Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 8:16 pm on 5th November 2012.

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Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis 8:16 pm, 5th November 2012

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. Lots of other factors are leading to inefficiency in planning departments. It is not just about the number of people; it has more to do with inefficient processes and local bureaucracy than with the points that he is making.

It is right that the Government should seek to speed up the planning system, but as I mentioned to the new planning Minister in the recent Select Committee meeting, there are concerns about the criteria that will be used to determine whether a planning authority is failing to do its job. The Minister reassured me in his response that the effect of the changes would be imposed only on a limited number of local authorities.

It is true—the Government must take this on board—that we must be clear about what the criteria are and that they should be developed in close conjunction with the LGA and other interested parties. If we get the criteria right, other activities in local government, peer pressure and incentives for local planning authorities might result in improved performance across the board without our having to take the measures proposed in the Bill. I hope that the LGA, working with the Government, will be able to raise the performance of planning authorities without those measures being necessary. We need to be careful to avoid central prescription and to get the criteria right.

I do not think that anybody on the Government Benches is claiming that somehow creating the perfect planning system will mean that house building or new infrastructure will increase or that we will all move on into a wonderful world of economic growth. I do not think anybody is claiming that; it is being put up as a straw man by the Opposition. We all accept that planning is not necessarily a total obstacle to growth, and it is not the only reason we have stalled development.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, developers are sitting on banks of permissions that they have held for some time, and legitimate concerns about the commercial viability of those permissions are preventing them from taking the necessary action to move forward with projects that would benefit the community. It is therefore right for the Bill to seek to modify section 106 schemes and to give freedom for renegotiation when it is clear that such schemes are stalled because they are preventing developers from moving forward with viable commercial schemes. It is right, but we should not see that measure as a panacea or in isolation from the other policies the Government are pursuing, as we must, to stimulate house building and development, to provide guarantees or to explore other options. For example, Bill Esterson spoke about the need to consider other ways to stimulate and get other private capital into the housing market. There are other things we need to do, and the modification of section 106 agreements is not a panacea, but it is right that we consider commercial viability—it is an important issue that the Government need to address.

The Bill contains provisions on infrastructure, and I think we all accept that in this country we have been very bad historically at getting large infrastructure developed quickly. We urgently need to upgrade our energy and transport infrastructure to meet the challenges of a modern economy and a globalised world. The Bill contains some important simplification measures, on which there would probably be cross-party agreement, to remove overlapping consents, and we must do that to free up the planning system. The principle behind our approach to infrastructure development should be that we need a streamlined system so that we can develop the vital infrastructure we need within years, not decades. The measures that tidy up confused complementary consents will contribute to that.

The Bill introduces important simplification and deregulation of the planning system. Taken with other Government measures, it will make a significant contribution to the Government’s broader objectives, which we are pursuing through a number of Bills and other measures, of rebalancing the economy away from London and the south-east and promoting development in the regions—including the west midlands and the north-west, which have lagged behind for too many years. We must do all we can to free up the system so that we can upgrade our transport and energy infrastructure quickly and so that we have a streamlined system for dealing with major infrastructure projects that gives a clear line of sight for the future.

We must address the clogged-up nature of the planning system, and the Government have already done that through our reforms. We must ensure that if planning authorities are not performing properly, they can reach the right performance levels. We must also ensure that we get timely decisions. That, combined with other measures, will help to ensure that we build more homes, which we desperately need in this country. The Bill, along with other recent announcements and the Government’s general direction of travel, will make a significant contribution to achieving those objectives.