Clause 89

Part of Localism Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 15th February 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing) 4:00 pm, 15th February 2011

It is arguable, however, that the arrangements were an attempt to accommodate the range of interests in the region. Without an effective strategic approach, will Manchester be in a better position to take advantage of its size, influence and economic power? Yes, it will. Will that be in the best interests of adjacent local authorities? No, it might not be. With respect, the hon. Lady and I are making a similar point about the importance of the totality of interests within the region being properly accommodated and about working together for a strategic approach.

The need for strategic planning, based upon all those examples, is overwhelming. The provisions for it in the Bill, however, are woefully inadequate, and elements border on the incompetent. Our approach carries support from 20 different organisations. They constitute a remarkable coalition of economic, housing, environmental and planning interests, and they include the Town and Country Planning Association, the Construction Products Association, Friends of the Earth and Shelter. It would be fair to say that it is an alliance of the unusual suspects rather than the usual ones. In line with the body of evidence that the Committee has received, they all say fundamentally the same thing: they want the Government to hear their voice. We therefore urge the Government to advance proposals to amend the duty to co-operate to ensure that we have a strategic approach and a level of co-ordination that will deliver on crucial areas such as housing needs, climate mitigation and adaptation, economic development, energy needs and capacity, biodiversity, natural resource use and transport.

The debate is not simply about the inadequacies of the Bill’s provisions on the duty to co-operate, although we have exhausted that at some length. A number of our measures should be included, and—we hope that the Government will agree—they will improve the Bill immeasurably. They put sustainable development at the heart of planning, strengthen the duty to consider climate change and provide a statutory footing for the national planning policy framework.

New clauses 3 and 4 would put sustainable development at the heart of the planning system. At a time when the country is facing unprecedented challenges on economic recovery, climate change and increased urbanisation, the need for us to achieve sustainable development and effectively to address these issues has never been more present. The abolition of regional spatial strategies has removed many of the mechanisms that have provided an impetus for action towards achieving sustainable development and helping to monitor progress. Looking to the future, therefore, achieving sustainable development must be at the heart of the planning system and the Bill.

The Bill contains a number of provisions that Ministers tell us are designed to empower local communities and enable them to shape the places where they live and work. We have said from the start—if there is common ground around a sacred principle—that we are all in favour of responding exactly to how we best empower local communities and enable them to shape the places where they live and work. We have a number of concerns about how the provisions have been designed, however, to which we will return later, but we hope that the Government will accept the need for a set of minimum standards to ensure that planning at all levels delivers true integration of economic, social and environmental policies and objectives.

It is also absolutely vital that short-term measures to drive economic growth, and the abolition of important Government advisers such as the Sustainable Development Commission, do not lead the country into decisions that are unsustainable in the long term. Somewhere in the planning system consideration must be given to how actions that we take now will impact on future generations. In short, the Government need to be clear about the purpose of planning. Do the Government agree that the purpose must be to achieve sustainable development, accompanied by a statutory definition of sustainable development? That would help to provide greater certainty in local decision making and identify the common goal towards which we should all be working. The framework, as put forward in new clauses 3 and 4, would ensure that local authorities could determine the criteria that need to be applied in their area, in accordance with local circumstances, to ensure that their communities and development are sustainable and fit within the overarching definition.

Numerous concerns have been expressed over the sidelining of sustainable development. There is uncertainty about how the Government will achieve sustainable development and how their commitments and goals will be taken forward. The funding for the Sustainable Development Commission, which was the watchdog and adviser to the Government on their sustainable goals, has been withdrawn, which leaves the status of the 2005 sustainable development strategy uncertain. The national planning policy framework was developed to replace planning policy statements and the planning policy guidance. We are not sure what policies and principles will flow from that and how they will be taken forward from Planning Policy Statement 1: “Delivering Sustainable Development”.

By addressing sustainable development in the Bill—by including a purpose for planning, a definition of sustainable development and stronger duties to achieve it—the Government could, if they so wished, provide the certainty for which so many of our witnesses have called. The Bill is simply incomplete without such measures. It is also incomplete without our proposed measures on climate change. Each of us knows the immense challenges that we face as a consequence of climate change. Climate change is perhaps the greatest long-term development affecting mankind, both nationally and internationally.

The Committee on Climate Change’s fourth annual report recommends that the Government make a 60% cut in carbon dioxide emissions on 1990 levels by 2030. In the view of the committee, the 60% target is the minimum effort consistent with the 2050 target. It must be an imperative of public policy in whatever sector, including in relation to the planning regime, that we work to achieve the necessary reductions in carbon emissions. According to a Friends of the Earth study, around 80% of UK emissions occur through locally based activities, ranging from heating and powering our houses to local transport.

It is clear that our planning system can pay a major role in reducing our carbon emissions. Spatial planning could shape decisions for new and existing developments around the need to reduce carbon emissions. It could give us the potential to get the right development in the right place, in a fair and transparent way. Planning  could be informed by the imperative of sustainable development. Local communities could be given real opportunities to take action on climate change by encouraging community-based development and active participation in plan making.

For all those reasons, spatial planning is a way in which we can deliver on the ambitions set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. At present, however, no significant framework for spatial planning is outlined in the Bill, and the duty to consider climate change applies only to the preparation of local development frameworks and not to neighbourhood planning.

Our proposal would ensure that alongside our approach on strategic planning and sustainable development, climate change would be at the heart of the local plan-making process. We should strongly encourage local plans by local people. Without hesitation, I say that citizens’ involvement in the development of local plans is to be encouraged. However, why should the same obligation not apply to local plans as to other areas of the planning process? Section 182 of the Planning Act 2008 created a new duty on planning authorities to contribute to the mitigation and adaptation of climate change by amending section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. That applied to development plan preparation, as defined in part 2 of that Act. Given the importance of climate change, we ask the Government to accept our proposal and to ensure that the duty is effective on all aspects of the planning process.

The new provisions in the Bill on neighbourhood planning have been drafted so as to avoid the climate duty by amending the principal Act: the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. That would mean that neighbourhood planning bodies, as proposed, will be under no direct legal obligation to consider mitigation or adaptation. There is a bizarre inconsistency in the Government’s approach, so we look forward to the Minister’s explanation.

Do the Government seriously expect the carbon emissions for each neighbourhood forum and local development plan magically to add up to our national target on climate change? We accept and welcome proposals about greater involvement and participation at local level. As I constantly stress, that is common ground among all parties. However, the Government cannot be so naive as to believe that there are no things that, given their very nature, require co-ordination instead of somehow happening by themselves.

New clause 7 would give a statutory basis to the national planning policy framework. As a result of decisions taken by the Government and the proposed planning reforms outlined in the Bill, there is currently a great deal of uncertainty in the planning system, much of which is unnecessary. The revocation of the regional strategies—the way in which they operated will be a thing of the past—has already led to judicial review and threatened judicial reviews. The evidence, including the evidence that the Committee received, is that there has been a hiatus in decisions due to the uncertainty around which policies are to be applied to planning applications.

There is also considerable uncertainty around what the NPPF will be, what it will look like, its status within the planning system, and the process for its development and adoption. The Government seem to want to rely on a provision in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase  Act that advises local authorities to have regard to national policy and guidance, but we do not think that that is sufficient. Providing a statutory basis for the NPPF would help to provide certainty and allow the Government to increase confidence in the planning system, which is absolutely crucial, including if we want a serious strategy for growth in our country. Confidence in the planning system has been badly damaged by the decisions taken thus far.

The new clause would also help the process of identifying and agreeing the purpose of the document, as well as to ensure that it is given appropriate recognition and weight in plan making and planning decisions. Our approach would also ensure consistency between the NPPF and other planning documents. The NPPF, which we welcome in principle, must be a strategic planning document that sets out national economic, social and environmental policies and objectives, as well as outlining minimum standards to be applied across planning at all levels to ensure consistency and to provide further detail on what sustainable development means in the planning system.

The Government are committed to including a presumption in favour of sustainability in the NPPF. Given the important matters that the NPPF is likely to address, it is vital that it has legal status and is enforceable, rather than being a voluntary document. It is equally important that processes for consultation, publicity and parliamentary scrutiny are defined and that minimum requirements are imposed to ensure that public participation can occur in a transparent process, with ordinary people knowing how they can contribute towards and influence the development of the NPPF. It is also important that the NPPF is subject to impact assessments so that impacts arising from the policies within the NPPF can be fully and properly assessed, and so that the NPPF is drafted to avoid, minimise or mitigate adverse effects. It is also completely unclear how the NPPF will sit with the current national policy statements and what their relationship will be, but perhaps we can tease that out in the debate.

In short, the Government need to explain how these documents and initiatives fit together to achieve national objectives, as stated as public policy objectives. The Government need to clarify what the hierarchy of planning documents will be and outline what the process will be if there are inconsistencies between policies.

The planning provisions in the Bill are perhaps more notable for what is missing from them. That is little wonder, because I think perhaps the Secretary of State has been distracted by his focus on the trivial—nay, occasionally absurd. I have the latest departmental missive from the Department for Communities and Local Government to employees in the jolly green giant. It states:

“The corporate plant contract has been cancelled due to recent cost cutting measures. Corporate plants in Eland House are now in need of some green-fingered friends to ensure their survival”—

I kid thee not. It goes on to state:

“If you can find a few minutes every couple of weeks to provide some TLC”,

which I think is tender loving care,

“in the form of regular watering and occasional feeding, please volunteer.”

The message was sent on behalf of the Secretary of State, and it goes on to state that “indoor plants”, which I thought he had got rid of,

“are not only pleasant to look at but also improve our air quality by producing oxygen for us to breathe, regulating humidity and neutralising chemicals like the formaldehyde emitted by office paper. All the plants will be labelled with names and watering/feeding instructions.”

I suspect that none of them are called Eric. The document goes on to state what someone should do if they are able to help. With the greatest of respect, if the Secretary of State had concentrated a bit more on having a planning regime that worked and a bit less on plants in his office, perhaps we would be in a better place.