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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:24 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 1:24 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, I do not know whether I am the first to do so, but I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, on her appointment and welcome her to the Front Bench. I should also like to congratulate, as other noble Lords have done, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who has occasioned this debate and introduced it with his customary brio. He will not be entirely surprised to know that I do not agree with everything he said. In fact, I think he would have been rather disappointed if I had.

In my more charitable moments, and oddly enough I have a few, I am tempted to feel sorry for Ministers, assailed as they have been by the leftist leader writers of the Telegraph, the closet revolutionaries of CPRE and the naysayers of the National Trust-or the national trots as I understand they have been referred to occasionally by Ministers. The case against them has been overdone, although there are serious reservations about aspects of the framework that we need to address.

I am particularly glad that the noble Lords, Lord Rogers and Lord Hart-as formidable a duo in this context as their namesakes in the realm of musical comedy-have demolished the myth that somehow planning has been responsible for the failure of the national economy, the low number of houses being built and the rest of it. That is not the case. Indeed, I heard recently the director of a major building company which develops a number of properties in urban areas agree about that. Some 80 per cent of planning applications are agreed and, as we have heard, substantial permissions are extant but without development occurring. Perhaps that is a matter that the Government need to address, possibly by levying taxes on undeveloped land as an incentive to those who own it and have planning permission to get on and develop.

However, one of the problems with the framework-it is not a particular problem with this document-is that there is no national context. There is no plan for England into which this framework would fit and which would provide a context for planning decisions about such crucial matters as economic growth reflecting the demographic change, the challenge of climate change and the rest of it. This is a framework that addresses individual decision-making but there is no national concept about dealing with infrastructural or overall needs and demands. That is something that the previous Government did not get round to doing and I hope that the present one will look to that.

The difficulty is compounded because there is no longer any regional strategy either, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, made clear. For that matter, there is no sub-regional strategy. These create difficulties for those working in planning.

One of the issues that has been touched on and may reflect problems with the system is the lack of capacity in the planning world in terms of planning officers. That was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. In that context, it is perhaps unfortunate that the Government have abolished the planning development grant which encouraged capacity within the profession and within local government. At some point, that might be worth revisiting.

One of the difficulties with the framework is the lack of definition about what sustainable development really means. The emphasis seems to be entirely on economic growth, although there is actually no definition of that either. Presumably, a petrol station or out-of-town shopping centre could constitute economic growth. That lack of context is worrying. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, suggested, we need get to back to the 2005 code for sustainable development and use that as the basis. We also need to ensure that we reflect adequately the issues around the need to respond to climate change-the mitigation and adaptation-and to promote green development, including, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, will be very disappointed to hear, renewables, as part of the combating of climate change, but also, possibly, as an engine itself of the economic growth that we all want to see and which the framework clearly seeks to promote.

However, sustainability is not simply a matter of sustainability in one area. You cannot look at sustainability in one local authority area, any more than you could develop, as Stalin hoped to do, socialism in one country; you have to look at the impact of development in an urban area on its rural neighbour, and vice versa. Sustainability needs to be seen in a somewhat broader context. Many of your Lordships have referred to the need in particular-this is a relevant aspect of the point I have just made-to be very clear about the question of brownfield sites. The Minister did refer to this last night although it does not seem to be in the document. Perhaps, as a result of the consultation, a clearer and greater emphasis could be made on that aspect, as well as on the issue of town centre first, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews.

In planning development, one has to look beyond housing development, for which, contrary to the views of the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, there is a clear need. It is not just a question of housing demand; there is palpable housing need, not least in rural areas, although not for large-scale development.