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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:14 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 12:14 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am a member of a local planning authority and the local development control committee in Colne, which is the Colne and District Committee. Perhaps I should think about retiring.

I sometimes complain that your Lordships' House does not spend enough time talking about important nitty-gritty things I am interested in, such as planning, but at the moment we are discussing that almost every day. We were discussing it yesterday in the Localism Bill, we will discuss it again on Monday in further debate on that Bill and here we are again today. Perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.

My initial reaction when I read this draft national planning policy framework was that a lot of the language is wrong. It does not fit neatly into a planning framework; it is written more like a manifesto and there is quite a lot of sloppy wording. Sloppy wording is something that must be avoided here; otherwise it is a recipe, as the noble Lord, Lord Hart, said, for lots of appeals, judicial review and lots of money for rich lawyers. My second thought was that a lot of it is internally inconsistent and it needs sorting out. Whatever message the Government want to give in this document, it has to be consistent. My third problem is what it misses out and that is inevitable when all the PPSs are being condensed into a shorter document. I hope that the Government will not get hung up on 50 pages, but if they do, I would say that it needs increasing a bit and perhaps they will have to use a smaller typeface. Nevertheless, I understand the purpose of the document. My final concern is: what does it really mean? This leads us on to the meaning of "sustainable development".

Last night, the noble Lord, Lord Deben, pointed out that the Government are often in a state of confusion between the meaning of the word "development" and the phrase "sustainable development". They are not the same thing, but they seem to be being used interchangeably. The absolute minimum, from our point of view, is that a definition of "sustainable development"-an explanation, if they do not want a definition in this document-must recognise that it consists of three pillars; economic, social and environmental. That is absolutely fundamental. Planning decisions and planning policy-making has to involve a balance between those. A reading of this document suggests that the balance is not there. If the Government wish to set a great premium on growth-and I understand why they may-it must be within the context of those three pillars and the balance between them. In particular, it must be set within clear environmental limits.

The noble Lord, Lord Hart, has already referred to paragraph 14, which has caused a lot of the problems. It reads:

"At the heart of the planning system is a presumption in favour of sustainable development".

That is fine.

"Local planning authorities should plan positively for new development".

That is fine, but then it says,

"and approve all individual proposals wherever possible".

At the very best that is such sloppy wording that it cannot be allowed to remain. All things are possible. Then it says,

"approve development proposals that accord with statutory plans without delay".

Again, it is sloppy wording. Of course there should be no inefficiency, no unnecessary delay, but as a member of a planning committee for very many years and the former chairman of one, I know that planning applications very often require negotiation, discussion and attempts to reach consensus. Simply because a proposal, whether it is small, medium-sized or big, is in accord with the plan does not mean that there are not lots of details that require sorting out-things such as access and the implications on the local highway network; whether it requires changes to and support for local bus services; the detailed design of proposals. These are absolutely crucial and yet do not necessarily follow automatically from what is in the plan. All those things and a lot more require time. It is better to spend some time getting it right because, for people who live in or visit an area, what is done very often will last for many years-perhaps for hundreds of years. Spending a bit more time getting it right is absolutely vital. Planning is for the lifetime of people who live in an area. Developers looking at the wording of parts of this document may well feel that Christmas has arrived. They may think that it is wonderful-but planning is for life, not just for Christmas.

The final bullet point states that local planning authorities should:

"Grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date".

The point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hart. It leads to a discussion that we will have on Monday when we return to considering the Localism Bill and debate amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and myself about transitional arrangements in local plan-making and decision-making. There is a concern that the Government did not think this through as well as they should have done when they wrote the Localism Bill and drew up the draft national policy framework. Some of us feel that clear transitional arrangements for the local plan-making system and how it will adapt to the new policies should be set out in the legislation, along with guidance on how planning applications should be dealt with in the mean time. I am aware that the Government are considering putting this instead in the national planning policy framework. I do not mind where it is so long as the system set out is the right one. We need to understand how the process for local planning authorities to get their local plans in line with the new system will work in the absence of regional strategies and planning policy statements, and with just the new NPPF.

Initially, Ministers said that local authorities would have six months to sort themselves out. It is absolutely clear that six months is totally inadequate. A period of 18 months is now being talked about-and probably even that is not enough. The context is that some councils do not have new core strategies in place and still rely on old-style local plans that predate the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Some have new-style local development frameworks and core strategies in place, based on the 2004 Act. Some are moving towards it: they have core strategies, key diagrams and proposal plans that are moving towards the process of inspection and of being adopted. However, seven years after the 2004 Act, what we were told was a new, wonderful, streamlined planning system that would sort everything out clearly has not worked. None of us wants to see that kind of delay applied to the new system.

If the local authority has an approved core strategy, it must still go for its statement of conformity under the new system. How much change will that involve, how long will it take and what procedures are in place? If the authority does not have a core strategy under the 2004 Act but it is moving towards it-perhaps it has submitted it for inspection or is about to do so-how much work will it have to do to take it back, amend it, get new evidence and check it against the rules of this new document? How long will that take and what procedures will be in place? If the local authority is nowhere near this, what on earth is it going to do? What weight can it still take from its existing local plans, at whatever stage they are, to apply to new planning application? If the answer is that after a certain period of time, perhaps six or 18 months, these are dropped and swept away and it is free for all, then we are in chaos. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some clear answers to these questions on Monday, but in the mean time they are fundamental to this NPPF and there must be some clear guidelines included in this document, unless the local planning system is simply going to collapse.