Clause 89

Part of Localism Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:00 pm on 15th February 2011.

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Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 6:00 pm, 15th February 2011

I apologise for not being here for the duration of this debate; I had to attend an important constituency meeting. Unlike the hon. Member for Bradford East, I genuinely like planning and I think that it has a huge amount to offer the development of the country. Unlike the hon. Member for Croydon Central, who says that the only time people are genuinely involved in the planning system is when they are agitated or against a development, I accept that it can be at its most acute at that point, but also think that good local authorities across the country—I seem to be making a habit of saying this—that have conducted the process of putting local plans together properly will have been out there consulting and talking to their residents on their planning policies.

I accept that it is hard for people to get their heads around some of these things. It is much easier to get your head around a particular planning application, when the drawings are on the table in front of you, rather than the idea that, at some point, perhaps over the next five to ten years, there may be these sorts of developments, x number of homes. It is very difficult for people to engage at that stage. Understandably, people will have a number of other things going on in their  lives and the interest in engaging with the planning system comes when there is a particular application on the table. It is harder to get that engagement around planning policy.

I accept that it is very difficult to get my constituents in Lewisham East excited about regional spatial strategies, the London Plan or the local development framework, but with a lot of effort, we did that. I recognise that when members of the Government say that there was perhaps, a lack of democratic accountability in the RSSs, they are making something of a valid point. RSSs were not perfect, but they enabled us to look at some big issues that we have to address as a country. I will not repeat our debate on housing and the need for many more homes and, indeed, many more affordable homes, but I associate myself with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich in this respect.

What we need to achieve in the planning system is a balance between the carrot and the stick. I am not sure that the incentives that the Government propose will result in the number of homes that we need, or—let me develop this example—the type of energy that we need to be generating. I want to focus now on new clause 3 and our proposals to put sustainable development in the Bill and to speak more specifically about renewable energy generation.

Sustainable development as a concept means many things. Some people think that it means putting solar panels on the top of buildings, but it is not that. That might contribute to it, but it is actually about where development happens in this country. How are people going to get to work? Are they going to use public transport or their cars? What about the scale of development in locations across the country? An argument could be made that larger-scale developments can be more environmentally friendly. If we think about the way in which decentralised energy may be provided, a large development, perhaps on the outskirts of a town, may enable something like an energy services company to be introduced—a great example of localism. We need to get that presumption in favour of sustainable development in the Bill, which is why I welcome the proposed new clause and the amendments put forward by our Front-Bench team.

I said that I would talk about renewable energy generation. With the abolition of the regional spatial strategies, we lose not only housing targets but the targets for renewable energy generation. I ask Ministers to consider their claim of being the greenest Government ever when I put to them the following scenario. In 2009, the previous Government published their renewable energy strategy and, by and large, the targets that were set out in that were accepted by this Government when they published their renewable energy action plan last year. The lead scenario in that strategy suggested that by 2020, 14 GW of onshore wind energy would be needed across the UK. At the moment, we have 3.8 GW of capacity. Knowing how controversial wind farms are, my concern is exactly where such developments will go. Is it not the case that the Government should show some leadership over this? I fear that if we leave the matter to every community—I know these things are  not easy to deal with—we will not get the sum total of what is needed. That point has been made about the Bill by the Town and Country Planning Association. I am concerned that we will see a protracted period of passing the buck and leaving someone else to do it. We cannot take that risk when it comes to meeting our carbon reduction targets, tackling climate change and delivering new homes.

Let me beg the Committee’s indulgence for a couple of minutes. Members may think that my example would be better discussed under the neighbourhood planning section of the Bill, but I want to exemplify a wider point. I was a candidate in a council by-election and so had not even been elected when I was involved in my first campaign. There was a controversial housing development for about 35 flats of affordable housing. It was on a piece of parkland, although the definition of the land was complicated. The community—the people living in immediate proximity to that park—said, “We don’t want it. We want that piece of concrete to stay as it is.” It was a bomb site from the second world war.

I said, “Hang on a minute, there are 35 families who could be housed in this new development. There are additional benefits that could be provided in this area.” The issue was not black and white and there were no rights and wrongs. It was about the planning system and how we balanced the competing objectives of retaining open space and providing new housing. I took a stand. I was worried about it and feared that I would not get elected. This was a massive issue. There were banners saying, “Save Deptford park” over the road. None the less, I decided to say that, on balance, the development was appropriate. I thought that I was demonstrating leadership. I had seen thousands upon thousands of people who said, “I need to live in a bigger property and I need to live in a decent property.” There is a big question for this Government about leadership around housing and the provision of affordable housing. I will say no more at this stage. Suffice it to say that when we come to the neighbourhood planning section of the Bill, I will have a lot more to say.