New Clause 25 - Local planning authorities: energy and energy efficiency

Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 28 February 2006.

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‘(1)A local planning authority shall consider when determining a planning application by any person whether to specify—

(a)a reasonable requirement for the generation of renewable energy within the proposed development;

(b)a reasonable requirement for the generation of low carbon energy within the proposed development;

(c)an energy efficiency standard in all or any part or parts of the proposed development that exceeds that required by the building regulations currently in force.

(2)In this section “local planning authority” has the same meaning as in section 1 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (c. 8).’.—[Gregory Barker.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:45, 28 February 2006

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause would require all planning authorities to consider whether to specify

“(a)a reasonable requirement for the generation of renewable energy within the proposed development” or

“(b)a reasonable requirement for the generation of low carbon energy within the proposed development”.

In lay termsthat means combined heat and power systems, which are low carbon but not technically renewable because they may use fossil fuels, such as gas, which is largely accepted as a good transition fuel. The matters in paragraph (c) are to be considered when the local planning authority is deciding on planning applications.

The proposed new clause satisfies my localism principles and my belief that we must do more to address climate change, because it requires local or planning authorities to consider such points when dealing with planning applications, but leaves the decision to them.

Committee members may be forgiven a slight sense of déjà vu, because the proposed new clause relates in some ways to the new clause that I put to the vote in the last sitting. If they cast their minds back, they will recall that in response to that new clause, which was more specific and prescriptive but tried to achieve the same goal, the Government voted it down, and the Minister justified resisting it by saying:

“we believe that legislation placing specific requirements on local planning authorities and developers is not necessary ... Progress will be achieved through action at the local level, delivered through existing planning mechanisms and within the context provided by national guidance on planning and renewable energy in planning policy statement 2, which is also known, I am advised, as PPS22”.

He continued:

“Nevertheless, we recognise that concerns have been expressed as to whether all authorities will include policies on on-site renewables, as PPS22 says they should. At the moment, however, only limited evidence is available.”

Critically, he said:

“My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has given a commitment that her Department will undertake an urgent review of local plans to determine whether there is a problem with emerging plans that do not fully incorporate PPS22 guidance. If a problem is identified, her Department will take swift and appropriate action.” —[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 9 February 2006; c. 81-84.]

I was disappointed that the Government chose not to back my new clause, but I took the Minister’s words as he sincerely meant them. However, is he aware of what the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister official spokesman said about his statement that day? The spokesman said to Catherine Early of Planning magazine, on the record—he told other media inquiries in exactly the same terms—that there will be

“More a survey than a review and not urgent, not at all.”

He said that it would be more a case of

“Qualitative research then decide what to do. Malcolm Wicks was rather over-egging the case.”

The ODPM official spokesman said that to the media, and not just in one magazine. It has appeared in print and I am surprised that the Minister has not seen it. It is disgraceful that one arm of the Government is saying that. We took what the Minister said at face value, as I am sure he meant it, but he is not being well served by his colleagues at ODPM.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I am listening with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but will he tell us whether he has had any direct contact with the Minister for Housing and Planning and whether he has been told, on the record, about the status of the review, which I understood was under way?

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

No, I have not had the opportunity to question the Minister for Housing and Planning. I thought, like the hon. Lady, that the review was on the way, but it was clear that the statement by her official spokesman was not a glib comment. It was made several days after the Committee met, when the Department had had a chance officially to digest the Minister’s comments.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

That was a dramatic build-up, but the punch line was a bit disappointing. When I make my speech, I will reaffirm what my hon. Friend the Minister is saying. I cannot speak about an alleged conversation between a press officer and a specialist journalist; I will say what the Minister thinks. That, I think, will carry some weight.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If the Minister is saying that he cannot speak for a spokesman, is he also saying that the Minister’s spokesman cannot speak for the Minister?

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

I will say later—this is crucial—what the Minister is saying about that approach. I am not responsible for what press officers allegedly say to journalists, but I can tell the Committee what my  colleague the Minister says. The hon. Gentleman may want to think about that before going on with this sideshow.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am afraid that it is not a sideshow. It goes to the heart of what we trying to achieve. The Government are trying to fob us off with warm words—I accept that the Minister means them sincerely—but they are acceptable only if they are followed by action. As we have seen throughout the Committee’s proceedings, there is an elephant in the room; it is the obstruction of the ODPM. The Minister may be on board, and I know that he is sincere, but every proposal seems to be frustrated by the ODPM. I am sorry that that Department is not here to answer. Frankly, it is not a one-off situation. Both sides have moved amendments and new clauses, but the ODPM has frustrated the Committee’s genuine efforts to make the Bill work. It is the ODPM that is the roadblock. I shall come back to that point later.

The background to the new proposal is simple. It is that, according to the report published by the Energy Saving Trust earlier this month, 92 per cent. of local authorities are not prioritising climate change. We are entitled to use the Bill as a device to get those matters on the agenda. That is what the new clause would achieve. I assume that that is what the Prime Minister meant earlier today when he spoke about the need for urgent action.

I have been served tremendously well throughout the Committee stage with outstanding support from the interested NGOs, which have a wealth of expertise and advice. My advisers met ODPM officials face to face to discuss the new clause. They found the Department’s response extremely disappointing. The independent advisers expressed their disappointment, and contrasted the reaction of the ODPM officials with the bold statements made by the Prime Minister and his clear suggestion that climate change is the greatest long-term threat. When asked how they reconciled the Prime Minister’s rhetoric with their implacable opposition, one ODPM official said that he regarded the Prime Minister’s words as political spin. That is what we are getting from the ODPM, and no one is being well served, including the Minister for Energy.

Paragraph (a) would require the local planning authority to consider renewable energy. Officials explained that the planning system was forward-plan led; that local authority responses to planning applications should be as per their development plans; and that paragraph (a) was not acceptable as it was outwith that policy. My advisers argued that many local planning authorities were not doing that, and that the clause simply brought the issue to their minds. It did not require them to go outside their development plans; it would simply require them to use their local discretion, which they already have, on each and every occasion.

ODPM officials suggested that a better approach would be to give new guidance to local planning authorities on considering renewables, and that new development plans could then be drawn up. However,  they said that the guidance could take between 12 and 18 months to get sorted, which was too late for the Bill. As can be imagined, my advisers argued that 12 to 18 months for guidance, with another year or two to amend the development plans, would mean that nothing could be done before 2009 at the earliest. In view of the recent EST report, that was unacceptable, but ODPM officials remained completely unmoved.

As regards paragraph (c), on requiring an energy efficiency standard above that required by building regulations, ODPM officials argued that that was a matter for building regulations only, not for planning. My advisers argued that part L of the building regulations was the minimum and that the new clause could be used to allow local planning authorities to use their discretion, depending on local situations, to set higher standards as appropriate. Again, however, the ODPM officials were totally immovable.

My advisers pointed out that the current legal situation was as follows. Planning authorities can impose conditions regarding renewables but not regarding extra energy efficiency, which the Government have said is the cheapest way to save CO2 and achieve energy gain. Authorities can impose conditions on microgeneration, but cannot impose energy efficiency. That is madness. Local planning authorities can use planning to promote more expensive solutions, which are still important, but not to promote what everyone recognises is the most efficient, quickest, easiest and cheapest solution. That is plainly absurd, but ODPM officials still remained opposed to the new clause. In short, they seemed to take an “absolutely nothing to do with me, Guv” attitude. They simply had no ownership of the ambition that the Prime Minister and the Minister articulate on combating climate change.

I know that that is not the attitude of any member of the Committee and that everyone will be disappointed, although not completely surprised, by the roadblock that we seem to be encountering at the ODPM. I know that it is certainly not the attitude of the Minister. He is the fall-guy for the ODPM’s appalling handling of those Bill negotiations. He would like to help, so I urge him to go back to the ODPM and knock a few heads together. However, I am not at all confident that if we simply ask the Minister to have another go at trying to move the ODPM, he will be any more successful than he apparently was last time. There is a real roadblock in the Whitehall machinery and only we, as legislators, can do something about it.

We have all read the newspaper reports saying that the public are increasingly losing faith in politics because people in Parliament seem to have very little control over what happens down the road in Whitehall—that the real decisions on what influences their lives and what influences the big decisions in the world are being taken in Whitehall, not at Westminster. We have a small opportunity—a real opportunity, nevertheless—to take a stand, and I hope that, without making party political points but on a cross-party, consensual basis, we can all say that this is  not an issue of politics; it is about asserting the will of the elected legislature that the Executive must get on and take climate change seriously. This is a small measure, but we could all take that important stand. I say this particularly to Government Members, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation. The problem is not the Government’s fault as represented by the Minister. We are talking about something that is very real, but is represented deep inside the ODPM, and a cultural change is required. We need to send the important message that we, as Members of the House of Commons, will not accept the situation.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

Having listened to the hon. Gentleman’s conclusion about Parliament and the Executive, I am tempted to say to him, “Steady on.” The word “over-egging” has also been mentioned. After all, what is the Committee about? We are considering a Bill that has come not from the Executive but from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, who is trying to incorporate some sensible measures proposed by others. In other words, it comes by the private Member’s Bill route. Surely that is an example of Government listening to the House.

I have tried to be sensible when the hon. Gentleman has moved amendments to improve the Bill. Although the change in balance between the Executive and Parliament is always an interesting essay question, I do not think that the Bill is a very good case study to argue that the Executive are not listening to Parliament; probably the reverse is true.

The Government support the aims behind the new clause, but we believe that such matters should not be addressed through primary legislation. It would be difficult and inflexible to include in primary legislation details about the criteria for individual planning decisions. Issues such as renewable energy and the use of low-carbon energy can be best addressed by planning guidance and policies in development plans rather than in primary legislation.

I spoke at some length—I hope not at too much length—during the Committee’s previous sitting about what we call PPS22 and the support that it gives to positive planning for renewables. Planning guidance such as PPS22 can respond to changing circumstances, such as changing technologies or priorities, in a way that primary legislation cannot.

At a certain stage in his speech, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, who has been reasonableness itself for most of these proceedings, suddenly got very excited about a quote in a specialist magazine and built on this fragile or non-existent basis a huge diatribe against my close colleagues and indeed comrades in the ODPM. He was so excited that I thought he was going to turn into a microgenerator himself, generating much hot air to the amusement of the Committee.

But what are the facts? My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has already started the urgent—I repeat the word “urgent”—review of local plans that I promised the Committee during our last  sitting. That review, which I discussed with my hon. Friend only today, will identify whether appropriate policies are being included in plans to implement PPS22. She has repeated her promise to consider whatever action is necessary following that review, and hopes to be able to report on it at a later stage of the Bill’s consideration. No one was over-egging. I was simply stating the position of my hon. Friend the Minister: it is indeed an urgent review.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:00, 28 February 2006

It was not me who suggested that the Minister had been over-egging. I quoted the official spokesman of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who said that it was

“More a survey than a review”,

that it was not urgent at all and that it was qualitative research, after which the Minister would decide what to do. He said:

Malcolm Wicks was rather over-egging the case.”

Those are not my words; they are the words of the official spokesman of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

Our press offices in Government are super institutions. We have very many committed, hard-working people. I do not know whether timing caught someone out on that occasion, and it is not for me to make a judgment on it. The official position of the ODPM is as I have stated. What I said—it is detailed in the Hansard record of our proceedings—was the situation, not any comment that might have been made by a press officer. Surely I have reaffirmed that today. I do not quite see what the argument is about, but we might find out now.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Conservative, Tunbridge Wells

The Minister takes a light-hearted view of the situation, but I think that it is more serious than that. One of two things is going on. Either there really is a difference of opinion between Ministers, although we are assured that that is not the case, or officials are briefing the press and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle completely inaccurately. That is unacceptable.

The Minister refers to his comments being reported in Hansard, but very few of our constituents read Hansard, let alone the Hansard reports of Committees. They take their information from the press, but if they glean false information, that is serious for our reputation in the House and we should seek to correct it. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that he will consider the issue and perhaps report back to you, Mr. Benton, on what the truth of the matter is.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister for energy, Department of Trade and Industry

I think that Opposition Members are over-doing this. I suspect that a simple mistake was made, probably because of the timing of what I said and when the spokesperson was asked about something. The fact is that what I said on behalf of the ODPM Ministry on that day is the situation. We and the ODPM and are at one on the issue, and I have gone to some length to confirm that the review is an urgent one—so much so that the report on the review will probably come in a later stage of the Bill’s consideration. There the matter ends, and I am unfussed about it.

Let us make some progress. My second concern is that the new clause would encourage local authorities to decide what is reasonable on a case-by-case basis rather than set out their approach through the development plan. The strength of the planning system is the certainty and consistency provided by a development plan. Not setting requirements clearly in local plans will mean that developers face great uncertainty and a lack of consistency in the approach to new development. It could also create confusion, given the statutory requirement in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to have regard to the development plan first in taking decisions on planning applications.

On development plans and the question whether they can deliver low-carbon technologies, PPS1 provides a clear statement that development plan policies should seek to minimise the need to consume new resources over the lifetime of the development and encourage the use of renewable resources, such as renewable energy. The statement expects regional planning authorities and local councils to promote low-energy buildings, community and combined heat and power schemes, and similar small-scale and low or zero-carbon schemes in development. PPS1 also allows local authorities to promote low-energy buildings in general. Indeed, I imagine that that is why some local authorities—I am too embarrassed to mention them again, but they are the exemplars, as we called them earlier—are doing just that.

In conclusion, we believe that local authorities should set out their approach in their development plan, whose preparation allows everyone in a community to be involved in decisions that will shape developments in their area. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle will withdraw the motion.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

It would not be particularly productive to go along a road that gets us obsessed with who said what to whom and when, rather than considering the substance of the proposal. I am sure that hon. Members from all parts of the Committee could have no quibble with the Minister’s very clear reassertion of the ODPM’s position, which certainly satisfies me.

On the broader issue of including a great number of planning provisions, I originally wanted the Bill to be wide ranging, when I introduced it. I am grateful for the development of the Bill and the way in which the Government have added elements—they will seek to do so again today—but I accept that only so much can be included. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) referred to walking on eggshells, and this is an eggshell moment for me. Although I would like a Bill that incorporates all my personal preferences for tackling climate change, lines must be drawn somewhere. In light of what the Minister and I have said, I ask the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle to consider withdrawing the motion. If the review ended  up along the lines that he suggests, I am sure that hon. Members of all parties, and indeed the Minister, would have a lot to say about it.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I place great weight on what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith has said. I have great respect for him and for other Labour Members with a long history of working to mitigate the effects of climate change, and of campaigning on such issues. Once again, I pay tribute to him for all his work on the Bill. However, I must say that I still have a problem with the cultural way in which the whole process of government responds to the sense of urgency that we feel in this Committee, but that does not seem to be radiating out into Whitehall. Perhaps that is because all Governments ultimately succumb to incumbency-itis; perhaps it is because ultimately Ministers, rather like hostages, come to love their captors. We are failing to take the political imperative of acting on climate change, and instead we just see the administrative process writ large.

I know that the Minister is sincere and that he believes in what he is saying, but I am not reassured by the actions of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I just think that we should be more ambitious. We have few opportunities to legislate on such issues; I do not know when the next climate change Bill will come through the House of Commons or when the Government will make time for us to take urgent measures. The Prime Minister said today that we needed “urgent action” on the issue, and quite frankly I do not think that that can be taken through the existing planning system, which is not delivering.

No one can argue that the current system is delivering sufficiently. It is failing before our very eyes. We know that it will not deliver the targets; 92 per cent. of people, when last asked, said that the issue was not at the top of their agenda. There are currently no meaningful initiatives that will change that. Things are great for Croydon, Merton and Woking, but they are islands of excellence, as we have said all the way through Committee. We can either change our whole modus operandi and send a message to the country that, as the Prime Minister said today, we have to take urgent action, or we can carry on meaning well, although the chances of actually hitting the targets, which in themselves are probably not ambitious enough, remain very slim.

I take on board what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith said, and I pay tribute to his work, but I am afraid that we on the Conservative Benches feel strongly about the matter and want to send a clear message to Government that more action is needed and that the system needs to be grappled with. We are not talking about a great measure or a radical departure; it is an incremental measure, and as such the Government should not really have any problem with it. For that reason, we will push it to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 7.

Division number 2 Nimrod Review — Statement — New Clause 25 - Local planning authorities: energy and energy efficiency

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.