I believe in democratic accountability with a passion, so I look forward to the debate on neighbourhood planning—the capacity of three men, three women and a dog, in the Dog and Duck, to constitute themselves as a neighbourhood without any kind of serious accountability to the communities they represent. If we, as I do, believe in democratic accountability, it should apply to all the provisions of the Bill.
Instead of the duty enshrined in the Bill, there should be a framework for the delivery of development and services across a broad area, allowing for proper decisions to be made about housing, transport infrastructure, national resources, the most sustainable locations for particular projects, and protecting important social and environmental assets. Without such a framework, we risk losing many of the benefits of co-ordination that we had in the past, and this could lead to more local disputes, as well as piecemeal delivery of key national goals on climate change and the environment.
There is a crucial need for clarity and a strong strategic planning framework that includes the larger-than-local issues. How are they to be adequately addressed unless that is done? However, the duty to co-operate, as it stands, is passive. One hopes that people will come together and co-operate, but unless there is enthusiastic co-operation, which cannot be guaranteed under the Bill, the provisions will have at best a marginal impact on issues of concern expressed in evidence to the Committee. At worst, the Bill’s provisions could have a seriously negative impact.
There is no specific product, in terms of evidence or guidance, that the co-operation has to achieve. There is no indication of the important issues on which bodies should co-operate. The duty talks of co-operation with neighbouring authorities but makes no mention whatsoever of the need for much wider spatial co-operation. We have proposed an amendment to the duty to specify the kind of co-operation required while allowing the specific bodies to respond as they want to the issues in question. For example, we would involve local enterprise partnerships rather than neighbouring authorities only because otherwise the process will not work for issues that require wider spatial co-operation, such as landscape and catchment area planning issues.
In contrast to the Government’s policy, our proposal sets a spatial framework for local planning. That would ensure that there was a meaningful debate about the consequences of development and consideration of the cumulative impacts of local development. It would bring local authorities together, providing a forum for managing larger projects, such as transport schemes, that cut across local authority boundaries but are not large enough to merit national planning. Such strategic planning would provide the means of managing debate between local authorities and resolving disputes over the level and general location of development.
I have discussed some of the areas that the duty should cover, but it is important to look at what has happened in the past as a result of such co-operation and at what we may lose in the future. To return to the south-east, examples of necessary co-operation include the Thames basin heaths and the Dorset heathlands. The Thames basin heaths delivery plan forms part of the arrangements for delivering housing growth around the Thames basin heaths special protection area. Likewise, local authorities in south-east Dorset and across Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey have set up formal co-operation mechanisms to manage the pressures on sensitive lowland heath that result from development.
The Thames basin heaths delivery plan involves no fewer than 11 authorities. For it to work, all the authorities must adopt a common approach to mitigation, otherwise house building around the SPA will not be possible, even if local authorities want such developments to go ahead. However, under the Bill, it is highly unlikely, to say the least, that an effective mitigation solution could ultimately be delivered in the absence of mechanisms for mediation and the strategic approach provided by the regional tier. Such a solution can be provided at the moment, but that cannot be guaranteed in the future.
An analysis of SPAs in England shows that many cover multiple local authorities. Twenty-eight SPAs contain no fewer than five local authorities, and six contain at least 10. Many SPAs are in areas of development pressure where there are big demands for housing and economic development. Crucially, local authorities need to work together to ensure that the conservation objectives for SPAs can be met, as well as to provide the necessary economic, social and housing benefits for their areas. To achieve that in the future, there must be more than just a duty to talk.
I turn now to planning and the deployment of renewable energy. Regional strategies have provided a range of mechanisms to facilitate the planning and deployment of renewable energy by creating a strategic approach and mapping areas of opportunity and constraint in what were known as regional energy capacity studies. Their revocation will result in the removal of a range of targets, including carbon dioxide reduction targets, renewable energy generation targets and climate change adaptation objectives. Previously, those helped to translate EU and national aspirations into effective local delivery.
The Yorkshire and Humber regional spatial strategy, for example, contained the ENV5 policy, which promised to support growth in the microgeneration industry by promoting new building developments that made greater use of decentralised and renewable or low-carbon energy sources. The role of local authorities is central to enabling the Government to meet the legally binding target of securing at least 15% of all their energy from renewable sources, but it is unclear which mechanism in the Bill will help them to do so.
Renewable energy projects can be controversial. Local authorities will have different constraints and capacity, which will have an impact on site selection for renewable energy facilities. The regional tier provided a mechanism for mediation between local authorities, but that will no longer happen.