HC Deb 20 November 2001 vol 375 cc160-3
4. Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

What progress his Department is making in reforming the planning system; and if he will make a statement. [13555]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I shall shortly publish a Green Paper and a number of other consultation documents which, taken together, propose a comprehensive and radical overhaul of the planning system.

Mr. Prisk

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that when large-scale planning developments, such as those at airports, are dealt with in the Green Paper, it is not his intention, nor that of the Government, to restrict the voice of local communities that may wish to challenge such developments?

Mr. Byers

During my statement on terminal 5 at Heathrow, I will speak at greater length about our approach to major infrastructure projects. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we seek a balance between the understandable concerns of local residents who might be affected by a major planning application and the national need to make progress on some of these major projects. I think that most hon. Members agree that our present system is not working effectively. Local people often feel denied the opportunity to express their views and delay is built into the system. We will be publishing a consultation document, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's views on it.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments on the planning system. A public inquiry was held into a planning application in my constituency 12 months ago, yet we are still waiting for a decision. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the new process is speeded up?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend raises the important issue of the speed of dealing with planning applications at a public inquiry. I share his concern about delays, which are often built into the system as a result of that process. The Green Paper, which should be published before Christmas, will deal specifically with that issue.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The Government plan to build 40 towns the size of Slough in England over the next few years. If they intend to build so many houses on greenfield sites, what will happen when we have the sort of rainfall that we saw last year? Will that not mean that even more houses and businesses will be flooded?

Mr. Byers

The Government have put in place measures to encourage the development of brownfield sites to overcome some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman. However, it is interesting that the Conservative party is arguing against the building of new homes for people. It is a reversal of roles: Labour is seen to be the party of the home owner, whereas the Conservatives are denying people the opportunity of purchasing their own homes and will not allow them to be built. That is the Conservative party's position.

Our policies will ensure that the increased demand for people to buy their homes is met. We have got interest rates down and mortgages are more affordable than they were under the Conservative Government. Ten years ago, interest rates were at 15 per cent.—people could not afford mortgages then, but they can now. We will ensure that we meet the increased demand for houses. People should be able to buy their own home and, under this Government, more are able to do so.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that one of the enduring legacies of the 1945 Labour Government was not just the national health service, but the town and country planning legislation that ensured a balance between the national interest and the interests of ordinary people? As I listened to him at the Dispatch Box it seemed to be Lobbyspeak for BAA, BA and all the big battalions that are able to pour money into the Labour party and the Conservative party at party conferences, through exhibitions and by purchasing tables at fund-raising dinners. We look to the Secretary of State to protect the interests of the ordinary individual against the big battalions whose maxim is profit rather than the interests of the environment.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend, in his normal way, has highlighted a particular issue, but I say to him with all respect that, at present, major public planning inquiries have become a banquet for barristers—a lawyers' free lunch. They are the ones who are making money, not the local—[Interruption.] That may well offend the Opposition—[Interruption.]—but not people—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must allow the Minister to answer.

Mr. Byers

The point is that the Attlee Government—as my hon. Friend rightly said—showed how planning could be used as a key lever to achieve social renewal and economic regeneration. However, he must be aware that since then it has become highly technical; those political objectives are no longer achievable in the planning regime. What public inquiries have become is not an opportunity for local communities to have their say, but a place where barristers and lawyers represent the interests of parties to those proceedings. We need to change that, and the consultation document that we shall publish will provide new opportunities for the people about whom my hon. Friend is concerned to have their say, without the need to engage expensive barristers to argue their cause.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Not being a lawyer, unlike the Secretary of State, may I say that what people want is a planning system in which they can have confidence? What is wanted by campaigners such as those opposing motorway service areas in Meriden and Maidenhead, or those fighting to save our country spaces in Ipswich, is a Government who listen. People want homes in a decent environment with a good quality of life, not with green belt and green fields concreted over. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) were confirmed by Lord Falconer recently, when he admitted that the Government are going to remove a tier of local decision making in planning and that as a result local communities will no longer have a voice in major planning decisions?

Mr. Byers

I do not know who won the sweepstake for the first mention of Ipswich—2.52—in this Question Time. People in Ipswich, like people elsewhere in the country, will value the new planning regime that we intend to put in place. It will provide an opportunity to strip out some of the bureaucracy that currently exists and will make the whole planning process far more open and transparent for local people. If one talks to local people, who have been through the experience of a planning appeal and a planning inquiry, they say that the system is not friendly to individuals. We need to put in place a planning mechanism that strips out the bureaucracy and takes it out of the remit of people who are technically expert but who actually deny local people the opportunity to have their say. When the hon. Lady reads the Green Paper, I think that she will feel able to support many of its proposals, because they are straightforward common sense. They will balance the interests of development with the needs of local people and local communities.