Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:52 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Conservative 10:52 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, it is late. I shall try to be brief because it is a case of "nox longa, oratio brevis".

I have a number of interests in this area. They are recorded in the register and I do not wish to enumerate them now. I should like to confine my remarks to four main points. First, I have a few thoughts about the complication of the existing planning arrangements. Secondly, I wish to make a comment or two about how democracy and accountability relate to the determination of planning applications. Thirdly, I have a few considerations on making the grant of planning permission conditional on extra tax or levies. Finally, I should like to share a few thoughts about the implications, as I see them, arising out of the recently announced proposals for the siting of this country's repository for long-term nuclear waste.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems to me that in this country the system for authorising changes in land use and development—I include but do not confine my comments to planning permission in this context—are far too complicated. This is bad for the user; it is bad for the administration; and it is bad for all those who are affected. That seems to lead to the breakdown of respect for government, as well as an enormous waste of national resources.

I have some sympathy for the Government's approach, extending the idea of granting planning permission through secondary legislation—an idea pioneered by my right honourable friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal in the 1990s. Of course, the fact that it is brought forward as an idea is, it seems to me, a very real indictment of our general system of land use control. This is something that I anticipate coming back to in both the context of this Bill and the context of future discussions about heritage, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth.

It seems to me that in this country, in a whole variety of areas, we are creating a system of far too complicated, expensive, fancy legislation which we simply cannot administer. The planning system is an example of that, but perhaps the most obvious example of the malaise is the system which has been introduced in England by Defra to deal with the single farm payment, of which, I regret, I have been a victim. It is a wonderful system. It is intellectually far and above anything else introduced in the other home countries. Unfortunately, it is completely unworkable. In this country we have to turn things round, keep things simple and recognise that the best very often is the enemy of the good.

Turning to some of the democratic and accountability aspects of our planning system, it is very important that we recognise that it is neither right nor feasible to conduct plebiscites on everything. After all, developers, landowners and affected parties of all kinds have a right that proposals which are being thought about are considered properly and judiciously. I really do not think that they should be determined by popular whim, rather like TV game shows. I believe that is a parody of democracy. I apologise for sounding as I did in my speech on the European reform treaty.

In my opinion the really important point of public participation in the planning system should be in plan making rather than in development control. I speak as someone who has chaired a planning committee for four years in the Lake District. That process must be essentially non-partisan and the absolute opposite of populist in order to ensure that all those affected have a proper hearing. It is very interesting that for many years, if one ever wanted to develop a pub, one needed to get planning permission from the local authority and a licence from the bench. It may come as a surprise to noble Lords to know that I am a licensee. I remember going in front of the bench and I confess that I felt, in general, confident of a fair hearing.

In a democratic society it is important that, if the system under which we are administered puts decisions out to commission, the politicians who establish or inherit that system fully understand that they are as politically accountable for the decisions that arise from that as if they had they taken them themselves. If my memory is correct, the Minister confirmed that that was so with the Infrastructure Planning Commission and I am sure that this is a very important point which needs to be underscored.

On levies and charges, at the risk of stating the absolutely obvious, development costs money and if charges are added, development becomes more expensive for the developer. Often that discriminates against those who develop for their own purposes as opposed to those who develop for onward sale. In practice, that often means that the small man is harshly treated. It is important that the Government tell us what, if anything, they intend to do to counter that discrimination against the small man. Setting aside arguments about unearned increment, which I believe should be dealt with in the context of general taxation because it applies well beyond land, it seems to me that any levies imposed pursuant to grants of planning permission must be directly linked to consequential infrastructure, which, in turn, must relate directly back to the proposal in question. I also believe that the money should be collected at the point when it is used and applied and not simply be gathered into a big pot.

We all recognise that it is tempting for governments, not least when the money is running out, as it seems to be a little now, to see charges of those kinds as a kind of unhypothecated source of general revenue. The Minister very fairly said to us earlier, if I remember correctly, that the Government have no intention that that should occur and that the detail of the legislation will ensure that whatever arrangements are put in place cannot be transferred in that direction. Again, if that is the case, I urge the Government to underscore that point to put people's minds at rest.

Finally, I shall say a word about the recent announcement about the proposed nuclear waste depository. From an intellectual basis, I was rather startled to hear that the Government are proposing to offer sweeteners to the community in the place in the United Kingdom—it is important that all the home countries are involved in this investigation because it is not a devolved matter—where the depository might eventually be sited. In terms of principle, this is a radical change of approach from what we have been used to in this country. How far does this extend? Is it now open to developers to offer all kinds of unconnected sweeteners beyond Section 106 agreements? If communities are to be offered benefits, what about compensation for injurious affection suffered by landowners whose property may in some way be adversely affected by public sector development? I assume it will not be open to developers simply to hand out £10 notes to whoever might want to receive them, but this is an interesting change, and it is important that the Government set down the parameters that they are imposing on themselves in this circumstance and explain to the rest of us how they see this approach developing in future.

I say this with some regret, but there is a real malaise within our planning system in the way it is working. Whether what is on the table is the right way to go will no doubt become much more apparent to us as the Bill takes its course through this House. I look forward to participating.