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Housing and Planning Bill - Report (5th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:18 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:18 pm, 25th April 2016

My Lords, we had a wide-ranging debate in Committee on competition. My noble friend Lady Williams has reflected on concerns such as whether the private sector could have an inappropriate influence on decisions for planning permission. She has also considered the various reports from the DPRRC and, as a result, we have laid amendments which address many of the issues raised in your Lordships’ House.

Amendment 120A does three things. First, as recommended by the DPRRC, it confirms that the purpose of the clauses is to enable pilots in discrete areas to test the benefits of introducing competition to planning application processing. Secondly, it addresses another committee recommendation by setting the maximum length of pilot schemes. Discussions with local authorities and professional bodies have suggested that a maximum period of five years is prudent to allow for lengthy applications to go through the whole process, including appeals if necessary. Thirdly, local authorities have said the pilots will not be a level playing field if designated persons only process planning applications attracting a fee and local authorities are left to do the other applications connected to the development of the sites, as those connected applications tend to attract little or no fee.

Proposed new subsection (1A)(b) enables regulations to provide that connected applications can also be processed by designated persons. Amendments 121A, 121B, 121D, 121F, 122B, 122C, 123A, 123C and 123F make consequential changes to enable connected applications to be processed by designated persons.

The DPRRC has said that we should put a list of connected applications in the Bill and take a power to add to it. I am afraid in this regard we disagree. Our recent engagement work with over a hundred authorities has highlighted a concern about connected applications. It is right that we now address it with the sector and agree a list to be included in regulations rather than impose an unworkable list now.

In Committee we heard a clear message from your Lordships that a decision on a planning application must be a democratic one by a local planning authority. Authorities cannot be allowed to delegate this decision to designated persons and nothing should bind the authority’s decision. We have always been clear that decision-making will remain with the authority in a pilot area. However, I want to directly address the points noble Lords made in Committee.

Amendment 121C prevents us including in regulations anything that allows or could allow an authority’s decision-making function to be carried out by a designated person. It also puts beyond doubt that any advice, report or recommendation from a designated person will not be binding on the authority responsible for determining a planning application. To support this, Amendment 123D removes Clause 146(2)(g), which was of particular concern to noble Lords in Committee.

Noble Lords wanted more detail about how the pilots would operate and, ideally, to see draft regulations. It is essential that the pilots are designed with local government and professional bodies. We have started an extensive dialogue with planning professionals that has already involved over a hundred local authorities. None the less, I want to respond to noble Lords’ concerns, so Amendment 121C also places a duty on the Secretary of State to consult before making the first regulations to implement pilot schemes. Combined with other amendments, this means that your Lordships’ House will be able to debate the detail of how the pilot schemes will operate after it has been co-designed and consulted on with local government.

Amendment 121 implements a recommendation from the DPRRC that the Secretary of State should be under a duty to bring back to Parliament an evaluation of the pilots and set out any conclusions that can be drawn from them.

The DPRRC recommended that the affirmative procedure should apply to all regulations made under Clause 145. We recognise that the pilots represent a significant change to the planning system and that there are understandable concerns about their potential impact. We therefore agree that the affirmative procedure provides the appropriate level of scrutiny in certain circumstances. However, the affirmative procedure is not appropriate for every exercise of the powers. We may need to quickly make small changes to procedural rules to address something that is not working as effectively as it should.

In these circumstances, we think that the negative procedure is more appropriate. This is consistent with the negative resolution procedure that applies to the development management procedure order, which sets out the procedural rules for processing planning applications. Amendment 135A gives effect to this approach and applies the affirmative procedure to the power to specify the period after which each pilot will cease, specify the description of planning applications which may be processed by designated persons during the pilots, disapply or modify planning enactments to implement the pilot, specify what are connected applications in addition to reserved matters applications during the pilots, set fees during the pilots and require data sharing during the pilots.

Let me now directly address two concerns raised by the DPRRC in its 28th report. The committee said that the Government had failed to give effect to the use of the affirmative procedure on the first exercise of these powers. However, I am afraid that we disagree. For pilot schemes to be run, the first regulations will need, for example, to set out the length of them, the descriptions of planning applications that can be processed by designated persons and how fees should be set. Amendment 135A applies the affirmative procedure for these matters.

The committee also maintained its position that the Government should always consult before making any regulations and that every exercise of powers under Clauses 145 to 148 should be subject to the affirmative procedure. I note that the noble Lords, Lords Beecham and Lord Kennedy, have tabled Amendments 121CA and 135D to this effect, which they will speak to shortly. Again, I disagree. As I have said, the pilots are complex and we may not get the design perfect from the outset. This is the very reason why any Government use pilots to test their new approach. Consulting on every use of regulations combined with using affirmative procedures for them could snarl up the effective operation of the competition pilots, particularly where small changes to procedural rules are required. It would take six months each time we consult and use the affirmative procedure, equivalent to a 10th of the length of the five-year pilots. I appreciate the spirit and intention of the committee’s recommendations, but we believe that they are simply impractical. I hope that your Lordships will agree that we have taken the committee’s recommendations and applied them in a practical and effective way.

Amendment 137 means that regulations made under Clause 145 will not be treated as hybrid and will be subject only to the affirmative procedure usual for this type of scheme. We are implementing a pilot scheme, not a permanent change to the planning system. We are consulting on the first regulations before implementing any pilots, and local communities will have an opportunity to comment. These clauses are about processing, not deciding applications. Crucially, decisions remain with local planning authorities, so I suggest that private rights are not affected. In any case, it is entirely the applicant’s choice as to whether to stay with the existing authority provider or select a designated person. I beg to move.