My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.
For the sixth or seventh time, I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government are committed to the reform of plan-making in England, including a two-tier development plan, with strategic planning at the regional level.
These amendments would deny our regions strong and effective strategic plans. I find it difficult to believe that they would therefore be accepted. Those in favour of strong regional government, be it elected or otherwise, surely must want the regions to be strong enough to have effective strategic planning. The amendments would also prevent the streamlined two-tier planning system where the most up-to-date level—strategic or local—prevails when there is a conflict. That has to be taken into account.
The amendments would also have far-reaching knock-on effects. On the one hand, they anticipate arrangements for planning by elected regional assemblies but, rather than real devolution, they would leave those bodies only with responsibility for preparing draft revisions. The Secretary of State would still publish the final regional spatial strategy, including his proposed changes, and would still have regional planning policies of his own.
On the other hand, the amendments would leave uncertainty and muddle. The law would say that there would be regional planning bodies, consultation in line with published statements and an examination in public only where there was an elected regional assembly. We have to ask ourselves what this would mean for our existing regional planning bodies and the comprehensive arrangements we have now, which include an examination in public, for regional planning guidance. The amendments agreed by this House do not retain structure plans, but county councils would advise on strategic plans only if there were an elected regional assembly.
We can all understand the attraction the amendments have for those Members of this House who do not want to see any regional planning under any circumstances—indeed, any regional government under any circumstances—even though they were responsible for setting up regional government offices. In due course, they hope to persuade the regional electorates to vote no in the referendum on the elected regional assemblies. That is their choice. But for those who recognise that many planning issues need to be tackled at regional level as well as at local level, this is a recipe for inaction and failure. It flies in the face of the many examples of regional planning bodies coming forward with solutions to cross-boundary problems that have bedevilled us for many years. It is quite frankly farcical to suggest that we should abandon all that and rely instead on county-based structure plans.
I hope noble Lords accept that the Government have listened very carefully to the arguments put forward during the passage of this Bill. Indeed, I have come to the Chamber today supported by a list of all the concessions that the Government have made. We are a listening Government and we want to get consensus on this matter. However, there are some issues on which we believe that it would be a major mistake to depart from the provisions in the Bill.
There has been concern that there would be too little democratic input, particularly by county councils with their strategic planning expertise. We accept that; I believe that I said, way back at Second Reading, that it was probably the thorniest issue we had to deal with when we were planning the Bill in detail at the time when I was the Minister responsible for it. We have responded to that concern by giving county councils a statutory advisory role. I still take the view that that has been found acceptable outside this House; I have not seen anything to contradict that.
There has been concern that people and interests in each region would not have sufficient say in the process. That was a genuine concern, raised at many stages of our debate. I accept that the concern is absolutely genuine and sincere. We have responded by requiring the regional planning bodies to prepare, publish and comply with a statement of their policies for the involvement of the community and the public. However, we cannot accept the other arguments that have been put forward.
We have heard that strategic planning should continue to be with county councils through their structure plans. That is despite support from the Local Government Association and the County Councils Network for our regional planning arrangements with a guaranteed role for counties, unitary authorities and other authorities with strategic planning expertise, and despite the mismatch in many cases between county boundaries and areas that are interdependent in strategic planning terms.
We do not agree that it is wrong for regional planning bodies to have a lead role in regional planning because they include representatives from stakeholders in the region as well as local authorities. Those social and economic partners bring an important dimension to the regional planning bodies' work and are particularly well placed to foster a true region-wide perspective. Local authorities are in the majority on regional assemblies, which will continue to be the regional planning bodies. There is a view out there, which is not shared by everybody, that only the elected councillors should take the key decisions, whatever level they are elected at. That is not the reality, however. Local strategic partnerships and the regional assemblies are involving a much wider spread of opinion and achieving greater consensus about the way in which government takes place.
Where there is considerable consensus on what the plans for the region should be, we can expect that consensus to hold sway. That is quite legitimate; we do not take the view that it is wrong that the stakeholders should be involved. We also do not agree that it is wrong that, until we have elected assemblies, the Secretary of State should be ultimately accountable for the policies in each regional spatial strategy. That is the best democratic safeguard consistent with our current governance arrangements. If an elected regional assembly were in place, the Secretary of State would not need any spatial policies for that region. I have repeatedly made that clear; there will not be any need for the Secretary of State to have any policies for that region. That will be the job of the elected regional assembly. We are not seeking to second guess those bodies. It would be contrary to the spirit of devolution for the Secretary of State to have his own planning policies for the region which the elected assembly had to have regard to in formulating its policies for the region, as proposed by noble Lords. It would also be thoroughly confusing to have two sets of planning policies for the same region. That is a barmy idea by any stretch of the imagination.
We do not agree that we should delay the reforms in Part 1 until the elected regional assemblies are in place. That takes us back to the regional assemblies elections preparations legislation. As is well known, referendums are due in three regions; I believe that I gave July 2006 as the earliest possible date by which an elected regional assembly could be set up if there was a "yes" vote. If other regions were to be brought in, there would need to be a process and a mechanism for that. It would be bad public administration, to put it at its mildest, to seek to delay Part 1 until elected regional assemblies were in place. There may be some regions that do not want elected regional assemblies and never have them; one must consider that as a possibility because it is the people's choice. We are not imposing elected regional assemblies on the regions. The people will always be given a choice in the regional referendums beforehand. The effective strategic plans at regional level and a full part of the development plan are needed now, and need to be endorsed by the Secretary of State. Without that endorsement there is neither democratic accountability nor the assurance that central government will play their part in the delivery of regional plans. That is fairly fundamental at present.
We are not taking away democracy, which is another argument that has been trotted out—although not necessarily in your Lordships' House. Noble Lords are much more in touch in some ways with what is happening than is sometimes the case elsewhere in this building. What really matters is that people should have their say and have their views listened to in the planning process. I do not believe that anyone could now argue, as the Bill stands, that it is not a vast improvement on the present process in allowing people a say at the earliest possible stages of the planning process. Central to our reforms, both at a regional and a local level, is greater and earlier community involvement.
Our amendment—that is, the amendment that the Government wish to place in the Bill—will require the regional planning body to prepare, publish and comply with a statement of its policies for involving interested parties in preparing draft revisions of the regional spatial strategy. Draft regulations will require the regional planning body to consult a wide range of bodies while the draft revision of the regional spatial strategy is being prepared and after it has been published.
There are many aspects on which it could be argued that we are not squeezing democracy out of the system. There is a much greater involvement of the public and the wider communities in regional planning in this Bill. We have come to a make-or-break point. There is a limit to the amount of time that we can devote in this place to this issue. I do not know how many times we have now dealt with it—I have lost count. I sincerely hope that my argument will find favour with your Lordships at this stage of our deliberations on this important Bill.
Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.—(Lord Rooker.)
My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 4B and 5B.
I agree very much with one thing that the Minister said, about the concessions that the Government have given on much of the Bill and in this part of the Bill, dealing with regional spatial strategies. In fact, I believe we debated this matter only once, because it was, unusually, agreed at Committee stage. But—there had to be a "but"—the reason that we have from the Commons is that the amendment to which your Lordships agreed,
"is not appropriate to restrict the application of a regional spatial strategy only to regions which have elected assemblies".
That could be expressed differently. It could be said that it was not appropriate to remove powers to make such strategies from the only bodies directly elected by the people directly affected by them.
We acknowledge the advisory role that has been given to the counties, but it is advisory only. The Minister said that he had not had complaints from the County Councils Network or the Local Government Association. He has raised that matter before. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who is a part of the County Councils Network answered the point quite clearly. The advisory role is better than nothing, but it does not amount to agreement that this is the right way to go ahead.
We have all, I think, throughout this Bill been conscious of the role of planning in the wider governmental and political context and especially of the need to restore trust in government at all levels and reverse the alienation from the political process, which I know distresses all of us.
I acknowledge that speeding things up and tackling inefficiencies has a major role in that, and that is why we have supported the proposals in the Bill for local development. But this amendment is about a democratic deficit—about the deficit that there will be if regional spatial strategies are the creation of the Secretary of State through his agent, the regional planning body. I dare say that the Minister will object to that description, but without Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 the Secretary of State will give directions to recognise regional planning bodies or, indeed, withdraw their recognition and exercise their functions himself.
We have draft regulations that explain how the regional planning bodies will be created and who they will consist of, but regulations, as we all know, are not primary legislation. Indeed, the current draft regulations do not wholeheartedly inject democracy into the regional planning bodies. Thirty per cent or more of their members must not be members of local authorities, so even a public-spirited businessman or woman who is a member of a parish Council is disqualified.
Stakeholders in a region of course have a role, but to suggest that that is equal to the role of elected councillors or elected representatives diminishes the validity of elections. Of course, all the members of the regional planning bodies, including the 30 per cent plus, are entitled to vote, and their votes carry equal weight.
Those who come from an elected base are not directly elected under this model. So who do they represent for this purpose? We have talked—at any rate I have—about the less than complete adequacy of indirect election. There is confusion and a difficulty about the mandate, and a genuine difficulty in the mind of people who are elected to one body and find themselves on another where their primary responsibility is to the perhaps small group of people who elected them in the first place.
I think that the Minister referred to our all being good democrats, as, indeed, we are in this place, despite being the objects of patronage. I hope he will take the message back that, without proper devolved regional government, this model for designing regional spatial strategies will not do. In Committee, we heard from those whose faith in the counties was greater than the Government's and who raised some important practical problems: the haemorrhaging of staff who see their role disappearing and the lowering of resources which the counties will apply because they have merely an advisory role.
I would never suggest that we should lightly dismiss the views of another place, but severing the link between the electorate affected and those responsible for strategic plans would be serious—serious for effective planning and as another brick in the wall between politicians and citizens. I do not myself—as I am sure do none of your Lordships—want to contribute to building up that wall. We want to pull it down. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that this House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A, leave out "not".—(Baroness Hamwee.)
My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I should make it clear that noble Lords on these Benches do not support regionally elected assemblies. We shall not campaign for "Yes" votes in the three areas where there are referendums. However, we support democracy. If those three areas vote "Yes", and then all other areas vote for regionally elected assemblies, those assemblies will be democratically elected.
I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that stakeholders were very important. It is important to hear stakeholders' opinions. I know the stakeholders in my region well. They often hold their own individual views, but they are not democratically elected. If they can combine to defeat the democratically elected people in a region, it is not good for democracy, and any such action is not representative of the people who are elected to a county council, a district council or any other body that considers plans. We support the amendment. We do not support regionally elected assemblies, but we support democracy. At the moment, we have elected county councils and elected district, regional, borough, metropolitan and London councils. The people elected to those bodies should have the direct, most obvious say in the planning process on behalf of the people they represent.
The Minister referred to the County Councils Network. I thank the Minister and the Government for the concessions that have been made. Indeed, the concession regarding the county councils having an advisory role is important. However, the councils were happy to accept that because they were told that the Government would not accept anything else. However, we are talking about Parliament now. There is the Government, and there is Parliament. These processes have to go through Parliament. I told the county councils that Parliament might have slightly different views on regional spatial strategies.
I make it clear that no one—as everyone knows, I am very much involved in county government—is suggesting that the county structure plans are the right way forward. We need to tackle that matter differently and more speedily. The Minister has never heard me say during the whole debate on the Bill that I want to retain county structure plans—I do not. We want a modern system of planning and therefore we support many of the Government's objectives on that. However, we want to make it work. We want a democratic process in making it work. Later I shall move further amendments which ensure that we keep the democratic processes at the forefront. The Government are democratically elected, as are local councils. Planning is about people. People elect other people. There is no more personal thing in local government than planning. The Government should not think that they can ignore the democratic processes. I agree that there should be consultation, but in the end the matter is the responsibility of the elected members of local authorities. I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
My Lords, I express sorrow at the Government's attitude to this matter. It seems that in a funny sort of way the Government somehow believe that the higher the level at which the strategic planning is done, the better. We all agree that strategic planning is essential in these matters. One almost feels that the Secretary of State would ideally like to do the whole thing himself, but he is prepared for the regional authorities to be involved. However, we know that in their present format those authorities have a severe democratic deficit because of a lack of what many would regard as a better election system.
We believe that you must have a sub-regional input—a legitimate and fully accountable and accounted-for sub-regional input—to this crucial strategic planning element. It is not good enough for the Government to say that it has to be done at the regional level. The Minister says, "Of course, if there is a regional government, the Secretary of State would have no input". That in a sense makes the point that I am trying to make; namely, that even though you need planning on a big scale, you nevertheless need elected input into it. The amendments, as they left this House, provided for that and should not be removed. I support my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, made that speech. I agreed with virtually every word that he said. I shall give examples to support his and my case.
I have something to say, tongue in cheek, in reply to what I heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. I would obviously never dream of accusing anyone in this place of bad faith; it would not cross my mind. However, there are those outside who, on one hand, are quite happy to sit down with government Ministers and agree reasonable concessions—there has been a big concession from the Government, as I fully appreciate, from how the Bill was drafted. Then we are told that those people say, with a nod and a wink, "Okay, we're happy, but we'll get what we really want through the back door via the unelected House of Parliament, not the elected House". If they do not blink at that, it seems to border on dishonourable conduct in the negotiations by the outside bodies with central government. People cannot have it both ways.
My Lords, I am not saying that. If well meaning officials of the LGA or a county council go to see government officials and are told that the Government will not budge, they are only officials, not elected members. They then try to negotiate something that they can take back to their elected members. There is no bad faith on the part of the Government's officials or ours from the LGA or the County Councils Network. They can only negotiate what they can negotiate. As I said, it is then up to both Houses—this may not be an elected House, but there have been debates in the other place—to talk about how we might improve the situation. I would not put bad faith on to any of the officials who took part in the discussions.
My Lords, I did not mean the officials. However, I shall take it with a strong pinch of salt next time I see letters signed by the elected leaders of the LGA and the County Councils Network. It was not officials who wrote letters saying, "We're content with this", but the elected leaders. I am not arguing about officials; we are talking about elected leaders. I am not in the business of blaming either civil servants or officials outside—far from it. My remarks are headed towards the elected leadership outside.
I want to give some examples to highlight the sort of things said by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. As I said, I agreed with him, and there is a common view on the matter. I have three examples of where regional planning is tackling issues that county plans could not. In the east Midlands, work has started on the development of a sub-regional strategy for Derby, Leicester and Nottingham. Those are, of course, traditionally very much competitor cities in the area, although each is in a different county. The regional assembly and development agency have identified an opportunity to build on existing interrelationships, and to develop complementary roles and services that will promote a more sustainable pattern of development and improve the economic performance of each city. That could not be done if one did not have a regional package with a sub-regional agenda underneath it. In the past that would not have been a runner as each city is in a separate county.
In the south-west, the regional planning body is promoting a "city region" approach that recognises the cross-boundary links. It is not an area of the country that I know, so I shall stick to my brief; others are more expert than me. Structure plans have historically allowed development in west Wiltshire and north-east Somerset towns that has fed Bath's labour market and created unsustainable patterns of movement. Looking at that area as a single sub-region is allowing strategic choices to be made to ensure that development is sustainable.
My final example is the south-east. Studies in the western corridor and the London fringe have been undertaken to provide coherence across regional boundaries in a manner that simply did not exist beforehand. Although there was liaison across the London boundary between authorities, it was not translated into effective and co-ordinated interaction. The studies are still at an early stage but they are already demonstrating the value of the approach.
To say that the Government made a concession is too strong, because it looks as though it had to be dragged out of us, but I suppose that in some ways it did. The point is that we always knew, from day one, that there was a sensitive issue about county councils. We understand that; hence what was proposed alongside a programme of possible elected regional assemblies, as one cannot be certain. We need to get ownership of the spatial strategies because two bodies claiming ownership is a disaster and a recipe for inaction. Conservatives—with a small "c"—might want to conserve what we have and not change anything. That is a very unfair attitude to put on the radical Conservative Front Bench. Nevertheless, we want some movement. The present system of planning in this country does not serve our fellow citizens. The provision is a contribution to making substantial changes and progress.
Our approach is that the regions need planning policies specific to their circumstances. I forget who made the point, but someone referred to the Secretary of State wanting to do everything; he does not. The provisions in Clause 1(2) that specify that the regional spatial strategy must set out the Secretary of State's spatial policies do not prevent such an approach. Those provisions are not a straitjacket. They are not the Deputy Prime Minister saying, "This is what will happen".
The relationship between the Secretary of State's national planning policies and the regional spatial strategies needs to be clarified. Clause 5 requires regional planning bodies to have regard to national policies in preparing a draft revision of a regional spatial strategy. That relationship is also true of regional planning guidance. We want the regional planning bodies, which are much wider than the elected areas—that is why the point about 30 per cent is important—to articulate in the regional spatial strategy a spatial vision of what the region will look like at the end of the period of that strategy. That vision should be unique to that region, not the next-door region. It is not simply a subset of the national picture, so is not the Secretary of State laying down what he wants.
The regional planning bodies have the freedom to set out the policies that will work in their regions to turn the vision into a reality. The national planning policies are there to provide a framework. They are the big picture, not a straitjacket. The existing system allows for significant flexibility between regions. When preparing revisions of regional planning guidance now and regional spatial strategies in future, the regional planning bodies may, if they wish, depart from national policy and make the case for a variation at the examination in public. I repeat: this is not the Secretary of State laying the law down from the centre.
It is true that Ministers will reach a view on the final form of policies and have to take into account the case made and the report of the panel from the examination in public. Amendment No. 2 is therefore neither acceptable nor sensible. The Secretary of State has regional planning policies and is accountable for them now and under our proposed new regional planning system, because that is the best approach of the current governance arrangements. If the elected regional assembly were in place to play that role, the Secretary of State would not need any regional spatial strategies. That in no way takes away the important role of staff of the county councils. They will play a vital role, although the point is that it will not be the role that they had previously.
The issue is to get ownership of the regional planning strategies so that they are owned by one body and there is transparency and accountability. If we try to act any other way, two bodies will end up claiming ownership of the strategies. That is a recipe for not only disaster, but basically total inaction. No one outside would thank this House for that.
My Lords, as the Minister says, the issue has always been sensitive. The sensitivity was eventually addressed when the Bill reached this House after its extended—sometimes almost undetectable—progress in another place. In our system, of course there are negotiations and discussions while a Bill is in progress. However, to characterise what happened as dishonourable on the part of those who took part is unfortunate.
The Minister used examples of cross-boundary arrangements, the sort of examples that I intended to use in a debate that we may have later on sub-regional arrangements. Those cross-boundary arrangements are happening now. I do not accept that what is proposed is a recipe for inaction. The Government have not moved on the fundamental question of the lack—indeed, I would say the loss—of democracy. They have not come up with any way of meeting their concerns at the same time as meeting that basic and important concern. Therefore, again I wish to test the opinion of the House.