HL Deb 24 March 2003 vol 646 cc541-3

8.3 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order was laid before the House on 6th March and was approved in another place on 20th March. It will facilitate electronic handling of parts of the town and country planning system. It does so by amending existing legislation to remove obstacles to the effective use of electronic communications. Because it is an amending instrument, the order may not be an easy document to read. It may be helpful to noble Lords if I summarise the background and purpose of the order.

Central and local government have adopted the target of making all services available electronically by December 2005. For planning services, that target will require the electronic delivery of a fully functioning development control service. In order to achieve the target, we must seek to ensure that we remove any legal and regulatory barriers to electronic working. Section 8 of the Electronics Communications Act 2000, under which this order has been made, gives us powers to amend existing legislation to remove any such barriers in our legislation which may prevent the use of electronic communication and storage in place of paper.

The order chiefly amends the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended. It is the principal Act governing the planning system, together with pants of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, two schedules to the Environment Act 1995 and some of the secondary legislation made under the planning Acts. The intention of all the amendments made by the order is to ensure that the relevant legislation can be construed explicitly and consistently as permitting the use of electronic communication.

The amendments provide for the electronic submission, receipt and handling of: planning applications, including outline planning applications and reserved matters applications; applications for listed building and conservation area consent; applications to mineral planning authorities; applications for determination of whether prior approval is required; applications for certificates of lawful use of development; planning appeals; listed building and conservation area consent appeals; and, finally, enforcement notice appeals, including listed buildings and conservation area enforcement appeals.

The order is only in respect of part of the planning system and we have in hand the preparation of a further order to deal with advertisement consents and appeals. Further Section 8 orders may be needed, but future primary and secondary legislation is being prepared so that it is compatible with electronic working.

As I have mentioned, the order facilitates the electronic handling of parts of the planning system and so does no more than create an opportunity for those who wish to use an electronic rather than a paper-based planning system. The existing paper-based system will continue to operate for as long as those engaging in the planning system wish to use it.

But the potential benefits of engaging in the planning process electronically are considerable. They include, for example —almost instantaneous—transmission between parties; reduced postage, packing, photocopying and printing; reduced storage space for papers and files; closer linkages between participants in the planning system; better access to guidance, support and tools to support the planning process; and, in particular, more open access to the planning system for all parties.

The order has been welcomed by key stakeholders in the planning system, including the Royal Town Planning Institution, the Council on Tribunals and the Local Government Association. In particular, the Council on Tribunals considered that giving people the opportunity to communicate electronically while continuing the operation of a paper-based system for as long people wanted it was absolutely right. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a town planning committee. If people want to work through an electronic system, that is great. Is there any danger that the order may be used for consultation purposes? I believe that one needs to write on paper to those being consulted rather than rely on electronic methods, as one may miss someone. Apart from that I have no objections. I hope that people have a merry time with this.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the use of modern technology. We welcome the fact that electronic communication will not be compulsory, which could lead to people being excluded. We should also take account of the fact that electronic transmission does not always work. In my part of the world the electricity system does not always work. As the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, who is in his seat, knows, I have raised this matter several times with him.

I also hope that the Minister can reassure me that the Government will monitor the progress of the scheme and evaluate how it works. I picked up from somewhere the fact that although this is to happen, the advertising of it has not been great; people do not know about it. How will people receive information on the system so that they can use it and what steps will the Government take to evaluate how it is progressing? Apart from that we support the order.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, my only regret is that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is not in his place. As someone who consistently chides the Government about how slow they are to introduce electronic communication and as someone who was heavily involved with a system for libraries in a previous incarnation, I totally support what the noble Lord says. Of course, this system will not be compulsory. As I have said before, both systems —hard copy and electronic—can be used for as long as necessary. My private view is that once someone starts to use electronic methods of communicating it is difficult to go back to a hard copy.

I have been asked how we shall evaluate the scheme. Nothing in the order deals with evaluating, but we shall note the concerns of noble Lords and we shall see how matters progress. In other areas where electronic communication has been introduced, it has been an almost entirely positive development. A fascinating point is that electronic communication is a generation thing. My generation is accustomed to the printed word and writing letters but the younger generation use e-mails and enjoy communicating electronically. I hope that that has answered the few questions I was asked.

On Question, Motion agreed to.