Local authorities can and should take initiatives to meet needs. If that is right—unless the hon. Lady is saying that all those who have given evidence are suffering from a delusion about the need for sub-regional planning in relation to certain key issues, whether voluntary or structured—how will it be achieved through the Bill?
We now come to what the Bill does not say. Does it have anything to say about housing need? Nothing. What does the Bill have to say about economic development? Nothing. What does the Bill have to say about climate change, biodiversity and our country’s future energy needs? Nothing. The Government’s proposed resolution for those vital, greater-than-local strategic issues is a duty to talk and to shuffle paper. Not one of the organisations whose representatives we have met thinks that the duty to co-operate as proposed in the Bill is sufficient or in any way capable of dealing with the strategic issue that I have just mentioned. Indeed, if we look at the body of evidence that has been given to us, we see that we could assemble the friends of the Government’s proposals for a duty to co-operate in a telephone box.
Matt Thomson of the Royal Town Planning Institute says that his organisation is concerned that
“the revocation of regional strategies will result in the loss of important policies at the strategic level that were directly driven by local communities.”
The Federation of Small Businesses says that the Localism Bill lacks clarity as to how a new sub-national approach will work. It fears a regional planning system deadlocked by indecision or obstruction as a consequence of what is being proposed.
Liz Peace of the British Property Federation describes the duty to co-operate laid out in the Bill as “spineless”. There is no incentive to co-operate and no penalty for non-co-operation. Ms Peace warns of the danger that the duty as it stands will be a meaningless “tick-box exercise”. She says that
“it shouldn’t be, ‘Well, we wrote to the local authority next door and it never replied’—tick, carry on.”––[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 25 January 2011; c. 98, Q165.]
Environmental groups are particularly concerned. Friends of the Earth says:
“The Bill falls short on tackling those issues which rely on local action but which cannot be dealt with solely locally.”
The Woodland Trust says that the duty to co-operate
“seems to amount to little more than a duty to exchange information.”
For pressing, larger-than-local issues, such as environmental sustainability, co-ordination at a larger-than-local level is crucial. The powerful evidence given by Dr Hugh Ellis of the Town and Country Planning Association, echoing those sentiments, was particularly interesting. He asked
“what we are going to do with the major issues like climate change and renewable energy”.
When he came before the Committee, hon. Members will remember, he talked about
“forms of development that play out at a regional or national scale”.
He asked this question of us,
“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?”––[Official Report, Localism Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2011; c. 140, Q231.]
The House Builders Federation has said that the duty
“must be considerably strengthened in the Act if issues of larger than local impact are to be adequately incorporated into development plans.”