Localism Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 27th January 2011.

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[Mr David Amess in the Chair]

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 12:32 pm, 27th January 2011

Good afternoon and welcome, everyone. I do not know whether any of our witnesses have given evidence to a Committee of this type before, but Committee members fully understand that you may not be entirely experienced in these matters. They are not going to pick arguments with you; they are simply going to take evidence from your good selves. Speaking on behalf of the Committee, I very much hope that our witnesses enjoy the session, which must finish by 1.15 pm at the latest. We will hear oral evidence from Wildlife and Countryside Link, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Country Land and Business Association and Action with Communities in Rural England. I will now ask our witnesses to introduce themselves in turn and just make a short statement on how you see the Bill. We will start with Mr Marsh.

Simon Marsh: Good afternoon. My name is Simon Marsh. I am head of planning and regional policy for the RSPB, and I also represent Wildlife and Countryside Link. Our concerns are very much focused on the planning aspects of the Bill—on part 5. We very much welcome the Government’s intention to engage communities more closely in the planning system, but we feel that localism, if it becomes parochialism, carries risks both for the environment and for the wider community, especially when seen in the context of the challenge of climate change and biodiversity decline. So we are asking how the Bill and planning reform in general help to mitigate those risks, help us to deliver a low-carbon economy and help the natural environment. We think that, in its present state, the Bill fails to do that.

Shaun Spiers: Hello, I am Shaun Spiers from the Campaign to Protect Rural England. The CPRE, through its 43 county branches, 200 district groups and 2,000 parish council members, is the largest third-party participant in the planning system. We have been calling for a decentralisation of the planning system for some time and for a system that will really involve local people in developing and protecting their areas, so we welcome the main thrust of the Bill. We very much hope that it will result in a comprehensible and credible local and neighbourhood planning system in which people will really want to get involved, so there are some questions about the simplicity of the system that is being developed. As members of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, we are also concerned about the connection between local means and national aims, including environmental aims and the protection of landscape and biodiversity.

William Worsley: I am William Worsley, and I am president of the Country Land and Business Association. The CLA represents the businesses that form the bedrock of the rural economy. We support the pro-growth thinking behind the Bill, which has the potential to develop much-needed economic growth in the countryside. We also support the concept of giving local people more say over their neighbourhoods. However, we are concerned that the Bill may impact on rural businesses. We are also very disappointed that the presumption in favour of sustainable development has not been included in the Bill. We would like to see growth put at the centre of the agenda. We are also extremely concerned about the proposals relating to community assets. We believe that there is significant potential here for abuse, and it risks people being deprived of their property rights.

Sylvia Brown: I am Sylvia Brown and I am chief executive of Action with Communities in Rural England, known as ACRE, which represents a network of independent local development agencies that support rural communities throughout England. Our evidence draws on their provision of facilitation and support for about 4,000 communities to undertake community led planning and deliver a sustainable vision for their area. We warmly welcome the Bill, particularly the aspects concerned with neighbourhood planning. We now seek to ensure that it is workable at local level and achieves the right balance between empowering communities and maintaining the integrity of strategic local planning policies. Two areas on which we seek potential changes are a specific aspect of the use of referendums and an extension of the in perpetuity rules on affordable housing to the community, either through the community right to build or through neighbourhood plans.

Q 214214

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The briefings that have been submitted to us voice a strong concern about the absence of links between strategic planning and the neighbourhood planning aspects of the Bill. Will the witnesses talk about that and address in particular whether they think that the duty to co-operate is sufficiently strong and will achieve that? If not, what else should we include in the Bill to give us that link to necessary strategic planning?

Simon Marsh: We think that strategic planning is a key issue from the environmental perspective. Essentially, we feel that the proposed duty to co-operate is a weak duty—it seems to be little more than a duty to discuss with neighbouring authorities. It is also very much focused on strategic infrastructure, but not necessarily on a wider range of environmental issues that you would need to do strategically. I think that the Bill and planning reform place a great emphasis on the voluntary nature of strategic planning, and there are many good examples of where that happens. Our concern is that, where there are contentious policy issues to resolve, there is no clear mechanism for trying to do that.

For example, the Thames basin heaths delivery plan in the south-east of England involves no fewer than 11 local authorities working together to deliver strategic mitigation in order to ameliorate the impact of housing in a sensitive environment. The legal driver for that is contained under the habitats directive, but the process that has given it a framework is the south-east regional plan. It is very difficult to see, in the absence of a plan  that is larger than local, how you could provide the framework to those local authorities to work together and deliver housing in a sensitive environment.

Shaun Spiers: If I may add to that, the CPRE is very concerned that the means of achieving larger than local planning appears to be the local enterprise partnerships. The relationship between the Bill and the LEPs will become very important, because LEPs are business led, and the social, economic and environmental partners are, by and large, excluded from them. The LEPs have an overwhelming growth focus, so if they deliver sub-regional planning, there will be environmental concerns. All environmental groups, including the CPRE, are looking forward very much to the publication of the natural environment White Paper—the first environmental White Paper for 20 years—but it is questionable how one protects the natural environment and achieves landscape-scale conservation through LEPs that are overwhelmingly business focused, so I share Simon’s concerns there.

William Worsley: Strategic planning is important. You cannot do things on a purely local scale, and you have to look beyond that. You commented on LEPs, and one of our concerns is that they will not be sufficiently rurally focused. It is very important that the needs of the rural economy—jobs and employment opportunities in rural areas—are properly considered by LEPs.

Sylvia Brown: From our point of view, the strategic elements are really important for the relationship between local authorities and communities. We all recognise that strategic policies need to exist, otherwise a bottom-up process cannot build into something meaningful. But I would rather these things were done through a form of co-operation than an adversarial relationship between communities and local government. One of the successes of community-led planning has been the development of protocols between local government and communities to govern who does what and what it is allowable to put in a plan. We regard neighbourhood planning as putting that on a more statutory basis.

Q 215

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

This is a question for Mr Spiers. You said that you broadly welcomed the idea of neighbourhood plans, but then you said that the way they were characterised in the Bill was simplistic. Can you clarify what you meant by that?

Shaun Spiers: I think that there is a lack of certainty—at least as I read the Bill—about the relationship between the neighbourhood plans, the neighbourhood development orders and the community right to build. There is the potential for the system set out in the Bill to become rather confusing and cumbersome and not to achieve what I know is the Bill’s, and our, objective, which is to get local people involved in planning their neighbourhoods and to ensure that they really think that the planning system is something they can engage with, rather than something that is imposed on them. We think, as the Government think, that if you involve local people in planning their area, they will support appropriate developments, but it is important that the system is comprehensible and reasonably straightforward. There are some detailed concerns about the relationship between the three elements, as we set out in our paper. I could go into those, but we think they are not as clear as they might be.

Q 216

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

It is common ground that the planning system should be reformed to facilitate the greater involvement of local people, but are you satisfied that under in the Bill as it stands neighbourhood forums will be sufficiently representative and legitimate? It is an issue of democratic accountability.

Sylvia Brown: I would like to answer that. In rural communities, of course, we have a given set of democratic spatial boundaries, as well as, in most areas, parish and town councils that have a holistic responsibility for their wider areas. We are a member, as well as the secretariat, of the Rural Coalition group of organisations led by Lord Matthew Taylor. We, too, are concerned that the mechanisms are not brought into disrepute in urban areas by the failure to have clear-cut designations of areas, forums and democratic responsibilities. That is a difficulty. In our view, it will probably be rural communities that race ahead with this agenda, if it proves appropriate for them to do so, while urban areas will still be working out their mechanisms for the early stages for areas, boundaries and forums.

Shaun Spiers: Inevitably, there are concerns. In the rural context, there are parish councils that are very representative and do a good job, and there are some that are less representative and somewhat moribund. What this Bill is about is trying to get more people involved. If we give power to neighbourhoods and local communities, we should believe that they can become more representative. After all, the alternative is not necessarily that representative either.

Simon Marsh: I think that the short answer to your question is no. We have concerns about the representative nature of forums, particularly in urban areas where obviously they are not elected representatives.

William Worsley: The key thing is that this encourages people to communicate. Getting developers—whether they are farmers, landowners or whatever—to communicate with neighbourhoods and communities is a really positive thing. If that can be seen as one of the benefits of the Bill, I would welcome it. It is very important—we focus on the rural environment—that rural communities live and prosper, which means opportunities and development. By communicating, a lot of the fear can be taken out of appropriate and well-designed developments in the countryside.

Q 217

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

A point well made, but following on from that, it is important, is it not, that all communities have an equal opportunity to access the potential under the proposed planning system? With the proposed changes to Planning Aid and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, are you concerned that there might not be that necessary equality of opportunity?

Simon Marsh: Yes, we are concerned. It seems that preparing a neighbourhood plan can be quite a costly exercise. The procedures certainly seem to be cumbersome. Getting the kind of support that you describe is crucial, but there is a fear that potentially it is only the affluent and articulate communities that can actually participate in the process, and you risk creating a two-tier planning system.

Shaun Spiers: We are also concerned. I echo the evidence that was given by Tony Burton from Civic Voice, in which CPRE is involved: this puts the onus on the system properly to resource, empower and facilitate  local communities and ensure that areas with less social capital are able to produce decent plans with proper buy-in from the communities. It will cost time and money. I would not necessarily exaggerate the huge power of the more affluent communities; when you set that against the affluence of some of the developers that the development forces are up against, it is still a fairly unequal battle.

William Worsley: I think that it is very important that the current cumbersome and complex proposals are given serious consideration. Simplicity is needed. It should not be made too difficult to create neighbourhood plans; that is really important. We have just done a village plan in the village in which I live. It was not difficult, and it has been tremendous in getting the community working together. The knock-on effect of the work that has been done by everybody has reinvigorated the village. We now have a village market and all kinds of other things that have come off the back of this. The benefit is very good, but it is very important that these village plans look at the economics of a village and the job opportunities, and encourage people to think positively about their communities.

Sylvia Brown: I think that support and facilitation are the key. The question is: what do you need to produce a high-quality plan that has elements of sustainable development on economic, environmental and social issues? It turns out to be community capacity building, and challenging a community—saying “You cannot have everything; you cannot support four facilities when we have enough money in the community to support only one, and you need to prioritise issues that will make this village more sustainable in the long run.” That is not a technical planning matter; it is building the capacity of the community to take hard decisions. That is what community-led planning is about, but it is the non-statutory end. We seek the transfer of that into the statutory planning system. We were making headway on that some four or five years ago, until the requirement for sustainability appraisals in local development frameworks came about, which made it too technical to achieve.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

I will come back to that later. Thank you.

Q 218

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

Were you surprised that third party rights of appeal were not included in the Bill? Should we be concerned that they were not?

Shaun Spiers: I will start on that before William contradicts me.

CPRE was surprised and very concerned about that. If you are to have a planning system that is credible within neighbourhoods—one that they think it is worth while engaging with—it is absolutely necessary for the integrity of the system to have a very limited right of appeal, where developments are approved outside the plan by the local authority. At the moment there is a system in which, as we saw in Sheringham in Norfolk, big developers can come in and lose umpteen times but still bludgeon the local authority and exhaust it into approving planning permission. I hope that we can work with the Government and Ministers in the Department to find a way of achieving what both governing parties clearly wanted to achieve when they  were in opposition, which is a way to rebalance the rights of the developer and the community. If you want a community to believe that it is in control, and if you want to revivify the planning system, which is the objective of this, a third party right of appeal is essential.

William Worsley: I am afraid that Shaun and I do not agree on that; we agree on a lot of things, but not on that.

We were pleased that the third party right of appeal was not included. We do not believe that it is necessary. We believe that the planning system already has the necessary checks and balances to deal with such issues. Frankly, if a planning authority is rolled over by a developer that keeps submitting application after application, the local authority should be more robust than that. Local authorities should not be just rolled over, and I do not believe that they will be. Sometimes applications need to go back for better design, or to become more appropriate or whatever, and sometimes they are just turned down, but the necessary checks and balances are in the current system. Therefore, this is unnecessary.

Shaun Spiers: So developers do not need a right of appeal, either?

William Worsley: No, of course developers need a right of appeal; they make the applications.

Sylvia Brown: May I take the middle ground on this? As a parish councillor in a growth area, and having used the planning system for more than 30 years, I resent being counted as a third party in any appeal system. We have a difficult situation when local planning authorities are held to ransom by big developers on the basis that they cannot afford to fight an appeal. Perhaps the solution is to address what is allowed to go to a planning inspector, rather than who has the right to appeal. I understand that in other countries the third party right of appeal is a very expensive process.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

We have only 20 minutes left, and many colleagues want to ask questions, so we will have to speed this up a bit.

Q 219

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

I want to ask Mr Worsley about the community assets issue, which he highlighted as a concern. Could he amplify the scope for abuse and the problems associated with that particular feature?

William Worsley: As I said, we fundamentally disagree with it. We believe that it infringes on people’s property rights. There is a lack of clarity, and we would like much greater clarity on this, but it potentially prevents owners from selling at a time of their choosing, and to a person of their choosing. There may be tax implications. There are no Government assurances on that, so we would like some clarity. There is no definition of an asset of community value. There is a right of review, but the grounds are not clear. There is a provision for compensation, but again that is not clear, and there is no entitlement as of right. We are really concerned that this will potentially act as a disincentive for landowners to provide facilities that local communities may need and want.

I will give an absolute example from my own experience. I live in a very pretty village in north Yorkshire—we are very proud of it and we love it dearly—and the local community was desperate to have a playground. They  approached me, as the person who owns most of the land around the village, and asked if I could help. In fact, I was far more involved than that; it was not just an approach. We work well together as a community. I provided a little bit of land on the edge of the village. It is actually a really important piece of land to me, and the one thing I would not want to do is lose that piece of land. I gave it to the community on a long lease at a peppercorn rent, and we have a very nice playground, with which the community is very pleased.

There are lots of other examples of things that we have done in the village that we live in, and of things that other landowners have done. I would hate to see that sort of thing stopped, because people were frightened of creating an asset that could then be removed from them. I think it is a serious potential infringement of people’s property rights. I know that there is a focus here on pubs and village shops, but there is already an ability in the planning system to deal with those issues. We think that this is unnecessary, inappropriate and unfair on the private individual.

Q 220

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Mr Worsley, you said that you were concerned about how the Bill will impact on rural businesses. Apart from issues that you have highlighted already, are there others that cause you concern? How could rural businesses have a greater voice?

William Worsley: I think that is very important. The issue with most rural businesses, and we are talking not only about farming, but all kinds of other businesses, is that they tend to be small. The difficulty is having the time and resource—if you are running a small business you may be employing two, three or four people—really to engage with a potentially cumbersome structure into which you have to enter, and business people do not really have the time, the resource or the expertise to do that. If you are a big business, you have that sort of resource, but small businesses find it much more difficult.

It is really important that the Bill focuses on true sustainability, which is about employment, housing and the environment in which we live and that we enjoy. It is terribly important that these plans are not so complex as to not engage with local businesses. They are the bedrock; if we are looking at sustainability, actually having people living in, working in and enjoying villages is really important. Villages should not be allowed to become just dormitories for the local town. We think that is really, really important. It is very important that this is taken into account. I have some examples of where the Localism Bill is already being used as a means of frustrating potential development. There is an agricultural building in the east midlands that the local authority is using this against. It is really important, because not all development is something that everybody is going to like.

Q 221

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Labour, Scunthorpe

Do you think the Bill would be improved by the inclusion of a presumption in favour of sustainable development?

Simon Marsh: I think we would certainly like to see a definition of sustainable development—a strengthened duty for the planning system—which is not quite the same as a presumption in favour of sustainable development. It is not quite clear to us how that sits in the context of a plan-led system, which we believe is very important. It seems to us that the real issues are  ensuring that there is a strong sustainable development purpose or duty applied to the planning system and, in particular, that that should include neighbourhood plans. One of the strange things that the Bill does is not extend the existing purpose of sustainable development to the neighbourhood planning system. We would certainly like to see that included.

Shaun Spiers: We agree with that. I think we would want a reaffirmation in the Bill of the notion that sustainable development, within environmental limits, is the aim of planning; that is what it is about. Some organisations wanted a presumption in favour of sustainable development almost as an incentive for local authorities to produce plans, and, of course, there is a problem with many local authorities not having produced plans. We certainly do not think, however, that those areas should be punished by a simple presumption in favour of development, which is what some of the development bodies have in mind when they talk about sustainable development. I am not sure that they are talking about sustainable development as we would understand it.

William Worsley: We believe that it is extremely important that this is included. It is absolutely essential. It does, of course, need to be properly defined. It cannot and should not be just a charter to concrete over the countryside. We do believe, however, that it is important, because it is needed to encourage appropriately scaled economic development in the countryside.

It is also very important that the quality of the design of any development in the countryside is of a high standard. Design is much more important in rural areas than in urban areas because of the impact that a single bad building can have on a small community. We think this is really important.

Sylvia Brown: I agree. You would have to define sustainable development before you got anybody to include it in anything.

Q 222

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Labour, Scunthorpe

Do you want to have a go at doing that?

Sylvia Brown: I was a member of what is now the ministerial and third sector task force on climate change, the environment and sustainable development, and the trouble is that it depends on the context in which you are working. That is an easy get-out, but the mix of social, environmental and economic objectives play out differently in different contexts; that is for certain.

What we cannot afford is for a definition of sustainable development to be used locally to deliver things such as policies that have key settlement hierarchies for rural communities and that forbid essential development in rural areas on the grounds that there are not enough services to sustain them. That is a nonsense definition of sustainable development, and it annoys local people who have actually got a more proactive view of their future. So, please, let us have a definition that applies to all circumstances.

Shaun Spiers: You can argue about the definition of sustainable development, but essentially, it is important to have, within planning policy, something that says that planning is about integrating social, environmental and economic ends, and not about arrogating one of those over the others. In this context, there are lots of other pieces of the jigsaw, which overwhelmingly concern the growth focus of LEPs, with just a passing nod to the  notion of sustainable development. The new homes bonus is about homes, not sustainable homes, and it is certainly not about design. Ensuring that the overarching principle or object of planning should be to serve the public interest, which is what you have now—and that the public interest is, in some sense, sustainable development—is very important.

William Worsley: Planning should be about planning, not development control.

Q 223

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth

At the risk of pitting Mr Spiers and Mr Worsley against each other—

Shaun Spiers: We are great friends, really.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth

I just want to revisit the issues around community assets. It seems to me that the community asset clause, from Mr Spiers’ point of view, can effectively be proactive around what would otherwise be a third party right of appeal, in that the community can act early, moving something forward. This question is particularly for Mr Worsley. There is protection, if you like, for landowners in clauses 74 and 76, and the compensation referred to in clause 82 is not dissimilar to a compulsory purchase order. Bearing that in mind, what, without affecting a community’s ability to have control of its environment, which is what localism is really about, would give landowners the certainty and security that they are looking for, so that they still feel part of this, and not victimised in the way that you implied?

William Worsley: I came from a policy committee meeting of the Country Land and Business Association this morning, and the Localism Bill was the first thing on the agenda and was debated before I left. There was real concern among everybody in the room, and there was a mix of landowners there, large and small, from all over the country, with regional representatives. This has been debated at a number of meetings in different parts of England, and there is real concern about this aspect—more than about anything else. Where there is a necessity, there already are compulsory purchase powers, so we do not believe that this is necessary. If it was clearly defined as relating to very small areas that are not very significant, that would remove the fear. People look to what is happening north of the border in Scotland and the right to buy there. There was an example of that involving Lord Attenborough in the papers at the weekend. There is a real fear about this. It is the fear of removing people’s property rights.

Shaun Spiers: You are trying to pit us against each other, but I am sure that William’s concerns can be met. The purpose here is, again, to give communities a stake in their areas. As I understand the wording of the Bill, it should not give rise to those fears, but it is entirely right that communities should be able to call for a pause and consider whether they can take over a community asset—or, indeed, a green space—if it is in danger of being sold off. We look forward to having a definition of that. If this is about giving communities a stake in their areas, this is one important way of doing it, hopefully without giving rise to some of the problems that you are concerned about.

Sylvia Brown: There are some really important aspects to this, because the asset’s value depends on what kind of asset it is, and what part it plays in the community.  At the moment, it is a clear one-size-fits-all approach, if it is an asset of community value. We are particularly concerned about assets that are being lost because it is considered uneconomic to keep them going under their current use. Under those circumstances, those cases should have some kind of higher priority, when it comes to being retained, than others that are just part of a wish list within the community. We are talking about losing the possibility of retaining assets of community value because the shop is uneconomical, or because the pub is going to be knocked down. But that is a key part of the proposals, and it should not be watered down. The issue for us is that the time taken by a community to mount a case is probably longer than people’s estimate of what is reasonable from the owner’s point of view. Assets of community value that are named in a community-led or neighbourhood plan should have a higher level of protection than something that is simply put on a list.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Ms Brown, one of the Ministers wanted to clarify something with regard to a point that you made.

Q 224

Sylvia Brown: This is fraught with difficulty, because it changes the behaviour of people. I prefer the way a lot of local planning authorities do it: they have policies on assets of community value, and they administer those, in terms of not allowing planning permission for change of use. Some of those are very strong; we trawled the country looking for them. The issue for me is why every local planning authority does not have them. Some have nothing of that kind at all. I would look to the Bill to encourage, or require, those in local policies.

Simon Marsh: We do not have a particular view on that.

Shaun Spiers: We almost certainly have a particular view on it, but I am not sure that I know what it is.

Q 225

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

May I take you back to the failure to put in the Bill a code for sustainable development? Our understanding—you may well have already had discussions with officials and others on this—is that this will appear in the national planning policy framework. It is very difficult for us to legislate in a number of areas covered by the Bill without understanding what that interpretation of sustainable development will be. Do you share those concerns? In particular, Mr Spiers, can you tell us again, absolutely clearly, what you would like to see in that code for sustainable development?

Shaun Spiers: The Bill should state clearly that the aim of planning is to deliver sustainable development, which was well defined in the previous Government’s sustainable development strategy. I understand that that is still in place, and that planning policy statement 1 has a certain amount of standing now in planning practice.  I think there are always arguments about what it means in reality, but it has been around for some time as a guiding concept, and it provides assurance for communities that things will not be done overwhelmingly in the economic interest, ignoring social and environmental interests. That has been the problem with a lot of the attempted reforms of planning in recent years.

Simon Marsh: Clearly, the national planning policy framework has a critical role in fleshing out what sustainable development actually means in practice, but we would say that it would be helpful to have in the Act something that sent the strong signal to users of the planning system: “This is what it’s all about.”

William Worsley: We would certainly, as I have said, strongly support a presumption in favour of sustainable development. I think that “sustainable” is key. It is difficult to define; I fully accept that. I rather wish that I had come with a clear definition to give you today. Shaun and I might not have agreed, however.

Sylvia Brown: It is really difficult, given that the requirement for sustainable development applies to local plans but not neighbourhood plans. That means that a neighbourhood plan can be a single-issue item. From the point of view of sustainable development, who knows what the long-term implications of a particular issue might be? I think that is a big mistake. When we as a network support community-led planning, it has to adhere to some sense of quality standards or kitemarks. That requires a community to consider options and the long-term impact. It might not be the same as a regulatory framework, but I can tell you it works.

Q 226

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Labour, Gateshead

Mr Worsley talked with some enthusiasm earlier about his village plan, but is there any concern about what constitutes a neighbourhood in a rural setting for planning purposes? In my local authority in Gateshead, in the north-east of England, we have divided the borough into 48 or 49 neighbourhoods, which can have anything from 3,000 to 5,000 people. In north Yorkshire, that would probably cover the whole of Swaledale. Would that be viewed as a neighbourhood, from that perspective?

William Worsley: Where you have parishes, or where you have a defined village, it is very clear what the neighbourhood is. The problem areas are where you do not have a parish, although you might have a village meeting, and that could be defined as a neighbourhood. I think it could be extended to where you have areas of land in ownership—for example, to an estate or something like that. That could be part of creating a plan—working with the people who live in that “neighbourhood”. It is difficult to define it very clearly, but you are absolutely right: in your part of the world, you are talking about very significant numbers of people, whereas in rural areas, you can be talking about villages of 200 or 300 people, and that might be quite a large village.

One positive thing is getting people communicating and talking. People are very frightened of change if they are not involved in the debate, or if they are shocked by it. If communities can talk and take a long-term view—I am talking about 20 or 30-year views—a lot of things can be done to keep villages living, and that is really important.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I hate to chop everyone off, but we have very little time left. One final question from the Minister.

Q 227

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Perhaps I can reassure you that the Government intend that neighbourhood plans, like local plans, will have to be consistent with national policy. If the national policy includes a reference to sustainable development, as it will, that will be in them as well.

We talked about the presumption in favour of sustainable development. It is in current policy. In that regard, current policy is not defined in primary legislation, but I think that you felt, Mr Spiers, that it had been successful. Is there not a danger that if you try to define a presumption in primary legislation, you have the difficulty of amending it in the light of changed circumstances or technological and scientific knowledge? You therefore create needless rigidity, which is why it is better to define a presumption either in guidance or in some form of secondary legislation.

Shaun Spiers: I cannot see a definition of sustainable development that would be very different from seeking to integrate social, environmental and economic ends within environmental limits—it is quite a simple concept. The problem with the Bill, which, as I say, we overwhelmingly support, is that it is part of a suite of far-reaching reforms to the planning system, the relationship between which is not entirely clear. There is a national planning policy framework, which we have not yet seen, and also the LEPs, which we are extremely worried about because they are rooted not in sustainable development, but in going for growth. There are also things like the new homes bonus and the other conceived incentives—

Q 228

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

You are not saying you are against growth as such, though, are you?

Shaun Spiers: I am not against growth, but it has to be sustainable growth, and LEPs have no duty to consider that. There are other incentives, such as the new homes bonus, and the relationship between them and the planning system is not terribly clear, either. The more you can hammer home to all decision makers that the decisions they take should be rooted in a commitment to sustainable development, the better.

William Worsley: I think I would agree with you that there is a significant risk in defining this too tightly, because what is sustainable development in an area such as my village might be very different from that in Gateshead or somewhere else. Sustainable development is bound to mean slightly different things in slightly different areas.

Shaun Spiers: It has to be interpreted, but—

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I am afraid that we have to end the session there, so on behalf of the Committee, I thank our witnesses for the time they have spent with us this afternoon. We appreciated hearing you gently falling out among yourselves.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 1:17 pm, 27th January 2011

May I welcome our witnesses? You were probably in the room earlier when I said that the Committee wants you to relax and enjoy this session, because our task is just to gather evidence from our witnesses. Would you kindly introduce yourselves one at a time and briefly share with the Committee your views on the Bill, starting with Ms Elliott?

Trudi Elliott: Good afternoon. I am Trudi Elliott, the chief exec of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

We support the principles behind the Localism Bill. We are very keen to work with the Government and others to make the new system work, but there are several areas where we think improvements could be made to ensure that the objectives are met. We particularly support the concept of a national planning policy framework, which is something for which we have long argued, but we think it needs to be on the face of the Bill. We have got views on the characteristics of that document, but clearly we have not seen it yet and we will make recommendations about it.

We welcome the strengthening role for local development frameworks in the Bill. We do, however, still have concerns about strategic planning—planning above the local level. We think the solution to that is to strengthen the provisions in the Bill on the duty to co-operate. Again, we will be making recommendations on that.

We are very supportive of the neighbourhood planning principle, but we think the proposals in the Bill are over-complex. We have a number of suggestions and ideas about how the system, as proposed, can be made less complicated and easier to use. The objective has got to be to join up the system from bottom to top and to make clear to everybody the relationship between neighbourhood, local, greater-than-local and national planning.

We clearly were very disappointed about the ending of funding for Planning Aid, but we are working very hard to secure the future of that service, and we are happy to share with partners from that work what works in terms of community and neighbourhood planning.

Andrew Warner: Good afternoon. My name is Andrew Warner. I am the chairman of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors planning and environment policy panel. We are already liaising with Ministers, so I am a so-called friendly face to some in this room.

The RICS certainly accepts the idea of localism. It is an important sea change in planning and one that is well overdue. The over-centralisation of previous Governments did not achieve very much, apart from the potential for revolution, ultimately. Careful attention will clearly need to be paid to the detail of the national planning policy framework, when it comes out, and that is going to be as important as the Bill. As Bob Neill just said, if too much definition is included in the Bill, that provides a strangle later, so you want to be far more flexible. In the expanded document that I understand it will be, the NPPF is going to be the major force for planning and will set out the guidelines. A lot of queries will be answered when that is available.

We think that there needs to be better concentration on the inclusion of business and business rate payers in neighbourhood planning, because very often the business is the core of the village. We believe, for example, that neighbourhood plans could sometimes be for a business park. It would have no residents involved at all, but permitted development rights could be achieved by way of a neighbourhood plan, which would allow the people within that park to redevelop or expand as they wish without the control of bureaucracy.

There is a need to concentrate on the idea of land assembly. If neighbourhood plans are going to put forward coherent development policies, there will often  be a need to assemble land, and that will require a compulsory purchase order and the use by local authorities of those powers.

One problem at the moment with the Bill, and the whole agenda, is the lack of explanation of what it means. I think a lot of council members originally thought that the local authority that they worked for would have no role to play in the system, and that the neighbourhood would, as it were, supplant them. There is a need for better education and a clearer explanation of exactly what is proposed. That would involve the education of planning officers and, more importantly, members of local authorities about what their new roles will be and how they should best engage with the locals.

Finally, we have a slight concern about community assets, the idea of listing and the moratorium, which could well delay development and could put one’s ability to sell one’s own property at risk.

Stephen Tapper: Good afternoon. I am Stephen Tapper, president of the Planning Officers Society and assistant director at the London borough of Enfield. Like the others, my society broadly welcomes the Bill and the underlying objectives of connecting people with planning. We have drifted apart, because planning has become a very opaque process for the public. They do not understand how decisions are made or the issues. We agree that if the public could be more involved in plan making, they would have greater understanding and more control. They would understand the development management planning application process that much better. We believe that good plan making makes better planning applications, and I think that most developers would also take that view.

However, we do have reservations about the way the Bill is presented, particularly around strategic planning. We understand the reasons why the regional tier was taken away—the top-down approach, the lack of democratic accountability and so on are serious issues. However, in a world in which we are very concerned about putting adequate infrastructure in place to support development and growth and to ensure that development is truly sustainable, it is very important that communities and councillors work together to create a strategy that is meaningful at the local level. You will get good neighbourhood plans and good master plans only if they have that solid strategic context, so we urge you to look hard at how strategic planning will work in the future. We suggest that there is a need to give greater teeth to the duty to co-operate—we have some ideas about how that could be done—and also perhaps to encourage, although not necessarily insist upon, more formal joint arrangements between councils, which work very well elsewhere.

On neighbourhood development plans, we have ideas about how we might create a better bond or a greater partnership between local planning authorities and neighbourhoods. There is a relationship in the Bill, but it tends to be one in which the local authority is, if you like, accrediting processes. We think that there is a role for ward members and councillors to get closer to communities and to help them with their neighbourhood planning, to help them to strengthen the team that does that work, and again, to help to get better ownership of the process within communities.

My final point at this stage is about the relationship with the existing local development framework—neighbourhood planning sits alongside that. If there is  to be a better public understanding of the whole system, we see a need for further refinement to the LDF process to make it simpler and easier to use, and to ensure that planning is a bit lighter on its feet in addressing the issues of the day.

Dr Ellis: My name is Dr Hugh Ellis, and I am chief planner for the Town and Country Planning Association. The TCPA has spent 110 years campaigning for garden cities, for great homes for ordinary people, for sustainable development and, more importantly, for inclusion and fairness in planning processes, with people at the heart of them.

Our concerns broadly fall into two categories. The great task for planning over the past 30 years has been to make it legitimate and fair, and we have applied a fairness and effectiveness test to the Localism Bill. On effectiveness, we still struggle with the issue that colleagues have raised in relation to strategic planning. It is a simple point: by removing strategic planning, we do not remove the issues that play out at a strategic scale, such as climate change, housing and retail needs—all sorts of things. We have to find a really effective way of making that work. We have moved beyond regional planning now, but the issues still remain.

Neighbourhood planning and fairness are probably where we think our greatest concerns lie. We have to make local-level governance and planning work properly. Our judgment is that the neighbourhood planning described in the Bill is not in any way wrong. It is interesting, but it does about 10% of the job that we need to do to reconnect communities with planning. That is because the neighbourhood planning process in rural areas seems a positive suggestion—although it is complicated—but in urban areas, outside parished areas, neighbourhood planning raises a whole series of questions that we are struggling hard to answer. That said, we are trying to be as constructive as we can because, ultimately, planning has to be about planning for people, which is our key objective.

Q 229

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

We have a good set of issues to start with. Perhaps the witnesses can enlarge on some things they have said, particularly the role of councils and councillors, which is interesting, and about getting closer to communities. Dr Ellis says that the Bill only does 10% of the job, that we have to make neighbourhood planning work, and that there are questions about urban areas.

I am sure that, across the room, we share the desire to empower communities to take on this role. However, the context for a lot of authorities, which is that they are facing 27% of cuts over the next year, has not been raised much this week. I wonder if you could perhaps comment on the reality of where that resource will come from in councils for all these new people who will get out there and empower communities. My local council is struggling to find £47 million of cuts so, in reality, where will that resource come from? If it is a new function and there is a lot of work to be done, as Dr Ellis says, how will that happen?

Dr Ellis: Applying the test from our experience of 25 years in community planning, the problem is simply that although the Government—I recognise their difficulty—want a powerful outcome for community planning, if you have a legally defined development plan outcome for community planning, it inevitably  creates a process that is very complex and expensive. If I presented to my community a bill of anything more than £50 to deliver a community plan, people would raise their eyebrows and say, “We might spend that money elsewhere.”

My point is: how can we create this framework? Where communities want to take this route, fine, and where they can resource it, fine, but there is a whole series of other non-statutory outcomes—community empowerment and visioning in communities—that the planning system needs to recognise. Where in the Localism Bill are those outputs recognised and properly valued? In all my community planning experience, the output of the process is usually two pages of A4—it is a vision. People say, “We don’t want gated communities. We’d quite like some public transport.” In the current framework, all that vast and important material is nowhere.

I think that that can be fixed, but the real test is resources. I cannot see how these things will operate in an effective manner in the vast majority of communities without direct resources being paid to them. I am not talking about resources being paid to local government to deal with its administrative tasks, or about general resources being given to organisations to provide planning advice, but about direct resources to communities.

Stephen Tapper: Just picking up that point, resources are a significant issue. What we have proposed in our response is that there should be some mechanism for councils, working with their communities, to resolve priorities. In my borough in London, for example, we have many very deprived wards, and we are already doing a lot of master-planning work with communities. It is not quite in this form, because the communities are not absolutely in control—I am not sure a lot of them would want to be—but we do support them and we do a lot of consultation, and these communities very much influence the outcome of the plans.

Those are very expensive processes. They can take around 12 to 18 months. As well as using staff in the council—perhaps the equivalent of two full-time workers throughout the period—we have to employer master planners, urban designers, traffic consultants and the like. You are talking about £130,000 to £150,000 for a community of about 10,000. Even then, that is not a very detailed set of proposals for the whole place—one focuses on key issues. We have spent up to £250,000, or something of that order. These are places that need that master-planning work, not only because they are very deprived communities, which need to see change and investment, but because they are part of our growth area, so there is a wider benefit to creating more homes and more jobs for more people.

How does that sit as a priority alongside the neighbourhood planning proposals, which could come from other parts of the borough that we would not necessarily regard as having the same need? We want to accommodate such things, but within a programme that is properly funded. We have a suggested that a device called a community planning statement is produced each year, through which the council attempts to resolve these conflicts and come up with a programme of work that is funded and that takes all these needs into account. Indeed, it could replace certain existing requirements in the local development framework to provide a project-planned statement on community involvement. A number of things could be rolled into that device.

Trudi Elliott: We are very concerned about the change and added complexity at a time of resource constraint, so one of our key objectives is working together to simplify the proposals in the Bill and existing provisions. We think it is very important that, at a time of difficult choices, local authorities do not take too much resource from other functions, particularly LDFs, because we have to get full coverage of those plans across the country as that is one way to reduce the resource that we will need to spend subsequently on neighbourhood planning.

We have learned a lot of lessons about how to do this, and we have to be smarter at sharing what we have learned. It may interest the Committee to know that we have produced a good-practice guide on public engagement in development schemes, based on our experience as a profession and through Planning Aid, and I will happily send copies of that to the Committee. However, we need to be realistic about the financial environment we are in and the impact that that will have on the successful implementation of these proposals.

Andrew Warner: I would like to think that, with the reduction in conflict between locals and their local authorities, some resources might well be freed up. If there is better and fuller engagement of the local authority with neighbourhoods, things will be more smoothly approved, rather than there being years and years of local planning inquiries and so on. A huge amount of staff resource is wasted on that sort of conflict, so hopefully the process will free up some resources.

There could also be—again, this is going to be good practice—the use of developers actually to fund or pay for, or whatever, this sort of neighbourhood plan, not on the basis of the developer deciding that this is what he wants to do, but with the concept and culture change of better engagement and working with communities. I certainly know that clients of mine have accepted that there needs to be a shift and that they will not just be going to the locals a week before they put the planning application in as a sort of rote. They are physically saying, “This is what we think you would like. We have eight different examples. What do you think?” In a case that I am involved in, all eight scenarios have been chucked out of the window. There is now a ninth and a 10th. We suspect that, at the moment, we have 2,000 people supporting what is, in fact, a fairly substantial development.

The other thing is that the RICS has established a land and society commission—it is actually in our briefing note—with the idea of establishing how best to equip communities to embrace their emerging land and property goals. It is taking evidence at the moment. We have had meetings with the Department for Communities and Local Government and this is an ongoing thing, so in due course we will report back to this Committee and to the DCLG.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

There are only 20 minutes left and a lot of colleagues want to ask questions, so can we speed up the answers please? It is not necessary to get four responses to each question.

Q 230

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

On the point about strategic planning, you talked about your concerns about the duty to co-operate. Is not one of the lessons of history that if central Government decide that they want to  impose duties that have a lot of elements, they can produce the opposite behaviour from the one you are trying to solve? What do you think about that?

Trudi Elliott: That is probably a fair comment. It is about the cleverness in the drafting. It is not about telling people what to do, but about the mechanisms that encourage a certain sort of behaviour. The area on which we would like to focus some attention is duties to consider joint planning, but not saying what that might engage and involve. We do think that something more needs to be in there, because it does not always happen and we have got to be realistic about that.

Andrew Warner: I think you will find, as time goes by, that there will be consortiums of local authorities—there were in the past. You used to have various authorities around the Birmingham and Manchester conurbations and there were joint plans there. They were not called regional; they were called sub-regional, although I am not sure that you can use that word nowadays. Certainly, they were above local authority level with these amalgamations. That duty to co-operate is going to lead to that culture change.

Q 231

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

Do you think that that will produce more effective strategic planning?

Andrew Warner: I think it will, because then you are not being told what to do, with everyone saying, “Not me, guv. They can have it next door.” If you get together and say, “This is what we are going to have to do,” it naturally sorts itself out.

Stephen Tapper: There are very good examples of councils working very effectively together in sub-regions, and the one I usually cite is the Tees Valley. However, the lesson there is that there was a strong motivational factor behind it. Councils—councillors—do not give up their powers easily to joint committees and the like. At the time, there was a desire for unitary status, so they had to show that they could work together on strategic planning and transportation and they put in place the joint arrangements. They have found that very beneficial. The arrangements are still there. They deal with economic developments and regeneration. They have a lot in common in that regard. It is finding those commonalities that is really important, as well as some practical ways forward.

Dr Ellis: The challenge, to go back to the Bill—although I agree entirely with the voluntary approach—is what we are going to do with the major issues like climate change and renewable energy, and all sorts of forms of development that play out at a regional or national scale. My point is a tough one, and I do not really like to represent it because it is unpopular: will the sum total of 350 individual local authority decisions on carbon deliver the effective action we need on climate change—or on housing or on retail development? There must be a mechanism that resolves those issues. I am worried about our default position, if this does not work out on a voluntary basis. Therefore, it is about trying to find a mechanism that strikes the right balance between proper local considerations and those issues that we need to address.

Q 232

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

In earlier sessions, we heard concerns about the importance of strategic planning, including with regard to housing and, as Dr Ellis has just mentioned, the whole climate change agenda. The house  builders made it clear that the proposals in the Bill will not deliver housing in the numbers needed or the places expected. They expected more greenfield, low-density development to arise.

The reasons that they gave were that they felt confusion over the primacy within the Bill of the different tiers of planning. They felt that the transition period between the existing system and any potential new system would bring delay and problems. They also had concerns about how the neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood forums fitted in.

The RICS briefing says that

“Neighbourhood plans must ensure that the Mayor’s housing targets are delivered”, but that is not exactly localist—it flags up the conflict between the strategic and the local. I wonder whether the witnesses feel that the planning proposals will help to deliver on housing need.

Andrew Warner: If you are just relying on neighbourhood plans to produce housing, I do not think that you will ever meet your housing targets, but I do not think that is what is proposed. All you are doing is adding another tier where the locals can be in control of their own environment. There is not going to be a complete embargo on local authority plans or, indeed, on developers promoting development. I think that is where, maybe, the education or understanding is lacking. It is not just neighbourhoods and nothing else. The whole existing planning tier, apart from the strategic level, is still in place and will keep going.

Stephen Tapper: This is why core strategies are so important because they will set the parameters for housing growth and they have to take into account the housing market assessment—the housing needs within the area. That begs the issue of whether the area can extend to a wider region or sub-region if councils can work together, but as long as that requirement is in place, the core strategies will set targets for housing. My understanding is that neighbourhood plans will be required to respect that in the same way that the councils’ own area action plans will deliver the numbers on the ground.

Trudi Elliott: I think the challenge for all of us is the getting from A to B. We know that confusion and transition can slow things down, so there is an onus on us all to get clarity early and, in particular, to encourage local authorities to press on with their work on LDFs and core strategies, etc., because that will be a critical tool.

Andrew Warner: Again, just on that point about transition, what has happened with the abolition—or the pending abolition—of regional strategies is that most local authorities have gone into complete hibernation with a “rabbit in the headlights” approach. They are saying “Gosh, what do I do now? No one is telling me what to do,” and they are doing nothing—or a lot are. Once they understand that fact that the local authority tier remains and still has a role to play, they will suddenly get back into doing things as they should be.

Q 233

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

With regard to house building numbers, do you think that greater community involvement will increase the level of housing supply?

Dr Ellis: It is a completely open question. It depends on how you bring into play the new homes bonus, I guess, and how that plays out. I do not think we can be  at all clear that it will increase the level. Looking at the household projections—we are talking about trying to achieve 240,000 units a year—my concern is that many places want to build homes and reap the benefits of doing so, but I am not sure whether this mechanism deals with entrenched opposition. For me, the issue around housing growth is about education and culture change. It is an open question whether the Bill deals adequately with those issues.

Andrew Warner: I would agree with that.

Stephen Tapper: A quick comment: I think that communities are particularly supportive of growth when they see the infrastructure coming with it. It is about plans that bring growth to the local school, health facilities and new play facilities. If they see those things coming into place through a planning process, they are much more welcoming of that growth.

Q 234

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

May I ask Mr Warner to say a little more about the RICS briefing? Regarding housing, it highlighted concerns that measures in the Bill changing local authorities’ duties on homelessness

“coupled with the changes to housing benefit may increase levels of homelessness” and could

“lead to instability in the housing market and the private rented sector.”

Could you say a little more about those concerns?

Andrew Warner: It is a concern, and it has been a concern because there is an existing regime. If you are in fact cutting back on that and changing the system, we believe that that could well lead to instability—or whatever word you want to use—and there may well be increased levels of homelessness. It is a concern at the moment. One is crystal ball gazing to an extent, but it is something that we wanted to flag up. I do not think that we can go into any more detail at the moment, but it is something that we need to be aware of.

Q 235

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

But you must have some thoughts about how to avoid those problems.

Andrew Warner: Effectively, remaining as we are would be one, but it depends how strong a commitment Ministers have in terms of going down that route.

Q 236

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

So when you say “stay as we are”, does that mean to stay as we are in relation to local authority homelessness duties, or stay as we are in relation to housing benefit?

Andrew Warner: To stay as we are in terms of local authority duties.

Q 237

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

So not to introduce the changes that are proposed in the Bill.

Andrew Warner: Yes.

Q 238

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

My old ward included at least three urban villages, which were separated by fields 50 or 60 years ago. The easy way to have a fight, if you want one, is to go into any pub and try to get people to decide where one village finishes and the next starts. Dr Ellis mentioned the issue of “easy in rural areas; a bit more difficult in urban areas.” There is just that issue of the boundaries in the urban areas.

Dr Ellis: It is the greatest concern, because it is very difficult to see how the neighbourhood forum in urban areas passes the test of individuals being democratically accountable, or being placed under any requirement to disclose particular interests that might be driving their issues. That means that there is a particular danger that the process is open to abuse. It means that in rural areas, at least, there is a lower form of local government at work, and that seems like a sensible unit. In urban areas, I really think that has to change.

Planning suffers from a lack of legitimacy. The nightmare scenario is three people standing together as a neighbourhood forum in an urban area and taking on considerable powers. Looking at the detail of the schedules, I am conscious of two things: that local government, having once approved them, cannot dissolve them; and that as non-public bodies, none of the equalities duties would apply to them, the climate duty would not apply to them, and the sustainable development duty would not apply to them. All of that is applied retrospectively by checks that local government carries out at the end of the process. I very much hope that that is one of the key areas that we can work with Government to improve. As it stands, it will cause very significant conflict and not yield great results, in terms of legitimacy.

Stephen Tapper: That is why I think it is essential to see this process as a partnership between the planning authority and the neighbourhood, and to ensure that they are mutually supportive. In terms of the boundaries, we are looking at creating a neighbourhood forum for planning purposes that is partly based on a hard-pressed estate where there is a residents’ association and a real commonality, in terms of what the issues are, combined with some surrounding traditional streets where the church has a major part to play. That narrows the focus to quite a small area where we know there should be common interests, and I think that might work as a neighbourhood planning boundary.

Trudi Elliott: We think that this is an area in which work needs to be done, and that neighbourhood forums need to have duties to consult, which are not in the Bill, and to have regard to sustainable development. We think that it is always a problem if democratic legitimacy is not there, in terms of planning.

Andrew Warner: The local authority must be able to have the last word on what an area is. What you do not want is the gated community having its own neighbourhood forum, and the council block of flats next door being excluded from it. The local authority is going to have to say, “No, that is not a sensible planning unit. It should encompass that area.” Similarly, we have worries about the low level. Three people cannot be representative of the community.

Q 239

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

Earlier, Dr Ellis referred to the two principles historically at the heart of the planning system—the importance of fairness and effectiveness. On effectiveness, you have made it clear that we need to address in Committee the issue of the duty to co-operate, with particular regard to strategic planning. That point is well taken.

On the issue of fairness, however, it is important that any system works not just for the powerful, but for the powerless. You have identified significant issues of legitimacy and accountability. Indeed, Mr Tapper and Mr Warner, you made the point about the importance of elected  representatives being able to mediate between competing interests. Moreover, a crucial point was made earlier in relation to capacity—for example, there is Planning Aid and the build environment support that has, historically, been very important. Do you share the fear expressed by many that, unless those issues are addressed properly, the outcome in five and 10 years’ time will be a new system that institutionalises inequality?

Dr Ellis: I think that is a very significant risk. The planning system is already open and can be dominated by loud voices. It is a complicated system, and it is more than often dominated by those with the greatest resources. The absolute task that we have had in planning, which the planning community should have addressed—in all honesty, it has not properly done so—is the legitimacy of those voices not normally represented in it. I have seen, many times in my planning career, the outcome of that process, which is bad neighbourhood development focused in particular areas in which voices are quieter.

It is absolutely central—this is why I think there should be a purpose to planning under the Bill—that we enable a system that is fair and open to everyone. If we are interested in that, I think, as I hope I have said clearly, that the neighbourhood planning system represents a small part of that task. None of it is wrong, but we have to think about how lots of other communities—multiple communities in urban areas will want to have a voice in this system—can be represented. That in no way derails the objective of the Localism Bill—it actually, I think, meets that overarching test—but as the Bill is drafted, the real risk is that those communities with significant amounts of money to spend will develop fine-grain environmental policy—and good for them; that is great, but what will those other communities do? The ultimate test in my area is who wants the incinerator and who wants the landfill site. Ultimately, all those things have been focused—there are statistics to back this up—in particular areas of poverty. That is the task that we have to overcome in planning reform.

Trudi Elliott: What we have seen through Planning Aid is that all sorts of communities can do this, and do it very well, but they need support. We have a network of nearly 1,300 volunteers—qualified planners and lawyers—throughout the country who are giving that advice. It is absolutely critical at the introduction of a new system that that support and advice is there, whoever provides it. We hope that we will be providing at least some of it as we go forward. You cannot expect communities, no matter how passionate they are about what they want for their place, to do it without professional advice and support, and without capacity building in a wider sense. Moreover, the duty is on us to make the system simpler.

Andrew Warner: There is obviously going to be a need for a continuing role, not only for people like Planning Aid, but for local authorities. They have a duty to educate and assist, in terms of preparation and ideas. Again, it is all to do with greater involvement and this culture change.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Three colleagues still want to ask questions.

Q 240

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

Most of my question has been answered, but I want to press Mr Tapper a little further on co-operation between  local authorities. You said that you had various ideas for how that could work in practice. Obviously, clause 90 includes a duty for them to co-operate, but how would you like to see that taken further? How would you like it to be changed?

Stephen Tapper: Co-operation is a difficult form of behaviour to enforce, and I am not sure how one would do it. The Bill needs to be much clearer on what actions have to be done. That is why we have talked about a requirement to produce a strategic infrastructure assessment; councils would have to produce something between them that identifies the key cross-boundary issues, on infrastructure requirements, for example, which they would have to absorb into their core strategies and planning processes—in other words, an output that means they have to work together on policy, rather than simply exchanging ideas and information without it going anywhere.

Q 241

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

Could that be achieved through guidance?

Stephen Tapper: I think that authorities are looking for a regulation that states that the assessment has to be produced in a certain way.

Trudi Elliott: The question for us is: what would a neighbourhood do if it felt some of the things it required were greater than local, and its local authorities were not working with neighbouring authorities to do something about it? That is why we think the duty to co-operate has to go a bit further. There has to be a duty to consider preparing joint plans and assessing the needs.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I have to interrupt now, because we have three questions and four minutes left.

Q 242

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

Very briefly, in Committee, we will pursue the issue of the purpose of planning, and whether that should perhaps be in the Bill, but I want to come back to the interesting and legitimate point that Mr Warner just made about the duty of local authorities, in your words, to educate. Are you concerned about the Bill’s removal of the duty on authorities to promote democracy?

Andrew Warner: Again, it is to do with consultation. The local authority produces the plan, gives it to the community and then asks whether the community likes it. You then have a local plan inquiry. A culture change is embodied by, and inherent in, this Bill, and it is going to be difficult. Councils will have to let go. They will no longer be all-powerful. The culture change is that a local authority will now say, “Okay, let’s ask the locals what they want.” It used to be analysis in the old days, but now it is sort of—

Q 243

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

The Government are going in the opposite direction, are they not?

Andrew Warner: Yes, absolutely.

Q 244

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

Removing that obligation—the duty to promote democracy?

Andrew Warner: You start your planned process by asking locals what they want and do not want. Clearly, you then have to take a view—

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I have to interrupt. There are still two questions.

Q 245

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Given that you have already acknowledged that the plan-making process needs to be resourced, do you see that resource in the form of direct cash locally, or in the form of technical assistance? In that context, would Stephen Tapper acknowledge that there is nothing in the Bill that commits or encourages councils simply to write off everything that they have done, and that many existing LEPs, for example, might continue to appear, provided that there has been the right local engagement?

Stephen Tapper: Yes. We do not intend to abandon our programme, although our resources are more limited than they were. We have had to cut back and change the programme to fit within the new circumstances, but we believe that work is important. At this stage, neighbourhood planning is untested, and we are unable to say whether it will do the same job. I think it will do a different job, but hopefully it will do it well.

Q 246

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

Dr Ellis, you gave a very acute analysis of the failure of the current system to protect poorer and disadvantaged neighbourhoods from bad planning. Would you not acknowledge that having neighbourhood input—a neighbourhood veto, even—is a powerful tool to reverse that trend?

Dr Ellis: It is a powerful tool only if it is meaningful. The difficulty in testing the Bill is that, certainly in the community areas that I have worked with, we have to find direct resources and skills that we do not have at the moment. Community development skills will be the biggest issue for planners, but we need direct resources to help such communities disproportionately through the process. If the process were to go forward without proper resourcing, the fears that I have tried to express are very real.

Andrew Warner: I think you will have to ensure that the neighbourhoods are representative. I think that is going to be the biggest task.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Again, I thank our witnesses very much for the time that they have spent with us. Clearly, there were many other questions that colleagues would have liked to ask, but we have run out of time. Will the next set of witnesses kindly come forward, please?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 12:00 pm, 27th January 2011

I welcome our witnesses. We are one short this afternoon; Kate Ashbrook from Open Spaces Society was, unfortunately, not able to join us, but the organisation has submitted written evidence to the Committee. I say to witnesses who are not entirely familiar with these procedures that the Committee is in no sense antagonistic toward witnesses; we simply want to gather evidence. We hope that our witnesses will enjoy this session. I ask all our witnesses to introduce themselves one by one and make a brief opening statement, starting with Mr Findlay.

John Findlay: I am John Findlay, chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils, which represents the 9,000 town and parish councils in England and their councillors, of whom there are almost 100,000. Do you want a short statement as well?

John Findlay: My primary message today is that we very much welcome the Bill, or certainly its principles. There are some aspects of the mechanics that perhaps need a bit of fine tuning, but our general approach is one of very serious support for the principles behind it. It is fair to say that we have been banging on for years about the importance of restoring community engagement. It seemed to us, and to me in particular, that people locally very often feel a loss of the sense of ownership of what is going on in their communities, so we have been arguing for greater localism.

We are pleased that in recent years, the principles of localism have been agreed across all the parties. Everybody is in favour of localism. The big society is a welcome initiative by the present Government, and the Bill, of course, is the legislative process for it. We are delighted, I have to say, with the key new powers for our member councils: the general competence, particularly the powers on planning; the right to bid; the right to build, and so on.

Our councils cover most of England, but 35% of the population. What we hope—we are encouraged by the Government’s line on this—is that as communities are empowered, more of our councils will take place at local level. A final point is that our councils are, of course, very accountable, because they are directly and entirely funded by their communities. There is no Government support.

Sir Stuart Etherington: I am Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which is the principal umbrella for such organisations in England. We have 8,500 members, some of whom are other umbrella organisations, so our reach is greater than 8,500.

Like John, we welcome the general thrust of the Bill. We think it is helpful; we do not see it as a Bill just about transferring powers to local government, we see it as also being about the community’s engagement. That is our principal interest and focus.

There are three or four areas where we have an interest and are very supportive. The first relates to the right to challenge, which we think gives voluntary and community organisations opportunities to engage local government in a discussion about the best way of configuring services, and to provide some of those services themselves as community organisations. There are one or two areas of detail, which we may go into later, where we need to think about issues in relation to the right to challenge.

We also approve of asset transfer and think that it can be very useful. It needs a bit of a kick-start; asset transfer has been around for a while, but the Bill gives the opportunity to ensure that voluntary and community groups can become involved in that. They obviously need the skills and finances to do it—and, possibly, first refusal. We like the idea of local referendums, with one or two caveats in relation to the protection of minorities. The general power of competence is also something of which we approve.

In general, we approve of the main thrust of the Bill and its main components, as far as voluntary organisations are concerned. Like John, we have some points of detail that we would like clarified, particularly with regard to regulations.

Sir Stephen Bubb: I am head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, which is the charity and social enterprise leaders’ body. I think that the Bill could be historic, if it really does mark a decentralisation of power to local councils and, importantly, to local people, communities and third sector organisations. If that happens, this is an incredibly important Bill. That is why the right to challenge and the right to buy are so important. We strongly support those rights, and we hope that Ministers will resist the blandishments of local authorities that we should not have terribly enforceable guidelines and trust them. Although we work in partnership with local authorities, we also know that we will need those rights entrenched if community organisations and charities are to exercise their ability to deliver more cost-effective and citizen-focused services.

I want to see the guidelines drawn widely in terms of the services that we could challenge. There is a really interesting opportunity for you in those guidelines to look at partnership working between other parts of the statutory sector, such as the health service and Jobcentre Plus, which I know is something you are looking at. If it encourages national organisations to work with local organisations and private sector partnerships, that would be an excellent way forward.

With commissioning, which will be covered by the guidelines, we need to follow what I describe as the papal encyclical criteria on subsidiarity: that something is done at the most appropriate level. If you need to commission nationally or regionally, you should do so. Not everything can be commissioned locally. That brings me to a point about communities. People talk very lazily and romantically about communities, and often in terms of place and neighbourhood, but they forget that communities are also communities of interest, whether that is the Somali community in London, for example, or communities around the homeless, people with mental health problems or people with autism. Those are people we represent. Neighbourhoods are not always friendly places for them and there have to be clear protections. One of our roles is to support, defend and promote that cause.

I have two final points, the first of which is about the asset lock. We are very keen on the right to buy, but there has to be recognition that much of the local authority role of running parks, libraries and other facilities has come through charitable bequests, foundations and donations, or that those facilities are actually owned by charitable trusts and run by local authorities. I am afraid that there have been some cases of local authorities, for example, flogging off pictures to make money. In one particular case, a district council flogged off a house that belonged to a charitable trust. There is a temptation, given the significant cuts that they are all making, to look at libraries and parks that are there because people donated money and made philanthropic gifts. Having an asset lock so that they do not pass into the private sector is incredibly important. I am making that point, because some of our members are disturbed about what is happening with the Forestry Commission, and I do not want to see that happening here.

Finally—although this is not a matter for the Bill—our concern around what is happening on local authority expenditure means that we will have to look at localism  with some concern, if it means that local authorities are not prepared to work in partnership with the third sector.

Neil Cleeveley: I am Neil Cleeveley, director of policy and communications at the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action. Our 400 or so members work with local voluntary and community organisations, offering them support and development services. Quite often, we are the arbiter of and mediator in the relationship between the local voluntary sector, and local authorities and other public bodies. Our members are therefore in touch with a lot of grass-roots organisations. I can join my colleagues in saying that we warmly welcome the Localism Bill.

One of the opportunities for the Bill is the development of the relationship between local elected members and their communities. One of the problems of the past has been councillors tending to get stuck in the town hall. There have been various attempts to try and change that, and this presents a real opportunity to elicit some real change in that relationship.

One of our concerns with the right to challenge, which we really do welcome, is how it actually plays out. Stephen touched on the commissioning issue, and we would agree that you need to find an appropriate level at which a service needs to be delivered, which will quite often be the local level. What concerns us is that whatever level you choose, it should not be to the detriment of the local community, and the local voluntary and community action that is already going on. We would be very keen to explore ways in which, if we are looking at national providers from any sector, they would be encouraged to work with local communities and local community organisations for the benefit of those local communities. Associated with that, we have to think clearly about how we can ensure greater equality of access to the discussion about how services might be reconfigured for the benefit of local communities. There are a lot of articulate people out there who know how to get in touch with their local council and how to make the case for their particular community. One of our concerns, however, is how we ensure that those who feel a little less confident about challenging public officials also have access to that kind of discussion.

My final point on the right to challenge is that it has to achieve both value for money—we accept that, particularly in these hard times—and a wider social benefit. In other words, what are we doing to encourage preventive early intervention services that actually have a much wider benefit to the community and also to the taxpayer, in terms of reducing expenditure on acute services?

My final point is that we also strongly support the right to buy. We are really interested in notions of transferring more community assets to the local community. There are, however, some real challenges around that, and particularly with the community’s capacity to take on what we think is the scale of assets that many public bodies are trying to get rid of at the moment, because of the financial constraints that they face.

Q 247

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

May I pick up some of the points that were just made? In some ways, this continues the discussion that we had with our previous set of witnesses. There is an issue about community rights needing to benefit local communities and not being  used to their detriment. There is even discussion that the Bill must aim to reduce inequality, which is not stated. There is a particular concern about disadvantaged communities’ access to powers, which we discussed on planning, but is also important in terms of community empowerment. Could we touch on those things? You emphasised the importance of access to advice and guidance, but the context is that local authorities, which might be looked to for its provision, are facing cuts of 27% over the next four years, so will they have the resources? Where will it come from?

Finally, on community empowerment and enthusiasm for the right to bid on local services, how do we ensure that social value is delivered, as well as value for money? Do you have any thoughts about how that can be done?

Neil Cleeveley: On the point about engaging the most vulnerable groups in the discussion about the right to challenge and enabling them to influence services, local authorities certainly have to work harder. I do not think that that necessarily costs more money, but they have to work a lot harder with community organisations and to encourage organisations such as our members to feel able to put forward the concerns of the most vulnerable and under-represented groups in the community. Local authorities must ensure that they question why they are not hearing those voices. It is not necessarily a case of spending lots of money. This goes back to local councillors, who have a role in questioning why the voices of the most vulnerable members of the community—older people, the young and excluded, and minority communities—are not heard when decisions are being considered. Councillors should know that those communities are out there, as they will be in any particular local authority area. Councillors have the role of questioning that situation.

Q 248

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

May I come back to you on that? Authorities have announced that they are shedding as much as a fifth of their staff. You have great expertise in community development, so do you think that when 20% of the work force has been shed, councils will necessarily have the expertise in community development that your organisations have? I doubt it. If you had to look at which jobs to keep, would you protect that resource? It has to be there in planning and community empowerment.

Sir Stephen Bubb: I am not sure that I agree with that. I would say there is an important partnership role between local councils and a growing third sector, but I very much doubt whether the staff have to be in local councils. Representing disadvantaged communities is one of our sector’s historical roles. If local authorities are thinking about how they support community organisations, it does not mean that community development workers have to be sitting in a town hall.

How some of the cuts are being implemented is disadvantageous to our organisations but, overall, local authorities do not think enough about how they use third sector organisations in the delivery of their services. Third sector organisations can deliver services more cost-effectively, and often in a way that is closer to citizens and communities. Mental health charities and those working with the old and the young are often far better at delivering services. If councils thought about their strategic role, rather than that they have to employ staff to perform tasks, we could make real progress.

John Findlay: May I agree with that? It always seems to me that in the formal public service of local government, you need strategic functions and very local community functions. What is happening at the moment across the board with this Bill and the other measures around it will enable that to happen a lot more. What is happening is the liberation of communities to deliver in the best possible way locally. That might be through formal structures—town and parish councils can provide statutory and volunteering support—but there are also loads of people in the community. It is about voluntary organisations, but it is also about engaging people from within the community. There is a huge wealth of talent in communities. If you are lucky enough to have an area where people can come together, it can work very well. It needs a great deal more liberation to bring those people out and to help to deliver such functions, and that is the framework we need to be using when looking at this.

Neil Cleeveley: However, that tends to require a network of voluntary and community organisations to support people to come together and to provide a forum for that. The real challenge will be in places where the voluntary and community sector is weak and fragile, and that is where the most vulnerable communities will find it much more difficult to find a voice.

Q 249

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth

One of my Opposition colleagues raised what I would call an interesting argument with the previous panel around a duty of democracy for local authorities and how, effectively, that could be eroded with where we are going. I was going to put this question to Mr Findlay, but after what has just been said, the other witnesses might wish to comment.

There are two points: first, from my experience as a councillor over 10 or 11 years, “democracy” is an interesting word to use in the current system. I remember that planning applications were approved although we did not want to approve them—we had to, because we knew that otherwise we would lose on appeal. Other decisions were made but then lost on appeal, so democracy did not have too much of a say in terms of community views. With the new ideas moving forward on local councils, predetermination changes, neighbourhood plans, and community involvement, would you say that democracy, in that sense, and community involvement in it will be improved?

From that comes my second question, which is to any member of the panel, about community involvement: would you agree with some evidence we heard on Tuesday that with the community being more involved and feeling more part of the process, we might get more homes built—there has been very poor housing build over the past 10 years—and better planning results?

John Findlay: Yes, absolutely. Planning is a huge issue in every community for all sorts of reasons—good and bad—and it really possesses people. Historically, and even today, if you talk about a local planning decision to the man or woman on the street, or in the local pub or shop, they feel strongly that they do not have any control, and that the decision is taken by somebody else—it might be at a district council level or, in the past, at a regional level, or even at a national level. Often, the community has a strong sense that somebody else makes the decisions. With the right checks and balances to make sure that we do not have any crazy things going on—and it looks to me that those checks  and balances are in the Bill—I think that devolving the powers will restore people’s sense of ownership about where the new housing estate or the new Tesco will be.

Particularly on your second point, because that power has been devolved, it will reinvigorate the institutions of that community, whether that is the formal parish council or town council, civic society, or whatever it may be. It will trigger people to get more involved because the power is there, so we are very positive. If you give people power, they become more active.

Q 250

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth

As a result, and with the incentive of the new homes bonus and so on, do you feel that your members could be looking at an improvement in house building levels?

John Findlay: Yes. Housing development is a typical issue to help to explain this. People hated it when they were told by an anonymous body further up the system, as they saw it, that 5,000 houses were suddenly going to be built in their bit of wherever. I have strongly believed for a long time that if you actually say to communities, “Look, you need a bit more housing for economic regeneration,” or, “You need a bit more social housing for people in the area who perhaps cannot afford it and so are moving out, which is driving the local economy down,” people understand that locally. You get a bit of nimbyism sometimes but, in my experience, people understand. If they have control over that decision and they can say, “Okay, we will build five or 10 houses in this small village,” or if they have the same sort of operation in an urban neighbourhood—especially if there is some reward for the community—they will do it, and they will do it much more happily, because it is their decision.

Sir Stuart Etherington: Just picking up on that, there is clearly a relationship between what might be termed “representative democracy” and “participant democracy.” Our organisations tend to be on the participative side. Plenty of evidence shows that public policy decision making is enriched by the engagement of representatives such as yourselves, elected councillors, or organisations that may be closer to the issues and intimately involved in local communities. I think it improves that relationship. How you engage in those discussions, including around housing, is important, because some mechanisms can be quite crude. The referendums are built into this. The referendum is a useful tool, but it raises the issue that minority groups might be discriminated against because of the outcome. Referendums have their place, but people have been most successful in engaging with decision making where more deliberative mechanisms have been developed. I am a great fan of participative budgeting, in which community groups and local citizens are involved in mechanisms that allow them to deliberate and understand how priorities are made. It is important, as civil society organisations and citizens’ groups are involved in this, that they have the opportunity to deliberate with public policy makers. That will be quite crucial in improving the quality of the decisions that are made.

Q 251

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

May I ask John Findlay about the NALC submission and specifically the issue of standards? You have highlighted some concerns, and we have had submissions from some of your members—in particular the Hampshire association, which has expressed  those concerns very forcefully indeed—about the negative consequence of the absence of a requirement to have a code of conduct. Would you like to say a bit about that?

John Findlay: It is a difficult question for us, I have to say. We are, of course, very committed to the highest possible standards in local government, including in our own councils. When the code was first introduced, there was a lot of press coverage to say that there was outrage in the parish councils about these absurd new rules. That was not really quite true; there was some outrage, but it was not as great as that. Most of our councils welcomed the idea that they were subject to a code, but it was more on the basis that at least it was the same that the principal authorities—the counties, districts and boroughs—were treated to.

We are actually having a debate at the moment, so I cannot give you a firm position, but we have two alternatives. Given that the code is going and Standards for England has gone, one alternative is to go down the road of a voluntary national code, so we would in some way devise a national code and make it available to our member councils to adopt if they wish. The other alternative is to go for the radical approach by saying that the principles can remain the same and our councillors must abide by those principles—declarations of interest; and you must not be corrupt and you will be reported to the police if you are—and leave that to open discussion. We are having a debate with our members at the moment over whether they want a national voluntary code or whether we leave it so that there is no national voluntary code.

The problem here is that every council will make up its own mind. The choices that are available here do not seem quite right to us, because the options are: have no code at all; have some voluntary code that we have written for them; keep the old code—the Standards Board code—or write their very own local code. It is a bit of a mess, to be quite honest, and it needs clearing up. I cannot give you a formal policy position from NALC at this stage, because we are still discussing it, but it needs to be resolved.

Q 252

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

Mr Findlay, you said at the beginning that you broadly supported the idea of a general power of competence—I think Sir Stuart said that as well. What additional things do you think your members will be able to do with this general power of competence?

John Findlay: We had this a little bit already with the power of well-being, but the power of general competence will do it to a much greater extent. It will remove the culture, if you like, in some of our councils where they are so restricted in their powers—or they think that they are—that every time they want to do something innovative or entrepreneurial, they have to check the law to see whether they can. It has got better with the power of well-being, which a few of them enjoy at the moment, but it will be much better with the power of general competence.

The classic case is that the council, whether it is a town council or a small rural community, wants to build a small business park. Perhaps a village wants to build a four-unit business park. Under present arrangements, it does not really have the power to do that. With the power of general competence, it can set up the company to develop and deliver it. There are  other things, such as donations to schools and local meals on wheels. It is crazy that communities cannot make those payments because they have restricted powers at the moment. We are very pleased with the power of general competence; we have been pressing for it for a long time. The big issue, which may be addressed by regulation rather than being in the Bill, is which councils have the power of general competence.

At the moment, I think it is proposed that there will be a fairly simple threshold about democratic accountability that a council would have to meet to exercise the power of general competence. If the Government want a threshold, we will run with that. Our view is that it would be right and radical to give the power of general competence to all town and parish councils. One of your leading colleagues said to me the other day, “If they mess up, they mess up, and they will pay the price, electorally or whatever.” It is important for our sector to say that if there is to be a power of general competence, it should be made generally available, as it is for all other local authorities.

Q 253

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

I shall start by addressing this question to Mr Findlay, but comments from any of the witnesses are welcome. I am surprised by how definitive you have been. You said that this Bill “will” liberate communities, that they “will” engage, that the Bill “will” restore a sense of ownership and that if you give people power, they “will” do it. Is there not a risk that if you give people power, they will not do it—in terms of frustrating initiative for the vulnerable, which has already been referred to. Secondly, how do you address the concerns expressed to us, in a substantial body of evidence, that the Bill as it stands runs the risk of giving more power to the powerful at the expense of the powerless?

John Findlay: Maybe I should have been a little more moderate in my wording.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

Maybe you should have been.

John Findlay: Perhaps I should preface the word “will” with “we hope”. My judgment is that if the Bill goes through Parliament and is implemented in the right way—the devil is in the detail, I agree—through regulation and direction from the Government, and the participation of people at local level and principal authorities, it will deliver the sort of changes we want to see. I am sure that everybody round this table wants to see those changes. It is better to have the Bill providing the framework within which that can happen than not have the Bill. There is always a danger when you push things down to the local level that particular groups in a community with a single issue can drive local control. In my experience, with our councils, the more active they have become, the greater the direct local control. Instead of a decision being made somewhere else, the local community can decide, and that seems very important.

Q 254

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

You referred earlier to the planning system. An affluent community can afford a barrister; for a deprived community, support and capacity is key. What is your view on that?

John Findlay: There will always be that problem.

John Findlay: It is true of all of the governmental structures we have in the country at the moment.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

If you do not address it, the outcome is inequality. Previous evidence given to us was clear: if these issues are not addressed, we run the risk of institutionalising inequality. How do you address that?

John Findlay: I have always thought that the solution to inequality is involving communities and giving people more power. Putting things down to local level creates more power. I appreciate the point you are making, but I think those problems exist already. Within our local government structures at present, there are very affluent areas where it is not only the council that is better off; in particular, the community is better off, too. They exert perhaps greater power than other communities, and I do not see how resisting the shift to localism is, in some way, increasing that inequality.

Sir Stuart Etherington: The capacity-building issue is important, and I will give you an example. This was not a challenge issue; it was an asset issue. Earlier this month, I visited a project in Redruth, which is in a very deprived area of west Cornwall with very high levels of unemployment. There, you have a hub for community organisations to come together. It was not transferred from local government, but local government was heavily involved. There was a fantastic voluntary sector leader, who had engaged with her local community and identified the need for this resource. There were two important things, however. One was that somebody had the capacity and the skills to make it happen and to engage deprived communities, and the second was that it was funded.

On the asset issue, it is important that we build the leadership of community and voluntary organisations, which is why the work of Stephen’s organisation is so desperately important, but the project was ultimately funded because Cornwall is still an objective 1 area, and European regional development fund money was made available. I commend that project to anybody on the Committee. Go and have a look at what a local community can do when it has the skilled resource and the finances available. There is some fantastic stuff going on. It does, however, need a level of capacity building locally.

More deprived communities tend to have greater capacity-building needs, simply because they do not have the intrinsic density of charities and voluntary organisations that other communities have. I remember, way back, when there were a lot of deprived mining communities after the mines closed, and there was no capacity in those communities to draw in resources from elsewhere, because British Coal had provided all the services. The then National Lottery Charities Board spent quite a lot of time building capacity in those areas, so that they could make lottery bids. You need, therefore, to have something in place that encourages people to engage. These powers are great, and we very strongly approve of them, but alongside them, you have to have the capacity in communities, particularly deprived communities, to make adequate use of the powers that are being made available.

Q 255

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

To liberate a community, to use Mr Findlay’s words, capacity and funding are key.

Sir Stuart Etherington: I think they are, but that does not remove the need for these powers to exist; they are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

Q 256

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Do you think that authorities really know the extent of the community work going on in their areas? The reason I ask is that you cannot engage unless you know. In my former local authority, where I was a councillor, we carried out an exercise and discovered that the value of the local voluntary work in one town was some £27 million a year, if I remember that correctly, at a time when 1% on council tax was £700,000, and it is true to say that everyone who was involved in that exercise was amazed.

I wonder whether we need to encourage authorities to understand what is happening out there, in terms of the groups providing support for mental health, youth provision, support for the elderly, or caring services, so that we can begin to connect in a way that I know you and I would like to see, in order to release that energy and support it.

Sir Stephen Bubb: Yes.

Sir Stephen Bubb: It is a very fair point, but there is an onus on us to do some of that. You are right; local authorities are not as aware of the strength, role and extent of the centre. They often relate to local organisations only, and forget the work of national organisations and the wide range of national charities that could be working locally. We need to do a bit of that, and I suspect that one of the effects of the Bill, in the way that it is driving powers down, will be that many organisations start thinking about how they engage with local authorities. It is a two-way thing, and we have to accept our part in doing it.

Q 257

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

My second question is: is risk wrong? Looking at it, enterprise almost inevitably involves some degree of risk, but the potential for success makes it worth it. Do you agree?

Sir Stuart Etherington: Risk is not wrong. Charities are constantly plagued by auditors telling them to reduce the level of risk, but I never think that risk is wrong. The purpose of risk analysis is to understand the risk, not necessarily to try to negate it. Perhaps we have become too risk-averse in the United Kingdom and, actually, we need to take a few more risks. I think—this is important—it is incumbent on organisations, whether they are community organisations or local authorities, to have a realistic understanding of the risks that they face, so that they know what they are facing, rather than saying, “We must try to drive out any element of risk.” You have to take a few more risks.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Three questions and five minutes left.

Q 258

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Mr Findlay, I have a question on the duty to co-operate. Say there was a tightly drawn urban area surrounded by parish councils and, with a need for additional housing, the tightly drawn urban area needs to overspill. Do you think that, under these proposals, the duty to co-operate would enable that overspill to happen more easily, or do you think there would still be problems? Is it strong enough?

John Findlay: That is a good point. Just because you move to a more localist agenda, it does not mean that you take all the decisions on a separate, local, nimby-ish basis. We now have lots of experience, especially in  areas where district councils have disappeared, of situations where a town council is surrounded by a number of parishes. For an awful lot of service delivery—but also, I suspect, on these sorts of planning-with-a-small-“p” issues—you could get those communities coming together, albeit on a voluntary basis, to say, “How will we address this problem? There is this housing demand”, or whatever it is, “and we can’t deliver it all in the town; we want some of it to be in the surrounding areas. Let’s sit down together.” I really do feel that if you give communities that power, they become more responsible.

That is all quite radical stuff. It is curious, but in this country we have always taken the view that you need a strategic overview to make such decisions. You certainly do need a strategic overview at national level and regional or county level, or something like that, but when it comes down to specific housing provision within a town and its surrounding area, an awful lot more can be done to allow the communities to work out how best to do it. We have not tried it before, really—there have been a couple of pilots—but it may prove to be a better system than what we have at present.

Q 259

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Your members have had a lot of experience in putting together parish plans, which are sort of precursors to this. I cannot recall a single one that has employed a barrister. Is that your view?

John Findlay: That is probably right. Barristers may have been involved in drawing them up, but only because they were local residents.

Q 260

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

But they have not gone out to employ one?

John Findlay: No.

Q 261

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Is it your view, then, that communities producing neighbourhood plans, which is the next stage up, will also not go out and employ a barrister?

John Findlay: An anonymous colleague has just said words to the effect of, “I hope not,” although his words were slightly stronger.

The great thing about parish plans is that parish councils set them up, but handed them to the wider community to get on with. The community pitched in, and there are—I forget the figures—some 3,000 parish plans covering some 5,000 communities, or something like that. They have been a huge success, because the community felt involved and was able to come up with not only planning for the future, but what their neighbourhood or their community would look like in the future.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I am sorry, but I have to cut you off. We are in the final minute, and this question has to go to a Minister.

Q 262

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

Community assets are a completely new concept, and you seem to welcome them. We are getting quite a lot of push-back from others who think that the concept is unworkable or unfair, or whatever. Could you briefly say what you see as being the benefits of the idea, and the opportunities that it opens up?

John Findlay: Community assets are extremely welcome. It is crucial for communities to be able to identify the key things in their community—the garage, the shop, the pub, open space and so on—and therefore make  public any process of disposal of the building or space. It enables them to make a bid. It does not give them a power to buy, but it does give them a power to intervene and make a bid. That is crucial and welcome.

Sir Stephen Bubb: I think it can open up enterprise and innovation in a way that sometimes does not happen in state institutions. There have been community asset transfers, and one example is the Alt valley community enterprise, which has been supported through large investment. It is a very deprived community, and has grown the assets it bought—a farm, a church, a row of shops and an old people’s home. It is now a really substantial, enterprising and innovative organisation with a turnover of around £7 million—in Croxteth! It is great.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

On behalf of the Committee, I would like to thank our witnesses very much for the time they have spent with us this afternoon and the evidence they provided. Thank you very much indeed.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 2:47 pm, 27th January 2011

Colleagues, we now come to our final session this afternoon. It must end at a quarter to four—[ Interruption. ] Sorry, it must end at 3.30 pm; I was scaring our Ministers by suggesting that there would be an extra 15 minutes. Will they please introduce themselves, explain their duties and, perhaps, make a brief remark on the Bill, starting with Mr Clark?

Greg Clark: I am Greg Clark, Minister of State at the Department, responsible for decentralisation. I must say, things look very different from this end of the table. We have learned a lot from the evidence sessions, and it is clear that whatever we think of the Bill, it will be historic. It will lead to lots of things being done very differently from how they have been done in the past. My view—you would expect me to say this—is that this is a major constitutional change that not only shifts power to local government, although it does that in spades, but puts a requirement on local government to transfer some of their powers to communities. It is a constitutional Bill. I congratulate Members on being on the Bill Committee, because there was huge competition to be on it, on both sides, I hope—almost more than there was to be selected as a parliamentary candidate in some constituencies. They are the lucky ones. I am sure my colleagues can introduce themselves.

Robert Neill: I am Bob Neill, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department, and I have responsibility for fire services, local government finance and other related local government matters. I support Greg Clark on planning and also deal with issues around the Thames Gateway and the Olympics, and I look after the London aspects of the Bill. Now I understand why, when I was a young barrister, my pupil master said, “Never become a witness.”

Andrew Stunell: I am Andrew Stunell, one of the Under-Secretaries of State at the Department. I am a very strong supporter of the devolutionary principles behind the Bill, and I am very pleased to serve as one of the Ministers. I will be leading on housing and homes, and on local authority governance.

Q 263

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I guess this is directed at Greg Clark. We have heard very strong concerns expressed in some of the evidence sessions this week about possible  negative impacts of the Bill. Perhaps it is not surprising that the third sector and local council witnesses in the last session were more positive overall, because the Bill very much fits into their area.

We have heard concerns about the community empowerment measures and whether they will mainly benefit people who are powerful enough. Many concerns have come out about planning—not only in the planning sessions but in many others—and particularly about the lack of links between this very new system of neighbourhood planning and national planning, and about the need for strategic planning. We have also heard concerns about changes to social housing tenure. Those concerns remain very real because of the impact that they could have in increasing homelessness and reducing aspiration. We also understand that the head of the civil service called for a review on the possible impact of the Bill on democratic accountability. Some of our witnesses also talked about democratic accountability, and questioned the notion that a neighbourhood forum of three who were given powers and resources could ever be considered representative.

I have a strong impression that this Bill was not ready. Parts of it have had very little consultation. In fact, I think that the community empowerment section has not had any scrutiny whatever; that was admitted in the note from the Department. To start with, as we have to spend our time on this for the next five weeks, I want to ask whether the Bill was not ready, and whether perhaps there has been a rush to get it out there. Is that why there are 126 order-making powers for the Secretary of State? I think there is still very real alarm, which will be expressed over the next few weeks, about all of that, because those details could and should have been put in the Bill. Was it not ready, or is it really the centralism Bill, as one of our witnesses called it on Tuesday?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Ministers, before you respond, you should be aware that every member of the Committee appears to want to ask you a question. As politicians are engaging with politicians, I am slightly concerned about the time. I would ask colleagues to bear that in mind.

Greg Clark: Let me address as much as I can of Barbara’s question. If I do not cover it all, she can follow it up with further questions to my colleagues. I think there is a degree of agreement, not only among the different witnesses we have seen but, leaving party labels aside, among members of the Committee, that aspects of the present system are not working.

To take planning, we heard in the property section from Liz Peace and Adrian Penfold the suggestion that the problem with the present system is that there is not enough incentive for people to accept development and there is not enough community involvement, so it needs change. We heard from the witnesses we have just interviewed that when it comes to the rights of community groups against councils that may not be as progressive as others, this is not quite right. The system is broken and there is a recognition that this is an historic opportunity to change it.

Of course, whenever you change anything, the very act of change will make some people, especially those of a cautious disposition, concerned about how they will re-educate themselves and change their practice. We have seen a bit of that, and between now and the provisions taking effect it is important for us all to  communicate what will be required of people and get them to build that up. I think that that is perfectly reasonable.

In terms of timing, it is a Bill—as you heard from some of the witnesses we have just seen, especially the representative from NALC, it would be wrong in some ways for us to claim the credit for it—that has been campaigned for by community groups and by local government, if you take the general power of competence, for many years. Both as a Government and as a Committee we are the midwives of a policy that has been battled for, argued for and campaigned for, frankly, for more than a generation. It is absolutely right to put this at the beginning of a new legislative Session. If it were later in the Parliament you could produce a draft Bill and do all the other consultation procedures.

Q 264

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

If I can push you, Minister, you are not answering my question.

Greg Clark: Let me try, Barbara, and I will come back if not. If it were later in the Session, you could go through the conventional process of publishing a draft Bill. However, the judgment we made—given that this was prominent in both parties’ policy documents in Opposition, it was in both manifestos, it was in the coalition agreement and is a central part of the Government’s agenda—was that it is right to get on with it.

Q 265

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

But there is a risk. I know you have a very optimistic view, which I can understand. However, in many of the sessions we have had this week, very negative concerns have been expressed about bringing chaos to the planning system, and getting to situation where we are not building the homes that we want and causing levels of homelessness. The difficult environment in communities and local government means that there are not the resources to do the necessary things. There are themes that have come across again and again in all the sessions. I had the impression sometimes that they were surprisingly negative and very strongly expressed by witnesses. We have just had the most positive session this week, but I hope you have heard some of the others. If there amendments from our side are not accepted or are not introduced by yours, there are problems, particularly with the planning and housing sections of the Bill.

Greg Clark: Among the witnesses, perhaps the professors were the exceptions—with municipalism riding again there—though it was good to hear from them and I mean no disrespect. However, everyone accepted the principle of change and reform and the fact that we need to empower people who are disempowered. When it comes to the deliberations of the Committee, it is perfectly reasonable to discuss aspects, whether in guidance or by amendments that strengthen, for example, the duty to co-operate, if different organisations think there should be different examples.

As a politician, my colleagues and I—and I think this should be the demeanour of the Committee—look to give the greatest effect to the aspirations that we all have. I do not think that any of us approach this in a partisan spirit; we really want to make the best of it.

Robert Neill: Perhaps I might add two short things, Barbara. First, a lot of the areas where people raise issues about uncertainty relate to the planning policy. It  is worth remembering, as we all do, that historically that has been the case since 1948. A huge amount of planning policy in this country is not in primary legislation, but in guidance or secondary legislation. The coalition agreement made it clear that at the same time as we were bringing in a Bill to deal with the primary legislation, we were going to set forward reforms that we have been talking about in the context of the national planning policy framework.

Therefore, there has been a tendency for some witnesses to think that the primary legislation is the whole picture—and, of course, it is not. You will know from your experience, Barbara, that we have had previous planning Bills—I served on the 2008 Bill Committee and was aware of what happened in the local democracy Bill. There were lots of Government amendments. My judgment is that this Bill is in a good state of readiness.

Q 266

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

That is entirely my point. The reason for the order-making powers is because there has not been enough scrutiny or consultation. Before I came here I was told that consultation was promised that never happened. Any Bill is poorer for that. There is no reason I can see to rush this Bill. If you are trying to make a profound cultural change, you need it to be accepted and not bridled at in almost every session, apart from the last one.

Greg Clark: I did not—

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

A third of our time has already gone and colleagues will be cross if they do not all get a question. We have had a Second Reading and we are going to have Committee stage and Report. So, please speed things up a little bit.

Q 267

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

On the point about the duty to co-operate and some of the issues that came out in the discussions about strategic planning, to execute that part of the Bill, what role can you, as a ministerial team, and the Department play in facilitating that kind of collaboration at a local authority level, rather than loading more duties on to local government?

Greg Clark: I think that that increasingly happens. Barbara, in the Greater Manchester area, will know that the local authorities there have a good record of co-operation. The LEPs are another example of that. The duty to co-operate is very important and it is absolutely right to recognise, as I think came out during the evidence, that the Bill does not actually provide for what some people perhaps thought it would, which is that neighbourhoods would have unfettered, unchecked determination of everything to do with planning. That is in the context of a planning system where the larger-than-local is dealt with at a larger-than-local level—and that is true not only of neighbourhoods to their local authority, but of local authorities. It is very important to emphasise the importance of that degree of co-operation, which is one of the Bill’s crucial aspects.

Q 268

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

I would like to ask the Ministers a question about the evidence base for the housing and planning part of the Bill, and I will pass round and refer to copies of your Department’s housing and planning statistics.

I want to ask whether you accept that those statistics are an accurate picture of housing output during the period leading up to the recession. In particular, I refer to table 1.2, which states the net addition to the dwelling stock over the period from 2000-01 to last year. Do the figures indicate that, in the period from 2001-02, up until the advent of the recession—in other words, 2007-08—there was a continuous increasing trend, with about a 10,000 to 15,000 increase each year in the net addition to the housing stock? By 2007-08, which was the end of that trend, was the figure of 207,000 additions to the housing stock that year not the largest for almost 20 years? How do you reconcile that with your claim that the previous system was incapable of generating enough new housing?

Greg Clark: All I say is that if you take the figures back beyond 2000—back to the second world war—you will know, as an experienced Minister, that we should not be remotely content with what has happened in house building during the past decade. If the height of our ambition is to get back to the miserable levels of four or five years ago, compared with the contribution that we need to make actually to provide homes for people that they want to live in and that regenerate communities, that ambition is lower than my colleagues and I have.

Q 269

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

The figures go back only to 1992, because this particular series only began from that date. However, over that period, the 207,000 additions in 2007-08 were the largest figure ever achieved in that time. I do not regard that as miserable. It is a lot more than is being delivered now and, bearing in mind what was said the day before yesterday by Taylor Wimpey and others, could you tell us when you expect housing output under your proposals to get back to the miserable levels that applied under the previous Government?

Greg Clark: Nick, we can joust about this, but—

Q 270

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

I am not jousting; these are serious questions.

Greg Clark: I hope that everyone round this table would want to get back to the levels of home building that we had in the decades before this century, and not to regard that as the height of our ambition. It would be very easy to come in and only note the fact that the companies and people involved in the commercial sector regard the deficiencies of the planning system as one of the principal barriers to growth. It would be easy to hear that, ignore it and do nothing about it. It would be easy to do as I think you are suggesting and only look back at 2007 or 2006 and regard that as our ambition.

What we have done, and what we were determined to do in government, is to think seriously about the problems of the planning system. As soon as you start to do that, two things surge into prominence. The first is that it is hardly surprising that communities are resistant to development and use the mechanisms that they have to frustrate development, if they do not share at all in the benefits of that—

Greg Clark: Let me finish my point, Nick—if they do not share at all in the benefits of that development, despite the fact that they need new roads, schools and they need new facilities with it.

The second thing is instinctive, certainly to our Members, and I do not want to be partisan about this because I think it is shared across the House. We know that if people are done to, rather than participating in what is done, again, they will put up their defences. That is what you were told by, I think, the chief executive of British Land. I think that is common ground, so the two principal reforms in planning that we are introducing are fundamental and serious reforms to allow people to shape their places and to participate in the benefits. These are serious reforms, rather than tinkering measures. That is what the Bill is about.

Q 271

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

Your Department’s figures show two things. First, before the 2007-08 recession, there was a significant upward trend in housing output, which reached its highest level for almost 20 years. That is absolutely clear and incontrovertible, and I hope that you will not try to deny it.

Secondly, on Tuesday, we heard from Mr Redfern, from the largest house builder in the country, that on his best estimate, given the changes that you are proposing, which would destabilise the planning system, it will be seven to eight years before there is a return to figures such as those produced in 2007-08. Is that satisfactory? It means that for the entire duration of this Parliament and this Government, there will be lower housing output than under the previous Government.

Greg Clark: I am sorry, but I do not regard it as significant, although you might regard that small uptick as significant. Again, the Government’s ambition is beyond that: we want to have a permanent increase in house building. Of course you need to get used to change, but we are talking narrowly about the planning changes. We have the reforms to the new homes bonus and to the community infrastructure levy, and we have the new national planning policy framework, all of which are about growth. The test for all of those policies is their contribution to sustainable growth, which is the filter through which they have been chosen.

Andrew Stunell: I want to draw attention to the fact that that figure came at a time of an unsustainable house price bubble, which was driving the market, and a macro-economic situation that was just about to pop, too. The Bill is not capable of reversing those two effects. That is part of the Government’s wider policy on financial stability and reform. The Bill is about ensuring that where development is possible we get the buy-in of local communities, so that it matches the wishes and needs of local communities. That is the crucial element of the Bill; the macro-economic issue is not being tackled with this legislation.

Q 272

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth

One of the things that we have heard from a number of witnesses both on Tuesday and today is an excited and positive reaction to the decentralisation and the empowerment, whether it is for local councils through the increase in determination, councils themselves through the power of competence or communities on the planning side. Is one of the benefits of the Bill that, not only will there be more community involvement in housing, but communities and people will feel more involved in the whole process, across all areas? We might improve democracy by improving turnout at elections, because councils are more empowered to do what people think they are elected to do, and,  equally, through that empowerment and democracy we could actually see better equality, and we could improve equality through communities and people involved in the entire process of local government.

Andrew Stunell: I am sure that is right. There is no doubt that if you want a strong input from people, you need to give them the opportunities to believe that their vote matters. Every member of the Committee has stood on doorsteps on which the voter, or at least the elector, tells you it is not worth it, it does not make a difference and so on. If it does make a difference, if you are voting on your neighbourhood plan, which will affect your community for the next generation, you will be much more engaged with what it says and what it is about. I dare say again that most members of the Committee probably got involved in politics when they were stirred up by an issue. That is how you get into it. Bringing those decisions back locally and making those votes matter at local level will be a powerful recruiting sergeant for the political and democratic process.

Robert Neill: Andrew is absolutely right about community capacity building, but it also does one other thing. Some of the business representatives gave evidence about the importance of engaging business. In a small way, we make a start on that with the revisions to business rates, particularly the power to give a discount on business rates. If you link that to our broader reforms of local government resources and finance, we are creating an incentive once more for local authorities to engage more systematically with their business communities, and, in the long term, to have a stake in them, by discounting the business rate to make themselves attractive when drawing businesses to the area, for example. That is important for getting the balance between the business community, the broader community and the local authority.

Q 273

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

I wanted to comment on what you said there, Bob Neill, because the business community was less than lukewarm on the changes to business rates this morning.

However, I want to return to house building, because as we know, the lack of homes for people in this country is an issue. A lot of evidence that we have heard, both here and in the Chamber, is that homelessness is going to get worse through some of these changes. On Tuesday, when the house builders said that it was going to be seven or eight years before we returned to 2007 levels of building, they also all said that they were very concerned about the transitional planning arrangements between the system that we have now and the system moving forward. They thought that the proposals would make house building slower, and that it would take a year or two longer to get back to 2007 levels than if we remained with the current system. What do the Ministers think about that aspect of the transitional arrangements? Is there anything that they are concerned about or anything that they can think of that might at least bring that back to where we are now and not make things worse?

Andrew Stunell: The first thing to say is that we have not actually dismantled the present planning system; the planning structures are still in place. Of course, there will be a transitional time as the new legislation comes into force, and there is obviously a requirement on us, and on those who are participating in the process, to be clear and transparent about what those changes are.

The slow-down in housing starts and applications is driven far more by the macro-economic situation than it is by uncertainty about the planning system. A fundamental task of the Government is to put that right. This is the framework for ensuring that, when we are back on track economically, we can have appropriate development in our communities and neighbourhoods and lots of it.

Q 274

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I did not actually signal, Mr Amess, but thank you very much.

In the past, I have seen the petitions of thousands of residents dismissed—virtually at a stroke. What difference will the referendums make?

Andrew Stunell: I think they will make a difference. I am sure that everybody here has started or signed a petition. In fact, about one in five people are reported to sign a petition over the course of a year, so it is a very popular activity. The referendums will provide a much more focused opportunity for communities to put their views in front of their elected representatives and to get a result. Of course, there are specific referendums in relation to council tax, which will be binding, but the general, non-binding referendums will give a much wider opportunity for local communities to express their views and to challenge their local authorities and their policies.

Q 275

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

The Town and Country Planning Association said in its evidence that the two historical pillars have been fairness and effectiveness. Can I ask you briefly about both?

On fairness, how do we ensure that we do not give yet more power to the powerful at the expense of the powerless? As Sir Stuart Etherington said, it is essential that there is capacity and funding, and you are cutting back both.

On effectiveness, how do you respond to the unmistakable message from the business community that the lack of strategic planning will create real problems? Greg, you spoke about the existing barriers to development, but there is an unmistakable message coming over that the lack of strategic planning above the level of the local authority is likely to create additional barriers to development, be it housing or commercial.

Greg Clark: In terms of the capacity aspect, if you are extending rights to communities, it is absolutely crucial that people take them up, and it is right that we recognise that. The first thing, however, is that there is a danger that we patronise communities and assume that they are not capable or not interested in taking up rights. My experience, and that of some of the witnesses, is that there is a degree of appetite and volition. It is important that communities should not be cut out of the system; they should be able to exercise that right. If you compare it with the present system, it was striking that one of the earlier witnesses talked about the need to employ a barrister. If you need to employ a barrister to engage with the planning system, things are on the wrong level. We need to make these things more open and more available.

It is crucial, I agree, that we provide support for those communities who want it. There is a very exciting possibility here. If you think about the registered social  landlord movement, with which I imagine everyone here is familiar, most housing associations—certainly many of them—operate in areas of deprivation and areas where there are social difficulties. If we had taken this view all those years ago and said that we should not create such mutual, not-for-profit, locally based organisations because they were specialising in those areas and a more uniform national approach was needed, we would never have achieved the success that is there. The best housing associations, in my experience, are fantastic at finding ways to empower their tenants to engage with their communities. You are right, Jack, that we need to ensure that that support is available, and I am determined that we should do so. Let us not underestimate the ability for that to happen, and let us not ignore some of the precedents where this has been successful.

On your point about strategic planning, you have heard me say that strategic planning is incredibly important. For those people who had a misconception that neighbourhood planning was an alternative to strategic planning, I hope it has been clear already in the Bill—

Q 276

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

A lot of people are under that misconception, Greg, particularly from the private sector and the house building sector.

Greg Clark: It is a misconception and they will see, through the duty to co-operate, the importance and the governing nature of the local plan.

Q 277

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

Forgive me if I interrupt once again. Just about every witness has come before us and said that the duty to co-operate is, as it stands—my words, not theirs—a vapid concept. Crucially, they say that it needs to be strengthened, including addressing this issue of the importance of the strategic. Are you open to doing that during the passage of the Bill?

Greg Clark: Of course, Jack. I said that earlier. The duty to co-operate is incredibly powerful. I think it is more powerful in terms of having genuine co-operation with neighbouring authorities who have something in common, rather than the previous regime that shoehorned them into a particular definition. In my area, for example, if you take the Thames estuary, you had Essex in one government region; you had Kent, in my county, in another; and Greater London was in another. That made strategic planning very difficult. Through the duty to co-operate you have more natural economic geography that can assert itself. Plans will be tested against whether they have demonstrated the degree of co-operation that is necessary, so you have a more relevant and more live opportunity for strategic—

Q 278

Greg Clark: Local plans will continue to be examined and the duty to co-operate will be an important aspect of that. Neighbourhood plans will equally be subject to the duty to co-operate so that they cannot frustrate the wider infrastructure plans. You will find—people will see this during the passage of the Bill—that the duty to co-operate is actually a much more powerful principle than the administrative arrangement that it replaces. I draw from the evidence, and I do not think a single witness said that the solution to strategic planning was  to have the regional apparatus and all that. People recognise the need for it and the need to do it in a different way.

Q 279

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

But, conversely, do you accept that there is a strong body of evidence that says, without seeking to reinvent regional development agencies or regional spatial strategies, that unless you address this issue of the sub-regional effectively, strengthening the duty to co-operate, it will frustrate development?

Greg Clark: It is a matter between them. What is there at the moment is pro-growth and it would be pro-development. We need to help communicate that and to be clear that this duty to co-operate is very important and captures the need, which I think everyone recognises, for a larger-than-local element. I do not want to exaggerate the importance of this at all, because it is a seismic change. The notion that strategic planning can be addressed by people recognising, and being required to recognise, what they have in common, rather than its being contracted out to an administrative process and a standing administrative body, is a fundamental change. I think there was some recognition of the desirability of that because no one was suggesting that we retain the regional architecture.

Q 280

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

Ministers, could you help me understand why the third-party right of appeal, which was in both coalition partners’ manifestos and in the coalition agreement, has not made it into the Bill? I assume it is not there because a judgment has been made that the Bill offers sufficient other protections to rebalance the planning system so that the developer does not ordinarily have an advantage. Could you explain to me what those protections are?

Greg Clark: That is a very reasonable question. I think we should be ambitious for the process we are designing. We want a shift from a planning system based on development control, in which every application gets bogged down into an often acrimonious dispute, because either the planning committee passes it or, if it is turned down, it goes to appeal to the inspectorate in Bristol, and we all know how unpopular it is when people from outside the community come in and determine such things. That is the wrong approach, and it involves barristers—with due respect to members of that profession, Bob.

I am determined to get back to a plan-based system. That is more empowering for communities—to go back to the points that Jack made—as they get the chance to reflect their ambitions for their community in a plan. The key things are that, first, they should be able to do that, and secondly, the plan should prevail. It should not be capable of being lightly set aside. The proposals allow that to happen, and if we do it, it would be paradoxical to have a right of appeal, because, in effect, the community designed the plan and had the opportunity to express, and did express, everything they wanted in it. If planning permission is granted on the basis of conformity with those wishes, appealing against it would be appealing against the permission that they themselves granted through the plan. There would be a case for that if we were keeping the status quo, which is unsatisfactory for community participation, but if we want to reboot the system to make communities powerful from the outset, then it is irrelevant.

Q 281

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Labour, Scunthorpe

I welcome the desire to empower and trust local people and local communities, which is at the heart of the intention of the Bill. What puzzles me is the centralising aspect of it. Why does the Secretary of State take 142 powers to him or herself in the Bill? Why does the Secretary of State say to 12 cities, “You must have a referendum on an elected mayor”? Why are our communities not allowed to have the same powers as an elected mayor for a different form of governance? Why does the Secretary of State take the power to impose and appoint shadow mayors in 12 of our cities? I think it is a centralising power too far. It seems to interfere with the rights of local communities and disempower them. I am very concerned about the 142 powers and the dictatorial aspects of the Bill. They seem to go completely against its intention, which, like every witness, I welcome.

Greg Clark: I shall address the 142 powers and then perhaps Andrew will address the mayoral point. It should be obvious to everyone that I believe in localism. I would not want a secret way of centralising power. That is not why I am in this job or in this business. We should go through each of the 142 powers in Committee, and if the Committee persuades me that they are irrelevant, we can come to that view. Let me give some examples. There are four around the general power of competence. One is to give power by order to the Secretary of State, with the consent of Parliament, to amend, repeal, revoke or disapply statutory provisions that limit the use of the general power. So, on your list of draconian powers that the Secretary of State has is a power to spot those aspects of other legislation impeding councils’ ability to operate, by reference to Parliament. It is not how it first appears.

We should go through each of them. There is another, for example, that says that if the local authority is about to go bust and needs to increase its council tax by a certain level beyond the threshold, the Secretary of State, with Parliament’s consent, is able to set aside a referendum. That seems sensible. We can go through them one by one, and you have my word that I do not intend this to be centralising, other than where that is a necessary condition to empower. Andrew can talk about the mayoral point.

Andrew Stunell: The Government’s case for mayors is their absolute effectiveness in giving the big cities around Europe and across the world a higher profile, greater economic success and a real focus for activity. I guess the example that is most often quoted is Barcelona, but there are plenty of others. But we are not actually imposing mayors on the 12 cities. We are saying that the electors in the 12 cities should have the opportunity to take a formal decision about whether they want to have a mayor, with the referendum ballot coming in May next year, and if the electors in the city approve, a formal election of a mayor in May 2013. So even in that case, we are certainly not imposing that on people.

The supplementary question was about the appointment of the existing leaders as acting temporary mayors until the referendum is held. That will be done by another of the orders once the Bill comes into force. It seemed appropriate—

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I will have to cut off the Minister. There are three more colleagues wanting to ask questions. One after another, colleagues, and then Ministers respond. Alun Cairns.

Q 282

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

It was interesting to note, in the discussion on house building, that Taylor Wimpey also said that under the current arrangements it would take six or seven years to get back to the 2007 level, so we are not even in a neutral position.

My questions relate to EU fines. Local authorities were quite excited by the new powers that they and communities would be given. There is a logic about EU fines; where the local authority is responsible for the fine that comes from Europe, the fine should obviously be passed down. It is not always as clear-cut as that, Minister. How do you see that operating in practice?

Q 283

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I have two questions. One requires a number as an answer. How much of the country do you think will be covered by neighbourhood plans in five years’ time? The second is about equalities. You cited the powers of the Secretary of State to appeal, amend, revoke and so on. Your interpretation is one; the Equality and Diversity Forum has another take on that. It sees problems in that power. There are also issues around equalities legislation and how it relates down to neighbourhood forums, and whether they are fully accountable and will have to take heed of equalities legislation.

Q 284

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

Mr Lewis earlier asserted that the Bill would increase participation in the electoral process as people felt more empowered. I certainly agree with that. If one takes this with the health Bill and proposed changes to policing legislation, I think that is certainly true.

Do you think that the changes to predetermination will help elected representatives get closer to their communities in planning in future?

Greg Clark: Bob, do you want to deal with the last one?

Robert Neill: We will do them in reverse order. Predetermination is important and it is worth setting in context why. One reason that people feel alienated in some aspects from the democratic process—planning is an obvious aspect but not the only one; it applies to licensing as well—is a sense that their elected representatives aren’t able to articulate their views and concerns. The predetermination rule is a concept that has grown under common law—judge-made law—over a period of time. It has got to the stage where you can have a council  election in which the big issue is what is to happen to something in that ward, and because it involves a planning application, the council candidates can’t give the electors their view on it. That’s silly; therefore we are sweeping that away, but we are recognising that you must ensure that abuse of a position is prevented, so we are strengthening at the same time the criminal sanctions in relation to non-disclosure of interests, because that is what people are concerned about.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

May we have quick answers to the other two questions?

Andrew Stunell: I think the question was about diversity, was it?

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

It was about equalities and the neighbourhood forums.

Andrew Stunell: It is extremely important. Of course, the requirements of national equality legislation will apply just as much to local plans, neighbourhood plans and community action, as to every other public function.

Q 285

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

And the percentage of coverage of the country, in relation to how many neighbourhood plans you envisage.

Greg Clark: We don’t take an approach where we have a target.

Q 286

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am not suggesting that it is a target, but one of the briefs was quite clear that there was a Government ambition. Therefore, what would be your ambition?

Greg Clark: We want them to be widely taken up, but we don’t attach numbers to things like that.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Sadly, I have no powers to extend our proceedings for another 15 minutes, but I thank our witnesses for the evidence given to the Committee this afternoon. We will begin our line-by-line consideration of the Bill on Tuesday 1 February at 10.30 am in Committee Room 12.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.— (Bill Wiggin.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 1 February at half-past Ten o’clock.