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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 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) 9:00 pm, 25th April 2016

My Lords, I will not repeat the detail of what we have already done to strengthen Clauses 145 to 148 but turn straight to the amendments.

Although I cannot accept Amendment 121E from my noble friend Lord True, I agree with its intent and commit to take the issue away and address it in the design of the pilots and regulations. Authorities have said clearly to us that it will be very inefficient if designated persons do all the background work but they are required to review it all and then pull together their own recommendation in a report that they write. They are not saying to us that they must make the recommendation or write their own report. Instead, they are saying that simple and efficient mechanisms are needed to ensure that quality and impartiality are maintained. This amendment could lead to inefficient behaviour.

Authorities have also said that designated persons must share some of the risk and cost of defending appeals. I am concerned that the amendment could make it harder to argue that designated persons should share any risks which will concern authorities. There is a complex set of interrelated issues which we need to explore in detail with authorities to avoid perverse behaviours and outcomes. We will explore a range of safeguards. I ask noble Lords to let us explore them with authorities and bring them forward in regulations. We would be very happy to have further discussions with my noble friend and others about how we can best do that. I hope that reassures him that we will take this away.

I am afraid I cannot accept Amendment 122 from the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham, limiting ‘designated persons’ to local authorities and public bodies and ruling out private sector companies and individuals. This amendment says, “It is the public sector way and there is no other way”. In contrast to noble Lords, the dozen or so local authorities considering being a pilot area are not arguing for the exclusion of the private sector. They believe that they can compete with it and, indeed, beat it. If that is the case, what have local authorities got to fear? If they provide the best service, they will hold on to the business. We believe that the concerns at the heart of this amendment are about any potential for the private sector to have undue influence on planning decisions, and we believe these can be managed.

We have strengthened planning authorities’ retention of decision-making during the pilots following concerns expressed in Committee. Our amendments mean that regulations cannot contain anything that allows an authority to delegate decision-making to designated persons and make clear that advice from designated persons will not be binding on authorities. However, other safeguards will also exist. We will set out high professional standards, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, outlined, drawing on codes of conduct such as that of the Royal Town Planning Institute, which requires competence, honesty, integrity and independent professional judgment from its members. We will remove someone’s designation where they fail continually to meet these high standards. We expect to prevent designated persons processing applications in which they, their company or its subsidiaries have any interest. I have committed to explore how we can maintain high-quality, independent advice being presented to decision-makers and having designated persons list their interest with authorities, as suggested by my noble friend Lord True. Section 327A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides that where the necessary procedures have not been followed appropriately an application can be declared null and void. We believe that enabling the private sector to compete with local planning authorities is likely to drive greater reform.

Some in local government have said that it may not be possible to process some applications, such as householder applications, for a price even close to the fee. Our initial dialogue with the private sector indicates that it might indeed be possible to process such applications, and we want to test this belief.

Finally, I cannot accept Amendments 123 to 126 from the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Beecham. We all want a planning system fit for the 21st century, so we believe that, in order to achieve it, it would be wrong not to explore alternative delivery models for handling planning applications. Currently, local planning authorities have a monopoly which denies the user choice and does not incentivise service innovation and the provision of the most efficient and effective service. Alongside this, reform of planning departments lags behind most other local authority services. Local authorities can do a lot more to transform their planning departments. Indeed, many have introduced new ways of operating and have shown that performance can be improved and costs reduced, but we believe that more should follow their lead.

We have heard concerns about the undue potential influence of the private sector in the pilots. My noble friend Lady Williams has laid amendments to strengthen local authorities’ decision-making function, and I have set out other safeguards we intend to put in place. I have also committed to explore proposals raised by my noble friend Lord True. Your Lordships’ House has been concerned about the lack of detail about how the pilots will operate. Our amendments mean that we will debate the regulations in this House following a consultation before pilot schemes can come into force. Noble Lords have queried whether we intend to evaluate the pilot, and we have laid an amendment committing us to sharing our assessment of the pilots in the House. The RTPI and the LGA rightly highlight areas where we need carefully to consider the design of the pilots, and we will work with them to explore their ideas, but they have not opposed the principle of the pilots. Local authorities are telling us that we are right to challenge the current delivery model and, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Porter, some want to be pilot areas. Despite this, the noble Lords opposite want to say that they cannot.

We listened very carefully to the debate in Committee and today, and I believe we have taken significant steps to ensure that the pilots are workable and to address many of the concerns that noble Lords have raised. I hope that, with these reassurance and the commitments I have made in these remarks, the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.