Clause 87 - The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment

Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 27th January 2005.

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Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:15 pm, 27th January 2005

We come now to the quango that the Government set up comparatively recently. The thrust of clause 87 is to change of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. The commission is currently classified as an executive non-departmental public body and was incorporated as a limited company in August 1999. Its predecessor was the Royal Fine Art Commission, although it has a broader remit. The central aim when it was set up was to promote high-quality design and architecture and to raise the quality of building.

The establishment of the commission as a company was an interim measure and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport gave a commitment that it would seek to give the commission a statutory basis as soon as a legislative opportunity arose. That has taken six years although, as the Minister will know, a previous attempt was made in the Culture and Recreation Bill, but it failed to complete its passage in 2001 because of the general election. Let us hope that this does not happen to this Bill.

The commission is currently funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the DCMS. As it is not clear on the face of the Bill, could the Minister confirm that the funding arrangements will be changed? The initial proposal is to alter the status and to provide a statutory power to the Secretary of State to fund those activities. Why have the Government again seen fit to do this at such a comparatively late stage in a Parliament? Was the commission criticised as being too close to certain developers who clearly would have had a vested interest? If so, does the Minister agree with that criticism?

The Law Society of England urges the rejection of the whole of part 8 of the Bill. It opposes the establishment of CABE on a statutory basis. It was, as I said, originally established as a non-departmental body, but it has now assumed a voice in the planning system that is beyond its original remit. It insists on imposing its views on certain development proposals.   Placing the commission on a statutory basis would serve only to reinforce its interventions in development control. The Law Society believes that design issues are often matters of subjective personal taste and should not be dictated.

Could the Minister respond to our concerns and tell us what the legal implications of altering the status—

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Order. I have been generous to the hon. Lady so far but she is now straying, as I thought she might, into clause 88. We are on the narrow subject matter of clause 87, which is the establishment of the commission. I would rather she kept the line of argument that she is now beginning to pursue to clause 88.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

May I seek your advice, Mr. Forth? Should the question of whether the commission should continue to have charity status be reserved for clause 94?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I suggest that the clause 94 would be the more appropriate place. This clause is simply a paving clause for the more detailed consideration of functions, financing, staffing and so on that will be considered later.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful for that advice, Mr. Forth. Setting the context purely as clause 87, it would be helpful to know from the Minister why he is seeking, against such powerful representation as we have heard from an organisation as widely respected as the Law Society, to change the basis of CABE, and what the implications of that change will be.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

I rise to ask the Minister to confirm the reasoning behind giving CABE a statutory basis. I understand that it will improve its audit requirements, and we would all welcome anything that improves audit requirements. I would like him to explain whether there will be any changes beyond that, because my initial reading was, I have to say, along the lines of that of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). It was only on further reflection that I realised that the Bill would not change anything that CABE currently does, such as advice on the planning system. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the change is for audit requirements, in which case I am sure that the Committee can speed on through this clause, which would be very welcome.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very happy to respond to the contribution from the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), who has correctly understood what the clauses are about. His intervention was precise, so I am very happy to give him that assurance.

I was very interested in the remarks from the hon. Lady at the start of her questions, when she seemed to say that Conservative Members are now swinging   behind the Bill and intending to support it. This massive U-turn, after her unreasoned attempt to derail it on Second Reading, is most welcome. We have had some developments after the excellent discussions in Committee, on which I will be happy to reflect.

The provision will change only the status of CABE; it will not change its functions or purpose. CABE exists to be the champion in England for high-quality buildings, places and spaces, but it will, as the hon. Member for Ludlow said, improve accountability because the Comptroller and Auditor General will be able to take over the audit of CABE.

CABE was set up in 1999 as a company limited by guarantee, as the hon. Lady said, under the Companies Act. It was an interim measure, and that was made clear at the time. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport gave a commitment at that time that it would seek to give CABE a statutory basis when a legislative opportunity arose, so as ever we are keeping a promise.

The hon. Member for Ludlow asked how the provision would bring about greater accountability. The Comptroller and Auditor General is responsible to Parliament, and therefore having him as the auditor is the right way forward. It will be consistent with a general undertaking that the Government gave in response to the Sharman report—that in future, to improve public accountability, all executive, non-departmental public bodies should be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. We are keeping a promise; it makes sense; and it is the only way to bring CABE within his ambit. So it is very difficult to see how we could possibly do other than what is set out in the clause.

It is appropriate to include that measure in a Bill that is about improving the quality of the environment through the promotion of the very best in architecture, urban design and public spaces generally. That is very much what CABE is about. It achieved a great deal in its first five years, so putting it on to a statutory basis is a strong sign of the Government's confidence in its abilities and its future, as well as the wish, as the hon. Gentleman said, to see it properly accountable and properly audited.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:45 pm, 27th January 2005

I conclude my comments on the impact of the changes by saying that there is no intention for the funding arrangements of the body to be changed, and there is no intention to create a different type of organisation. CABE will remain a small and lean strategic body, and there are no plans to expand it or change its role.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

Now that I have had time to think of a question, I am sure that I   can get it right. I am seeking reassurance about the potential impact of the new CABE on English Heritage. They are parallel, almost sister, bodies, and I would like an assurance that the clause will in no way damage the effectiveness of English Heritage, which has its own statutory responsibilities.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for proving beyond doubt the existence of sentient life on the Government Back Benches of this Committee. I admire the way he has risen to the casual challenge offered to him as we left the Room for the Division.

I assure the hon. Member for Ludlow that the clause will not change the relationship between CABE and English Heritage because it will not change CABE's functions; it will merely bring it within the ambit of statutory authority and under the audit functions of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I underline that point because I suspect that there would be many theoretical questions on the other clauses relating to CABE were I not to give that absolute clarification that nothing would change except those specific alterations. I will not comment on the working of CABE itself since that will not change under the Bill.

The Law Society's attitude to the change of the statutory requirement seems odd, but I would not necessarily look to the Law Society for expertise on this matter. CABE has not assumed an unintended role in the planning system; it is fulfilling the Government's original intention that it should be the champion of good design and architecture in England. Its opinions and advice on schemes will remain non-binding so, I repeat, nothing changes. If that phrase is becoming boring, I hope that it will at least have got the point across clearly.

CABE does not insist, as was suggested by the Law Society, on imposing views on development proposals. Developers can submit their plans to CABE before planning permission, but there is no obligation to do so. However, it is easier to adapt plans and make use of CABE's expertise at that stage, rather than after a planning application has been made and comments have been passed. At all stages, CABE's opinions and advice remain non-binding, and developers and local authorities are free to follow it or not. CABE provides expertise and advice that is extremely useful to the whole process. I hope that I have said enough to convince hon. Members that this and perhaps other clauses can be agreed to.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 87 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered,

That the Order of the Committee [18th January] be amended, in paragraph (1)(e), by leaving out '9.25 am' and inserting '8.55 am'—[Mr. Ainger.]