New Clause 11

Part of Localism Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 10th March 2011.

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Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) 10:15 am, 10th March 2011

I will happily do that, Mr Amess. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay is absolutely right that when we were in opposition, we considered, in our reforms to the planning system, whether it was right to establish a third-party right of appeal. At the time, however, there was not the degree of progress in devolving power to neighbourhoods that the Bill proposes. We want communities to have much greater ability to use plans to shape their future. We want to move away from a reliance on the appeals mechanism for resolving such matters; my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that.

The question then arises: do we allow no departure, under any circumstances, from an adopted local plan, including a neighbourhood plan? Discussions that we have had with parties representing a wide range of interests suggest that it is important to have a degree of  flexibility, so that if there are exceptional circumstances that were not captured in the plan, it is not necessary to disapprove, or be obliged not to approve, an application that enjoys a degree of consent. It is right to have that limited degree of discretion. However, it is obvious from our discussions, from the Bill, if adopted, and certainly from the national planning framework that the importance and the centrality of the plan are very much enhanced. People’s ability to set out their aspirations in the plan is captured in those things.

The next question is: if there are to be exceptional departures from the plan, who should decide whether that is in the community’s interest? We have a choice between an unelected body—the Planning Inspectorate based in Bristol—or elected local councillors. It is consistent with the type of approach that we want that that power should be vested in local democratically elected and accountable people. They have access to members of the community. They represent the community. They can make a more sensitive judgment than would be possible if the matter were contracted to a third party.

We have safeguards in place to ensure that the interests of the community cannot be ridden roughshod over. First, there is the importance of the plan. Secondly, there is the fact that any decision to depart from the plan must be in limited circumstances and can be taken only by representatives of the community in the planning committee. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell  and Newquay mentioned developers being in a position to influence, but developers are not represented on planning committees in the way that residents are, so the ability of elected representatives to determine the outcome is entrenched.

It is necessary to reflect on the need to make the planning system more plan-based and less subject to the appeals mechanism, so that it is more fit for purpose, less costly and more accessible. I would regret my hon. Friend’s new clause resulting in extra cost, delay and uncertainty in applications, when part of the point of pre-loading things into plans is the ability to reduce some of that uncertainty and delay.

Business organisations and many of the developers that will need to invest in our infrastructure, particularly in local infrastructure, are concerned that the proposal would introduce greater expense and delays into the system. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich described it, or a previous incarnation of it, as a barmy measure. I would not go that far, because coming from a system in which there was little confidence in local people’s ability to have their say and their way, I understand its provenance.