Amendment 198

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (8th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 27 March 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 9:30, 27 March 2023

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.