another under the NPPF “duty to operate” on higher-than-local issues, which were previously dealt with in regional spatial strategies. On that, we need look no further than the fact that the DCLG, when it got rid of those strategies, also got rid of the environmental appraisals that were required. There is no joined-up approach to all this. Instead the goalposts are being moved again. The NPPF was sold on the importance of local decision making in planning matters, but the Bill takes control and influence away from local authorities and centralises planning decisions. I believe that it is just plain wrong.