I add my welcome to the panel. Could you start by telling us what you think will be the environmental impact of the measures in the Bill?
Simon Marsh: A number of issues concern us. The chief one that I wanted to talk about was clause 4, on information requirements. I am sure that other colleagues will cover broadband in national parks. From our perspective, the clause attempts to deal with only part of the story in terms of information requirements.
The RSPB deals with about 1,000 pieces of planning casework—planning applications—each year, and in our experience, many times the problem is with a lack of information or the poor quality of the information that is provided to support those applications. That inevitably causes delays in the process. On the face of it, the clause seems perfectly reasonable. After all, it seems to be asking only for what is reasonable, and what could be more reasonable than that? That is, of course, already in planning policy. I do not think that that will truly address the issue. The issue is not so much the quantity of information provided as providing the right information for the decision maker. I think that is partly an issue about the local planning authorities having the right resources and skills to know what information to ask for and to be able to deal with that when they receive the information.
To my mind, the clause does not really deal with the problem. I have an alternative solution, which is for development which requires environmental impact assessments to require mandatory scoping at the pre-application stage, where environmental bodies, statutory agencies and bodies such as us can agree with the developer and the local planning authority what information is required so that the right information is provided and the application process can flow smoothly. To do that would not require a change to primary legislation. We could do it through regulations.
Dr Stone: I have three clauses I would like to mention. First, clause 1, which relates to major development. I accept that it is difficult to understand what impact that might have in a practical sense in a national park context, where national park authorities are the planning authority. We would like to understand a bit more about the potential impacts there.
As for clause 5, we are very concerned as national park authorities about the probably unintended adverse impact on the provision of local affordable housing in some of the more deeply rural areas that we work with and within, particularly the self-build, single-dwelling, owner-occupied affordable home, which we think that the Bill, as currently drafted, may have an adverse impact on.
The third element of the Bill, as drafted, about which we have some concerns is clause 7. We are entirely and utterly in support of rolling out rural broadband to our communities and really want to get behind this. There are many examples of park authorities that are proactive in working with communities to help make it happen, but we are concerned that these clauses could lead to an unnecessary adverse landscape impact because we believe that we can deliver rural broadband in national parks, without adverse landscape impact, if we all work together to that end.
Shaun Spiers: Obviously, there is a lot of detail still to be determined but, on the face of it, we are very concerned about environmental impacts. To start with, clause 7 deals with the issue of clutter in national parks and in areas of outstanding natural beauty. A lot of work has been done in recent years to underground overhead lines and so on, and this risks being undermined. There is also the point of principle that another purpose other than protecting beauty takes precedence in national parks and, indeed, that national parks come lower in the hierarchy of protection than sites of special scientific interest. We are very concerned about the symbolism of clause 7 and its real impact.
On clause 1, as I understand it, poor performance of local authorities is likely to be measured partly by the time it takes to make a decision, as well as by the number of decisions lost on appeal. A criterion of poor performance will not be letting in poor quality development, and that obviously could put pressure on local authorities to nod through the sort of developments they should not allow, which will have an impact on the environment.
As for clauses 12 and 13, no one wants to see vexatious applications for town and village greens, but the fact that communities can protect areas that they have used and loved for some time is something that we should celebrate, particularly given the relatively small number of applications for town and village green protection. The fact that any private developer who puts in an application can immediately stop a town or village green being designated really does put the private business interest over the public interest. We are concerned about the implications of that.
The last point is on clause 21. There is a lot that we do not quite understand about how that clause will work. But as for the idea that a developer will be able to take a major commercial development straight to the Planning Inspectorate rather than go through the local authority, we are not sure what implication that will have for local authorities that are trying to protect town centres and prevent outlying development from sucking life out of the town or destroying the beauty of the outskirts of the town. We are also not sure how the protections against light pollution, noise pollution and so on will play if they were taken out of the local planning system and given straight to PINS. All in all, we are very concerned about the potential for this Bill to have a seriously damaging impact on the environment.
Thank you. You have raised a number of clauses, and we will probably come back to them later. I want to follow up something about clause 7. At an earlier sitting, the representative from the Broadband Stakeholder Group sought to reassure me about the possible impact on the environment of this clause by saying that a code of practice was going to be drawn up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and that that would prevent inappropriate cabinets from being placed, and that it would be restricted to broadband only. Are you reassured? Should I be reassured by those comments or do you think that there are still grounds for concern about how clause 7 is constructed?
Shaun Spiers: All we can really look at is what is in the Bill, and it is not clear to me what problem the clause is seeking to address. What is the evidence that the current rules, which allow for a certain amount of infrastructure in national parks and areas of outstanding beauty, are holding back rural broadband? We do not see that evidence.
Dr Stone: We asked colleagues across the national parks and the Broads Authority—eight national parks and the Broads Authority returned information—of prior notifications in relation to the relatively minor telecoms infrastructure that we are talking about, although the Bill as drafted could be much more wide ranging. If we are talking about overhead wires and cabinets, however, then over the past five years we have received 392 applications or prior notifications, and 380 or 97% of them were approved. That prior notification process provides us with an opportunity to comment on, and to negotiate about, signing. The evidence is that the vast majority of those applications are altered, but some that are particularly sensitive can be altered in a way that minimises their impact. The way that it is at the moment, however, gives us that opportunity to engage properly. We argue that the evidence does not support the need for the legislation.
Simon Marsh: May I add to that? While a code of good practice would be very welcome, it seems to us that that is relaxing the rules, if you like, in favour of a weaker, voluntary approach, which does not seem to be justified in the circumstances. Also, the relationship between, first, the clause in the Bill, secondly, the DCMS consultation which we have not seen yet and, thirdly, the consultation from Communities and Local Government on relaxation of the prior approval rules is really not clear to us; nor is the territorial extent of those different things. As far as we can see, the Bill applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but some of the other consultations may apply only to England. That is rather unclear.
Dr Stone: May I mention as well that SSSIs are left out of this proposal? SSSIs are a wildlife designation, which has different tests from a landscape designation. We argue that many of the things that we are concerned about are landscape impacts, as opposed to wildlife impacts, and therefore that we should include within the scope of it—or not exclude from clause 7—national parks and the broads legislation.
I come back to town and village greens. All the evidence that I have heard so far has tended to be supportive of the direction of travel within the Bill as currently drafted, but you express concern, Mr Spiers, about the possible impact on providing protection for areas of space that are treasured by local communities. Can you explain a little bit more about that?
Shaun Spiers: The most recent year for which we have figures says that there were 185 applications for town and village green status, so a tiny proportion of the number of developments going through the planning system. I think—sorry, I am losing track of what I wanted to say, and I cannot get it back.
So do you think that there is any evidence that registration of town and village greens is delaying the planning process, is an irritant or is an obstacle that should not be there?
Shaun Spiers: There is some evidence, and no one should be trying to use town and village greens as a vexatious way of stopping legitimate development. It is undoubtedly the case that we need development. The question is, what is the balance to be struck? As I see it, the Bill is proposing a system in which people will only know that a much-loved and much-used green space is under threat when someone puts in a planning application or it appears in a draft neighbourhood or local plan. We would prefer something more akin to Adrian Penfold’s original proposal that when it is actually in a neighbourhood or local plan then you cannot put in an application for town and village green—or, indeed, you could add, as a trigger, when development has started on a site, which would address the point that the Minister made in the debate about a particular site in Norfolk. The way the Bill is drafted, however, more or less removes any possibility that anyone would be able to get town and village green status for a site, so it puts the balance far too much against local people trying to protect green space.
There is a real danger, in your view, that as it is drafted local people are likely to lose local amenity space, without going through a proper process of challenge.
Shaun Spiers: Absolutely, and the question for the country is, do you celebrate the fact that people can protect much-loved green space, or do you say, “This is the kind of vexatious thing that’s getting in the way of the overriding need for development and growth at all costs”? I think there is a balance to be struck. The Penfold review’s original suggestions struck a balance that I think environmentalists and developers could live with. This proposal more or less removes the right of communities to get protection for town and village greens, so it goes far too far.
Shaun Spiers: I heard that. It may be better from the perspective of British Land. The politics have changed. When Penfold made his original suggestions, it was in the context of a clear commitment to localism from the likely incoming Government and I guess he was proposing what he thought would be saleable in political terms. If all the pressure now is for development, then, of course, from a developer’s point of view, it is better to sweep away any protection for town and village greens. Essentially, that is what the proposal in the Bill does. I still cling to some belief in localism and a belief that one of the purposes of planning is not only to achieve growth, but to protect the environment.
So you believe that unless the balance is tweaked back towards local people, as currently drafted the town and village green proposals are against the thread of localism that we ought to be supporting.
Shaun Spiers: Yes, because I do not think that people will know they have been using a town or village green for years, even for generations, until suddenly it is threatened with development and they discover that they cannot protect it any more. Essentially, you are almost removing the value of having such a status by the terms of the Bill, as proposed.
Apologies for dragging us back to clause 1; I want your views on it. Mr Spiers, I think you made some allusion in answering a previous question about the criteria that should be applied to local planning authorities when judging whether they are performing or underperforming. Would you accept that local government planning authorities occasionally do underperform—that there is underperformance—and what would be your definition of underperformance?
I just wonder whether you have any thoughts about what the criteria might be. We have had discussions with other interested parties about what the criteria might be. I wonder whether you had a view.
Shaun Spiers: Among my criteria for underperformance would be local authorities that simply nod through damaging proposals because they have an understaffed planning authority or because they are prioritising economic development over all other considerations. They might be addressing targets for wind turbines but have not done a proper landscape capacity statement. They might not be protecting the town centre because they are looking to get extra rate relief—extra contribution—from admitting an out-of-town superstore, or whatever. There are lots of possible definitions of underperformance.
Would you accept that there is a fundamental question about the timeliness of planning applications that emerge from local planning authorities? Would you say that, generally speaking, we do not have enough timeliness in planning applications decisions—that they take too long?
Shaun Spiers: No, I certainly would not say “generally speaking”. The record of getting planning applications through in a timely fashion is quite good, but there are some local authorities that probably are taking too long. The question is, how do you address that? Do you address it by, as it were, encouragement—by ensuring that local authorities have the right resources—or possibly even by some sort of naming and shaming, or do you use the blunt instrument of saying, “We’re going to take away your planning powers unless you decide stuff quickly, whether you decide it well or not”? The problem with what the Government are proposing is that if you are considering local authorities that lose on appeal, and the only people who can appeal are the developers, you are obviously making it much more likely that developments, whether good or bad, will be nodded through by a local authority. What would be consistent, if you are going to introduce the criterion of losing on appeal, would be to introduce some limited third-party right of appeal. That would at least make it balanced; but at the moment I do not really think the Bill is about the quality of decisions. The Bill is about encouraging local authorities to give permission, whether they should or not. The whole point of the planning system has to be that sometimes it is right to refuse development.
Simon Marsh: Yes, could I just add to that? I think from an environmental perspective what we are really interested in is the quality of outcome, as Shaun has alluded to. That is something that it is quite difficult to provide criteria for; but if you were looking for a simple criterion I think others have suggested that the presence of an up-to-date local plan might be one such, so that would be my offering in terms of a suggestion.
Going back to clause 7, if you do not mind, the written evidence from the Campaign for National Parks points out the possible threat to the very important economic value of tourism by any intrusive telecommunications masts, or whatever. How valid a concern does the panel feel that is in relation to the clause?
Dr Stone: I will start. I think it is a valid concern in relation to the value of tourism in national parks. Tourism is probably the main contributor to the economies of national parks at the moment, so if we are talking about economic growth and rural growth then clearly tourism is a key part of that—and adding value to the tourism offer. The estimates are that there are something like 58 million visits to national parks a year, and that there is £4.3 billion-worth of tourism income to national park economies through that; so we are talking substantial numbers. They are a major attraction to people.
When you ask people why they go to national parks, the No. 1 attractor and draw is the landscape, but at the same time tourism businesses and people who are visiting national parks want access to broadband—access to modern telecommunications. It is not a question of—well, we would like to say you do not need to sacrifice that in order to achieve good outcomes in terms of communications. The way to do that is not necessarily to have the sort of legislation that is proposed here, but to use the current facilities to encourage other mechanisms for making sure that park authorities and the operators work closely together in designing and developing the schemes.
We can bring resources to bear. We can bring resources from the local community, in the case of supporting underground cabling if that is required. As I have already said, in the majority of cases proposals for overground cables and cabinets are not resisted anyway. All I would say is that we believe that this, as currently drafted, is unnecessary, and if it were to have the impact of adding to that kind of clutter within the landscapes, there is a potential for it to have an adverse impact on the tourism economy.
Shaun Spiers: The CPRE definitely shares MPs’ concern on this. It is not only to do with the clutter that might arise from the effects of the clause. It is the signal that it gives that the beauty of the national parks is somehow less of a priority than we have all been given to understand for some time. The electricity companies have in recent years spent more than £20 million undergrounding overhead wires from little wires on wooden poles—not pylons—working with Ofgem to do that, in order to reduce clutter in the national parks. This gives a signal that in some sense that is all much less important, and the other priorities will trump the landscape and tourism, and so on. It is very worrying.
I should also say that, in November last year, the Government gave a categorical assurance, following the consultation on overhead telecommunications in the national parks, that there would be no weakening of protection; so a year on it is disappointing that this proposal is coming out of the blue, really, following quite a detailed consultation.
I could comment on the box issue, but perhaps I will go back to the point I was going to make, which relates to the village green point that Mr Spiers raised. You seemed to be somewhat dismissive of the impact of every planning authority having a local plan, which is required under the national planning policy framework, with the opportunity for neighbourhoods to develop neighbourhood and parish plans and the opportunities that that would give for village greens to be listed and registered and signalled. You did not comment on the provision in the Localism Act 2011 for the capacity for individuals and neighbourhoods to list areas of local amenity value. I was a little dismayed by that, because you seemed to be thinking that it was only a kind of handbrake-turn solution that would work, when surely what we are trying to do here is to identify and embed areas of amenity value to localities at a much earlier point in the planning system and the decision-making process.
Shaun Spiers: CPRE is a great supporter of neighbourhood planning. We have been very involved in the CLG programme to promote it, as you know. However, it is probably unrealistic to expect that, just in the process of a local plan, any given neighbourhood will have been able to identify a space that might have been allocated for a development in that local plan. The first that they are likely to know about it— unless you conceive of a picture where all neighbourhoods are closely involved in working to develop the local plan, which is obviously the Utopia we would all like to see, but that is unlikely to be the case—is when the local plan is drawn up. A piece of land will be allocated for development in it, and that is likely to be the first that local people know about it.
The other scenario I pointed to was simply where a developer puts in an application to develop something that people regard as a town or village green and they lose the right to get that designation as soon as the application has gone in. So we are very concerned. Again, I do not know why the balance that was proposed in the Penfold review is unsatisfactory. That seems to be something that could unite, as it were, both sides of this; it would prevent vexatious campaigns to designate an area that legitimately should be developed, but it would also provide protection for much loved green spaces.
Wearing another hat I would be interested to get some feedback on that. As I see it, the provision is tidying up where we have duplicate provisions for getting village greens on the statute book, for want of a better word. The provisions that are being taken out have been replaced by what is in the Localism Act and by the capacity that neighbourhoods and parishes now have to develop plans. I know that that is a process that the CPRE is directly engaged in. It would be really helpful to the Committee to hear more of the case that you are deploying, which cuts across my understanding of the reality on the ground.
Shaun Spiers: Where a neighbourhood is closely involved in neighbourhood planning, they will be able to identify a potential town or village green and put it in the neighbourhood plan. The reality is that at the moment there are relatively few pioneers of the more than 10,000 neighbourhoods across the country that are working hard—and it is quite hard work at the moment—to develop their neighbourhood plans. I hope it will become more popular. I hope it will become mainstream, but at the moment there are many more potential town or village greens than there are neighbourhoods that are closely involved in neighbourhood planning. There are relatively few pioneers who are leading in that process at the moment. I hope that in five years’ time there will be a lot more, but there are not now.
Shaun Spiers: No, but it is dependent on having an engaged local community that understands some of the planning rules and that is going to identify a bit of space as something that should be designated. Until a proposed development hits you, or until you start getting engaged with neighbourhood planning, it is a sad, regrettable fact, but I am afraid that most people do not spend a lot of time thinking about the planning system.
May I bring in Mr Edge? You have been sitting patiently. I thought your written evidence was very thoughtful, and I would like to give you an opportunity to expand on it. First, you make the general point, if I am correctly interpreting your evidence, that periods of reform are often followed by periods of uncertainty while the reforms bed in. Such uncertainly should, therefore, be kept to a minimum. That seems to be a general principle. Then you go on to talk about the difficulties that onshore wind developers have in getting consent, and you say that you therefore might be tempted to be sympathetic to the Government’s approach of redirecting applications from poor-performing authorities. However, you then say that you are not sure that this is the right way to go about it and you think that some sort of incentive might be the right way forward. Could you elaborate on all that and tell us how you see the development of onshore wind happening, which clearly is important to your members?
Gordon Edge: Absolutely. Our members would like nothing more than to have a faster, more dependable planning system. We are therefore sympathetic to the general thrust of Government trying to help in that regard. In clause 1 in particular we think that it is much more about the resources that are available to planning departments and the skills and expertise they have. We have discussed with Government over a number of years a number of things that could be done. For instance, back with the renewable energy strategy of 2009—a whole Administration ago—there was a suggestion that there might be what we termed a flying squad of experienced planners with knowledge of onshore wind development who might be able to support local planning departments going through those processes. That came to nothing, particularly with the comprehensive spending review of 2010.
There should be as many carrots as sticks. Clause 1, in particular, is a strong stick. Certainly, we would not want it applied except in rather extreme circumstances. Yes, there are many local authorities that take a long time to deal with onshore wind applications. I cannot think of many that were completed within the 13-week statutory period—pace Mr Spiers’s assertions. We see it as being a very slow process for our members, but we do not think that wielding big sticks and saying, “We are going to take it away from you,” is the right way of making it happen faster. If nothing else, it may just swap one bottleneck—the local planning authority—with the Planning Inspectorate, which is already under pressure dealing with local plans under the NPPF, potentially under clause 21, and further applications under the Planning Act 2008. Unless the Planning Inspectorate was massively resourced, you might just end up having a delay there instead.
May I now turn to Dr Stone and the national parks section of clause 5? You have highlighted in your written evidence a concern that clause 5 could inhibit the provision of affordable housing in national parks because of restrictions on the use of section 106. Could you please elaborate on that and tell us what the evidence base is for those fears? What representations have you received from your member parks?
Dr Stone: Certainly. The majority of national parks have planning policies, which are really there to help promote affordable local needs housing. We all have a housing stock, if you like. The majority of local people have relatively modest earnings, so for a lot of local people purchasing on the open market is not affordable. The development opportunities are often constrained to specific geographical regions. The majority of us have a planning policy based on a rural exceptions approach to planning. For a housing application to be approved, it would have to meet affordable local needs criteria and be occupied by somebody who meets those criteria. It is then secured through a section 106 agreement. I am not necessarily thinking about housing provided by a rural housing association or a housing provider, but I am talking particularly about individuals wanting to purchase a small piece of land for their own home, which they would essentially self-build. That is what we are talking about. This is where the current clause 5(1)(5)(d) refers to single dwellings. Our concern is that because they are exception sites, the potential developer and occupier is able to purchase that land at a relatively low price, because it has little hope value.
There are two things operating. The person who sells them the land, if the individuals have to buy a plot of land, has reassurance that a section 106 agreement would preserve the affordability of the property, so it would not be a question of somebody building a home and ultimately selling it on an open market and making an exorbitant profit that the original landowner would have forgone. It works both ways: it enables a landowner selling a piece of land to feel reassured that it will meet a local need, and it enables a purchaser to purchase at a relatively low cost. That is critical to the viability of building on the site. It is by retaining the full section 106 —that occupancy—that potentially makes it available in the future for other people who meet the local needs criteria, so that you build up a stock of affordable homes. I am sure that it is not the intention of the Bill, but we are concerned that it could have the potential unintended consequence of making those much more difficult to achieve. We would suggest some amendments; for example, exempting article 1(5) land or retaining the section 106 agreement as it stands for a single dwelling, as well as allowing modification for more than one dwelling, or limiting the application to more than 10 homes, so that you are not leading to a potential loss to the affordable housing stock of smaller developments in these very rural locations.
I understand some of your concerns, but I am a little puzzled about your first example, because as I understand it, the viability of the scheme would be dependent on the agreement that the property would be transferred at less than market value. If there was a doubt about viability, that would not argue the case for removing the obligation, which would open the property to a higher value.
Dr Stone: Exactly. We do not want that to happen. The viability would be that it is viable until I cannot get the plot of land and I have to pay a bit more for it. If there is a prospect of somebody getting a permission—it only has to happen once—and is then able to convince through this process that it was not viable and should be open market, it essentially means that you lose confidence in the system.
You say in your written evidence:
“We suggest that a pragmatic solution would be to remove the statutory moratorium of five years for applying to renegotiate section 106 agreements, thus enabling applications at any time, while also allowing local planning authorities the option of maintaining the section 106 obligations without modification.”
For clarification on the current position where some 106 agreements were formed on the basis of economic conditions that no longer exist, to what extent do you see existing 106 agreements that are in place acting as a disincentive to development in the current climate? Do you see any case for modification or change? Or do you not see that as a reason why development is not taking place?
Shaun Spiers: It depends what the outcome is. If the test is whether the scheme is viable with its current section 106, and viability is defined by the developer, you are going to end up with very little community gain or affordable housing. The specific process we suggested in our submission is that instead of requiring a developer to develop a certain number of affordable houses, they should be required to give the land for the affordable houses to be developed. The Government said that they will step in and provide funding for the affordable houses, but it is actually the land that is scarce.
I recognise what you said, but if their assessment of the future economic value of that land is higher than that of a revised 106 agreement it would not work, would it? They would not want to give that up if they thought it could be worth more at a future date. They would be interested in what their obligation is under a revised 106 agreement.
Shaun Spiers: This is the whole point of having section 106, is it not? That is how you get affordable housing built. If you do not have some means of encouraging developers to develop affordable housing or to give the land up for it, you will not get any affordable housing, you will just get market housing.
Shaun Spiers: I guess I would question the unviability. I think that all the evidence is that house builders will build the number of houses they feel they are able to sell, and that is to do with the market and not to do with planning. If you make it easier for them, they will make more money but they will not build more houses. There is a role for a relatively muscular policy framework to encourage developers to develop affordable housing. I do not see what is wrong with that.
Could I follow up on the point that Mr Edge made? It seems fairly fundamental and we touched on it in an earlier sitting? The assumption in clause 1 is that if decisions are pushed up to the Planning Inspectorate, they will in some way be fast-tracked. Your concern was that that potentially just creates another blockage. From my understanding, the Planning Inspectorate is somewhat slower than councils in considering appeals—over the past year, for example. You made the point that without additional resources we will see no hastening of the system at all, and potentially a slowing down. Are you aware of plans to provide additional resources to the Planning Inspectorate?
Shaun Spiers: I am sure that if the Planning Inspectorate is given more responsibilities, resources will be found for it. The purpose of this is speed, and I am sure that the Planning Inspectorate is sufficiently well resourced to take those decisions. Our concern about passing decisions up to the Planning Inspectorate is more about the potential for politicising the Planning Inspectorate. The reason, particularly in the area that Gordon Edge has been talking about, such decisions are so difficult is because they are innately political. I do not think you will get consent for difficult development by passing it up to what is considered an unaccountable quango. These are political decisions, and should be taken by politically accountable bodies.
Simon Marsh: I do not think we have a view on the point you raise. The key issue for us is just to ensure that whether the process is with the local authority or with the Secretary of State via the inspectorate, there are still the same opportunities for the community and for third parties, such as ourselves, to engage with that process.
When the NPPF came out, the CPRE was painting a picture of doom that half the countryside was under threat from excessive development. I get that feeling again this time. I am thinking in particular of broadband. Colleagues have seats in the Peak district. I have about 40% of the AONB at Minsmere —the RSPB—and, frankly, my residents really do want broadband, and mobile, fixed, so I am a bit concerned about all the negativity spouted about broadband clutter. The president of the CPRE lives in Islington. He has probably got broadband. Whoopee doo. We don’t. I am just very concerned about all the negativity. If you just take the evidence this morning from Mrs Learmonth, BT alone has now not installed 2,500 cabinets because of problems with planning. It has just withdrawn them from its plans. Is it not sensible just to say, “We need national infrastructure. Let’s get on with it.”? Why, in particular Dr Stone and Mr Spiers, do you feel that we should not have the permission to go ahead with it?
Dr Stone: I will speak first because the national parks are totally in favour, wanting and advocating. We would love to be engaged with BT talking about rural broadband roll-out on Exmoor. We are working with the Broadband Delivery UK programmes. National park authorities are leading in terms of the rural broadband fund bids for working with our communities in our areas. We want it to happen.
I want to stress that it is not a worry about not wanting it to happen. It is very much, “Let’s make it happen, and let’s all work together to make it happen.” Let us make it happen so that it does not have an adverse impact that it need not have. We can show you examples. They are not necessarily in relation to overhead wires and cabinets, but in relation to masts and telecoms masts.
Airwave communications have been rolled out across all the national parks, giving very broad coverage for the emergency services with mobile communications. That has been done successfully, with one or two hiccups but essentially it has been delivered. We need to learn the lessons from that, because there are lessons to learn from it, including the general lesson that it is possible, and how we can learn in detail to make sure that we overcome any possible obstacles. All we are really saying is that we feel that the current set-up is not an obstacle to engaging. We want to engage and get on with the job. We want to make sure that our communities get the broadband that you are talking about. We really do.
Shaun Spiers: I echo that. I see no evidence that the current rules are restricting the roll-out of broadband unnecessarily, but the proposal in the Bill gives a real signal that Ofgem, the energy companies, the national park authorities, the National Park Society and so on should cease all their efforts, worth £20 million in the last few years, to underground existing lines. That comes a year after the Government gave a categorical assurance that they would not weaken the protection for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is unnecessary and on the face of it, appears to be deeply philistine.
Dr Stone: The Bill does not relate specifically to overhead wires and cabinets, for example. It is much broader than that. I have already said that 97% are approved, but the point of the existing process is not because a small percentage is not approved; it is because the process enables us to engage and negotiate so that, when these services are delivered, they are delivered in the best possible way. We are keen to look for solutions here. We are talking about something that is essentially uneconomic in rural areas, which is why it is not being rolled out now. Therefore, we want to work with these companies to facilitate the roll-out. We just do not think that clause 7 is necessary or actually helps in any way. That is our concern. The potential of clause 7 is for the company to say, “Well, actually, we don’t really need to engage with that lot—we can get on with it.” That situation could lead to the adverse, unnecessarily.
If I could move further on, if you could speak to some of our offshore energy people, you would hear that they have had to put a lot of work in, doing different things about wayleaves and different permissions here and there, but we know that it has to be done. I am not saying that it should not be done in an appropriate way; but, again, I do not see why this clause stops good code of practice happening, as opposed, perhaps, to the concerns that you are going to have improper development.
Dr Stone: Absolutely. The consultation period is 56 days, as I understand it. We would be very willing to enter into planning performance agreements and protocols, operating with the operators to facilitate rolling things out. As I keep saying, we want this to happen. We want it to happen yesterday, and we therefore do not believe that we need to wait for the Bill to go through. We could be talking now with those companies about how broadband can deployed in national parks.
As a Labour party person, I am always interested in clause 4 debates. We have not had one yet, but I think that this afternoon is the first time that clause 4 has been raised. It has made me think that perhaps we are missing something. Do you think that some safeguards need to be put into clause 4 to ensure that necessary information is obtained and that reasonableness is not interpreted in such a way that we may actually miss essential information? What should those safeguards be?
Simon Marsh: At the present time, I do not have a view about what the safeguards might be. It is an issue that the clause may just generate a lot of debates about what is reasonable and what is not, but my starting point is that the clause is not necessary at all, because it is not fixing the problem. I have described how you might fix it for the major types of development. Clearly, there may be issues with smaller-scale development that is not caught by the environmental impact assessment regulations. That is partly about the ability of local authorities actually to know what to ask for in the first place, but more could be done to encourage them to engage in the kind of pre-application discussions that sort out those issues before you get to submitting a planning application.
Gordon Edge: We are generally sympathetic to the thrust of this, because one of the classic delaying tactics of local authorities that are not willing to make a decision, particularly about onshore wind farms, is to ask for information again and again. We share the concern that what constitutes reasonable will end up being just another hold-up and snarl. We suggest that you could have a third party appointed, something like an ombudsman or some other arbitrator, who would be able to say, “That is reasonable, and that is not,” without it having to be a long, drawn-out legal process. We would also certainly need the Government to produce guidance early on in the process that says what is reasonable and what is not, because at the moment it is completely unclear—reasonable covers a wide range of possibilities.
Shaun Spiers: The NPPF has a very good passage on this, which demands that local authorities are reasonable and proportionate in the information they require. The whole thrust of the NPPF and the debate around it was that it would usher in a kind of culture change in local planning authorities and empower them to improve their decision making and be more imaginative about place making and so on. It seems rather early to be giving up on the NPPF process and starting to impose requirements through legislation, rather than working with the NPPF and letting the undoubtedly quite difficult cultural changes in local planning authorities take place.
To go back to clause 7, we are getting evidence that is contradictory. This morning, the Broadband Stakeholder Group asserted very strongly —I think it has been repeated this afternoon—that there is a significant hold-up of the roll-out of broadband, especially to rural areas, and that is totally the fault of planning, yet we are hearing that there is no real evidence to support that. Can safeguards be put in the Bill, so that we have more reassurance that the environmental quality of an area will not be negatively impacted on by huge cabinets? Unlike the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal, I always think that it is best to consider the worst scenario and have it covered than just cross our fingers and hope that it does not happen.
Simon Marsh: The problem is that the safeguard is the prior approval process. Essentially, these types of developments are permitted developments that serve the deregulatory process. The prior approval regime gives the local authority the opportunity to make comments about appearance and siting. The problem that we have with the clause is not really about broadband per se, but about the signal that this is sending out that these protected areas, which are some of our most cherished landscapes, are somehow worthy of less protection that they have enjoyed in the past. I welcome the fact that it does not include sites of special scientific interest, and I recognise that it is mostly a landscape issue, but nature is not just confined to sites of special scientific interest.
Dr Stone: Obviously, I can only comment about experience in national parks, and because of the nature of national parks—they are sparsely populated areas often in very difficult terrain—there is a particular challenge about rolling out these communications technologies in those circumstances. There is a practical challenge and an economic challenge. I was surprised by that because we have just not been inundated with telecommunications companies knocking on our doors saying, “Let’s roll out rural broadband.” Quite the opposite. We would love to be in that position where it was happening. The economics of it mean that we have to do what we can to encourage it and not to put it off. That is our experience in national parks. We have asked for the evidence of delays, particularly any evidence that relates to national parks. I have asked colleagues for examples that they know of, and we just have not been able to come up with any and we have not been given that evidence. I can only talk about national parks, but in our context, I would say that the current process is not part of the reason why it is not happening in national parks.