HL Deb 03 April 1996 vol 571 cc374-91

6.25 p.m.

The Earl of Shrewsbury rose to call attention to the role of current planning policy as a mechanism for invigorating the economy at both local and national level; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper I must declare an interest. I have a planning application before the East Staffordshire District Council.

I am grateful to the House for permitting this debate to be chosen in the ballot. I am also grateful to noble Lords for taking part in a debate on this last evening of term, so to speak. It has been a long day. I believe that the subject to be debated is a most important subject and one which affects everyone in the country at some stage or other. Following various comments made by your Lordships during a recent debate on inward investment instigated by my noble friend Lord Oxfuird, I felt that planning was a subject worthy of a debate in its own right, especially as planning matters are very often one of the key issues to be considered when a business is contemplating re-location.

My interest in planning encompasses both urban and rural areas. I work in the industrial and commercial world but I am also a farmer. From the countryside's point of view, there are a number of issues which deserve further reflection, and I understand that my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth will be addressing some of these matters when he speaks. From my own point of view, I find it quite destructive to the beauty of the countryside to see large portal frame buildings being constructed almost overnight in bare fields, to be followed shortly by a portakabin or mobile home, then followed by a permanent dwellinghouse—usually the design is as plain as a pikestaff and stands out like a sore thumb—often on an area of land which cannot possibly be termed as an economic unit.

However, my concerns lie in the main with the areas of urban decay, brought about by the modernisation of businesses and the changing requirements for industrial and commercial land use. It is vital that we attract new businesses to this country, and vital that we redevelop areas of our industrial heartlands, and therefore vital that commerce and industry work closely with the planning authorities in the pursuit of a common goal of an improving and lasting economy. In the opinion of many, an awful amount of damage was done in the 1960s by both planners and developers. Perhaps I may take the town of Shrewsbury as an example, where in the centre of a very special ancient market town the planners allowed the most ghastly 1960s plain blocks to be constructed. This has to be planning gone mad, and once the damage is done it takes a great deal of expensive undoing. Planning has, thank God, improved in leaps and hounds since those days, but there is always room for further improvement.

There are three problems which I would suggest to my noble friend the Minister, and I would be grateful for his comments when he winds up. The first is the extremely lengthy delay experienced often by developers when putting forward plans to redevelop derelict sites in urban areas and when developing existing historical buildings; for instance, the case of disused hospitals being converted into modern office space in a listed building. In most cases, such delays add dramatically to the cost of the development, often making the end product unviable, and in many cases discouraging potential tenants or investors, to the detriment of the local economy, the national economy and not least the developer. Such delays are unacceptable, stifle business and are detrimental to the process of attracting inward investment, which is most important. Would my noble friend be kind enough to look carefully at such problems to see what could be done to lessen the time-scales being experienced at present?

Secondly, the time taken for planning inquiries to report their findings and adjudicate takes far too long. I have examples in the West Midlands where such matters have taken in excess of four years to be completed. I am advised also that the average time taken to prepare and adopt development plans is in the region of 65 months. Of course, in that time economic circumstances often change and the costs to the developer keep piling up relentlessly. Developers are the very people who put their money where their mouth is, backing their own judgment and taking the risks, which often are very substantial. I do not believe that developers should be treated in that way by the authorities.

In addition, the process of the preparation of development plans by local authorities has become notoriously slow. In short, the whole process of planning, including reports coming back from the planning inspectorate, is far too slow and full of bureaucracy. However, I congratulate the Government on the recent initiative of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to expedite such matters in his proposed changes to the Development Plan Regulations and the Code of Practice on Development Plans. That is a good start but there is still a long way to go.

Finally, I believe that the situation with regard to residential planning needs to be looked at carefully, where planning authorities are insisting on affordable housing being an integral part of a new development; where sometimes up to 25 per cent. of the development land available has to be provided free for that purpose as a condition of achieving consents. I know that developers regard that as grossly unreasonable, not only from a cost basis but also as houses of considerable value may well be sited in close proximity to houses of an affordable nature, making the former properties more difficult to sell and at a lower price. Suitable development is difficult to find; planning consents are slow in coming, expensive and restrictive; and when the construction industry is at an all time low, it needs every possible assistance and a more helpful planning regime.

In the words of Sean O'Grady, director of planning at Stratford upon Avon District Council, quoted recently in the magazine Planning News: Local Authorities are deliberately set against the developer. Why can't they work with developers to produce plans as it will be quicker and more realistic".

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.32 p.m.

Lord Broadbridge

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for securing this debate on an extremely important subject. Planning probably affects most of us more than anything else. It is subtle but insidious. Crisis and calamities make the headlines but most of our lives are lived in a planned environment. In particular, planning affects the buildings we walk past and work in, the countryside we enjoy and the modes of transport which move us around.

But essential though it is, planning is not, on the whole, the most popular subject. We take what we like rather for granted and grumble regularly about what we do not like. As the Roman writer Horace said two millennia ago: How is it, Maecenas, that no one lives contented with his lot, whether he has planned it for himself or fate has flung him into it? My point is that most of us have not been able to plan it but have been flung by fate into our environment. However, that does not mean we cannot do a great deal to influence its future development. Indeed, we all have a great responsibility to contribute to planning. In view of the late hour and the great delay we have had to the start of our debate, that is enough of general remarks. I turn to the specifics; namely, the economic stimulus locally and nationally that planning can give.

Since planning is an enormously broad subject, I have organised what I wish to say into three areas: development, redevelopment and no development. First, I turn to development. I believe that the single most serious economic waste which the Government must face up to at the moment is urban dereliction. While I have absolutely no financial interest to declare, I can declare a substantial local interest in that a two-acre site literally over my garden wall in the very centre of the republic of Islington is at the moment the subject of imminent selection by my local authority as one of four short-listed comprehensive redevelopment schemes.

I speak of that because, in a way, it is a replica of situations all over the country. The two acres are essentially a bomb site used as a car park surrounded by largely council-owned rundown properties let on short leases. But the site is immediately adjacent to a large supermarket and major shops, to buses which go all over London, and the recently rebuilt Angel tube station. Therefore, the site has great potential. At present, the only economic contribution to the local authority is minimal rents and council tax from the small number of fringe houses and shops. To the national economy, there are again the somewhat minimal income tax and VAT contributions of the car park operator and the fringe shops.

The proposed scheme will embody a mix of housing, shops, restaurants and a multiplex cinema together with an underground car park. If, after some 20 years in the pipeline, that development actually happens it should be a substantial economic stimulus which will contribute heavily to local council tax and business rates and nationally to VAT and income tax. Of course the net increase is by no means the total product of the contributions I have just mentioned but much of it will be an increment to the economy and GDP for we cannot assume that all the new activities will be operated by previously unemployed or under-employed and therefore untaxed people.

Nationally, many of our big cities still suffer major blight from lack of planning and development of derelict or semi-derelict sites. Those sites spring mainly from this country's change from a heavily manufacturing-based economy to one that is more leisure and service based. That has left empty factories and warehouses along with inexcusable undeveloped dereliction from Second World War bombing, most of which took place in the early 1940s, some 60 years ago.

We must make our towns and cities as attractive as possible to overseas visitors, both those who come for business and those who come for leisure purposes. Overseas visitors generate a wholly net economic stimulus equal to the sum of their spending. As well as planning what we might call the built environment, the best possible planning and development of traffic and transport are crucial factors. In a competitive market with continental cities, overseas visitors will be attracted by ease of travel. I am a devotee of greater emphasis on the planning and development of public transport. I am particularly interested in the return of the tram in an increasing number of places such as Sheffield, where I have a house, and Croydon, to name but two.

Development where there is urban blight, dereliction, dilapidation and empty housing presents us surely with opportunities to stimulate the local and national economies. Many possibilities arise, such as the creation of conference and exhibition centres, museums and galleries, restaurants, hotels and parks and gardens which make a town or city an attractive place for the visitor and enable them to compete more successfully. Some groan and say that this country is already saturated with visitors. But concentrating on good quality development should make visitors happy, and the happy visitor spends more. I add here a welcome for the Government's plans to improve road signing, as people who are lost do not spend much.

Redevelopment is my second heading. By this I mean making better use of the built environment we already have. While, as a conservationist, I am against wanton destruction of buildings and areas of excellent quality for architectural or historical reasons, much of our built environment is inherited from a Victorian imperial age when, for example, rooms, foyers and halls were of great height, presumably to appear grand. If sensitive planning and redevelopment allow three floors instead of two that existed before, the net extra activity stemming from the extra floor will stimulate both local and national economies.

A surprisingly large proportion of our people are disabled. Attention to their needs in planning redevelopment can only help encourage economic activity. While it is surely important that great attention should be paid to the quality of each new building, I think that far more planning attention should be paid to the development of the area in which it will be placed—by which I mean streets, whole terraces, squares, and so forth. Otherwise the individual buildings will be hard to let or sell and so generate no cash. An attractive area environment is a positive attraction to occupation and, therefore, an economic stimulus. Perhaps I may illustrate that with two examples close to this place. I well remember from my childhood the old Victoria Street. My father had an office at No. 66—stucco buildings five storeys high with colonnaded porticos. It was a user-friendly and attractive street but war damaged and, in post-war London, an uneconomical use of a major street frontage and so pulled down. But what have we instead? We have a concrete and glass wind tunnel. I never go there unless I have to, thus depriving the local economy of my expendable cash. In contrast I almost look for excuses to go to the Covent Garden redevelopment and usually find it difficult not to buy something. What more need I say about the effects of planning?

My final planning segment is that of no development. By that I mean our countryside, so richly varied like our weather. I realise that forests, woodlands, paths, nature trails and all the rest need careful planning. By no development, I mean basically open and natural spaces. I believe that the flight from the cities in post-war years needs reversing. Properly planned, cities can be great fun to live in. Country that is not real country is less attractive, particularly to economy-stimulating overseas visitors, let alone our own people. Our high streets need encouragement. Out of town supermarkets, DIY stores and warehouses should be allowed only selectively. Country is a fragile thing. A store may argue that it takes up only so many thousand square feet of ground but its mere presence can destroy the precious openness of square miles of countryside. It is not as though what we call "the country" is economically barren. Quite apart from farming, woodlands and forests contribute to the economy, as do farmhouse bed and breakfasts, inns, and so forth, right up to the more expensive pursuits of game shooting and salmon and trout fishing.

Paradoxically, while our countryside, especially the wilder parts, should never look consciously planned, an overall rural plan is essential if these parts of our island are to be attractive and therefore economically stimulating, once again particularly to overseas visitors. The last thing that will develop holidays in Britain is countryside that is neither one thing nor the other. After all, our so accessible next-door-neighbour, France, is twice our size with huge rural areas but no larger population. In conclusion, our island is a crowded one, and crowds need planning and control if we are to maximise economic stimulus.

6.42 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for introducing this debate because I believe we all agree that without the right conditions for investment and economic growth all the things that we demand in other spheres do not arise. I am aware of the debate last week when we discussed the impact of financial structures on the needs of society. Attention was drawn then to what is important in society: jobs, employment, investment at all levels and the social benefits which are so needed in society.

We had another debate on the importance of inward investment. There is no doubt that, when we discuss a whole range of economic and social issues in this House, everyone draws attention to these important factors affecting society which can only arise if there is sufficient investment and encouragement of wealth creation to maintain the resources of our country. On a number of occasions noble Lords opposite have mentioned the problems which affect the housing industry and the construction industry and they have talked about the need to do something about that.

On a number of occasions noble Lords opposite have drawn attention to the difficulties faced by the lower paid members of our society and the lack of opportunities that they encounter. Noble Lords have referred to difficulties in certain urban areas which need to attract much more wealth and support to tackle those difficulties. I support the points that they have made. However, when we seek to deal with the one issue that can solve so many of these problems, namely to encourage investment and development, the planning system prevents many initiatives from being realised. My noble friend was quite right to refer to the difficulty of obtaining a decision on a long-term investment. That difficulty is mind-boggling for the people who in many cases are prepared to finance vast investments from their own pockets.

I believe that the average time for the development of a structure plan is some 65 months. During that period of time there is probably a complete ban on development and investment in any particular area of a county, a city or a region. It seems to me that there is no proper relationship between those matters which are so important for the nation as a whole, which everyone agrees need to be tackled and which should be driven by the needs of the country as a whole, and the power of small groups of people with their emotional and often selfish approach to what takes place around them. What is needed by the nation is often overruled by the prejudices of a few. The planning system was never intended to do that. The planning system was established, as I am sure noble Lords will remember, to encourage investment. It was a way to make sure that investment, job creation and industry developed. It was a way to make development easier: decisions could be made, and there was some general control over the quality of and need for that investment.

The position has now been completely reversed. The system is now used by a few people to solve their own specific problems. Why is that? I appreciate that the problem is not easy to solve. Local authorities are the planning authority. They are often enormously influenced by local residents who do not want this or that, and definitely do not want it on their bit but may be happy to have it on someone else's bit.

But there is a role that Government can play. They have a tendency to overrule those who wish to see development. There is no doubt that some areas wish to attract investment, create opportunities and encourage job creation. They wish to deal with the problems in their area. They are prepared to make planning decisions which nationally may not be in keeping with the pressures on government. In those instances, the Government will call those decisions in and make progress difficult. They cause delays and problems. In other areas where local authorities are taking a more negative view on development, government will have no control over them.

Government have laid down environmental conditions for growth, development and planning. However, they have not laid down the importance of economic needs. In many instances in the development of structure plans there is a responsibility on the local government to consider its environmental needs. But there is not the same importance as regards the economic needs. I hope that my noble friend will allude to that issue; and perhaps the Government will consider it further.

We raised the matter during the course of the debates on the new environmental body which has recently been set up. During the passage of the measure, we brought in a clause which stated that economic needs had to be recognised. We had support from all sides of the House for that proposal. But that is not sufficient. The Government need also to consider emphasising the economic needs of other areas.

The green belt is an emotional issue. Much of the green belt established around cities and other areas 20 or 30 years ago was seen as a temporary need. Those areas have now become locked in. It is an enormous problem to ease the situation or make some changes in the green belt. It does not make sense to me to create a hard edge between city or urban development and rural areas. There are many unnecessary problems regarding that hard edge which is caused by a strong green belt policy perhaps on the other side of a road, a line, or in many cases a fence. We should review the use of the green belt policy and create a softer edge between the urban and rural environment which allows for forestry; leisure use and other low level use of the land. That creates a softer edge for the people who want space between the urban area and the rural environment.

I agree with much that the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, said. I support his views on development in the early days. I do not altogether agree with him when he refers to the rural area as being an area merely of pleasant land. It is also an area where many people live, run businesses, have investments and wish to see the opportunities grow. We should take a positive view on how we can encourage more investment in rural areas. I wish to see our urban areas more open, with more green space, using derelict land, opening up cleaner areas for people to expand and have a breathing space. But at the same time I wish us to encourage more economic activity in our rural areas.

This is an important subject for discussion. I hope that my noble friend will reply positively to some of the ideas that will come from the discussion.

6.50 p.m.

Lord Shuttleworth

My Lords, I also wish to thank my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for initiating the debate on what I agree with him is a most important subject. I am only sorry that the timing of it means that it is taking place when thoughts are turning to the Easter break, albeit some seven or eight hours later than we originally expected.

Planning policy and the decisions flowing from it play an important part in all our lives. The Department of the Environment currently produces no less than 24 planning policy guidance notes for local planning authorities on subjects as diverse as green belts, telecommunications, transport and renewable energy. Planning plays a particularly critical role in the economy. It cannot, of course, itself create businesses or jobs. But at its best planning creates the conditions in which enterprise can flourish. At its worst, planning will stifle and prevent the development of businesses and jobs, often in the misguided belief that enterprise can flourish wherever a planning authority directs.

While planning policy is important in our towns and cities—my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury emphasised that—it is even more so in the countryside where there is a particular need to accommodate the changing requirements of rural business amid the constancy of our superb landscape. As chairman of the Rural Development Commission, which as noble Lords know is the government agency responsible for trying to improve the quality of life for all the people of England's country areas, I have seen at first hand both the best and the worst of planning in the countryside. In many areas such as Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and up in my part of the world, North Yorkshire, planning has helped to foster a dynamic rural economy. That has out-performed the urban economy in recent years in terms of employment generation, net small firm formation and the expansion of high technology-based businesses. But it would be a mistake to think that past successes mean that all will now be well with the economy in rural England. There are two main issues: first, success has passed many places by; secondly, more diversification is needed.

On the first point, there are whole areas of the country which are suffering from either structural changes resulting from decline in traditional industries or inherent difficulties such as remoteness and inadequate communications. Here one can think immediately of places like West Cumbria, Cornwall and East Durham. Even in some of the relatively more accessible rural areas such as East Anglia—which is well known to my noble friend Lord Ferrers—there is still a need to strengthen the economic base and improve the quality and variety of local jobs. These areas have simply not shown the growth and success of the most accessible parts of the countryside to which I referred earlier.

On the second point, the need to diversify, we are reminded all too often—and in the case of the BSE scare, all too tragically—of the fragility of the rural economy and its historic over-reliance on a few large industries. I should perhaps declare an interest in that I have some beef animals. Even today, with employment in agriculture only 1.7 per cent. of total national employment, the percentage employed in agriculture in some rural development areas is far higher: for example, 19 per cent. in Staffordshire, 14 per cent. in Wiltshire. In other industries we have seen the disastrous impact in the rural coalfields of 50,000 job losses in the past 10 years and also of jobs lost in the fishing ports. I do not wish to go into the purposes behind that tonight, but if the rural economy cannot continue to diversify because of planning constraints, we may be condemning some places over-reliant on single industries to the bleak future now facing beef producers and processors and the many other people in those rural communities which rely on their earnings.

Nowadays, the nature of work in the countryside is not static; it is constantly evolving and changing. The way planning policy is implemented locally will help to determine whether the economy stagnates or responds to the needs of local people. How glad I was to hear my noble friend Lord Wade remind us of the original purpose of planning policy in his remarks.

There are some who argue that we need no more development in the countryside. The very success of part of the rural economy is being used as a reason to do nothing more. There are some who argue that allowing nothing else to happen is proper and sufficient protection for the environment. That is to disregard people, those who live and work in the countryside and might reasonably expect to continue to be part of the rural environment. That is to assume that future housing and employment needs can be accommodated by allowing development only on urban "brownfield" sites, important though their contribution must be, as the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, suggested.

The arguments that nothing should change—here I must disagree with the noble Lord—are dangerous misconceptions. Those of us who care about the countryside know that we cannot sit back and pretend the job is done. The devastating impact of BSE, which is quite the most serious crisis for rural England and perhaps the severest shock to rural communities that I have ever experienced, has reminded us of that. If we are to continue to have a strong rural economy from which the country as a whole can benefit, we must build on the success of those rural areas which have been able to attract new businesses and jobs; other areas must be allowed to develop new business opportunities if they are to survive. As I have said, flexible planning policies and, I might add, flexible planning committees are essential to this economic vitality.

But we also want rural areas to be places where people from all walks of life can live and work. It is conveniently forgotten that a significant proportion of the projected growth in rural households will come from people, or the children of people, already living there. What are we to say to them—move into the towns, the countryside is full? What kind of countryside do we want? Surely not somewhere where only those who are rich enough to buy into it can do so, while the less well-off have no choice but to live and work in the towns.

As the Government's recent rural White Paper says: sustainable development in the countryside must involve thriving and competitive economic activity". The planning system must not preside over a stultified, dying countryside. The Government are shortly to consult on revisions to Planning Policy Guidance Note 7 (PPG7) dealing with the countryside and the rural economy. They will no doubt receive many calls for it to be tightened. I hope they will have the courage not to heed them; and I hope my noble friend the Minister will be able to give strong reassurance on that point when he responds to the debate.

The current guidance note, PPG7, has certainly contributed to rural economic diversification. It makes clear that a wide range of modern light-manufacturing and commercial businesses cause little disturbance and can be accommodated easily in a rural setting. It also encourages planning authorities to take account of the vital role of small firms in the rural economy. The re-use of existing rural buildings forms a central plank of PPG7, and I was pleased at the Government's announcement in the rural White Paper that they propose to allow greater discrimination in favour of the re-use of rural buildings for business rather than for residential purposes.

The Government's view of rural England as set out in the White Paper and reiterated on numerous occasions since by the Secretary of State for the Environment is of a living, working countryside. That means people—with access to jobs, homes and services. That requires a planning policy which recognises the case for continuing appropriate development in the countryside, not only in the poorer rural areas but also in more prosperous parts. The alternative—obstacles to all change in the countryside—carries with it too high an economic and environmental penalty.

7 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for introducing this particular debate and indeed must congratulate him on winning the ballot. As he pointed out, this is a very important matter. I myself am sorry that it has had to come up at what many noble Lords will feel is a late hour, on a late day, late in our business before we go into the Easter Recess. It is a matter which deserves the considered opinion of your Lordships' House.

First, I should declare an interest as president of the Federation of Economic Development Authorities. I hasten to add that it is an honorary post. It is a federation of local authorities—district councils which have economic development departments that have combined together in order to help each other in invigorating the economy at local level, if I may so put it. Secondly, perhaps I may explain to the House what I propose to do in the light of the noble Earl's Motion. I shall make a general statement about what we believe planning policy is about and then I shall go on to review whether current planning policy—in the words of the Motion—fulfils what we believe to be its aims. Finally, and I hope very briefly, I should like to explain what we believe should be changed in order to do what the noble Earl wishes policy to do; namely, to invigorate the economy at both local and national level.

My general statement is very general but very simple. Planning should be about the quality of people's lives. That is a very simple basic statement. Planning should ensure the jobs, transport and recreation that a high quality of life and a vigorous economy demand. Planning is about more than the use of land. It must encompass and integrate economic, social and environmental considerations. That is a very general statement, but I believe, and I hope your Lordships will agree, that it is the basis on which planning policy should rest.

On that test, how does current planning policy—again I use the words of the noble Earl's Motion—measure up? It seems to me that current planning policy has brought us into a difficult situation. It has been described by noble Lords who have contributed to the debate as one of specific interests, dominated in some cases by vested interests and dominated in other cases by ill advised government public planning policy guidance notes. Planning policy is in a state of some confusion.

Certainly so far as concerns invigorating the economy, I am far from convinced that current planning policy has made much contribution at all. For instance, it has contributed to what I regard as the decimation rather than the encouragement of our industry. Let me give your Lordships one example. In 1987, as part of their deregulation of planning, the Government issued the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order, which put light industrial and office use in the same use class. That is very simple and not too difficult to understand. But that led to light industry being categorised together with offices and to light industry being replaced with offices, because higher rents could be gained from offices.

A survey carried out in Westminster showed that more than 20 per cent. of those premises in industrial use in 1983 were, in 1995, used primarily as offices, and that the total number of occupiers in the main industrial sectors declined from 1,146 in 1983 to 460 in 1995. Since some industrial users had remained only through negotiating more favourable rents due to the fall-off in demand for office accommodation, it seems clear that industrial use under current planning policy in the inner cities will fall further. The only way to remedy that would be a change in planning policy.

Current central government planning policy has also encouraged the growth of quangos. We have discussed quangos on a number of occasions. They are indirect and unaccountable bodies. They are TECs, UDCs, English Partnerships, or whatever it may be. They have some planning functions and they tend to be single issue operations. There is therefore little integration between the issues that the quangos address and the strategic development plans, on whatever level they may be, that we believe would be necessary to ensure the kind of result the noble Earl requires in his Motion.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships one example. We have had the problem of out-of-town shopping, which the Government have been wise enough to recognise. Planning permission has been given to large shopping centres outside towns. Town centres in the smaller rural towns—this is not a question of London but it is a question of some of the towns which I, the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, know very well—have been reduced to a no-go desert area. This has now been belatedly, in our view, recognised as a failure in government planning policy and the Government are going to address the issue seriously. I understand that at some stage there will be—I hope the noble Earl will be able to say when it will come—new policy guidance from central government on how to restore and invigorate town centres in small market towns which have been decimated by the introduction of out-of-town shopping.

The verdict on current planning policy is not very good. Nevertheless, we believe that a proper planning policy has an important role to play in invigorating local and national economies. A proper planning policy should ensure—I come back to what the noble Lord, Lord Wade, said—that appropriate sites and infrastructure are provided by planning, at the right place and at the right time, for economic development. That should be a fundamental rule in terms of planning policy. Furthermore, it should provide a framework for investment decisions through an integrated system of statutory strategic and local plans and local regeneration strategies prepared in partnership with different interests—the private sector and other interests that may be concerned—with a view to ensuring that local economies generate the kind of activity the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, wish to see. Thirdly, any future planning policy has to ensure—I come back to what the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, said—that all new economic development has sustainable development as one of its key objectives. It is no good going for economic development regardless of what many of us feel is the proper role for the countryside or the proper role for towns or villages.

I agree with noble Lords who have said that planning should facilitate inward investment, job creation and the provision of community facilities in bringing under-used land into productive use. That is very important. I say this again: planning must also be democratically accountable. It is no good government overriding local or regional authorities by setting up PPG because that simply will not work as a structure.

Ironically, deregulation has made the planning procedure much more complex. Those noble Lords who complain about delays in planning procedure ought be aware that it is not entirely the fault of local authorities, because they are worried about all sorts of things coming in from the side which have been introduced by the Government under deregulation and which have made their decisions much more difficult.

I believe that I have said enough to reassure the noble Earl that essentially I am on his side. I am on the side of all those who believe that planning policy should be directed to invigorating the local and the national economy. There has to be a balance struck so it is sustainable. Seeing that the noble Earl is to reply, I conclude by noting that he will be absent from your Lordships' deliberations over the next few weeks, as I understand it, and to wish him every success and good health. We look forward to seeing the noble Earl suitably reinvigorated when he comes back.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I put one point to him? Does he agree that sustainability is as much a question of our leaving at this stage the opportunity for people to continue to create the wealth, the jobs and the structure that will be required as it is of preventing further usage? Surely, sustainability means that we of this generation have a responsibility not to hold back the next generation from its aspirations.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I certainly agree with that part of sustainability, but there is another part to it which, as I am sure the noble Lord will agree, is that we should not use up the resources of today's world to the detriment of future generations. Sustainability requires a balance between the two.

7.12 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for giving us the opportunity today to discuss the role of the land use planning system in invigorating the economy. I deeply appreciate the kind remarks which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, made, with which the Opposition Chief Whip is associating himself and, no doubt, all his Back Benchers as well. I am very grateful for the cacophony of kindness that has come from the Benches opposite.

This subject is very important. The Government are grateful for the views which your Lordships have expressed. There is no simple answer to planning; it is a contentious matter and there is a great deal of conflicting pressure applied to the countryside, the towns and the planning system in general. How we use our land determines not only the attractiveness of the land in which we live but also the ability of the nation to be successful economically.

One of our most remarkable national characteristics is that we seem to have an insatiable appetite for saying what is wrong and almost total inability ever to grasp what has gone right. In fact, the United Kingdom has done enormously well. As the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, said, planning has an important part to play in the economic success of the country. After all, we now find that 40 per cent. of all investment into Europe from Japan comes to the United Kingdom and 43 per cent. of all investment from the United States into Europe comes into the United Kingdom. Despite the agonies of unemployment, we have the highest proportion of our working population in employment, higher than Germany, France, Italy or Spain. Our non-wage labour costs are lower than in any of our major European competitors; and we have had the massive investments of Nissan, Samsung, Siemens and Sony—because the United Kingdom is the best country in which to invest.

None of that would have happened if we did not have a good and sensitive planning system—yes, I agree that it could be better—but such investment will not happen in the future without a good planning system. I agree with my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth that planning cannot itself create investment, but it plays a large part in ensuring that investment is made.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Wade that in order for industry and commerce to succeed, new enterprises need sites which meet their requirements. Existing firms need room to expand. The planning system has an essential part to play in identifying sites for new development as well as in considering the infrastructure, the roads, water, sewerage and so forth, needed to service these sites.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that it is one thing to have development hut, as he said, it has to be sustainable development. We need not go into that phrase now, but it is important because we cannot wreck the countryside and the country for generations to come by being selfish for ourselves in the present.

The planning system operates at various levels, from the production of planning policy guidance notes by central government to the making of structure plans by county councils, to the making of local plans by district councils and to the issuing of individual planning decisions, usually by the local authorities. It is vital that all of these elements should pull together if we are going to encourage future economic prosperity.

One of the Government's main roles is to set the overall policy for the planning system. We do this through a series of national planning policy guidance notes and regional planning guidance notes. These emphasise very clearly the need for discussion to take place between planning authorities and commercial and industrial interests and for the needs of business to be reflected in development plans. Businesses should not just be told what they have to put up with. They should be involved in the planning process.

We specifically ask planning authorities to pay particular attention to the importance of encouraging industrial and commercial development, and we advise them, in preparing their plans, to think about the role which those plans have in expanding the local economy and in stimulating employment opportunities.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth that some local authorities are too keen on preserving their particular patch, as it is. That is understandable, but it can also be unkind. If local authorities do not invite—and if they do not conduct themselves in such a way as to encourage—industry then industry will not come, and people in the area will find themselves unemployed. Local authorities have a great responsibility here.

Within the framework of our general guidance, we issue advice on the needs of particular sectors of the economy and how these can best be met. A draft revision of Planning Policy Guidance Note No. 6, which deals with town centres and retail developments, was issued for public consultation last July. This advises local authorities to adopt, as it were, a "pecking order" approach in the selection of sites for retail development, with town centres as the first preference. The guidance also promotes town centres as suitable locations for other uses, including leisure.

The last thing which we want is the wholesale abandonment of our town centres—whether by businesses or by communities—thereby creating a desert where all that flourishes is crime and poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, was concerned about that and said that we should act to tackle dereliction. Her Majesty's Government have invested, and continue to invest, huge sums of money in such things as the single regeneration budget and on the work of the urban development corporations - I have seen some - which have been an enormous success in helping derelict city centres to improve. A lot has been achieved under the housing White Paper in which Her Majesty's Government have announced the target to achieve half of all new housing development on derelict and vacant land within urban areas.

Town centres are at present, thank heavens, home to many thriving small and large businesses in the retail and leisure sectors. One of the aims of our planning policy is to help them to stay that way. Planning is not just about urban areas. As we have heard this evening from my noble friends Lord Wade, Lord Shuttleworth and others, it is also about the countryside. My noble friend Lord Shuttleworth will remember that in the recent rural White Paper we said how important we felt it was continually to promote the rural economy in ways which did not wreck the countryside. At the end of last year we published a good practice guide which gave local planning authorities advice on how to encourage the development of the economy of rural areas and at the same time to safeguard jobs and the pleasure of the countryside. Later this year we will issue for consultation a draft revised version of Planning Policy Guidance Note No.7 on the countryside, and we will issue a paper on the possible introduction of a rural business use class to encourage planning permission to be given to new rural enterprises.

My noble friend Lord Shuttleworth asked for an assurance that we would not tighten up planning policy and preserve the countryside in aspic, as it were. Of course, the purpose of consultation on Planning Policy Guidance Note No.7 is to consult. It would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt the conclusion of that consultation. But I agree with my noble friend that there are all kinds of opportunities for expansion within the countryside which can be taken up without wrecking it. We must be careful not to fossilise the countryside or to be like the proverbial Victorian nanny who said, "Go and see what the children are doing and tell them not to".

Both national and regional planning guidance provide the basis on which individual planning authorities prepare development plans for their areas. We now have a plan-led system. This means that individual planning decisions have to be taken in accordance with the development plan unless there are very good reasons why that should not be so. That is why it is so important that commerce and industry should participate in the preparation of these plans before ideas become fully formulated. Arrangements have been made for this, and industry and commerce should take advantage of them.

Local planning authorities can supplement these policies and plans by preparing development briefs for particular sites. They can indicate the type of development which the planning authority wants to see on a particular site. This can be immensely helpful to those who are thinking of moving into an area and can speed up the planning process considerably. In particular, where foreign companies work to short time-scales development briefs can provide an excellent way of securing inward investment.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury spoke about delays in reaching planning decisions and the frustrations which that could cause to businesses. I sympathise with him over the utter frustration which unnecessary delay in planning matters can cause. I hope that I am able to give him a little reassurance.

We have set councils the target to decide 80 per cent. of planning applications within eight weeks of receiving them. Six years ago only 46 per cent. of applications were decided within those eight weeks. That figure has now risen to 65 per cent. I believe that that is encouraging, but clearly a great deal more needs to be done. We have announced a number of new measures to try to achieve it. We will publish separate figures to show the time taken by individual planning authorities to process commercial and industrial applications. We hope that that will keep all local planning authorities on their toes. After all, everyone likes to be at the top of the tree. When those figures are published it can be seen who is at the top and bottom.

Also, where an application has not been decided by the end of the eight-week period, we will be asking local authorities to let applicants know when they can expect a decision. That will give both the applicants and the councils something to aim for.

The main reason for introducing the plan-led system was to try to speed up the process of making decisions and to reduce the number of applications which are refused. That should also result in fewer appeals.

My noble friend Lord Wade was worried about the time taken to draw up plans. Because of the greater emphasis which is now being given to development plans, developers and local communities are taking a much closer interest in them. As a result, many authorities who are preparing plans for the first time are facing a difficult, and sometimes lengthy, process. Once they have their plan in place though updating it will be easier and a good deal quicker.

My noble friend Lord Wade asserted that there was a complete ban on development while development plans were being prepared. I accept that it is appropriate to defer consideration of some major applications while the planning policies are being considered by the inquiry. But the vast majority of applications can be decided while the plan is being prepared. The weight given to the emerging new plan in making planning decisions will increase as it gets nearer its final adoption.

My noble friend was also concerned about green belts. We recently reviewed the green belt policy advice and issued new guidance. The fundamental aim of green belts is to prevent what is described as "urban sprawl". So there needs to be a boundary beyond which the policy will apply. The guidance generally allows the uses referred to and provides for new buildings for, among other things, agriculture, forestry and essential facilities for outdoor sport and recreation. Where planning applications are refused, the applicant may submit an appeal, and we have issued a draft new circular giving advice on best practice in the operation of planning inquiries and other appeal procedures.

What we want to do is to speed up the appeals process, to reduce delays and expense and to make the system more user-friendly while at the same time safeguarding the underlying principles of natural justice.

Businesses often find themselves having to apply for a variety of different consents before they can go ahead with a new building. That can be confusing, particularly for small firms. We are, therefore, exploring the idea that local authorities should provide a single advice point—the so-called pseudo Business Link—for the different systems. We shall be undertaking a pilot project with a number of authorities and we intend to publish good practice advice later in the year.

I recognise the concern of my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury about affordable housing. That is one of the reasons why we have issued a draft circular on this subject. One of the aims of the circular is to prevent local authorities from making unreasonable demands for affordable housing on unsuitable sites. I thought I might send my noble friend a copy of the draft circular—that will keep him quiet over Easter! I am sure that he will enjoy it, and I will be interested to receive any comments which he may have, provided they are constructive and polite in nature.

Good plans, good planning and good planning decisions are all vital if we are to enable the country to build on its continuing success in a rapidly changing world. Planning decisions should be quick and be made with as much consultation with the applicants as possible.

There are bound to be enormous conflicts of interests in any kind of planning application. We all accept that. Not everyone will be satisfied, but it is important that there should be consultation and that the result should be quick. Planning authorities must not be seen as, or feared to be, "the boss". Planning should be a partnership. The applicants have much to offer the community and they should not be considered to be acting only in self-interest.

We are sensitive to the role which the planning system plays in providing the right environment in which economic development can prosper. I can assure your Lordships that we will not hesitate to make further changes where these are needed.

The House will be grateful to my noble friend for having drawn to your Lordships' attention an important facet of national life, even if it is on the last day of term and at an hour later than we had expected.

7.30 p.m.

The Earl of Shrewsbury

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It is an important an interesting subject. I am grateful in particular to my noble friend the Minister for his response. I welcome his comments on efforts being made by Government to cut the timescale taken in the planning process. I was delighted to hear that he is to send me some Easter weekend reading. I am duly subdued by that thought.

I was also delighted to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that he is on my side. It is to be hoped that I shall have to remind him of that in future because as yet we have agreed only on matters to do with fishing, about which we have long conversations.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the Labour Party in wishing my noble friend the Minister well on his forthcoming trip to the surgeon's knife. I wish him a full recovery. I hope that everyone has a most pleasant Easter weekend thinking about matters to do with planning. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.