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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:10 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Labour 1:10 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rooker for having created the opportunity for this debate. As noble Lords can imagine, as a planning Minister he was a rather difficult act to follow. For a long time, people were obviously disappointed that I was not my noble friend. They would say, "But Lord Rooker said that we could-", whatever it was. He approached his brief with the same boldness he showed when, as a Minister at the Dispatch Box, he tore up his script. But this has been an excellent debate and I am glad that we are to have another one on 27 October because a lot of questions still need to be raised, and we will have moved a little further forward by then.

I declare an interest as the chair of English Heritage and I shall start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on her speech and the emphasis she put on place. Indeed, place and what that means to us is absolutely central to how we conduct ourselves and feel ourselves to be part of the community. The meaning and wealth of our heritage and the local historic environment are important to our notion of our place in the world and in our society. As a planning Minister, I often wrestled with the issues raised by heritage and development, but like other noble Lords, I was deeply impressed by the way the planning system was constructed and how it worked, and by the integrity and passion that went into making decent local plans. So I do not believe that the planning system is broken. It can be improved, and I shall come on to say a bit about that.

What I did learn as a Minister was the vital importance of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. It has proved to be one of the most successful pieces of legislation ever enacted. Without it, London would now stretch as far as Brighton. On the whole, it has served us well, with its enduring impact on the necessity for balance in planning, although in effect it has always had a presumption in favour of development. It is important to keep that in mind because the NPPF now sits at the heart of a radically reformed planning system governed by the Localism Bill, along with the changed frameworks and devolved planning responsibilities that it will bring forward. It is indeed a new landscape, and that is why we must take extreme care over what we in this House provide by way of advice to the Minister. The Government themselves need to take care. I think that the Minister has already been given a lot of good advice in the debate today.

The NPPF has been worth waiting for, although we could have done with it at the Second Reading of the Localism Bill. I say that because never during my brief career in planning was I able to arouse much interest in planning. I felt that, with the exception of noble Lords in this House, I was ploughing a lonely furrow as I enthused about its power to create better places and sustainable futures. Today, not least thanks to the National Trust, it is on the front pages in a big way.

I shall summarise what English Heritage feels about the NPPF document as a whole before going on to talk about some of the specifics and the general issues. Many things about the NPPF are to be welcomed. A shorter, integrated document will probably be more accessible, better understood and possibly more effective. However, as other noble Lords have said, in the distillation of so much planning guidance into such a short statement, some of the encouragement to aspire to better quality development has been lost in the staccato instructions of the new document. For example, I particularly regret the loss of emphasis on the positive role our heritage plays in making new places-in its regeneration role. I, too, share the concerns expressed by many noble Lords about the tone of the document, and the NPPF, having established an interweaving of social, economic and environmental strands to create sustainable development at the beginning of the document, then starts to unpick it in subsequent parts of the framework. The frequent entreaties to favour economic considerations over social and environmental ones give the impression of imbalance and inconsistency in the document. That is one of the strong messages that has come across the Chamber today.

I turn now to issues around heritage. The document as it stands is not only a distillation of PPS 5, as my noble friend Lord Hart pointed out, it is also a distillation of what that document did only last year, which was to reduce two massive planning documents-PPS 15 and 16-into one concise paper. It took a lot of effort, but it produced a workable and coherent document. Like my noble friend Lord Rooker, I hope that the Government will learn from the major beneficial achievements of previous Governments, not just the previous Government, and take up and develop what does work.

What I can say, in terms of picking up the key policy points of heritage protection set out in PPS 5, Planning for the Historic Environment, is that the Government have done a good job, but there are still a number of changes to the text as a whole, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and I have exchanged correspondence. Our heritage in this country is extremely fragile and fine-grained because of the country in which we live and our historic market towns. We need to be careful to ensure that our heritage protection system remains robust and resilient. It is, and that must be sustained, which is why the NPPF document is so important. However, one problem is that the NPPF does not contain any policy for decision-makers to deal with proposals where there is moderate or minor harm to heritage assets such as listed building consents. Not only does that make it difficult for us to prevent the accumulation of small damages to the environment, it also makes it more difficult for us to use those buildings and places to encourage regeneration or to alter what is available. It puts a brake on the best sort of development. I would ask the noble Baroness to look carefully at this.

We need also to recognise that the historic environment is a non-renewable resource. In that context, the document misses out one of the powerful arguments for heritage, which is that it does not serve the past, but the future. It is part of the economic and social solutions for the future. We are certainly not interested in preservation for the sake of it, but we want to see the sensational buildings of the past fashion the future. For example, the way in which the wonderful Georgian buildings of the Royal William Yard in Plymouth have been brought back to life will serve the area for the future. At King's Cross we have the best of Victorian design matched by the brilliance of the best designers in this country. That is what we should be aiming for.

I know that the NPPF has sparked off a general furore and that the Government are looking for accommodations. We are reasonably confident, within the bounds of heritage protections, that our conversations with Ministers are going ahead very positively, but there is still concern across the heritage sector about the unbalanced emphasis in favour of development and the impact of that presumption which, as it stands, seems to pit economic development against social benefits and environmental protections. I welcome the assurances given by Ministers, including the noble Baroness, that there is no intention to diminish heritage protection, but some changes still need to be made to ensure that it will hold up in the context of the whole document. For example, the consequence of requiring local authorities to grant permission,

"unless the adverse impact of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits" which, as my noble friend says, is a new concept in the presumption, will conflict with the heritage policies in the historic environment section and other environmental protection policies which require that the benefits of development should outweigh harm-there is a contradiction there-that favours conservation where the decision is balanced. We need the Government to clarify the primacy of policy requiring local planning authorities, when considering the impact of proposed development on a designated heritage asset or its setting, to give weight to its conservation. It could be done explicitly by stating that the historic environment policies are to override the generality of the definition of the presumption in favour of sustainable development. I believe that that would be logically unsatisfactory. Much more preferable would be clarity as to the true meaning of sustainable development-development that meets the tests set out in the NPPF. It is that sort of development which we should be presuming. That would resolve many of the objections that have been raised.

In conclusion, I shall speak briefly on the wider canvas. I thank the noble Baroness for what she has done to improve the conditions around neighbourhood planning. We still have an outstanding issue to do with archaeology, as I am sure she knows, and I think that there are questions on the generality of neighbourhood planning issues in terms of the clarity of new plans and development orders: the notion of what an up-to-date plan is and the vacuum that might be created if plans are not in date.

In due course, I hope that we will continue our discussions on sustainable development. We need absolute clarity on brownfield, including the term used in the document. We need the "town centre first" policy restated and not watered down. We also need to see specific protection for the countryside, although possibly not in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, offered yesterday. I believe that there is a way of doing that which seeks to protect and enhance the quality, character and amenity value of the countryside and urban areas as a whole and picks up the lost parts of previous documents. I offer those suggestions to the Government.

Let us not forget that all this is happening at a time when local authorities are losing resources, confidence and skills. We have placed a huge challenge in front of them to deliver a planning system that is more responsive, but let us not miss out on some of the absolutely crucial protections that have sustained the balance and made our planning system so successful.