Friday, 10 June 2011

Localism Bill - Lords 2nd reading

As you are probably aware by now, the Second Reading debate on the Localism Bill was held in the House of Lords on Tuesday of this week. It would be impossible to summarise the debate here, but there are a few points which are worth noting.

An encouraging feature of the debate was the number of speeches which focused on Part 5 of the Bill, dealing with planning. It appears that this part of the Bill is likely to receive rather closer attention than it received in the Commons. It certainly needs it.

The Bill is, of course, far too long and should have been presented as two or even three separate Bills. As Lord Beecham pointed out, this Bill (in its most recently amended form) sprawls over 510 pages, with 215 clauses and 25 schedules. Together with 111 pages of Explanatory Notes, it weighs two pounds, 13 ounces, to which must be added impact assessments weighing all of eight pounds, 11 ounces. As Churchill might have said, "Some impact, some assessment". No wonder, he observed drily, the Government have had second thoughts about their plans for forestry.

Baroness Andrews was the first of several peers to express concern at the loss of the strategic component in town and country planning. There are few more contentious issues than housing supply. Whatever the complaints about the regional spatial strategies, they had some merits: they were evidence-based, independent and offered a coherent way of looking at where housing was needed and could be provided according to land resource. The regional spatial strategy also provided a mediating process for local authorities; now local authorities are on their own and face unforgiving housing pressures.

Baroness Young pursued this theme later in the debate, noting that that there are areas of planning decision-making that are not best made at local level. Under this Bill, we are seeing the demise of regional planning and spatial strategies, but there needs to be an ability to plan at a scale above local. That is important for two reasons. There are some activities subject to the planning system where the decisions can only be made at the scale above the local scale, like waste management, flood risk management, the management of river basins and some of the biodiversity issues that are about international considerations. Many of these cannot simply be resolved on the spatial scale that is often offered at a local level. There are also some decisions that are simply too difficult to make at a local level. Waste management is a prime example. The same applies to difficult decisions between important wildlife sites and economic regeneration that will create jobs. For local people, it is very difficult to take wise decisions about longer-term interests and intangible values that increase our sustainability and quality of life, like biodiversity, when it may mean that you are actually voting against a job for local people.

Lord Marlesford drew attention to the proposed replacement of a large body of ministerial policy advice by a single National Planning Policy Framework. Planning policy, he noted, has been nourished by decades of casework and experience. It is neither possible nor desirable to seek to oversimplify the planning system. The core of the system has been the evolution of the series of policy planning guidance notes - PPGs, as they were known. Most of them have now been redrafted as planning policy statements. The PPG and PPS system is excellent and full of experience and expertise. He had the gravest doubts about the wisdom of replacing it with an overarching new planning policy framework that could, in its attempt at simplification, send a whole generation of babies down the plughole.

In her speech later in the debate, Baroness Young took up this point, when she said: “The third issue I want to make a plea for is not in the Bill, but is integral to all the provisions that are - the whole question of planning guidance. I very much support the words of Lord Marlesford in this. We are waiting for the emerging national planning policy framework and I hope a draft will be available for us to look at soon. It will replace a wealth of wisdom and expertise that currently resides within the planning policy statements. If it removes that wealth of wisdom and expertise, which has been honed to be fit for purpose and useful over the past 20 years, and replaces it with something rather less adequate, that will be a backward step.”

Viscount Simon was concerned that, in a move signalled in the March Budget Statement, which described the planning system as a chronic obstacle to growth, the Bill has been amended to give short-term, economic interests undue weight in the planning process. This is instead of ensuring that the planning system makes decisions that are in the public interest and places equal importance on economic, social and environmental considerations, as it has since the 1947 Act. The Government have picked on the wrong target. The planning system might have its faults, it might sometimes be opaque and slow, but it is wrong to present it as an obstacle to growth. For instance, high house prices and low house building rates are not due to obstacles in the planning system but are largely a consequence of restricted credit availability.

Several peers joined in expressing deep uneasiness about the new clause (now Clause 124) which introduces financial incentives into the planning system, which are to be taken into account as a material consideration in the determination of planning applications under Section 70 of the 1990 Act

Lord McKenzie complained that the changes to the planning system that the Bill encompasses are a major untested upheaval, made worse by the blundering approach of the Secretary of State, who had to be restrained by the courts but not before creating confusion and chaos for the local planning authorities, developers and communities alike. The demise of regional spatial strategies and pronouncements to ignore housing allocations have, according to the National Housing Federation, already caused dramatic reductions of some 200,000 housing units being planned for in local development plans. The abolition of regional spatial strategies will leave England as the only country in Europe without a regional planning framework, with the duty to co-operate as an inadequate substitute.

This is a very inadequate selection from a debate which was notable for many excellent speeches. It gives me grounds for hoping that, as it moves on to its Committee Stage in the Lords, the Bill (and in particular Part 5) will at last be given the scrutiny which the Commons so signally failed to give to its planning provisions.

The Law Society has produced a very helpful briefing on the planning provisions in the Bill, and I will refer to some of the points they make in a future post.


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