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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 8:30 pm, 25th April 2016

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 123B and talk specifically about the pilot schemes, but I do share a number of the concerns the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, expressed. I have doubts about what is proposed but, on the assumption that they might go ahead, I will talk in some detail about the nature of the pilots that are being planned. I am grateful to the Royal Town Planning Institute for its advice on this matter. I say to the Minister that I have no intention of dividing the House, but I hope to help inform the Government’s thinking in response to the recent consultation.

Last week we had considerable debate on charges for planning applications relating to full cost recovery and greater flexibility in charging. A number of people said that private providers would be more expensive than planning authorities currently are. Government Amendment 120A reflects some changes since Committee stage and I welcome that movement. We now know that the pilot will be temporary and we know from government Amendment 121 that there must be a review of the pilot within a year of its termination. So, taken together, Amendments 120A and 121 will test the practicality and desirability of competition in the processing of planning applications, but not their determination. I welcome the Minister’s confirming a moment ago that there will be absolutely no role for that in determining planning applications, although on the next group of amendments I would like to say something about the need for a firewall to ensure that there is no connection between processing and determination. We know, too, that there will be a report within 12 months of the last of the pilots ceasing, which will set out the results and conclusions of the review.

If there are to be pilots to test whether more competition would help the planning system, it is in the best interests of good policy-making to test whether more resources alone would help. The problem with the pilot scheme as devised is that after the five years or so, it would be very difficult to work out whether competition had produced what the Government would hope were good results. This would make it very difficult to use it as the basis for rolling out the pilots further.

Amendment 123B seeks to address this issue, as it would pave the way for a parallel pilot scheme alongside the Government’s proposed pilot scheme. This parallel pilot would be designed to grant fee flexibility to local planning authorities in return for cast-iron commitments to reinvest greater income in the planning process. That could include information technology, greater joint working across councils, and the further training of staff towards professional accreditation. There would also be a need for a planning authority to demonstrate improving—or at least continued—high performance year on year.

In chapter 1 of their consultation document published in February, on which consultation closed on 15 April, the Government made some proposals which verge on this one in the context of devolution deals. The Government make particular reference to reforms which would be a fast-track service from the existing local authority for an increased fee, and competition as provided for in the Bill. While the first of these would arguably overlap with my proposal, it is too narrow a definition of reform and would not enable any satisfactory comparison with the competition pilots. For example, the competition pilots will not be limited to offering fast-track services. Therefore, I have concluded that for proper evaluation to take place, the impact of additional tied resources on its own should be tested alongside the impact of competition. Given that the whole initiative is a pilot programme, it seems strange to wish to limit it to one kind of pilot. There should be more than one kind of pilot.

Could the Government use the powers conferred by the Bill to operate a parallel pilot scheme of the kind I have outlined? That would meet a number of the problems and criticisms raised last week on Report, and could produce a more robust outcome for the Government’s proposed pilots. I would be very happy for the Minister simply to take the measure away and think about it. I do not expect an immediate answer because in any case, the Government have to respond to the consultation, which closed only a few days ago. A different kind of pilot based on fee flexibility could be important in helping the Government to achieve the robust pilots they are seeking.