HC Deb 16 May 1991 vol 191 cc512-28

`It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State and local planning authorities in discharging any of their functions under this Act to have regard to the desirability of securing sustainable development.'.—[Mr. Win Griffiths.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 132, in clause 14, page 24, line 4, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Mr. Griffiths

Before we consider the new clause, for the sake of clarity, I wish to underline our welcome for a number of the important steps that the Government have made by seeking to introduce some environmentally important matters into the Bill. However, virtually all of them were introduced after pressure from some Conservative Back Benchers as well as the Opposition—for example, the introduction of environmental assessment, the concession which the Government have just made on development plan priority and the important step which I mentioned earlier on interim development orders, when I underlined that we thought that the Government had not gone far enough.

We are in a similar position on sustainable development. The Government took on board a number of important environmental considerations, but unfortunately they were not prepared to move when we tried to press several matters which would have further improved the Bill in Committee. Yet the previous Secretary of State is on record as saying: The planning system is in many ways the most effective tool of environmental management available to us. We agree with what the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) had to say about the planning system.

We know that public concern about the environment is increasing and we were hoping that when the Bill first came to the Lords the Government would have been leading the way by introducing environmental considerations into the planning process. However, in Committee we found that, when we wanted to place an environmental duty on local planning authorities, the Government were not prepared to take that on, even though, in nine other instances, such a duty had been placed on other bodies0 through legislation.

The Government were not prepared to take a further step, from introducing environmental assessments for specific planning proposals, to get local authorities to use environmental assessment techniques when drawing up structure plans, even though there have been preliminary proposals for such developments through European legislation.

The Government were not prepared to require local authorities to survey the natural resources within their area —water, minerals and the use of energy; nor were they prepared to accept the inclusion of policies for the conservation of energy and natural resources in development plans. The Government were not prepared to extend to other areas of environmental concern the present requirements for local authorities to use planning permission to minimise the impact of development on trees.

We have been considering some other way which we think will be consonant with the Government's declared objective. We hope that we have found it in the amendment, and that they will be willing to accept greater concern for environmental matters in the planning process. We want to place a general duty on local authorities to have regard to the benefits of securing sustainable development, which is in line with the Government's previously declared objectives. A precedent in the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill states that Scottish Natural Heritage shall have regard to the desirability of securing that any thing done, whether by SNH or any other person, in relation to the natural heritage of Scotland is undertaken in a manner which is sustainable. The concept of sustainable development has been with us for some years. It is at the heart of much national and international thinking on environment policy and was the key plank of the Brundtland report, "Our Common Future", which gives a definition of sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Sustainable development is not a policy of no growth but a policy that says that growth is necessary and desirable, provided it can be done in a sustainable way. Economic development must be matched to the environmental and other resources that are available. In their response to the Brundtland report, the Government expressly accepted that principle and said that the Government fully intends to continue building on this approach and further to develop policies consistent with the concept of sustainable development. The Government confirmed the relevance of the planning system to sustainable development by stating that the United Kingdom's planning legislation had already put in place some of the policies needed to achieve it.

Introducing the Government's response to the report, the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), said: At the Toronto Summit last month, I joined with my fellow Heads of State or Government in endorsing the concept of sustainable development, the central message of the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development—Our Common Future…The message from the Toronto Summit echoed the Report's call for environmental considerations to be taken into account in all areas of economic policy making. 9 pm

That was in July 1988, but the Government's positive approach to sustainable development was reaffirmed in the environment White Paper which was published last September. That document identified it as the foundation of policy making, and said: The starting point for this Government is the ethical imperative of stewardship…We have a moral duty to look after our planet and to hand it on in good order to future generations. That is what the experts mean when they talk of `sustainable development': not sacrificing tomorrow's prospects for a largely illusory gain today. We must put a proper value on the natural world. It would be odd to cherish a Constable but not the landscape that he depicted. The foundation stone of all the policies in the White Paper is our responsibility to future generations to preserve and enhance the environment of our country and our planet. Statements made several times by the Government show that they wish to take initiatives to further the achievement of sustainable development and that they recognise the role of the planning system in achieving those aims.

We hope that the Government will give new clause 12 a fair wind, as it would be crucial in helping them to further their aims. Although we have had no indication of their thinking on the matter, given its background and their statements made in support of the concept of sustainable development, we hope that they will accept the new clause and place a general duty on local authorities to have regard to sustainable development when considering all planning matters.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I do not want to detain the House long, as many hon. Members wish to return to their constituencies. We all cherish our constituencies, and when one considers what has happened in the past 15 years we learn to cherish them even more. My constituency is still beautiful and contains a large area of outstanding natural beauty. The scale of development leads me to conclude that new clause 12 is well worth supporting, for the reasons so eloquently expressed by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths).

Too often in the past, people have opposed development in areas of natural beauty because they suffer from the NIMBY—"not in my backyard"—syndrome. That has been true in the past 15 or 20 years, when we have seen an explosion in development. It is only natural that people should want to protect what they believe is their special view or their special environment, but there are much wider considerations, as we learn to cherish and treasure what we still have left of our environment. It is concern for those considerations that motivates me, and I believe that I speak on behalf of many of my constituents as they watch the extent and pace of development, which not only may be ugly from an architectural point of view but may jeopardise the environment itself.

As development proceeds apace, our roads become congested. Our infrastructure—our schools and railways—become inadequate. That puts pressure on other Government Departments and on councils responsible for budgets in respect of private development and education.

Mr. Speed

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in his part of the world and mine, the shortage of water represents a very real constraint on such widespread development?

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

I am glad that my hon. Friend has made that point, of which, as an angler, I am well aware. One has only to look around at some of our reservoirs in the south-east and to note the fall in the water table to realise that we are placing in serious jeopardy the water supply that future generations will enjoy.

I shall not elaborate. I think that I have made my point, and I merely ask the Government to respond.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I happened to come through the constituency of the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) yesterday. [HON MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I merely went through and admired it on my way to somewhere else. I understand the hon. Gentleman's attachment to preserving what is best about Sussex and many other counties.

The Government could easily incorporate the important statement of principle that is proposed. In doing so, they would not merely confirm the statements that they have made about the general attitude that should govern all environmental policies; they would add something practical to planning legislation.

At the moment, the duties in planning law fall on the Secretary of State—on the Government—or on local authorities. As I understand it, there is nothing in current planning law that requires that all the various jobs done by Ministers in exercising their powers and by local authorities should be compatible with the aim of upholding sustainable development. For example, it is not a prerequisite of the function of a local authority in drawing up a unitary development plan that all the policies therein should be compatible with sustainable development. When a local authority considers a planning application, whether for mineral extraction, for building a reservoir, or for a housing or industrial development, it is not a requirement that it must take account of the concept of sustainability. Similarly, it is not a requirement of Secretaries of State, in deciding planning applications that are remitted to them, that they should decide whether those applications are consistent with sustainability.

If we write such a requirement into law, we shall be filling a gap. It is no good saying that Ministers and local authorities will impute that requirement to the legislation because, if they do not, there is nothing that anyone can do by way of redress; there can be no argument.

There are obvious practical examples. I am not sure whether there have been such examples in Sussex, but there was a controversial case not long ago in Oxfordshire—very near, in fact, to the constituency of the Secretary of State for the Environment. It was proposed to build a large new residential development in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside. The compatibility of such a proposal with sustainable development raises all sorts of proper questions. For example, is such a development near existing transport routes or will further routes have to be built to service the new town, whether near Henley or near Thame, perhaps with the countryside being destroyed in their wake?

We are talking not only about a statement of principle but about the Government's general commitment, which they now have a chance to enshrine in legislation. It is not just, as the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) rightly reminded the House, that the Government have already adopted, in legislation that has gone through the House in this Session of Parliament in the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill, a very similar set of words reflecting the concept of sustainability. It is a test, in one of the most practical areas, of doing something about it.

The planning law, the powers that we give to those able to influence the planning of our communities, the structural planning of what is built, what is destroyed and the rest, require sustainability. It is no good believing that we can have sustainable economics—from which the Government are still a long way removed—or a sustainable transport or energy policy, unless the simple step is first taken of having a sustainable planning policy reflecting sustainable development.

So, without knowing exactly what the Government will offer in defence, it is anticipated that it will be said that this is unnecessary because structure plans and guidance issued by the Secretary of State will not make specific legislation a requirement. If that is to be the Minister's answer, I must say that it is not explicitly in legislation, it does not explicitly govern the duties on local and central Government and it is not necessarily enough that it is in guidance notes in read-between-the-lines script. If we cannot have it here, the Government will go into the next election—it is not a point that is any more advantageous to me than it is disadvantageous to the hon. Member for Wealden—with the accusation able to be made against them that they had an opportunity to state and implement their commitment to sustainability but did not take it.

Even if it requires the Minister to throw away his present speech and concede that it is a good idea, that he is under pressure and that the Government should have said yes, I hope that he will so concede.

Mr. Steen

I believe that it is recognised on this side of the House that, for the first time in 20 years, a major planning Bill has come before the House. I resent the view expressed by many of my hon. Friends and colleagues that the Bill should be speeded up because we all want to go home. We do not want to go home. This is a very important debate about a very important matter which affects millions of people in the south and the north of this country. Constituents all over Britain will be affected by this planning Bill. It is a very important Bill and I find it extremely disappointing that the Government are so intransigent as to say that no changes can be made. The Government should be making changes and this is a very important series of amendments.

The new clause tabled by the Opposition talks about sustainable development. It is a matter that has been discussed for the past five or six years as the earth's resources have become scarcer. At the same time, amendment 132 in the name of some of my hon. Friends deals with page 24, line 4, of the Bill and asks the Secretary of State to change the word "may" to "shall", so that the Secretary of State shall make regulations to ensure that the environmental impact is considered by planning committees. How harmless that would be, and how important it would be to constituents all over the country who feel that the planning committee and the planning officials are not giving sufficient emphasis to the effect of development on the environment.

It is all very well having local plans—we all agree that local plans are a good thing. It is all very well having PPGs and saying that they keep the thing running and take precedence over the local plan. But why can there not be in local plans a recognition of the environmental impact of building houses and ruining green field sites? Why cannot the environmental consequences be considered?

Why are the Government so resistant to any change whatsoever in this Bill? This is an opportunity that may not occur for another 10 years for the Government, being concerned about the environment, to take a lead instead of always acting because the EC has said that action must be taken. The EC has said that the environmental impact is important. Clause 14 says that the Government may introduce regulations when considering the environmental effects of developments. Why not take a lead and change "may" to "shall"?

Dr. Godman

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we in Scotland are familiar with environmental impact assessments of developments, particularly developments involving the offshore and onshore oil and gas industries.

9.15 pm
Mr. Steen

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. There is nothing new about what is proposed and the Minister may say that it is not needed, but the House may take a different view, and I urge the Minister to take advantage of being able to say, as we cannot say, that he considers this important, - that he is concerned for the Government's reputation of being concerned with green issues and that he is anxious to do something about it. My instinct tells me that he will not do that, and I want to know why.

I want to be able to tell my constituents why, in towns such as Ivybridge, which has grown from 1,500 to 13,000 people today, there are not sufficient school places, why the police do not have sufficient police cover, and why the leisure facilities are inadequate. That state of affairs exists not because South Hams district council has not done a fine job, but because the local authority has not had the resources to deal with, nor was any assessment made of the impact on the environment and infrastructure of', that speed of development.

The town of Roborough, just outside Plymouth, was built first and then thought was given to what the town needed, such as a police station, a school and health care. The amendment would make sure that before local authorities gave planning permission, regard would be given to whether there was enough water for the people, whether the electricity company could cope with providing power to the new homes and whether the gas board and all the other services could provide the necessary facilities.

The little town of Kingsbridge in South Devon was built so quickly that the electricity substation could not cope. The public house at Stokenham, five miles away, is constantly being plunged into darkness because the electricity supply cannot be maintained. It may be romantic occasionally to dine by candelight, but the owner of that public house finds life intolerable. He cannot cook meals because he cannot rely on having power, and often he is unable to see his customers. He has candles constantly burning because the electricity substation cannot cope. That is the environmental impact argument at work.

If local authorities were told that before agreeing to allow more houses to be built, even if they are included on the local plan, they must ensure that public services can be provided, many difficulties would be avoided. For example, they must ensure that the necessary school places are available for the kids who will live in the new homes. Such an approach would result from changing "may" to "shall" in clause 14.

Many of my hon. Friends and I want a firming up of the Government attitude to regulating the speed at which development takes place. If there is a defect in the amendment, at least let the Minister agree to do something about the problem with which it attempts to deal. A prior consideration to all development, even if it is in the local plan, must be the ability of the infrastructure to cope with it. That must be a priority.

I apologise to the House for speaking for so long, but the matter is of great interest to me, to my constituents and, as can be seen by the number of hon. Members present, to many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I shall give three examples in support of the new clause. The first is in an area of my constituency that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know well—Audenshaw. However, I suspect that if you returned to your childhood area, you would find amazing changes. Over the past five or six years, many open spaces have been built on because the local authority has had to agree to planning applications from local builders because it had no reason to turn them down. It turned down a couple of applications, but the builders appealed against the decision and won their case.

The result of all that building is that Audenshaw now has insufficient places in the local primary schools to accommodate the children from the new housing developments. Some of the schools in Audenshaw are fairly old—at least two of the primary schools date back to before you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, attended schools in the area—and can no longer cope with the large influx of children.

The local authority could not have turned down the planning applications for new houses on the basis that it would have insufficient places in the schools to cater for the increased population. It must now cope with the ridiculous position of no longer having enough suitable land on which to build new schools. Other areas within Audenshaw have been put under stress as a result of the substantial number of houses that have been built in the area. The local authority should have had the opportunity to consider how many extra houses Audenshaw could take and what other facilities should be put in place before the houses were built.

My second example is the development of supermarkets and do-it-yourself garden centres in Greater Manchester. Planning permission has now been granted to so many such establishments on the south and east sides of Manchester that they are no longer sustainable. Their success will certainly be to the detriment of groups of shops on housing estates and corner stores, on which the elderly and disabled rely because they cannot drive to the large supermarkets for their shopping.

The approval of planning permission for so many large stores means that some of them, inevitably, will not survive. It may be the philosophy of the Conservative party that such competition is perfectly all right and that it is perfectly acceptable if some stores close down in the future, leaving abandoned and derelict sites. It is not acceptable to me. Planning authorities should be able to take account of how many supermarkets and garden centres are sustainable in an area without reorganising the infrastructure to take account of competitive demands.

Mr. Steen

If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly. he is saying that local plans should be approved and enforced but that the pace of development in an area should be gauged by the planning committee, according to how much development can be sustained.

Mr. Bennett

We should not allow the overprovision of shopping in a district because it will inevitably mean that some of the shops cannot be sustained, which will have a major impact on different groups of people. If local shops on housing estates close, car owners probably do not have a problem, but pensioners and those without cars, such as the disabled, have a major problem. That means that the local authority or another organisation will have to try to obtain home helps to do the shopping for the elderly, which will have considerable cost implications for the local authority. I could develop that point at some length, but I am trying to be brief.

I deeply regret that the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill became an Act. I hope that we do not see any more such private Bills. I fear that, with Government proposals for the privatisation of ports and if private business procedure is reformed, a series of planning applications for the development of some of the ports affected by the ports legislation could come before local authorities. One can make out a case for almost all those ports to expand, not on the basis that this country is to have more imports and exports going through its ports, but simply because one port can take business away from another port.

There should be a limit to that sort of competition, particularly if it means that, each time one of the ports wants to expand, it has to take up a piece of estuary or mudflat—natural habitat that is already in scarce supply. We must make some attempt to look at this country as a whole. We must consider the level of dock development necessary for the country to be sustained and once we have reached that level, we should say that, although it may be nice for Hartlepool, Felixstowe or Southampton to take trade from each other, we do not want competition so that one port takes trade from another, a little bit more estuary disappears and more dockland becomes derelict. We want a sustainable, planned level of port activity, which minimises the amount of natural environment that is destroyed and offers this country some prospect of sustainable development to protect our natural environment for future generations—as outlined in the White Paper.

Mr. Cryer

New clause 12 is of great importance, because development should be sustainable. However, at present, local authority planning committees cannot use that as a relevant factor when making decisions on planning consent. If local councillors say to their officials, "Let's see if this development is sustainable in secure financial terms before we consider giving consent to the developers, so that we are not left with a half-completed development and a pile of rubble on our hands, with the local authority left to pick up the pieces," the officials will almost certainly reply that that is not a planning matter. They will probably say, "If you councillors decide that planning consent should be deferred, the developer may say that that is deemed as refusal and go to court for a judicial review." No one wants to become involved in that procedure, because it is expensive and weighs heavily on the local authorities.

In Bradford, the west end development scheme started off as a fairly modest development involving about £60 million, but the cost has now increased to £300 million and the project includes the proposed demolition and conversion of a perfectly good multiscreen cinema of long-standing—now called the Odeon, formerly the New Victoria—and the part or whole demolition of a co-operative shop based on the designs of Eric Mendelson. The cognoscenti will know that Mendelson was a distinguished pre-war architect who developed a clean, classical, functional, modern line, of which the Bradford Sunwin house co-operative store remains a splendid but isolated national example.

The local authority decided that a firm called 3Ds Ltd. should be the developer. The company has 100 £1 shares, which does not seem to be the soundest basis on which to embark on a development of about £300 million. The company has made it absolutely clear that it depends on city grant for the sustainability of the development but city grant is not negotiated with the local authority, as the Minister knows. The local authority is excluded from the negotiations, which are conducted exclusively between Department of the Environment officials and the developer. Therefore, if the developer is not sustained—let us suppose that the Department of the Environment misjudges and the project falls—who picks up the pieces? The local authority picks up the pieces, but it has been excluded from the beginning. If it raises the question of the sustainability of the development, it is not allowed to pursue it, which is why the new clause is important.

9.30 pm

Let us consider another aspect of city grant and sustainability. Let us suppose, as in the west end scheme in Bradford, that the developer says that he needs £40 million. That is almost all the city grant award, which currently runs at £65 million or £60 million. Let us suppose that, as in this case, the developer has stitched up a deal with Department of Environment officials who say that they cannot award £40 million now but will do so over a period of years. The only application being considered at the time is £5 million of city grant. The Department of the Environment will not answer questions relating to the rest of the £35 million application.

City grant's criteria require housing to be incorporated, but the first section that has been applied for does not include housing. Therefore, it would be reasonable for the local authority to inquire whether the Department of the Environment will give city grant to incorporate housing and to fulfill the criteria in future "tranches"—a buzz word in these affairs—of city grant. However, the Department of the Environment will not even say whether any other applications are being considered, so the sustainability of the project must be open to question.

If the local authority raised the issue of the sustainability of the rolling programme to complete the £300 million development—I am fairly sure, but not certain, that it did—it would be told that that was not a planning aspect to be taken into consideration. After all, if planning consent is given, 3Ds Ltd. might sell it the next day to another developer. In that limited, narrow context, this is not a relevant factor, but it should be because development in the city of Bradford should benefit the people of Bradford. The local authority should be able to scrutinise developments and to ensure as far as is reasonably practicable that the finance is there.

What is even more worrying is the fact that, of the 100 £1 shares of 3Ds Ltd., 30 are issued to a firm called Old Court Ltd., which is registered in Guernsey. I made a request that the planning committee should inquire into the firm to find out why one third of the shares were held in secret, with a complete lack of accountability. Does the firm have adequate resources? What is the financial position, and can the firm sustain the development and ensure that the local authority is not left with piles of rubble from the demolition work in the first phase because the firm has gone into liquidation? Although my letter was read out to the planning committee, I was told that it was not a planning matter and that those points would not be taken into account.

The secret of the 30 £1 shares remained, until I saw the March issue of Labour Research, in which there was an article on firms profiting from pornography. It listed a number of companies involved in pornographic publications. One is a firm called Old Court Ltd., registered in Guernsey, which produces Penthouse and Forum.1t lists another firm called Power Radio Ltd., whose publications include Cheap Thrills and Electric Blue.

In the first phase of development, there is an Omnimax cinema. I wonder what sort of cinema the developers have in mind, in view of the background information. Such information should have been available to the planning committee so that it could examine scrupulously, as it wished to, the sustainability of the west end scheme.

Although some modest infill development in the west end of Bradford may be possible and desirable, the £300 million scheme, with the demolition of a splendid cinema and a perfectly well-designed co-operative shop is neither desirable nor needed. One aspect of scrutiny is consideration by the planning committee of the local authority, which includes elected representatives to exercise a degree of control. If the new clause is not accepted, that possibility remains limited.

I have raised strong reservations about the west: end scheme. I have been informed that there will be scrutiny at the planning stage. However, because of the narrow interpretation of what planning scrutiny is, the scrutiny by the local authority, especially in association with city grant—the Government have deliberately cut out local authorities from the discussion process—is limited.

I hope that all aspects can be taken into fair account in the planning committee's meetings, which are open to the general public. I hope that councillors will have the fullest information so that they can be guided on a wider basis by local authority officials. For that to happen, the new clause will have to be accepted. That would help local democracy, rather than hinder it and it would help planning procedures rather than hinder them.

On a wider basis, as hon. Members of all parties have said, important environmental decisions could be taken into account so that developments are sustainable. Planning decisions should not be dealt with in the short term, with local authorities often having to pick up the pieces because planning decisions are translated into schemes that are not sustainable.

Sir George Young

This has been a useful debate on environmental matters, in which a number of hon. Members have displayed their environmental credentials. I speak as a paid-up member of the Ealing branch of Friends of the Earth. With my wife, I am being sponsored on a tandem ride to Hever castle later this month to raise funds for a friendly and earthy group of people.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) welcomed some of the moves that the Government have made in the Bill, although he said that we could have gone further. When we have resisted amendments, it has often not been because we oppose what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do. We have simply found better ways of doing it than putting it into primary legislation. Often the difference has been on the means rather than on the ends.

I listened to the moving speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith). We all have a responsibility to hand over our constituency—I hope that it will not be for a long time in his case—in the same beautiful condition in which we inherited it. He developed a theme, which was echoed by other hon. Members, that, when one makes a district plan, each ingredient, such as housing, education, water and sewerage should be consistent with the others.

In a sense, the whole point of having a district plan is so that one does not build housing in isolation. One has a five-year plan that sets out the demands of the various statutory undertakers so that one has a planned cohesive development. I will say in a moment or two what we outline in PPG3 about infrastructure and the problems of reconciling all the different parts. I would not dissent from the general thesis of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I shall make a point of saying in a few moments that the amendment is unnecessary, because I know that he would be disappointed if I did not use those words.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) accused the Government of being intransigent. He is unfair in this case. His amendment No. 132 is an amendment to clause 14, which the Government included in the Bill in response to pressure in Committee—a concession from the Government on environmental assessment which my hon. Friend seeks to drive a stage further. So perhaps that is not the best example to allege that the Government are intransigent.

I listened to the points made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). He said that there should be a coherent approach so that all the infrastructure pieces fall neatly into place. I think that I am right in saying that the House is looking at the relationship between environmental assesment and private Bills.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), in an ingenious speech, developed the word "sustainability" in a sense that no one else had suggested. He spoke of financial sustainability, while everyone else was talking about environmental sustainability. In a sense, he may have done some damage to those tabling the amendments simply by casting doubt on what is meant by sustainability.

At first glance, new clause 12 appears beguiling and unexceptionable. As an expression of principle, I could not find fault with it. Indeed, as has already been pointed out, in the environment White Paper, "This Common Inheritance" last year, the Government made clear their view that the concept of sustainable developments must guide our approach to the custody and use of the world's resources.

On a general level, the term "sustainable development" can be defined in a number of ways. The White Paper described sustainable development as living on the earth's income rather than eroding its capital…keeping the consumption of renewable natural resources within the limits of their replenishment and handing down to successive generations not only man-made wealth…but also natural wealth, such as clean and adequate water supplies, good arable land, a wealth of wild life and ample forests. In other words, we should not sacrifice tomorrow's prospects for a largely illusory gain today.

The Brundtland report, "Our Common Future", quoted by the hon. Member for Bridgend, defines the principle in similar terms as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. I suspect that all hon. Members would accept those as general acceptable descriptions of the principle. But even laudable general principles do not always translate well into legislation, and I think that that was the case here. The difficulty arises when we consider just how the requirement in the new clause would work in practice on a day-to-day basis.

Local planning authorities are already statutorily required, when dealing with planning applications, to have regard to the material provisions of the development plan and to all other material considerations. Schedule 3 provides that local plans must include policies for conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the land, and for improving the physical environment. Every development proposal will therefore be considered in the context of those policies.

New clause 12 would introduce a wholly new element into the determination of every development proposal. Each planning application would be subjected to the test of whether it secured sustainable development. That would substantially and unacceptably unbalance the planning system, conflicting with the thesis on which it has always operated—that development proposals should be allowed unless they would cause demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance.

The hon. Member for Bridgend mentioned the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill which contains a similar provision to that suggested here. That is designed to guide the actions of a particular body—Scottish Natural Heritage. Because it has a statutory duty to weigh all material considerations before reaching a decision on a planning application, the position of the local authorities and the Secretary of State is different from that of Scottish Natural Heritage, which has a narrower remit.

In practice, as we have seen from the debate just now, new clause 12 would attract differing interpretations of what sustainable development means. It would leave much room for subjective assessments, not only by decision-makers but by those affected by proposed development. That would be likely to lead to many more unresolved conflicts of opinion and an increase in the number of planning appeals. Some local planning authorities could use the proposed new provision unscrupulously to prevent development that they wanted to block for any reason.

One could argue that any development that uses aggregates is not a sustainable development because there is a finite supply of aggregates. There is difficulty in saying to an authority that, with each application, it must—whatever the terms of the new clause—have regard to the desirability of securing suitable sustainable development. One could use that to knock out almost any development.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Minister knows that the concerns that he expressed can be met by planning guidance or planning circulars. If the Government make a statement of principle in the Bill, as they have in planning legislation since the war, it can be amplified and clarified by circulars and guidance—which can be the subject of consultation before being issued. Individual decisions would then be compatible with that general requirement, and a local authority would not need to have regard to sustainability as one of the requirements that it must observe. The Minister did not cite an existing example, and I suspect that that is because none exists.

9.45 pm
Sir George Young

If the hon. Gentleman is saying that local authorities should have a general duty to promote sustainable development, that is a thesis with which we can all agree. However, new clause 12 suggests that it shall be the duty of the Secretary of State and of local planning authorities, in discharging any of their functions, to have regard to the desirability of sustainable development. A local authority could use that to reject any development it chose, on the ground that it was not sustainable.

Mr. Hughes

indicated dissent.

Sir George Young

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey shakes his head, but if one includes such a provision in primary legislation, local planning authorities will have a perfect opportunity to block just about anything they wanted.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Is not the Minister using an extreme example? He knows that such a practice would quickly be countered by planning guidance from his Department, if needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) suggested the use of a statutory instrument procedure as a way of keeping us all involved in the process. The Minister is trying to excuse himself from accepting what he knows to be a perfectly good principle, by citing an extreme example.

Sir George Young

I have made it clear that I have no difficulty with the principle. The Government have already signed up to it—I quoted the White Paper. The hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground when he suggests that it does not matter if the legislation is slightly wrong, because it could be corrected by guidance. The whole thrust of the debate earlier today was that a number of my hon. Friends do not like the prospect of the Government using PPGs to change the planning system. The hon. Member for Bridgend must make up his mind whether he wants the Government to put things right by way of PPGs, or whether he is more interested in putting sensible legislation on the statute book.

I sympathise with the aim underlying the new clause. The Government wholeheartedly support the concept of sustainable development—we are on record as saying so. Such an expression of general principle is useful to inform and guide the development of Government policy on environment matters. However, the new clause would give rise to intractable practical difficulties. Its apparent innocuousness is deceptive. Whatever is put on the statute book must have a discernible intention, and interpretation of the clause would inevitably be open to abuse.

Mr. Steen

If the Minister cannot accept sustainable development, does he not agree that clause 14—which, as he pointed out, the Government inserted, and for which I am grateful—provides an easier way to proceed? It provides, very simply, that the Secretary of State may make regulations about the environmental impact of any proposed development. He need merely change the word "may" to "shall", and get on with it.

Sir George Young

Perhaps I can get on with it and deal with amendment 132, which requires the Secretary of State to make regulations under clause 14. As I said a moment ago, clause 14 was added in Committee, following careful consideration of the points made in several debates on environmental assessment in another place, and by hon. Members on both sides of this House on Second Reading. The clause provides an enabling power under which the Secretary of State can make regulations requiring environmental assessment of classes of development before planning permission is granted. Such regulations may make provision similar to that made in the regulations under the European Communities Act 1972, which implement the EC directive on environmental assessment.

We agreed to the inclusion of the clause because we support the principle that, where a development project is likely to have significant environmental effects, those effects ought to be assessed before the project is permitted to go ahead, and because we also accept that the existing Community directive may not cover all kinds of project that are likely to have significant environmental effects, and which ought therefore to be the subject of assessment. But the coverage of the EC directive, and of the implementing regulations, is very full, so we do not expect it to be necessary to cover many types of project in regulations under the clause. If hon. Members consult "Environmental Assessment: A Guide to the Procedures", and the annexes in particular, they will note that most of the developments to which environmental assessment is appropriate are already included. The types are set out at the back. The reason why we included that is that some projects may fall outside it.

It is too early to say what kinds of project might be included in regulations under the clause. That is why we prefer the permissive option to the compulsion suggested in the amendment.

We have undertaken that the Government will consult those concerned before making such regulations. A number of suggestions have been made both in this House and in another place, and we will of course be looking at them. The principal criteria must be whether projects of the types in question are likely to have significant environmental effects, and whether they are already covered by the existing directive. The scope of the directive is, after all, very wide and the types of project that it covers already require assessment by virtue of the regulations implementing it.

A final consideration relates to activities that are subject to the internationally competitive market. Our objective is to maintain a level playing field throughout the Community and in such cases we would aim to agree an amendment to the directive rather than to take unilateral action under clause 14

. I have tried to explain why we cannot go along with the new clause, although we subscribe to the philosophy behind it. I have also explained why we prefer the permissive way in which clause 14 is expressed. I hope that, on reflection, the Opposition will not press the new clause to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 24, Noes 116.

Division No. 148] [9.52 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Kirkwood, Archy
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Meale, Alan
Bellotti, David Nellist, Dave
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Pike, Peter L.
Boateng, Paul Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Skinner, Dennis
Cox, Tom Soley, Clive
Cryer, Bob Vaz, Keith
Dixon, Don Wallace, James
Godman, Dr Norman A. Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet Tellers for the Ayes:
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Thomas McAvoy.
Kennedy, Charles
Adley, Robert Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Alexander, Richard King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Kirkhope, Timothy
Amess, David Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Amos, Alan Knowles, Michael
Arbuthnot, James Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Maclean, David
Ashby, David Malins, Humfrey
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Mans, Keith
Baldry, Tony Maude, Hon Francis
Bellingham, Henry Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Benyon, W. Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Bevan, David Gilroy Meyer, Sir Anthony
Blackburn, Dr John G. Mills, Iain
Bottomley, Peter Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Moate, Roger
Bowis, John Moss, Malcolm
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Moynihan, Hon Colin
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Neubert, Sir Michael
Brazier, Julian Nicholls, Patrick
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Norris, Steve
Browne, John (Winchester) Page, Richard
Budgen, Nicholas Paice, James
Burt, Alistair Patnick, Irvine
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Carrington, Matthew Porter, David (Waveney)
Chapman, Sydney Powell, William (Corby)
Chope, Christopher Rathbone, Tim
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Rhodes James, Robert
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Cope, Rt Hon John Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Couchman, James Sackville, Hon Tom
Currie, Mrs Edwina Shaw, David (Dover)
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Shersby, Michael
Davis, David (Boothferry) Sims, Roger
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Dover, Den Speller, Tony
Dunn, Bob Stanbrook, Ivor
Freeman, Roger Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Gale, Roger Stevens, Lewis
Garel-Jones, Tristan Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Goodlad, Alastair Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Gregory, Conal Twinn, Dr Ian
Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E') Viggers, Peter
Hague, William Waller, Gary
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Warren, Kenneth
Hawkins, Christopher Watts, John
Hayes, Jerry Wilshire, David
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney Winterton, Mrs Ann
Hayward, Robert Winterton, Nicholas
Hind, Kenneth Wood, Timothy
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Yeo, Tim
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Hunter, Andrew
Irvine, Michael Tellers for the Noes:
Jack, Michael Mr. David Lightbown and Mr. Tim Boswell.
Janman, Tim

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Speaker

The Prime Minister—business motion.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Not moved, Sir.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am on my feet.

Further consideration of the Bill adjourned.—[Mr. Chapman.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee), to be further considered tomorrow.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Every morning, you have to go through the Order Paper. You know that today's Order Paper contains a business motion to enable the debate on the Planning and Compensation Bill to continue after 10 o'clock. The Government are now in such a mess that they cannot even move their own business motion. They have reached the end of their tether.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

There cannot be any point of order. I called the 10 o'clock business motion, but it was not moved.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The answer to your question, "Debate to be resumed what day?" was, "Tomorrow." We have to presume that that is a fiction, because there is business set down for tomorrow until 2.30 pm. Given that the Government accept that there will be lots of time in which this Bill can be debated, that they clearly recognise that an early election is off the agenda, and that we all here for several months to come, including you, Sir, perhaps they will have a chance to re-think some of the unsound policies in this Bill and get them right second time round.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I had better deal with points of order one at a time. "Tomorrow" is secret language; it might mean any day.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As this is a Government who care about the family, is it in order for us to go home now, at 10 o'clock?

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As we were expecting to complete the Bill tonight and as many of us stayed here to debate items that we have not reached, has the Leader of the House given you any sign that he wishes to make a statement about the business of the House? There was a statement earlier today announcing next week's business. May we expect him to make a request to you to make a statement, or can we assume that tomorrow is some time away?

Mr. Cryer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make it clear that the Opposition are keen to go ahead with the Bill? Indeed, when you were not in the Chair, Conservative Members complained at the way in which the Government were trying to curtail debating time. I imagine that Conservative Members who are interested in this important legislation will feel even more aggrieved that the Government are not pressing ahead. We invite them to do so. We are willing to scrutinise the Bill, but they have thrown the towel in, and it is a disgrace.

Mr. Wilshire

Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). Is it parliamentary language to describe the 24 Labour Members who voted against the clause just now as "many"? I thought that I heard the hon. Member for Burnley say that many Opposition Members wished to carry on the debate. I do not think that 24 is many.

Mr. Soley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The real point behind all this and behind the secret language that you are referring to is the secret language of new clause 16 and of new clause 22, which deals with hedgerows. The Government face defeat on both clauses because sufficient Conservative members were not going to support them. I suggest, through you, Mr. Speaker, that there is an opportunity for the Government to complete the Bill as they intended to do tonight. Indeed, consultations with members of our Front Bench confirmed that the Government wanted to do so. If they concede on clause 22, as I suggested to them in a bid at the beginning, we would be willing to continue on that basis; the arrangements that they make on clause 16 are a matter for them. Otherwise, the only interpretation is that the Government cannot deliver their members on a vote of this sort.

Sir George Young

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have been debating a large and complex 76-clause Bill. This evening many hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken a keen interest in the passage of the Bill. We have a long way to go, and, in the Government's view, it makes sense to devote further time on another day to the completion of this important measure. No doubt the usual channels will be in discussion to find a suitable time.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that we need any more points of order. I often hear Members complaining that they are kept up late at night. Legislation is not—

Mr. Haynes

This is a correction.

Mr. Speaker

Legislation is not well dealt with at a late hour. The Government have not moved their motion; there is nothing more to be said. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) can get his car and go back to his constituency.

Mr. Haynes

It is not fair. I am trying to listen to you, Mr. Speaker, but there is a load of rabble rousers on the Conservative Benches. I never heard a word that you said. I rise to correct something that was said by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). He referred to 24 Labour Members voting. There were two Opposition Whips, and I was one of them. That is 26, not 24. You, Mr. Speaker, should correct him.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is right. If he did not hear me, I said that he should now get his car and go home.