My Lords, I have two interconnected reasons for tabling this debate today: first, to examine the significance of the measures in these regulations, and, secondly, to scrutinise the parliamentary procedures used to introduce them. I look forward to the debate and particularly to the two maiden speeches that we will hear today.
The pieces of legislation that we are debating today were introduced using the weakest form of parliamentary scrutiny available—the negative procedure—and yet these measures, now laws, have a significant impact on planning policy in England. If they are indeed significant, and I maintain that they are, they have avoided the proper scrutiny that Parliament is supposed to provide to ensure they provide the best outcomes possible. The role of Parliament is to assess, amend and correct the laws of our land, and to ensure that the impact of any changes is fully understood. The negative procedure that brought these measures into law means that unless a Member prays against them within 40 days of their being laid, they will automatically enter into law. However, it is primarily a procedure meant for routine and non-controversial matters—the least form of scrutiny for the least controversial matters.
The policy issues in these orders have the effect of reducing the level of scrutiny that local people and their local councils have on a range of planning applications. This in turn raises concerns about the ability of local authorities to deal adequately with the needs of their local communities. The policy changes include making it easier to demolish vacant buildings to create new homes, with reduced scrutiny of the quality of new housing, and changing the use of certain properties—for example, changing the use of a building from an office to a restaurant, including a fast food restaurant—without the need for full planning permission.
These new laws also permit the building of additional storeys on houses and flats, with very limited ability for the local council to intervene. Of particular concern is that these additional storey regulations came in two batches, the second of which is before us today. Amazingly, the regulations on the charges to be applied for making these additional storey planning applications came to the House by the affirmative procedure, thereby guaranteeing a debate in the House, whereas the policy changes themselves on additional storeys on properties were brought in by the negative procedure. Therefore, the only way of getting a debate on these and the other planning changes, and the only way of having it discussed by the House, was to put down a take-note or regret Motion, of the kind we are using today.
I recognise that the ability of the Government to use these parliamentary procedures stems from the primary legislation on planning currently in place. However, it is also clear to me that that primary legislation did not envisage such large-scale changes to be dealt with in this way. Moreover, the Government are proposing new primary legislation in this area and have issued their White Paper, Planning for the Future. Given the Government’s intentions in the White Paper, it would have been the appropriate mechanism for introducing the widespread changes provided by these regulations. The Government state that the reason for their new planning Bill is:
“Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places.”
If that is the Government’s objective in these regulations then why not debate them properly in the course of this upcoming new primary legislation?
I draw the attention of the House to two facts worthy of consideration. First, planning permissions are already given for enough homes to meet the Government’s target of 300,000 a year. Secondly, there are about 1 million unbuilt homes for which planning permission has already been granted.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member, expressed big concerns about the restriction that these regulations place on the expression of local concerns that could be considered by councils. Additionally, the committee felt that the ability of local councils to shape the character of their high streets would be curtailed, in particular their ability to control the number of fast food restaurants in their areas.
The committee’s report to your Lordships’ House says that these new orders and regulations
“make substantial and wide-ranging changes to planning legislation” and warrant much deeper scrutiny and analysis. If these changes had been made under primary legislation, such detailed scrutiny would have occurred. Better law depends on the detailed scrutiny and broader consultation which Parliament provides. Planning decisions are a delicate balance between different pressures on the use of our land. These measures move the needle away from local decision-makers and could damage the framework of our local communities. I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on the committee’s report:
“The more that secondary legislation is used for significant matters of policy, the more the balance of power is tipped towards the executive and away from parliament. For parliament to serve our citizens properly, it needs to have effective means of debating, scrutinising and deciding upon proposals such as these.”
The Motion today provides an opportunity to debate these matters. It would have been far better for this House, and us all, if the Government had engaged properly with Parliament to enable us to carry out our role effectively. I look forward to the upcoming maiden speeches by two new Members of the House, and to the Government explaining why they have taken this route and acknowledging the significance of these changes.