My starting point is that I want to support and achieve growth in our economy and good-quality infrastructure, but I also want good-quality local planning decisions. I have reservations about certain aspects of the Bill, and I seek reassurance.
As Joan Walley reminded us, a great deal of time was spent on the Floor of the House and in various Committees debating the national policy planning framework, which has only recently been approved—in particular, the need for a definition of sustainability that encompassed environmental, economic and social factors. Personally, I was very pleased with the final wording and outcomes. I thought it was an example of good government: Government listening and making changes to the draft document as a consequence of consultation.
In our consideration of the Bill, we must not lose sight of the underlying principles that we have only just agreed. I am concerned that the Bill appears to propose a massive shift away from local decision making to a centralised approach. At the very least, there should be a clear evidence base for the proposals, as well as full scrutiny of their potential outcomes. In addition, the question should be asked: can we achieve the stated objectives in a better, more effective way that would be compatible with local decision making and local community involvement?
I would like to look at four of the areas in the Bill concerning planning, the first of which is the designation of a local planning authority, with the Planning Inspectorate making the decisions. It is interesting to note the cross-party Local Government Association view of this proposal as counter-productive, centralist and at odds with localism. That raises the question of whether planning is the problem, and I am not at all sure that I would follow entirely the analysis made by John Howell.
Clause 1 provides the Secretary of State with a wide-ranging power to remove planning decisions from the local level, but it does not provide any detail of the criteria. What scale of intervention are we talking about? Are we talking about intervening on a handful of authorities, or dozens of authorities? That is highly significant. We are asked to think about speed and quality of decision making. Clearly, there is a lot of variation in council performance in meeting the time targets on both minor and major applications, but we need a starting point to look at the reasons, with the Department—perhaps it has done so already; I would be happy to learn of it—working with the local authority and asking: what is it that is holding up the authority’s decision making? What is it that means councils are missing the determination targets for eight weeks and 13 weeks?
I represent an area that includes some small district councils. Their planning departments have a heavy work load in relation to the number of officers employed. The question of whether that is a matter of the council reallocating its resources, or adequate resources being provided, needs to be addressed. All in all, it seems to be a massive decision to take planning decisions from a local authority, but I am not at all sure, from what I have heard, that it is as big as it sounds. It could just be sensible intervention: working with local authorities, establishing the facts, proceeding, and then, perhaps at the end of the line there may be a case for taking stronger action with one or two authorities. However, my reading suggests that the Bill could permit a massive intervention.
I am concerned about the potential scale of the changes to section 106 agreements. Section 106s have delivered affordable housing. We know that councils are already overwhelmingly responding to changed economic circumstances, including renegotiating section 106 agreements voluntarily, and they can do that within the context of their local plans. I am not clear on the evidence that suggests that it is the affordable housing element of section 106s that, on a very large scale, is holding up planning applications. If we had that evidence, it would be much easier to make a good decision. We need to identify and sort out the problems. A big worry about losing section 106 housing requirements is that there will be no general consideration of development plan policy, such as the need for homes at a range of prices in local communities. The National Housing Federation mentions the rural exception sites, for example, which are of course very dear to my heart.
The policy could be counter-productive, and I ask the Minister to address that concern. There is a risk of stronger local opposition to developer plans if the perception grows that new developments will be just for expensive new homes, or, as in my area, for more second homes, and that local people will end up with no affordable homes. Having an assurance that there would be homes for local young people would mean that the community could sign up to them, and that is important.
There could be further delays to housing, with developers waiting for the Bill to be implemented.