HC Deb 01 April 1998 vol 309 cc1350-5
Mr. Caborn

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 11, leave out from beginning of line 32 to end of line 19 on page 14.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 5, in page 12, line 4, leave out 'consult' and insert 'obtain the consent of.

No. 6, in page 12, line 6, at end insert— '(4A) The consent of a local authority under subsection (4) shall not be deemed to have been obtained unless such consent was expressed at a meeting of the full council for the local authority concerned.'.

Government amendments Nos. 9 to 11.

Mr, Caborn

In Committee, I made a commitment to review the need for the provisions in clauses 24 to 27. These provisions were intended to give the RDAs reserve planning powers similar to those bestowed by the Conservative Government on English Partnerships, whose regional regeneration functions the RDAs will be taking over. Having taken the opportunity to review these provisions following the debates in Committee, we have decided not to proceed with them.

Amendment No. 4 removes clauses 24 to 27 from the Bill. Amendments Nos. 5 and 6, which would have required the consent of local authorities to the use of the designation order procedure, become irrelevant, since we are proposing to delete clause 24. Amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11 are minor consequential changes to clauses 28 and 37.

The reserve powers in clauses 24 to 27 would have given the Secretary of State discretion to designate an RDA as the local planning authority for all, or part of, its area. We put these reserve powers in the Bill because we felt that RDAs, like English Partnerships, would benefit from having access to them—even if, in practice, they were never used. Our intention was that the use of the powers would be exceptional. Indeed, English Partnerships has never sought to use them, preferring instead to act in concert with local government.

We feel that the success and effectiveness of the RDAs will depend in large measure on their ability to build consensus in their regions and to pull regional stakeholders together around a commonly agreed regional strategy. The RDAs will want to work with local planning authorities to seek a common approach to development and regeneration. Given the emphasis RDAs will place on partnership working, I would not have expected RDAs to need to use the reserve planning powers in practice.

It was clear from representations made to me by a number of stakeholders, and in particular by the Local Government Association, that it was felt inappropriate to give the RDAs reserve planning powers. We listened to the arguments and we agree that the best course is not to proceed with those powers in the Bill. If one of the key regional partners, local government, feels so strongly that the provisions are undesirable, it would clearly be unwise to retain them.

In common with the approach that I expect RDAs to adopt in their work, the Government have managed the Bill in a spirit of co-operation and openness. We have listened to the arguments of both sides, both in Committee and outside. We have accepted that a change to the Bill is the best way forward. That is a listening Government who are willing to make changes to policy.

Mr. Curry

Come on Richard, say it again.

Mr. Caborn

Put it this way, few changes went on to the statute book under the previous Government, although we spent many, many hours discussing them. At least we can say that we are prepared to listen to the arguments. Even though some of the powers were given under the old regime to urban development corporations and English Partnerships, we are prepared to review them and adapt the Bill in the light of common sense.

9.15 pm

While not having specific planning powers themselves, RDAs will have a key planning role in their areas. As the economic development bodies in their regions, they will adopt a partnership approach with local authorities and other stakeholders. They will have specific input to regional planning by contributing to the development of regional planning guidance, which in turn will inform RDAs' regional strategies. It will be a two-way process. Given that regional planning guidance is the crucial strategic input to the plan-led system to which planning applications must have regard, it is unlikely that the RDAs would ever need to rely on reserve planning powers.

Beyond their role in planning issues, RDAs will have a lot to do. As well as pulling together regional economic development work around a commonly agreed strategy in each region, they will inherit the regional regeneration role of English Partnerships and the rural regeneration work of the Rural Development Commission. In addition, they will take the lead on inward investment in their regions. We do not, therefore, wish to proceed with the provisions that give them reserve planning powers.

Mr. Yeo

I welcome the Minister's achievement in becoming, at least in this respect, a listening Minister in a listening Government. I welcome his commitment to making the RDAs work in partnership with local authorities.

Although it is listed as a Government amendment, we can unreservedly welcome amendment No. 4 because it is our amendment. We tabled it on 11 March. I am glad that the Secretary of State tabled an identically worded one on 23 March. I have been advised by the Clerk that it should not have been accepted because it was identically worded. [Interruption.] I am just outlining the facts, embarrassing though they may be to the Government. The consequence was that the Secretary of State's name was added to the Opposition amendment. As the Minister said, if amendment No. 4 is passed, our amendments Nos. 5 and 6 will be rendered irrelevant.

The Government's conversion to sense, however slow it has been in coming, is good but it is important to explore how tortuous the conversion process has been. The Minister would not expect me to gloss over the sequence of events.

Mr. Fitzpatrick

Yes we would.

Mr. Yeo

As the Minister said, such an achievement was seldom recorded by the Government when they were in opposition.

Originally, clauses 24 to 27 in effect gave the Secretary of State power to remove the planning responsibilities of elected local authorities and transfer them to regional development agencies. The Secretary of State could have taken away planning, one of the most crucial functions of an elected council, and transferred it to an unelected quango appointed by him, operating from an office perhaps miles outside the district concerned and accountable only to him. Those clauses were an attack on the powers of elected local authorities. They made a mockery of the claim in paragraph 9.2 on page 43 of the White Paper, which states: The intention is not to take powers or resources away from local authorities". The clauses that amendment No. 4 would delete took powers away from local authorities, and were among the most damaging clauses in the Bill.

Planning control over any part of England could have been removed from local authorities and given to regional development agencies at the stroke of the Secretary of State's pen. The profound fears that this proposal rightly provoked were made much worse by the Minister's initial refusal to admit what these clauses enabled the Secretary of State to do.

In Standing Committee on 3 February, it seemed that the Minister had not read his own Bill. He asked me: Will the hon. Gentleman tell me which of the Bill's proposals will remove powers from local authorities? He then asked me again: Which powers will be taken from local authorities?"—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 3 February 1998; c. 104–5.] As the Standing Committee was at that stage debating clause 2, it is understandable that the Minister had not read as far ahead as clause 24. We should be flattered that the Minister had to ask us what the Bill would enable him to do. The House should be appalled and the country should be alarmed that the Government have put a Bill through Standing Committee without appreciating the effect of its provisions.

A week later, on 10 February, the Minister seemed to think that he had discovered the answers to his own questions. He realised that the Bill gave the possibility of planning powers to regional development agencies. He claimed that these powers were precisely the same as those that previous legislation had bestowed on English Partnerships.

On 12 February, in response to my point of order exposing the Minister's previous errors, he admitted that the powers in clauses 24 to 27, which the Secretary of State intended to give to regional development agencies, were wider than the powers given to English Partnerships under previous legislation. It is clear that English Partnerships' powers were specifically limited.

In contrast, under clause 24 the regional development agencies could be given planning control over any part of England that is suitable for regeneration or development. The words "or development" include land that is not at present developed. That provision scarcely imposes any constraint.

On 17 February, when the Standing Committee debated those clauses, it soon became clear that their potential effects were devastating, that they struck at the very heart of the principles of local government, and that they undermined the democratic basis of our planning system. Initially the Minister resisted our attempts to rid the Bill of these damaging provisions but, after two hours of debate, light eventually dawned and he confirmed that the Government would have a rethink. What a relief that is to everyone concerned in the parts of England that were threatened. That process of discovery and the way in which the light dawned has been instructive.

The Government have made their familiar journey from denial of a problem, through panic at the realisation that there is a problem, to confusion about how to solve it. It is a journey that the Minister and others responsible for planning seem to take regularly. Each time they do so, they prove that the protection of the countryside and of the green belt is not safe in the Government's hands. Even as the Bill was in Standing Committee, the Government announced a climbdown over the proportion of new homes that should be built on previously developed sites. That climbdown was intended as a reassurance to those who fear the consequences of the loss of the English countryside.

The green words, perhaps dictated by a spin doctor, were spouted at the Dispatch Box by the Secretary of State. He trumpeted his conversion to the Conservative party's policy of setting a higher target for the proportion of new homes to be built on previously developed sites by raising it from 50 per cent. to 60 per cent. In doing so, he overruled the Minister for London and Construction, who had previously gone on record as describing any target over 50 per cent. as a "recipe for disaster".

As is so often the case with this Government, that greener rhetoric is only words and is not backed by any deeds. For example, the sequential and phased approach to planning in respect of planning guidance for new homes, which was mentioned by the Secretary of State when he made his statement to the House, which is certainly needed and which, if introduced, would have our support, has not unfortunately been followed up. It has not been mentioned again.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he is going wide of the amendment. He must restrict his remarks to the amendment before the House.

Mr. Yeo

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is my concern about the potentially devastating effects of the planning powers that clauses 24 to 27 bestow on RDAs that leads me to give one or two examples of the possible consequences of those planning powers. We have seen many such examples, one in West Sussex.

Mr. Day

My hon. Friend may have heard the Minister, from a sedentary position, commenting that the amendments would remove the particular planning powers to which my hon. Friend refers. If so, perhaps my hon. Friend might like to invite the Minister to tell the House why the Government put those powers there in the first place.

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend is quite right. The Minister might have mentioned that and offered some explanation when he opened the debate. The amendment deletes four of the most important clauses in the Bill—clauses that he defended throughout Second Reading and in Standing Committee—but the Minister gave no explanation as to who made the original blunder of including the clauses. Whose head is going to roll? Which Minister is now considering his position in the light of the withdrawal of powers that were central to the functions that the Bill bestows on RDAs?

Mr. Day

Perhaps my hon. Friend also recalls that, in the Committee, the Minister took the line that the powers should still exist right up until he reached the last page of his brief, which he obviously had not noticed previously.

Mr. Yeo

I remember the occasion very well and it was not even the Minister's first intervention in that stage of the Standing Committee. We had one long intervention in response to the debate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Interesting though the hon. Gentlemen's recollections may be, Committee stage has passed and the proceedings are on record in Hansard for anyone to read. I do not need to hear the hon. Gentlemen's recollections—they must speak to the amendment before us.

Mr. Yeo

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and for the generosity of your indulgence, which has allowed my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) and I to recall one of the most enjoyable sessions of the Standing Committee on the Bill.

The fact is that amendment No. 4, which we support, does at least ensure that the Government's rather shameful attempt to undermine the democratic basis of the planning system has now been thwarted. It ensures that the Government's attack on the powers of democratically elected local authorities has, on this occasion, been successfully fought off by Conservative determination— [Laughter.] These are serious matters and I do not know why they are causing so much mirth on the Government Benches. The amendment ensures that the people who take initial planning decisions will at least be those who have some responsibility for and some relationship with the areas which those decisions will affect. The amendment was tabled by Conservative Members and Ministers initially argued against its effects, but their conversion to our way of thinking is welcome and the amendment has my total support.

Mr. Caborn

I wish to respond to a couple of points. As we said many times in the Standing Committee, we believe that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) is wasting his talents as a politician: he should be a fantasy writer. We think that his books would sell better than those by Lord Archer.

For the record, powers from English Partnerships and from urban development corporations were put on the statute book by the previous Government. They took those powers from local authorities and gave them to quangos. We have now returned those powers to their rightful position: with local authorities in the democratic process. We are proud to have done that.

Amendment agreed to.

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