Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:29 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour 9:29 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, this is a far-reaching and radical Bill, a worthy successor to the great Town and Country Planning Act 1947. That Act reconciled industrial reconstruction after the Blitz with keeping Britain a pleasant place to live. This Bill will reconcile our economic development and its infrastructure requirements with our environmental responsibilities, as well as improve the planning system for all development. I welcome the clarity, speed and fairness of the process it proposes. When I was in the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, I took part in interminable planning processes for new power stations.

In her upbeat introduction, my noble friend acknowledged the influence of the Barker Review of Land Use Planning, seen in the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the new way of working.

But Kate Barker also said, in recommendation 24:

"Decision-makers should give higher priority to ensuring that new development has high design standards".

She added that it was commonly accepted that good design brought benefit in terms of the functionality of development and that the costs of poor design were high. There is, as yet, no explicit obligation on Ministers to pay the same kind of attention to design as to sustainability. But we could expand Clause 10(2) to impose one. Of course, the planning policy statements already in existence contain plenty of powerful guidance on design. But is guidance enough?

How will this excellent guidance be implemented by local authorities, apart from the infrastructure commission, and who will be doing the implementing? Developers have persuasive arguments of many kinds. And after most of the developers have gained permission and have built, they will move on. But the people in the planning authorities who make the decisions will continue to live with their responsibility for the area and the development within it. Their interests are already different.

The planners will need several kinds of skill. They will need to be able to assess what the developers' arguments are worth in terms of enduring value to the locality. They will need to know how to muster comprehensive local opinion. Above all, they will need to be able to identify what is a good design, functional, sustainable and attractive to the people who will use it. And, finally, if the developer appeals against their decision, they will need to be confident that the appeals system has the capacity to back decisions which are based on good design.

The problem is that while the Government's design guidance is very good, we do not have that assured reservoir of design capacity everywhere in the deciding part of the planning equation to put it into practice. A survey early this month by the Audit Commission headlined the current shortage of qualified planning staff, which could lead to a national shortfall of 46 per cent in five years. Another earlier one by the Local Government Association identified design as the professional skill most lacking, with 52 per cent of planning authorities saying that they themselves were deficient in design skills. And the Institution of Highways and Transportation found that 85 per cent of its members had received no formal urban design training. Nor had a majority of transport planners, regeneration and traffic management officers. Perhaps that is why we have so many towns and cities which are fit for the motor car but not so good for people, for families and for children. How can we arrive at the "architect-planner" who has such a benign influence in the developments of many of our European counterparts, such as Germany, Holland, or Sweden? Should we not have a common curriculum for planning skills, with design and negotiating skills as core components? And should we not be encouraging more young people to take up planning as a career?

Nor do we have a system of monitoring the quality of planning authority decisions in respect of design. It would not be difficult to see how they measured up to CABE's Building for Life criteria, the nationally accepted standard for design.

So, I ask my noble friend, what can be done to spread the culture of good design, in the big infrastructure projects as in the places where people are going to live? How can the community infrastructure levy contribute to this purpose? I hope open and green space is included within the term "community infrastructure". Perhaps the regulations referred to at Clause 202(4) can make this explicit. And I hope that the community infrastructure levy and Section 106 of the current legislation are not intended to override PPS1 and PPS3.

On the infrastructure commission itself, and its council, can we be assured that there will be expertise in design quality, sustainable development and inclusion and community involvement? All are essential to good design. What will the design remit of the new institutions be, in their acceptance of applications, in their appointment of panel members, in the single commissioner procedure, or in the content of development consent orders?

How can the system of design review panels and design champions be expanded? If a culture of better design cannot be achieved as the Bill takes root, we shall be missing an opportunity which will not come again for many decades. We have now great talent in this country. But the good design we can produce is not the norm. We could reward developers who demonstrate compliance with recognised design criteria by fast-tracking them through the planning process. We could think harder about how to encourage innovation.

The Bill, in the words of my right honourable friend Hazel Blears, reaffirms,

"the central role of planning in shaping all our communities", and gives it some of the power to do so better. We need to do better because planning influences profoundly the most powerful manifestation of our culture—the way we go about our lives.