Amendment 257B

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 20 April 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 6:30, 20 April 2023

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.