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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:35 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 1:35 pm, 13th October 2011

I am always in trouble on this-the debate on 27 October also will produce extra thoughts. I am encouraged by the comprehensive nature of the points brought forward today. However, I shall inevitably not be categorical in responding to any of the points raised today as this is still the consultation period and, as I said last night, the Government are listening carefully to what is being said. I do not think that anyone would deny that this has got off to a reasonably bad start. It has not been helped, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, by some pretty acerbic and unjust comments from some of the bigger organisations. There has been some criticism of our communications strategies, but to some extent it falls on to the other side as well. If you are going to be controversial and against something then you really must start from a different place to where some of the criticism hurled at us has come from.

These are all practical areas that we are talking about. If ever there was a practical aspect of local government, it is planning. It is very immediate and affects individual people very strongly. As a former member of a planning committee as well as leader of a council, I know that planning is probably the subject that fills one's postbag most. There will not be many in the country who do not have views on what is being put forth, in addition to the views we have heard today. I therefore welcome the debate very strongly. I can assure you that I will not be able to respond to everyone, although I will try to mention one or two people on the way. However, we have a careful note of what has been said; Hansard will be scrutinised tomorrow; and the points and concerns raised today will be put forward into the consultation. If we have 1,001 contributions by tomorrow, including that of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and add up all the comments today, I am not sure that one is going to be a sufficient justification.

I very much welcome the fact that the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Howarth, welcomed this framework. I totally accept that they did not do so without reservations. Both noble Lords certainly had criticisms, but both also understood where the starting pace for this came from. It is fine to have 1,300 pages of planning policy, statements and guidance, but what that actually means is that only about three people in the country actually know-and one of those may have forgotten-where all the documents and high-level policies are. It also makes it quite unfathomable to ordinary people who want to try to find out what the planning policies are, because they have to find their way through so many documents. We want the national planning policy framework to be accessible to everybody so that they understand where the high-level policies come from, as well as how they are going to be implemented.

The basis for this, as we discussed yesterday and will discuss again on Monday, will be the local plans. They are the generator of all that is going to come about from our national policy framework. We believe that planning is local. It is all about what people like and want to protect about their neighbourhood. It is about how people are affected by what somebody next door to them does and how you make sure you sustain the sort of reasonable life that one hopes for them. We are therefore, as we also discussed last night, proposing within this to have local planning frameworks and local documents and then to pass that down even further to neighbourhood planning. That will require guidance. I fully accept, as noble Lords have said, that it will also require good professional support. The neighbourhood plans will very much reflect what local communities think and need. I am enthusiastic about getting this into the local area.

A number of noble Lords touched on local development frameworks. I think I am right in saying that only some 48 per cent of local authorities have a framework at the moment, but there will be much encouragement for them to develop one and bring it forward. The encouragement will be based partly on the fact that local authorities will not want to have decisions made round them but will want to be fully in charge of the decisions made. We will encourage them to finish the frameworks and get them into a position where they can be used and then to ensure that the contents fall within the national policy framework when it comes forward.

Local government has been slow in dealing with the frameworks and in some ways resistant to completing them. We are adamant that the frameworks should be completed as quickly as possible. We want to get all the issues right-many of them have been raised today-and end up with a framework that we are proud of and that people are relatively happy with. We do not want there to be a sense that something unwelcome has been done or that some factors are missing.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, made a plea about transition from one document to another. That matter is under close consideration and is well understood. It has been made very clear that there should not be a hiatus. We will take careful note of that.

Sustainable development was also discussed last night. As everyone knows, it is dealt with in depth in the framework, in local planning and development. We want to keep sustainable development in the plans, though not the individual plans, as it is currently buried in local development frameworks and neighbourhood planning. The discussion that we need to have now, and I gave a commitment last night that we would, is about where sustainability should be defined. The problem, as we heard today, is that at least three and possibly five limbs of the Brundtland definition are relevant to planning, and last night an extra one was outlined in terms of a cultural and spiritual one. You cannot operate a legal framework like that. We are looking hard to see whether there is a way of putting a statement into legislation that does not end up-as the noble Lord, Lord Hart, said-as a lawyer's paradise. I can that see that he may very well be encouraged to go back, his eyes gleaming at the possibility of £20 notes falling from the sky. We will look to see whether there is a way of putting it in the Bill without getting into legal hazards, or whether it is better, as I suspect, to put it in the national framework definition. We will commit to dealing with that. The principles of the framework are there and we have discussed them. We recognise that we need to have genuine debate about the detail and we welcome the consultation currently taking place.

I want to touch on a couple of other areas. The presumption in favour of sustainable development applies not only to the economic aspect and the growth of business, though that is what has been focused on. We know that there is also a great demand for housing and that we do not want it sprawling all over new greenfield sites. We therefore already have in the framework a strong commitment to the maintenance of the green belt, to ensure that we do not get the sort of sprawl that people are talking about. The presumption in favour of development is not only for business, it is also for housing. Within the local development plans and local development frameworks there will be a clear indication of where local authorities believe they should develop, the areas they need, the housing they need and their expectation for business growth. That will then be translated down into the neighbourhood forums.

We all recognise that there is some slowness in the planning process. Some 80 per cent of planning applications are largely approved, but that takes time. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, some planning applications need time to be discussed and cannot be rushed through. We still think that if you have a local development plan that is in accordance with the national policy and there are no objections to what has been put forward, then you can probably speed up the process so that planning permissions can be given at an earlier stage. That is basically the presumption in favour of development. It is taking down the barriers but against the background of recognised strong policies.

I also said last night that I have never yet known a planning application that aroused even a smidgen of controversy that did not end up with lots of objections and people insisting on having their views taken into account. That would remain the situation. It could go ahead only if there were no objections and there was nothing in the plans that suggested it should not take place. I think that that is straightforward and I hope that it is clear.

The green belt will remain of great importance. There is discussion in the framework about clear commitments to it. The point about brownfield sites has been raised by many noble Lords today, and there is a clear view from the Government that the brownfield previously developed sites should be put to the fore and developed first. The noble Lord, Lord Rogers, pointed out, from the experience of places such as Manchester, that you can get a lot of good development in an area that has been previously developed or just left for some reason. We totally agree with that; it obviously makes sense, because it does not take up new land and does not extend the sprawl. That is not clear in the national framework at the moment but there is a consultation coming and somewhere along the line it will be, because it is very important.

My noble friend Lord Goschen was a little more critical of the plan than some others, but he was talking about housing. Local authorities will have to have an indication of the housing they need, where it should go and what the requirements are, because we will have to develop housing elsewhere, particularly for local areas and local communities. The essence is that we should have sufficient housing, particularly in the country, for people who want to live there and want to stay there; that is something that we very much take into account. There will be areas in the country where you can build small developments and where the community right to build will have an effect, in that people will be able to put forward projects for small developments and thus help to keep local communities alive. None of us wants to see the death of villages or of communities that live in the country. We need farming and we need to keep people in the countryside to do that, but we also need thriving communities that protect the countryside for us, not just farmers but young people, otherwise it will die.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, were critical about the language of the NPPF. That has been heard and we will see, as the plan is produced, whether we can improve on it.

I have not touched on the concerns of my noble friend Lord Reay about the provision of windmills and energy. While there might be some smidgen of sympathy here, the department and anyone else who is interested in windmills may not be quite so enthusiastic.

That brings me to an end. I am grateful for all noble Lords' comments. I apologise if I have not touched on all the issues, and they will have note taken of them. I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who was a very substantial planning Minister during his time, and I very well remember him giving up his brief and saying, I think, "Oh, this is rubbish". I hope that my brief has not been quite that, and I look forward to the debates in the House on Monday, and I hope very much that we will be able to continue the discussion on 27 October.