Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 5th February 2004.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 4:00 pm, 5th February 2004

I thank all the Members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate; listening to them has convinced me that it is an important issue. Frankly, I am disappointed by what the Minister said. I must not have communicated adequately with him, which is no doubt my fault; I shall continue to try to do so in future. He said that what I propose is very seductive and dangerous. Well, for many years in the 1980s and 1990s, I was chairman of various development control committees. None of those restrictions existed, but I do not think that the decisions that we took then were seductive, dangerous, wrong or anything of the sort. They were taken sensibly, within the rules and involving the public and their elected representatives. That is what is now being made extremely difficult.

The Minister said that being made a member of the development control committee is an accident and that only a few councillors are involved. Actually, quite a few councils now have an area committee system, under which planning applications go to the area committee. All the members of the council are therefore on development control committees. That certainly applies in Pendle, where I live. I was involved in introducing that and chaired the area committee in Colne. All the councillors are involved in taking planning decisions.

I must say that that concentrates people's minds, because it stops the basic dishonesty of councillors who are not on the development committee pretending that they are against an application when they know that their friends on the committee will pass it. They must face up to the issue. That is a much better system. Everyone is on a committee, so there is no question of some councillors having greater rights than others; the question is what is the best way to involve the public and their representatives.

I am sorry that I raised the issue of Birmingham; I might have known that the Minister would think it a personal attack on him, which it was not intended to be. I do not know of any other county in the country that imposes that rule—there may be one or two, but it is extremely unusual. Everyone else would think it ludicrous.

The Minister kept saying that the rules exist because of what happened in the past—that these are the rules. In many cases the rules do not work, and the system is in considerable crisis, but there are no rules that apply across the country.

I am not talking about the need for councillors to declare personal and prejudicial interests on planning applications, just as they do on everything else that they look at. I am talking about all these extra rules and impositions that are being invented locally and imposed by council officials. On one council they will be imposed very strictly, another council will have a more balanced view, and another will have hardly any rules at all. Those are the facts on the ground. That is one reason why it is so difficult.

I had to laugh at one thing that was raised by my noble friend Lord Bradshaw and that is typical of what is said. It was the ludicrous suggestion that people had to make a list of all the charities that they donate to. That is exactly the sort of the thing that is going on. The Minister said,

"I would tell them to mind their own business".

The problem is that most of the councillors who are being put in this position are not as thick-skinned as I would be, or as the Minister would be, to have the confidence to say that. Most of them believe that the rules are the same everywhere. That is what they are being told—by their council officers, the legal officer, the monitoring officer, the planning officer or whoever. They believe that they must abide by those rules.

The Minister, on reflection, might consider that planning is a system—as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said earlier today—that councillors must operate within. However, in a wider sense, and with a small "p", planning is the most political issue that arises in an area. To exclude elected representatives from the debate, the meetings, the discussions, the lobbying, the information-gathering, is frankly ludicrous. The logical result of all this will be that democratic local representatives—councillors—will no longer be responsible for determining planning applications. The logic of the movement that is happening is to take it away from councillors and give it to some sort of "objective" panels or people, or judges. That would be unfortunate, but that is the way things are going.

I promise the Minister that I will be asking him to talk it over with me when I have a lot more facts written down on paper. Perhaps we can look at this a bit more objectively than we can in the slight argy-bargy across the Chamber. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.