Lords Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 26th April 2004.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Development) 4:34 pm, 26th April 2004

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 21 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 21A.

The Government have been clear from the outset that one of the key elements of our planning reforms is for the recommendations of the independent inspector, following an independent examination, to be the final stage in the preparation of a development plan document. However, the amendments seek to retain the status quo, which is totally unacceptable.

The government offices have told us of at least 18 development plans where progress has been or is being held up because the procedures have become long winded and mired in controversy. In some cases the local authorities have not wanted to implement the independent inspector's recommendations, which have been made as a result of careful examination and consideration of all the material available at a public inquiry, including the objections. In others, initial delays lead to other factors having to be considered as circumstances change and new national and regional policy needs to be incorporated. The introduction of binding reports could save several years, which would be good for everyone.

As regards the 18 cases—I have raised the point so I have to give a partial apology—it would not be appropriate for me to name any of the locations. Some of those could appear on the Deputy Prime Minister's desk and if any related to areas I deal with, that would be prejudging the case, and we might need to intervene in any subsequent decisions that rest upon the development plan. We cannot fetter discretion.

The binding reports of independent inspectors after independent examination in public of the issues, including those who object, have other benefits if they are binding on the parties concerned. They are a major incentive for tackling issues, proper debate and decisions early in the process. They ensure that investment by the community and others in making representations on a development plan document and participating in the independent examination will always be worth while. People will think that it is worth while. They will get the report from the independent inspector and something will happen whereas, as I have said, in some cases, years later nothing has happened. To have a report from an independent inspector following independent examination underpins sound plans.

The amendments, which I ask the House not to accept, would squander those benefits. The main argument put forward is that the inspector might make a mistake. Because of that risk it is argued that local authorities must have the opportunity to do something different from that which the inspector recommends. I developed this point at previous stages but obviously inadequately. We see the safeguards we are building into the system as much more sensible and a balanced response to the difficulty.

The local planning authority already sees the inspector's draft report and can point out factual errors. So, there cannot really be any excuse after the report is published for stating that it contains errors because the local authority will see the report and can point out factual errors. We propose that those arrangements should continue. There is the safeguard of the Secretary of State's powers in Clause 20 to direct changes or call in a development plan document.

I accept that the vast majority of inspector's recommendations are accepted by local planning authorities. We are not making a general sweeping case. The introduction of binding reports is a sensible measure, which will bite on those hard cases—for instance, the 18 I have mentioned, although not by locality—where the communities are denied the up-to-date plans they and their areas need.

There are a couple of points worth raising. If the authority refuses to adopt the development plan in line with the inspector's recommendations—assuming that the Bill is acceptable and as the Government would like it—any such authority in that case would be doing a grave disservice to its commmunity in denying it a sound, up-to-date development plan document having had the independent inspector's report and after examination. I accept, however, that there is a final safeguard, which is the Secretary of State's powers in Clause 20. We do not want to use those powers. They are there purely as a long stop. As I have repeatedly said, we do not want to run the system.

One other point is worth raising. It was raised at other stages of the Bill. An inspector taking evidence in public and producing a report might make changes to a development plan document. In other words, some issue might come into his mind when he was having a think about the matter one Sunday afternoon and drafting the report. I want to make it absolutely clear. The inspector will be able to recommend a substantive change to a development plan document only if people have had the opportunity to make representations on it, or if it has been considered at an examination and the representations or debate support that change. There is no possibility of the inspector slipping changes into a document on a hunch or a whim that have not been discussed at the examination.

The inspector may consider that the development plan document does not meet the test of soundness—it is useful to put this on the record—if the plan does not generally conform to national and/or regional policy. That is fair enough; I think that is what he would be there for. Also, if the plan is not supported by a sound evidence base. That is what an independent view with independent evidence is designed to tease out. In addition, if the local planning authority has not complied with its own statement of community involvement—it is fairly crucial that we have somebody who is independent to check on that—or if the local planning authority has not undertaken a suitable sustainability appraisal and strategic environmental assessment.

There are those issues. That is why we think that, as I have said, the vast majority of local councils accept an inspector's recommendations. However, we have cases around the country where they have been frustrated for years simply because local authorities have not wanted to implement the inspector's recommendations. That is incredibly frustrating. It adds to the vast uncertainty. It is frustrating for those people who want to put their money into development proposals—for example, by way of investment—let alone for those people who have put in their own personal assets, in the sense of their time, energy and effort, in giving evidence at the inquiry to see that all go to waste. The whole system is brought into disrepute if an independent inspector's report, having been taken through an independent inquiry, is simply ignored. It is just not good enough; hence the Bill's attempt to bring about the situation of binding inspectors reports. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 21 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 21A.—(Lord Rooker.)