HL Deb 02 February 2004 vol 656 cc447-78

3.7 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Rooker, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 42 [Applications for planning permission and certain consents]:

[Amendment No. 114 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 114A: Page 26, line 25, leave out "they think" and insert "are

The noble Lord said: Since we began discussing this Bill in Committee, we have tried to assist the Government in their aim of passing a well drafted law by bringing to their attention instances where we have had reservations about, for example, imprecise terminology or the use of unnecessary words. We have asked the Government to clarify their thinking with regard to the consequences that may flow from specific phrases in the Bill.

I am moving this amendment to Clause 42 with similar aims in mind. I should like to probe the Government's intentions in relation to the discretion of local authorities to decide what they think is necessary to support a planning application. Perhaps the Minister can say whether he thinks it is possible that, as the Bill stands, two local planning authorities that share a border with each other could demand entirely different particulars to be included in a planning application for a development that is essentially the same.

I hasten to add, of course, that local autonomy and local discretion are something that we have advocated throughout the passage of the Bill through this House, so we might welcome the language as it stands. What I am really seeking, though, is some clarification regarding the issue of local planning authorities' freedom to decide what is necessary for inclusion in planning applications; how this freedom relates to development orders specifying what applications should contain; and whether the Government believe that the system of deciding what must be included in planning applications is simple, transparent and consistent or whether they take seriously our concern that this particular part of the planning system is potentially inconsistent and confusing to developers. I look forward to the Minister's response. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his amendment. I entirely understand his desire for some further elucidation on the point. Amendment No. 114A would, as I understand it, allow a local planning authority to require that an application for planning permission includes such particulars as "are" necessary rather than particulars "they think are" necessary. I understand the rationale behind the noble Lord's amendment.

Similarly, Amendment No. 114B would require a local planning authority to require that an application for planning permission includes such supporting evidence as "is" necessary rather than the evidence "they think is" necessary. The noble Lord was kind enough to spell out his reason for it. As I understand it, the noble Lord is concerned about the planning authority boundary issue.

The draft clause does allow a local planning authority to require whatever evidence it sees fit as part of the particulars and supporting evidence of an application. The information required for assessing a planning application will vary, depending upon the nature of the proposed development.

I am sure the noble Lord would argue—particularly given his background in local government—as I argue with my own background in local government—that local planning authorities need to be able to exercise judgment and discretion in specifying information that they think should be included in an application. The amendments themselves would remove an element of that local planning authority discretion. I am sure the noble Lord does not have that intention because, like myself, authorities will all want to express maximum local discretion—reflecting local interests, local pressures, local opinion and so on—when planning applications are brought forward.

I am also unclear what the noble Lord is seeking in terms of the content and particulars of evidence in an application. I am interested to know what extra elements of evidence the noble Lord is seeking to bring forward. That is quite an important part of this whole issue.

There is no precise answer to the noble Lord's point. The characters of two local authorities with a common boundary may well be different in terms of what they see as important for particular developments, particularly where a development site spans a boundary. You will from time to time get disputes and disagreements as to what is most appropriate. What we are trying to do with this and earlier legislation is to provide a common framework and a common understanding of what is appropriate on a cross-boundary site. Ultimately, each local authority will have the discretion to decide what it thinks is appropriate in terms of supporting evidence for particular applications.

It is important that we leave scope for local authorities to exercise judgment and discretion about the information they require when assessing applications. Our job as legislators is to provide a rational framework which can have common application in every locality. Obviously the amendments will not be pressed this afternoon, but were they to be successful I think they would probably prove to be a straitjacket. I am not confident that that is a good thing nor that the noble Lord thinks that is a good thing.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Avebury

There is only one question I want to ask the Minister. Can he explain in a bit more detail what the distinctions are between the matter that is covered by the development order, which is dealt with in subsection (1) in the inserted Clause 62, and the matters which are within the discretion of a local planning authority in subsection (3)? All we know about the relationship between the two provisions is that anything which the local planning authority may stipulate as being necessary under subsection (2) must be consistent with what is in the development order. But that does not tell you anything about the substance of each of the two categories of provision.

Lord Hanningfield

Before the Minister answers, I totally agree with what he says. I do not want, in any way, to put more direction on the local authority. I want to give them as much discretion as possible. But obviously there are cases when sometimes it is very important that the local authority consults its neighbouring local authority about a larger cross-boundary development. I wonder whether some advice could be given in the guidance, particularly about consulting. That might get over the point. Perhaps the Minister could answer the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, as well. It is not a point we want to be difficult about; it is something we are trying to clarify to make certain that some large cross-border developments do not get held up because of the new system. We also do not want to confuse developers in the early days of a new system.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his further elucidation, because he is hitting real problems here. From my time in local development I can certainly think of cross-boundary planning applications where it seemed to take for ever to get the local authorities in a straight line, as it were, before you could get some consented agreement for an application to move forward. The noble Lord is absolutely right—these things can lead to horrendous delays and there is a lot of opportunity on these grounds for people to hold up desirable developments with a strong public interest behind them. The whole purpose of the legislation is to enable things to be speeded up, and for there to be a framework which is understood so that in any area where, in particular, an application crosses boundaries, there is pressure to agree a consensual position to enable sensible planning applications to be brought forward and pushed through, particularly where there is strong public interest behind it.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked a question that I would like to reflect on. I think it is slightly more complex than he realises and I cannot deal with it adequately from the Dispatch Box this afternoon. The noble Lord has made a useful intervention and I will provide him with a response and share it with all noble Lords with an interest in the Bill.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for his comments. Perhaps the Government might reflect on the discussion we have had on these issues for the future. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 114B not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 115: Page 27, line 33, at end insert— (9) Any application for planning permission shall not be entertained by the local planning authority unless it is accompanied by an access statement. (10) An "access statement" is a statement which demonstrates that the applicant has fully considered how the works in question will provide reasonable access and ease of use for people, regardless of disability, age or gender. (11) Any access statement—

  1. (a) shall be made in such manner as may be prescribed by regulations under this Act; and
  2. (b) shall include such particulars and be verified by such evidence as may be required by the regulations or by directions given by the local planning authority under them.
(12) After section 11 of the listed buildings Act (certificate as to the applicant's status etc) there is inserted the following section— 11A ACCESS STATEMENT
  1. (1) An application for listed building consent shall not be entertained unless it is accompanied by an access statement.
  2. (2) An "access statement" is a statement which demonstrates that the applicant has fully considered how the works in question will provide reasonable access and ease of use for people, regardless of disability, age or gender.
  3. (3) Any access statement—
    1. (a) shall be made in such manner as may be prescribed by regulations under this Act; and
    2. (b) shall include such particulars and be verified by such evidence as may be required by the regulations or by directions given by the local planning authority under them."
(13) After section 2 of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 (c. 46) (schedule of monuments) there is inserted the following section— 2A ACCESS STATEMENT
  1. (1) An application for scheduled monument consent shall not be entertained unless it is accompanied by an access statement.
  2. (2) An "access statement" is a statement which demonstrates that the applicant has fully considered how the works in question will provide reasonable access and ease of use for people, regardless of disability, age or gender.
  3. (3) Any access statement—
    1. (a) shall be made in such manner as may be prescribed by regulations under this Act; and
    2. (b) shall include such particulars and be verified by such evidence as may be required by the regulations.""

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 115, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 117. Both amendments are in the name of the leading proponent, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, who is unable to be here today.

Amendment No. 115 is about access statements. The purpose of both amendments can be expressed probably more briefly than the amendments themselves. The first of the two would require developers to submit an access statement with a planning application to demonstrate how the scheme would be accessible and inclusive.

We have already touched on the difficulty arising from the fact that questions of access are currently addressed much too late in the development control process. Under Section 76 of the 1990 Act, development attention is drawn to this on its being granted planning permission, and later at the stage of building regulations approval. If good access is not part of the design from the start, it will obviously be difficult to make significant alterations to an existing design or, indeed, to an existing structure. Retrospective changes are not likely to achieve the same level of accessibility, and bolting-on solutions can be a good deal more costly.

The new duties of service providers to make changes to facilitate access will come into force in October this year. The good practice guidance from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister encourages planning authorities to urge applicants to submit access statements with their applications. The ODPM argues that access statements are key to developers taking seriously the issue of inclusive design at the earliest stage. It suggests that if such a statement is not submitted, a local authority could reject the registration of an application.

The Government's own Disability Rights Task Force has recommended that Section 76 of the 1990 Act be revised when a suitable legislative opportunity arises. If this is not the opportunity, I am not sure what is.

In Committee in the Commons, the Minister, Yvette Cooper, indicated that the Government would consult on whether the access statement should be a required document to accompany planning applications. She suggested that the Government could use order-making powers in this connection. I understand that later—not in the House—the Minister with responsibility for planning said that access statements might be required only "in appropriate circumstances". I believe that that is the phrase that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has used.

Therefore, while I should obviously be delighted if the amendment were accepted, although we shall have other opportunities to take a bite at the cherry, let us at least, if we can, find out this afternoon exactly what the Government propose, how firm their commitment is, what the timetable is and, if there are to be exemptions, what type of applications would be exempted.

The second amendment—Amendment No. 117— would place a new duty on planning authorities, when considering planning applications, to have due regard to the need to ensure that reasonable provisions are made so that buildings and the approaches to them are accessible to, and usable by, people, regardless of disability, age or gender. In its good practice guidance last year, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister conceded that. It said: Whilst there may be many examples of new public and commercial spaces and buildings that have reached the highest standards of inclusiveness, this has often been achieved by one of the parties … taking a leading role, with others having to follow. However, there are still many inaccessible environments throughout the UK. In many cases this is because schemes have been granted planning consent without any party in the process properly assessing whether the scheme would result in an accessible environment". The example to which I want to refer is one that is very close to home in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—that is, City Hall on the south bank of the Thames. It is near Tower Bridge but not very near a public place where those with any kind of mobility difficulty can be dropped off by cab or by car unless they are among the happy four, I believe, who have taken their place in the queue to obtain a parking space underneath the building. That is the number of disabled user spaces available.

On the day that Her Majesty the Queen opened City Hall, I took as a guest a lady who admitted to being 86 years old, although I am not sure how old she is. She had considerable difficulty. Until then, I had not realised just what a long way the building was from the highway. Once one is inside City Hall, one tramps a long way up gradients even to reach the lifts. I consider it a disgrace that London's newest government building has been designed with those inherent difficulties. I believe that the Mayor is considering extreme action and I hope that he finds a way to deal with the problem. However, it is difficult to see how it can be rectified after the event.

Having said all that, I shall return to my script. The amendment would enable the Government to meet their manifesto commitment to revise Section 76, to which I have already referred. On 22 January, when debating another amendment concerning disability, the Minister said: Believe you me, there is no attempt whatever to marginalise the issue, make it an add-on or regard it as an afterthought. The whole thrust of the way we intend to approach this issue is that nothing gets built unless these issues have been considered". At that point, we were talking about regional spatial strategy, but I believe that the same thing applies. He went on to say that the Government, want to be wholly positive about this matter", and would, give further reassurances and provide further details on different aspects of the same issue when we come to later clauses of the Bill".—[Official Report, 22/1/04; cols. 1206–07.] I assume that that is the point that we have reached, and I hope that the Minister can give the reassurance that many people are waiting for. I beg to move.

Lord Addington

I rise briefly to add to what my noble friend has said. I believe that Amendments Nos. 115 and 117 are in the spirit of what is recommended at present and, specifically in the case of Amendment No. 117, that they would fit nicely into what is being discussed in the draft disability Bill. They would mean that local authorities would have a duty to take account of the needs and interests of disabled people and promote their causes and, indeed, their inclusion.

Amendment No. 117 seems to be exactly in that mode. Would the provision proposed within the amendment form a necessary part of the local authorities' planning procedure? If an engine does not already exist to allow local authorities, when dealing with planning statements, to take account of the needs of disabled people, I recommend that we include Amendment No. 117. Simply, if there is such a duty without the necessary planning structure, we shall have more problems.

Lord Lucas

I strongly support the spirit of the amendments. I am not sure that I am entirely at home with the wording, but I support the idea that something should be in place right at the beginning of the planning process which sets out what is being done and, through guidance, what the Government have said should be done to provide better access for the disabled and elderly. The sooner we have that kind of thing in force, the better. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, it should be up-front and at the beginning of the process. That seems to me entirely right.

As for the wording, proposed new subsection (10) in Amendment No. 115 refers to, how the works in question will provide reasonable access". However, I should much rather see the words, how reasonable access should be provided in the context of the works in question". Otherwise, the type of situation will arise where you submit a planning application to change the glazing bars on a third-floor window and you are asked how that affects disabled access. Unless you are thinking of providing a catapult on the ground floor, I rather doubt that there is any way in which that could be done.

Many planning permissions concerning alterations to existing buildings involve great constraints on what can and should be done. I have just redone a house myself. I think that I would have been in considerable difficulty if I had been asked to make it disabled-friendly due to the structure that was there already. Indeed, it would have necessitated the destruction of the historic character of the building even to get on to the ground floor because it had a very narrow entrance.

I cannot see how one can provide for that in primary legislation, which has to be absolute. But we need a very sensible and sensitive set of guidelines to make sure that what will apply to a great number of existing buildings is a reasonable set of requirements and that the bias is towards making sure that public buildings or those used by the public receive much more attention than private houses. After all, if one fails to provide access for the disabled it is oneself and one's friends and family who suffer.

Lord Cobbold

Following on from that point, there are certain historic buildings which open to the public where these very severe problems arise.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to all speakers who have made a contribution to this short discussion. I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, is not here to listen to what I have to say and did not move the amendment. What has been said is of value. I believe that we are all seeking the same end. I hope that what I have to say will provide a measure of reassurance.

Clause 42 introduces new powers to make an order. The order can specify the form and manner in which a planning application must be made, what must be included in an application, and the documents and other material that must accompany it. The powers are intended to introduce a standard application form for all planning authorities.

Before making any prescription, we would seek stakeholders' views on the forms as part of our proposed consultation which is due shortly. But without prejudging the consultation—although in a way I am going to do so in what I say—I wish to make it well understood that we would want to see an access statement, or something which demonstrates how the project will meet certain provisions of legislation and related codes of practice. That will ensure that the needs of the disabled are addressed. That is one of the documents that would accompany the form in appropriate cases. The use of the term "appropriate cases" means no more and no less than when it is right and necessary to consider its application. It would not be right in the kind of case to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred or where one is fitting a dormer extension. It is not an expression which is being used to exclude things specifically, but simply to recognise the reality of different kinds of planning application.

It is very important that we see an access statement when it is appropriate. That would mean that access would have to be considered and be shown to be considered, right at the start of the application process. We probably all agree that that is important. Those applying for planning permission would be required to demonstrate how their proposals contribute to an inclusive environment and local planning authorities would have to consider this alongside the other requirements.

There are also links here to the work that is continuing in relation to outline planning permission to which my noble friend Lord Rooker referred at Second Reading. He was clear at that time that we would be willing to consider the retention of outline planning permission if it provided the opportunity for the provision of more information than is often the case at present. My noble friend made it plain at the time that at the very least this would need to cover among other things the key design principles and address the important issue of access.

I hope that from what I have said as regards this issue and what I said in earlier debates on the new planning system—I explained that development plans must contain clear and comprehensive, inclusive access policies—those Members of the Committee who have been involved in this debate can see that our proposed system seeks to ensure that access is recognised as a legitimate planning consideration from the outset.

What I have said means that Amendment No. 117 is probably unnecessary, as the new system places access on a level playing field with other planning considerations. Local planning authorities and the Secretary of State will have to pay "due regard" to access issues in considering applications.

I am not convinced that there needs to be a specific requirement in legislation to cover the issue of access statements. If I understand the amendments properly, the question has to be asked whether the movers and supporters of the amendments really mean to suggest that all planning applications, including household applications, should be accompanied by an access statement. That is somewhat heavy-handed and overly bureaucratic. Personally, I believe that the system is in danger of being just that. We have to try to minimise that as much as we can. Having said that, I would not want to undermine the important part that access statements play. I make it plain to everyone with an interest that this is a matter which is more properly dealt with in guidance and as a proper consideration when a planning application is appropriate and it is brought forward. With what I hope was a very positive response to the amendment which has been moved in good spirit, I trust that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful to those who have taken part in the consideration of the issue. As the Minister and other Members of the Committee may well be aware, the amendment comes from the Disability Rights Commission and other organisations which were mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, when she moved an amendment at an earlier date. This is not their point and it is entirely personal: it seems to me that for an access statement not always to be required risks the system not working very well. I would argue that the Government should at least consider whether it is appropriate for there always to be an access statement even if the words "not suitable" or something to that effect appear, to draw attention to the issue right at the start.

There are a number of other situations. The noble Lord, like myself, will be used to papers going to local authorities which specifically consider a number of issues and which may say that there are no financial implications. At least, attention has been drawn to the issue where it may be necessary not just to tick a box, but actually to consider what is right.

To pursue the example used by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, one would not want to suggest that there should be a parachute down from a window on the outside, but it might be important to ensure that the window could be opened from the inside by someone who has difficulty in reaching it. I do not believe that one can necessarily write off examples immediately.

Can the Minister give any more detail about the timetable for the consultation and further work that he mentioned? Can he also say something about Section 76 of the 1990 Act and its future? Various organisations have expected that this is the moment when the Government would deal with it. I do not know whether he is in a position to do either of those things this afternoon.

Lord Avebury

As regards historic buildings my noble friend may be aware of an example very close to home. I asked the Chairman of Committees recently whether it was possible for disabled people to have access to the Galleries here. He wrote to me saying that it had been ruled out because lifts could not be provided within the Palace of Westminster to our Gallery because of the historic building requirements. Alternative arrangements were made for disabled people to listen to our proceedings by coming to the Bar of the House. That is an example where access had been considered: it had been ruled out elsewhere for the reason which the Chairman of Committees gave. It did not mean that we had not considered the possibility of access, but we were unable to implement it.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am not able to comment further on what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said. It is a consideration, where we have a historic building. We have probably all come across a contradiction between our intentions and the limitations of a building that was not designed to be as accessible as we would want it to be now for people with disabilities.

Consultation on guidance, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, will take place in the next few months. That can mean a lot and a little, as we are aware. I will try to be more specific and I will press officials for a tighter timetable. The other points made by the noble Baroness were good ones. I am sympathetic to the points that have been made and we will give them further consideration. I cannot promise more than that because to do so would be wrong. However, they are important points.

Baroness Hamwee

I thank the noble Lord and beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 42 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 116 and 117 not moved.]

Lord Bridges moved Amendment No. 117A: After Clause 42, insert the following new clause— "POWER TO REGULATE USE OF EXTERNAL LIGHTING In the principal Act after section 225 (power to remove or obliterate placards and posters) there is inserted the following section— "POWER TO REGULATE USE OF EXTERNAL LIGHTING Regulations under this Act shall make provision for restricting or regulating the use of external lighting so far as appears to the Secretary of State to be expedient in the interests of amenity or public safety."

The noble Lord said: I speak on this subject as a member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England living in East Suffolk. This is not an easy matter and I found the CPRE document circulated to some of us helpful— one might even say illuminating.

We have become accustomed to bright lights, and more of them, and our opinion of the need for external lighting will vary according to circumstances. Clearly, when driving on a busy motorway at night, at this time of year, good lighting improves safety. But when I look out of my window on a clear summer night and see the western horizon 20 miles away, brilliantly lit from the operations at Felixstowe docks, which operate round the clock, I ask myself: do they need to be so brilliant?

No doubt those interested in astronomy would have stronger views. I dwell for a moment on astronomy. Some 20 or 30 years ago it was found that the observations made at the Greenwich Observatory were becoming increasingly difficult because of the ever more powerful street and other lights in London. A long-term decision was made to transfer the observatory to Hurstmonceaux in Sussex, at considerable expense. This was done over a period of years. The result was generally well received until it was discovered that the lighting from Brighton made observation as difficult as it had become in London. So, another decision was made to join other European countries in siting their outer-hemisphere observations from an island in the distant Atlantic, on the Azores, I believe, where conditions are better.

This must seem a strange introduction to this subject, but I suggest that astronomy is likely to become an even more important subject than it is today. In the next century we may become increasingly preoccupied by the danger of collision with large objects in outer space, which has been the subject of some recent debates in this House. The growing intensity of illumination on our planet may have a direct bearing on the safety of our successors.

I suggest that some degree of prudent control over external lighting might be advisable for this and for another reason—the desirability of avoiding the wasteful use of electricity. Recent debates have shown the anxiety felt by many at the profligate use of power and its environmental effects. This is germane to the Energy Bill now proceeding through your Lordships' House. We seem to be moving from a period marked by the abundance of cheap electric energy to a different world in which we would be more cautious about our reliance on electric power.

It is difficult to say what form such restraint might take. I believe that a parliamentary committee in another place had proposed making obtrusive light a statutory nuisance. But that would be difficult to enforce. So, my amendment would approach the topic in a more moderate way, by empowering the Secretary of State to make regulations under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. This follows the precedent that the Secretary of State already has the power to control advertisements with a similar set of words. I suggest this might be an appropriate first step. It is permissive, not mandatory, and it gives the Government discretion over the steps they may take. I hope the Government will be able to respond positively to this suggestion. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

I add our support to the amendment, if only to control some of the increasingly bizarre Christmas lights we see every year, particularly last year.

Lord Avebury

I, too, support the amendment. It concerns not only the professional astronomers mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, who are able to afford the movement of expensive telescopes to an area of the world where they are not overwhelmed by the street lighting, but also the flourishing amateur astronomical community we have in this country. Their interests should be considered, particularly when the effectiveness of the lighting is not impaired if the direction is altered so that it does not shine into the sky. There are plenty of technical methods of ensuring the lighting is directed downwards without casting the same amount of light into outer space, for example directing the lighting on motorways downwards so that it illuminates the carriageway. It would be useful if the Secretary of State had these powers and I hope the Minister agrees.

Lord Lucas

I am disappointed by what my noble friend said about Christmas lights. I had the great pleasure of spending Christmas in Melbourne in Australia. The street I stayed in was blocked with cars from 6 p.m. until midnight because everyone came to see the Christmas lights. It was a wonderful festivity of individual enterprise producing something that was worth seeing. The more we have of that in our duller suburban streets, the better. However, I think street lighting is one of the main sources of light pollution. There are technical solutions that ensure there is little light escaping sideways and upwards. However, does planning permission bite on these things? Is there a requirement for local authorities to go through the planning process in order to decide what kind of street light is put in?

Baroness Hamwee

The Minister may use the Blackpool illuminations defence in response to the amendment, according to what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said.

I was interested in the response to the amendment moved by my honourable friend the Member for Ludlow in Committee in another place.

The Minister told the Committee that the UDP for the London Borough of Sutton has a policy that developments and proposals involving the use of external lighting and floodlighting will be permitted only where there is no unduly adverse impact from increased levels of light pollution on the environment or on the amenities of neighbouring occupiers. I do not know whether that was introduced when my noble friend Lord Tope was leader, but it is an innovative authority. That to me does not suggest that the matter can be dealt with outside the regulations proposed, but that the Government might have a role in disseminating that sort of approach.

Lord Marlesford

I support the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, in his amendment. Light pollution is a relatively recently recognised subject. Some years ago, when I first raised the matter in the House, the Minister responded by stating that heavy pollution had to be dealt with first and seemed quite unaware of the issue. Frankly, I do not remember under which government that was. At any rate, the concept of polluting by light had not at that time sunk through to Whitehall.

What the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, asks for is extremely modest and, in a Bill of this kind, it would be desirable to take the opportunity to deal with light pollution. The amendment would merely give authority to the Minister to make appropriate regulations as and when necessary. Of course, one could remove all forms of intensive lighting from the night sky. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, referred to Felixstowe. The fact is that Felixstowe works 24 hours per day and probably needs a good deal of light. However, I would not regard Christmas tree decorations, which have also been referred to, as a top priority for restriction.

Certain basic facts need to be considered. In order to light up the ground, we do not need to light up the sky. Technically, that is not necessary and has become increasingly less so. Certainly, it is true that in England, as opposed to Scotland and Wales where the situation is perhaps better, it is difficult to think of areas where the black night sky, "the starry, starry night", can be seen.

When I was chairman of the CPRE we commissioned a study of the United Kingdom from a satellite, on the same day of the year and at the same time, 10 years on. The difference was huge. More recently, a similar study was conducted and a further deterioration was seen. My noble friend mentioned the Christmas lights in Melbourne. The only time in recent years that I have seen the deep night sky was on a visit to the outback of New South Wales. That was a wonderful experience, and one from childhood which I had almost forgotten. We cannot get back to that. We cannot remove necessary lighting for road safety, pleasure, football matches, and so forth.

However, what we can do, and what I would ask the Government seriously to consider, is to introduce in the Bill, which is a good vehicle for this issue, a power for the Minister to make regulations. I am the last person to want over-regulation. The details of the wording and how such regulations are to be used would be a matter for sensible discretion. However, the Bill provides this opportunity. Even if the Minister does not like the particular wording of the noble Lord's amendment, I hope he will say that the Government are willing to consider taking this opportunity to address the issue, which will become increasingly relevant as the years go by.

Lord Chorley

I wish I could follow the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, in his visit to the outback. The only time I went to the outback was to Ayre's Rock, which is in the middle of Australia, where all the hotels are hugely illuminated. So, that was something of a failure, but I appreciate the comments of the noble Lord.

All noble Lords who have spoken have said that light is now becoming a pollutant. Another pollutant, which we are not discussing, is noise. It would be difficult to see how we could discuss that under the Bill. To me, this is mainly a countryside issue. I do not mind really: in many senses, the more light we have in cities the better, provided that this type of regulation does not, as it were, escape the cities. I note the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in that regard. Therefore, I support my noble friend's amendment.

Not being a professional in these matters, I do not know whether this would be best done by primary legislation. If that is impractical, one wonders whether, alternatively, it could be done by way of guidance. The Minister may say that this issue is included in guidance, in which case I should be delighted. As noble Lords have said, the amendment is quite modest. It merely gives the Secretary of State a power, and that seems to me to be appropriate.

Lord Tanlaw

I rise to support my noble friend's amendment on behalf of astronomers and, indeed, schools throughout the country. There is a real need in every town for a dark area, or access to a dark area, where telescopes can be used. Astronomy is one of the fastest growing subjects in schools. It is relevant to the future and yet, because of light pollution, teachers have little opportunity to introduce students to the reality of looking through a telescope.

It is unnecessary for town councils to ignore this issue. Any legislation which draws attention to it and allows for dark spaces for astronomers with access to the town will be beneficial, not just for pleasure but educationally.

Lord Cobbold

I, too, support the amendment. I feel strongly about the ability to see the stars. It is probable that a generation of children have grown up in an urban environment in this country not knowing that there are stars above. An important point which has been made is that a very large proportion of so-called "light pollution" is caused by local authorities in the form of street lighting. That needs to be taken into consideration in this debate.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I rise to offer the tiniest footnote, happily in positive antithesis to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, about Hurstmonceux. In the late 18th century, two centuries before the events which have been earlier described, Archbishop Robinson of Armagh was anxious to transform Armagh, which is the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland as well as the head of the Anglican Church, into a university. There are no Lords Spiritual on their Benches today, but the Holy Spirit did work in the context of his ambitions.

In the run-up to any plans he might have implemented, the Royal Society reported that the best observations of Halley's comet in 1785 had been provided by a curate in County Tyrone. Arguably, that curate may have been the furthest observer of Halley's comet from London of anyone in these islands and clearly benefited from the darkness of the sky. The consequence of his contribution as admired by the Royal Society was that it was determined that an observatory would be built in Armagh. That is now the second oldest observatory in the United Kingdom. The Lords Spiritual will be pleased that the Archbishop of Armagh has consistently been the chairman of the trustees. That seems to me to be a very short, moral tale in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges.

4 p.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

I say at the outset that we have great sympathy with the intentions of the amendment. I agree with virtually every speech that has been made in the past 15 minutes. There is no question that this is a serious issue and it is right that it should be raised. The Bill provides an ideal opportunity for a brief discussion on the matter.

I shall not say that this issue has never been considered, but one of our difficulties has been in assessing the amount of light concerned. It is not the easiest thing in the world to assess external light for statutory planning control purposes. It is not as though Parliament has not addressed the issue recently. The Select Committee on Science and Technology in another place considered this issue and produced a report in October last year. That committee did not recommend the introduction of new planning legislation. It specifically addressed light pollution and astronomy.

I, too, was incredibly impressed by the CPRE document which was produced last summer, with the satellite maps referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. I do not have a briefing on Christmas lights, and I am not sure of the context in which that was raised. The two references to Christmas lights could have been interpreted entirely differently: first, in the context of people going to see the wonders of Regent Street; and, secondly, in the context of people decorating their houses with such lights. Honestly, I would say, "The nanny state's gone too far".

Last December I saw some houses in the Essex and Suffolk countryside, in the middle of nowhere, which were wonderful sights. What the electricity bills were and how long it took to put up the lights and take them down I do not know. I would hate to think that we were introducing legislation against such a transient way of making an individual statement. Those are the two ways in which reference was made to Christmas lights.

Any legislation that we brought in—this is not an excuse for saying no—would have to be enforceable in a practical way. If matters are to end up in the courts we will have to be precise. I have something positive to say: I believe that we should do something about the difficulties that we see currently in the planning system. The point about astronomy is incredibly well made. The planning system has long recognised that certain types of development should be allowed to take place without requiring individual planning permissions. The placing of lamp standards is one of those. It is not as though they do not have planning permission, but highway authorities have permitted development rights, which means that they have planning consent to put up or to replace street lighting. It is not as though there is no rule. They have the development rights. Those are usually of a minor technical nature. One reason is to reduce the burden on the planning system. There is a practical point there.

We believe that bad lighting practice, of which there is plenty, is best dealt with by raising public awareness, by providing help and guidance, and by more effective use of existing powers, such as development plan policies on and the use of planning conditions to mitigate the effects of external lighting.

It is not as though nothing happens now. We already have a document, Lighting in the Countryside, part 3 of which is entitled "Towards Good Practice". If I recall correctly, some time late last year I was asked about this matter at Question Time so I had occasion to look at the document. It provides practical advice to local authorities, to developers and to members of the public on what can be done to lessen the adverse effects of external lighting. It is freely available on the ODPM website. It makes the exact point that in order to light the ground to make roads safer one does not have to light the sky. Loads of examples are given.

However, we intend to introduce an annex to planning policy statement 23 which is entitled Planning and Pollution Control, an annex specifically on light pollution. We are going to beef it up, throw some light on the issue—I should not have said that—and raise its profile. The annex will have the same status as the parent planning policy statement and would be a material consideration in the preparation of regional spatial strategies and local development documents and in the consideration of planning applications.

Something practical is coming down the line that we believe will be added to existing procedures. Given the practical difficulties relating to enforcement and the potential burden on the planning system, we believe that this is the best way to deal with the issue. In another place the Select Committee considered the matter and took advice. It did not recommend the introduction of planning legislation—that is not to say there is no reason to do so—but there is a practical way to deal with the problem. We have identified the problem and we genuinely believe that there is a problem to be dealt with, but it is best dealt with by introducing the annex on light pollution. It would have the same status as the parent planning policy statement, so it could be used in arguments about planning permission and appeals in front of inspectors. I hope that is considered to be a positive answer and that the amendment is not pursued.

Lord Bridges

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this brief and extremely interesting debate. It showed considerable support for the intentions behind the amendment. I never had any intention of suggesting legislation to control what people may want to put on their own houses, particularly at Christmas time. That was far from my thoughts. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his positive response. The idea of guidance sent to all local authorities is probably the best way ahead in the circumstances. I am grateful to him for what he has said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 117B not moved.]

Clause 43 [Power to decline to determine applications]:

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 118: Page 28, line 28, at end insert— ( ) The Secretary of State may issue guidance as to the meaning of the word "similar" in subsection (2).

The noble Lord said: First, I declare an interest. I am associated with a consultancy called Green Issues, which, among other activities, advises development companies on their relationships with the communities in which they have developments. I have taken advantage of that connection to hold several discussions with their clients on this part of the Bill. Amendment No. 118 is entirely self-explanatory. I do not understand what "similar" is supposed to mean or where one is supposed to go for a meaning for the word. I hope for enlightenment from the Benches opposite. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

Amendment No. 118 concerns repeat applications. Clause 43, which is a fairly long clause for reasons that are obvious, is intended to inhibit the use of repeated applications to wear down the opposition to undesirable developments. The amendment would allow the Secretary of State to issue guidance on what is meant by an application "similar" to one that had been refused.

Section 70A(8) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 defines applications as "similar" if the local planning authority thinks that the development is the same or substantially the same. The decision to decline to determine the application will be made by the local planning authority. That decision involves the local planning authority taking a view as to whether the application is similar to a previous application. Subsection (8) clarifies "similar" so far as it is practicable to do so: the development and the land must be the same or substantially the same. With the greatest respect, we cannot imagine what guidance could usefully add to that without being over-prescriptive. As it is already on the statute book, it can be tested in the courts if it is thought to be unreasonable. So it is not a matter of us inventing the wheel and having to redefine "similar" for the purposes of repeated applications. I hope that that is a satisfactory explanation to the noble Lord.

Lord Marlesford

I can see the force of the subsection. Presumably that would not apply if planning policy is changed between the submission of one application and another; for example, presumably a new PPS, as we now call them, which cast a different light on the matter, would not give powers to the local authority to refuse to consider an application that would have been inconsistent under the old policy, but which was perhaps similar, but was consistent under the new one.

Lord Rooker

As a lay person, I think that, if that were the case, that would be an abuse of the power of a local authority. I have experience of, as no doubt have Members of the other place, locations of developments where planning applications are refused but within a couple of months a similar application is submitted specifically designed to wear down the opposition. I had one case in my former constituency where there were at least half a dozen applications, each with slight variations, relating to one site, and yet the matter had been to appeal and had been refused. The applications were designed to wear down the local authority. Clearly, if in the mean time the planning policy changes, the case would have to be considered on its merits.

Lord Lucas

I am grateful for that explanation. I am concerned that the definition of "similar" to be applied here is quite narrow. I think we all agree that this clause is worth including in the Bill, but is it strong enough? If a development purely of houses is proposed and refused and the application comes back for a development of two-thirds houses and one-third light industrial, is that similar? It does not sound similar in the context in which the noble Lord expresses the matter, using the words from the principal Act. I would like some comfort on that, otherwise we are looking at something that is quite narrow in its effect. A change from 120 houses to 110 houses may be similar, but will the fact that you are developing the same area but proposing something that is substantially different—although the effect on the neighbourhood may be the same—be caught by this clause?

Lord Rooker

Again, speaking purely as a lay person, if an application is put in that is purely for housing, it fails and later comes back as a mixed development for housing and light industrial development, no one can claim that it is "similar". For a start, it would be a mixed development; it would not be dwellings. You might go in, for example, for 120 dwellings of three storeys, and come back with 110 dwellings on another application, most of which are three storeys but some of which are two. You might argue that those look pretty similar. If it is a mixed development, it is not the same as 100 per cent dwellings.

From experience, the planning committees and the local authorities would probably have some case law on this anyway, as it has been in the legislation since 1990. It is just that they are now getting the power to knock out and not consider these similar developments. If developers want to appeal against it—if they think that the authority has abused its power—they have every right to do so.

Lord Lucas

Yes, so developers just have to be rather more inventive in their abuse of the system than they have been to date, which I suspect they will be. I am grateful for the explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 119: Page 28, line 30, leave out "A" and insert "Subject to the Secretary of State having expressed himself satisfied with the performance of a local planning authority's development control function, that

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 119 concerns overlapping applications, which is a technique that many developers have found useful. It means that you can put in two essentially identical applications at the same time. One of them you dip into the appeal process, because you jolly well know that the local authority never decides anything in eight weeks, so you keep going with it on that sort of timescale. The other one remains on the table with the local authority, so that you can carry on with negotiations at its own pace. That way, you get the benefit of the timescales, which are laid down for appeal and for getting the thing done properly, but you keep discussions open with the local authority.

Clearly, where a local authority is performing well, and if it does not want an overlapping application in a particular case, that should be allowed. Where overlapping applications are applied to an authority that is habitually misbehaving and habitually taking far longer than it should do, to prevent it from doing so one can close a door on allowing people seeking planning permission to obtain it in a reasonable timescale. That is not the right way to go. I therefore suggest in this amendment that the ability of an authority to dismiss a second application as an overlapping one is restricted to those occasions where the local authority is regarded as a well performing authority, rather than one that has troubles. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I hope that the Minister will not be too tempted to accept this amendment. Apart from all the problems that we on these Benches have with the CPA process, the amendment seems to assume that quality in development control matters is pretty much limited to the time within which they are dealt. That may not be in the noble Lord's mind, but it is certainly how I read the amendment. I put it to him that not only is this not the right way to judge whether a local planning authority is "behaving itself, but to have such a provision would create a vicious circle. If there are more applications going in, the system gets more clogged up, rather than the problem being solved.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Lord for moving the amendment and explaining his desire to deal with twin-tracked applications. Clause 43 will prevent twin tracking. The amendment would enable a local planning authority to decline to determine a twin-tracked application only if the Secretary of State had expressed himself satisfied with the authority's development control performance. The Government recognise that the performance of local authorities varies. Some authorities are good at determining applications; some are less good. We also recognise that authorities need to improve before we allow them to decline to determine twin-tracked applications. This measure will therefore be implemented only once the delays in the planning system have been substantively overcome.

Amendment No. 119 would require the Secretary of State, rather than to express satisfaction with local planning authorities generally, to consider each local authority's planning performance. The result would be that some local planning authorities would be able to refuse to determine twin-tracked applications, while others would not. This would lead to a degree of uncertainty for applicants. It would also lead to something of a bureaucratic nightmare for the Secretary of State in formally assessing each and every planning authority's performance level. Such an assessment would provide no guarantee that the performance would remain at the same level, although the power to decline to determine applications would remain.

Though well intentioned, the amendment offers the prospect of more bureaucracy—which the noble Lord does not like—and greater uncertainty. I can see the problem, but this is not the remedy. The noble Lord would be well advised to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Lucas

I know when I am faced with the inevitable. However, the noble Lord might, in some quiet hour of this Bill, turn his mind to the foundation hospitals experiment, which is about allowing well performing segments of public service additional powers and freedoms when they perform well, and that is judged from the centre. However, I agree that there is no requirement of consistency from government. I cannot say that we achieved it, and I do not expect it of this Government. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 119ZA not moved.]

Clause 43 agreed to.

Clause 44 [Major infrastructure projects]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 119ZB: Page 31, line 14, at end insert— ( ) Any planning application that the Secretary of State declares is of national or regional importance, as designated through subsection (1), must be subject to an economic impact report. ( ) Any planning application for a major infrastructure project based on a site specific proposal in a national policy statement White Paper shall be considered by an inspector who shall be able to question the need for the specific development.

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 199ZB also has the support of the Conservative Front Bench. Clause 44 deals with major infrastructure projects. It, aims to ensure that major infrastructure projects are subject to an Economic Impact Report (EIR) and to exclude site-specific proposals in national policy statements to prevent them from reducing the scope of a public inquiry".

Those words are from the CPRE, which prompted us to table this amendment. The moment that I read them, I thought of Lord Hanningfield and Stansted— and perhaps also of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and Heathrow.

If White Papers are site-specific, they are not doing the job that we would see them doing of setting a framework to guide policy on specific developments. In another place, the Minister said that, economic … aspects are, to some degree, already included".— [Official Report, Commons Standing Committee G, 23/1/03; col. 386.]

The discussion there centred around roads and transport infrastructure, but particularly trunk roads, with reference to work done by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment. I accept that there is different legislation for transport, but the fact that SACTRA recommended that economic impact reports be produced before decisions on new transport infrastructure were taken forward can be read across to the provisions of the Bill as a matter of principle. In the debate, the Minister in the other place seemed to say that it was not a matter for primary legislation.

The Minister has already dealt with an amendment suggesting that Clause 38—the sustainable development provision—need not specifically be applied to development control matters because, indirectly, it applies through the development plan process. However, having such an economic statement would ensure that the whole issue was considered before an inspector got near the application.

It is important that there are safeguards in the planning system—not least the proposed duty for plans to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development—and that they are not bypassed. Major infrastructure projects are often likely to have a particularly damaging environmental impact. I would be interested to hear the Minister say whether, if and when there are regional assemblies undertaking the provisions, those assemblies will have a role in dealing with the projects. That is perhaps not central to the point that I am making. I beg to move.

Lord Hanningfield

I support the amendment. It is extremely important to the Government's proposals for major infrastructure projects. I am particularly engaged with such issues at the moment, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said. I am leader of Essex County Council, which is hugely affected by the Government's proposals for the expansion of airport capacity in the south-east.

I recognise that there are good reasons for the Government to seek changes to the current system. Major infrastructural projects, by definition, concern planning issues that will have a major impact on our communities and will be extremely visible. To some extent, the Bill is testament to the fact that, in large part, confidence in the planning system rests on the ability to handle such planning matters sensibly and efficiently.

The amendment is an attempt to enhance the provisions of this part of the Bill, not to undermine them. The first part of Amendment No. 119ZB would require the Secretary of State to conduct an economic impact assessment of any planning matter, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, that he deems to fall within this part of the Bill. There are two reasons why it is important to deal with the issue in that way. First, it is simply right that, on matters of major development that will, as the noble Baroness said, have a huge environmental impact, a robust economic appraisal of the proposals should be carried out. Responsibility for doing that should rest with the Secretary of State.

Secondly, it is important that arguments about the economic impact should be in the public domain at an early stage. In another place, it was suggested that a statutory economic impact report would be unnecessary because an inspector would look into the economic effects of development as part of his examination. That is in no way acceptable. Local people affected by major planning proposals will not want to wait until an inquiry is held to make their voice heard. They will want to confront the issues head-on, as is happening with Stansted at the moment. By the time that an inquiry comes around, positions will have hardened, and there will be little chance of persuading people of the merits of a particular development. That might be okay, if we were not too concerned about taking a local community with us, but that would be wrong. We should make every effort to ensure that local people fully understand the rationale behind such planning proposals. Those in favour of development will welcome the chance to get robust economic arguments into the public domain as early as possible. I would have thought that the Government would seek to reshape local debate in that way.

The second part of the amendment is equally important. It would enable an inspector to examine the justification for a site-specific proposal in a government White Paper. Planning by White Paper is simply unacceptable. Of course, it is appropriate to use a White Paper to set out a broad national policy, but bypassing the checks and balances in the planning system by making site-specific recommendations is another matter. To some extent, the amendment would mitigate the worst effects by enabling an inspector to investigate the proposals as part of the inquiry process.

It is an important amendment to an important part of the Bill. It concerns a lot of people in the south-east, with regard not only to Stansted but to Heathrow and, ultimately, Gatwick. People should feel that there will be fair hearings about such proposals.

Lord Rooker

This is an important part of the Bill. The proposal has not turned up in the Bill in the way originally envisaged in the White Paper. We made some policy changes on the issue in 2002, and I shall come to them in a moment.

The first subsection in the amendment would require an economic impact report to be made on an application that had been designated as a major infrastructure project. The second part would require that, Any planning application for a major infrastructure project based on a site specific proposal in a national policy statement White Paper shall be considered by an inspector who shall be able to question the need for the specific development". I shall not go into any current issues—it would be inappropriate for me to do so—but such requirements are not necessary in the Bill. During the inquiry, the inspector will consider all aspects of the application, including the need for the specific development, economic, environmental and any other impacts. I must make that clear: during the inquiry, the inspector will consider all aspects of the application, including the need for the specific development, economic, environmental and other impacts.

I am not fully up to date with debates in the other place, but the original proposals for major infrastructure projects, which were issued in March 2002, before ODPM was born, suggested that Parliament itself would consider the principles of such applications and that any subsequent inquiry would consider only the detail of the case. That was the original proposal in the White Paper. Parliament would therefore need to be aware of the economic impact of the application to be able to consider the case properly, and we envisaged that a statement of the economic impact would be laid before Parliament for that purpose. I do not devalue the importance of the issue, but after five minutes' discussion, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I took the view that it was not proper for Parliament to be involved in executive action anyway and that, secondly, the parliamentary processes were wholly inappropriate for the kind of proposal envisaged. We had to find a better way of doing it, so we made the proposal that is now in the Bill.

An inspector will consider the principle and the detail of the case through an inquiry. I make it clear: the inspector will consider the detail and the principle of the case for major infrastructure projects. We set out a three-part approach to handling planning applications for such major projects. It is important to have clearer government policy statements, which may be supported by clearer regional policies. In case anybody asks me, I make the caveat that regional assemblies will have no role in major infrastructure projects. The inspector works on behalf of the Secretary of State.

The second new aspect is that new inquiry rules will allow an inspector to make better use of inquiry time, while ensuring that everyone can adequately express their views. The matter is fundamental—we are not seeking to snuff out the right for any voice to be heard.

Thirdly, there are new procedures in the Bill that will allow a team of inspectors to operate. A national policy statement White Paper will help reduce the argument at a planning inquiry about the need for a specific development on a particular site. The inspector should not have to spend inquiry time considering whether the need for a development exists, but should consider instead whether the need identified is outweighed by other factors. That would go to the principle of the application in any event.

An inspector must ensure that all relevant impacts of the specific development are considered by the inquiry. Therefore, all material considerations will be considered in his report with all relevant impacts of the project, such as those that are economic or environmental.

In other words, the requirements—those two limbs—in Amendments No. 119ZB are not necessary. They are fully covered in the current drafting of the Bill. There is no intention to say that the principle of the infrastructure project cannot be discussed at an inquiry, just because there has been a White Paper. That is not on. The principle and the detail can be discussed and considered. We just think that it would be easier if the Government did not have the "spineless" approach of the past of not wanting to make a proper statement; when no one knew what was happening and too much time was spent discussing the principle of an application, because there was no policy statement. Therefore, it is important that the inspector can look at all aspects of an application. We have made changes to speed matters up, so that we do not have the type of issue that caused the length of the Terminal 5 inquiry. But there is no attempt to snuff out people being heard. Our proposals are for making better use of inquiry time for discussing the merits of the case. The inspector has to weigh up the considerations on whether the need for, say, a major infrastructure project, is outweighed by other factors—in other words, whether the inquiry can go to the principle of the issue.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

Can the Minister clarify the matter regarding airports, which is a major issue? Many people feel that if maximum use has been made of all existing runways, another runway is not needed anywhere. Could that come up at the inquiry into an extra runway at Stansted, which we expect towards the end of next year? He seemed to imply that while in principle the Government may want another runway at Stansted, many people feel that we have made maximum use of existing runways and we do not need a runway at all. Can that issue of principle be challenged and talked about at an inquiry?

Lord Rooker

I shall not utter any word at all at the Dispatch Box that could be used at that inquiry. I made that absolutely clear when I was introducing the Government's response. That would be inappropriate. I hope that I have made the position clear. It could not be more clear. The matter is described briefly in my notes. Policy statements can help—that is true. But new inquiry rules will make better use of inspectors' time, while ensuring that everyone can express their views, and will set up new procedures that will allow a team of inspectors to operate. The principle of the application can be questioned at the inquiry in the terms that I have described.

Baroness Hanham

I have listened to the Minister's reply. Bearing in mind that all such matters blew up because of the Terminal 5 inquiry, I am not at all clear what will cut inquiry times for future major infrastructure proposals. He said that the inspector will be able to "curtail" or "restrict". What is to be restricted and who will be curtailed in those inquiries? It can and must not be those people who have objections. Presumably they will be able to harness their views, to have counsel and so forth. What is it that happened in the Terminal 5 inquiry that will not happen now?

Lord Rooker

There is probably more than one answer to that, but the specific answer is that a team of inspectors will listen to aspects of the inquiry concurrently. That will definitely make a difference. That does not snuff out the right of anyone to be heard, but it means that a team of inspectors who work for the main inspector can operate concurrently and are not required to operate consecutively. That is the single proposal that would have curtailed the time that the Terminal 5 inquiry took.

Baroness Hamwee

I can see that, but I also have some difficulty in understanding how it will work in practice, given that those who are objecting may wish to hear other people's objections and how the points are argued. It will be difficult to say: "That lot go into room A and the other lot into room B", and so on.

I may have misheard the Minister regarding whether it would be possible to question the need for a development, because I thought that I heard him say that that could not be done. That did not seem to work correctly with his welcome comment that both principle and detail can be considered. I may have to read it in Hansard. I entirely accept that the Government have moved a long way from their original proposals. That is welcome, although it crossed my mind that the issue was the sort of proposal that might be put into a Green Paper to divert people from everything else that was there, given that there was a row about it. I made that comment because I wished to know whether my question would be further addressed—

Lord Rooker

I believe that if tomorrow the noble Baroness reads my comments in Hansard, she will see that I have not spoken with a forked tongue. I know that she is not accusing me of that, but I have been clear that the principle as well as the detail can be covered by the inspector. I plead guilty to taking on policy responsibility for the issue and I have used my experience in the other place to suggest that the amendment is probably not a practical solution.

Baroness Hamwee

"Forked tongue" and the name "Lord Rooker" is a contradiction in terms. I certainly did not accuse him of that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 119ZC: Page 32, line 10, at end insert— (c) to submit his report under subsection (7) by a specified date.

The noble Lord said: The amendment is straightforward and I hope that the Government will support it. Put simply, the amendment will require an inspector who is directed by the Secretary of State to examine a planning application on a major infrastructure development project to submit his report by a specified date.

To a large extent the Bill has been constructed on the altar of speed. So much of what is important in the planning system has been sacrificed in the name of speeding up the process. Furthermore, it sometimes appears that speeding up happens only in one direction. Local authorities are subject to schemes and timetables while the Secretary of State appears to be relatively unfettered by such considerations.

We are not arguing for an unnecessary and onerous addition to the Bill—simply that the Secretary of State should specify a date for the report from an inquiry to be submitted to him. We have left the Government maximum flexibility in how that specification might be made. Our intention is to help the Government with their avowed aim to speed up the planning process. I hope that noble Lords will support us. I beg to move.

Lord Marlesford

I support the amendment because it is important. I remember that when I was on the Countryside Commission for 12 years, one of our most important powers was the ability to have proposals "called in" when it was appropriate for them to be considered at a more national level. In a sense, this is analogous; it is looking at something which has a big environmental impact before specific proposals are put forward in order to be able to consider the environmental impact separately. That is a crucial consideration, particularly in the light of the Government's overall policy as reflected in the Bill.

Lord Rooker

Notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has said, things have changed in the past few years. The amendment is unnecessary as there is already a provision within the Town and Country Planning (Major Infrastructure Project Inquiries Procedure) (England) (Rules) 2002 to allow the Secretary of State to set a date by which the inspector must make his report to him. That provision is carried through to the revised draft major infrastructure project inquiries procedure rules which we published for consultation on 18 October last year. That consultation has just ended, and officials are analysing the responses. Early indications are that the revised rules are welcome. Quite separately, we have also set our own departmental targets for ministerial responses to these inquiries.

In other words, the amendment is unnecessary as there are procedures to ensure that this happens, and we have just conducted a consultation. So I hope that we can meet the spirit and the practicality behind the amendment.

Regarding all the pressures on local authorities, the note says "not true". Clause 53, which we have not yet reached, introduces timetables on the Secretary of State to make decisions. We have made it clear that all players in the planning system have a role to play, including the Secretary of State.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for that reply. It is helpful, because he suggests that the Government are already going along the route that the amendment proposes. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 44 agreed to.

Clause 45 [Simplified planning zones]:

On Question, Whether Clause 45 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hamwee

Clause 45 introduces the topic of simplified planning zones. I assume they are the same as the business planning zones referred to in the Green Paper, which says at paragraph 5.36: We need to ensure that the planning system is capable of meeting the needs of fast-moving businesses such as our leading-edge technology companies. Planning delays can prove a significant obstacle to the development of such companies". The following paragraph states: We intend such zones to be specific to types of business that have a low impact on the surrounding area, such as clusters of high-tech industry". So much for mixed development. Paragraph 5.38 states: We propose that every region should have at least one such zone to promote technology companies". So much for the mixed economy.

This talk of the white heat of technology does not accord with the experience in London that creative industries—some of which, but not all, are indeed high-tech—make up the fastest growing sector. However, even if simplified planning zones were as effective as the Green Paper indicated, I would have great difficulty with Clause 45.

We have had simplified planning zones for well over a decade. The CPRE tells us that research for the Select Committee in another place provides evidence that the notion that planning is bad for the economy and competitiveness, which seems to be the underlying rationale for the proposal, is a myth. If the Committee is to be asked to agree this clause, no doubt the Minister will take the opportunity to explain what evidence there is that it hinders competitiveness.

It is possible—indeed, more than possible—that each local planning authority must keep possible simplified planning zones under review. As I said, they can establish them now. But proposed new Section 83(1B) refers to considering for which part or parts of their area a simplified planning zone scheme is desirable. That seems to allow no discretion—the provision does not consider whether such a scheme is desirable. However, I take heart from proposed new Section 83(2A) which says that if a local planning authority so decides, immediately it meets, as is customary, the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales.

How does the proposal relate to local development orders? Do they not give the extra latitude that the Government are seeking to add to the simplified planning zone provisions that we already have? Are simplified planning zones to be imposed on local planning authorities? There is bound to be a concern about that.

There is also bound to be a concern that they will lead to development which is not sustainable by the use of greenfield sites. I am sure the Minister will tell us that we should not have such a thought in our heads but I am sure he can understand why there is a concern.

In our book, simplified planning zones undermine the planning system both because of the lack of normal accountability and because, as we see it, the quality of development is put at risk.

The Local Government Association published a survey of local authorities on planning reform in February 2003. In answer to the question how likely were they to introduce business planning zones—as they were then—in their authority area, one said very likely, four said fairly likely, 42 said not very likely and 53 said not at all likely. In answer to the question whether they had any concerns about the introduction of business planning zones, 68 per cent answered yes and 32 per cent answered no. It can be said that local authorities do not have a "Don't know" among their number.

We oppose the clause. Amendment No. 132A is consequential.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

We also oppose the clause. I said on Second Reading that I thought the Bill had few friends. As it has progressed, we have seen that its friends are melting away. However, simplified planning zones have absolutely no friends as far as I can see. Business planning zones never had very many either, which is the reason they have not been taken up in the way I think people envisaged they would be.

Business planning zones are far from simple; they are quite complicated. A great deal of checking has to be done with the local authority. They have not fulfilled any of the ambitions that people had for them.

There are quite serious implications in Clause 45, some of which have been alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Proposed new subsection (2)(1A) states to what the provision applies; the Secretary of State is given the right to indicate whether there will be a simplified planning zone. The clause also gives the regional spatial strategy the role of identifying in which area of a local planning authority the simplified planning zone should be identified. That is not local planning by any stretch of the imagination—that is planning by diktat. It is one of the other worries we have about simplified planning zones.

The question of whether Clause 45 stands part of the Bill is clearly open to further thought. We would be grateful to hear why the Minister believes that the clause is necessary and what he feels about the views expressed by the Local Government Association, among others. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, there is practically no support for it. None of the other organisations which represent business or planning seems to have any faith in the clause or any desire to use it.

Lord Avebury

Will the Minister explain how the simplified planning zones will be introduced into the new system? I am puzzled by that. If they are not in the existing regional planning guidance, which becomes the RSS when the Bill is enacted, they would not be introduced until the RSS was modified at a later stage. That might be some time away. However, my noble friend informs me that the business planning zones, which do exist at the moment, would become simplified planning zones under the new system. I do not follow that argument. If the simplified planning zones are not mentioned in the regional planning guidance and cannot therefore feed across into the RSS, what are the mechanics of the process? The Explanatory Notes on Clause 45 state: A simplified planning zone can only be made where the RSS, or the spatial development strategy for Greater London, identifies the need for such a zone in the area of a local planning authority That need cannot have been identified unless it already appears in the regional planning guidance. Can the Minister offer an explanation?

Lord Rooker

I hope I can, because I am quite interested in the answer to that question. I may not be able to answer all the questions that have been raised, but I shall be able to answer some of them.

The purpose of Clause 45 is to change the existing system so that the simplified planning zones cannot be made by an authority unless the need for one has been identified in the regional spatial strategy. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out that if the simplified planning zones do not become part of the regional spatial strategy until a revision, there is no practical purpose in identifying one. The revision would be the trigger mechanism.

The clause would enable the life span of a simplified planning zone to be a period of up to 10 years rather than restricting it to 10 years, so flexibility is provided there. The clause facilitates the creation of areas of high-tech businesses that will be referred to as "business planning zones", as they were introduced in the planning Green Paper in 2001. The business planning zones will provide a flexible planning regime to facilitate the rapid development of high-quality, high-tech business clusters and encourage investment for growth and regeneration. We envisage only one or two per region, if they are identified in the regional spatial strategy. It is not a question of misusing the changes in the planning law on a grand scale to pepperpot a region with dozens of such zones. We anticipate only one or two per region to be identified in the regional spatial strategy. We intend for them to be of high quality and low environmental impact. Their locations will be chosen to meet identified strategic needs.

Any business planning zone schemes brought forward will be required to undergo environmental impact assessments and public consultation, so we have no intention of snuffing out the opportunity for people to be consulted. The zones will serve a valuable and positive purpose. Therefore, we wish to proceed with them rather than knock the clause out of the Bill.

On the timetable, I am working only on the assumption in the Explanatory Notes, together with the reading of the Bill and the Notes on Clauses. If the zones are not in the regional spatial strategy, none will be recommended anyway. If there are none in current regional planning guidance, I have no information on how long it would take. The Government are not imposing the zones across the country as a quick fix once the Bill is enacted. That is clearly not a practical proposition. I do not wish to upset noble Lords, but I cannot understand the heated opposition to the prospect of simplified planning zones. Such zones will not present a major problem. They will be high quality, high-tech. They will not be low quality, nor will they cut corners on the environment or on public consultation. In fact, the very opposite is the case.

Lord Avebury

I think that the Minister has confirmed what I thought was the case; namely, that if the simplified planning zones are not already in the regional planning guidance, they are not introduced into the regional spatial strategy. Therefore, I would be grateful if the Minister would at some point provide your Lordships with a list of the zones that do currently exist in the regional planning guidance.

Lord Rooker

I would be happy to facilitate that as quickly as possible.

Baroness Hanham

Will the Minister also clarify the status of the business planning zones and who is dealing with them? It is abundantly clear from Clause 45(2) that it is mandatory that a regional spatial strategy should include the Secretary of State's regional planning guidance. The Secretary of State has the power to say that a certain field must be set aside for a business planning zone because that is in his regional planning guidance. If that is right, and if the regional spatial strategy imposes on a local authority, as it does under Clause 3, the obligation to institute simplified planning zone schemes in all or any part of its area, where does the consultation come in? When will the local community have an opportunity to put forward its views? Moreover, when will the local authority be able to say how the simplified planning zones fit into its scheme of things if it is told that it has to do it?

Lord Rooker

That is a very good question, for which, I profoundly apologise, I do not have an answer. I should have, but I do not. The consultation process cannot be avoided, but I cannot say at what point it will take place. I accept that the regional spatial strategy must be agreed by the Secretary of State. If the simplified planning zones are added to the regional spatial strategy at a revision, it would apply only to specific areas. As I have said, given that the regions are large and consist of dozens of planning authorities, we anticipate there being only one or two per region. Let us be clear about that.

I have forgotten how many planning authorities there are in the country. I believe that there are some 350—it is a pretty substantial number. If there are some 20-plus a region, we envisage only one or two business planning zones per region being identified in the regional spatial strategy. It is not a question of imposing them on every local authority. The consultation would take place at regional spatial strategy level; in other words, during the revision of the regional spatial strategy. At local level, there would be full consultation on the size and location of the proposed zone, plus, if required, the option of a public inquiry.

The timescale depends on the zones being identified through the next round of regional spatial strategies. I can say that with some confidence because I am told that there are no zones yet. I hope that that is reassuring, because it means that, whatever reasons people may have for opposing them, there is no prospect of any such zones being lifted out of the present process into the new one on the Act coming into force.

It gets even better. The first zones are still several years away. I rest my case.

It makes you wonder why we are doing this. Put it this way: it is obviously thought to be a useful tool for later use. It is not thought to be highly desirable next year.

Baroness Hanham

Will the Minister accept our amendment now?

Lord Rooker

No, we are debating clause stand part. I feel that my response to it has been wholly inadequate. This is the first clause stand part debate we have had and it is the first time that I have not had a speaking note for clause stand part—although I have a good speaking note on the amendment.

A fair point has been made, but with the notes I have had I hope that I have been able to give some reassurance that there is no hidden agenda. There are no zones and none will be transferred over. By implication from our previous debates on regional spatial strategies, they will come in only on the revision, so we can tell that they are several years away.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the last round of exchanges I was going to observe that "modified rapture" might correctly sum up the Minister's enthusiasm for this provision. I do not think that he has been inadequate; the proposal is inadequate.

New Section 83(1B) says: The local planning authority must consider the question for which part or parts of their area a simplified planning zone scheme is desirable Despite that wording, I take it from what the Minister said that that does not mean that every local planning authority has to have one. I think that he is confirming that he said that.

I am not sure whether the Minister responded to my question about how this fits in with local development orders and whether they would achieve some of what these provisions are aimed at. I would be happy to leave that for a future debate, as it is now past 5 o'clock and I assume that the suddenly increased attendance in the Chamber is not because the blood is running really hot on simplified planning systems.

Lord Rooker

At the risk of boring colleagues, I shall put to bed the issue of the relationship between the business planning zones and the local development orders, which I hope will be helpful. The business planning zones are strategic and are identified in the regional spatial strategy. There will be only one or two per region. The local development orders are local tools to provide greater freedom to develop specified types of development.

These are obviously some way down the road, so there is plenty of time to debate them before they come in.

Baroness Hamwee

An example was given somewhere that local development orders might be used for the development of a business park, which seems to be rather close to all this. However, this is not the moment to pursue the issue.

Clause 45 agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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