HL Deb 13 March 1990 vol 516 cc1521-38

6.55 p.m.

Lord Northfield rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to implement the proposals in the 1989 White Paper The Future of Development Plans, in particular those concerning regional guidance and county structure plans.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have given to the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, advance notice of the questions I shall put about the White Paper as supplemented by the draft planning policy guidance paper of November 1989. As in a previous discussion, I declare an interest in Consortium Developments Limited and as a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association.

There is confusion in the media. On 9th February the environment correspondent of the Financial Times reported that the White Paper had been "pigeon-holed" and "left to gather dust". However, on 9th March the chief political correspondent of The Times said that we could expect legislation in the next Session. Hence the need for my Question this evening.

Of course, it was Mr. Ridley's White Paper. The new Minister, Mr. Patten, was put in power to soften the Conservative image. He is a keen supporter of Mr. Ridley's poll tax. We see him on television smiling and nodding as the Prime Minister takes the flak about it at Question Time. On the other hand, every day he tries to distance himself from Mr. Ridley decking out with green trimmings many of the skeletons he finds in Mr. Ridley's cupboards at the department and trimming policies in the hope of obtaining votes for the Conservative Party. He fosters—if I may use a tease—a sort of cuddly teddy bear image, hoping to reassure, by contrast to the aesthetic Mr. Ridley. Wonder of wonders, after 10 years in which local government has been despised, denigrated and emasculated by Ministers, he seeks to make friends and comfort shire councillors.

In the circumstances, my Question is serious: is legislation still planned and is, as The Times reports, the role of the county councils to be more preserved than Mr. Ridley, at least, intended?

We can sympathise with the aims of the White Paper to simplify and speed up the planning system. Yes, structure plans have in some cases become too detailed. They are out of date when finally adopted and approved by Ministers. Alterations are needed immediately and are in turn out of date when they are finally adopted and approved. Local plans cover only a minority of districts.

Having said that, the White Paper is in my view incompletely thought out and, most important of all, distinctly unbalanced when we examine its details. The proposed replacement system is riot in doubt. It is a new pyramid or cascade. National guidance, if any, is from Ministers at the top. Regional guidance, based on submissions to Ministers by grouped local authorities, is in the middle. At the bottom there are very slimmed-down county planning policies and detailed district planning policies consistent with the regional policy and with each other.

The weakest part of the White Paper concerns the all-important regional guidance which will govern county and district policies. No fewer than 15 national bodies—the RICS, the surveyors, the RTPI, the town planners, the TCPA, CBI and NFU, for example—made a joint submission to the DOE that the, weakest part of the proposals in the White Paper is its handling of the strategic … aspect".

This, I repeat, is the most important part of the framework governing the stages at county and district level. However, the paragraphs describing it in Part III of the White Paper are perfunctory, to say the least. In Part III, where the detailed procedures for plan-making are supposed to be found, it is not dealt with at all.

Therefore, we need to ask some important questions. First, is regional guidance, still not properly set out, to be given legislative force—binding "statutory recognition", as Mr. Patten put it in a November speech to the Town and Country Planning Association? If so, then we really must have a lot more detail about what it is to cover and how it is to be drawn up.

Secondly, the White Paper apparently leaves it to interested counties to get together in groups like SERPLAN for the South-East region—whose chairman, I am delighted to see, has joined us this evening—to propose draft regional guidance. Is it really to be as haphazard as this? Are the groups to contain just the ones who are willing to get together and then to get the force of law? Is there to be no departmental scheme to get regional bodies under way or is regional guidance in some areas at least to be merely ministerial order enforced by law?

Thirdly, there is one yawning gap. The new slimline county policies, and the district policies at the bottom, will be examined in public before a panel or an inspector, but what about regional guidance? No public examination is to be permitted and the supplemental planning paper indicates that it will be protected from challenge at public inquiries. How undemocratic can we get? I foresee applications for judicial review and High Court cases based on denial of natural justice if this provision is put into law.

Furthermore, what the White Paper calls the "definite range of subjects" that are to be covered by the new slimline county policies are set out in the White Paper but no parallel range is given for the proposed regional guidance. Will that be remedied? If not, and when we are legislating for the new system, how will we know what is intended? The Town and Country Planning Association has put forward an excellent draft formulation of what regional guidance should cover, particularly mentioning issues that are too big to be left to counties or what we might call "hot potatoes" that county councillors will not wish to handle in regional bodies. There is a great danger of "pass the parcel" or the sheer avoidance of difficult issues in the regional groupings based, as such attitudes often can be, on orders to the participating county councillors from representatives of the counties back in their electoral areas.

Why is there no attempt to broaden the approach of bodies like SERPLAN, perhaps not as far as the former regional planning councils, and certainly not, I emphasise, by opening up the membership to interested business or conservation bodies? Is it really the case that the Secretary of State is content, as the chairman of SERPLAN informs me, that such bodies should simply be the mouthpiece of local authorities. Should there not be at least some guidance on effective outside consultation with other interests. Once the Minister has looked at the findings and agreed them, can we give legislative authority to this guidance, if none of it has taken place in public, so that the public may know about it?

Of course, getting an identity of view with outside parties is impossible, because planning is too difficult for that. However, the building of sympathy and understanding; a sense of shared responsibility about the future of the region, could be cultivated to replace the suspicion that exists about SERPLAN. Should there not be some guidance about the methodology to be followed in drawing up guidance and for the research that will be needed at regional level? I repeat that things should not be done behind closed doors, particularly if the decisions are to be given legislative force.

I end with some questions about the county and district policies which form the bottom rungs of the new ladder. Apparently the Secretary of State is to relinquish his power to approve these plans, but he retains reserve powers. Will he have a statutory duty to secure consistency with regional guidance and decisions down the line, as well as to remedy obvious flaws brought out at the proposed public examination by a panel or an inspector?

The Royal Institute of British Architects has voiced a particular concern about district plans and I draw it to the Minister's attention. The old pre-1968 development plan system became discredited largely because the then single-tier county plans were overloaded with site-specific proposals causing extensive objections and long delays. The system became discredited. That situation will surely return in the case of the new district planning policies if, as is proposed in paragraph 27 of the accompanying PPG paper, plans are to become almost immune from challenge when adopted, almost inflexible against interpretation and unable to be challenged before inspectors hearing appeals.

Individuals and developers will naturally have to plump for putting their proposals forward at the district plan stage, as in the old discredited system, with all the dangers of overloading that killed off that system. I hope that the Government have taken on board this criticism from the RIBA and that they are prepared to look again at paragraph 27.

Lastly, I turn to the issue of demand for homes and market forces. What a fall there has been from the mid-1980s, when Ministers wanted to make room for these forces in the planning regime! The White Paper of 1985 called Lifting the Burden and now, alas, of happy memory only, said: development plans are one, but only one, of the material considerations that must be taken into account in dealing with planning applications".

That White Paper was drafted by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, and he told me so at the time. I wonder if all that has now been dropped. I ask whether it is significant that market forces and demand are now banished completely from mention in the 1989 White Paper, despite the findings, for example, of Coopers & Lybrand, in a report commissioned by the DoE, that councils cannot estimate and provide for market demand. The report states that, ministers should ensure that, in any appeal decision, adequate weight is given to market demand—and seen to be so given".

Of course we must take great care to protect the environment in this small island. In case I am challenged, on a personal note I am proud to have done my own share, for example, in making a beautiful town at Telford out of coal tips and in being a special adviser to the European Commission during the drafting of directives to protect the environment and water quality. But there must also be balance. I suspect that, in the rush to put on green trimmings in this White Paper, the Government are losing the courage of their convictions about the legitimate role of market forces, the need for homes and the right to challenge plans that, in some cases, will not be seen to be democratically drawn up and open to challenge. In other cases people will not be allowed to question plans that may be parochial, narrow-sighted and out of date.

That is a danger towards which we might be drifting as a result of this White Paper. Most disturbingly, it looks as if the Minister wants to create certainty in planning by abdicating much of his role that has been enshrined in legislation for 40 years; namely, being an actual part of the planning system, there to grasp nettles, to insist on the wider view and to provide a certain flexibility which has been the cornerstone of our system. In particular, I hope that the Minister will assure me that the highly restricted wording of paragraph 27 in the accompanying planning paper will be reconsidered.

7.9 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the joy of watching a Labour Peer lecturing the Tory Front Bench on the virtues of Adam Smith and accusing them of failing in their duty passes all understanding. This is an immensely important subject. It goes without saying that good buildings or great landscapes can be destroyed in an instant but the results of that destruction last forever. Therefore, it is with genuine pleasure that I saw the subject which the noble Lord had put down as an Unstarred Question.

The White Paper seems to me to be a model of clarity, even though on occasions it uses unnecessary adjectives. In paragraph 1.2, where the importance of development plans is stated, the last sentence reads: The need now is for a system which is flexible and responsive in providing for these changes but which maintains its protection of those areas whose continued conservation is important to the future quality of life in Britain". That seems to me to be an objective with which we can all agree and to which we should all give support.

Similarly, paragraph 2.13 on the roles of the counties is a model of clarity and common sense. Equally, the procedures for plan-making and their general principles (in paragraph 3.2) again command attention and respect. However, a small frisson of worry entered my mind when I read in paragraph 3.18 that Secretaries of State may be permitted, more selective intervention than at present". That could be a licence to meddle. Unfortunately ambitous men who enter politics are energetic and not idle. One could give idle Secretaries of State the ability to meddle, but it is dangerous to allow energetic and ambitious ones that privilege.

I have shown a genuine welcome to the White Paper, but I hope 1 may add a plea for policies in the countryside which I think should be beneficial. It is even possible to argue that the occasional small house or small business should be allowed in green belt areas. Incidentally, it is true that most National Trust treasures, like my old home, Clandon, would now be refused planning permission and certainly disobey building regulations. It is not what happens in a building that matters; it is its shape and size. It is much more sensible that a barn in Wales or Surrey—both counties subject to very different pressures, but pressures all the same—should be occupied and used, be it by industry or as a house, than that they should be allowed to fall down. It is the impact on the environment rather than the use which should be measured and, above all, controlled.

Is there enough flexibility in these new proposals? The environmental damage done by blanket planting of conifers needs no further emphasis; it is almost too well known. That planting also is unfortunately not subject to planning control. The development of huge mono-class housing estates, with few shops, pubs or light industry, makes for commuter communities and boring towns.

We have a very decent development near my home, but it is nothing but houses. It is a great pity that there is not a greater variety of houses in that development and, furthermore, that there is not the odd small business among the houses, be it a small garage or blacksmith's shop—that perhaps shows my historical inclinations. Small businesses should be allowed in housing estates; they help to liven them up.

London Docklands has provided an example of very successful rejuvenation of urban dereliction. There is still an immense amount left to do.

In the year that England regained the Ashes after the war my father took the family on a canal holiday. In those days the canal boat had to be driven. Five of us went chugging along the canals through Birmingham, which incidentally has more miles of canal than Venice—a useless piece of information for your Lordships. While travelling the canals in Birmingham we were surrounded by active, fascinating buildings full of people working and bustling with trade and industry. I accept that industry has changed; some would say perhaps not fast enough. However, my family and I took a similar journey only two years ago; we chose it because we thought it might be as interesting as the journey of my perhaps golden years of childhood. It turned out that where the warehouses and small factories had once been there was nothing but dereliction and empty space. Before we use up precious countryside we must use derelict land.

We then reach the parts of the White Paper which, although they may not need alteration, should be taken into account by the Secretary of State when legislation is introduced—which bears out the regional point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. How do the White Paper proposals allow for the fact that it should be more sensible to build on wasteland in Birmingham, Newcastle or London before greenfield sites in Humberside or Washington are used? Of course we must think big on some occasions; of course we have occasionally to use greenfield sites, but our land resources are small. They are not as rationed as those of the Low Countries or Singapore, but they are certainly more restricted than those of France, Germany and most other European countries.

With that caveat—I accept I may here be asking Secretaries of State to meddle, which is something of which I disapprove—I give the White Paper my wholehearted support.

7.15 p.m.

The Earl of Carnarvon

My Lords, I believe it would be helpful to your Lordships if I try to explain the role of SERPLAN, the London and South-East Regional Planning Conference, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. This is a regional standing conference of local authorities and I have the honour of being its chairman in succession to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, and his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford.

The conference is made up of elected members of the county councils in the South-East and representatives of the district councils and all the London boroughs, each of whom is responsible, by statute, for the preparation of development plans and for development control.

The conference is the mechanism for enabling these 143 authorities to give their concerted view to government on a regional basis, the region containing around 17 million people. However, before doing so they consult widely all interested parties, which include the housebuilders and the consortium of the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. During the consultation process of our document Into the Next Century we had a 60 per cent. response rate from around 150 groups consulted, which is high in this type of exercise. I believe that it would be very foolish to alter the composition of the conference by including or co-opting unelected representatives and I hope the Minister will support this view in his reply.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, I start by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, the first few minutes of whose speech I missed. The House has been collapsing rather rapidly tonight and I apologise to him, but he had the courtesy to advise me of some of the points he intended to raise. He certainly raised them in the part of his address that I heard, and they are very pertinent questions. We await the Minister's reply with interest, but I do not intend to pursue them much further than that.

I do not claim to be a planning expert but I do not think that I am alone in saying that I am somewhat mystified as to what is the Government's current attitude to the role of the county structure plan. One returns to the consultation paper of September 1986 which states quite clearly in paragraph 46 that it was the ultimate intention of the Government to abolish structure plans. At the time, when I was in the other place, I thought that that was a mistake. Part V of the White Paper of more recent date still talks about replacing structure plans. However, in the latest guidance notes issued on 27th November 1989 it is quite clear that they are to continue to play a major role in the planning process. Paragraph 30 actually states that the primary function of regional planning guidance is to provide the necessary framework for the preparation of structure plans; presumably, therefore, they are to continue. If that is the case, I very much welcome it.

I also very much welcome the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, on the matter. I do not know much about SERPLAN, although I know that the Isle of Wight is a member. I am a great believer in local government and I still desperately want to see local elected members playing a full part in any sort of regional structures. I think that SERPLAN is the only one which has thus far got off the ground.

Perhaps when he comes to reply to the debate the Minister will confirm that the structure plan is here to stay. A great deal of work has been put into such plans. Indeed, even my old constituency has reached the second process, revised it and passed it through. I believe that we now have local plans for every part of the island.

On the whole I think that the latest guidance notes are to be greatly welcomed. The RICS, to which I still belong, says that the document represents the clearest restatement for some time of the Government's support for the planning system. It further notes that it also represents some change of emphasis in direction from the policy framework outlined as recently as January 1989. I have been in trouble before with Members of this House for criticising a certain Secretary of State. Therefore, I do not intend to do so tonight. However, if there has been a change of emphasis it is very much to be welcomed. I wish all speed to the new Secretary of State. That is all to the good. I say that because, despite its imperfections, our present planning system has served the country well.

One of the greatest problems besetting planning authorities today is lack of qualified staff. They have been inundated with applications and therefore development control has been under great pressure and has obviously been given priority, although some quite outrageous delays have taken place—I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, will agree with this—and decisions have been delayed. Such situations can be extremely costly.

One can only have sympathy for the officers who have been under pressure from developers and councillors alike. I must say that some councillors have behaved quite disgracefully towards their officers. It is no wonder that advertisements for senior staff go unanswered. Even now, with property off the boil, suitable staff are very hard to find. I know of a particular case in my old part of the world where advertisement after advertisement brought no response whatever. In fact, I believe the parties concerned are interviewing today just one respondent who applied for the position of a senior member of planning staff. That is the kind of problem which authorities are facing.

There is much to be said for the chartered surveyors' proposal contained in their answer to the recent guidance notes that so far as concerns development plans, work should be contracted out to the private sector, subject of course to safeguards to prevent conflicts of interest. I should imagine that that would appeal to the present Administration. I certainly support it. It would take pressure off the hard-pressed local planning authorities, though whether it would bring about the desirable aim, which the White Paper and the guidance notes mention, of producing regional planning guidance for the whole of England by the early 1990s is certainly questionable. It is highly desirable but I wonder whether it is really a possibility, to say nothing of the need to complete as soon as possible local plan coverage for the whole of England and Wales. There is a long way to go yet in that respect.

Firm time-scales will surely have to be laid down in any future legislation if targets are to be met. At the same time, the Government must realise the pressure under which local government is working. That is something which I am afraid to say is sadly lacking in this Administration. In fact, I do not think that they have ever really understood the real problems faced by local government.

I should like to conclude with a reference to some very depressing statistics issued today by the Department of the Environment. They show that homelessness continues to increase at an alarming rate. In the last quarter of 1989 the numbers of acceptances were up on the same period of 1988—that is, the last quarter of each year—by about 7,800. I heard the housing manager of Newham say today that in his borough there are 1,700 families in temporary accommodation. That is an appalling statistic.

Therefore, there is a need to identify suitable sites, especially in urban areas. I certainly agree with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, in this respect. There are huge areas around Birmingham which could be developed. I also took my family there many years ago. We went on a canal trip. We chose the month of April to do so, but it was not the best time of the year. These days I pass through Birmingham about twice a week and there are enormous areas available—for example, the Lea Valley and many other areas—where we can put the land assembly together and deal with the situation.

Finally, as a final word, I plead that planning will put its act together because it has a big role to play in this respect. It has to discover the land, assemble it and build properties on it which can be let at an affordable rent. That need has never been greater. As I said, planners have a key role to play in this process and they should be greatly encouraged to take part. In my view the sooner that is done the better.

7.25 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I should like to pay the same kind of warm tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, as have other contributors to this short debate. He has given us the opportunity to discuss the matter. Nevertheless, none of us will kid ourselves or anyone else that that which transpires from this debate will be of a major character. However, it provides a good opportunity for those who from various standpoints have some experience in planning matters and in local government to take part. All of us have a deep interest in ensuring that our countryside is protected, that our industry is expanded and that homes are provided for our people.

The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, was one which contained very well-balanced and reasonable arguments. I should like now to deal with the first one. The Minister could be helpful not just to the House but also to other people outside if he could be a little more precise about the legislation on development plans and planning legislation in general. We were all led to believe at about this time last year that a slot would be made available in the timetable for such matters. However, that opportunity slipped away. I have with me the article which appeared in The Times and to which the noble Lord, Lord Northcliffe, referred.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Hesketh)

It was Lord Northfield!

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Well, as we know, the cliff is on the edge of the field. However, it is an environmentally sensitive subject.

The Minister can tell us whether there is a distinct prospect that the Queen's Speech this year will bring forward some legislation. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the current situation. The noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, certainly wanted to know a little more about the status of county development plans and I want to comment on what the Minister and his colleagues are saying both in the White Paper and in the planning guidance notes about the raison d'être for the strategic planning nexus.

I should also like to add my support to the general view that the Government's proposals imply support for the development plan system. That is something which I welcome. The alternative to not having a system would undoubtedly be anarchy and would bring chaos. I am not speaking in a partisan way when I say to the Minister that I have a great deal of sympathy for him and his colleagues in their efforts to try to get the matter right. They know that they will never satisfy everyone and at times they will wonder whether they will be able to satisfy anyone. But it has to be done and they have that responsibility. Therefore we are looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about future legislation.

In the past the Government have played down the importance of development plans, stating that conformity with such plans is only one of a number of issues which should be considered when local authorities decide whether to approve planning applications. In the recent past numerous decisions taken by local authorities to refuse planning applications because they were inconsistent with development plans have been overturned by government inspectors on appeal.

I should like to hear the Minister say something about the premise which I shall now outline. We must take care and trouble at all levels of involvement statutorily—that is, locally, county-wise, regionally and nationally—to lay down guidelines. We do not wish to have something written in tablets of stone that cannot be altered. Care is taken to lay down what can happen in respect of land zoning in each part of the city, county or country, and a local planning committee acts in accordance with its own plans. However. what hope is there if someone appeals against that decision and finds on appeal that the plan which was approved locally, regionally and nationally is negatived by a decision of the Minister?

I know what the Minister and his colleagues will say. The noble Lord, Lord Northfield, quite properly alluded to it. They will say that there always needs to be some person who has the ability, despite all that has happened, to say no. I am speaking now from my local knowledge of Enfield where I was chairman of a planning committee many years ago. I still keep in touch; I live there; I read the local papers and meet various local people. Generally there is dissatisfaction that when a council acts in accordance with the structure plan that is laid down, appeals go to the Minister and are accepted.

I should like the Minister to tell us more about the allusions in the White Paper to the matters that are kept for the strategic level. I do not have the direct reference but regarding matters that should be examined strategically there is no reference to tourism, recreation or conservation policies. The Minister can help people outside if he subscribes to the view that in the 1990s we need to try to anticipate transport changes, energy needs and environmental and conservation actions so that they are all taken into account.

Perhaps the Minister would also tell us how he and his colleagues envisage that conformity will be secured between the district development plans and the regional guidance and county statements. It is all very well to speak in isolation but there needs to be the ability to look at what is happening and say, "Yes, that is in conformity with the plans", and it is not so grotesque and out of place that people say that the plan is not working at all. The White Paper says little about how this conformity between the district development plans, the regional guidance and county statements can be secured. Can the Minister help us on that?

I take very much to heart what the noble Lord, Lord Ross, said about the staff. At present the planning department staff are greatly stretched and overworked. I do not notice anything in the documents that I have read to indicate that the Minister or the department take into account the need for adequate staff. He might say that changes can be made, but there is no provision for that. Will he tell us whether his colleagues acknowledge that we want not planning approvals but proper scrutiny of planning applications so that when they are approved it is by people who know their business? I should like the Minister to say something on that.

Will he also take on board an inconsistency between the approach outlined in the White Paper and that in circular 3/88 concerning the treatment of urban development corporations and enterprise areas in the development plans? The White Paper suggests that proposals for UDC and enterprise zone areas should not be included in district development plans. Circular 3/88, on the other hand, applies in the metropolitan areas and requires that a UDC be consulted regarding its proposals, which should then be included in the UDP. I believe that the provisions of circular 3/88 are valid. Proposals for the UDC areas should be included in district plans.

Reference was quite properly made by the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, to the need to be consistent. He referred to Lifting the Burden. One of the matters that concerned me in my research into this subject was that, while there is a need for speed and certainty, we must also ensure that proper account is taken of a great many matters, not least housing. That should be to the fore, but so should employment. If the Government are keen on generating jobs and providing sufficient land for housing, we need to hear from the Minister how the proposals in the plan and policy guidance notes take account of that.

Reference was made to the need to get this right. The Minister might say that this is not appropriate, but I wish to say a word or two about the absence of the proper manner of consulting organisations and people who are affected by the plans. The noble Lord must know that in the past 10 years, besides a great many other things of which he can be proud on behalf of his Government, there has been a growth of organisations set up primarily to articulate on behalf of groups of people. It may be the Ramblers' Association, which has existed not just for 10 years but for a long time, or other bodies, and great issues like the Channel Tunnel. I should like the Minister to tell us where he sees the proper and adequate consultation of ordinary people fitting into the grand scheme of development control.

He must also say something about the Government's approach to regeneration. Reference was made to the London Docklands. Although the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, made kind remarks about the development, if we look back at the past 10 years and the five years before that there are lessons to be learnt about the way in which the will, needs and desires of the local people—that is people power as opposed to property or money power—should be taken into account. There is an absence, for instance, of proper transport and rail links to serve the area. If those were not an afterthought, they certainly came far too late and soured and damaged the impression of the area to many people.

The energy of many people can be harnessed and it can be helpful not just to the local community but to the country. The Minister should also tell us a little about the vexed question of commercial developers and the manner in which over the past 10 years by offering, I shall not say inducements or sweeteners, but they appear to come to some arrangement to provide for a local need of the community. They have thereby added something attractive to their planning application. Local government in 1990 is stretched and will sometimes look more favourably on a planning application which carries some community benefit that is not necessarily in the best planning interests of the area.

The debate has been useful. Much more can be said. I remind the Minister that my main concern is to ensure that there is some consistency between the various levels of planning. He should recognise that in 1990 there is great interest not just from developers but from little people.

I welcome very much the start that has been made by the new Secretary of State. I think he is a breath of fresh air by comparison with his predecessor. He appears to have started off on the right level. He strikes me as being someone who takes this aspect of his work seriously. I wish him well in what is undoubtedly a difficult job. Once more I repeat my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, for what he has had to say to us tonight.

7.40 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I think we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, for prompting this debate. We are at a stage when thinking on the role of the planning system is developing rapidly. I believe we have the opportunity to move towards a system which will command much greater public confidence. I welcome this opportunity to set out the Government's position and to respond to the points which noble Lords have made.

I shall respond initially to my noble friend Lord Onslow, who made a reasonable point which was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, with regard to canals. That is an area for which I have personal responsibility. I can assure both noble Lords that great endeavours are being undertaken at this moment from Gas Street Basin to Limehouse Dock to ensure that derelict land is brought back into use and is turned into creative areas of employment and future residential care.

Before I proceed a yard further, I should also point out that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, asked whether the Government had a commitment to public infrastructure. If one looks at the great and heroic endeavours in regard to the Channel Tunnel and at the infrastructure that will arise from that, it is fair to say that there has been no greater commitment since 1945 towards creating true success in our infrastructure. That commitment has been allowed to take place by the enterprise culture.

In the White Paper The Future of Development Plans, issued in January last year, we addressed the criticisms that have been levelled against the development plan system. These included the lengthy approval times for structure plans; the use of informal rather than statutory local plans; the over-detailed coverage in structure plans of matters which properly belong in local plans; and the extension of plans to incorporate non-land use issues.

Plans were taking several years to reach adoption or approval and quickly became out of date. Consequently they could not provide a satisfactory basis for decisions on planning applications or appeals. There was a lack of public confidence in the system and concern that plans were not being respected and that too many important planning decisions were being taken on an ad hoc basis. The reform of the system set out in the White Paper is intended to provide clear and succinct plans which are easily understood by all who need to know about the planning proposals for an area. It intends to provide plans which provide for the views of the local community to be taken fully into account. That is our message about local choice.

Of course, we are all well aware that local communities have to be realistic. They cannot just veto all new development in their areas. They have to play a sensible part in meeting the wider needs of the country. To do that in sensible planning at the local level, they must have a strategic framework within which to make their choices. The White Paper proposed that the framework should be provided by regional guidance and statements of county planning policies.

We propose that regional planning guidance should be extended to provide an effective policy in the context of development plans. This is the aspect of the White Paper proposals which we have strengthened in the recent draft policy guidance note and which has been widely welcomed and is being taken up in regions outside the South-East. In developing regional guidance we are not signalling any return to the over-elaborate strategies of the 1960s and 1970s. The aim is to provide a clear basis for dealing with those planning issues which transcend the boundaries between individual counties in a region.

The arrangements in the South-East region, and the role of SERPLAN, are relatively well known. At this point I should give thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, who gave a succinct description of the enormously important role that has been fulfilled successfully—that is the most important thing—by SERPLAN. However, I stress that the central feature of these arrangements is the dialogue between government and the local planning authorities of the region, acting together through their standing conference. We would not suggest that the SERPLAN arrangements are a model to be slavishly followed in every detail in other regions. But experience suggests that a similar approach is likely to be of value elsewhere in producing effective regional planning guidance.

At this point I wish to comment on some of the specific points which the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, made and which he very graciously informed me of before coming to your Lordships' House this evening. Regional guidance will not have legislative force. It would hardly remain guidance if it did so. However, under the Government's proposals the present discretionary system for the formulation and issue of guidance would become part of the statutory planning process; and in drawing up policies and development plans local authorities would be legally required to have regard to such guidance.

At present local authorities themselves take the initiative in setting up arrangements for preparing advice at regional level. We encourage them to do so. If regional guidance does become part of the statutory process, it will become more important for local authorities to act effectively in this way. At present we see no need for compulsion.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, will the Minister explain what the words "have regard to" mean?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, having had the honour and privilege over the past two years of replying to amendments from the Opposition Front Bench, I think it is fair to say that the words "have regard to" mean exactly what they say. Those words do not have the definition that the noble Lord would like them to have. That is why I shall go no further tonight in saying what the words "have regard to" mean. I have never done so on any previous occasion. Those words mean exactly what they say.

Regional guidance would by definition not be given in great detail, but local authorities would be bound to take account of it when they drew up policies and development plans. Where guidance proposes county figures for housing provision, for instance, we should expect counties to come forward with plans broadly in accordance with those figures. The Secretary of State will have reserve powers to ensure that this happens. Its purpose would be to guide plan-making authorities whose proposals are subject to examination in public or at a public inquiry as well as others having an interest in or with the development of land.

The experience with SERPLAN indicates that such a regional local government body is capable of forming responsible views and advice about a region as a whole, as distinct from matters of only local significance. We shall certainly be giving advice about the range and content of regional guidance, and are ready to consider suggestions about how this may best be done.

Similarly, we are open to suggestions about the procedures for consultation. We already encourage SERPLAN to consult widely before formulating advice, which is in itself subject to a more formal consultation procedure which is presented to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. The detailed methodologies adopted in the preparation of regional guidance will need to ensure that guidance is appropriate to the circumstances of each region.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, the noble Lord has been helpful in what he has said about regional guidance. However, will he also say whether the Government will consider the point I made, that if regional guidance is to be part of the statutory process thought should be given to some of its work being carried out in public? It cannot be enforced if it is done behind closed doors.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, asked a question to which there is a perfectly adequate answer—namely, that SERPLAN represents people who have been elected by the people. We wish to have full and adequate consultation. SERPLAN represents the elected representatives of the people, and that is why I believe it to be a satisfactory and admirable example.

Lord Northfield

My Lords, with respect, the noble Lord has not answered my question. That type of body has become part of the statutory process. However, although they meet in public at county level, when they meet at regional level they meet in private. That is to be given the force of law or at least will become part of the statutory process. I ask only for thought to be given to the possibility that some of that process should be open and seen to be open.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, will find my answer inadaquate. Nevertheless, I say to him that the process is entirely democratic because it takes place openly. Those decisions which are made at a higher level, in a process which he may regard as inadequate, are made adequately and openly by democratically elected representatives at a lower level, and that creates the basis for the achievement of SERPLAN.

The new statements of county planning policies proposed in the White Paper would be slimmer than the present structure plans and would concentrate on a defined range of land use planning issues. They would provide the framework within which the districts could work up their detailed development control policies and proposals in mandatory district-wide plans. Counties would be able to adopt their own statements. That would free them from the delays caused by submitting plans to the Secretary of State. He would retain reserve powers of intervention, which would be strengthened so that he could direct modification or the call-in of a county statement—for instance, so as to secure consistency between housing figures in regional guidance and the provision made in a county's statement.

We proposed, too, that the present requirement for districts to obtain a certificate of conformity from the county before putting their plans on deposit should be dropped. Instead there would be a requirement for district plans to be consistent with the county statement of planning policies. The inspector would consider the question of consistency at the public inquiry into the local plan.

The noble Lord, Lord Northfield, raised a number of specific points about the risk of parochialism in district plans and the need for plans to make adequate provision for market demand. As I have mentioned, though it will be for counties and districts to adopt their own plans, my right honourable friend will have flexible reserve powers of intervention. He will be able to use those powers to ensure that districts' plans make adequate total provision for housing and industrial development, judged against the requirements of regional guidance and the county statement. Our message about "local choice" has never implied that districts will be allowed to get away with inadequate and unrealistic provision.

The noble Lord also questioned whether plans can adequately allow for market forces. There is a balance to be struck here. We believe that there are benefits for all players in the planning process if we can move towards an improved development plan framework which offers greater certainty about what will and will not be permitted. However, plans themselves must be realistic about market demand. For instance, it is no use making all the provision for new housing at the wrong end of the town where no one wants to live.

Equally, plans cannot be completely prescriptive. They cannot anticipate every need and opportunity for development. Planning applications will continue to be considered on their merits, having regard to all material considerations. We are not moving towards a rigid zoning system. It will still be for the planning authority to justify refusing permission, rather than for the developer to justify his application. We are, however, suggesting that more weight should be given in this process to plans which reflect local needs and local priorities.

Your Lordships will understand that I cannot give any firm indication tonight of the likely timing of legislation, although the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, was hoping that I would provide the answer this evening. However, there is much we can be doing now to move towards the objectives set out in the White Paper—which I believe command very general support.

I have already mentioned that work is in hand to extend the coverage of regional guidance. The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, has described what is happening in the South East. In East Anglia the planning authorities, acting through the Standing Conference of East Anglian Local Authorities, have submitted a statement to my right honourable friend, who is considering his response. That response will be in the form of draft regional planning guidance, which will be published for consultation before the guidance is finally issued. In the South-West region the planning authorities have embarked on a similar exercise in the West Country Strategic Conference. In other regions counties are forming themselves into regional planning conferences. We welcome that.

On structure plans, the guidance we issued in November in the draft planning policy guidance note advised counties what they can be doing now to simplify the scope and format of their structure plans, bringing them into line with the concise statements envisaged in the White Paper.

The guidance note gave us an opportunity to confirm the importance of structure plans in the strategic planning process. I know that concern was expressed last year, following the publication of the White Paper, that our proposals would weaken the strategic planning role of the counties. I hope that the PPG has served to convince people of our belief that there is a key continuing role for the counties in the planning process. The issues still to be settled are essentially about mechanisms rather than matters of principle. We shall be considering those in preparing a final version of the PPG for publication later in the spring and in the run-up to legislation.

My noble friend Lord Onslow referred to redundant land. I hope that I covered that point with my description of the requirements regarding canals.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, drew the attention of your Lordships' House to the need for greater certainty and that committees should be able to be confident that the policies embodied in adopted plans would not be overturned on appeal. At the same time the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, from the Benches behind the noble Lord, Lord Graham, argued the case for greater flexibility. Therefore, I should like to think that we have reached a happy medium between the two, and I shall argue the point no further.

Reference was also made to the state of appeals and the position of strategic planning, and the relationship between energy and transport was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. It is fair to say that we shall have debates on those subjects later during this Session and I am sure that the noble Lord would not wish me to describe—in the awful words of modern jargon—the interface between energy, transport and planning, because I should have to keep your Lordships here until a very late hour indeed.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Go on!

Lord Hesketh

I shall decline the encouragement of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and continue to my conclusion. We are keen to develop a planning system which commands greater public confidence and offers greater certainty. There are benefits not only for local communities but also for developers if plans are realistic in making adequate provision for development, as they must be. It is a precondition of the confidence we seek that plans should have been discussed and tested in the public arena before they are adopted.

However, there is always a balance to be struck between discussion and consultation on the one hand and reaching some firm conclusions as a basis for action on the other. We have to devise mechanisms which get that balance right. I am not convinced by what has been said tonight that the mechanisms that we already have and the improvements we intend to make to them are as flawed as has been suggested. Nevertheless, the extension and strengthening of regional guidance and the reform of the development plan system will give us the opportunity to look at those arrangements afresh. I can assure noble Lords that the points which have been made tonight, and more widely in response to the draft PPG, will be carefully considered. I hope that the Unstarred Question of the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, will have contributed to a better form of planning in this country.