Amendment 257B

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 20 April 2023.

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Baroness Pinnock:

Moved by Baroness Pinnock

257B: Clause 101, page 124, line 2, at end insert—“(aa) residents of the local area who may be affected by the application, and”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult local residents before determining an application under this section.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, my Amendment 257B is to Clause 101, by which the Government will centralise to the Secretary of State some of the most important planning decisions that will be taken in any locality. The example that I will use is that of the proposed use of former airfield accommodation for housing asylum seekers. I do not want to debate the principle of that today—it is a proposal by the Government. What I am interested in, and concerned about, is the proposal from the Government as to how such a decision will be made. This relates to some of the most important planning applications that will ever occur in a locality. As we have heard over the last few meetings of this Committee, there is a well-thought-through, well-laid-out and well-understood—on the whole—planning process to determine applications either for a new development or a change-of-use development. The proposal here is to try to bypass that, because it would be difficult.

We live in a democracy, and the whole purpose of a democracy is for the voice of the people to be heard and for decisions to be made, having heard the voice of the people—of residents. I feel really strongly about this. In my experience, the worst thing that happens in a locality is when somebody in authority tries to impose a solution. It never works—and the experience of the Government so far shows that this will not work. The proposal for Linton-on-Ouse airfield in North Yorkshire to be used for accommodation for asylum seekers had to be fairly rapidly rescinded because of local objections. There is a way of doing things—and, yes, it takes time, but time is a healer. It gives a way of hearing voices that are, at first, perhaps angry, but can then be made less angry, or perhaps even ameliorated, through discussion and hearing both sides of a proposal.

Currently what happens with any planning application, but particularly big planning applications is that, first, it is notified in a formal way and word gets round in informal ways. A timetable is laid out for how the planning application will be considered, including a period in which objections can be made by local people. Then there is an opportunity at a meeting of the planning committee to hear the proposal and any objections. I think that most planning committees now allow, and encourage, members of the public to speak to the committee so that their voices and concerns can be heard. If planning officers are involved, one of their skills is to try to find a way through a difficult proposal by hearing the voices of those who live in the locality and of the planning proposal applicant. They try to find a way through so that, while nobody will be totally satisfied, there is less dissatisfaction. The decision is made in an open way—it is webcast, these days, well reported and understood—and a list of planning conditions are laid out so that all the issues that local people are concerned about can be addressed.

The issue is that we have 166,000 asylum applicants, and because processing them has been so dreadfully slow—perhaps deliberately so, I do not know—they are talking about moving asylum seekers from hotels to this disused accommodation. Do noble Lords know how many sites they will have to find to get everybody out of a hotel? It will be a minimum of 80. Have we got 80? This is a folly that we have in front of us.

I understand that the Government have a problem here, but asylum seekers, in my view, have a right to be housed in a clean and safe environment while their asylum application is being heard. If the Government cannot do that in a speedy way, then they create for themselves a problem. But in this instance what is not acceptable, in a democracy, is for the solution to be that up to 2,000 individuals will be housed in former accommodation without the consent of the surrounding community, because it will have an impact on them. The impact can be ameliorated, but they need their voice to be heard. That, for me, is the issue. We live in a democracy, people have a right to have their voice heard, and that is the whole purpose of my amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:15, 20 April 2023

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for introducing her amendment. We agree with everything she has just said. I am also objecting to Clause 101 standing part of the Bill, because we are very concerned about the implications of this clause. We have also put down an amendment to probe whether guidance will be published on Clause 101, but our major concern is with the clause itself.

As we have heard from the noble Baroness, Clause 101 inserts new sections into the Town and Country Planning Act to provide for two new routes to apply for planning permission for the development of Crown land in England. In other words, we are talking about land where there is a Crown or Duchy interest. In the case of either route, the provisions in the clause will allow the appropriate authorities to apply for planning permission direct to the Secretary of State, rather than being subject to the same requirements and application processes as anyone else wishing to undertake development. In such circumstances, the Secretary of State must notify the local planning authority whether they intend to decide the application. If they decide to determine it themselves, they can approve it either conditionally, or unconditionally, or refuse it. They will also have to consult the local planning authority, to which the application would otherwise have been made, but the authority will have no right to veto it.

What does the policy paper that sits alongside the Bill say? It says that it is a means to

“provide a faster and more effective route for urgent and nationally important Crown development”.

That sounds all well and good, but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, we are also concerned about the implications of introducing such an open-ended measure. This is regarding both removing appropriate and necessary limits on the exercise of executive power and denying communities a chance to express their views about development in their area and their ability to indicate either consent or opposition.

We fully appreciate that there will be emergency situations where it is necessary to speed up the planning application process for essential development. Off the top of my head, I can think of the Nightingale hospitals during the Covid pandemic. However, the broad scope of the provisions in the clause, which do not provide for any limit on the type of development that can be approved directly by the Secretary of State, or in what circumstances, means that they could be used for a much wider range of proposals.

This could include a number of circumstances, but I would like to focus on one in particular, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. The Committee will know that the Government have opened centres to provide accommodation for asylum seekers and are looking to open further such centres. I would like to thank Asylum Matters, Medical Justice, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Ripon City of Sanctuary for their helpful briefings. The Government have, as the noble Baroness said, consistently sought to avoid public scrutiny of and consultation about the construction or operation of large-scale institutional facilities for asylum accommodation.

The Home Office has previously successfully opened such facilities on ex-military sites at Coltishall in Norfolk—which is now closed, despite an attempt to reopen it—Napier in Folkestone, which is still open, and Penally in Pembrokeshire, which is now also closed. It has further made attempts, despite local opposition, to construct or operate similar facilities in Barton Stacey, Hampshire, in a facility on the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre site in Bedfordshire and, from April 2022, as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, at an ex-military base in the rural village of Linton-on-Ouse, North Yorkshire. All these projects have been the subject of intense controversy and, in the cases of Napier and Penally, legal challenge over the profound harm to people seeking asylum, as well as the lack of government consultation of local communities and the resulting impacts on community cohesion.

At both Yarl’s Wood and Linton-on-Ouse, pre-action correspondence was issued, and the developments were halted prior to judicial review. At Penally, the Secretary of State for Wales stated that he first had discussions with the Home Secretary about use of the site just nine days before it opened, and the local health board was informed three days prior. At Napier, the local council, local MP and local and district councillors wrote to the Home Office to protest that they had been given

“very little notice of the decision” to open the barracks and that it was

“one they could not support”.

A similar lack of consultation occurred at Barton Stacey and at Yarl’s Wood. In the case of Napier, planning permission for the facility was initially secured under class Q emergency development rights for six months, subsequently extended to 12. The Secretary of State granted herself permission to use Napier Barracks for a further period of five years, without any public consultation, through the unusual procedure of using delegated legislation.

The Government’s approach has been criticised by your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which raised concerns that the Town and Country Planning (Napier Barracks) Special Development Order 2021 had been laid while Parliament was in recess and that “insufficient information” had been provided by the Government about these developments.

After the fact, the Home Office ran a public “consultation” on the change of use of the site. But this cannot be considered a meaningful consultation, as it took place after permission had been extended. The planning statement that was issued at this time included a commitment to complete a statement of community involvement. This has still not been published, despite the consultation closing at the end of January last year. Perhaps the Minister could give an update on that.

In a judgment handed down on 24 June last year, the High Court ruled that the decision to grant planning permission for a further five years was unlawful. The judge ruled that there was a failure to have proper regard to the public sector equality duty and that the development raised

“very obvious issues … in particular relating to … potential victimisation and harassment … and the fostering of good relations”.

Lack of consultation by the Government has had serious effects on community cohesion in places where large-scale institutional sites have been contemplated. Last April, the Government announced their intention to move towards a system of large-scale permanent asylum accommodation centres in which to place people seeking asylum who would otherwise be destitute, while they await a decision on their claim. The flagship announcement of a facility to accommodate 1,500 people seeking asylum on the ex-RAF base at Linton-on-Ouse, which we have mentioned, was made without any reference at all to the local community, the parish council, the district council, the police and crime commissioner or local police and health services. An initial justification for this was that it was part of a bigger series of announcements.

Current planning laws and, in particular, the right of local residents to be heard on decisions which affect them have proved a barrier to government attempting to institute these large-scale accommodation facilities. Our concern is that the powers provided for in this clause are to facilitate the driving through of centres regardless of their impact on the people placed in them or the local communities in which they are situated. They allow government to totally bypass local councils on asylum accommodation. This is completely the wrong approach. We believe it should be a legal requirement to consult local authorities on asylum accommodation locations.

Appropriate safeguards must be added into the clause to ensure that there are limits to the use of these powers and that minimum requirements are in place to secure some measure of consent from affected local communities. Without a firm commitment that such safeguards will be introduced at a later stage, we believe that Clause 101 must be removed from the Bill.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative

My Lords, I have not participated in this Bill so far. I arrived today thinking seriously about the matter of principle in the powers given to the Government by Clause 101, and with some sympathy for the ideas behind Amendments 257B and 258ZA. I am disappointed by the way in which both noble Baronesses have spoken to them, moving away from the principle of the way in which the Government have powers to a discussion about immigration policy and the use of asylum centres. That is a much narrower issue; it will come out of this, but it gets away from the principle of the Government having undue powers for whatever reason. Moving on to something highly controversial and difficult at this stage muddies the water in a way that is unhelpful for those of us who think that Clause 101 contains undesirable powers.

The noble Baroness referred to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which I chaired during the Napier barracks statements. We have seen the Government push the envelope, in particular during the pandemic. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, will recall some of this as a former member of the committee. Things such as permitted developments were pushed out in response to the needs of the pandemic. I understand that; emergency statements needed to be taken and things needed to be done quickly.

We saw the impact of that in many ways, but most obviously in our having restaurants in the street, which was needed at the time because otherwise they would have had to close due to social distancing. We on the SLSC were content about this because there was a sunset clause built in. However, a year later it was removed by another piece of legislation. By two steps, the Government moved from one position to another with minimal scrutiny from your Lordships’ House and the other place. That is the issue I am interested in exploring in this clause, rather than involving ourselves in discussions about immigration, which will take us back to all sorts of difficult areas that will not help the development of the argument.

The Government said in response to our concerns about making these permitted developments permanent that we were semi-killjoys, trying to stop restaurants in the street and so on, but the reality is that they were controversial for mothers with buggies, pallet truck drivers, people with limited vision and, above all, people who lived above them—all of us talk rather louder and laugh a bit more when leaving a restaurant at 11 pm having had a few glasses of wine, so people found their children being kept awake and so on.

I am not saying that was the right policy or the wrong policy, but it was one that should not have been made by the stroke of a pen in secondary legislation— unamendable—and that could not be properly debated, and on which local thoughts and views could be taken more properly into consideration. If the Government are to push on with Clause 101, I hope they will think about ways whereby some of the powers can be constrained, in light of the way we have seen the envelope of the power being pushed very greatly in the past.

Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench 6:30, 20 April 2023

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. My concern is to do with not the specific examples referred to, but that we seem to be in a situation where we are asked to confer an unconstrained power in relation to an undefined objective. The undefined objective is “national importance”, and I have not been able to find a definition of what that might be. I suppose you would say that I might ask from these Benches: is the national importance clearly distinguishable from the political aspirations of the Government of the day? Is it something different? I would want to know because I would not want to confer a power without having a very clear sense of purpose.

We turn to the matter of “urgency”—not emergency, I stress, but urgency. We need to understand what that amounts to. It may be irksome to Governments of the day—the more centralist and command economy-type the thinking, the more irksome it becomes—to go through hoops to do with projects that involve Crown land. But it is the price of democracy, and the price of the maintenance of the rule of law and the continuation of what might be regarded as the rules-based system. That demands a degree of consistent approach. Without having some definitions in the Bill, it is difficult to see how there could be any consistent approach here, as opposed to one based on whim.

Some of the examples that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, produced in her excellent introduction made it look like Government gaming the system, and that worries me very greatly because it is not just the Government that may be here today, but one tomorrow or in future years, and perhaps—who knows?—one that is more extreme of right or left; I say not which. I get back to the rules-based system. Are we in that environment or are we getting into the area where anything goes?

I mention the following because I do not want it to be used as the lever by the Minister when he comes to reply. Wrapped up in the middle of page 123 of the Bill, in new Section 293B(11), is the provision for matters of national security and public disclosure that would be

“contrary to the national interest”.

I get that, and I do not have any principled objection to it, subject to adequate definitions and safeguards. I want to know how “national importance” and “national interest” interface for a start.

Going over the page in the Bill, page 124 states, in new Section 293C(3), that:

“A development order may make provision as to the consultation”—

“may”, but does not have to. That cannot be an entirely optional extra at the whim of whichever Secretary of State happens to be in power at the time. Still on page 124, new subsection (8) states:

“The following provisions do not apply for the purposes of determining an application … sections 66(1) and 72(1) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act”.

Section 66(1) is in relation to the desirability of conserving and protecting listed buildings, and Section 72(1) is effectively the same but for conservation areas. But when the Bill says:

“The following provisions do not apply”,

they clearly do not apply to anybody, not even the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is, in other measures, asking the general citizenry to comply with precisely the same burdens that they decide, on a whim, that they are going to relieve themselves of. I am behind the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, because this is just not good enough.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, I rise briefly to support my noble friend Lady Hayman, who performed an excellent destruction of this clause. Other noble Lords have said much the same thing. I have one question for the Minister, because this is all about the Crown, but I cannot see any definition in the clause of who “the Crown” is. There are other definitions in other parts of the Bill, which include the Duchy of Cornwall, which I shall come on to in the next amendment, the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Crown Estate. It makes me think that what we are really trying to do is to go back to a time when we had “the Crown” in the shape of Henry VIII, who could do more or less what he wanted. This seems a very good start to the Government’s plan to give Henry VIII, in the shape of whoever is in charge at the time, carte blanche to do what they want.

Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative

My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. Before we hear from my noble friend, I want to say that Section 293 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 defines what is Crown land and goes on to make it clear what is an appropriate authority for the purposes of what is being introduced in Section 293B, down to and including,

“in relation to Westminster Hall and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft … the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Speakers of the House of Lords and the House of Commons acting jointly” being the appropriate authority.

I want to ask my noble friend about something because I simply do not understand it. There is an existing Section 293A, which as it stands is called “Urgent Crown development: application”; it has almost the same name as new Section 293B. I completely understand that the existing legislation does not appear to include all the provisions relating to how the Secretary of State deals with such an application and how the Secretary of State might give permission, so it is probably defective. But then I do not understand why all this is being added in and Section 293A is not being repealed. Perhaps my noble friend can explain that to me.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, looking first at this clause as a totality, I will begin by explaining briefly the purpose of the proposed measure. The purpose of Clause 101 is to update the existing provisions for development by the Crown that is of national importance and required urgently by providing a new, faster, more effective and efficient route for seeking planning permission. It also provides a new route for nationally important development that is not urgent. The objective of these reforms is to ensure that planning decisions can be made in a timely and proportionate way on development that is of national importance and is promoted by the Crown.

Let me banish what I have perceived from this debate is a misconception. A special urgency procedure for urgent and nationally important Crown development has existed in legislation for many years. The purpose of the clause is to update this route so it can be used more effectively to deal with urgent national crises and supplement it with a new route for making a planning decision for non-urgent planned Crown development which is of national importance.

The Government believe that, where a Crown development is of genuine national significance, the Secretary of State, who is democratically accountable to Parliament, should be able to make a planning decision rather than an individual local planning authority answerable to its local community. The Secretary of State is best placed to take a national, balanced and impartial view of the need for development.

Let me explain that nationally important but non-urgent applications will still be considered against the plan-led approach we advocate through the Bill, and local communities will be given their opportunity to give their views and have these taken into account. Again, there is precedent for this type of approach within Section 62A of the Town and Country Planning Act, where planning applications can be submitted directly to the Secretary of State. It is thought that this route would be suitable for development such as new prisons and extensions to the defence estate.

All sorts of hares have been set running on this provision, and it is most important for me to emphasise that the urgent route that we are introducing would be used sparingly where—and only where—it can be demonstrated that development is needed urgently and is nationally important. Those are high bars, but the route could, for example, be used for development needed on Crown land to develop medical centres in the event of a pandemic. Such development will need to be operational in a matter of weeks so decisions can be made very quickly. Other examples could include accommodation needed urgently in the event of a future influx of refugees, or military training facilities.

I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Hodgson for at least part of what he said, if not for all of it. Press reports have been misleading on the issue of housing illegal migrants. As I have said, the power can be used only for Crown development which is of both national importance and needed urgently. As I have said, this is a high bar, and Crown bodies making an application will need to justify that using this route is appropriate.

This does not concern any situation that we may currently be facing on illegal migrants. In the first place, it is worth bearing in mind that this power will not take effect straightaway, contrary to reports in the press. The Bill needs to finish its passage through Parliament and then we will need to lay regulations and produce guidance before this can properly be brought into force. That will take time. To this end, it may not be a suitable route for the immediate issue of housing of migrants to address the current immigration backlogs. In the case of asylum accommodation on MoD bases, it will be for the Home Secretary to decide whether to bring forward an application when the powers are in place.

We recognise that the procedure for this urgent route is not the same as the more commonly known statutory procedure for determining planning applications. It is therefore, I say again, a route that will be used sparingly. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that those promoting the development must clearly demonstrate that there is an urgent need for the development, that timely decisions cannot be delivered by other planning routes and that it is therefore in the wider public interest that the planning decision is accelerated using the new procedure.

The Crown body promoting the development will need to demonstrate that the urgent route is the right one before the Secretary of State considers the merits of the development, and the Secretary of State, when determining applications for crown land, will make any decision only on the basis of evidence and considerations which are relevant to the planning merits of the case—not who the applicant is. It has been a feature of the modern planning system, since its inception in 1947, that the Secretary of State can make impartial planning decisions instead of local planning authorities, and we have well-established and robust procedures to ensure propriety. I hope I have given the noble Baroness sufficient assurance by way of the background rationale.

Let me continue by addressing the amendments in this group. Amendment 258ZA, tabled by the noble Baroness, Baroness Hayman, would require the Secretary of State to publish guidance on the use of this measure 60 days after the Bill reaches Royal Assent. I can confirm that we will be issuing guidance to Crown bodies, local planning authorities and others to support the implementation of these two new routes to permission for Crown development. It would not, however, be appropriate to make it a legal obligation to bring this forward within 60 days of enactment. The provisions in the Bill cannot be brought into force until the necessary secondary legislation is in place, which will provide the detail of the application processes to be followed. The primary legislation alone is not sufficient. For this reason, I hope the noble Baroness understands why we cannot bring forward guidance in advance of the secondary legislation, which in itself will need to be prepared through engagement with Crown bodies and other stakeholders. I hope I have assured the noble Baroness that guidance will be forthcoming.

Amendment 257B, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, concerns the urgent Crown development route set out in new Section 293B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Lansley. The amendment proposes that, before a decision is made on whether to grant planning permission under this section, the Secretary of State must consult local residents. As I set out earlier, the purpose of Clause 101 is to reform how planning permission is sought for development that the Crown considers to be of national importance and urgently needed.

The special urgency procedure that is available currently allows a planning application to be made directly to the Secretary of State rather than to the local planning authority. After this, the procedure operates much like a called-in planning application. This is one where the Secretary of State makes a decision rather than the local planning authority. There is a requirement for publicity in a local newspaper, and applications cannot be determined until a 21-day consultation period has taken place. If either the applicant or the local planning authority wishes, the Secretary of State must allow each party the opportunity to appear before, and be heard by, a planning inspector.

This process, from start to finish, is likely to take many months. Regrettably, these arrangements are not fit for purpose when dealing with a project that may need to be put in place in weeks, not months, and where the planning process is just the first step. Consequently, the arrangements have never been used, even during the Covid pandemic. There is a simple reason for that, which is that by requiring many of the same procedures as a conventional planning application, decisions cannot be made quickly enough to react where development of national importance is needed urgently. I should say, however, that our reformed process retains the requirement for the Secretary of State to consult the local planning authority, which will be able to reflect any local concerns before a decision is made.

Of course, I completely understand and support the intent of the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that a local community’s involvement is an important principle in our planning process. In an ideal world, we would want more involvement from local communities on these decisions.

However, regretfully, as has been shown by the current process for nationally important and urgent development, we must have a system in place which enables any Government to react quickly in circumstances where a development which by its nature must be delivered urgently and is in the national interest can be delivered. Creating a system which mirrors what we have already will not benefit our communities when we need to make planning decisions urgently. With these reasons, I hope that I have persuaded the noble Baroness of why I cannot accept this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government) 6:45, 20 April 2023

I thank the Minister for his careful response to the concerns that have been raised. I said at the outset that I understand that some planning decisions must be made rapidly in the national interest.

However, unrestrained power for an undefined purpose of national importance, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said, is at the heart of this. The Executive are taking too much power without being clear on why an urgent decision is needed. If the Government had come forward with a speeded-up process for urgent decisions, shortening the planning process because something is urgent but still enabling people to have their voices heard, I would be more inclined to support that, but not them just saying that, basically, the Secretary of State can make the decision.

I end with this because it is near—well, nearish—me. Linton-on-Ouse was an abject failure of this process. A decision was made to use that accommodation. Nobody was asked, nobody was told. Lots of people said, “Oh, right, we’re not having this then”, as they do in Yorkshire and no doubt do elsewhere. They decided to have a public meeting and put an end to it, and that is exactly what happened, whereas with thoughtful, informed decision-making, the Government may have been able to get to a solution. The Minister’s proposal that this is the only way to get a timely, proportionate, faster and more effective route has not been borne out in practice.

I get upset when the phrase “illegal migrants” is used. The people coming across the channel are asylum seekers. If some of them have their asylum applications refused, they will at that point be illegal migrants, but otherwise they are asylum seekers.

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 257B withdrawn.

Clause 101 agreed.