HC Deb 27 March 1985 vol 76 cc594-603
Mr. Cowans

I beg to move amendment No. 76, in page 3, line 4, after '(1)', insert 'Subject to subsection (5) below,'.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 77, in page 3, line 23, at end insert '(5) The Secretary of State shall before the abolition date lay before Parliament a report in respect of the strategic guidance to be given by him under Schedule 1 to this Act, setting out—

  1. (a) the matters he is to take into account in formulating his strategic guidance,
  2. (b) the arrangements to be made for the giving of advice to him in preparing such guidance,
  3. (c) the arrangements for consultation on, publicity for and objections to any such guidance before it is given to a local planning authority in a metropolitan county or Greater London, as the case may be.'.
No. 103, in schedule 1, page 71, line 28, after 'plan', insert 'following an examination in public into that guidance and any subsequent modifications'.

11 pm

Mr. Cowans

When we can clear the Chamber of those who are not interested in local government—when the gossip column people move out and those who care about local government stay—perhaps we can get on to the amendments—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will those hon. Members who are not listening to the debate kindly leave quietly?

Mr. Cowans

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, because some of us are extremely interested in local government — [Interruption.] There is a saying that empty vessels make the loudest noise. If some of the empty vessels left the Chamber, perhaps this nonsense legislation would not be before us.

We move the amendments in all seriousness, because even the Government believe that there is a need for overall planning. But, as with so many Government actions, knowing the answer, they step back from the problem and try to hedge the issue. Even Conservative Members appear to accept the argument, but only in respect of London. Twice today I have asked the House to remember that the Bill relates not only to the GLC, but to six metropolitan county councils. However, in defence of the Bill, the Government seem to refer only to the GLC.

I should like to quote from a document from the Town and Country Planning Association of 20 March 1985, which argues the need for a strategic conurbation-wide authority. It states: Conservative MPs in the South East appear to accept the need for one publicly accountable London-wide body for the Greater London area. There does not appear to be the same anxiety about the efficient local government of the Metropolitan conurbations. Throughout the debate, that has been proved repeatedly, because the Government's arguments reflect only their paranoia about the GLC. The Bill proposes the abolition of the six metropolitan county councils, yet we have never heard an argument from the Government that bears any resemblance to the major part of the Bill.

Three august bodies, which are not as far as I know affiliated to the Labour party — the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Institute of British Architects—in a document dated 25 March 1985, state: All three development professions are concerned that the Bill as it stands will abolish bodies whose task it is to take a wider view than that of individual districts or boroughs without setting up an adequate alternative legislative and organisational framework. Those are the professions that work in local government.

In relation to the London Planning Commission, which the Government hope to set up under the Bill, those organisations make the important point: The London Planning Commission and the voluntary planning conferences in the metropolitan counties are given neither the powers nor the resources necessary to plan or to create the essential infrastructure. In other words, we have a paper tiger with no power.

The amendments recognise the position. We do not regard any Secretary of State, Labour or Conservative, as a divine animal who, when legislation has been passed by the House, should have the freedom to manoeuvre and do anything he wants under its provisions without returning to the House. Any Member of Parliament worth his salt who has sat in Committee for a long time dotting i's and crossing t's would not want a Secretary of State to have power to do what he liked without coming first to the House. If the amendments are not accepted, that is what will happen.

As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State could introduce any order or lay down criteria or guidance without having to come back to the House to justify what he is doing. It makes nonsense of spending two or three months in Committee arguing the case left, right and centre if the Secretary of State is then allowed to ignore the House of Commons when laying down strategic planning guidance. Why did we spend all that time in Committee? There was no filibustering. All the issues were discussed as fully as possible until we had the nonsense of the guillotine. Yet the House sees fit, without these amendments, to lay a divine responsibility on a Secretary of State.

Any Secretary of State worth his salt should have no fear of the House of Commons. He should not be afraid to return to the House if he wants to lay down guidance and say, "This is the guidance I want to lay down. I am telling you about it so that there can be a debate." With the majority that the Government have, there is no fear of them losing any vote, but at least the House would have the opportunity to place on record its views and whether it thought something had been neglected.

It might be useful for the Secretary of State to have the benefit of a debate, because he might find that he had missed something. Members of Parliament are elected to represent their constituents, and they should have the opportunity to debate or challenge what the Secretary of State wishes to do. This is not a political point. Far too much legislation allows Secretaries of State or Ministers to lay orders without coming back to Parliament. If that is not a negation of democracy, I do not know what is.

I foresee the day when there may be a one-page Bill to the effect that the Secretary of State can do anything he likes once the Bill has been passed. The amendment seeks to prevent that. All we ask is that, when laying down guidelines, the Secretary of State should present them to and obtain the approval of Parliament. That is not a political matter. In nearly all Bills there is what I would define as a "belt and braces" clause. It allows the Secretary of State, of whatever political party, to do practically anything he wants. I think that is wrong.

On what basis could the Minister reject these amendments? We note that the Confederation of British Industry, the Association of British Chambers of Commerce and the House Builders Federation highlight the need for a strategic framework so that the providers of services can look to one body to make decisions. On far too many occasions one finds that planning issues transcend metropolitan district boundaries. The organisations to which I have referred do not normally support the Labour party. Indeed, I doubt whether they ever would, yet even they have grave doubts about the draconian powers that will be given to the Secretary of State unless these amendments are accepted.

Finally, I refer to an article in The Standard of 27 March 1985, headed "Jenkin's HQ is cracking up." If the Secretary of State cannot look after his headquarters, that is all the more reason why he should come to the House of Commons on all occasions and debate the issue. If he is right, his view will carry the day. If he is not right, he will have had the benefit of hearing the views of individual Members.

These amendments are essential and should be made to the Bill. Every hon. Member should have the right to stand up and argue his case. If the amendments are not accepted, I believe we shall end up with the Prime Minister in No. 10 with a computer, and the rest of us can go home. That will not be good for democracy, for legislation or for the public. It would be nonsense not to accept the amendments.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The issue before the House is whether we should be given details of one of the powers which the Secretary of State agrees should continue to exist at the strategic level, namely, strategic planning, but which in future will be exercised by him instead of by a directly elected authority. For the purpose of tonight's debate I accept that these are probing amendments rather than amendments which are to be conclusively determined. If that is right, it is very important for the House to know what advice the Secretary of State envisages he will give by way of strategic guidance. As a London Member, the Under-Secretary knows that that is important, whether one seeks to increase or to decrease the traffic using the road system. One has to cater for a population which may remain static, or become or smaller.

One must deal with an area which will be governed within the same boundaries or, as the Secretary of State hinted, beyond the present Greater London boundaries.

11.15 pm

The amendments seek a commitment from the Government that we shall be told the strategic plan guidance in advance so that we can debate it. If strategic planning has still to be done, the fundamental starting document — the strategic plan which the Government accept must be updated—must be based upon the best informed advice. That should not mean intervention by the Secretary of State, with his, or her, prejudices or views. The plan should be debated and thrashed out, using expertise and views which cover as wide a range as possible. By that means we can decide upon the best parameters and the best guidance. We need clear assurances tonight, although in the past we have had very little from the Government Front Bench.

Dr. Twinn

The Opposition seem to be far too taken by pretty colours on maps. They should look at the real world. Earlier, we heard about looking at urban development on a map and deciding whether any community of interest was involved. I represent a constituency in a London borough, but it has little affinity with the remainder of London. It was hijacked into London in 1964. Its residents do not look upon London as its setting. They believe that they live in Middlesex, and regret that Middlesex no longer exists. My constituents are sensible to take that view. They regret that they were hijacked into the London boroughs. They would much rather be regarded as living in an urban district, with their own Edmonton council, although that, alas, would probably be Labour controlled.

There is a dichotomy on London. Planning is a problem. The public relate to small areas. My constituents see Edmonton as the area with which they associate themselves in terms of strategic planning. They might also think of Enfield or Tottenham—although they might try not to do that if Spurs are playing and there might be parking problems. They might look to the greener pastures of Chingford and Barnet. They might look to Hertfordshire, but they do not think of London as a whole, of Croydon or of Bromley. I understand that places such as Purley exist in the south of London somewhere, but such places have no impact upon my constituents.

In terms of strategic planning, we must consider the relationships in a whole area. We fool ourselves if we think that the GLC boundaries have any relevance except in party political terms. They represent the compromises made when boundaries were set during local government reorganisation. The GLC boundaries mean nothing in strategic planning terms.

The M25 is outside the GLC area, except for that part which goes through Enfield. The green belt is also mostly outside the GLC area. I should upset many colleagues if I were to suggest that places such as Dartford, St. Albans, Reigate and possibly Cambridge should be part of a London region. Commuters travel from as far away as Norwich. Those areas are part of the functional London region.

If we are to talk about strategic planning, for goodness sake let us talk about real strategic planning. The GLC has been a failure as a strategic planning authority. It is no example to give. Many of my colleagues in the planning world who do not share my political views have said to me, on the issue of the GLC, "Do try to argue your case on the abolition of the GLC, but forget the planning issue, because I would not use planning as an example to try to save the GLC." Strategic planning is not for the GLC.

Mr. Cowans

I am enjoying an entertaining speech, but I cannot see its relevance, because all that we are asking is that the Secretary of State comes to the House and lays down the guidelines, and that we have the chance to challenge and discuss them. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about how his area looks to other areas, but our case is that we are asking that the Secretary of State comes before the House and lays down the guidelines, so that he and I have a chance to discuss them. That is what the amendment says.

Dr. Twinn

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is enjoying the discussion. We are trying to define what strategic planning is about.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will know, I have suggested that we have wider inputs into strategic planning. I should still like to see SERPLAN, the regional planning authority, take on the role that it was set up to play. I suggested that in Committee, but Opposition Members ridiculed the idea of having effective strategic planning. They said that the county councils were against it, as well as the London boroughs. I understand that view.

Mr. Tony Banks

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We rubbished the proposal, but it was rubbished on the basis of SERPLAN's evidence, which was that it did not believe that that was the proper thing to do. SERPLAN rejected the Secretary of State's proposals.

Dr. Twinn

The hon. Member for the GLC rather jumps the gun. I understand SERPLAN'S view on that. It represents entrenched interests of the shire counties around London, which rightly look on the GLC excesses and say, "We do not want any of that affecting the shire counties." I sympathise with that view, but if we are talking about rational strategic planning for the London region, perhaps we have to look at a wider area. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider that, although I understand that it may not be possible within the bounds of the Bill. I hope that they will come to it later.

In effect, there will be no change in strategic planning in London. What happens now is that the Secretary of State makes the effective decisions. London boroughs have their say. Of course they do. They have their development plans. The GLC has tried to have its say but has failed. Its one attempt at strategic planning, when it tried to exert itself and be a strategic planning authority, was docklands. It is the only occasion when it has tried to be a strategic planning authority. It could not get agreement among its own Labour boroughs in inner London. They argued for years and years, until in the end the Government had to exert themselves and put an urban development corporation into docklands to try to bring about some effective development.

Now we begin to see something happening in the inner city. As a London resident, I welcome that. As a London Member of Parliament, again I welcome that, because I can see that there is a need for the core of London to be developed. But the GLC did not do that. The GLC, or any successor authority, if the Opposition were to have their way, would have no more effect than the present GLC on strategic planning in London. It is the Secretary of State who in the end has the impact on London.

The London boroughs will be able to bring strategic planning in London down to the constituents' level. They will be able to identify with the London boroughs and with their own ward councillors. They will be able to put their priorities across to their ward councillors and feed that information to the Secretary of State and the London planning commission. In that way, we shall have far more effective strategic planning in London.

The proposals in the Bill will lead to more effective planning of London than anything that Opposition Members may suggest. Although I regret that we shall not go for a wider strategic and regional planning function, I accept that the Secretary of State's powers remain paramount, and I support them in the Bill.

Mr. Tony Banks

I wish to speak to amendment No. 103, which draws attention to the various arguments that we put forward in Committee about the centralisation of planning powers, the loss of democratic input and the practicability of the working of the new planning system. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) raised an interesting point about discussing the scope of strategic planning for the south-east. Frankly, this is not the place to be discussing it. It is a guillotined debate, late at night, which is not the way to consider strategic planning for London and the metropolitan counties. That is our complaint about all aspects of the Bill — it is ill-considered. We have not been given the opportunity of rational and impartial discussions on vital matters.

One of the major new provisions of the Bill is the power that it gives to the Secretary of State to issue strategic guidance. It is far more specific than anything currently available to him.

The hon. Member for Edmonton mentioned SERPLAN. It wrote a letter on 31 October 1984 saying that the proposals would make the Secretary of State the strategic planning authority for Greater London, but without the obligation to prepare an overall structure plan and to subject it to formal and detailed scrutiny through an examination in public. Why is it that the strategic guidance will be the only element in the planning system that will not be subject to possible public inquiry before it is laid down? That is the democratic argument that concerns us in London and the metropolitan areas.

The Bill makes no provision for public involvement in the guidance that will, in effect, be the structure plan for London. The strategic guidance will not reflect extensive consultations that have gone into both the GLDP proposed alterations and the shire structure plans. Nor will it be subject to an examination in public, which considerably reduces the opportunities for Londoners to influence the future development of their city — opportunities which the shire counties will continue to enjoy.

Once again we have to make a comparison between the unfavourable way in which London is being treated and the favourable way in which the shire counties are being treated. That is in some way connected with the fact that the shire counties are Tory controlled, while the GLC and the metropolitan county councils are Labour controlled. It is a party political matter.

The Minister said in Committee that he undertook to ensure that the voices of the London boroughs and other interested bodies were heard by the London planning commission in the early stages of the preparation of strategic guidance and that changes would be made in the Bill to ensure that. That is the sort of matter that should have been thought through beforehand. The Minister is coming forward with a hastily prepared Bill and saying that he might have to change his mind if it does not work out.

The Minister also said in Committee: I should stress that the reference to this guidance in this context is not to give that guidance statutory force. In the same breath he also said: Once it is issued, clearly authorities must have regard to it." —[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 22 January 1985; c. 473.] There will be no public involvement in the issuing of the guidance, and we do not know what its force will be. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will tell us so that we understand it.

The proposed new strategic planning system for London and the metropolitan counties will mean duplication, delay and increased costs in preparing up-to-date plans. A proper co-ordination between the London boroughs will be difficult to achieve, the strategic guidance being argued at up to 33 separate inquiries. Where is the streamlining of the cities in that complicated machinery? There is no prospect of a London-wide framework emerging until the early 1990s. Not only will the issuing of mandatory strategic guidance by the Secretary of State be far less democratic than at present, but the system will be far more bureaucratic.

The Government, in stumbling around in the area of strategic guidance, have tentatively indicated in various consultation papers that there will be at least five stages involved in discussing, preparing and consulting on the strategic guidance before it can be used by the boroughs. The planning commission will be consulting the boroughs and others; for example, SERPLAN. Then the planning commission will be formulating its advice to the Secretary of State: it consults, and passes on its advice to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will consult other Government Departments, and then issue guidance.

As in many other matters, all power will eventually reside in the hands of the Secretary of State and at Marsham street. I cannot believe that Conservative Members will be prepared to support him.

11.30 pm
Sir George Young

I think that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) did well to conceal his disappointment at the substantial majority by which the last amendment was rejected. I hope that, in the light of that decision, he will now take down all the posters stating that 74 per cent. say no, and replace them with posters stating that 61 per cent. say yes, because that was the decision of the House this evening.

I think that the hon. Members for Newham, North-West and for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans) underestimate the extent to which the Secretary of State has considerable planning powers at present in dealing with appeals and the existing GLDP and structure plans. The contrast that they sought to make between the existing system and the proposed one does not stand up because the Secretary of State already has extensive powers.

The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge made some remarks about my departmental headquarters at Marsham street. The battle over abolition is beginning to take its toll at county hall, which seems to be subject to periodic attempts at arson, and in my Department, which is showing some slight cracks. Happily those cracks are not very serious and the building will remain there for some time.

If I may deal with amendments Nos 76 and 77, the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge made a plea that before abolition my right hon. Friend should report to Parliament on the arrangements for strategic guidance. Following royal assent, I would expect my right hon. Friend to issue more detailed advice about the mechanics of the planning arrangements, perhaps in the form of a circular for the local authorities concerned. I do not see the need to put this kind of elaboration and these practical arrangements before the House. The principles have already been established through the consultation paper and the revised proposals paper, and in the lengthy debate in Committee. That part of our proceedings was not guillotined, and we had the most extensive debate on planning that I think any hon. Member could have expected. The suggestion that the matter was not adequately debated does not stand up.

It may help if I enlarge on the matters contained in the amendments, and respond to the remarks of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). The range of subjects which strategic guidance must cover was mentioned in Committee. The topics, including those mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, would cover population trends, housing, major transport routes, industrial and commercial centres, minerals and open space. Metropolitan county planning conferences and the London planning commission will advise my right hon. Friend on what aspects of these topics need to be covered in strategic guidance. They can advise on the issues to be resolved, and on the scope and detail of the guidance needed.

I cannot prejudge the nature of this advice as it will vary considerably from conurbation to conurbation. Typically, however, I would expect my right hon. Friend to be concerned with issues of countywide significance and with those which straddle district and borough boundaries and have a strategic significance. The guidance will not be a detailed blueprint, but will allow the successor authorities flexibility and freedom in preparing their urban development plans. Moreover, it will provide the essentials to maintain a coherent and consistent approach. As to the arrangements to be made for the giving of advice to the Secretary of State, the Bill provides for the setting up of a planning commission in London which will be a source of professional advice and expertise. Arrangements for setting up the commission will be subject to an order laid before Parliament. Outside London such special arrangements are not needed, but my right hon. Friend will set up planning conferences of the local authorities. The smaller number of authorities will make it more practicable for the Secretary of State to work with them to produce the advice that will be needed. The conferences that my right hon. Friend will convene will include the planning authorities, Government Departments and neighbouring authorities. They will be non-statutory and this will give them a greater measure of flexibility to respond to the differing needs and differing requirements of each area. I am confident that these arrangements will lead to effective and soundly based advice that is rooted in the practical experience of the authorities concerned.

I turn to the arrangements for consultation. Before the London Planning Commission and the planning conferences advise the Secretary of State on what guidance they consider is appropriate, they will need to gather essential information. They will have to consult interested parties and take soundings with those likely to have something useful to say. How precisely they do it will be a matter for them, but it could well be that the LPC will hold its own informed hearing or take evidence. To prescribe the procedures in advance would merely restrict the commission's ability to organise its consultation as it sees fit.

Once received, my right hon. Friend will make arrangements to publicise the advice of the commission and the conferences. There will be a general invitation to comment to the Secretary of State. This means that Londoners and others will have an opportunity to make their views known at that stage. I would expect the invitation to be targeted on specific groups which are likely to be substantially affected by strategic decisions. In the light of the response, the Secretary of State will prepare draft guidance to clarify issues, resolve conflicts and provide a coherent framework for the unitary development plans.

The Secretary of State will make arrangements for this draft guidance to be publicised and for comments to be made. I would not rule out at that stage the possibility of holding discussions with those concerned where any major questions remain to be answered. The finalised guidance would then be issued to the districts and the boroughs and be available to others who could make use of it. I am determined that this should be a simple, straightforward process, with built-in flexibility to meet the different circumstances in each conurbation. As I have explained, there will be ample opportunity for those with an interest in the planning process to make their views known. I hope that in the light of that more detailed explanation of what we have in mind the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge will withdraw the amendment.

I turn to amendment No. 103. I enjoyed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn), who clearly has a great interest in and knowledge of planning. Planning which is more firmly based on the boroughs is more likely to be effective. The amendment contains a proposal for an examination in public into the draft strategic guidance. It seems that the amendment is based on a misunderstanding of the Government's approach. The strategic guidance, is, after all, designed to provide a basic framework for the more detailed work of the successor authorities when they come to prepare the UDP. I must stress that the Secretary of State's guidance will be guidance only and will not be a plan.

Had we been contemplating strategic guidance in the form of structure plans, the argument that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge advanced would have been much more convincing. There would then have been a case for an examination in public. But that is not the position. The structure plan element is in part 1 of the unitary development plan and it is this which could be the subject of statutory consultation and an inquiry. Alternatively, there could be an examination in public if it was called in by my right hon. Friend. I think that that is the right approach. It is at that point that the statutory planning procedures begin to bite. It is far more appropriate to hold an inquiry once policy is developed to a structure plan level on detail and application than to have one into the Secretary of State's guidance. It is far more appropriate to retain as far as possible responsibility with the local authorities.

The guidance set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not be in the form of tablets of stone. The local planning authorities must "have regard" to it, as is set out in schedule 1,. They must have regard to it when they prepare their unitary development plans. The question of how they have dealt with strategic issues in that plan will be tested through the established practice of public consultations, objections and public local inquiries. There will have to be a public local inquiry at that stage if there are objections to parts I or II of the plan.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

May I press the Minister on a point that was made in Committee regarding local authorities and plans that have already been formulated? Will the flow of planning continue or will the local authorities have to wait for the strategic plan? If so, that would make a terrible mess of local planning arrangements.

Sir George Young

The answer is to be found on page 83, part III, of schedule 1 which deals with transitional provisions. There we have taken on board what the hon. Gentleman said. There is provision for continuity of plans so that useful work does not have to be jettisoned. I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to explain in more detail how that will operate. We had a lengthy debate on continuity and the transitional provisions. What we have now done enables my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ensure that useful planning work continues and that we can move over to the new system of unitary development plans as soon as possible.

To introduce an EIP at an earlier stage for the draft guidance would create a completely unnecessary measure of duplication and unnecessarily prolong the development planning process. I commend the approach in the Bill and ask the House to reject the amendments.

Mr. Cowans

I do not intend to press the amendment to the vote, but I leave the Minister with the thought that it is precisely because the guidance is not a tablet of stone and could be varied from the sublime to the ridiculous hour by hour, day by day, week by week that it is vital that the matter should be brought back to the House. I invite him to look once again at the issue. He did not mention one vital point. Yes, the public will be consulted, but there will be no input after the Secretary of State, having looked at the responses in private, makes a decision. It is at that point that hon. Members are entitled to have a say. However, as I say, I do not intend to press the amendment to a Division and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Back to
Forward to