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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:58 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 12:58 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I must begin, as did my noble friend Lord Greaves, by declaring an interest as a councillor on a local planning authority. However, unlike my noble friend, I have managed to spend 37 years as a councillor without ever serving on a development control committee, except perhaps for a couple of years when we made the mistake of giving development control powers to our area committees on which all of us have to serve. We quickly learnt the lesson to which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, referred, as to why it is so obvious that development control powers do not go to parishes.

I am also, I know, the only London borough councillor to be speaking in this debate. Therefore, I feel that it is incumbent on me to remind your Lordships, particularly the Minister who I am sure as a former London borough council leader needs no reminding, that London will be the only part of England to retain a regional tier of planning and a regional plan, the London Plan. It would be very helpful if the final form of the national planning policy framework document recognises the position of London and the London Plan and has something to say about how that will relate to the local development plans of each of the London boroughs and indeed the City of London and what the relationship will be between those two under the new regime.

At 10 o'clock last night, I was seriously wondering whether I would be able to follow the usual custom of welcoming the debate today and congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on bringing it to us. This was because-as my noble friend has also said-we had already spent five or six hours debating planning in the Localism Bill. In my view, a number of speeches would have been more appropriately made today rather than yesterday, except that they would not have fitted within the time limit imposed upon us today. We will return to it on Monday. We already know that we will have another debate on the NPPF on 27 October. However, the quality of the debate today-not least the introductory speech from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker-has convinced me that I was perhaps just at a low ebb at 10 o'clock last night and that this has been a very good debate.

The whole process got off to a very bad start. First, we were getting very mixed messages from Ministers. The neighbourhood planning proposals were launched, which were described as a charter for nimbyism, followed not long afterwards by the NPPF, which was described as the charter for developers. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has made reference to the rather extreme campaign launched by the National Trust. I suppose I must now declare an interest as a member of the National Trust, which is a membership that I intend to retain because I like the free visits to its properties. However, I entirely share the noble Lord's comments about the extremely unhelpful nature of the way in which it expressed its views. It did not help to have a sensible and well informed debate, which is what the consultation process should have been about.

When Ministers come to consider all of this-and clearly they will consider the responses that have been received-I hope that they will also consider the communications strategy that they have followed in the launch of the NPPF. It has to be said that it has not been a success. As I have said, we had a very bad start. I pay tribute to the planning Minister, who has been working very hard and quite successfully to retrieve ground that need not have been lost in the first place.

Part of the problem is that consultation has got a bad name from successive governments and indeed from many local authorities. Consultation is so often believed by those consulting to be simply a formality-necessary to be gone through-whether in order to comply with the law or simply because it is the right thing to do. More often than not, I suspect, the final document and decisions are more or less exactly the same as those in the original consultation. This is often proper and legitimate provision of public information and public debate but it is not consultation. Therefore on this occasion-and on others, but particularly on this one-Ministers and others speaking for the Government have said, "No, no, no-this time it is real consultation". If we have consultation, all of it should be real. I certainly accept and believe that this is a real consultation. I am sure that when we eventually see the final NPPF, it will be different in a number of significant respects from the original.

The Minister told us during proceedings on the Localism Bill yesterday that there had so far been 10,000 responses. Speak as co-chair of the Liberal Democrats communities and local government parliamentary committee, I can tell her that by Monday she will have at least 10,001 responses because we have this morning agreed our response. I will not spoil the eager anticipation with which I know she will await the post on Monday in order to read the response, but she will have had a flavour of it from two of my noble colleagues who have spoken today. We will welcome the aims of the NPPF. As my noble friend Lady Parminter says-and I speak as a local councillor-having something reduced to a readable document of readable length is a great assistance to those of us who do not earn our living working in planning law. It is far more likely to be read by councillors, whether on development control committees or generally, than is now the case.

We feel that there needs to be a conformity of language throughout the document. It reads at present as if it has been prepared by a number of different government departments with different priorities. This might be the reality, but the final document needs to be a single government document that reflects those priorities and reflects a proper balance between those priorities. Reference has been made to the three pillars. Unless those three pillars are given an equal strength and recognition, the structure that rests upon those pillars is likely to be slanted and eventually to collapse altogether. We stress the importance of equal priority to all three pillars.

Next is the perhaps difficult question-which many have raised-of having a proper definition of sustainable development, which is in the framework document and which applies and is used throughout it. We believe that we should use the definition in the 2005 UK sustainable development strategy for a very good reason. It is well understood and generally supported. Trying to invent a new one is bound to lead to lengthy argument and dispute and serves no useful purpose at all. I have heard it said that this strategy applies to government as a whole and that it is not wholly relevant to planning. I dispute this. It is based on a number of guiding principles: living within environmental limits, achieving a sustainable economy, ensuring a strong, healthy and just society, using sound science responsibly and promoting good governance. All those principles apply very importantly to planning, particularly promoting good governance. These are important principles and they fit planning extremely well.

Others, particularly my noble friend Lord Greaves, have made reference to the need for a clear statement on the transition period. I know that the Government are working on this. It is an extremely important period when we move from the disappearance-rightly or otherwise-of regional spatial strategies next April through to updated or, in many cases, new local plans. I have not too much sympathy for those surprisingly large number of authorities which, in the five or six years that they have had, have not managed to developed a local plan. All local plans are likely to need to be updated in the light of the new regime; that takes time. The framework document needs to be clear not only on the process for the transition period but also for the length of time to be allowed for that transition period. At our committee meeting this morning we had some discussion on what that time period should be. One council leader suggested that it should be at least two years if councils are allowed to decide for themselves, and at least twice as long if the planning inspectorate and central government get involved in the process. This was not said in jest and I think it very sensible. It may well be that three years-or between two and four years-is about right. Whatever it is, it needs to be there.

We also support the view that "brownfield sites first" needs to remain and be clear in the document. We strongly support the need for more housing but question the need to dictate that local authorities must identify five-year land supply plus 20 per cent regardless of circumstances.

I know that the Minister must be constrained in what she can say in reply because the consultation has not yet closed and Ministers have not had the time to consider the responses. However, perhaps she can set out for us in her reply what is to be the process to be followed in producing the final document from now on-from the close of consultation-and when might we see it.