HL Deb 06 January 2004 vol 657 cc98-166

4.5 p.m.

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

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill is part of a step change in the Government's policies for building successful, thriving and inclusive communities in all the regions of the country. We need to work together at all levels to improve local economies; to promote safety and stability; to provide quality public services; to build skills and knowledge; and to engage and empower communities. A reformed planning system is a key tool in delivering sustainable communities.

Planning is important. It is critical to the delivery of new housing, transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools. It is also important because we must ensure that we make the best use of land: increasing development on brownfield sites and protecting and enhancing our green belt and valuable countryside.

The current planning system has served the country well but needs reform. All governments have failed to address the problems of the planning system as they have built up over the years. Too many councils fall far short of the targets for handling planning applications. Too many local plans are out of date and no longer reflect the realities that many communities face. We issued a planning Green Paper in December 2001. There were some 16,000 responses, one of the biggest responses to consultations on record, which demonstrated the importance of the planning system. There was a consensus about the need for change, and we listened. We continue to listen as the Bill starts its passage through this House.

The Bill has had considerable debate in the other place, as no doubt many noble Lords will realise. Some might say that it has had unprecedented scrutiny, simply because it is the first Bill that has come over the loop from one Session to another. It has been through two Committee sessions in the other place, totalling 20 sessions and some 55 and a half hours of debate. The objectives of the Bill are quite straightforward; they sound almost banal. We want to make the system fairer, faster and more predictable. We want to bring clarity, certainty and a more strategic direction to planning.

I emphasise that the Bill is only part of a wider package of reform that is not just about legislation. The extra £350 million announced in July 2002 for the planning system over a three-year period, for example, is nothing to do with the Bill. It is ongoing, and in February we will announce the money for the second of the three years. Extra money will go to those authorities that demonstrate their commitment to high-quality planning. It is not just about setting targets for local authorities and asking them to do better. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is leading the way in setting itself challenging targets for handling cases called in by the Secretary of State. We are making progress on that already. Successful planning reform depends also on a change to the culture of planning. We need to improve education and training, to raise skills and morale for planners and councillors, and to look at ways to spread best practice and provide help and guidance for local authorities.

What will the Bill do? It simplifies the plan-led process by abolishing the middle tier of planning—the structure plans—that exists in some areas; that is to say, areas where there are county councils and two-tier local government. The new system will have two linked levels of planning: regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks. The local development frameworks will be made up each of a set of local development documents, which each authority will be required to prepare. Together, these documents will replace local plans and unitary development plans. They will set out development proposals and have a clear map so that everyone can see what goes where.

Each authority will prepare a local development scheme, which will list the local development documents that it will prepare, and the timetable for producing them. There has been considerable debate about the new arrangements for local planning and how complex, it is alleged, they appear in the Bill. I am not aware of any legislation where the provisions in the Bill are the whole story—I emphasise that point at the outset. They will be expanded and clarified in secondary legislation and, of course, the volumes of planning guidance. We were trying to cut down on those, but we are also refreshing planning guidance. So the Bill is not the whole story. Recognising this, we will be holding a presentation to explain the arrangements in more detail later this month.

The counties will be consultees on regional plans, and will continue to be responsible for transport, waste, and mineral plans. The regions can use the counties as agents on sub-regional planning. The Bill will also enable counties to work with districts, where agreed, on local plans. We realise that there are concerns about this. We expect county councils to play an important role under the new arrangements.

Our policy intention is unambiguous, but I know, from conversations I have had and conversations my ministerial colleagues have had with county councillors, that concerns remain. They welcome our commitment to guidance, but they need reassurance that this will be turned into action. They want to see further safeguards of involvement in the Bill. We recognise this concern and the wish for change. At the same time, we want to avoid creating unnecessary bureaucracy or practical difficulties on the ground, so we should not make any changes to the Bill that will provide opportunities for unreasonable obstruction or delay to delivery. We are working hard on seeing if this can be achieved. I am fairly confident that we will find a solution to this as the Bill passes through your Lordships' House.

The role of parishes is unchanged by the Bill. Central to our reforms in the Bill is better community involvement. Local planning authorities will have to prepare statements of community involvement. They will have to set out how they will consult with local communities on preparing local development documents and significant planning applications. The Bill also contains a provision for making grants under which we will provide grants to organisations such as Planning Aid. I know, from my former role in the other place, how valuable organisations such as Planning Aid are to Members of Parliament in helping their constituents to get professional advice to deal with some complex planning situations.

We will allow such organisations to be more pro-active and we will target communities that traditionally do not get involved in the planning system, in particular groups in deprived areas or representing the socially excluded.

We will introduce also a statutory purpose for planning. This sets out what we want planning to be for: a planning system which supports sustainable development. Clause 38 is one of the clauses that has remained unchanged by the numbering process, which when I went to the Bill the other day was slightly different to that which was originally introduced. Clause 38 imposes a duty on those with plan-making functions under Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill to, exercise the function with a view to contributing to the achievement of sustainable development". The Bill also introduces local development orders. Developers will be able to request a statement of development principles. There are also provisions to speed up the planning process for applicants and to introduce greater clarity, such as standard application forms. The Bill will also stamp out abuses brought about by the failure of the system—I do not criticize developers—by preventing repeat applications and twin-tracked applications. I fully understand why that situation has arisen, because of the way the planning system has developed over the years.

The Bill also reduces planning permission from five years to three years, but this can be extended where projects are particularly difficult. The onus is not just on local authorities. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to set a timetable for decisions on "called in" planning applications and recovered appeals and related decisions. It introduces a duty for statutory consultees to respond to consultation requests within a specified time and to report on their performance.

The Bill will also speed up the processing of major infrastructure projects. There will be a three-part approach. First, it requires a clearer government policy statement on any issue concerning a major infrastructure project. One example, which I would not have been able to give if the Bill had come before the House earlier, is the recent airports White Paper. There must be clarity about the Government's policy. Time must not be wasted at a major infrastructure inquiry on deciding what the policy is. There is a requirement for clearer government statements.

There will be new inquiry rules that will allow inspectors to make better use of inquiry time. The Bill will put in place new procedures that will allow a team of inspectors to operate concurrently on an inquiry. I emphasise to your Lordships that that is not about stifling debate. I would play no part in that and nor would other Ministers. Everyone will be able adequately to express their views on major infrastructure projects. This is not the original proposal that was put forward in the White Paper. That proposal, I think, included the idea that there ought to be a parliamentary element in the process. I must say frankly that, when my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I arrived at the ODPM, we had a chat about it for five minutes, and we thought that it was not a workable idea. It would have involved Members of Parliament in what would have been executive decisions. That is not the function of Parliament in any event. We made our position clear on that.

We also had to find a different way of dealing with major infrastructure projects, so that we could avoid a situation such as that which occurred—I put it no more strongly than that—with Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport. No one will be snuffed out or prevented from making their views known at major infrastructure inquiries.

The Bill also introduces changes to what are known as Section 106 notices. These relate to the complex and slow negotiations on the provision of infrastructure and community facilities by developers, sometimes called "planning gain" and sometimes called ruder things by other people. Originally, in the White Paper, we consulted on the proposal for a tariff approach to help avoid such issues and bring clarity. We decided at the time, when we made the Statement before the Bill was published, not to go down that route but to see whether we could modify, update and modernise the Section 106 procedure. We considered it in the context of the growth areas and of what will happen in the Thames Gateway.

Last summer, when the discussions about the Bill and its related processes and about how we should proceed were taking place in the Government, we had the opportunity, by referring it back to Committee in the other place, to take extra time on the Bill, carry it over from one Session to the next, and revisit what we wanted to do to modernise the Section 106 procedures. As will be seen in the way in which the Bill is now drafted, taking account of the amendments made in the other place, we are modernising Section 106, while giving developers an alternative route by which they can, if they wish, avoid lengthy negotiations by paying a charge. There are, in effect, two routes for dealing with that problem. It will, in many ways, be up to the developer to decide which way to go. There are also provisions to make sure that developers do not pay twice, because, sometimes, Section 106 arrangements will still have to made, even if there is a charge. The consultation that is going on will close at the end of the week.

The Bill also introduces and sets up business planning zones. It reforms the development plan system in Wales. The basic pattern of development plans in Wales will be retained. Local development plans will be simpler, more concise documents than the present unitary development plans. Procedures will be simplified and community participation will be improved. Provision is also made for the National Assembly for Wales to prepare and publish a national spatial plan for Wales.

As is implicit in the title, there are also matters in the Bill relating to compulsory purchase. Where it is necessary to use compulsory purchase powers to assemble land for regeneration and large-scale projects, the implementation of our proposals should help speed up the process. We intend to achieve that by making the basis on which local authorities can exercise their powers clearer and more positive, while improving compensation levels by introducing additional loss payments. Among other issues, the Bill also abolishes Crown immunity, which we were able to put in the Bill due to the extra time that it was considered in the other place in its second Committee stage. That is an important issue, which has long been promised.

Later, I shall do my best to respond to the points made in this debate. To sum up this short introduction, the Bill sets out a reform planning system for this new century that will help us to deliver sustainable communities faster and more fairly—it is no good being faster unless it is fairer. That will help us to meet the challenges for the future and to deal with the problems that we inherit at present. I believe that it will also protect the heritage from the past. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker)

4.21 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I am very pleased to open the debate on behalf of the Opposition. I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful introduction, particularly the points that he made about county council involvement and major infrastructure planning decisions. I shall comment on those two issues during my speech.

Perhaps I may say at the outset that we recognise that planning is an extremely complex business, requiring the careful weighing of many different interests. Often it is not possible, however good the system, to achieve a balance that satisfies all stakeholders. The current planning framework has negotiated that balance well for many years. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that, in spite of its imperfections, we have one of the best planning systems in the world. We know that because as we travel we can see it. As always, however, the system could work better. With that in mind, there are parts of the Bill that we welcome. I shall mention those later. There is, however, much in the Bill that we fundamentally oppose.

We could say that the Bill introduced by the Minister today nationalises the planning system. It gives the Secretary of State the power to set planning frameworks at the regional level and to direct local planning policies. It creates an enormous vacuum between strategic and local planning. It destroys the balance between efficiency and local accountability on which all planning systems should be built. Rather than simplifying the planning system, as claimed by the Minister, the Bill risks introducing more complexity, more bureaucracy and more delay, while making it remote and less democratically accountable.

We all want to see a fast and effective planning system that serves the needs of local people and a system that balances the requirements of sensible development with the need to protect the environment in a sustainable way. We all want the current system to be more efficient and more transparent. Many people think that the Government's legislation will not achieve that. It has largely and unwisely ignored the concerns expressed by many relevant and interested bodies, such as the LGA, the Planning Officers Society, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Trust and the CBI.

Many experts have consistently argued that improving the imperfections of the existing system, which has served us well for many years, would be a far better solution than the fundamental changes that we are debating today. If the Government are to tear down the architecture of the current planning system with all the upheaval and costs that that will entail, we should be confident that it will be replaced by a better system. I fear that that will not be the case. So what lies behind those sweeping changes?

One answer might lie in the Government's regions agenda. The Government know that they will lose their argument for regional assemblies at the ballot box, so they are ploughing ahead with their "regions by stealth" agenda. We have already seen plans for the regionalisation of the fire and emergency planning services. This is the next step.

In commenting on the role of county councils, as noble Lords will know, I am particularly involved as leader of Essex County Council. By seeking to abolish the role of county councils in producing structure plans and introducing the requirement for regional planning bodies to produce regional spatial strategies, the Government are prejudging the voice and choice of people across vast swathes of England. The Government would give unelected, unaccountable and remote regional bodies the power to decide planning issues that may affect towns and villages hundreds of miles away.

Exacerbating that democratic deficit, one can find measures throughout the Bill that increase the centralisation of planning. Either via legislation or via order-making powers, the Secretary of State assumes an enormous range of powers. He controls regional spatial strategies which, in turn, will determine local development plans. If any particular local development plan is not to his liking, he can simply intervene to have it changed. Why not cut out the middleman and just have the whole thing done in Whitehall in the first place? No doubt that would speed up the system fairly effectively, if that is the Government's chief objective.

As regards local development documents, the inspector's report will be binding on the local authority, no matter how half-baked the conclusions. That represents a further weakening of local democracy. We shall table amendments that enable local authorities to retain discretion or to depart from the inspector's recommendations if there is a good cause. The Bill would abolish the current role of county councils in the planning system. That would be a fundamental mistake; we shall seek to persuade the Government on that issue in Committee. Obviously, I was interested to hear the Minister's comments.

Without a key role for county councils, it is hard to envisage how the gap between regional planning and local planning can be bridged. It is simply too large without an intervening mechanism. For example, South Buckinghamshire District Council's local development plan will be for an area with a population of 62,000 residents. But the next level of planning—the regional spatial strategy for the south east—will directly affect 8 million people, which is equivalent to the population of Austria. There will be nothing statutory in between to join up those plans. Surely the Government can see the problems that is likely to cause.

Clause 19 provides a further example of the centralisation inherent in the Bill. Clause 19(1) states: The local planning authority must submit every development plan document to the Secretary of State for independent examination". If everyone is satisfied locally with a development plan, why does it need to be referred to the Secretary of State? Surely the purpose of a statement of community involvement is to provide a safeguard to ensure proper consultation. Having introduced that safeguard, why does the Secretary of State need to involve himself in every single local development plan?

Occasionally we hear Ministers on the Benches opposite mention something called "new localism". Apparently, that is about devolving power down to the local level. Certainly, that is not a concept that enjoys much credence with the planning Minister. It is a prime example of old Whitehall centralism rearing its ugly head once more.

Regional planning bodies will not be able to match county councils' grasp of the truly local, nor manage sub-regional planning as effectively. There is no evidence that county councils are responsible for any of the failures in the current system. It would have been far better to incorporate some of the logic of "spatial strategies" into structure plans and to improve the cross-county mechanisms for developing regional planning guidance than to engage in this bonfire of the existing system.

County councils responsible for providing services with significant land-use functions, such as education, social services and community safety, and with continuing responsibility for minerals, waste and transport plans, will no longer have a key role in strategic planning. Do we really believe that that will lead to better planning outcomes?

Those are functions that cannot be easily divorced and a reduction in the ability to integrate different strategies and plans will surely follow. This would achieve the precise opposite of the Government's aims. Overall, the key role played by county councils in balancing the social, economic and environmental well-being of their areas will be seriously undermined by the effective removal of their strategic planning function.

I am also afraid that in creating this new policy the strategic planning capability of county councils will simply leak out of the system for two reasons. First, county councils will find it difficult to justify non-statutory spending on planning when they are under so much pressure to transfer resources to education and social services. Secondly, history tells us that a major restructure of local planning will almost certainly lead to a mass exodus of highly skilled planners, at a time when the national shortage of planning staff is one of the major reasons for the problems in the current system.

So far I have dealt with the weaknesses in the Bill that stem from the Government's regions pipedream and I shall return to them in Committee. For now, however, I shall move on to other parts of the Bill. In introducing the legislation, the Minister pointed out that the Government seek to make the planning system simpler and quicker, aims which we support. However, we believe that the proposals risk achieving the opposite outcomes. This legislation will unleash regional spatial strategies, local development schemes, local development frameworks, local development documents, action area plans, simplified planning zones and statements of community involvement. How will all these plans and schemes, with their different timetables, consultations, inspections and appeals, make the system more transparent or streamlined? This level of complexity and fragmentation will accelerate public disenchantment with the system. It will lead to uncertainty, delay and planning by appeal. However, it is interesting to note that the Government are to spare Wales these problems by introducing a much simpler system than that for England.

We will table amendments in Committee that will make the planning system more efficient. I hope that the Government will give those amendments the serious consideration they deserve.

We certainly support the intention to aid business by speeding up the planning process and introducing more predictability into development control, but we do not agree that statements of development principles will offer more legal certainty than outline planning permission. In Committee we shall seek an explanation from the Minister on how these statements of development principles will provide more certainty rather than less.

We are also concerned that the Bill is silent on how local authorities are to pay for compulsory purchases in the new system. We shall seek clarification from the Government on this issue.

As the Minister commented in his opening speech, only a couple of weeks ago the Government published their White Paper on aviation which proposed, among other things, a second runway at Stansted in Essex. I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments on whether it would be possible to stop the further expansion of Stansted by proving that it does not comply with Clause 38 of this Bill covering sustainable development. I look forward to his comments on that point.

In Committee we shall want to give very detailed consideration to the Government's proposals for major infrastructure projects. While I accept that the proposals are a big improvement on those in the White Paper, at the moment they are far too widely drawn. They give the Secretary of State discretion on when he can intervene and are unclear on the process for involving local people and local planning authorities. We shall certainly wish to return to these matters at a later stage.

As I promised at the start of my speech, there are some things in the Bill that we can welcome. We welcome the proposals to eliminate "twin-tracking"—repeat and multiple applications—on which the Minister commented. We agree that sustainable

development must be a key ingredient in planning decisions, although we will table amendments that will enforce this requirement more robustly.

In the spirit of constructive engagement, we would like to help the Government pass a law that strengthens planning in this country by addressing the stresses in the current system. It is vital to tackle the real problems that we all recognise, such as poor quality development, red tape, delay and uncertainty. However, the Government will not remedy the situation with the Bill before us today. It ignores the advice of the practitioners and the wishes of ordinary voters. It steamrollers the planning system into a regional straitjacket. It will bring huge transitional costs that outweigh any potential benefits. It will undermine public confidence in the system. Unamended, it will lead to a weaker, slower and more complicated planning system that is less accessible and less accountable than the one we have at present.

I look forward to hearing the views of noble Lords.

4.35 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, with a Bill of this size, it is difficult to know where to start in order to get your brain around it. Should one read it straight through from the Title to, I think, page 145? Should one start with the kindergarten version set out in the Explanatory Notes, or with the briefings which pour in from interested organisations, or go and make a cup of tea? I read through Part 1 and found quite a few references to the Secretary of State. I thought, "here we go again", and while making the by then much-needed cup of tea, wondered about three particular points.

First, if this Bill has its genesis in assisting business—that was the aim set out in the Green Paper, although I accept that we have moved on somewhat—does it in fact do so? Secondly, if it is to have a role in increasing citizens' and community engagement, will it have a positive or negative effect? Thirdly, if sustainability is about the economy, business, social and community matters, and the environment, how does it knit all those together? While there are no cups of tea available in the Chamber, I thank the Minister for his explanation and for getting us started. Further, I should declare two interests: first, I am a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association; and, secondly, I am a member of the London Assembly, which scrutinises the Mayor of London as he exercises his planning functions.

Because I want to be constructive, I shall start by saying that we welcome some aspects of this Bill, among them the provisions on Crown immunity, compulsory purchase, the grant-making powers to support planning aid and so forth which the Minister mentioned in his remarks. However, on other provisions we would like to see the Government go further and be more clear, in particular as regards the "soup" of provisions on development and the role of sustainability. However, I readily acknowledge that none of this is easy territory.

But I should say clearly that our welcome is not enough for the Minister to be able to say that he is glad that we "support the Bill", because we do not. We do not do so because of the transfer of powers from elected county councils and principal local authorities up to a regional tier which is as yet unelected and which in some areas is unlikely to be elected without boundary changes. That is a pity because we see an important role for regional and, indeed, sub-regional planning. However, on reading only as far as the second subsection of Clause 1, one finds that the regional spatial strategy must set out the policies of the Secretary of State.

Further, although we may be making assumptions about which bodies will be "recognised" as regional planning bodies—those which are to keep the regional spatial strategy under review and prepare draft revisions—nothing in the Bill makes clear the criteria which a body must satisfy for such recognition. To put it another way: what are the criteria for the criteria which the Secretary of State can prescribe for that recognition? That reminds me a little of the establishment of the Government Offices for the Regions by the previous government. That was initially hailed by some—far too uncritically, I thought—as an act of devolution, but it was not.

In Committee we shall address several of the topics already referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, in particular about how at the least we can give a role in planning to the counties. They provide a great resource and are important brokers in this area. My noble friends Lady Scott of Needham Market and Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer cannot be here today, but they will want to take part in that debate, as will my noble friend Lord Bradshaw. All three will bring their knowledge to that debate, and therefore the Minister will not be surprised to see an amendment from these Benches to the effect that the regional provisions should not kick in until there is a directly elected regional body.

Perhaps not today, but certainly in previous debates in another place, the Government have emphasised what they call the "front loading" of the system; that is, the establishment of a framework which has general support and within which applications can be considered. That notion is undoubtedly a good one but we have had a plan-led system for a decade and more.

I would not begin to oppose a requirement being placed on a local planning authority to prepare a statement of community involvement. However, if that is right at local level why is it not also right at regional level for the regional spatial strategy? How far is it possible to legislate for successful community involvement, where culture and attitude are most important? I hope that through the clause we can find ways of strengthening the requirement.

While we are doing so, perhaps we can ask the Plain English Campaign to translate Clause 17 for public and community consumption in order that the hierarchy of documents and the role of the community are rather less opaque than they are expressed in the Bill. I do not know whether the Bill is so opaque in order to make it legally watertight, but it is difficult to follow.

This is important because public confidence in the planning system and trust in the politicians who deliver it is at stake here. We are not starting with a blank sheet. One matter which currently brings the system into a good deal of disrepute is what people see as a feeble attitude to enforcement. I know that the Government are consulting on that issue at the moment. I was interested in a suggestion from an authority of which I used to be a member that where there is unauthorised development the local planning authority should be able to serve notice that it is unlawful and enter it on the local land charges register until it is dealt with. This may be by way of a retrospective application being passed, but such an application should attract a higher fee.

That is perhaps a deviation from what I wish to say, but the Bill could do a great deal to demystify planning and involve citizens—or, if we are not careful, it could add to the problems. The Bill could also do a great deal to bolster the autonomy and discretion of local planning authorities and the roles of politicians and communities in expressing their views on what kind of place theirs should be—or, again, it might not.

Inevitably people are stirred up more by particular applications than by a plan and I wonder whether the proposed statements of development principles will be of any use. They will not be adequate for financing for investors and developers, unlike outline planning permissions which can co-exist with them. They certainly will not be of any use in large schemes of regeneration. They are likely to be too simplistic and will not be as detailed as a site brief. They could result in a considerable extra workload for stretched planning departments, as we have already heard.

I have approached crabwise an issue which should be at the start and/or the heart of the Bill—although the Bill also approaches it crabwise—and that is the role of sustainable development. The duty on authorities is to exercise functions, with a view to contributing to the achievement of sustainable development". We on these Benches want there to be a far more robust duty. If there is not to be a definition of "sustainable development"—I take the point that society's understanding of the term continues to develop—there should at least be a clear indication of its elements, with an opportunity for adding to them later.

That might set the context for sorting out the relationship between a regional spatial strategy and other regional strategies, an argument rehearsed during the passage of the Regional Development Agencies Bill. I thought then—and I still do—that the spatial strategy should be the senior one.

"Sustainability" includes a variety of matters. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, will be able to share with the House his views about the need for good quality design of more than individual buildings. One aspect concerns access in its widest sense. This is not only a case of amending Section 76 of the 1990 Act—although the Bill provides an opportunity to do so—but also of taking on board the notion that if individuals with a disability are excluded, not only are they disadvantaged but so is the whole of society by marginalising them. I am sure that we shall spend some time on what we mean by "sustainable development" and the valid object of planning.

We shall also spend some time discussing on what it is valid to spend the money which is paid through the new contributions system. I do not have time today to raise the concerns that have been expressed about whether the new system might prejudice the achievement of affordable housing. I hope that other speakers will allude to that. We support the provisions for contributions but we are concerned about their detail and the need for transparency and certainty. In particular we are concerned about the linkage between contributions and the triggering development. Such contributions should be seen not as a nice little revenue earner triggered by a development, but as unrelated to it. We are not talking about a betterment levy or development land tax.

There is a great deal that I have been unable to mention, but I should at least express disappointment that the Bill does not provide for at least a limited third party right of appeal—for instance, when there is to be a departure from the local plan. We do not get many opportunities to legislate on the planning system. When we are distilling down a system which aims, however complicatedly, to produce public confidence, the issue of the right of appeal should certainly be debated.

In Committee we shall address far more issues than we can cover today. Some may be of merely academic interest to some people but may be of real interest to those affected. For example, my noble friend Lord Avebury has a great concern about whether the new strategy will provide scope for setting targets for accommodation for travellers.

I hope that the issue of simplified planning zones will never be of anything more than academic interest to anyone. I dismiss it with that comment.

On a point that is not academic, in June last year, the Minister, Mr McNulty, said that he expected the new system to be up and running by June 2004. I am sure many people outside the Chamber would be interested in the current estimated time of arrival of the new provisions. I should be grateful if the Minister could help me on that issue.

I have said that we have a rooted objection to what the Minister calls a step change—I have written down what the Deputy Prime Minister might call it—towards devolution. We see this as too much of a centralising measure. We want a system which is speedier—although, like many others, our focus remains on quality—and simpler for both local planning authorities and communities; one which makes it easier to react to changing circumstances and to deliver incremental change. Whether it improves the morale and expertise of planners and councillors, as the Minister said, will perhaps be teased out over the next few weeks. We look forward to the next stage of the Bill.

4.48 p.m.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords, I declare an interest as a land owner in Hertfordshire. As the Minister has outlined, the Bill covers a great deal of ground, all of which we shall be addressing at the later stages.

The Bill has already had a chequered career and has been much debated and amended in another place. The aim of the Bill, we are told, is to simplify and speed up the planning process. I have tried to read and understand it but I find it an almost impenetrable jungle of bureaucratic jargon which can only further complicate and extend the already overbearing planning process.

I welcome in principle the idea of a regional involvement in strategic planning but I am far from sure that the proposals as they stand give any degree of independent thinking in the construction of the so-called regional spatial strategy. These documents, we are told in Clause 1(2), must set out the Secretary of State's policies, however expressed, and in Clause 1(4) we are told that if these policies conflict to any extent with other statements or information within the RSS,

the conflict must be resolved in favour of the policy", as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, pointed out. Thus it seems that the regional spatial strategy will be a simple restatement of central government policies as expressed in the form of regional planning guidance.

What will the proposed regional planning bodies do to justify their existence? There is no specific requirement for public consultation in the creation of the regional spatial strategy. Once again, it is left to the Secretary of State to determine, by regulation, the nature and extent of consultation and participation by the public. There is, however, a right of public representation on a draft revision of the regional spatial strategy in Clause 6(2), which seems rather strange. What is more, if the Secretary of State does not like a draft revision, he may institute an examination in public at which—again, surprisingly—Clause 7(3) tells us:

No person has a right to be heard". To the layman, that sounds rather more like an examination in private.

If we look at the proposed functions of the regional planning bodies in Clause 3, they are required to keep under review the regional spatial strategy, derived from the Secretary of State's regional planning guidance. They must also keep under review matters that are expected to affect development in the region and the planning of that development. Note, my Lords, the words "keep under review". There is no mention of actual planning and implementation of that development. There is no mention of such major strategic planning issues as motorways, trunk roads, rail links and airports. Regional planning boards may seek assistance from their constituent local authorities, but all in all, it is hard to see from the Bill how the regional planning bodies can be anything other than glorified talking shops.

Furthermore, as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, it is no better at the local level. Local planning authorities have to cope with a new range of bureaucratic creations. They must prepare and maintain a local development scheme which must specify the documents that are to be local development documents and those that are to be development plan documents. These must all be submitted to the Secretary of State for so-called independent examination. Once again, the Secretary of State may impose amendments with which the local planning authority has to comply. On top of all this, the local planning authority must make an annual report to the Secretary of State on the implementation of its local development scheme.

Finally, if this were not enough, each local planning authority is required to exercise its function with a view to contributing, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out, to the achievement of that ultimate, undefined planning cliché—sustainable development. It must carry out an appraisal of the sustainability of the proposals in each local development document and prepare a report of the findings of that appraisal.

I regret it, but I find it very hard to welcome these proposals. This is particularly disappointing as I strongly believe that the country is in dire need of a rethink in the planning process. The system needs to be more flexible and responsive to the needs of the country in the 21st century. There is obviously a conflict of interest between development and conservation, but it can be resolved and the planning system should be more open and proactive in seeking solutions rather than burying itself in bureaucracy.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Smith of Leigh,

My Lords, I begin by declaring a number of interests: I am leader of a local authority and of a sub-regional grouping of local authorities. I am also a member of a regional planning body that exists at the moment, and a board member of Manchester airport. I think that fulfilling those various roles qualifies me to understand the passions that can be inflamed by planning matters. I still have the scars from a number of such matters. As leader, I was once asked to move the planning permission for a landfill site; the public gallery was filled with residents who were not all that keen on having the landfill site in the area, and were using language that I may not repeat in your Lordships' House.

As a director, I, among others, was responsible for gaining planning permission for the second runway for Manchester airport. It took us three years to do so. The cost of cleaning up after those who regarded direct action as a way of opposing that proposal was well over £12 million.

I think the Government are right to bring forward this Bill to improve the planning process. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, I think the current system is deficient. It has many grave failings and needs fundamental reform.

A particular deficiency in the current system is its slowness. Whatever we do, we need a system that works effectively and efficiently because neither proponents nor opponents of developments gain by the current delays. The property of an opponent of a development like the fifth terminal at Heathrow, which eventually gets through, will have been blighted for well over five years. That is not acceptable.

Planning involves change, and change, inevitably, is likely to be controversial. As former leader of Wigan borough council, I know that there is much we need to do to regenerate the local community from its industrial past, clean up derelict sites, modernise outdated infrastructure and provide housing and other social amenities fit for the 21st century. Such development may cause conflict with those more concerned with the environment or heritage matters. Community needs may conflict with individual rights. We know, for example, that supervised hostels are the best way to make sure that those released from prisons do not reoffend but, inevitably, if there is a proposal for a hostel in an area, the neighbourhood does not like it. I suspect that none of us would like it either.

The key principles that I would wish to apply to planning are that we need to make the judgments on a number of conflicting issues and that those judgments must be subject to accountability. I will return to those issues in a moment.

I was somewhat amused by the discussion on the regional dynamic of planning. There is, of course, planning guidance at the regional level. Each of the English regions currently has an assembly and the elected members of those regional assemblies are the regional planning body. When I was chair of the north-west region, I made sure that all the other partners involved in the region were engaged in our submissions for the regional planning guidance. We need to involve those stakeholders. I ask my noble friend the Minister to require the new regional planning bodies to consult more widely in preparing their regional spatial statements. Local authorities are required to produce that statement of community involvement. Why not expect the same for the new regional planning bodies?

I also welcome the clauses clarifying the contributions regarding planning gain. These contributions are somewhat controversial—they may be described in the local papers as bribery. But it is right that developers contribute to the local communities in which developments take place. Unfortunately, of course, those areas in which there is a considerable amount of development get the most. The reform is welcome. However, will my noble friend question why in Clause 46(3)(c) it is deemed necessary to have regulations to decide how authorities use the money they receive from this contribution? That seems unnecessary.

I have some concerns, which have been expressed by other noble Lords, about the presumptions in parts of the Bill about the value of the intervention by the Secretary of State. I am particularly concerned about the role and involvement of planning inspectors. They are regarded as having a valuable independent view on planning matters. That seems beneficial because it removes decision-making from local politicians. But in my experience, inspectors may be independent but that does not necessarily mean that they are objective. They may come with their own baggage of prejudices and frequently have scant regard for local needs or opinions. One case of major regeneration in our area was for a new leisure complex, on a site that already had planning permission. However, it was refused by a planning inspector, although it would have produced 2,000 jobs. He did not dispute the number of jobs, but thought the quality was questionable. How can a planning inspector make decisions like that? Clause 22 effectively means that planning inspectors will have a veto on the local development frameworks. I ask my noble friend to consider whether that is really the way forward. We should let local politicians have the final say.

The involvement of the Secretary of State is mentioned in many parts of the Bill. If the power was exercised by my noble friend the Minister, I would be more sanguine about it. However, in practice, it will not be Ministers who make decisions but civil servants stuck in regional offices up and down the country. Those faceless bureaucrats have their own prejudices, and decisions to call in or not call in planning applications are often seemingly at the whim of such officials. They exercise power in the name of the Secretary of State, but I am sure that the Secretary of State is not aware of what they are up to. They have too much power and there is no transparency about what they do.

The real problem about inspectors—and to an extent about the Secretary of State in the guise of civil servants—is that they exercise judgments on planning matters without real accountability. Conflicting interests in planning are inevitable, and we need to exercise judgment about how they work in local circumstances. I do not believe that inspectors or civil servants are prepared or able to make the right decisions about those local matters. In particular, they may listen to vociferous opposition to developments, when the real weight of public opinion is the reverse. On the development to which I referred, there was vociferous opposition to a proposed development, but in political terms we fought two elections in that ward, which was highly marginal, and won convincingly both times. That is how public opinion should be properly tested.

At the end of the day, accountability for planning matters should rest with those who live in the local communities and represent people in those communities. Ultimately, the people in those communities have the final sanction, because they can use the ballot box to see whether that judgment is being exercised properly. I ask my noble friend the Minister to ensure that we do not take away from local politicians their role in and influence on local planning matters.

5.2 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's characteristically open-minded approach in introducing this important Bill. I have a number of interests to declare, many of them long-standing and passionate. I am a countryman who lives and farms in Suffolk, striving to survive the agricultural recession by providing houses to let, as far as I can. I am president of Suffolk Preservation Society and of Suffolk ACRE—Action for Communities in Rural England—so both the conservation and social sides of rural Suffolk are covered. I also chair Marlesford Parish Council, so I have everyday experience of planning at grass roots. I am a vice president and former chairman of the CPRE, and I was for 12 years a countryside commissioner and for eight years a rural development commissioner. I have mentioned those points because I am going to be rather critical of this Bill and I hope that the Minister will not feel that my views are wholly superficial.

The British planning system is in my view one of the two great achievements of the post-war Attlee government—the other being the National Health Service. In the planning system I certainly include the hierarchy of designations, starting with the national parks, which were invented by the Americans 50 years earlier and which we adopted in 1948. I also include the other forms of designation in the hierarchy, such as areas of outstanding natural beauty. None of that would have happened without years of campaigning. Two of the founding fathers were the architect Clough Williams-Ellis and the great town planner, Professor Patrick Abercrombie. I suppose that in some ways the whole thing started in 1928 with the publication by Clough Williams-Ellis of his book, England and the Octopus, in which he pointed out the horrific way in which ribbon development and all the other horrors were destroying the country. I fear that some aspects of the Bill might make him turn in his grave.

At any rate, those founding fathers showed us the way and persuaded the country to take it. It was taken just in time, and that is why England has so much rural beauty to be enjoyed equally by those who live in the countryside and those who live in our urban areas. It is a tragedy that, in the early years after the war, the same effort was not made with urban areas as with rural areas, giving priority to the preservation and enhancement of our inner cities. In a sense, I always feel that the "new towns" policy was something of a cop out, as several of them were pale imitations of the achievements of those who set out our garden cities, such as Welwyn Garden City. The inner city planning failure has contributed to many of our urban social problems.

I mention that now because I notice that only yesterday a decision was made to set out a new partnership for the expansion of Milton Keynes. I hope that that is not just another opt-out from a proper urban renewal policy. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, deals with that matter.

The Bill relates to some of the most precious elements of our national heritage. Sadly, it has had nothing like the priority and consideration that it deserved in another place. In spite of valiant efforts by my honourable friend Mr Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, it was subjected to the cruel, but nowadays by no means unusual, punishment of the guillotine. The original Bill had its Second Reading on 17 December 2002, which I have read and am sure that other noble Lords have read. Following a rushed Committee stage, in which only 30 out of 90 clauses were discussed, the Bill was in effect withdrawn for drastic reshaping and did not reappear in Committee until October last year. Again there was inadequate consideration, with only eight days allowed of the 12 asked for. As a result, only half of the clauses and none of the schedules were given proper consideration.

Mr Keith Hill, the housing Minister, took only two minutes to introduce the Bill at Third Reading, in a debate which took less than an hour, but he ended with the words, we now commend it to the other House, where I hope that it will receive a fair and impartial hearing from both sides".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/12/03; col. 969.] I hope that we can all join in assuring him that it will, and that—thank goodness—that full consideration will be without the blade of the guillotine hanging over us. We should regard it to some extent as a fresh and undigested Bill, full of fault, but with some virtues as well, and we must do our best to send it back to the Commons in a form of which we, and the Government, can be proud.

Many major points in the Bill have been referred to, and will be; I shall mention only four. First, I believe that the whole concept of moving strategic planning from county to regional level is flawed. Not only must it mean that such plans will be made by people who are remote from the feeling of those who actually live and work in those areas—whether urban or not—and who often have little empathy and perhaps less sympathy with them, but it is another blow—I hope not a consciously aimed blow—at the sense of identity that people have with their counties.

With diffidence, almost as a commentator on politics, I would, if I may, give a political warning to the Government. They hold many rural seats in Parliament. They cannot afford to lose them if they hope to form a working majority in the next Parliament. They have already lost much sympathy from the agricultural community. If they are seen, with this Bill in its present form, to be seeking to destroy the English county and to replace it with a remote, amorphous, bureaucratic regional entity, I think they will reap a whirlwind of alienation from the electorate.

Secondly, the idea that planning decisions can be made by remote bodies such as regional assemblies, whether appointed or elected, is itself unsound. The Minister reminded us that, not very long ago, the Government considered giving Parliament a giant planning role and responsibility for considering major projects such as airports. Luckily, the Minister in particular, and his Secretary of State, the Deputy Prime Minister, realised that Parliament is wholly unsuited to such a role. It was one thing for Parliament in the 19th century and before to consider enclosure Bills and private railway Bills, but today the rural areas are far more fragile and need the best technical skills to be combined with accountable local democracy to get the right answers.

The Bill appears to offer a complicated regional structure of regional development agencies to promote economic prosperity, and regional planning panels to produce this regional spatial strategy—which I think is a relatively new phrase and, rather like "sustainable development", might benefit from more definition. Presumably, as we have heard, when there is a conflict, it will always be the Secretary of State who steps in.

The third point I have to make, to which the Minister referred in his opening speech, is that, as we are all aware, much of the devil in planning is in the detail. A great deal of that will be in the subordinate legislation, including for this purpose not only regulations and Orders in Council, but also the crucial planning policies.

It is of some significance that the old PPGs—planning policy guidance—are being replaced by PPSs. Planning guidance is to give way to planning statements. The PPSs are therefore even more crucial than the PPGs were, and yet we still do not have even the draft of PPS1, which is meant to set out the general policy and principles. The draft of PPS7—the old PPG7—which is crucial particularly to rural areas, omits the important phrase: The countryside should be safeguarded for its own sake". That phrase, as I am sure the Minister knows, originated with the late Nicholas Ridley when he was Environment Secretary. He was quite a laissez-faire figure in politics, and he certainly believed in market forces. If he could be persuaded to coin a phrase like that, surely the Government must be asked—perhaps we can do it in this House—to put something just as strong in its place.

Fourthly, there is a real concern that some of our special landscapes could be threatened by other economic policies, such as those advocated by a combination of central government policy and the regional development agencies. I will give just one small example—the highly controversial subject of wind farms. The present generation of wind turbines are over 300 feet high and yet produce only 2 megawatts of electricity each. A nuclear power station near where I live, Sizewell B, has an output of 1,200 megawatts and so is the equivalent of 600 of the 300-foot towers. Which is the more intrusive in environmental terms? Yet there are current proposals to surround, and to dominate visually, the entire Lake District National Park with wind turbines. Wordsworth, too, might be turning in his grave.

We cannot allow these designated areas to be eroded and threatened. Only today I saw in the press that the Deputy Prime Minister is considering taking powers to overturn the local government designation of conservation area—it is quite an old designation and has been in use for many years—on the grounds that that can interfere with the full use of his housing policies. That, of course, is precisely what such designations were intended for.

From my days as a Lobby correspondent I have admired the heroic qualities of Mr Prescott. However, I am beginning to fear that at any rate in planning and environmental matters he is somewhat out of his depth. In the ruthless pursuit of his policies he appears to be modelling himself on Lord Beaverbrook's activities as wartime Minister of aircraft production in building Spitfires for the Battle of Britain. I fear that Mr Prescott is the right person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, I am comforted by one thing. With the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in charge of this Bill, we have no mouthpiece Minister. He is a robust and innovative political performer. I hope that he may add to his great "battle honour" of the "Rooker-Wise amendment", the radical improvement of this legislation.

5.16 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I should begin by declaring an interest as an Oxfordshire county councillor. I shall refer mainly to the duties of county councillors. They constitute a nucleus of highly trained planning staff. They are people of whom the country is desperately short.

When the Statement was made on the White Paper I asked what the Government proposed to do about the shortage of planning staff. The number of people entering higher education institutions to seek planning qualifications is desperately low. Unless professional staff come along, there really is no hope of regional government undertaking the work that is envisaged within regional spatial strategies. The existing county council staff will exercise their right either to work elsewhere in the county council or to leave the service altogether.

I speak for an area of the country that is affected by this matter. Staff in Oxfordshire will certainly not go to Guildford which is the most expensive place in the southeast in which to live. There is a real crisis if the Government think that these people can move. The same mistake was made in the National Health Service when local hospitals closed. Accountants assumed that staff would transfer. However, in my part of the world those staff almost universally left the health service when local facilities were closed. I warn the Minister that this is a real problem, not some fanciful suggestion on the part of opponents. Staffing the relevant offices will be extremely difficult. From my experience of the railways I assure the Minister that the alternative of hiring consultants to do the work is incredibly expensive and does not constitute joined-up working. The people concerned have no commitment to the work and one faces enormous difficulties if one tries to do that. I should like the Minister to comment on staffing and staff training.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made reference to the democratic deficit if a transfer occurs away from the counties to unelected regional offices. We feel extremely strongly about that. We are not against regional government but we are certainly against unelected regional government and regional government that draws its powers not from the centre but from the layer of local government below it. So far as I can see from reading the Bill, that is what will happen. The Bill takes power from the county but not from the centre. That is a serious flaw.

We shall move amendments to ask that the counties should be statutorily involved in any regional strategy drawn up, and that their place be written very strongly into the Bill. In view of the successes that have occurred among social services in terms of counties being enforced to have directors of children's services, we think planning such an important matter that the people in charge in counties should be accorded a little more status than at present. They are making decisions that cost hundreds of millions of pounds and that affect the lives of very many people.

I am speaking about such matters because they are the practical realities of life on the council. I know very well that if decisions are sucked away from Oxfordshire and placed in Guildford—I am sure that it is true all around the country—the local representatives will feel that they have been stripped of something important. It is something about which they are prepared to argue with the electors, but they will not argue on behalf of some body that is totally unrepresentative of them. There is an enormous problem with stakeholder involvement if decision-making is taken away from where it is done now.

So far as I can tell, most counties are not behindhand with planning. In Oxfordshire, we are working on the structure plan for 2016, so we are not miles behind or causing delays. The delays are caused elsewhere in the system. In my experience, most delays are in getting decisions when documents are submitted to the Secretary of State or his regional offices for their opinion.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, referred to whether inspectors' decisions should be final. Quite honestly, we have the most bizarre decisions, which I am sure are sometimes made because some of the inspectors are not very good. One can tell that when one makes an application. With the Oxford transport strategy, we actually picked the inspector whom we wanted and waited until he was available. The decisions of inspectors vary very substantially. Unless the inspectors have some God-given power of absolute and total independence, I would much rather face the electors and local media myself than shelter behind a decision made on my behalf by an inspector who probably never faces anyone very much except the few people who bother to turn up at public inquiries.

The Minister mentioned that an amendment had been made on sustainability. Are the Government now satisfied that the definition of sustainability—it is at present in Clause 38—has actually been tested, thought about legally and will stand up to the legal pressure under which it will no doubt come?

My noble friend Lady Hamwee touched on third-party appeals. There are certainly disadvantages in them, and perhaps they are overemphasised. However, where a person is directly affected and where the challenge is on some point of law, the matter should be reconsidered. I am not asking for a licence for lobby groups to restate their case again and again, but where someone is actually the owner of land or is very closely affected and thinks that the law has been misinterpreted, there may be a case for that person to have the opportunity of making a third-party appeal.

Mention has been made of Section 106 agreements—planning obligations. Some people have referred to them as blackmail, but they are not in my experience. Developers sometimes may not like them, but that is perfectly reasonable. Will the Minister balance the fact that the local authority needs to use Section 106 agreements to put infrastructure in place—roads, schools, hospitals—to meet the needs of the community? At the same time, developers are being asked increasingly to provide up to 50 per cent of affordable housing within a development. The Government are now asking too much of the system. It will not be able to produce the infrastructure that is required and the affordable housing that the Government and others say they need. We must ensure that we are not overloading the system and some part of some funds must obviously come from somewhere else.

Enforcement is mentioned in the Bill. I had discussions with the principal planning officer of our county this morning. He said that enforcement is a tortuous process that takes years to have effect; the fines are derisory; people have often made millions in the meanwhile; and, as I have experienced myself, have been known to go bankrupt so that one is unable anyway to collect the money for the derisory fine. Will the Minister consider in some circumstances making enforcement a criminal offence? I am sure that the threat of prison would be much more real in the minds of some people who are taking a calculated risk. They will pay the £5,000 or £10,000 fine when it comes along as part of their business expenses, whereas a period as a guest of Her Majesty might have a different effect.

Another problem that we have in Oxfordshire is sub-division of agricultural land. I believe it is a problem that is growing in some parts of the country, where speculators are selling fields and then dividing them into small sections. That is thoroughly objectionable; it serves no purpose; is entirely speculative and leads to the land looking awful. I hope the Minister will address that.

Many issues can be addressed, but I return to the final one. We are very concerned about the effect of the Bill on counties and on small counties that might be bullied by their larger neighbours or bullied in the interests of larger neighbours that have a much greater voice on the regional authority. We are certainly concerned about the democratic deficit.

5.28 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, for anyone who is interested in how we use our land and especially how we control—perhaps mediate is a better word—the pressures on our countryside, this is an important Bill.

There are some good things in it. There are important measures, many of which have been referred to, of a tidying-up nature, dealing with practical abuses of the development control process; for example "twin tracking", repeat applications and, separately, Crown immunity. Although one would assume that speeding things up was a good thing, the Explanatory Notes seem to suggest that that is the main purpose of the Bill. Indeed, they indicate that the purpose of the Bill relates to: speeding up the planning system". That is putting the matter rather strongly. There is also, after a good deal of pressure, the inclusion of the phrase: sustainable development as an objective". Clause 38 does not tell us very much about what that means, and I shall wait with interest to learn from the Government what they have in mind. No doubt they will be able to change the definition when they are so minded.

While, as I said, there are some good, practical things in the Bill, I believe that its main thrust is deeply worrying. In essence, it is a key measure in promoting the Government's regional agenda. The key planning process—the RSS—will be carried out by each regional planning body, for which read the "regional development agency", as prescribed by, and under the beady eye of, the Secretary of State.

The structure planning system is to be abolished and the county councils are to be deliberately sidelined. Indeed, an RPB is required to seek assistance from a county council and so on only if it considers that it would be "desirable". I believe that that is rather a weak word. I very much agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, that this is an area where we must strengthen the Bill.

That and other measures in the Bill mean that the slow but steady evolution of our planning system from the seminal legislation of the 1940s —the carefully constructed system of checks and balances—is to be pushed aside. As I said. that is rather worrying.

Regionalism versus structure planning at a county council level will be the first main theme of my remarks. I shall touch on two other topics: namely, the role and status of national parks and, secondly, third-party rights of appeal. I shall not seek to cover the immensely complicated processes proposed for local development control. It seems likely, for example, that local plans will be extremely thin documents. Perhaps that is what the Government want, but does it make for good planning?

Then there are the other complicated issues which have also been mentioned: the Section 106 proposals or those to deal with compulsory acquisition, and so on. However, I shall listen with interest, as I have done already, to what noble Lords have said or will say on those matters.

I return to the central issue: regions versus county councils or unitary authorities. The objections to the proposals are so many and have been gone over by, I believe, almost every single speaker thus far that I shall be rather telegraphic. First, few people in England identify with a particular region. To the extent that we have them, they are an administrative construct. But people do relate to counties, and county councils are elected.

Secondly, moreover, to date we have no regional assemblies. If we were to have them, we have no idea how they would operate or what their powers would be and so forth. Thirdly, therefore, to put the key element of the proposed planning regime on regions which do not exist is to put the cart before the horse, or perhaps the metaphor is that the tail will be wagging the dog.

Fourthly, we are therefore asked in the mean time to rely on regional development agencies. The membership of their boards is appointed by the Government and members have a mostly business or urban background. By all accounts, they are flush with funds. Typically, only one member has rural expertise or a rural background. Inevitably, urban considerations will dominate countryside considerations and tensions will build up.

Fifthly, our existing structures of separate county councils and urban unitary authorities are understood, have evolved and are democratic and they avoid the town-versus-country issue. Sixthly —this point has been made by a number of speakers—most planning experts believe that the gap created by the abolition of structure plans will be too great; that is, the gap between the RSS and the local plans will he too large for good planning. The county council is a far better level for strategic planning.

Seventhly, work commissioned by the Local Government Association showed hugely negative support for these proposals. I shall quote two short examples from the surveys that were carried out: 76 per cent of authorities said County Councils should have a statutory role in preparing regional strategies and 80 per cent said they should retain a role on such regional strategies; 95 per cent believe it will not be easy for Regional Planning Bodies to secure meaningful community involvement in regional planning". Eighthly, how, it may reasonably be asked, are these proposals to be resourced? That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and I think others. There is already a shortage of planners. But the county councils will still need their planners if they are to maintain their other functions. Moreover—and it seems a little bizarre—they are to continue to be in charge of transport, minerals and waste planning.

The second matter I raise is the role and status of national parks. I declare an interest as the vice-president of the Council for National Parks. It seems to me that the statutory purposes, and with that the national role, of national parks, is in no way fully recognised. They are lumped together—I refer to Clause 4(2)—with county councils, metropolitan councils and district councils as a job lot of bodies whose role is to be reduced. Their national status is not recognised. In that connection I draw attention to Section 62 of the Environment Act 1995.

Everything I have said about the dumbing down of county councils applies with even greater force to our national parks. If the word "national" is to mean anything, then each part must be solely responsible for the strategic planning in its area. To put matters crudely: it must not be dominated by a bunch of businessmen at an RDA. That is a real danger. It will be an insidious danger too because in developing the park, probably in the name of tourism, we shall end up by damaging—perhaps irreparably—the special qualities which have made it a national park.

I believe it follows from that that each national park authority (NPA) must be properly represented at the regional level. If, faute du mieux, we are to be saddled with this regional superstructure, an NPA must be able, and I would argue has a statutory duty, to argue the national considerations at the regional level. The idea of sustainable development will also be particularly important in the national park context.

In the same connection, striking the right balance between economic development and environmental quality will be a key factor in strategic management. We would, I suggest, do well to study the thinking of the National Trust. I am happy to declare an interest as a former chairman. I am very happy to see the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, in his place this afternoon. He is a former chairman too. The National Trust's experience in this respect is unrivalled, as is the thinking of people such as Mr John Dunning. He is a member of the North West RDA and has much of interest to say on the subject.

Before I move on, I must say a few words on AONBs. There is nothing in the Bill about them. There is nothing about AONB conservation boards. One is left to wonder whether this is the same Government today that passed the CROW Act only three years ago. Broadly speaking, AONBs, which under the 1949 Act are areas that have the same landscape qualities and value as a national park, need similar but appropriate treatment in the Bill.

The last point I wish to raise is the omission of any measure for third party rights of appeal. Again, one or two noble Lords have raised the issue. There have been repeated representations and notably a major report commissioned by eight highly responsible environmental organisations. Some fairly trenchant comments were also made by the House of Commons Select Committee. Yet the Government continue to resist even limited rights. At the same time they state in the Green Paper, and they have continued to reiterate the theme: We need a planning system that fully engages people in shaping the future of their communities and local economies". It is not good enough. Not to be allowed to challenge, for example, a planning permission that is clearly contrary to the local plan or where a favourable decision is in respect of the authority itself is simply unfair and unjust. The whole planning appeal process is in any case weighted heavily in favour of the developer. I ask the Government to reconsider, or at least to do us the courtesy of advancing a rational argument not based on the need for a speedy process.

Planning has been described as a mediating process for dispute resolution. It has been developing over the years, following the landmark legislation of the Attlee administration, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and by the typically British process of evolution, but the main thrust of the Bill does not take us down that well trodden route. Its tendency is towards centralising, not towards sub-regions. It over-emphasises the desirability of speed at the expense of openness and fairness. It is sad that it falls to a later Labour Government to abandon a process that has served so well.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, whose great experience of the matter, like that of so many other noble Lords who have spoken, I cannot hope to match. I agree with virtually everything that he said; in that regard, I suppose that I ought to declare an interest as living in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

I am not surprised to find that when our planning system is compared knowledgeably with that of other developed countries, it comes out as one of the best, if not the best. I agree with what has been said about the great achievement of the Attlee government in the famous 1947 Act. It follows from that that we must regard it as a precious attribute of the country and be extremely cautious, although not timid, when we address perceived defects. It is also remarkable that we can claim it to be the best notwithstanding its inbuilt capacity to frustrate certain people.

In a small country such as ours, whose undeveloped land is, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said, such a precious amenity to the life of almost everyone, it is essential that the necessary power to control the use of land should be shared—and democratically shared at that. In the sharing of that power, many people are bound to experience frustration from time to time. For the greater good, there will on occasion be a need to make them suffer frustration; but they will wear that if the decision that occasions it is democratically fair and taken at a reasonably local level. If it is not, the degree of public acceptance of, and therefore of compliance with, the planning decision will be entirely different.

It is rather fashionable for people unfavourably to compare with the French system the time it takes here to get consent to a major infrastructure proposal, for example. My answer to that is that with the French system goes an authoritarian attitude at all levels that could be called cavalier, if that were not to be unfair to Cavaliers. We would not and should not wear that in England; and my real fear is that the Bill may provide the Government with an opportunity to learn that lesson the hard way.

Those reflections—which, I fear, are not especially original—lead to my justification for adding to the list of speakers. What is proposed in the Bill in substitution for the county councils' present jurisdiction to make structure plans will add to the frustration and diminish the democracy. It is seriously undemocratic and remote from the areas that it will affect.

I invite your Lordships to consider the south-eastern region. To begin with, the proposed assembly, which will to a great extent assume the jurisdiction of the county councils, will draw its members from North Oxfordshire in the north to Thanet in the south-east, while skirting everything included in Greater London. It is not easy to imagine a less homogeneous area—it is more of a hotchpotch—for decision-makers to control when they are invested with the jurisdiction to make nominally regional decisions and nominally regional, strategic, spatial strategies, while local development frameworks, put forward by truly local bodies, are obliged to conform to them.

How should deprived Thanet, for example, in east Kent, be expected to conform to what is apt for the M4 corridor or indeed for Oxford? I listened with much admiration to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. That is only the beginning of it. Who are those decision-makers to be? Why, for the present, they will be the officials who comprise the regional chambers. None of them will be elected for that purpose. Their numbers will inevitably burgeon and their regional spatial strategy will have to comply with or, to use the words of Clause 1, to "set out" the policies of the Secretary of State, however expressed. They will exercise that statutory jurisdiction in place of the locally elected county councils for an indefinite time—at least as long as it may take the Government to enact their regional assemblies legislation. I say "at least as long" because— yes, it really does get worse—a referendum under that Bill could perfectly possibly result in a "no, thank you" answer from the electorate, declining an elected assembly in the south-east. I fervently trust that that is what will happen, because I judge that we are pretty happy with our county councils. In that event, the undemocratic set-up that I have tried to describe will indeed last indefinitely.

Ministers will doubtlessly retort—we may hear it tonight— by urging us to vote "yes" in our referendum if we do not like it. That, of course, is their intention. However, I suggest to your Lordships that that would be a shocking misuse of power, for the question whether a region is to be saddled with an unelected assembly should surely stand alone. It cannot fairly be presented, or represented, as a question, when the structure plans that it will supersede will already have been taken away. The icing on that unwholesome cake is provided by calling it "devolution". We shall certainly come back to the issue.

It is important to be fair and therefore to take heed of the fact that Ministers can indeed remark on the failure of some local authorities in some circumstances to meet their planning targets. That is said to be evidence of a failing system. So it is, but the fault for the failure in Kent, for example, is that of central government and not of local government. I take Kent to be an illustration; I do not believe it to be unique. In Kent, a land bank has been allocated for development sufficient to meet the needs of the next nine years. I understand that the reason why Kent has been able to build only 75 per cent of its allocation each year in the north Thames Gateway lies in the failure of central government to fund the necessary infrastructure, such as road junctions, schools and libraries. Therefore, the reason does not lie in the deficiencies of the planning system; and I will be surprised if that is a unique experience.

I conclude by joining virtually all other noble Lords in pointing out that there are indeed good things in the Bill. I have already cited two examples. The first is the Bill's nailing of the abuse of repetitious applications. That is important. The second is putting a stop to Crown land immunity from the planning processes. We all recognise that.

However, first, the Bill's impact on local democracy and local ownership of planning decisions, and, secondly, the vast accretion of power to the Secretary of State, to say nothing of the complexity of many of the provisions, cumulatively amount to a very serious and retrograde feature of the legislation. I very much hope that we will be able to diminish that.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, like the two previous speakers and other noble Lords, I wish to start by saying that I believe that the planning system in this country over the past half-century, warts and all, has been a huge success. The suggestion that the planning system is bust and must be reformed thoroughly from top to bottom is fundamentally wrong. One need only compare this country with others, many of which have far fewer planning problems than we have—we are far more densely populated and have a much greater variety of landscape than many countries.

In the 1930s, when much of the pressure for a planning system was building up, ribbon development was a key factor in making people realise that an efficient planning system was needed. If that had not happened and ribbon development had continued for the past 50 years, every main road and country lane in this country would have a row of houses along it. Imagine how that would be. One need only think about what this country would be like had the planning system not existed. Noble Lords talked about the national parks. Let us take for example the Lake District and the development that there would have been in Langdale, Borrowdale and all its other valleys—and probably, in some cases, on top of mountains—if it had been allowed. It is obvious that planning has served this country well. That is not to say that some changes and reforms should not take place.

Unlike my noble friends, I am no longer directly involved in local authorities so I have no interest to declare. However, I spent 25 years as a member of local planning authorities, and my expertise in planning is due to my having been at the coalface. Recently, for example, I spent several years as chairman of various development control sub-committees and committees. I have, therefore, local experience of planning.

My first huge question on the Bill is: why are the Government centralising power in this apparently drastic way? In particular, why are they taking structure planning powers to a regional level? There may be elected regional assemblies in some parts of England in the fairly near future. I doubt that it will happen in the north-west—although it may—and it certainly will not happen in most regions. We are faced with half the planning system that rests with local authorities at present going to a regional level. Even in a region such as the north-west, that is a step too far.

I cannot understand from reading the Bill and the Explanatory Notes what will happen in the existing unitary authorities. What will happen to existing structure plans in the mean time? Who will look after them? Once the Bill is passed, who will be responsible for defending the policies in structure plans at local public inquiries, for example? Will that happen at the new regional level? Will the structure plan form part of the interim regional spatial strategy, along with the regional planning guidance? How will that work? There seems to be a big question mark over that.

Presumably, parts of the planning process in unitary authorities that represent the county level of a structure planning system in two-tier systems will also go to the regional level. What is the process by which unitary authorities will be stripped of half their planning powers? In the mean time, what will happen to unitary development plans, half of which will no longer be the responsibility of the authority that set them up? For obvious reasons, a lot of the debate is about counties in two-tier structures, but the problems and the complications that will occur in existing unitary authorities are just as great, and in fact they may be greater, because an existing unitary system will be split.

The Government have said that this system will be more simplified and will lead to faster decisions. The view of local planning officers to whom I have spoken, again at the district level of development control and the district level of producing local plans, is that the new system will be more complex; that the new folder full of all these local development documents will be more time-consuming, more resource-consuming to compile than the existing local plans; and that more resources will be required. Will the Government provide those resources for local planning authorities? One planning officer told me that the Government are looking for a Rolls-Royce system, whereas at the moment they have an ordinary Ford Pop system. My concern is that by not providing the resources and the ability to produce a Rolls-Royce system, they will in fact end up with something that owes rather more to Heath Robinson than to Rolls-Royce.

Sustainable development is a wonderful thing; at least, they are two wonderful words. Everyone agrees with them, because everyone thinks they mean what they want them to mean. People who want to see a lot of economic development believe that sustainable development will lead to sustainable profits for their company; economically sustainable development. People who believe that new housing estates should be provided with schools, community centres, shops and all the rest of it believe that it is to do with socially sustainable development. Of course, a lot of people think it is to do with preserving the environment and reducing global warming and all the rest of that, in other words, environmentally sustainable development. Everyone agrees with sustainable development until they start to define it. So it is not really surprising that the Government have not put a definition in the Bill, because if we start talking about definitions, we will find that everyone thinks that it means something different. It is not good enough for the Government to say that they will issue regulations saying what this means. If we are going to pass this Bill here in this House, we want to know what the Government mean by sustainable development and we need some definitions put firmly into the Bill.

I will talk about one or two local issues. The Government talk about speed in planning decisions. It has been said that this Bill is all about speed, trying to speed up the system. Even if it will do that, there is quite often a trade-off in planning decisions, between speed on the one hand and the quality of the decision on the other. When you come to complicated development decisions at local level, you often find that you can pass it quickly and virtually do what the developers are asking for, or you can spend care and time improving the proposal. If you do that, you go beyond the eight weeks and you lose marks on the government tick-list when they come along to assess your planning policy. They look at how many proposals you have passed within the timetable, and if you have not passed 75 per cent, or 80 per cent or whatever it is nowadays, they will say, "Oh, you are naughty boys and girls", and they will give you less money in future.

Nevertheless, you might be getting better development decisions, because you have taken the time and the trouble to consult outside organisations; you have taken the time and the trouble to talk to developers, to negotiate; you have taken the time and trouble to explain to local people what it is all about and to get their involvement, and if not their total agreement, at least their acquiescence that you are doing it fairly and you are looking at all the points. It is often a trade-off between speed and quality, and the Government simply do not understand that. I am not arguing for inefficiency; I am not arguing for planning departments that put things in a cupboard and do not look after them. However, it often takes time, and even on small planning applications, it often takes time to get it right.

Major or small local planning applications will continue to be there. Once development takes place, the results will be there for 20 years, 50 years or perhaps 200 years in many cases. If a development is wrong, the people of the future will suffer because it is not at least as right as it might have been. There are no total rights and wrongs in planning. It is always a matter of compromise. Therefore, as regards speed, the Government should think again about exactly how the competence of local planning authorities is to be assessed.

One of the problems that causes delays in planning is the appeals system, which is out of the control of the local authority. It is in the Government's control. But do the Government have their own tick-list about how quickly appeals should be organised and dealt with? Perhaps I may give a brief example. A planning application for 200 houses has been made by the ward that I used to represent in Colne in Pendle borough, Lancashire. I shall not talk about its merits or otherwise because it is still at appeal, but the application was made almost two years ago. It went to committee and there were a great number of delays while organisations such as the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and so forth were consulted. The decision was made in 2002. The application was refused and the applicants appealed.

The local public inquiry took place last April. There was a delay in obtaining the public inquiry, which there always is. We are still waiting for a decision. That is no good for the applicants. It is no good for the residents who are objecting to the extension of the lovely new houses that have just been built on the edge of the countryside. Some people are objecting for much better reasons than that. It is no good for the local authority. It is no good for anyone. Yet that is the delay in the system, which is all down to the appeal. As far as I can determine, there is nothing in the Bill about speeding up appeals. But it is a fundamental problem, which is not fair.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene during the debate. But, first, I raised this issue in my opening speech. There is a measure in the Bill about Secretary of State call-ins and the way in which they should be dealt with. Since the noble Lord has raised the issue, perhaps I may put this on the record because it would be useful. We are not asking authorities to do things that we are not seeking to do ourselves in the department. I do not know any of the detail as regards the case mentioned by the noble Lord, but it is a thundering disgrace. Quite clearly, there is a failure of administration.

Our target is to halve the time taken from the close of an inquiry to the decision and by March 2004 to decide 80 per cent of cases within 16 weeks from the close of an inquiry. We have already delivered a 50 per cent improvement. The new planning casework division in the planning inspectorate will put in place even more effective case-management arrangements to oversee the process from beginning to end. During the first six months of the current financial year, 86 per cent of cases were decided within the relevant milestone.

We are desperately trying to clear up the mess at the centre. The kind of example that the noble Lord gave gives a bad taste to the rest of the system. But it is not true to say that there nothing in the Bill about it; there is.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for giving all those encouraging facts and figures. They do not seem to apply to us in our part of the country, but perhaps they will in future. I was not talking about applications that were called-in, I was talking about ordinary appeals. If I missed what the Minister said, I apologise for not listening carefully enough.

There is a great deal in the Bill that needs further debate. In the Minister's opening speech he said, "We listened and we continue to listen". Usually, he is a listening Minister. Sometimes he has the flexibility to meet some of the points made and sometimes he does not. We look forward to hearing his response. We hope that he is on a fairly loose rein as far as this Bill is concerned.

6.4 p.m.

Lord Best

My Lords, I declare my interests as chief executive of a housing association in York—the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust—with links to the National Housing Federation, the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Royal Institute of British Architects, and as chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that has produced numerous reports on housing and planning. Like the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, I, too, was a rural development commissioner for many years.

I greatly welcome the Bill's objectives of rationalising and streamlining the planning system. As the seminal interim report from Kate Barker of the Bank of England made clear last month. our Byzantine planning system is a highly significant cause of the acute housing shortages which are causing so much misery and creating so many economic problems for large parts of this country. However, I fear that even if the housebuilders, on whom we now rely for 85 per cent of all new housing, receive planning consents more easily and speedily, housing production may not grow appreciably. Indeed, if the economy falters even a little, housebuilders' production may decline even if planning is streamlined.

Despite phenomenal house price increases, new housebuilding today is at its lowest level for some 75 years. But that is not because of dramatic falls in the production of private developers. The output of housebuilders, decade by decade, has remained pretty constant. The extraordinary fall in the number of new homes is attributable to huge reductions in the provision of subsidised, affordable homes, now at only 10 to 20 per cent of previous levels. Instead of 20,000, at least 50,000 affordable homes are needed annually just to keep pace with the number of new households appearing each year who cannot buy outright. The deficit will be made good only by institutional investment in a new-look, private rented sector and public investment in affordable housing, mostly through the Housing Corporation.

The planning system, however, can help directly to increase the number of subsidised, affordable homes by enabling providers to secure the land they need. It does this by requiring housebuilders to ensure that a proportion of every larger site they develop must go to subsidised accommodation for key workers, for low-income households et al.

That brings me to the first of my points on ways in which the Bill might be improved. My concern here lies in the proposed change whereby the current, flawed but improvable "Section 106 agreements" that oblige builders to allocate land for affordable housing could be bypassed by housebuilders opting to pay a contribution, a tariff; that is, an indirect tax on landowners. This would mean that housebuilders would not have to allocate any part of their developments for affordable housing. Funds raised by such a tariff might not find their way into affordable housing at all, not least because housing associations or other providers of low-cost homes may find it impossible to buy the land they need elsewhere.

Further, even if other sites can be purchased, no doubt in the least desirable locations, it offends good practice to build segregated ghettos of social housing for poorer households rather than integrating these into mixed-income, mixed-tenure developments with renters alongside owners. Tariffs may sensibly replace requirements to include affordable homes in some areas where there is low demand for social, subsidised housing, and perhaps also at the very top end of the market, where one home for social housing could be replaced by several for the same price elsewhere. But for most of the south of England and other housing hotspots, tariffs could be a recipe for further reducing the numbers of new, affordable homes unless the tariff system is tailored with great care.

Having identified the overarching requirements as I see them both for public investment and for proactive planning in which new tariffs could prove counterproductive, perhaps I may now briefly lend support to three amendments to the Bill that I expect to be brought forward by other Members of this House.

First, the Disability Rights Commission, RADAR, the John Grooms and Habinteg housing associations, along with others, see a major role for planning in securing accessible homes and environments. I have expressed appreciation in the House for the Government's important changes to Part M of the building regulations, as well as concern that some housebuilders are failing to comply with these requirements. The Minister has initiated a review to consider what steps should be taken to enforce the existing regulations—on level front entrances, on wider doors and corridors and so on—and on whether further improvements could be made. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill could tackle these issues directly through planning requirements which would speed up progress here.

Secondly, if positive planning for sustainable new homes and communities is to get real priority at the local level, the status of planning officers must be enhanced. The Bill provides the opportunity to upgrade this role within local authorities by giving statutory recognition—not protection—to senior planning officers in the same way as their colleagues responsible for social services, education, finance and legal services are all recognised.

I would urge support for the Town and Country Planning Association and the Royal Town Planning Institute in their hopes that the Bill could give this higher status to the individual expected to take a leading role in advising councillors and the community on often difficult planning decisions.

Finally, the Bill presents the chance to make a clear, formal link between planning and housing. Housing strategies are now required of local authorities and these could be joined up with each authority's new local development plans—as advocated by the Local Government Association, the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation—to provide the coherent framework necessary to ensure the delivery of a much needed increase in decent, sustainable, affordable new homes.

I welcome the Bill but I hope that the House will improve it further.

6.12 p.m.

Baroness Wilkins

My Lords, I, too, welcome many aspects of the Bill, especially its focus on delivering sustainable development through the planning process and the renewed emphasis on community involvement. However, I fear we may be in danger of missing a huge opportunity to rectify failings in the planning system. These failings permit developments to go forward which marginalise and exclude millions of disabled and older people.

Many disabled people feel, quite rightly, that the current planning system pays scant regard to their needs. In a recent NOP survey for the Disability Rights Commission, some 73 per cent of disabled people reported major difficulties accessing vital local services and amenities due to lack of attention to accessibility in the design, orientation and location of buildings.

For example, a visually impaired youngster's mother rang the Disability Rights Commission last year complaining about the council-run leisure centre which is situated in a car park around which there are no pavements. The youngster has to walk around the edge of the car park, which puts her at risk, especially when the weather is wet, the grass is slippery and she is at risk of falling. The plans failed to make any provision for disabled people to make their way across the car park to the building. There are many more stories such as this.

The root cause is simple. As stated in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's recent good practice guidance on planning and access, 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". With a major revision of the system in prospect, now must be the time to put this right.

In the past year the Government have begun to deliver on their manifesto commitments to reform the planning system in line with the recommendations made by the Disability Rights Task Force hack in 1999. In March last year the ODPM issued the good practice guidance to local authorities on strengthening consideration of disability access, as I have already mentioned. A process of revising national planning guidance is also in train, which I trust will fully reflect the views and concerns of disability organisations. However, much still remains to be done.

Most notably, the Government have an outstanding commitment to review statutory provisions in planning law on disability access. The Disability Rights Task Force recommended that the Government should consider the future role of Section 76 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which requires planning authorities to alert developers to disability access requirements on grant of permission when a suitable legislative opportunity arises. In particular, the task force emphasised the need to alert developers to disability access legislation at the earliest possible opportunity in the planning process.

The task force understood that the key to creating truly inclusive environments is to incorporate accessibility and inclusive design at the very beginning of the development process, rather than expecting developers to make expensive retrospective adjustments once building is under way.

In March 2001 the Government accepted this recommendation, stating: We agree with the Task Force and will review section 76 when a suitable opportunity arises". Furthermore. in the 2001 manifesto, the Government pledged to implement outstanding task force recommendations to which they had signed up. Time is now running out to fulfil this vital pledge to disabled people.

The work of reviewing Section 76 and access provisions—or the lack of them—in planning law has already been carried out. It was one of the themes of the Disability Rights Commission's first review of civil rights legislation. This legislative review was published in May last year and contains several recommendations for reform of the planning system. These included: a statutory requirement for developers to provide access statements with their applications; positive access duties within the basic planning framework; and core policies on disability access in all local development documents and regional spatial strategies. These recommendations were subject to lengthy consultation and received strong support from all stakeholders.

I understand that Ministers in another place pledged to consider using order-making powers to require developers to provide access statements with their initial application. I hope that by the time we reach detailed debate in Committee, the Government will be in a position to give further details on this and other recommendations.

In particular, I hope the Government will reconsider the advisability of relying on guidance alone to eliminate the huge inconsistencies we see between the approaches of different planning authorities. Certainly, the leading disability, housing and planning organisations, from the RNIB and RADAR through to Habinteg and the Town and Country Planning Association, are adamant that this approach simply will not work. They argue that changes to planning law are required and they seek, in particular, a specific duty on planning authorities to have due regard to the need for reasonable access for disabled people when considering planning applications.

In conclusion, it is worth emphasising that there is no conflict here with the Government's understandable desire to speed up the planning process and reduce costs through modernisation—on the contrary. Ensuring that access provisions are built in at the earliest design stage is significantly more cost-effective for developers than retrospective adjustments. Early attention to access would also mean that planning approval or building regulation consent would be unlikely to be refused on the grounds that it does not meet appropriate access standards. This would minimise the potential for delay, with obvious financial benefits. Developments designed to be inclusive are likely to have an enhanced market value. Service providers will be less likely to face legal action under the Disability Discrimination Act and will be in a much better position to capitalise on the considerable spending power of disabled people, estimated at £51.3 billion per annum.

We have a unique opportunity to create a system of planning and development control that delivers environments which are more accessible for all and supports the Government's goal of more sustainable communities. I do hope we seize it.

6.19 p.m.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I started my career at 22, when I was elected to the Chailey rural district council. My village voted for me not because I had any political skills or experience but because my father was the local doctor and very popular. One of his patients even told me, "You're a bit young, dear, but I'll vote for you because you've got the doctor's eyes". I have to say that party politics were not writ very large in my village. I chaired the planning committee and later I was leader of its successor body, the Lewes district council. I was elected to the East Sussex county council and, at the same time, served on my parish council. I was a very sad case: I was a local government junkie, I was seriously addicted, and I loved it. I am telling your Lordships this because, for all its faults, I am a firm believer in local government, local democracy and local accountability.

In introducing the Bill, the Minister was rightly prophetic in saying that he anticipated concerns about the role of the county council. Many noble Lords have expressed their concerns, focusing on the lack of democracy at the strategic level. I make no apology for joining in with that chorus of concern. In the Bill, county councils will not have a statutory power to determine strategic planning. Their powers are to be exercised by non-directly elected regional bodies and regional government offices. My noble friend Lord Marlesford is absolutely right in saying that there could be a whirlwind of opposition if county councils are written out of the script.

I also find it breathtaking that the content of the draft regional spatial strategy will include the minutiae of the number of houses for each district, which will have to be approved by the Deputy Prime Minister. I cannot believe that the Deputy Prime Minister or his top officials can really have any detailed knowledge of somewhere like the Lewes area. I do not believe that they really care about the Lewes area; I do not suppose that they even know where it is—they probably think that it is in Scotland, when actually it is in Sussex.

County councils may or may not be consulted on spatial strategies. That depends entirely on the whim of the local district council, or whether the regional planning body seeks technical advice. Yet it is actually the county council that provides 80 per cent of all local authority services in my area, and plays the major role in community leadership. My fear is that, again, the Government will achieve the worse outcome with what are probably the best intentions. County councils will be left with planning departments that they may or may not need to use. Do they close them, keep them or downsize them—and, if so, to what size? What priority will they give to the importance of strategic planning when there is so much strong competition, and indeed government direction, to invest in education, social services and in other statutory duties?

County councils are in fact being sidelined, but the Government do not have the guts to abolish them, except where people want regional authorities. The regional planning areas are clearly designed by those who have no sense of history or belonging. My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew described the southeast region, where I also live. It has already been dubbed the "banana republic" because of its shape, as it bends round London from north Oxford to east Kent. I am sure that the inhabitants of north Oxford are really delightful, but, as a resident of east Sussex, I have no sense of identity with them or with their county.

I share the fears of noble Lords about the broad-brush planning decisions that are to be made by distanced, unelected bodies that have no relationship with the people. Those people are not accountable or elected on any manifesto and, much worse, they are invisible when they are wrong. The Government may well be saying that democracy stands in the way of decisions that ought to be made, but the Government must take a strategic overview that has to be dissembled to chunks of England, with which people have no empathy.

We in the home counties try to maintain an identity, and the Bill is dismissive of that. Belonging to somewhere and taking responsibility for your surroundings and your neighbours' are all being further eroded, yet those things are the most important part of living. There is no line that can be neatly drawn between what is now spatial strategy and local affairs. One can, and does, destroy the other.

Ministers, civil servants and council officials are perpetually on the move, whereas the majority of people live close to their parents and to where they were brought up. It is those who know their area, who live in it and are elected councillors, who are of the utmost importance. They are the rock on which communities are built.

Communities are where decency and respect translate into law-abiding, thriving places, loved and cared for by their inhabitants. As so often, where people have been allocated to someone else's vision of a nice place, it becomes dysfunctional, lawless, unkempt, disgraceful and disgraced. Yet this is what the Bill is proposing. Strategic planning is to be put into the hands of peripatetic professionals, far, far away, who know everything and understand no one.

The Deputy Prime Minister has said that the Bill will make planning fairer and more predictable. The whole point of strategic planning is that it should be both strategic and sensitive to the locality. It is therefore wholly different for each place, and therefore has an element of unpredictability, and probably an element of incomprehensibility to others. The imperatives for East Sussex are possibly quite alien to South Shields. You simply cannot have decisions for Sussex that appear fair and predictable in South Shields.

The Bill heralds a philosophy of community participation but its effect is actually the reverse. It is much more in line with the Government's policy of centralisation, as has been said by many noble Lords this afternoon.

As my noble friend Lord Hanningfield has said, instead of simplifying, the Bill complicates and obfuscates. As the Law Society points out, the public will have to navigate the new hierarchy of LDDs, LDFs, LDSs, DPDs, DPs and SPDs. The process of public involvement in the drafting of development plans will be almost continuous. It will take a heroic individual with boundless energy, and suffering from a life of extreme boredom, to navigate and participate effectively.

Quite rightly, as I think we have all agreed this afternoon, as did those in another place, the aim of the Government is to speed up planning decisions. I have often heard developers say that they would prefer a "No" decision rather than a slow decision, because at least with a "No" decision they can go to appeal. I was encouraged by what the Minister said this afternoon in response to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I hope that that will be achieved.

Lest the Minister consider me churlish, I acknowledge that the draft regulations state that, the Regional Planning Board should be particularly careful to ensure that it works on a partnership basis with local planning authorities and the county councils. So it does mention the county councils. However, partnerships in all walks of life take skill, commitment, tenacity and trust. Partnerships disintegrate, partnerships break down, some are a charade, some are more myth than reality. Of course we should urge planning authorities to work together; indeed we should require them to work together. That is not on the face of the Bill. We should not give regional planning bodies the opportunity to ignore inconvenient constraints and local views. Therefore, I am supporting the Local Government Association, the County Councils' Network and my county of East Sussex in seeking to enshrine the strategic planning role of county councils on the face of the Bill.

6.29 p.m.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, this Bill has been described by numerous speakers this afternoon as a key element of the Government's agenda for speeding up the planning system. While welcoming the aims of the Bill in seeking greater efficiency and speed as I have suffered in many of the posts I have occupied from inefficiency and slowness, I remain unconvinced that the Bill as it stands will achieve the outcomes the Government are seeking. Despite the many positive aspects of the Bill, it may well increase the complexity of the process and slow down planning decisions. It will certainly centralise control and reduce the power ordinary people have over their lives unless there are many improvements as the Bill makes its progress through this House. However, those who have already spoken have greater authority than I in those areas.

I want to speak about other possible outcomes that could be in direct conflict with the Government's objectives. The provision to alter the way that current planning gain is achieved, commonly known as Section 106 agreements, could reduce opportunities for the development of social housing, as was outlined by my noble friend Lord Best. I should like to concentrate in particular on housing for disabled people, although I support the general thrust of his argument in terms of general social housing.

I declare an interest as president of John Grooms. Our sister charity, John Grooms Housing Association, is the leading provider of wheelchair accessible housing in the United Kingdom with nearly 1,200 Homes—what a small number for the leader in housing provision for the disabled—in management. Our joint mission is to enable every wheelchair user with whom we work to achieve a level of independence equal to his or her potential.

A house that is unsuitable for a disabled person can restrict them to one room. That room becomes bathroom, kitchen, living and sleeping space. For the disabled person it becomes a prison cell. John Grooms Housing Association calculates that countrywide there is a shortfall of some 300.000 houses suitable for people who are wheelchair users. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, said, planning for this need is absolutely essential.

I recently chaired an inquiry for John Grooms looking at the future for disabled people. We identified that between 30 per cent and 47 per cent of wheelchair users consider their current housing and support to be inadequate. More than 8,000 young adult wheelchair users are living in care homes designed for different client groups, usually elderly people. We believe that some of them could be accommodated in housing. If the Bill will help move that forward, we welcome it. Any one of us could find ourselves in this position. We cannot distance ourselves from disability. Any one of us could have a car accident or find ourselves suffering from a degenerative disease. Then we would really understand what it is like to live in one room.

However, the main issue in relation to this Bill for John Grooms and many other housing associations is that the proposed alteration will allow developers to pay a predetermined charge to the planning authority rather than providing social housing or other community facilities in return for planning permission. Can the Minister give any reassurance on that matter?

I believe that the Government's objective of wanting to develop mixed tenure communities, as set out in the Sustainable Communities plan, will also be compromised by that proposal. I believe that I have some understanding of what a sustainable community might comprise. Where a developer is given a chance to build a social housing development away from the main development site, experience tells us that that is the option that will be chosen. That is against the spirit of the Government's Sustainable Communities plan, which is designed to create mixed communities of different forms of tenure. The Government have many other programmes aimed at equal opportunity and integration that will be negatively affected by that provision. How will the Government ensure that that does not happen in the new system?

Will the Minister say how the development charges will be calculated? Absolute transparency in the way the charges for the developer are set is essential. Complexity does not help in that regard. Indeed, the developing and building costs of wheelchair accessible housing are initially higher than for general housing needs. How will that issue be factored in initially? I say initially because we have an ageing and more disabled population. In terms of adaptations and changes to housing, building better wheelchair housing initially may be economically better in the long run.

With the substantial government push to build new houses, particularly in the south-east, there is the potential to get things badly wrong in the pursuit of short-term gain. Will there be a period of evaluation of the new system? Will it be tested in one area before being implemented countrywide? How will it be evaluated? How will the sustainability and quality of new developments be assured?

The new system needs to have clear and simplified government guidelines, or it will suffer from the same problems as the current one, which I do not believe is perfect. The new arrangement must ensure that the needs of the whole community, including disabled people, are taken into account so that future housing developments are accessible to all—including wheelchair users, who could be any of us in the House in future.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Rogers of Riverside

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Richard Rogers Architects, chief adviser to the Mayor of London on architecture and urbanism, and as an adviser to the Mayor of Barcelona. I am also chairman of the National Tenants Resource Centre. I thank my noble friend Lord Rooker for outlining the Bill. Although I broadly agree with the comments made today, I also have considerable sympathy with the Bill. It is the creation of genuine sustainable communities by which its success ought to be judged, rather than simply bald housing targets.

Although long in structure, the Bill is short in aspiration. Quality and values cannot be defined by regulations, standards or figures. I am of course delighted to hear about further rationalisation. I am the architect who was involved for 14 years between winning the competition for terminal 5 and digging the first hole. That was an immensely expensive experience.

The Government must be congratulated on being the first government who recognise that the city is the only sustainable form of living. Until now, all governments have tried to persuade people to move out. They have not put together the fact that, in terms of buildings, we are the third-most dense country in the world. We have less countryside than any other European country apart from Holland. The Government have also put together the link between social exclusion and physical fragmentation. They have put policies from the Urban Task Force—I was its happy chairman—and its report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, in numerous White Papers and other papers specifically related to sustainable communities. I welcome all that movement and think it a considerable step forward.

Our cities have for many years suffered from the tremendous financial success of the Industrial Revolution and from being the most successful country in terms of it. There was a very different anti-city movement. Everyone who could moved out. We had an immediate reaction with the garden city and a further reaction with the modern movement and the concept of buildings in parks, especially high-rise in parks.

In fact, the nature of the city has not changed over the 5,000 years in which it has existed. Cities are for meetings of friends and strangers. Cities are the engines for our economy. They are the most powerful part of our culture. They have created such concepts as the civil society and citizenship. Even today, it is the public domain which links the city together: it is the glue and the space between the buildings. Today, we are returning to the concept that the city is about streets, squares and the walk from the doorstep to the corner shop.

I have studied numerous cities and the more I study them the more passionate I become about them. Today we have the possibility of comparing the cities of the world. One can compare life in Barcelona with life in Los Angeles. One can compare life in, say, Newcastle or Birmingham with life in some of the cities that have sprawled or emptied out. With that information, we can move forward.

The post-industrial city is a great chance to repair the tears within; once more to make cities attractive to people. The post-industrial city does not suffer from the problems of an industrial city. We have tremendous global information and that gives us extraordinary powers. We can study what is wrong with Phoenix. It covers the same amount of ground as Los Angeles at one-third of the density. If we thought that Los Angeles is basically tarmac—it is in fact 50 per cent—Phoenix is three times as much. That is one extreme we can compare.

Furthermore, we can look at some of our beautiful villages and towns. I am not talking about copying them but about studying their spirit. We can look at Copenhagen where one-third of all the people travel by bicycle, although it snows and is dark for about one quarter of the year. It has nothing to do with size because one travels only a limited distance by bicycle. We can look at the fantastic public transportation system of Strasbourg, or we can look again at Barcelona and its high density, but with no buildings more than eight storeys. In living terms, Barcelona compares with the density of Manhattan, but it has different organisation. I am not talking about high or low buildings but about places for people.

Changing family patterns due to the way that we live again give us tremendous potential for moving back into cities. The average family is now 2.5 children. Sixty per cent of people between 20 and 60 are single and live as single people. In 1841, life expectancy of workers in Manchester and London was 17 years. Children born today have a life expectancy of 100 years. There has been a total change in lifestyles in those cities. There is also a high divorce rate and we are looking at a large demand on single-person dwellings. So we have the individualisation of society and those people need a form of urban space different from large families. Families with a four-bedroom dwellings and a cat and a dog are more likely to want to live where they can meet their friends. We also have education—basically from mother's knee to death. Again, the city offers all the necessary frameworks and institutions to support that.

Thirdly, there is global information, changing family patterns and the fact that we have become ecologically conscious. Internationally, we lag seriously behind. The British are little worse than most of the others but we are certainly conscious that, if we do not change the way that we live, we threaten the future of mankind.

Sustainable development may be difficult to define but there is no reason why one should not do so. I believe that the Bill should strengthen that area. I welcome the duty contained in the Bill to have regard to the achievement of sustainable development, but such a duty is meaningless without a proper definition of "sustainability" on the face of the Bill. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that this is a critical area that we need to expand.

My definition of "sustainable development" would include developing compact, live-work cities that are well connected and well designed. together with combating polarisation and social exclusion. It would include minimising resources, reducing waste and cutting energy and materials inputs. In other words, we should change the way that we do things. We should protect the eco systems and grow through ingenuity, innovation, cohesion and sustainable technology. Without tremendous difficulty, we can reduce the amount of energy in dwellings by 30, 40 or 50 per cent. We need new building regulations which are far stronger than those we have at present to help us along that path.

The Urban Task Force and the following White Paper enshrined a number of principles. They were that cities should be compact and multi-centred but not fragmented. In many of our cities or capital cities—again, I refer to places such as Manchester and Birmingham—whole areas are derelict, where perhaps only one out of five houses is occupied. In areas with that amount of empty space, the police, nurses, teachers and corner-shop owners all move out. Therefore, we require compact, multi-centred cities.

We need cities where work and leisure overlap and where places can all be reached easily by foot, bicycle or public transport. We need neighbourhoods which are a mix of poor and rich and not a series of ghettos of one or the other. Neighbourhoods should he well connected, and I do not refer only to transport. In a really well planned neighbourhood, one can walk to most of the principal elements. The assumption is made that people will want to walk to a shop, a bus stop or the health centre. However, that requires a certain density of population because, to set up a bus stop, there need to be 5,000 to 10,000 people. Therefore, we know that the level of density required is probably 50 dwellings to the hectare. We want well designed cities; we want cities that care about ecology; and, of course, we want just cities.

Again, on the positive side, there is a tremendous demand for people who need houses. We are talking about 4 million dwellings—that is, about 20 per cent of new households. That represents an area bigger than London. How do we add that number of dwellings to a country which has a limited number of greenfield sites but a tremendous store of industrial brownfield sites? How do we achieve those communities? Can they help to fill the holes that are in our cities?

London will increase in population between 1986 and 2016 by about 1.5 million people. It is certainly much bigger than Birmingham or Manchester—it is practically as large as both put together.

The Mayor has stated that London's population should be housed within its 33 boroughs—no sprawl, no new town, but totally contained. I absolutely welcome that. That is how we can get public transport to start to work. One needs density to have a public transport system. The development figure for England, which again is about the lowest in western Europe, is an average of around 24 dwellings per hectare. That is absolutely not sustainable. One cannot have a public transport system with that kind of density; therefore, travel must be car based. One cannot have corner shops or neighbourhoods. If one starts to develop a slightly higher density, which is not based on the existing infrastructure, one has to pay for that infrastructure.

For suburban sprawl, for housing in the countryside and so on, it has been calculated that the taxpayer pays a subsidy of about £50,000 for each dwelling. That is not only for the roads and the utilities but also for schools. Of course if one is building in compact cities there are already schools and hospitals. One has all those institutions. If one adds all that together, one is actually subsidising countryside living.

As usual, one cannot totally ban greenfield development. Again, the Government have taken a great step forward by saying that one should build on brownfield sites first and only then use greenfield sites. I think that they should be tougher and that a target should be set of 60 per cent. I have already mentioned London, which is looking at 80 to 100 per cent of brownfield use. Many cities can achieve that. It is worrying that in the north, where there are many brownfield sites, greenfield sites are being built on.

Design is a critical part of our nation. We all love our Georgian terraces and the long avenues—the Notting Hill Gates with a fairly private public park and so on. Those are high-density developments and they are well designed. So without design, there cannot be an urban renaissance. Our public spaces, specifically our roads, footpaths and squares, are extremely shabby. They are among the shabbiest in Europe. They need repair. We need to increase our design skills. There is no mention of design in the Bill. On the other hand, the task force and the White Paper state that design, social inclusion and environmental understanding are the three major drivers.

Regarding transport, again we are critical. I make one point. At the Thames Gateway in London, if we had such transport as has been discussed, in my opinion we could create up to 200,000 dwellings. If we do not, the Government claim they will achieve 60,000. That is the difference transport makes. It is not just a question of transport; we shall throw away our heritage in terms of that land because it will become suburban sprawl.

The same situation applies with devolution. I congratulate the Government on devolution, but it does not give enough power to the cities.

I list seven key priorities, with which I shall conclude. First, to achieve sustainable development, as referred to in the Bill, we must make brownfield development more attractive than greenfield development. That means positive fiscal incentives for the development of brownfield sites, as supported by Kate Barker's Review of Housing Supply. Only after all the possible brownfield land is used should growth areas proposed in the Sustainable Communities Plan be developed. I suggest that Her Majesty's Government should introduce a statutory duty to consider brownfield sites first.

Secondly, sustainability can further be achieved by encouraging the recycling of buildings by harmonising VAT. I first argued that point in the task force report in 1999. Your Lordships may be aware that it was also advanced by Kate Barker's recent report on housing.

Thirdly, the quality of planning skills in many local authorities is extremely poor. The Bill's proposed devolution to regional planning bodies will require a step change in the quality of planning decisions and the skills level of those making them.

Fourthly, we require the restructuring of professional training so as to be better equipped to deliver the goals of the urban renaissance by creating a single profession of architects and planners. That happens abroad, whether in Spain or France.

Fifthly, I welcome the proposed devolution of planning powers to regional planning bodies. It is conceivable that existing regional development agencies will become the proposed regional planning bodies. Many have already assumed a built environment role. Regional development agencies' powers should be extended to include physical urban regeneration and design alongside economic development; and they should enjoy a closer relationship with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Sixthly, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment should set up a number of regional resource centres for urban development, promoting innovation and good practice, especially in the public domain. That could assist community participation in the planning process, as envisaged in the Bill. Architectural centres should also be placed in all our major cities, again to encourage participation between professionals and the public.

Seventhly, the Government have suggested that they no longer want to abolish outline planning permission. I should welcome my noble friend's assurance that if outline planning permission is retained, that will be on condition that developers will be required to provide a detailed design statement with each application. Within that statutory duty, the Government should then provide detailed requirements for design statements in secondary legislation and a new PPS1—or even a long-overdue dedicated PPS on planning and design.

To conclude, if our cities are to compete with the best examples abroad, if they are to function as economic generators, if they are to attract citizens to live and meet, rather than repel them, if they are to be environmentally sustainable, the Government must deliver those goals. We must get our cities right both physically and socially, so that all the Government's work on education, health, employment and crime is not undermined.

The Urban Task Force was tasked with establishing a new vision for urban regeneration, founded on the principles of design excellence, social well-being and environmental responsibility within a viable economic and legislative framework. I hope that my noble friend can reassure the House that the Government share those objectives.

6.58 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I have always had a downer on architects, because one of my forebears was the first president of the RIBA and built himself a monstrosity that was unliveable in and was the beginning of the end of the family's finances. None the less, it has been a great pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside. I have had the pleasure of listening to him several times. I agree absolutely with him about what needs to be done. However, I also agree that what it takes is not in the Bill. There is no emphasis on design.

The difficulty with building houses on brownfield sites is that one is building one of the most immovable forms of land occupation that there is. One must achieve absolute dereliction in housing before one gets a chance to change it.

It is essential to the continued health of a city that there are places where it can develop whatever else it needs in 50 years' time, which we cannot now anticipate. There must be places where those things can go. If we are to fill many of those places with housing, it must be extremely well designed and must constitute communities, not housing estates. Much more energy and imagination must be used to create the city than we have heretofore allowed. I am not clear that anyone is being given the powers necessary to ensure that that happens. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, will give us some of his time in Committee and possibly table an amendment or two in order that we might make some progress on that. I can see that I shall be an active participant in Committee.

There is a lot in the Bill that I hope will work. I will be trying to make sure that we get right the details of outline planning permission and the three-year time limit so that they will work in practice.

I shall also urge strongly that we allow local authorities to treat their planning control departments as real profit centres. We have all seen what has happened as a result of the freeing-up of local authorities' parking fees. The whole business of road management and maintenance has become enormously effective. In areas such as Kensington and Chelsea, if the streets are not paved with gold now, they soon will be, because the council has nothing else on which to spend its profits.

Planning departments should acquire a new status. Local authorities should value running them well because they could be a real source of revenue and strength. At the moment, the fees are ridiculously low. They are tiny when compared with the value of the developments. The whole system could stand fees that are four or five times their current level. That would allow high-quality planning professionals to be employed and provide the lubrication that the system needs to run well.

My goodness, we need some improvements. Kate Barker's interim review is a real wake-up call. We laugh when the Albanians become involved in enormous pyramid schemes; we shrug our shoulders at women empowering women. But we find ourselves in one of the most extraordinary schemes ever; namely, the British housing market. There is no wealth creation in the ever-increasing spiral of house prices. It merely passes money from one set of people to another, with a general level of parasitic losses as it goes on. We are impoverishing the younger generation to enrich the old. All kinds of economic distortions are being introduced by the endless progression of house prices. We are beginning to see that the problems associated with affordable housing all occur because the general level of house prices has risen so much.

Ridiculously—though we have come to accept it as normal—housing is considered an investment. Housing is for living in. We get out of houses the pleasure of living in them. During the past 20 years, the average household income has risen in real terms by 20 per cent. There has been an increase in individual incomes, but a decreasing size of household. During that same period, the average size of house occupied by the average householder has decreased by 20 per cent. We think that we are becoming a more prosperous nation, but we are living in smaller and smaller boxes. That is ridiculous. We should enshrine in policy an ambition that people live in better and nicer houses 20 years from now, with more space and more objects about them that give them delight. Our ambition should not be that they live in a more expensive, but smaller, house. I hope that that will not be the case, because the economic dislocation that has resulted from the current state of the housing market will be even worse.

As Kate Barker points out, the root of the problem is the planning system. We have allowed it to become sclerotic; we have made it permissible that the supply is restricted to the point that the only way in which prices can go is up.

As a nation, we should take up another suggestion in Kate Barker's report and set ourselves an objective that house prices should not go up in real terms. The general cost of an individual unit of housing should be stable in real terms. If the Government set that as an objective and hand down that objective to planning authorities in one way or another, the consequence will be a great calming in the housing market. People will not pay immensely increasing prices if they think that they will face a drop. We should say, "No, we have gone far enough. This is the level of prices we will accept. Any increase beyond this and we will be aiming to reduce it". If people believed that the Government were doing that, there would be a calming of the situation. To that extent, the Bill is a lost opportunity. Perhaps the Kate Barker review will give us the opportunity for another one; but, as has been said, we see such Bills very infrequently.

I hope that there are measures that we can take in the Bill to allow us to start to tackle the situation—one would be to make planning departments real profit centres for local authorities. We must do more. We must see an end to the house-price spiral; it does nobody good. It is not really what we should want. We should want to invest our money in productive opportunities. not in this ridiculous housing spiral, which profits only those selling land into the system and those living off it.

7.5 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, the previous two speeches have taken us into realms of interesting architectural detail. Although I am the descendant of a famous Victorian architect, whose house I have had to pull down, I have been unable to follow that detail. The Bill is replete of detail. I propose, therefore, to speak more generally on the main issues that it raises. I shall refer to some of the significant subsidiary points of detail, but that will not be the main theme of my speech.

My starting point is the equality of the existing system. It is already a national planning system, based on a legal framework embracing the country as a whole, with some significant variations in devolved issues for Scotland and Wales. In general, our system follows the best possible pattern, giving as it does special protection to particular places classified as national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, a topic on which I wholly agree with what my noble friend Lord Chorley said. It gives flexibility on individual issues, a responsibility held by the Secretary of State, for which he is accountable to Parliament. But the engine room of our system is the local planning authority, whose committees of elected councillors determine each planning application. The core structure is a national scheme managed at the centre by the elected national government of the day but executed in detail by the elected local people, who know their area and represent their electorate.

I have long been interested in the subject. As a schoolboy during the Second World War, it intrigued me to read some of the books and newspaper articles then current about the need for a proper system for controlling land use. The writers whose opinions tended to form my views were Thomas Sharp, in this country, and Lewis Mumford, in the United States. The popular and brilliantly successful magazine Picture Post also printed well informed and cogent articles on the theme. By the end of the war the public had reached an unspoken consensus that we needed a national scheme if we were to avoid building millions of acres of inferior housing lining the edges of our main roads, as has already happened on the Kingston bypass—the A3—on the southern suburbs of London. That would simply be the modern version of back-to-back housing in our northern industrial cities a century earlier.

In the past 30 years I have lived in a number of countries, largely in Europe, east and west, and in America, North and South. I have formed the clear impression that our planning system stands up very well in comparison with other countries In fact, our system is superior to the general practice elsewhere. That is certainly the case as regards the shores of the Mediterranean. The peninsula of Attica, near Athens, is a case in point. That beautiful rocky coastline has been overwhelmed by the helter-skelter cramming of villas on cliffs, and now by the building of an airport and connecting railway to serve the millions who will attend the Olympic Games in Athens this year, if they can afford to pay the hotel bills.

In Italy, the Adriatic coast adjacent to Rimini has suffered a similar fate. The Italian example is particularly interesting. New housing in Italy requires a planning permit, and the local authorities that enforce the system are mostly those with councillors representing parties of the radical Left, notably the communist party of Italy, the PCI, and its fellow travellers. Elsewhere, the general practice would be for a developer to build a house on his own land without seeking permission, which is difficult to get. Then, when the Italian Treasury suffered one of its periodic devastating mismatches between falling revenue and rising expenditure, a Bill would be hastily introduced into the national parliament to legitimise illegal construction on the payment of a fine, or pardon. The system was known as the condono. A similar system is applied in Italy to legitimise the presence of illegal immigrants. The Treasury, or Tesoro, in Rome, manages to survive thanks to these expedients, but the loss of control over the environment and the flood of illegal immigrants have had devastating consequences.

I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Deputy Prime Minister will not seek to emulate these awful practices here. That is not consistent with a good land planning system. Some passages in the Bill seem to be capable of manipulation. I am sure that is not the intention, but it could happen in the same way. I have no doubt that the noble Lords on the Government Front Bench will indignantly deny the imputation. My message is this: do not destroy or mutilate the system we have won. It works for the interests of the nation as a whole, and is a great deal better than is generally recognised.

The largest defect in the Bill is the transfer of power away from local councils to regional authorities, some of which may, at an unknown future date, receive an input from elected councillors. But the regional staff and civil servants are chosen and appointed by the Government in London, who also provide funds for their favourite policies. This seems to be a massive step backwards. I concur with the CPRE's opinion that this system would be, less accountable and more complicated". We have already suffered a decline in the ability of district councillors to take part in the debates in planning committees following the introduction of the so-called "cabinet system". Most decisions are now delegated to officers and are not discussed by the councillors. Sadly, the present Bill would carry this undemocratic system a stage further by centralising in London all important decisions, including Clause 1(2), which should be studied by all noble Lords who have not yet done so. I do not wish to see us follow this direction.

Nevertheless, there are some important improvements available at significant points of interest, including the exemption of Crown lands. In the planning context, this is particularly significant in the case of property owned by the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry is keen to obtain the highest possible price for the sale of its property when it is no longer required, more or less regardless of the environmental aspects and the consideration of the local council.

Another issue that will require our attention is the reform of planning gain on which a number of noble Lords have touched. This is a difficult concept, and the Government's proposals are well intentioned, but the voluntary tariff scheme to replace negotiated Section 106 agreements needs further study. We do not want to see local authorities using a tariff as an income-producing facility. There is some danger that this might happen.

I also hope that the Bill will improve the existing system relating to the release of damaged land—what are called brownfield sites. This was an excellent initiative initially, but it has been diverted, and controversially so, by the use of policy planning guidance to include cottage gardens in villages as brownfield sites. This was not the original intention, and it has led to purchases of the land by developers who cram large and expensive houses on to small sites, which are inevitably sold to wealthy people in retirement or planning for it. This is land that could so easily be used for local housing schemes for less well-off people, but it is deprived of that purpose. Planning committees feel unable to prevent that abuse of the scheme under existing rules.

I welcome the Government's decision to end twin-tracking. A related matter that is not included in the Bill is the practice—too common, I fear—of hastily digging trenches and the laying of foundations to validate a planning consent granted, say, four years and 364 days previously. That is an abuse of the system. It would help if councils were able to vary an existing permission if local circumstances had changed considerably since it was granted.

More work also needs to be done on the third party right of appeal that would enable interested organisations active in the environmental field to take issues to appeal, which at present they are unable to do. A particularly awful example has come to my notice, which I intend to mention in Committee. But I shall not weary the House with it now.

A final bee in my bonnet is the widespread practice involving council officers who deal with planning matters. Quite often, those people take early retirement and set up in business as planning consultants. They negotiate applications to the council whose employment they have just left. It should be possible to insert a clause in their original contract of employment under which they undertake not to engage in such private consultancy within the boundaries of the council for five years after leaving the council's service.

That is certainly the practice in central government, as I discovered when I was about to retire from public service on reaching the statutory age of 60. I received a firm letter from my department informing me that if I had any intention of taking up employment or was approached by anyone, it should be immediately informed and I should make no commitments. I would require the personal commitment of the Foreign Secretary before I could undertake any employment in retirement. Subsequently, for a number of years, I served as a member of the Prime Minister's advisory committee on business appointments. In order to avoid any unnecessary conflict, behavioural undertakings of that kind were made to an officer who was thinking of taking such a post.

It has been suggested to me recently that the kind of clause that I suggest for local government contracts would be unacceptable under the European Convention on Human Rights. I have been told that Strasbourg—I do not know whether it was the Commission or the staff—has given that opinion. I do not expect the Minister to know the answer now but, as it is a matter of interest, I should be most grateful if he could investigate and write to me in due course, and to send a copy of his letter to the Library of the House.

In conclusion, the Government say that their system would be simpler, fairer and faster. Faster, maybe; but, surely, less fair and certainly not simpler. The Government have underrated the genuine qualities of the existing system. The arrangements for sub-regional planning seem to be particularly fragile in the new scheme of things and will introduce fresh complexities. I have a personal concern about the protection of the landscape, which I think is valued much more by the nation as a whole than by the Government in particular. It is hardly too much to say that if the Government proceed with the Bill in its present form, they will be throwing out the baby with the bath water. That is rather an extreme measure when the baby in question—the planning system—is in quite robust health and is not responsible for its own diet.

Can it be right to alter the planning system and the local government system at the same time? It would be much more sensible for the Government to proceed seriatim. If they want to alter the local government system, they should do that before devising a planning system to meet it. Those are some of the points that I shall follow up in Committee.

7.19 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I realise that the whole House will be looking forward to my speech because it is the last one before the wind-ups, and I know that I shall get a good reception. Like many colleagues, I, too, need to parade some interests. My first is that of joint president of the Association of London Government with my very good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding. He has been in his place most of the evening. He is not here now but he listened to the debate with care and attention.

Secondly, I declare an interest as the chair of a planning committee in the London Borough of Enfield, although I am sorry to say that that was more than 40 years ago. However, tonight noble Lords bring their own experiences of life in local government, such as those of the Leader of Essex County Council; as a resident I cheerfully pay my rates to him. I detect all around the House colleagues with a wealth of experience in local government.

My third declaration is as a consultant to the Cooperative Group, which is the world's largest consumer co-operative owned and controlled by its members. It is a family of businesses whose activities range from food to finance and from farming to funerals.

The first point I want to make is that Co-operative Farmcare is Britain's largest farmer. Thus the largest farm in the country is owned co-operatively and mutually. On consulting Co-operative Farmcare on its interests here, I have been asked to draw to the attention of the House a clear worry that the democratic structure at a local level in the countryside may be under some challenge or question whereby, in effect, the basic local authorities and environmental agencies may be deprived of their opportunity to speak on behalf of their people. I make the point because no issue has been raised tonight that has not already been raised by a lobby group or by individuals. In that sense, nothing is new, but I think that the Minister would welcome a reinforcement of one point or another which, on balance, may help him when he comes to review and reflect.

I turn to the proposals to scrap county plans, with the possibility that that will disenfranchise democratically elected county councils. I think that the Minister and his colleagues would be well advised to take on board a feeling reflected during the debate that there are worries about this. I do not use pejorative language, but there is a worry here.

I am a friend of the Bill. I support it and I support what the Minister and his colleagues are trying to do. Who can argue with the simple statement that the purpose of the Bill is to speed up the planning system? Earlier I referred to my experience as a chairman of a planning committee in Enfield. Nothing will have changed. I can recall, as can anyone else who has served in local government, encountering a petition, a full meeting of the council, a march and agitation of one kind or another by people affected by a very small element of the council's activities. They are entitled to do all that; it concerns their lives. But when that agitation disappears, where are the people who are demanding democratic involvement? I have mixed feelings about statements which assert that more people want to become involved. In my view, more people do not want to be involved: they want to leave it to others. The Minister must take care in that respect.

Who can argue with the opening statement of the Minister that the objectives of the Bill are to make our planning system fairer, faster and more predictable? Those are laudable aims, but the proof is in the eating of the pudding, which will be way down the line. Over the next few weeks, we are charged with giving the Minister and his colleagues the necessary powers.

Who can argue with the Minister's assertion that the Bill sets out to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy? We all sign up to that, but what does it mean in practice? I take heart from the Minister's constantly reiterated theme that he is working to find solutions, to define clarity of purpose and to stress that the Bill is not the whole story. Despite the extraordinary length of time between First Reading in the other place to us considering the Bill in this House, I take that theme as an omen of the care that the Government want to take to get it right, or as near right as they can. The various interests—ratepayers, house owners, land owners, businesses, developers—will all need to feel that even if they have not gained anything they have been listened to with attention. I hope that the Minister will say something about that in his reply to the debate.

I took heart from his proclamation that no one will be snuffed out of consultation—in other words, that the consultation necessary to make a case is likely to be strengthened and available. I welcome that protestation.

Many of the questions that have been raised are valid. Speaking as a former councillor and Member of Parliament, and as someone who is concerned about and pays attention to this issue, I believe that the heart of the Bill relates to the twin aims of the Government in regard to land use and the provision of more and more affordable housing. This is what drives the Bill and I applaud it. At long last the Government are tackling the grotesque distortion in our housing stock, which is a crime. When the history of the past 30 years is written we will see exactly how much damage has been done through being careless in the pursuit of political dogma and doctrine driven by the right-to-buy legislation.

I do not quibble about people owning their own houses or councils selling their own houses but, after a period in which we have seen abuse after abuse, I applaud the Government for beginning to tackle the basic issue. One used to refer to the "council housing stock", in which there were millions of houses. That has been changed and we now have a publicly owned stock and housing associations have taken the place of councils. I have no argument about the mix but I certainly have an argument about the manner in which we have been taken for a ride.

I sense that the Minister and his colleagues will deal with the situation by providing more affordable housing through the use of planning and planning control—which is inevitable; we need to control what happens—and that they will use the Bill as an instrument for making life better for those people who, without a decent home, have a serious problem. So I welcome the adjustments to the existing planning legislation outlined in the Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, said that she was a "junkie" during her early days with local government. As a local government groupie, I consider that anyone who has served seriously on a local council is a friend of local councils and local government for life because you get to the heart of helping your fellow citizens. I can see that the legislation will be a goldmine for someone like me. Where do you start? What issues do you pick up? I may well return at a later stage to the issue of planning gain, which makes me hot under the collar.

The debate has demonstrated that the Minister will not lack helpful suggestions, nor will any interest group outside the House be able to complain that it has been denied consultation. A wealth of experience rests within the House. We listen most to people who we sense are speaking from their own experience. Noble Lords on the Front Benches opposite are good examples, as are all those who have spoken, of the experience that can be brought to the debate. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues are in the mood to recognise—especially given the arithmetic of the House—that this is a good opportunity to reflect on, and perhaps change, some of the policies within the Bill. I certainly give the Bill a warm welcome at Second Reading.

7.29 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, to use the phraseology of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I am probably also a local government groupie, although I have not practised for some 10 years. I should declare my interests. I am president of the National Housing Forum and a vice-president of the National Housing Federation.

The Government's planning Green Paper promised a clear and comprehensible planning system, capable of reaching decisions that command public confidence". Indeed, the Minister expanded on that in his opening remarks. From this afternoon's debate, it is clear that the majority of us would sign up to that proposition. And yet we have heard many reservations about this Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which should enable the Government to achieve many of the worthy aims that they set out in the Green Paper and elsewhere since its publication.

Many similar reservations have been expressed in the speeches this afternoon, all with different nuances, based on the experiences of the individual speakers. We heard of worries over centralisation and the removal of accountability. We heard doubts about whether the Government's claim of simplification was true. We heard concern about the lack of any real third-party right of appeal. There was concern about the role of the planning system, the meaning of sustainability, the role of planners, the role of design and the practices of planning inspectors. One issue that emerged above all this afternoon was concern about the changes in the role of county councils.

Some proposals received a welcome. Planning aid grants were mentioned a couple of times. Several noble Lords referred to the removal of Crown immunity. The removal of twin or multiple tracking—which is when people continue to put in applications while appeals are going on—was also welcomed.

We also heard concerns about whether we will get the balance right on certain issues. My noble friend Lord Greaves described very clearly the problems of balancing speed and quality when making planning decisions. We heard from several noble Lords about the problems of trying to involve large and small communities dealing with large and small developments within the planning system.

Many organisations, from those directly involved in planning to the many concerned with the environment in its widest sense, have shown interest in the Bill. I can tell from the speeches made this afternoon that we have all received a huge number of briefings and material, for which we are very grateful. Among the organisations which have lobbied us there is a general agreement that if we are to change the present planning framework, which has, on the whole, served us well for 50 years, as several noble Lords have said this afternoon, then the Bill should ensure a planning system that is stronger, more effective and more open than the one we have.

There was only one dissenting voice on whether the planning system had served us well, and I was not quite sure of the nuance. That was from the noble Lord, Lord Best. He raised the issue of Kate Barker and planning, which was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Planning may be one of the problems in the lack of affordable housing, but it is not the only one, and I do not think it is the only one to which Kate Barker referred. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Best, put us right on that when he said that the reduction in the number of subsidised houses has been the reason for the drop in the number of homes built.

As the Bill passes through this House, the discussion will of course focus on where Members believe the Government have got it wrong and where they think we can help to make the legislation better. Those are the areas on which I intend to concentrate, but I will talk a little about housing because that is the area I am responsible for on these Benches.

Overarching our scrutiny of the Bill is what has gone on before the Bill reached us. Originally, in another place, when the Bill started its passage last January, there were 90 clauses. I was told that 66 received some detailed scrutiny, although the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, thought that it was only 30. The Government obviously listened at that stage to concerns about the Bill, and they later recommitted it to a Standing Committee in the other place last October. However, it arrived with an extra 24 clauses, including the long-awaited and welcome measure to end Crown immunity. During the Commons Report and Third Reading stages last December, further new government clauses were introduced.

Among those was included a voluntary tariff scheme for developers, as an alternative to the present negotiated 106 agreements. There is a concern that, without comprehensive safeguards, that could give local authorities a perverse incentive to favour greenfield developments in order to maximise their income from tariffs. Other noble Lords were concerned about that issue, too. The National Housing Federation also believes that we need safeguards to ensure that this tariff will not cause the supply of affordable housing to decline. The federation believes that that could threaten delivery of the sustainable community plan, and I support the federation in that respect. That issue was raised by a couple of noble Lords, and I am sure that we shall return to it in more detail in Committee. I hope that the Minister will address those real concerns when he winds up.

Other overarching issues were raised, including the purpose of planning and the question surrounding what is sustainable development. In responding to criticisms that the purpose of planning was not adequately set out in the original Green Paper, the Government introduced the new duty in the Bill requiring that regional and local plans be established, with a view to contributing to the achievement of sustainable development". That is in Clause 38, which was also mentioned by other noble Lords.

Many of us welcome the measure, and particularly the establishment of sustainable development in the Bill. However, as we have heard, there is widespread concern that there is no definition surrounding the matter and that Clause 38 is not strong enough. It is also recognised that trying to define "sustainable" is not an easy task. Indeed, we change our views as life develops as to what "sustainable" means. Therefore, I have some sympathy with the arguments that the Government have used when explaining why they have not defined "sustainable". There are also questions about what has happened so far, because law in Britain relies on case law, which can create complications. However, as several of my colleagues have said, I strongly believe that the issue should be pursued in Committee. We need to improve the way in which it is included in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will indicate in his reply that he is willing to listen to suggestions to strengthen Clause 38.

As the debate today has shown, there is great concern about the role of county councils. That issue arose in almost every speech. In the setting up of regional planning bodies responsible for regional spatial strategies, county council structure plans will he abolished from the planning system. For us on these Benches, and for others in the Chamber, that will result in powers being removed from democratically elected county councils to bodies that are not democratically elected—some of which may never be.

Discussions on the issue have led the Government to claim that this is all about devolution. Members of this House will know that we on these Benches are in favour of devolution. However, I have always held the view that the Government's grasp of the philosophy and practice of devolution is a little weak. Devolution is about devolving power downwards, not about power going upwards—which is what the issue of the county councils involves. Interestingly, whether noble Lords are in favour of regional devolution, as we are on these Benches, or against it, more or less one and all feel that the Government have got it wrong. I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, on the issue. I hope that if the Minister does not listen to me, he will listen to the noble Lord.

Another issue is centralisation. Indeed, the regional planning bodies will be appointed by the Secretary of State, and their strategies will set out Government strategies. As others have said, that is a very centralising measure.

We have another concern about the Bill. We believe that it can be improved to make it clear that regional spatial strategy should set out an overarching spatial framework. My noble friend Lady Hamwee mentioned that earlier. We need this overarching strategy for all the other regional level strategies.

We are also concerned that there is an increase in the importance and influence of regional planning. That concern is perhaps not shared by everyone in the Chamber but we believe that it is important. However, it has to be matched with an increase in community participation. One of my main concerns is that, as I understand it, despite a good deal of rhetoric, the planning reform package in the Bill does not contain one new opportunity for public participation.

The Bill contains a statement of community involvement, which the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, mentioned in his speech this afternoon. It will be the key expression of a right to participate in the local plan making and the development control process. However, it is a procedural mechanism and has rather uncertain legal status. It remains very unclear what new opportunities for participation local authorities will be allowed to enshrine within it.

Third party rights have been dismissed in the Bill and the right to be heard at regional level has specifically been ruled out. These measures send entirely the wrong message at a time when we want the planning process to be more transparent and more legitimate in the eyes of the public—an aim which I believe the Government share.

Many other issues have been raised this afternoon. I am concerned that, although I believe the Government have good intentions, they are often a little muddled in their thinking. They started off wanting to replace outline planning permissions with statements of development principle; now they are going to have the two, I think. That is not the only issue of that nature in the Bill. The Government have a lot of intentions about trying to improve access for the disabled and what they might be able to do through the planning process. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, explained very clearly what needs to be done here. I hope the Government will grasp this issue; they have so far not done so.

I shall conclude on two other issues, the first of which is the link between housing provision and planning, which I touched on earlier. Clause 18 provides an opportunity to ensure that local housing and planning strategies join up. These strategies overlap each other. I hope that I can persuade the Government that local housing strategies should be included in the list of considerations to which local development plans must have regard. That would result in better planned housing that would better match the local economy and the social and environmental needs of localities.

The last issue that I shall raise, and will have to raise in much more detail in Committee, has been raised also by Friends of the Earth. It is probably the only truly new point that I am introducing this afternoon—the planning loophole for retail development. As the Minister will know, there was little discussion of this issue in another place. If you have a large supermarket and you want to build a mezzanine level inside your big hangar, you can do so without planning permission. It has come to the notice of several people that certain large supermarkets are putting in huge floors in some of their buildings, but there has been no opportunity for local people to have any say about how it will affect their community. Again, I hope that the Minister will have an open mind on this issue—and on many of the other issues that have been raised this afternoon in a good wide-ranging debate.

Many aspects of the Bill are to be welcomed. However, it is quite clear that much more scrutiny is needed to make the Bill clearer, simpler and more workable, so that we can have a planning system that local people feel they own. We want a planning system that will produce thriving and environmentally and economically sustainable communities which will be able to adapt. The world is always changing. Although it did not adapt perfectly, the planning system that we have had for the past 50 years did adapt. We need to ensure that we produce a planning Bill that will serve the country for at least the next 50 years.

7.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I do not want to be left out in the declaration of interests so perhaps I should also declare my interest not only as a member of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea but also as a member of its planning committee. Therefore, I am currently deeply involved in planning. I am sure that all noble Lords will be very aware that Kensington and Chelsea balances the pressure of development with conservation and takes its work with developers very seriously.

At the outset I acknowledge and agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said regarding the balance that needs to be preserved between speed and having good discussions with developers that lead to good results. During our discussion on the Bill we should not lose sight of the fact that sometimes a little less speed produces far better results at the end of the day. Bureaucratic administration does not always achieve the right results, but sometimes a little give and take along the way will do so.

It is evident from the debate that the Bill is far from trouble free. Even though it has been in the parliamentary system for just over a year little progress seems to have been made in pulling together some of the more controversial aspects and in dealing with the substantial new government clauses to which the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred, which were added just as the Bill left the other place.

As a result of that and perhaps as a result of the fact that the Bill was guillotined at an earlier stage, much of the Bill remains undiscussed, despite the timescale involved. As my noble friend Lord Marlesford pointed out, less than one-third was considered. I believe that is correct. Therefore, this House has a major responsibility to ensure that all the Bill's clauses receive detailed scrutiny. I do not think any of us would deny that this is a very important Bill.

The Opposition have many reservations regarding what is now included in the Bill, particularly, as my noble friend Lord Hanningfield mentioned in opening—many other noble Lords have referred to this, including my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew in a very graphic description—the democratic deficit that will result from many of the propositions within it. Despite the fact that regions do not have, and may never have, elected assemblies, the Government still intend to create regional planning bodies which, as we have heard throughout the discussion today, will be required mandatorily to incorporate the Secretary of State's regional guidelines in regional spatial strategies. As we have heard, as yet there is no particular membership and they could therefore I suppose potentially not include any elected members. I was somewhat comforted by the Minister's opening remarks in that regard. However, my noble friend Lady Cumberlege made a most profound speech in which she referred wisely to the lack of accountability that that proposal could bring about.

Even if they have elected representatives, it is inconceivable that the small number could represent even the most minute fraction of the population which the regions serve and which will be affected by any of the regional spatial strategies. The bodies will be so remote from local communities as to make it impossible for them to reflect sensitively their views. The process will not be helped either by the removal of the county councils. We have had much discussion on that this afternoon. It is interesting that, bar one or two speakers, everyone referred to that particular aspect as being something of very, very considerable concern—the fact that the county councils with their legitimate elected representatives will have their statutory role in the structural plan process removed leaving the district councils and their elected representatives beached at the far end of the development plan process.

One matter has not been raised that is rather parochial so far as I am concerned but I need to mention it at this stage. It is the conundrum caused by the situation in London, where the boroughs—individually elected unitary authorities—will be required to make the Mayor's spatial development strategy, the London plan, a formal part of each of their development plans. That is set out in Clause 37(2), and is despite the fact that the draft London plan is not in the format of a statutory development plan. It would have to be heavily amended in order to become one. It does not deal with strategic issues only. If the legislation continues unamended, the complexities of planning in London will be so time-consuming that they will defeat the main purpose of the Bill, which is ostensibly. as we have heard, to streamline and hasten the planning process. During the passage of the Bill, I shall seek to have that matter put right.

Concerns have also been expressed that recommendations made by inspectors on matters to do with any of a variety of local plans that will have to be referred to the Secretary of State for consideration should be binding. There is a plethora of local plans, and that measure could very well take away from locally elected councillors the right to decide what is appropriate for their area. We have heard some pretty pithy comments, if I might say so, on the various attributes of inspectors and their ability to come to correct decisions, so we may want to reflect on that as we go through the Bill.

We have also had concerns about the extensive powers of the Secretary of State to intervene at any stage of any of the multiple processes—and what processes they are. I do not want to go through the plethora of plans again, because they have all been detailed throughout the debate. There will be a spider's web of complexity, and all to replace the unitary development plans. They have their own problems—I admit that they perhaps took a long time to complete—but their single advantage was that they put everything between one set of covers. People know exactly where to find out what the development requirements of a local authority are. Everything is in the one place. With the plethora, developers will be looking all over the show to try to find out what they can and cannot do.

Then there is community involvement. At the moment, my council carries out an enormous amount of consultation. The unitary development plan went through various stages of community consultation. It took time but we ended up with a plan with which everyone was happy. It has been updated several times since. I am sure that every local authority is the same. The involvement of the community is important, but we need to be careful that the statements of community involvement do not simply become a byword for a tick-box. I understand that the Secretary of State will take plans for statutory community involvement unto his own to scrutinise. I do not think that he or his officials will have time to do any such thing.

This is a centralising Bill. It pays no heed to localism. It is designed to promote and implement the Deputy Prime Minister's plans for sustainable communities, and for local people to have little role in brooking any of those schemes.

I was a little taken aback this afternoon to read the Evening Standard. My noble friend Lord Marlesford raised the subject, and I do not want to lose track of it. The Evening Standard today tells us that the Deputy Prime Minister will take control of the redevelopment of Milton Keynes, and by doing so of the building of 70,000 houses between now and 2024. He will take over all planning powers, taking those away from the local community. We have the potential for more than a million houses to be built in this country over the next 20 years. If none of them will be supervised, overseen or have their plans developed by the local authorities, there will be not only mayhem, but enormous concern and disenchantment with the whole system. So, if the Minister is unable to refute the report in the Evening Standard— that is precisely what it says—I can only assume that, if correct, the Secretary of State is seeking to use it under major applications to inspectors. I hope that the Minister will reassure us.

As we speak, consultation is continuing on draft regulations and guidelines that will form the basis of the Bill's implementation. I believe that the regulations may have been published, but unfortunately no one has had the courtesy to pass them to us. The consultation on the proposals for changes to Section 106 has not finished and is continuing. We have had much discussion on those provisions, where the local authority can negotiate a sum of money on a site-specific basis for community benefit. In the planning Green Paper the Government proposed that Section 106 be superceded by a tariff system, as has already been mentioned. But it was so complicated that it was dropped almost as soon as it saw the light of day. Despite consultation still being in process—and we know that that consultation does not end for at least another week—there are already new clauses in the Bill to introduce an optional charge based on the estimate by each local authority of its cost or need, as outlined in its local development framework. The proposals are flawed and raise the sort of concerns that have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilkins and particularly Lady Howarth, on the effect that the proposals may have on statutory housing and the possibility of being able to deal with matters such as housing for the disabled.

There are flaws in Section 106, but one of its chief advantages is that the money can be used for the local authorities' priorities associated with development. There has probably been more affordable housing built with Section 106 money than with any money from the Housing Corporation. It is a very significant sum of money for affordable housing. I hope that Section 106 will not be lost sight of, even with the option charge as an alternative.

A new statement of development principles has also been mentioned. It is a short order route to dismemberment of outline planning permission. Those proposals also seem to have few friends, largely because they will simply be an indication of allowance for planning along the lines proposed, rather than a firm indication of approval, subject to further detailed design information. Other noble Lords will have had the same information and perhaps pressure from businesses and developers because they are extremely bothered that the change in the legislation would not be acceptable to bankers and lenders; and they would therefore be unable to proceed with, or put finance together for, a development even if they had a statement of development principles—unlike at present with outline planning permission, which is accepted as being the basis for permitting a development.

Two other measures included at a late stage have been mentioned: the removal of Crown immunity which, I believe, nearly everybody will welcome; and, the additional clauses to the compulsory purchase provisions, which are broadly acceptable, but may require further scrutiny. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, there are many other issues. Some have been raised today and the rest will come to the fore as we move into Committee. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I look forward to that opportunity to discuss and, we hope, to amend the legislation so that it can go forward as a good and powerful Bill.

7.59 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, before I begin my closing speech, I want to refer to what has been said by, among others, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about the sustainable communities plan and I want to put the Bill in context.

In February last year, the Deputy Prime Minister published the sustainable communities plan. I know that at that time I was not present in the House full time but, so far as I could see, this House showed not the slightest interest in the matter. There have been no debates on it and no Parliamentary Questions have been asked. However, the plan is not the size of a telephone directory; it is easily available and it is free. Therefore, if anyone wants to see the strategic plan to which the Deputy Prime Minister's department is operating and by which it is implementing the £22 billion programme, they can do so. The plan is not set out in detail but the document contains information about growth, sustainable communities, good design, better densities, protection of the countryside. the renewal of the areas in the north which have suffered a collapse in the housing market and, of course, the four major growth areas in the south-east.

By and large, outside there has not been a great deal of interest in the way in which the programme is being implemented, but being implemented it is. A further Statement was made in July in respect of the Thames Gateway and about some other issues regarding the south-east, including the hundreds of millions of pounds of expenditure which we allocated to the area. A further Statement is due next month—one year on—relating to parts of the north, the Midlands and aspects of the south.

Therefore, there should be no surprises in what we published yesterday in order to consult on the delivery vehicle for one part of one growth area—namely, the city of Milton Keynes. The measure relating to one of the UDCs in the Thames Gateway has already gone through and a second one is due. Different parts of the growth areas will have different delivery vehicles. Some, of which Ashford is an example, are wholly local-authority based. That is one of the four growth areas. Other areas—for example, the Milton Keynes/south Midlands area, which is a large region covering Corby to Bedford and Luton to Aylesbury—may have three or four different types of delivery vehicle. Some growth areas will be local-authority led and some will have statutory UDC-type arrangements. In one case, an urban regeneration company is already involved.

Therefore, there are no surprises relating to this matter. For a long time, we have been upfront about the different delivery mechanisms. Yesterday, we simply published a consultation paper on the delivery mechanism for the city of Milton Keynes. It does not cover the whole area because obviously we are not treating it as one area. It involves planning powers and it involves borrowing some, but not all, planning powers from the local authority for the large strategic sites. When the planning permissions are given, they will be passed back. The normal planning rules will operate. The consultation paper relates to only one part of one growth area. We are talking about 1.1 million dwellings in the wider south-east over the next 20 years, and probably three or four UDC statutory requirements will be needed to set them up. This is a very small percentage of the totality. Therefore, to say that the Deputy Prime Minister will control more than 1 million houses that will be built is over-egging the pudding.

I repeat: there are no surprises in the proposals. I draw the House's attention to the sustainable communities plan, which was published upfront with details of the way in which we intend to develop it. Therefore, we are operating the big picture. Not many people outside take an interest in the issue, other than those in the affected locality. Some journalists take an interest because they are watching what we do—and quite right too. But we are working to a plan. It operates differently in different parts of the country because in the market collapse—the pathfinder areas of the Midlands and the north—the issues are different. Nevertheless, huge amounts of money are available in order to bring in private sector development. That is the point that I want to make.

One area that we have discussed with our colleagues in local government is sustainable development and growth management. Without growth management, we shall get urban sprawl, despoliation of the countryside will occur and the cities will be uninhabitable. However, most of the investment in these areas will come from the private sector and not from the Government. Huge sums of money are involved. Part of the private sector investment will involve single bodies where decisions can be made. As I said, normal planning rules apply and normal consultation will take place, but with a different specified delivery vehicle in certain growth areas. That was why in the Milton Keynes area we agreed under the legislation an English Partnerships-led approach and not a UDC one. In that, the local authority has three out of a total of 10 places and the local partnership has three of the other places, so the health service and probably the police will be involved. The private sector will also be advertising for a couple of the other places.

So it will be a tightly knit body for executive action that is overseen by an overall board looking at the subregion, with some 30 bodies represented on it, including the other local authorities. Therefore, there is no attempt whatever to snuff out local government in how we shall operate when developing the Sustainable Communities Plan. I say that upfront because it puts some of this in context. There is no secret about it. There will be other announcements in the foreseeable future about other delivery vehicles, some of which are even quicker than I might think. But they are all part of a plan. They are not hit and miss. They are all part of fitting in the building blocks in delivering the Sustainable Communities Plan.

I turn to the debate that we have just had. I must tell the House that from time to time I have to inform my colleagues in the other place that this House does not vote on Second Readings. Therefore, it is not always easy to test the water. However, when I return to the department I shall say that the Bill received a drubbing. I think that that is a fair assessment of the situation. That being so, I would normally try to go—and I know that giving a wind-up speech is old fashioned—through individual Members' speeches. That would be tedious tonight simply because, except for three speeches, every noble Lord made the same point.

I have a short list of issues that could have been raised for use in my wind up speech. One heading is "Democratic Deficit". I have written down the names of all the speakers except for the three noble Lords who did not refer to the county council issue. So, by and large, I make the point that I do not have to refer to everyone's speech: I have got the message.

I indicated something along these lines when I opened the debate and said that we hope to find a solution to this issue. It has been niggling us since we started and since we took over the proposals. Therefore, having got that off my chest and to show that I have been listening, I shall try to touch on some of the more specialist issues raised, about which I have a note and can give an answer. I hope that that will be useful. Therefore, I shall not, with apologies, refer to every noble Lord who has spoken.

Although I shall make a positive point on the issue of enforcement raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, it was very interesting when he said, "They waited for the right inspector to come along before they allowed the decision to go into the system". I suppose that that is not the first time that has happened. They probably do the same in the courts and wait for the judges. I do not know. I wrote down, "rigged decision".

I leave aside the fact that the issue of enforcement seemed to be that we need to build more prisons—I thought the consensus was to have fewer people in prison. The enforcement issue is being reviewed. It is a very serious issue. I know from my previous experience as a Member of Parliament that enforcement is very frustrating when things go wrong. One is virtually powerless to do anything about it. The council officers would stand outside a couple of houses where one had been built over the eaves of another because they had gone over the boundary. They would ask, "Well, what are you going to do?" One would say, "We cannot do anything. It is all too late." Nothing happens. The frustration is unbelievable among citizens when that happens, especially when they have been consulted. So enforcement is being reviewed, as was indicated in the other place. We do take the issue extremely seriously.

On the issues relating to disability, I have a note which I hope will meet the points made both by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and my noble friend Lady Wilkins. I certainly take the point about how Section 106 might operate. The closing date for consultation is 8 January, which is two days away. It shows what a sad person I am, but I have read the whole consultation document word for word to understand the differences between Section 106 and the alternative for the charging mechanism. It is a compromise between what was originally planned and what the then Bill contained to see whether we could find a twin-track approach.

On disability, I shall share with the House that the top of my page says, "Disability (Possible concession)". I am not supposed to read that out. It also says: Disappointed with the tone taken", but I do not want us to fall out tonight. My colleague in another place, Yvette Cooper, has had a number of meetings with, among others, the Disability Rights Commission to discuss the Bill and the coverage of access issues in PPSI. Those discussions are ongoing, although I do not think that anyone mentioned that.

We want the new system to ensure that local authorities promote an inclusive environment and give full consideration to the needs of those with disabilities throughout the planning system—and as early as possible in the process, before things are built. Obviously, it is much more cost-effective to do it that way.

There are issues concerning linking in the Bill, especially between Clause 38 and PPSI, to ensure that access is an issue in the development plan in the first place. The wider community and people with disabilities will have an early opportunity to influence the content of regional spatial strategies and local development documents, and therefore the development plan. That is backed up by Clause 107, which concerns planning aid. So that provides an avenue. That will enable planning aid to become much more proactive.

So issues of access and inclusion must be addressed in the plan. Local authorities must consult with the community so that the community can influence what is in the plan. They will be helped to get involved in the planning process with expert advice. We made some of those points clear in Committee in the other place.

Clause 42 introduces new powers to make an order. The powers are intended to introduce a standard application form for all local planning authorities. We want an access statement—something that demonstrates how the project will meet certain provisions of legislation and related codes to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are addressed—to be one of the documents to accompany the form in appropriate cases. That would mean that access would have to be considered—and to be shown to be considered—at the start of the application process. At present, officials in my department are working on the detail of how this might operate with the Disability Rights Commission, so I hope that in Committee we will be able to report in a little more detail on that matter.

Perhaps I may just knock the point about third party rights of appeal, which several noble Lords mentioned. I declare an interest: until 13 June last year I was the planning Minister, so I take some responsibility for the Bill, but until I became planning Minister, I was always in favour of third party rights of appeal. I have made that clear in the department: as a Member of the other House, I was definitely in favour of third party rights of appeal.

I have been influenced by argument and discussion—sometimes robust—in the department about the issue. I have changed my mind and can justify that. I shall not do that in great detail now, but I shall certainly be required to do so in Committee. One noble Lord asked today for a right of appeal for parties who seemed to me to be not third but involved parties. However, a right of appeal for third parties would indeed slow down the system and would be inconsistent with our democratically accountable system of planning.

Whatever the arguments about democracy, local district planning authorities are democratically elected. They make the initial decision. No one is arguing that there is no democracy in the system—well, I hope they are not. I know that there may be an argument about the counties and regions, but the planning authority that will make the decision is composed of elected councillors. So it would go against the grain if we allowed third party rights. There is a responsibility on local planning authorities to act in the public interest.

I have no doubt that we shall return to the issue. As I said, I had a lot of sympathy for third party rights of appeal—born out of my casework, I freely admit; there is nothing more to it than that—but we have not found a way to provide them, although we have looked for one. We tried to find a way for third party rights of appeal that were tightly limited in scope, but every time a draft was presented, we were warned by the lawyers and parliamentary counsel that if we went down that road, the chances are that we could snuff out any and every development. That is the risk; I shall raise that issue and another matter when I turn to Clause 38 and what my noble friend Lord Rogers said.

I must also make a point about Lewes. The noble Baroness criticised the Deputy Prime Minister for not knowing where it is and thinking it was in the north. I have visited Lewes recently. I attended one of the last meetings in the council chamber of Lewes, which I think has been moved from one place to another. I was pleased to sign the Government's partnership arrangement with Lewes council and its wider partners for the delivery of services there. It was an enjoyable occasion. It was very positive from the point of view of the council and all its partners, including the police and the health authority, who have worked extremely hard on it. Of 105 partnership agreements, it is the only one that I have gone personally to sign. I went out of my way to go to Lewes, because I thought it was worth while going there. I hope that I have underlined that I am treating Lewes extremely seriously.

Along with many noble Lords, I was most taken by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rogers. He pointed out at the beginning of it that the city is the only mechanism for creating a sustainable form of living. Cities do not mean merely buildings lumped together, as he made clear. They also mean quality of life. He also pointed out that the density of build in this country is much too low to create sustainable development. It is probably the lowest building density in Europe. We do build at incredibly low densities.

We have attempted to involve the commission for the built environment in many of our projects. We have given it considerably more money and a new remit, which we expect the commission to use to beef up the design and quality of many developments across the country. I refer not merely to growth areas, but to some of the housing renewal pathfinders where we are trying to rebuild communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogers, raised an issue relating to outline planning permission. A Written Statement was made on 15 December in another place. I regret that I cannot remember if it was repeated in this House. It stated that Ministers are willing to consider the retention of outline planning permission, if it provided the opportunity for greater community involvement and a level of information which will enable local authorities to assess all the significant environmental impacts. To achieve that, developers would need to provide more information than is often the case at present… At the very least this would need to cover the key design principles, the density, the mix and distribution of uses, accessibility and the timescale for the development. I shall therefore be seeking the views of the development industry and local government before deciding whether to retain outline planning permission".—[Official Report, Commons. 15/12/03; co1.119–20WS] We have been listening on that matter as the Bill has proceeded.

I turn to Clause 38, to which I briefly referred in my opening speech. Many Members referred to it. In Committee in another place, there was some acceptance of the argument that sustainable development is an evolving concept. I do not think that anybody would deny that. It was better defined in the guidance in PPS1. Most of the definitions that I have seen would be fine in guidance, but uncertain in legislation. At an early stage of the drafting of the Bill, before it was published in another place, there was an argument about including the clause in the Bill. We were faced with a choice of including words that mean nothing or providing a tighter definition. Our legal advice on the latter was that we could stifle developments around the country. It is a very fine line. We therefore chose the approach that is set out in the clause. We have not found an appropriate form of words. As this House scrutinises the Bill, as it is entitled to do and as we desire it to do, we might find a form of words for Clause 38 that will meet the requirements both of the Government and of the sustainable communities plan, while not meeting with adverse comment from the lawyers. The wording is an incredibly difficult issue. I speak as a non-lawyer. The warning was given. We did ask at one point if it was worth bothering with the clause. There would have been an almighty row if we had taken out the clause and the concept and we would have had to provide reasons for it. It would be very difficult to do that. It is much easier to come forward now with a proposal that, although workable, does not meet everyone's desires, and explain why we have done it in that way, as I will do in detail in Committee.

The forthcoming draft of PPS1 will, in the next month, set out the following four objectives: sustainable development and economic development; social inclusion; protection of the environment; and prudent use of resources. Local planning authorities should seek, not to cherry-pick, but to develop outcomes that deliver across all four objectives.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is the one noble Lord entitled to mention Stansted above all else, but air travel is essential to the economy. We cannot simply add to capacity regardless of environmental costs; it would be stupid and very damaging to try to do that. The Government have therefore endorsed a balanced approach that recognises the importance of aviation to the national and regional economies. The approach seeks to reduce and minimise the impact of airports on those who live nearby and on the natural environment and would ensure that, over time, aviation pays its external costs.

It is unfair to single out speeches, but I found that of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, the most helpful. He is not on my list of those who drubbed the issue, as he did not mention it. His speech was informative and highly practical in explaining what is wrong with the housing market in this country, which in some ways forces us in the wrong direction. That was extremely helpful. Like other noble Lords, he mentioned the interim review published by the Chancellor and provided to him by Kate Barker. We will have more from that when the Budget is announced.

I shall not refer in detail to what the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said. I shall ensure that his point about retired people is looked into and shall write to him.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, raised the issue of mezzanine floors. We take the issue very seriously. We have tried to operate PPG6 on out-of-town shopping centres, for example, exactly as John Gummer left it after the change of policy in 1996. We have not changed it, but we have considered renewing the statement of clarification that we issued towards the end of last year. We have operated the policy that the previous Conservative government introduced—to their great credit.

The snag is that, due to five-year limits on planning permission, many developers got planning permission for out-of-town centres but the bite came on them only in the past couple of years. Developers were coming along with new permission and claiming that the Government had changed the policy. We had not; we were trying—quite ruthlessly, if you like—to rebuild our city centres, with mixed communities of people living and working there. People are now seeking to get round the restriction by building mezzanine floors. Work is under way to examine the scale of the problem. I cannot say whether it is a matter for the Bill or other legislation, but we take it extremely seriously.

My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton tells me that the biggest farmer in the country—the Co-op—is worried about the democratic issue of the countryside. I am well aware that the Co-op is the largest farmer in the country. I suppose that that means it gets more subsidies than anyone else—it must be the case. I shall ask my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister responsible for the Bill, Keith Hill, to read the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, word for word and then to understand why I shall nominate him as a candidate for the diplomatic corps. He gave the most sophisticated drubbing of the Bill without once uttering a word of criticism.

I have made a very inadequate winding-up speech. There is loads more to say, but I have gone well over the time that I had set myself. I have got the message; we are listening. As I indicated, there are areas on which we will provide proof that we have been listening, but it is just not possible to flag everything up at Second Reading. Woe betide me if I am not ready for Committee stage.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.