My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of a planning committee, among other things, in a local authority. I very much support the comments made by my noble friend Lord German on the way in which this has been rushed out under the cover of Covid-19. There has been no consultation on the details, as opposed to the principles. Some of them, such as the use class changes, would have benefited from some pilot studies on real issues in real places, to see how it is going to happen. There will be a lot of unintended consequences of this.
Having said that, I want to raise two or three specific points. The first, following on from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, is about the number of neighbour disputes that the proposed new use classes AA and AC will result in. Those of us who have spent too much of our lives on planning committees and within planning know perfectly well how nasty things can get and how disputes can develop on existing planning applications for ordinary extensions—two-storey extensions and so on. The idea is that people will have a fast track to extensions upwards by one or two storeys, but just imagine a couple of semi-detached houses where one is going to be doubled in height. This will result in a lot of aggro, as the noble Baroness suggested. Also, the fact that a rapid, fast-tracked process will be able to push this through beyond the normal planning permission will result in a great deal of disquiet. Quite frankly, I wish the Conservatives the best in explaining this to people who feel like this.
The Explanatory Memorandum says that, given the impact on neighbours during the construction of the additional storeys and any engineering works to strengthen the building,
“the developer must prepare a report setting out the proposed hours of operation and how they intend to minimise any adverse impacts of noise, dust, vibration and traffic movements during the building works on occupiers of the building and neighbouring premises”.
It does not say what the strength and value of such a report will be. Will that report have to be approved by the local planning authority? If it is breached—if the hours of operation are breached, for example, and people start working at midnight—will the local planning authority be able to step in and stop the work? It is not at all clear if that will be the case. So that is my specific question on that.
My second general point is on design. The report Planning Reform: Supporting the High Street and Increasing the Delivery of New Homes says that the Government will consult on the detail of a proposed right which would allow vacant commercial buildings and residential blocks to be demolished and replaced with well-designed new residential units. Previously, the Conservatives had promised us a new generation of “beautiful” buildings. The new National Planning Policy Framework follows up on this, suggesting that where development would be consistent with the prevailing height and form of neighbouring properties and the overall street scene, can maintain safe access, et cetera, it will be okay.
My second question to the Minister is: how much power will local authorities really have to rely on the NPPF to demand that these new extensions and the new buildings, where buildings have been demolished, are of good design and, indeed, beautiful? Will that be an overriding issue, or will the fact that full planning permission is not required mean that it will actually be something of a chimera?
My third point is about town centres. I am checking how much time I have—not very much. I will just say one sentence, then. The implications of all this for the ability of local authorities and councils, not just as planning authorities but as authorities looking after and managing the future of their town centres, will be reduced considerably. There are huge concerns about this.