HC Deb 11 November 1980 vol 992 cc350-5

Lords amendment: No. 77, in page 62, and in any case not later than seven days

Mr. Fox

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Lords amendments Nos. 78 to 84.

Mr. Fox

There was an extensive debate in Committee on the question of the precise meaning of as soon as may be". Our intention in using the phrase was to indicate that it should be done as soon as possible—which would normally be a lot sooner than seven days. Nevertheless, during the consideration of the Bill in another place we accepted the argument that some people reading the Bill drafted in that way might be left with a lingering doubt that the man with the responsibility for doing the job in a district council might not have the same interpretation of: as soon as may be as the parliamentary draftsman.

I would emphasise that copying the applications to county councils should be done as promptly as possible to avoid delays in deciding planning applications, and to make that point clear I hope that hon. Members will agree that the amendment should be agreed to.

I turn to amendment No. 78. The new paragraph 19 of Schedule 16 to the Local Government Act 1972, as set out in section 75(2), provides a machinery for consultation between a district planning authority and the county planning authority on certain types of planning application. The paragraph provides that the classes of applications where consultation is required should be set out in a development order. The amendment brings the specification of these classes into the Bill itself.

The reason districts are to be required to consult counties on development proposals that are of significance to the structure plan is to ensure that counties have an adequate opportunity to make representations on how the applications should be decided. The new paragraph 19(5) places a duty on districts to take into account any representations made by the county within the period of time which is to be prescribed later in an amendment of the general development order.

A working party of officials of the Department and representatives of the Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of District Councils considered a code of practice for these consultations. The working party included in its consideration the classes of development which should be the subject of consultation and the time limit for the receipt of county representations. The classes set out in the amendment are in essence those agreed by the working party. At the Committee and Report stages in this House hon. Members were anxious to know what the code of practice would contain. They will, I hope, be reassured to see the substance of that code of practice now incorporated in the Bill by this amendment.

I turn to amendment No. 79. Concern was expressed, in this House and elsewhere, that there did not appear in the Bill a specific requirement that district councils in exercising the wider development control powers given to them by the Bill should have proper regard to the structure plan. The reason for the Government's not including such provision in the Bill was that district and county planning authorities already have such a duty, as part of the general duty laid on them in section 29(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 to have regard to the provisions of the development plan, so far as material to the application". We resisted proposals for any additional duty to be laid on districts which would prevent them from departing from structure plans in appropriates cases where they had followed the procedures. Nevertheless, we recognised the concerns that lay behind the requests for an additional duty. To meet these concerns we were able to accept this wording which spells out local planning authorities' duties in this respect without preventing districts from exercising legitimately and reasonably the powers that are conferred on them. I ask the House to agree to this amendment.

Amendment No. 80 is a pure technicality, which is necessary as a result of amendment 79 which inserts an additional subsection into clause 75. This amendment ensures that it is clear to what enactment the following subsection relates.

Amendments 82 to 84 extend the scope of "county matters" in respect of applications relating in one way or another to mineral developments. We accepted these amendments after discussions with the CBI—representing the mineral operators—and consultations with the local authority associations. The effect of the amendment is to achieve a greater consistency of treatment of these cases and to concentrate in the hands of the county planning authority responsibility for developments closely related to mineral extraction.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

It is well known that I am not a great enthusiast for this Bill, but I join in paying tribute to what the other place has done to improve it. It has demonstrated once again how important the other place is in our constitution. As a result of the House of Lords' efforts, we have 98 pages of amendments at the no doubt competitive price of £4.40. We shall dispose of them all this evening. It is, therefore, not possible to make comments on all the matters to which I would have referred in other circumstances in a number of speeches.

Amendment No. 77 is a sensible alteration of a time limit. I am not so happy about amendments Nos. 78 and 79. Amendment No. 78 relates to the division of planning functions between counties and districts. When we discussed that matter previously, I suggested that there was a considerable blurring of functions. As a result of the arrangements and discussions in another place, we have an amendment that does nothing to rectify the basic faults of the new system. It serves only to highlight them. The amendment still maintains the two levels of planning authority, but with more rather than less overlapping, and with a greater degree of complexity than existed previously.

The system is not uniform because there is no amendment corresponding to amendment No. 78 to alter the new system in Greater London. That remains in its original state. The Minister, who puts these matters forward in such a reasonable manner, said that we now have a clear code of practice, which we all want. I suggest that that optimism may not prove to be well placed. The definitions are not well drafted and—I wax more enthusiastic on this point—there is likely to be an increase in litigation.

Amendment No. 79 is an example of the sort of thing in the Bill that caused me to describe it as a monstrous legislative morass. What does the amendment mean? What are "the general objectives" of the structure plan? Under clause 6(3) a structure plan is now, and acording to amendment No. 184 will have to be, a written statement containing the authority's policy and general proposals in respect of the development and other use of land". Will the Minister say which of those "policies and general proposals" are" general objectives" of the plan? Are they some of the policies and the general proposals, are they all of them, or are they none of them? How are those general objectives to be identified? Will the Minister say what a duty to seek the achievement of those general objectives involves? The Minister in another place said that the effect would not be to prevent a district council granting permission for a development which departed from the structure plan."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 October 1980; Vol. 413, c. 896.] If so what does that duty require a local planning authority to do? For example, is it required to refuse permission for a development that complies with the provision of a structure and local plan because it believes that, notwithstanding that it complies, the general objectives of the structure plan may be better achieved by a refusal? Is it required to grant permission for a development that conflicts with a structure plan simply because it is of the opinion that the general objectives of the plan will be better achieved by granting permission? Those are the sort of doubts that will arise. A developer will ask what reliance can be placed on the provisions of the plan itself when, on the one hand, it talks of the provisions of the plan that must be complied with, and, on the other, of the general objectives that must be complied with.

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There is another difficulty. When he calls in an application, the Secretary of State will be in a somewhat different position. On a call-in he is normally in the same position as the local planning authority; he must normally have regard to the same considerations. That is the position that arises under section 35(4) of the 1975 Act, but because that section is not, it appears, to be consequentially amended as a result of the Lords amendments, the Secretary of State will not be under a duty to seek the achievement of the general objectives of the structure plan.

Therefore, one may ask why the considerations and objectives to be considered in determining a planning application should vary according to whether it is the local planning authority or the Secretary of State that gives the decision in the first instance. It is different on an appeal, because then the Secretary of State may deal with the application as if it had been made to him in the first instance. Does that mean in these circumstances that he is subject to the same duty or not?

The question also arises how the new duty is to be reconciled with the new section 14(8) of the 1971 Act, which is inserted by schedule 11, paragraph 5(c). That provides: Where there is a conflict between any of the provisions of a local plan which has been adopted or approved under this section and the provisions of a structure plan which has been approved under section 9 of this Act, the provisions of the local plan shall be taken to prevail for all purposes. It might be agreed in any event that that is a rather mischievous provision, but now what has arisen is an absurd conflict of statutory requirements.

How does my hon. Friend think we can reconcile these differences where there is a conflict between the provisions of a local plan and a structure plan in a district council that has now at one and the same time to do three things? First, it must have regard to both plans, as it is required to do under section 29(1) of the 1971 Act. That is not affected. Secondly, it must treat the provisions of the local plan as prevailing, by virtue of section 14(8) of the 1971 Act, as it is now to be inserted in the Bill. Thirdly, it must seek to achieve the general objectives of the structure plan, if the amendment is adopted.

I have taken only one example out of the Bill of that sort of problem which reflects the difficulties and dangers inherent in pushing through this vast agglomeration of legislation in one evening.

Mr. Fox

Without meaning to be discourteous to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), may I say that his antagonism towards the Bill and our proposals has been consistent? I would not seek to debate with him the merits of certain planning Acts or our attitude towards structure plans compared with his attitude when he occupied a position of some authority at the Department of the Environment.

In our proposals we do not see structure plans as continuing to play the same part as they have played in the past. In our proposals to give district councils more say in such matters it follows that the local plans, when they are prepared, will have considerable power. But we do not expect that 1,600 local plans will be brought forward.

I understand my right hon. and learned Friend's misgivings. He seems to make less of an assumption that we shall achieve what we want by agreement than we do. After all, we brought all the local authority associations together to establish a code of practice. We believe that it will work, with good will.

Once we have got the Bill through tonight, or tomorrow morning, we shall have seen enough of legislation for a long time. We must tell all those involved "Let us apply common sense and make the system far more positive that it has been in the past."

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 78 to 84 agreed to.

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