Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (8th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 27th March 2023.
Moved by Baroness Taylor of Stevenage
198: After Clause 90, insert the following new Clause—“Deliberative democracy: local planning(1) Before preparing any development or outline plan, a local planning authority must undertake a process of deliberative democracy involving the community to set—(a) the balance of economic, environmental, infrastructure and special plans,(b) the type of housing to be delivered,(c) the infrastructure that is required to be hosted,(d) the type of economic space, and(e) environmental considerations, including making sites sustainable.(2) A process of deliberative democracy under this section must—(a) invite all residents of the local authority area to apply to be a representative in the deliberative democracy process,(b) include measures to try to ensure that there will be a diverse representation of that community in the process, and(c) provide for a forum of representatives that—(i) will determine its terms of reference, number of meetings and agenda at its first meeting, and(ii) will produce a report from the deliberative democracy process.(3) A report under subsection (2)(c)(ii) may determine the scope of development on a site.”Member's explanatory statementThis new clause would introduce a deliberative democracy forum comprised of members of the public prior to the formation of a new development plan or outline plan.
My Lords, I am sorry that we come to these amendments so late in the evening. Amendment 198 and the subsequent amendments are things I feel particularly strongly about. Amendment 198 would introduce the principle of deliberative democracy as part of the planning process. Recent years have seen a wave of interest in doing democracy in a more deliberative way, enabling citizens to participate in a reflective and informed discussion about key policy questions before any of us, who are decision-makers, reach those decisions.
The Constitution Unit at University College London has been at the forefront of applying such approaches in the UK. In two recent projects, it took part in running citizens’ assemblies to explore how such bodies could help resolve complex policy problems. In other projects, the unit has examined ways in which deliberative approaches to politics could be applied in the UK context. Rather than go into the realms of theory and testing everyone’s patience at this time of night, I shall briefly give the rationale and two quick examples of how this type of engagement with complex issues can help develop understanding and buy-in with complex policy decisions.
In terms of planning, as I said earlier, residents often do not engage with planning at the stage of the local plan and by the time they are faced with a planning application they object to, the land use, housing numbers, infrastructure requirements, environmental policies and so on are already set out and have been through the extensive local plan process. They have often been through the inspectorate and a public inquiry as well. This leads to a great deal of frustration for residents, who may feel that the process, in this case the local plan, has been done to them, rather than with them. Even where residents do engage with the local plan process, the formality of proceedings can be daunting and impenetrable.
The introduction of a deliberative democracy element into the planning process would give the opportunity for local people to get more involved in a meaningful way much earlier in the process. The format can be designed to encourage debate and contributions and careful facilitation can draw out the minority views as well as those with the loudest voices. All this can help inform the local authority or the combined authority as it goes into the formal stages of developing its plan. This approach also enables participants to be provided with information that is accurate, relevant, accessible and balanced. It helps to tackle misinformation and enables deliberations to be informed by accurate, fact-checked data; for example, that provided in the UK by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
In Stevenage, we have used this method to enable debates on our budget process. As the cuts to local government funding deepened, we wanted to hear our residents’ views on how we should tackle the subsequent budget exercise, so we asked an independent agency to pull together a group of around 50 people from a mixed demographic. Using independent facilitators, we took them through an exercise of information sharing on the challenges we faced and carried out exercises of budget prioritisation with them, to see what their preferences would be. The learning was considerable on both sides. Some participants told me at the end of the day that they were glad it was not them who had to make the decisions. The other impact was that a group of people was then out in our community with all the facts of decision-making to take into conversations at work and in social settings, et cetera.
The Oxford Citizens Assembly on Climate Change involved a randomly selected representative sample of 50 Oxford residents, who learned about climate change and explored different options to cut carbon emissions through a combination of presentations from experts and facilitated workshops. Oxford was the first city in the UK to deliver a citizens’ assembly on climate change. As the evidence around man-made climate change is clear and overwhelming, it was treated as a given, and the assembly was not asked to consider whether or not that was a reality, but participants considered measures to reduce Oxford’s carbon emissions to net zero and, as part of this, measures to reduce Oxford City Council’s carbon footprint to net zero by 2030. In that case, Ipsos MORI was appointed to undertake the recruitment of participants and provide overall facilitation for the Oxford Citizens Assembly on Climate Change. Following that approach, Oxford has been able to undertake an ambitious programme of climate change mitigation and adaptation.
We want the Bill to be ambitious in the way that it tackles levelling up in all its aspects. We believe that a move to deliberative democracy in the planning system will create a whole new dimension for community engagement and provide a channel for our residents to contribute to tackling the complex challenges of the modern planning process.
Amendments 209 and 211 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Lansley and Lord Young, set out requirements for plans to include strategic references to meeting housing needs, land use and sustainable growth for business. We do not disagree with the merits of placing these in the Bill. We are interested to hear the Minister’s response as it may help clarify what is currently a confusing situation between what is to be included in NDMPs and what will be in the NPPF. These are important distinctions, as we have already heard many times this evening. The NDMP has a statutory role, whereas the NPPF is guidance.
My Amendment 212 is a technical amendment to ensure that local authorities have the capability to bring outline planning permissions in line with requirements that they set out in their local plans where there would otherwise be a conflict between them.
Amendment 219 in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock is a key amendment; I am sure that it will be discussed extensively when we reach other groups. It is vital that, for a Bill that will set the direction of planning for the future, the precedence we accord to environmental outcome reports is right at the heart of the preparation of local plans.
Amendment 223, also in the name of my noble friend, would give local authorities the ability to renew and amend local plans after a local election—a provision that would enhance local democracy by enabling councillors to enact any commitments that they have made in their manifesto through a review of the local plan. This provision could be restricted to those local authorities that have elections every four years; if you are in an authority that has an election every year, having a review of the plan every year might be a bit chaotic if you change hands frequently. However, we should have the provision in place to enable the electorate to exercise its voice over the planning process.
Our Amendment 224 once again expresses our view that the widest possible engagement is essential in the planning process. My noble friend Lady Hayman suggests in this amendment that it should be a requirement that key stakeholders are consulted in the preparation of local plans. This should certainly include: local bodies, the NHS, the police service, the Environment Agency, and so on; the private sector—both businesses and their representative bodies, such as local enterprise partnerships, chambers of commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses; and the whole range of voluntary and community sector bodies, which will vary from place to place but also have a key role to play in setting the spatial agenda for the future of an area.
It is difficult to see why Schedule 7 abolishes the duty to co-operate, but we had a long discussion about that previously. This schedule also seems to exalt the continued need for engagement between plan-making authorities and prescribed public bodies when planning development to enable the delivery of infrastructure at a local or strategic level. I am anxious that we do not lose all the benefits of co-operation between public bodies as we consider the Bill.
Amendments 237 and 238 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hayman are probing amendments to determine whether a private body will be able to assist a local authority in the preparation or revision of a local plan.
Amendment 239 in my name is a belt-and-braces amendment to ensure that, if an authority fails to deliver its local plan and has that function taken over by a government department or its appointee, that body must undertake the necessary local consultation that would have been required had the local authority carried out the exercise. The body would not have the ability to bypass that engagement.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I will contribute to this group in relation to the two amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. In existing legislation, Section 19(1B) and (1C) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 states that:
“Each local planning authority must identify the strategic priorities for the development and use of land in the authority’s area… Policies to address those priorities must be set out in the local planning authority’s development plan documents (taken as a whole).”
Therefore, the legislation has it that strategic priorities must be set out and policies must be set out to meet them.
Paragraph 21 of the National Planning Policy Framework in the consultation document recently issued says that:
“Plans should make explicit which policies are strategic policies. These should be limited to those necessary to address the strategic priorities of the area”.
Paragraph 17 states that the development plan
“must include strategic policies to address each local planning authority’s priorities for the development and use of land in its area.”
Therefore, the legislation is carried through into the National Planning Policy Framework. Also, the NPPF is clear that there is an important distinction to be made between strategic and non-strategic policies. I will not dwell on those now, as it is not relevant for this purpose. Suffice to say that “strategic” in front of policies seems important.
However, the Government have decided to omit “strategic”, to omit any reference to strategic priorities or a requirement that the local plan in a plan-making process should identify those priorities and show how policies meet them. I cannot for the life of me understand why. I admit that these are probing amendments to find out why. I do not think that, as a proposition, the structure of the NPPF in paragraphs 17 and 21 should be left stranded, with the relevant legislative provisions in Section 19 of the 2004 Act being omitted and not being substituted with anything in the current legislation that gives rise to that part of the NPPF.
The Government may say, “Well, it’s guidance and that’s fine—that’s what we’re saying”. Until now it has been perfectly understood that there is a legislative structure, and that the guidance follows it. I am not sure that we should arrive at a position where there is guidance with no legislative structure underpinning it. I cannot see any mischief in putting the strategic priorities and strategic policies back in. I see no mischief in putting “strategic” in front of “policies”. It avoids any lack of clarity about what kind of policies we are talking about. I cannot see why the Bill should not be amended to put it in line with where the current situation is and where the NPPF intends to go.
My Lords, I briefly follow-up on that question which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has left hanging.
We seem to have several moving parts here. I do not want to detain anybody any longer than necessary. We have the guidance of the NPPF, and the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has outlined its current impact on how local plans are developed. We now have the statutory NDMPs. Eventually we will get used to that acronym, I guess. Earlier this evening, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, told noble Lords that she thought that the occasions of conflict between the NDMPs and local plans would be very rare, so rare that they did not need referencing but, on the other hand, possibly so onerous that it would be burdensome to make every one be referred back to your Lordships.
However, the political context of the NDMPs is of trying to retrieve a situation that was created last year by multiple changes in direction within the department, and by Ministers, about what they wanted local plans to achieve. Do they want them to achieve a very large number of houses, no houses at all, or as many houses as the local area thinks are appropriate?
All that will be resolved when—eventually—the NDMPs are published, because that is when we will be told what the Government intend local plans to produce. At that point it seems foreseeable—I say only foreseeable, not certain—that there will be areas of conflict between the citizens’ assemblies brought forward by the noble Baroness’s amendment and the common consultation process that we have traditionally followed, as the local plan emerges and the NDMPs dictate a different course of action. Where does the guidance to which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, referred fit into that? Which fits into what and at which part?
In an earlier debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, also said, perhaps not with the conviction that I had hoped to hear, that, in the event of a neighbourhood plan being more up to date than a local plan—hence in date—it would stand up against an NDMP central government directive. I would be delighted if that is true, but I would be substantially surprised if she says that she did say that; I must have misheard something.
We have some moving parts here, and it is a terribly inconvenient time of the day to resolve those difficulties. A lengthy letter may be the solution, but I just pose those questions. This is the fundamental way in which the current Government are aiming to square a circle out of their national planning policy. Whether they want more houses, where they want them and how fast—all those things—are driven by what comes out of local plans, and they will be framed by what is in the NDMPs, which are not published. Forgive me if I am jumping to a conclusion here; perhaps the planning management policy that comes out will say, “It is okay, guys; do your own thing and send your local plans in when they are ready”, but I have a feeling that that is not the context in which they are being drawn up.
Anything that the noble Earl or the noble Baroness can say to clarify that situation, either this evening or in a subsequent written report, would be gratefully received on this side, because we are baffled and bemused by how this is all supposed to hang together, as things stand.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 209 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lansley and myself but, before I do, I will speak briefly to two amendments mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor.
Amendment 198 is about deliberative democracy or citizens’ forums as they are sometimes known. When I, as somebody who has been a councillor and an MP, first heard of this, I was slightly suspicious of this alternative form of problem-solving. It struck me as slightly random and unaccountable. But the more I looked into it, with the help of Graham Allen, the former Labour MP who championed the cause of deliberative democracy, I began to change my mind. The Government have actually been funding three experimental projects using deliberative democracy—one in Dudley looking at the future of two shopping centres, one in Cambridge looking at how to solve congestion, and one in Romsey looking at how to solve problems around a local bus station. It struck me that these were actually ways of complementing and reinforcing local democracy, rather than substituting it.
At a time when democracies are struggling to retain public confidence, we should look at every possible means of refreshing democracy in a way that is relevant to the modern world. This is what that amendment wants. Like others, I have been to planning meetings where people have been shouting at each other; there must be a better way to find a way through. I look forward to working with the noble Baroness who moved this amendment, as she obviously has considerable experience. Perhaps the Minister will let me know, following the three trials funded by the DCMS, whether her department will engage with the Local Government Association to see how we can best take that debate forward.
I am afraid that I disagree entirely with Amendment 223 and the suggestion that the adopted plan should be up for review after a local election. The one thing going through this debate since it began is the need for certainty and clarity about the local plan. It has to go through a process to become adopted. If there is a local election just after it has been adopted and control changes hands and it is up for review, what then is the status of that local plan? I very much hope that my noble friend will resist, perhaps more politely than I have done, the suggestion in Amendment 223.
What I really want to speak to is Amendment 209. This is one of the most important groups in the whole debate and in all of the 80 groups that we have in front of us—however many groups we deal with, there always seem to be another 80 ahead of us. This amendment and Amendment 211—and two other amendments which are in another group for some reason—go to the heart of a major challenge facing this Government: how to deliver the homes that the country needs.
In 2021, we were an estimated 2 million homes short of what was needed, or 2.4 million short if we look at the European average of homes per capita. We announced the target of 300,000 homes a year in 2018, and we are already 200,000 homes behind that target. Home ownership is increasingly unaffordable: in 1997 house prices were 3.5 times average earnings and in 2021 they were nine times average earnings; tenants in London are paying 40% of their average pay in rent, and one London borough, Lambeth, has 36,000 people on its waiting list; planning consents in the year to June 2022 were the lowest since 2016, and so on. There cannot be anyone in any doubt that we need to massively boost the supply of homes in every single tenure.
There is much in the Bill that I welcome and that will help achieve this objective, such as simplifying and streamlining the planning system, commencement orders facilitating CPOs, and the rest. However, I am afraid that these are all overshadowed by policies not in the Bill but proposed in the document published over Christmas to head off a rebellion in the other place. The starkness of the Government’s climbdown is revealed in an article in last week’s House magazine by Theresa Villiers, who referred to her amendment in the following terms:
“This was backed by 60 MPs, and in response, the secretary of state brought forward significant concessions to rebalance the planning system to give local communities greater control over what is built in their neighbourhood. That includes confirming that centrally determined housing targets are advisory not mandatory. They are a starting point, not an inevitable outcome. Changes have been promised to make it easier for councils to set a lower target”.
As I have said before, you cannot rely on the good will of local councils to deliver the homes that the country needs. Central government has a mandate. In our manifesto in 2019 we said that this will be achieved through continuing
“our progress towards our target of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.”
So what a local MP may regard as an arbitrary target set by Whitehall is actually a goal from a democratic Government delivering their election manifesto. I believe that the votes that an individual MP may lose if an unpopular development goes ahead will be massively outweighed if the country as a whole does not believe that the Government are taking housing seriously.
The consultation document weakens or removes the levers that the Government have to deliver their target. These amendments, and Amendments 215 and 218 in a later group on land supply, push back against those policies and give back to the Government the levers that they need. This is vital because, as you go through the document, there are 15 proposals that impact negatively on housing supply and only two that improve it. Between now and Report, the Government should publish their own assessment of the impact of the proposed changes on housing delivery. We know it can be done, because it has been done by Lichfields, which estimates that the changes proposed would reduce the number of homes built by over 70,000, to 156,000 a year—roughly half of the Government’s commitment.
The impact of the document is already being felt. Since it was published in December 2022, 47 local plans have been delayed, with the clear intent of delivering lower numbers than was previously proposed, using the flexibilities set out in the document. I will not go through all the concessions because it is late, but it suggests that buffers should no longer be needed. That is like the Treasury saying that it does not need any reserves. Buffers will be needed because things do not always work out. There is a suggestion that the green belt should not be reviewed. The green belt has no necessary environmental quality, visual impact or public accessibility requirement. Many award-winning housing schemes have been built on the green belt.
However, the main concession is in the chapter headed:
“Introducing new flexibilities to meet housing needs”.
Targets become a starting point, with flexibility to take account of local circumstances. Paragraph 4 refers to changes to
“how housing figures should be derived and applied so that communities can respond to local circumstances”.
The document states that local authorities do not need to meet housing needs if it could mean
“building at densities significantly out-of-character with the existing area”, although elsewhere the Secretary of State proposes “gentle densification”. I think we can all break the code.
I very much hope that, on Report, noble Lords will ask those in the other place to think again about these changes and restore the Government’s policy to what it was when the Bill was introduced, rather than what it has become since those changes were proposed over Christmas.
My Lords, I have been trying not to get into a lot of the groups on the Bill but I regret not getting into this one. Amendment 198 makes such good sense because politics is a fairly dire arrangement these days. A lot of voters have lost interest and do not trust us. Getting people involved at the local level is an excellent way of stimulating their appetite for more politics at different levels, so I very much support Amendment 198.
I quite like Amendment 209, but somehow “environmental issues” is just thrown in—you have to say it, do you not? I do not know what it means. I would like it to mean a lot but I am not sure that it means very much at all.
The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, quotes to us the Conservative Party manifesto when the Government have broken so many promises and back-tracked on so many things. I hardly think it is a very good example for any of us to hold up as something we need to follow. Plus, his comments about the green belt were absolutely outrageous. It is not for people with gardens or people with country estates; it is for people who live in inner cities, who have no gardens or green space to walk about in. The green belt has a huge value for them, so please let us not forget that.
Amendment 211 is from the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, for whom I have huge respect, by the way. My telling him that the Conservative Party manifesto might as well be thrown in the bin—as it has been by the Conservative Party—does not mean that I do not have huge respect for him. Again, this amendment is about economic growth. We went through this in the Budget. Growth is not about well-being or prosperity; it is about grabbing more and more of the earth’s resources. It is not necessarily something that we want to keep promoting. If we are going to talk about growth, can we please talk about well-being, green spaces and environmental support, and not just constantly about businesses, inward investment and that sort of thing?
Let us please try to remember that we have a climate crisis. It does not matter whether you believe it or not; the fact is that the IPCC has published a report that was gone through by dozens of Governments and hundreds of scientists. They all quibbled over it, but they finally came to a report that is absolutely devastating. We really should be looking at that. Every time we put down an amendment, we should have that at the back of our minds, so that we say things that will help us in the future and help our children and grandchildren. At the moment, we are not doing that.
My Lords, I was not going to speak, but the noble Lord, Lord Young, summed up one of the problems with this Bill in general: we have an important Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill that does not tackle the crisis of housing supply—something I talked about at Second Reading.
I want to clarify at this stage in the evening that, while the points made by the noble Lord about the green belt are not by any stretch of the imagination that every part of the green belt should be built on or concreted over, it is a misnomer to suggest that the green belt is a beautiful green area for people who do not have country homes, gardens or parks to go to. Lots of it is actually unusable by the public. What the noble Lord suggested was a review. If the review indicated that it was valuable for the well-being of the nation, that would be fine, but it would be able to show that huge swathes of the green belt are misnamed and could be productively used for housing for young people and people who are desperately in need of homes.
My final quick point is that economic growth has to be the solution for austerity and the cost of living crisis. You cannot tackle the fact that people are too poor unless you produce more. That is called economic growth. Austerity is unpleasant, nasty and brutish, even when dressed in eco clothes. We need more growth, not less, especially at this time. People’s well-being will not be tackled or helped if they do not have the proceeds of economic development and growth.
I appreciate that we disagree. I thought the point was that we would disagree well in Committee. I have sat and listened to this debate for many hours. I just wanted to clarify why I think economic development is important: we will not be able to build any houses and nobody’s well-being will be helped if we stand still economically or go backwards. I do not relish austerity for the masses. Therefore, I think we need economic growth, mass housebuilding and the supply side to be tackled.
It is with trepidation that I follow the last two speakers, the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Fox. I will say just one small thing about the green belt. The green belt, as part of local plan making, is reviewed and, as appropriate, areas are taken out of the green belt for housebuilding and development. That is what happens. It happens at the right time and place when there is proper public consultation.
I start with Amendment 198 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage. I have lots of sympathy with the idea of deliberative democracy. It is always worth exploring new ways of engaging with local people, involving them in developing ideas and understanding about what is going on, and helping to inform decisions before decision-makers finalise plans. I am concerned that the plan the noble Baroness lays out in Amendment 198 will probably work okay in a district council, but in an area such as the one where I am a councillor, for 450,000 residents, it becomes more challenging.
One of the elements the noble Baroness omitted in her amendment is the idea of using town and parish councils more fully to engage in local plan making at district council level. First, they are accountable. I think the noble Lord, Lord Young, said he had thought about it and thought perhaps that was not so important, but I am not sure. If there is a decisive view from an unaccountable group, and it is controversial, that could make it difficult for the participants in the deliberative democracy and for the decision-makers. Having said that, the idea of getting more engagement with local people is a very positive one. I know that when my council made its up-to-date local plan, I think there were three—it could have been four—rounds of public consultation. Every household had a document to look at: a summarised version through which they could access the full version.
On Amendment 223, I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, that I am not going through the pain of making a local plan and agreeing it, only for a new council to rip it up and start all over again. Those decisions are politically hard decisions to make. Whichever council is in control at the time has to make those decisions and live by them. So I am afraid I do not support that amendment.
I agree with Amendment 211, from the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, that plans must recognise strategic policies and promote economic growth.
That brings me to Amendment 209, where the noble Lord, Lord Young, talks about housing numbers. One million homes currently have planning consent, and 1 million homes are not being built by developers. They are not being built because it is not, at this moment, profitable for them to do so. Sometimes, a little cabal works in a neighbourhood—I have experience of this—where planning consent is given to two or three fairly large sites, and they make an agreement about phasing, so not too many houses go on the market at the same time. There is more to this than just dictating numbers.
I would like to ensure—and I think I have seen this somewhere; maybe the Minister will remind me—that developers build out within a short period of time after getting consent. I know they have to put a stake in the ground or something after three years, but I think actually building it out is important. With one of the planning consents that has just been given in my ward, they are planning to build out in 10 years. It is not surprising that development is not occurring as fast as we would like. These 300 homes are going to take 10 years to build because it is very profitable to do it that way. There are questions of that nature that we need to address as well.
The only other point I would make about housing numbers is that we all ought to be concerned that there are too many people in this country who do not have access to a home that they can afford, or sometimes a home at all. We ought to think more about not just the numbers but the types of homes that we want to build. In last Wednesday’s debate, the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Young, had an amendment talking about homes for older people. I totally supported the amendment that we debated then but, equally, we need to consider having many more homes for social rent. Unless we do that and are able to determine what house types are wanted, all this country will get is more and more four-bed exec homes that are unaffordable to many local people—and certainly to those who need social rented accommodation.
Of course, I agree with the general thrust of what the noble Lord, Lord Young, said. With those comments, I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response.
My Lords, this group of amendments addresses local plans: the critical planning documents that local planning authorities prepare with their communities to plan for sustainable growth.
Amendment 198, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, would require deliberative democracy forums to be involved in the early stages of plan-making. Yes, I have seen this work, and very successfully, but there are other ways of doing it as well so I do not think we would want to be too prescriptive. However, I thank the noble Baroness for this amendment because it provides me with the opportunity to talk about community engagement.
The English planning system already gives communities a key role so that they can take an active part in shaping their areas and, in so doing, build local pride and belonging. We are not changing this; in fact, we are strengthening it through the Bill. Communities must be consulted on local plans and on individual planning applications. However, we know that current levels of engagement can sometimes fall below our ambitions. That is why, through the Bill, we will be increasing opportunities for communities to get involved in planning for their area to ensure that development is brought forward in a way that works best for local people.
As I mentioned earlier, the Bill reforms the process for producing a local plan so that it is simpler, faster and easier for communities to engage with. A number of measures in the Bill will create wholly new opportunities for people to engage with planning in their communities. Neighbourhood priorities statements will make it easier and quicker for local communities to set out the priorities for their area. Similarly, mandatory design codes will ensure that communities will be directly involved in making rules on how they want the new developments in their area to look and feel.
Measures to digitise the planning system will also transform the way that information about plans, planning applications and the evidence underpinning them is made available. We have funded 45 pilots, including in councils that have some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country, to demonstrate how digital approaches to engagement can make the planning system more accountable, democratic and inclusive. We have also committed to producing new guidance on community, which will show the different ways in which communities and industry can get involved and highlight best practice, including the opportunity that digital technology offers.
I hope that I have made clear the work that we are already doing to drive forward progress in improving community engagement. With regard to the three pilots from DCMS, I will undertake to ask that department where they are and what they intend to do with them, including discussing them with the LGA. I will come back to the noble Lord when I have an answer.
On Amendments 209 and 211 in the names of my noble friends Lord Lansley and Lord Young of Cookham—I keep thinking that we are getting to the 2000s of these because we have been going so long—the Government want the planning system to be truly plan-led, to give communities more certainty that the right homes will be built in the right places. To achieve that, plans will be given more weight in decision-making. They will be faster to produce and easier to navigate and understand. We expect that future local plans should continue to provide a positive vision for the future of each area, and policies to deliver that vision. However, as was remarked in the other place, currently communities and applicants can face an alphabet soup of planning documents and terms, leaving all but the most seasoned planning professionals confused; so the Bill introduces a simple requirement for authorities to prepare a single local plan for their area, and provides clear requirements on what future local plans must, and may, include. Authorities may wish to include strategic priorities and policies in future local plans. There is nothing in the Bill to stop them.
There was quite a discussion provided by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham on homes, and also the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, on things such as build-out. I have looked forward, and these issues will be discussed in much more detail in future debates, so if those noble Lords do not mind if I do not answer them today, I might answer them on Thursday. Perhaps we could wait for the relevant groups of amendments on those two things.
On the specific subject of local plan polices to deliver sustainable economic growth, I make it clear that we are retaining the current legal requirement at Section 39 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 for authorities to prepare plans with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.
I turn to Amendment 212, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage. This amendment would amend Schedule 7 to the Bill to allow a local planning authority—
My noble friend said that there was nothing in the Bill that stops local authorities specifying what are strategic policies. My point is a completely contrary one to that. It is that the NPPF says that they should set out what their strategic priorities and strategic policies are; so why does the Bill not say that?
I do not think that we have got to the NPPF yet. It is out for review, and let us see what is in it.
My point is that we know what the Government are proposing to say in the NPPF. The Bill is inconsistent with that. Is my noble friend suggesting that she has already decided that the NPPF will not make a distinction between strategic and non-strategic policies? Frankly, that is not going to happen. If she looks at the green-belt section, the distinction between strategic and non-strategic policies in relation to green-belt designation is an absolutely central distinction.
No, I am saying that we have not made that decision yet, but this is as it is in this part of the Bill.
Amendment 212, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, would amend Schedule 7 to the Bill to allow local planning authorities to use their local plan to amend the details of existing outline planning permissions, so that they are in accordance with the adopted local plan. Our planning reforms seek to ensure that plans, produced following consultation with local communities, have a greater influence over individual planning decisions to ensure that development reflects what those local communities want. In particular, our new decision-making framework under Clause 86 will deliver to a more plan-led system, providing greater certainty for these communities.
Enabling local plans to effectively revise existing outline planning permissions, even where development has already started, undermines this certainty. It also runs counter to the long-standing position that the grant of planning permission is a development right that also provides the certainty that developers need to raise finance and implement the permission. I fear that small and medium-sized builders would be especially impacted by such a change and would face significant wasted costs and delays at a time when we need to support them.
Local planning authorities already have powers to revoke or modify existing planning permissions under Section 97 of the Town and Country Planning Act. However, importantly, these powers cannot affect works previously carried out. They also require the local planning authority to pay compensation in respect of that expenditure, loss or damage, and they should therefore be considered a last resort.
Furthermore, as developers often seek, in practice, to amend outline planning permissions, local planning authorities already have the opportunity to take account of new local plan policies when considering Section 73 applications to vary planning conditions. This will also be the case under our new route to make minor variations to planning permissions, as set out in Clause 102.
Amendment 219 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, seeks to require local planning authorities to have regard to environmental outcomes reports in preparing local plans. The Government are clear that environmental outcomes reports will be an integral part of the new local plan-making process. Clauses 139 and 140 include the powers to define which plans will require environmental assessment and how such assessments should be considered. This will include local plans.
Our commitment to the non-regression of environmental protections in Clause 142 makes clear that any process of environmental assessment that replaces strategic environmental assessment would require the local planning authority to produce an environmental outcomes report as part of its plan preparation process. The environmental outcomes report process will ensure that environmental outcomes are taken into account as local plans are developed, and it will ensure that environmental considerations are an integral part of decision-making when preparing and examining plans. Thus although I agree with the intention behind the amendment, the Bill already provides for this, so we cannot accept it.
Amendment 223 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, would allow newly elected councils to amend local plans following an election. New Section 15GA in Schedule 7 to the Bill already provides the ability for a local planning authority to revise its plan at any time once it has come into force, irrespective of whether the authority has recently changed political control. For some authorities, rewriting plans on the basis of election results could lead to updating three times every four years. Our reforms will provide welcome predictability to local plan-making processes, with a requirement for the plans to be prepared within 30 months and for them to be updated every five years. That is the right balance.
I turn to Amendments 224 and 239 tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Taylor of Stevenage. As I mentioned, it is vital that communities are given every opportunity to have their say on draft local plans and supplementary plans. The English planning system already gives communities a key role, so that they can take an active part in shaping their areas and, in doing so, build local pride and belonging. We do not seek to challenge that; in fact, we are strengthening it through the Bill.
I provide reassurance that, if the Secretary of State or a local plan commissioner, were to take over plan preparation by using the intervention powers in new Section 15HA in Schedule 7, the plan would need to undergo public consultation just like any other plan. Like other procedural requirements, this will be set out through secondary legislation, using the powers set out elsewhere in the Bill.
Amendments 237 and 238, tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Taylor of Stevenage, respectively, would enable plan-making authorities to require private bodies to assist in relation to the preparation or revision of a relevant plan. The Government support giving local authorities the full range of powers necessary to prepare robust plans. I offer reassurance that this is our intention and that the power, as drafted, will apply to those private sector bodies which authorities are likely to need to involve in plan making.
Subsection (6) of new Section 39A of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 sets parameters for prescribing bodies. It requires them to have
“functions … of a public nature”.
That might include, for example, utilities companies, which are privately owned but serve an important public function and should be proactively involved in plan-making processes. The clause does not exclude relevant private bodies where they are involved in public provision. These amendments could potentially extend that requirement to private individuals, voluntary groups and unrelated businesses, which may be disproportionate and where they do not have public functions that are likely to be relevant to plan making.
With those explanations, I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, to withdraw her amendment and other noble Lords not to move theirs.
My Lords, once again I thank noble Lords for a very interesting debate on very important aspects of the Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for her detailed response on all the amendments that have been discussed in the debate.
I will address the key themes coming out of the debate, starting with my first amendment in this group on deliberative democracy. I was very grateful for the comments on this from the noble Lord, Lord Young. Like him, I was a bit of a convert to this; I was a bit sceptical about it when I first heard about it. However, the intention of deliberative democracy is to complement and support the work of decision-makers, not to take it over, and it can provide a very useful technique. Now that we have all been through Covid and we all know how to use things such as Teams and Zoom, it can be greatly assisted and facilitated by digital engagement as well. So it is a good technique for developing a wider picture and for engaging our citizens in the important aspects of planning.
On the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, on this subject, from my understanding of how deliberative democracy works, it does not matter what size your authority is, because you would engage a representative group and there are plenty of places where you can go to get help to draw together your representative group. There is nothing in deliberative democracy that excludes the contribution of parish councils; they have their own methods of communicating and engaging with the planning process. While I accept there are a variety of techniques to engage local citizens in the planning process, I think that it will be important for us all to consider how we will refresh and review not just the ability for people to get involved but the methods we use to engage them. We all know that there are flaws at the moment in the way we try to engage people, and anything that can help to improve that would be useful.
The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, referred to having a legislative structure which should underpin what is in the guidance, and we would certainly support that. All the way through our discussions on the Bill, we have seen that there are not always clear links. We are told that one aspect is in guidance and that another aspect will be in the Bill, but the links between the two are not always as clear as they should be. We should be using the process of the Bill in Committee to help to resolve some of those issues where it is not as clear as it should be. I think that a clear distinction between policies which are strategic and not strategic will be quite important for those people tasked with delivering the plans going forward, so I hope that some thought might be given to that.
We had some comments on the need for certainty and clarity on the local plan in response to my noble friend Lady Hayman’s amendment on the possibility of amending after local elections. There were some fair points made there, and we will go back and look again at aspects of the Bill that enable local authorities to review parts of their plan. Although we do not want to overturn the plan every time there is an election, it will be important that people can look at things. As the picture changes in a local area, it may be necessary to undertake reviews for that reason, not just because there has been an election. I think we need to have another look at that as the Bill goes forward.
It really rang a bell with me when the noble Lord, Lord Young, talked about the need to boost the supply of homes. We have further groups of amendments that cover that topic. He referred to not weakening or removing levers for housing. Those of us who have been trying to deliver more housing over the last few years feel as though sometimes we have had our hands tied behind our backs on housing delivery and that that has gone on for too long.
We must be ambitious and work on delivering the housing we need, but the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, is quite right to say that growth must incorporatethe issues that we have discussed many times in your Lordships’ House on the environment, sustainable employment and sustainable housing growth. However, that makes planning more important, not less. Communities should be planned, not just the delivery of housing. After the Second World War, at a time when more than 100,000 homes a year were being built, there was still time set aside for master-planning and building for communities, not just delivering housing in dormitories. I suggest that deliberative democracy might play a part in that process.
The other aspect that was discussed extensively in this short debate was environmental outcome reports. I hear the Minister’s words of reassurance around how they might be incorporated in the planning process, but I think we would want to go through some of the other discussions around climate change to make sure we understand how that works. The Minister described the plans as an alphabet soup, which is probably a good description. We heard her talking about neighbourhood priority statements. This aspect of the Bill is another layer of planning that sits in this new hierarchy. It is difficult to understand from what is in the Bill exactly where it sits, so we look forward to the round table that will help clarify some of these issues. As for neighbourhood priority statements, it saysthat any of the authorities involved can make these neighbourhood priority statements, but it is not clear exactly how that works.
This has been a good debate on these very important planning issues. As I said, I am very grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions, and I am sure that some of the issues we raised will come up again in future debates. That said, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 198 withdrawn.
Schedule 7: Plan making
Amendments 198A to 200A not moved.