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My Lords, there are a great many planning experts in this House, many of whom demonstrated their great skills and experience during proceedings on the Localism Bill over many days. Many of its amendments and debates focus on areas that are closely related to the current consultation on the national policy planning framework. We have heard an impassioned speech from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who invited the Minister to choose the middle ground between two extremes. My view would be exactly the same. While I agree with some of his detailed points on conversion of buildings in rural areas and so forth, I have one principal point to make today, which is one of balance.
I certainly welcome the Government's focus on streamlining planning regulations. The current morass of regulations is certainly overcomplex. When there is overcomplexity in government policy, it leads to that policy perhaps not being given the degree of respect that it requires. The Government should therefore be commended in attempting to make sense out of the situation, to make the system more comprehensible, and thus better respected by those it affects.
It is certainly also true that the current system is unduly cumbersome, particularly with regard to the delivery of major infrastructure projects. There are many to look at, but one has only to look at the length of the planning inquiry into terminal 5 to realise that there is too great a gap for companies and the Government to be able to plan major infrastructure developments in this country. It just takes too long.
However, like many others, I am concerned about the nature of some of the proposals set out in the consultation document that we are considering. In my judgment, the way in which the document is phrased is very one-sided. It states one objective, which is promoting development. I cannot recall seeing a statement of government policy addressing sensitive and complex issues which takes such-one might say "definitive"-an approach.
Throughout the document, from the very beginning, the Government set out their stall with admirable clarity. Paragraph 9 states boldly:
"The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development".
I am not at all sure that this is the case; or, at least, not without qualification and the exclusion of other priorities. For someone who is very definitely not one of the planning experts that I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, it could be argued that the purpose of the planning system is quite the opposite; that is, to act as a check and balance against an unrestrained charge for development. The authors of the document take comfort behind the term "sustainable" to qualify development. I was interested in the debate that took place yesterday, and would certainly agree that the term has been so overused as to lose any meaningful impact, as we have heard in recent debates. What is "sustainable development"? Today's definition of "sustainable" may well not be tomorrow's.
I was struck by the force of the Government's determination to support one side of this debate, particularly with regard to housing. The consultation paper is packed with strong statements to remind the reader of the Government's one-dimensional view. Paragraph 14 states:
"At the heart of the planning system is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan making and decision taking. Local planning authorities should plan positively for new development, and approve all individual proposals wherever possible".
That strikes me as an exceptionally bold statement, which could have been drafted in the dreams of those who might seek to benefit from the conversion of muddy fields into sparkling new dormitory towns. I urge the Government to think carefully about the balance between development-a great deal of development could be sustainable and very welcome-and conservation, the requirements of the rural economy, the preservation of open spaces, the importance of farming and biodiversity, principles which have led and guided the planning process for so long.
In paragraph 28 the document directs that local planning authorities should plan for the scale of housing supply necessary to meet demand. I question whether that is not a naive aspiration. The demand for housing is not quite infinite but it is certainly very large indeed. In my submission, an attempt to satisfy this demand would lead to housebuilding on an unprecedented scale, which would fundamentally alter the fabric of the country. I certainly understand the motivation behind this policy. We want to arrive at a balanced state of affairs whereby planning does not act as an unreasonable check and hindrance to development and boosts the economic capability of this country, for example, through industry. The Government are looking for any means of unlocking growth. However, I suggest that to put the emphasis so much on the need for development, as the consultation does, and attempting to promote development wherever possible is not going to achieve that. I am also interested to know where the funding is going to come from for all this proposed new housing stock. Debt financing is, of course, the answer. I wonder whether there is a need for a new mountain of borrowing.
If a country with extensive tropical rainforest assets had put forward a planning document suggesting that logging should take priority over all other considerations wherever possible, I suggest that environmentalists, and perhaps policy-makers in the developed world, would be up in arms about that. I think that there is a comparison to be drawn with what is proposed in this document. No doubt I will get "roughed up" by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, but in fact I agree with a lot of what he said about the need for balanced, sensible and well considered development. However, whatever we say at this stage, there is the law of unintended consequences. If this becomes the policy framework, those who are keen to sponsor large-scale housing development in large and, in my view, unsustainable dormitory-type schemes will have those schemes approved over and over again. I urge my noble friend to take account of the voices raised to counterbalance the gung-ho attitude of the Government.