Planning Applications

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:17 am on 7th April 2010.

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Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Minister of State (the East of England), Regional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (the East of England), Department for Communities and Local Government 11:17 am, 7th April 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser, for the first time and, I fear, possibly the last time, as you and I will both be leaving the House in a few days' time.

I thank and congratulate Mr. Letwin on securing this debate on a matter that is of such importance to his constituents and to my Department. I shall attempt to address the questions that he and Mr. Cash have asked, but, as this is not my area of expertise, I may at some stage have to get the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Austin, to fill in the gaps that are left by my answer.

As the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman know, the Government have been working for some time to facilitate and encourage an effective and efficient planning application process. I am sorry to hear that in West Dorset it appears not to have worked in the way that we would have liked. The problem is that the devil is in the detail, as the constituents of the right hon. Member for West Dorset have discovered, and individual actions on the part of the applicant and the people who receive the application are crucial. In other words, they can make the difference between extending a chalet in a reasonable fashion or building a replica of the Empire State building on a beach in an obviously inappropriate fashion.

The Government set the framework and make clear their expectations, but, in the end, it is the behaviour of those who engage in the process that determines whether the system will work well. When the system does not work, there are various kinds of redress, but let me look quickly at the information that is required.

We have tried to be clear about the information that is required to minimise unnecessary information and give local authorities the flexibility to set their own information requirements because, obviously, each area has different requirements. Our aim is that all users of the system find it straightforward, and feel that they have been treated fairly, whatever the outcome. With the chalet extension, there appears to have been multiple layers of problems. Because of the quasi-judicial nature of the planning process, I will not comment on the individual case, but in all cases we would like people to feel that they had got what they wanted, in general, and that they had the right of redress.

A valid application is one that meets the statutory requirements, and it is in the applicant's interest to provide both sufficient detail for the scheme to be fully understood by the planning officer, and sufficiently high-quality information for the officer to be assured of the type and quality of the proposed development. Applicants are expected to act honestly. If a factual error is found in any of the submitted documents, it is up to the local planning authority to decide whether that materially affects the proposed scheme or its anticipated impacts. If the authority considers that it does, it is within its rights to refuse the application or to ask the applicant to provide supplementary information. If the local planning authority identifies the error before the application has been validated or determined, it can refuse to validate or determine it until the correct information has been supplied.

If, however, the error is undetected and the planning application is subsequently approved, the planning permission will, as the hon. Member for Stone said, be at risk of a challenge by way of judicial review from anyone with sufficient interest in the decision. The right hon. Member for West Dorset pointed out that that sufficient interest has both resource and time costs, and he suggested a way forward that might solve the problem. All of us in this House are well aware of the cliff facing us. Once we come through the other side of that cliff, it will be up to the party in power-the Government of the time-to consider that suggestion. If the right hon. Gentleman's party is in power, the suggestion will obviously be considered. We also will look at it, in the spirit of trying to ensure that people get what they want out of the system. As the hon. Member for Stone said, the people pay for it, after all, and it should therefore not be something that is set up against them, but that works with them.