Clause 29 — Commencement

Growth and Infrastructure Bill (Programme) (No. 2) – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 17th December 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Amendments made: 33, page 34, line 24, after ‘6,’, insert ‘8, 17, 23,’.

Amendment 34, line 26, leave out ‘, 17’.

Amendment 35, page 34, line 26, leave out ‘and 24’ and insert

‘, 24 and [Power to postpone compilation of Welsh rating lists]’.—(Michael Fallon.)

Title

Amendment made: 66, line 5 leave out ‘owners’ and insert ‘shareholders’.—(Michael Fallon.)

Third Reading

Queen’s consent signified.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill is about the coalition’s priority: promoting economic growth. It contains a range of practical measures to boost infrastructure, increase housing supply and simplify planning rules, and all those things will make a difference now. I am grateful to the House for acting so swiftly in considering the Bill and I thank all colleagues who have contributed today, in Committee and on Second Reading. I particularly wish to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, who shouldered most of the burden, and the Opposition for ensuring that, although we did not come to agreement on all the main issues, they were at least properly ventilated and discussed.

As amended, the Bill will provide for commencement on Royal Assent for clauses that support stalled sites being unblocked, broadband being rolled out, the removal of legislative blocks on the gas innovation network competition, and broadening the major infrastructure regime—key reforms to promote growth, on which the Government are acting decisively. It is regrettable that the Labour party stands alone in failing to appreciate the urgency of the Bill and continuing to oppose it.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

Does the Minister agree that where the landowner blocking a development happens to be a Government Department—that is the case with the national health service and the missing link of road infrastructure in north Colchester—other Departments must bring pressure to bear and have joined-up governance so that the land can be released, rather than other less-desirable land going instead?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

I understand that and it is a piece of constituency pleading so skilful that I fear I may have to address it in greater detail in writing. I will do that in the next few days if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

Local councils and communities are at the heart of the planning process and we have no intention of changing that. We reject the flawed approach of top-down Whitehall housing targets and it is for local councils to determine where development should go and how best to meet housing need. That is why our policy is to revoke Labour’s regional strategies as soon as possible. Indeed, we have laid an order in Parliament to revoke the east of England regional strategy, which will come into force on 3 January.

Our reforms have given significant additional power to councils and communities but with that comes the responsibility to exercise planning functions properly. The measures in the Bill for tackling poor performance are aimed squarely at councils that are failing to deliver an effective service. Applicants can reasonably expect timely and good quality decisions—justice delayed is justice denied. Most councils deal with planning applications efficiently, but a small minority need to raise their game if we are to ensure that their local areas do not lose out in the recovery that is now under way. The Bill is therefore not about removing local people’s involvement in planning decisions. Where a decision is made by the Planning Inspectorate, local people will still have their say in the same way as they would if the decision were made by their local planning authority, but slow decisions are bad for local communities as well as for the wider economy.

The Bill also seeks to broaden the scope of the nationally significant infrastructure planning regime to promote investment, so that developers of large-scale business and commercial schemes will have the option to request to use the infrastructure regime. Given that the speed with which large-scale major applications are determined is falling, it is right to offer developers an alternative.

The need for affordable housing remains high, and the coalition is committed to unlocking stalled sites where affordable housing obligations make them unviable because they are economically unrealistic or were negotiated during Labour’s housing bubble. Let me repeat: affordable housing that is stalled is not affordable housing; it is non-existent housing. The Bill will enable developers to challenge the affordable housing elements if they make the site unviable.

As well as making those reforms to the planning system, the Bill will facilitate infrastructure investment, which is crucial for jobs and growth. Our ambition is for the UK to have the best superfast broadband of any major European country by 2015. It is vital that the deployment of broadband is fast-tracked to support the UK’s long-term economic future, but roll-out is being delayed or blocked because of planning requirements. As a result of this Bill alone, we estimate that 4.4 million more people will have access to superfast broadband. Without that measure, many hard-to-reach areas would be left unserved.

The Bill also amends the Electricity Act 1989 so that developers of power generating stations that want to apply to change their projects will in most cases need to undertake only a three-month consultation, rather than going through the whole process of applying for consent again. That could unlock investment decisions across a range of technologies, bringing thousands of new jobs and millions of pounds of investment to the UK economy.

As well as making the reforms I have mentioned, the Bill cuts red tape to speed up processes. In particular, it carries forward recommendations from the Penfold review of non-planning consents, most significantly the reforms to the town and village green registration system, which we discussed albeit briefly just before Third Reading.

As well as making the reforms to the planning system and unlocking infrastructure investment, the Bill contains two important economic measures. First, it postpones revaluation 2015 in England to avoid local firms and shops facing unexpected hikes in their business rate bills over the next five years. As business rates are linked to inflation, there will be no real-terms increase in rates over the period. That reform will provide certainty for business to plan and invest, supporting local growth. Secondly, as we have discussed at some length, the Bill creates a new employee-shareholder status to increase the range of employment contracts that businesses and employees can use. The measure is about increasing choice and flexibility in the employment relationship.

The Bill makes it absolutely clear it will be for the employer to choose to offer the new status, and for an individual to choose whether to accept it.

In conclusion, the House this evening has the chance to vote for practical measures to boost growth. The Bill will unblock delays in the planning system, encourage faster roll-out of superfast broadband, bring forward investment in energy projects, and give employers and employees more choice and flexibility. The Opposition repeatedly attack the Government for failing to do enough on growth, as if some magic wand could repair at a single stroke the terrible damage they inflicted on our economy. In the Leader of the Opposition’s speech to the CBI last month, he said:

“Enterprise and job creation are fundamental to the good economy and good society, and I will lead a party that understands that at its core”,

but businesses that back the Bill will see that, when his party has the chance to live up to those words and support reforms to promote growth, it votes against them. Government Members instinctively understand enterprise and will back the risk-takers and those willing to invest in creating jobs and growth. We want to help to modernise our economy, our infrastructure and our planning system. Only one part of this country resists modernisation—the Labour party. Better planning, more affordable housing, faster broadband, bigger investment in infrastructure and a boost for share ownership are the core of the Bill, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 9:10 pm, 17th December 2012

I, too, want to begin by thanking all Members who have contributed to the debate and by acknowledging all the hard work undertaken in Committee. In particular, I thank my fellow shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Ian Murray, for his highly effective dissection of key clauses. I also want to thank my right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford and my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for their excellent comments in Committee and today.

The best thing that I can say of the Ministers is that they have been extremely gracious in rejecting all my suggestions for improving the Bill. Let us be clear: the Bill will do little to promote growth or to encourage the delivery of infrastructure. As the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, said in Committee, it is a “rag-bag of measures” put out in haste in September as one of a number of panic measures to suggest that the Government were doing something to address the flatlining economy. There are so many things wrong with the Bill that I simply do not know where to start, but I shall highlight some of the worst offenders.

As I have said, it has not proved possible to improve the Bill in Committee or on Report today, and that is a matter of regret. The centralising, anti-localist processes that underpin clause 1 are still there. Let us be clear: this will lead to local communities losing their ability to influence planning decisions that relate to their areas. The Conservative-controlled Local Government Association has stated that clause 1 could be “counterproductive”, as the proposed criteria for measuring performance—the time taken to make a decision on major applications and the proportion of major decisions overturned on appeal—will result in a focus on blunt targets, driving unintended consequences and behaviours.

The LGA goes on to say that the Bill goes against the localism agenda by shifting authority and resources away from local planning authorities and over to the Planning Inspectorate. I could not agree more. We said several times in Committee that if the Minister was serious about improving the performance of planning authorities, he should, instead of imposing the measures in clause 1, fund the kind of projects that were clearly outlined in our evidence sessions by the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Town and Country Planning Association and others. Such projects would provide intensive support to local planning authorities, and evidence has clearly shown that they can turn authorities around. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has also said that, although the Government say that they want to improve the performance of local councils on planning, the Bill’s approach will be counterproductive.

We have not yet said anything today about clause 5, or about the changing demands for information from local authorities when determining applications, but we must ensure that those authorities get the information that they need to make good determinations. Speed does not necessarily make for a better decision, and a lack of relevant information will simply hold up the determination process.

As we said earlier, the introduction of clause 6 is simply disgraceful when the country is so short of affordable housing. Figures make clear the desperate need for affordable housing clear. As we noted, there was a 9% increase in statutory homelessness between April and June this year, and a 23% increase in rough sleeping over the last year. It is simply outrageous that the Government should be bringing forward measures that seek to reduce the supply of affordable housing in this country. Any measure that would reduce the level of affordable housing, other than sensible renegotiations being undertaken by local authorities, should be rejected by this House.

I hope that Members in the other place manage to persuade the Government of the error of their ways, as we have not managed to do so here. In particular, the Minister should give serious consideration to keeping land for affordable housing in place and using money allocated by the Government for affordable housing to enable schemes deemed unviable to go ahead. The Minister has refused to look at this today, but I hope he will look at it again. The failure to accept any of today’s amendments leads me to question the motive behind clause 6. It looks more and more like a device to let unscrupulous developers renege on their section 106 obligations.

The Bill also risks huge damage to our environment by giving inadequate protection to areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, conservation areas and so on. It is not acceptable to reduce the current protection by allowing economic criteria to be part of the determination. This could reduce the ability of local authorities to ask for sensitively sited cabinets, no overhead cables and the like.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

I represent the Vale of Clwyd, which has an area of outstanding natural beauty. One of the chief people in charge of it,

Howard Sutcliffe, asked me to relay to Parliament his concerns about this issue. We have a beautiful area in the Vale of Clwyd, and the laws proposed by the Tories will diminish it.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes the point well. The Government have given absolutely no evidence in support of this case. We noted in Committee that BT had said a number of cabinets had been delayed, but what had led to that delay was not made clear. No evidence has been provided to show that it was because local authorities were not considering economic criteria; it was simply that they did not wish their areas to be ruined by unsightly and inappropriate siting of broadband cabinets and overhead cables.

We need to limit clause 8 so that it covers broadband only. As I said earlier, we support broadband roll-out and did much in government to facilitate it, but this Bill does not have the balance right. It is playing fast and loose with our areas of outstanding natural beauty and our national parks, and it is putting at risk the development of tourism in some of those areas. As such, this could be a profoundly anti-growth measure when it comes to developing the tourist economy in a number of areas.

A range of organisations have made a number of points to the Government, so I hope they will take this issue away and look at it again. We need to take great care with our areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks. I am sure Government Members do not wish to have these areas cluttered up with mobile masts, overhead cables and unsightly cabinets; I am sure they would want to think again in the interest of protecting our wonderful natural environment and developing tourism sensitively in those areas.

The balance is also not right with regard to the registration of village greens. Communities need time—we accept that the period could be short so that development is not held up—to register a green once it appears in a draft plan. We want to limit the trigger-happy tendencies of the Secretary of State, so clause 15 needs to be looked at again.

If the Government are serious about using major infrastructure projects to promote growth, they must do better than the measures in the Bill. Simply allowing developers to bypass local communities in decision making will not necessarily lead to new development. We need to establish that the planning inspectorate system will be quicker, that there will be criteria enabling it to speed up work, and that it can be applied consistently across the country.

Business needs access to finance and markets need to grow, but strangely there is no mention of that in the Bill. Tinkering around with planning is not the solution to the need for more infrastructure or economic growth. The Town and Country Planning Association has said that the Bill

“has the potential to undermining public legitimacy without dealing with core barriers to growth which are primarily the availability of credit (both development finance and mortgage availability) and the capacity and skills of the planning service.”

That is an excellent point, but the Government have not raised such issues in the Bill or in the discussions that have accompanied it.

The Government have also given no reason for the delay in business rate revaluation. They must provide evidence of winners and losers, because otherwise it will be suspected that the Bill was designed simply to help businesses in more prosperous areas.

Asking workers to give up substantial employment rights won over many decades in return for a few shares is simply deplorable. Despite the amendments that we have discussed today, the Bill could lead to pressure on employees to sign up. In Committee and again today, the Minister has shown no real understanding of the lengths to which people will go to save or retain their jobs, or to apply for jobs. He needs to take that on board.

During our debate on clause 25, a number of Members on both sides of the House gave examples—real examples from their constituencies—illustrating our concern about the clause. We fear that, rather than being voluntary, the arrangement that it proposes will cause many people to be persuaded to take up this new employment status—perhaps against their short-term of long-term interests—and to give away rights which, as I said earlier, have been fought for over generations, in return for a few shares. Incidentally, the shares will not necessarily have been valued. The Minister has still not made clear what will happen to them, or, indeed, to the employment rights of the people who have bought them, should the company go into liquidation.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about amendment 59, but I heard nothing that allayed my concerns. Indeed, I heard quite the opposite. The Minister was asked to give a categorical assurance that people seeking employment through a job centre who refused to attend an interview because the job would require them to take up employee shares would be entitled to refuse to attend without a sanction being applied to their benefits. The Minister told us this would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. That means there must be a set of circumstances in which an individual who refuses to attend an interview for a position that will lead to their being an employee share owner will have their benefit removed.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister did, indeed, say it would be judged on a case-by-case basis. He also said there would be guidelines. Does my hon. Friend know whether they have been published, and whether we can have a look at them?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that I will address later. At the last count, the number of consultations underpinning this Bill had risen to four—or perhaps five—and we have had at least six sets of guidance. As far as I am aware, however, the final guidance has not yet been produced. We will wait to hear what the Minister has to say on that.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

I have said that we will provide fresh guidance to decision makers to help them make consistent decisions. The current guidance is referred to as the decision makers guide. We will consult with all the key stakeholders involved to make sure the new guidance properly reflects the position I have outlined and the reassurances I have given.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I heard what the Minister said about the guidance, but Opposition Members are looking for a categorical assurance that people who refuse to attend an interview for a job that will lead to their having to give up all their employment rights will not have their benefits stopped as a consequence. That requires a yes or no answer. If the Minister wants to make it clear that the answer is no, I will happily take an intervention from him now. As he does not rise, I think we can assume that no such assurance can be given. That shows why have so many grave concerns about clause 25.

We will certainly be voting against the Third Reading of this horrible, nasty little Bill that does little to promote growth, but risks employees’ rights and the protection of our environment, while also reducing the amount of affordable housing. The Wildlife Trusts’ comments are pertinent:

“Our primary concern is that the Bill perpetuates the myth that planning is responsible for holding back growth rather than focusing on the significant issues of financial restraint and borrowing difficulties. We believe that this approach to growth, risks putting our natural capital at risk and undermining future prosperity.”

I hope the Minister listens to the Wildlife Trusts, even if he will not listen to us. This Bill changes the basis on which planning applications are determined by breaking the trust with local communities, and thus we must vote against it.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 9:28 pm, 17th December 2012

As the Bill’s title suggests, it is about growth and infrastructure, but, as I pointed out earlier, problems arise when we have growth without infrastructure. The rhetoric on the national stage is one thing, but the reality in individual constituencies is quite another when the Government own the land where infrastructure development is being stopped.

Let me explain the situation in respect of the northern approach road from junction 28 of the A12 to Colchester mainline station. Sections one and three have been constructed, but section two, which goes through NHS land, has not, because the NHS trust has so far failed to take it forward. I urge the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Nick Boles, to visit my constituency, following on from the excellent work of Robert Neill, who met members of the Myland community council to see what can be done there.

The population of the borough of Colchester has increased by 17,278 in the decade between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. That is an increase of 11%, almost double the Essex increase, and as the Minister of State suggested, the east of England is the fastest growing region in the country. To put it simply, we need infrastructure so that land elsewhere in the town is not used when that would be undesirable. By that, I mean the fields of west Mile End, which the Secretary of State has personally viewed.

In summary, observers are warning that the town’s expansion is happening too fast for its facilities and infrastructure to cope. I therefore urge Ministers to consider local examples, such as the ones I have given, to ensure that infrastructure goes in where people want it and to avoid the alternative, which is the largest housing estate in the country, with 1,600 houses, served by a cul-de-sac more than 1 mile long.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich 9:31 pm, 17th December 2012

Let me start by agreeing with the Minister of State’s opening remarks. He said that the Bill is about the Government’s priorities and I agree with him: it is about obfuscation, smoke and mirrors, waffle and self-delusion. It seeks to give the impression of activity when the Government are doing next to nothing to stimulate growth in the economy and to ensure there is the infrastructure investment we need. It might be entitled the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, but I would be astonished if five years down the line anyone could identify a significant economic consequence for either growth or infrastructure investment.

The Bill essentially reflects Government prejudice rather than evidence. That is the biggest single charge against the Government: rather than evidence-based policy making, we have been fed a diet of prejudices about the supposed failure of the planning system, the discredited Beecroft agenda, how regulation and workers rights are somehow impeding growth and the fear of revaluation—I shall come back to that, because it is a curious question that reflects something in the Government’s psyche that they would do well to begin to think about.

Let us turn to planning first. Everyone who gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee said quite clearly—Ministers know this—that we are not getting development, housing and economic growth not because of the planning system but because of the lack of confidence and lack of lending, as well as because of the fact that people are very nervous about investing because they are uncertain about the future of the economy. That is the fundamental problem and the Government ignore it at their peril.

As everyone has heard, planning is a useful whipping boy blamed by the Government for any problems. As we listened to Ministers, we heard them changing their tune as the debate went on. They started by saying that all the planning problems were holding back growth, but by the end they were saying that only a small number of councils were not acting as well as they should. They said that the intention was to incentivise those councils and that it would not impact heavily on or affect many of them, as not many were failing. The fascinating thing about that is that when they were challenged they could not name a single such authority. The Secretary of State, who sadly is no longer in the Chamber, had a go on Second Reading, but got it spectacularly wrong, naming an authority that was not in any way failing. That is the measure of the Government; they really do not know what they are talking about. It is prejudice rather than evidence.

When we come to Beecroft, the situation is exactly the same. I have to say this to the Liberal Democrats: what a disgrace that they have gone along with the Beecroft prejudice about employee rights when their Business Secretary said that he had stopped the implementation of the Beecroft agenda. Would that he had, but he has not, and the rephrased employee ownership option—changed to shareholder ownership because the Government realised that calling it employee ownership would probably contravene the Trade Descriptions Acts—is universally condemned by people who really care about employee ownership. All the organisations who gave evidence to us—the people who have worked for years to build up employee ownership—said, “Don’t do this.” They told us that it would discredit the whole process of getting employees more involved in the running of their businesses and the measure was a fraudulent product that would do harm, not good.

That was the second prejudice. I have already referred to the third one—the extraordinary postponement of the business rate revaluation. Why is there somewhere in the psyche of the Conservative party a fear of revaluation? The Conservatives think it is somehow going to cause them harm. I suppose it is because the revaluation is due to take effect in 2015, and they probably think it might be bad news and that if they can halt it they might be able to turn it around. Once again, they have acted on the basis of bogus figures that no one believes. When the rating experts gave evidence—Gerald Eve, the British Property Federation and the British Council of Shopping Centres—they all said that they did not believe the figures from the Valuation Office Agency. Ministers have trotted the figures out again today—800,000 potential gainers, compared to 300,000 losers. No one believes it. When we proposed the simple amendment that the Government should publish serious estimates and consult the interested parties before taking a decision, they would not accept it. They wanted to proceed on the basis of their prejudice rather than on evidence.

In between the bookends of prejudice that characterise the Bill, there are one or two worthwhile and sensible provisions, and I welcome them. The Penfold agenda for the rationalisation of conflicting planning and consent regimes is a sensible move forward, and there are some good things in that area, but it is hard to find them with those awful, unjustified, un-evidence-based prejudices on either side of them.

It is to the Government’s credit—this is a seasonal comment as we approach Christmas—that Ministers have realised that there are some turkeys in the Bill that had to be changed. I thank the planning Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Nick Boles, for agreeing to reconsider the rural exceptions policy; the Government were going to make a serious mistake, but they have backed away and I am grateful to them for that. But those are small mercies in a Bill that is fundamentally flawed and will do nothing about the two subjects that it is supposed to stimulate—growth and infrastructure—and will actually perpetuate a series of myths that do nothing for good government or development in this country.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 9:38 pm, 17th December 2012

It is a great pleasure to follow Mr Raynsford, but it will come as no surprise to the House that I do not agree one jot with what he said.

I spoke on Second Reading, I participated in the Committee and it is a pleasure to speak on Third Reading. Before that, I was intimately involved in the production of the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework, so I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that planning was no whipping boy. In “Open Source Planning” I set out a vision of how the planning system should operate and the Government have more or less faithfully fulfilled it in their reforms. Planning was not a whipping boy; it was given proper status, as it was in my Second Reading speech when

I pointed to surveys showing the overwhelming impression among business that planning was the great preventer of development.

Both the Opposition and the LGA entirely missed the point about localism. Localism was always a double devolution. The first devolution was down to local councils, whether they were district or borough councils. The second devolution, which was just as important, was down to local people, principally through their parish and town councils, but generally to the people at large to deal with.

It is not surprising that the LGA is interested only in the first of these. It is not interested in devolving power from itself down to community groups. It is interested in retaining that power. The purpose of the Bill is to deal with district or borough councils that cannot or will not let go and complete the devolution process. Clause 1 partly deals with that aspect of localism. It is an incentive for those councils to get it right and to get their act together.

I want briefly to discuss a couple of other points. In Committee and in the earlier debates today we heard a great deal about section 106 agreements, but nothing more powerful has been said about the proposal for section 106 than that a share of nothing is still nothing. It is to the credit of my hon. Friend the planning Minister that we have pushed forward the renegotiation of section 106 in order to ensure that a share of something is something.

Similarly, let us not forget that the reason we were discussing the clauses on village greens is that they are a direct result of the Penfold review. It is a treatment of a situation in which a non-planning regime for village greens rubs up against a planning regime in neighbourhood planning and, as Andrew Stunell made clear, in assets of community value. It is instructive that the Opposition have tried to confuse the two and not kept them separate. The village greens legislation is separate from the planning legislation. It should not be used to confound planning proposals. It is right that we have split it as we have and that we should be given credit for doing that.

There are many other aspects of the Bill that I could trespass on to, but I will give other Members a chance to speak. The Bill is a perfectly formed example of its type. It could not be more different from the description given by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. It is a perfectly formed Bill that we should vote for with absolute confidence.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside 9:43 pm, 17th December 2012

Serving on the Bill Committee confirmed to me that all of us in the House are human, to a greater or lesser extent. I genuinely believe that the coalition Government want to see growth, but their approach is wrong.

It has already been said that this is not a Bill for growth. I am sad to hear Members on the Government Benches decry what has been said by the Local Government Association, an association that is trusted by all the councils throughout the land and their representative body. What could be more representative of our local communities and the elected bodies that represent them than that body? The Government would really have shown a commitment to growth if they had listened to the LGA’s suggestions on the Bill. It said that planning is not why no construction work is going on; the reason is that banks are not lending and people are not buying. That is what is stalling and stopping development. Until the Government listen, no progress can be made.

Drawing on my past as a member of a local authority planning committee—having been a councillor for 15 years, I sometimes find it hard to leave things behind—I know how committed councillors are when making planning decisions, how they can listen directly to local people and how local community groups or individuals often make representations about their planning concerns. What could be worse than, as might happen because of clause 1, a council that is deemed to be a failed council, whatever that might mean—we are still unsure about the definition—finding that its planning decisions are being taken away and swept off to either the Secretary of State or the Planning Inspectorate? How will the people who have been voted in to represent local people feel? How will local people feel when they have no right of appeal? It is that stark.

I have a further concern. The Planning Inspectorate makes household decisions within seven weeks and non- household decisions within 17 weeks, but local authorities make household decisions within eight weeks and non-household decisions within 13 weeks, and that is the case for more than 89% of councils. It seems that the majority are being punished for the failings of the few.

In relation to section 106 agreements and affordable housing, I have referred to the fact that in North Tyneside alone around 4,000 people are currently waiting for council housing. That does not include those who are hoping to buy and struggling to raise money to put down a deposit for a mortgage. I have constituents coming to me who simply cannot buy a house and cannot get affordable housing and so are looking to the council. However we define affordable housing, the need is as great, whether it is for someone looking for a house they can afford to buy or to rent. Taking away the housing element and the 106 agreements will leave those people even more desperate.

I spoke before about employee ownership, or share ownership as it is currently called. Many constituents have contacted me about that over the past week because they are so concerned about it, as well as about the rest of the Bill. They see what is wrong with it. They see how it undermines workers’ right and takes away women’s rights and carers’ rights to flexible working. I have stressed the need for training and the fact that it is not right that people will lose their right to training. Training enhances and helps companies grow in professionalism through personal development, and that can really make employers proud of their employees.

I have mentioned those three points. It is rather like someone going to confession to recite their sins for a period of time and saying, “That’s all I can remember, Father.” I am looking back at my time on the Bill Committee and in the House today, but it is not my sins that I am concerned about; it is the Government’s transgressions and what they are doing with the Bill. I hope that we reject it.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Liberal Democrat, Mid Dorset and North Poole 9:49 pm, 17th December 2012

I thank everybody who has been involved in the scrutiny of this Bill, particularly my right hon. Friend Andrew Stunell and my hon. Friend Gordon Birtwistle.

I applaud the objectives of the Bill. We inevitably need a multi-pronged approach to achieving growth in the sort of economic climate that we are in at the moment. We have to work with the banking system to make credit available and to help first-time buyers. We need land to be available, although I do like to protect the green belt. We need the public sector land availability that my hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell mentioned. There is much more scope for that on the way, whether it be for infrastructure or for housing itself. We need investment from the Government, although the £10 billion contribution is most welcome, as is the direct £300 million.

Not so long ago, I was standing here arguing against regional spatial strategies. In a relatively short space of time, we have had the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework, which are really good steps forward. The Bill has brought about further debate on localism versus centralism, and it is important that we get the right balance. Today we have had some important reassurances, particularly on the designation of planning authorities, to say that there will be early intervention and support. It is very important to work with local authorities and local people, not in conflict with them. I am worried that we have not quite sorted out quantity and quality as regards planning decisions, but there is scope for more debate on that.

On section 106 agreements, we have had some reassurances about the transparency of any renegotiations and a really firm test of viability. I am also reassured by the time-limited aspect. We have all been calling for outstanding planning permissions to be implemented rather than developments going out into our green fields, so this time limit has potential. I am sure that we all care about affordable housing and mixed housing developments. We have to use all the tools at our disposal, not just in this Bill but right across Government.

I am concerned that the measures in the Bill should not be counter-productive. It will be important to have more scrutiny in the other place. It is also important that we all respond robustly and encourage others to take part in the many consultations that Roberta Blackman-Woods mentioned. I shall certainly be participating on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, and I hope that the listening process will continue.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats 9:52 pm, 17th December 2012

I thank the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, for what he said about making sure that we have a much more open system for assessing the viability of applications for developments with affordable housing. We have lived in a world where people in communities such as mine have gone to their local authority and developers and asked why the case has been made for a reduction in the original plan for affordable housing, and they have been told that it is all confidential and nothing can be seen. The good news that comes from today’s debate is that the process will be much more visible and transparent. That was called for by Labour Front Benchers, and it was certainly undertaken by my hon. Friend.

I encourage Ministers to consider the fact that we absolutely need to respond to the demand out there in all our constituencies and to go on looking for new ways of finding more affordable housing. I do not think that there is a single constituency in England where there is not a huge demand for affordable housing, and we have pressures that the Government need to work out ways of resisting. In London, we have lots of purchases from abroad of land to be used primarily for marketing abroad, not for marketing at home. Foreign investors will buy to build and then leave the properties unoccupied. That is unacceptable. It forces up prices, it reduces availability, and it may be new housing but it is not new affordable housing. As my hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell said, public sector land, not only in Greater London but elsewhere, is not being brought back into use.

I hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to realise the benefits of house building in terms of growth and jobs. It is one of the most certain ways of getting maximum numbers of jobs and apprenticeships into the economy. I hope that the Department will also work with our colleagues in the Treasury to make sure that we have a tax regime that incentivises people to develop brownfield land, not to sit on it. Too many sites in constituencies such as mine have been sitting idle and not used for anything for too long. People want affordable housing and imagination from the Department for Communities and Local Government, but I hope that this Bill is only the beginning of a development that produces far more affordable housing under this Government than was ever developed during five years of the Labour Government.

I did not come to this place just to be critical of a Labour Government who developed far fewer council properties than any preceding Government; I want to encourage this Government to make sure that they do better than our predecessors and develop homes that meet the aspirations of my constituents, who want housing that they can afford and who do not want the only available offer to be the ridiculous costs of some of the new housing currently being built.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Third time.

The House divided:

Ayes 273, Noes 231.

Division number 124

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed.