Thursday, 18 December 2014
Running out of time
One of the problems with having a fixed-term parliament is that the final stages of the parliamentary term risk degenerating into a fag-end of miscellaneous business, while ministers increasingly focus their attentions on the forthcoming election campaign. Commentators have already noted that the current parliamentary session contains a significantly reduced number of Bills compared with an average session but, despite this, time is rapidly running out in which to clear up remaining legislative proposals that the government would like to bring into force before the election. There certainly isn’t time now to introduce any new Bills, and so it is just a question of taking pending Bills through their remaining stages, and laying statutory instruments in parliament to deal with the various subordinate legislation that the government has announced its intention of making.
In the meantime, ministers seem to be resorting to the rather pointless exercise of putting down resolutions to record their future intent in the event that they were to be re-elected, in a vain attempt to commit a future government to a certain course of action, or simply to try to ‘wrong foot’ the opposition on particular issues.
The House of Commons rises for the Christmas recess today and will return on Monday 5 January. The Lords rose yesterday and will return on 6 January. There will then be a ‘half-term’ recess for both houses from 12 to 23 February, and Parliament will be dissolved on Monday 30 March 2015. This may be preceded by prorogation, marking the formal end of the parliamentary session, although the House of Commons may decide that it will not prorogue prior to dissolution. In any event there is now precious little parliamentary time left in which to complete unfinished business – barely 5 weeks in January/February, and then another 5 weeks to the end of March – 10 weeks in all for Bills to complete their remaining stages and obtain Royal Assent.
One piece of legislation that is of interest to planners (and to property owners in Greater London) is the Deregulation Bill. It contains a clause (currently Clause 33) which will come into immediate effect upon Royal Assent, and will give the Secretary of State power to make a statutory instrument relaxing, to some (as yet unspecified) extent, section 25(3) of the Greater London (General Powers) Act 1973, so as to allow some types of short-term lettings in Greater London that are currently prohibited by that sub-section of the 1973 Act. If the government wants to give effect to this change before the General Election, they will need to be drafting the necessary statutory instrument now, so that it can be laid before parliament without delay after the relevant section of what will then be the Deregulation Act 2015 comes into force.
In order to give sufficient time for parliamentary scrutiny of the SI (admittedly theoretical rather than actual, as an SI of this sort is never actually debated), it should be laid before both houses no later than mid-February, bearing in mind the impending dissolution at the end of March. But the Bill is still going through its committee stage in the Lords, and it must be a moot point as to whether it can complete its remaining stages in time to gain Royal Assent before the half-term break which starts on 12 February.
This is not the only problem now facing the government as the sands of time run out. The same timetabling considerations would apply to other subordinate legislation that the government has announced its intention to introduce. The Chancellor of the Exchequer uncharacteristically resisted the temptation to re-announce these proposals in his Autumn Statement earlier this month, but there is no reason to believe that the government has abandoned their intention to make further planning changes by fresh amendments to the General Permitted Development and to the Use Classes Order. On the other hand, the proposal to consolidate the GPDO, the UCO and also the Development Management Procedure Order may have to await the attention of the next government.
We have been promised a further amendment to Part 3 of the Second Schedule to the GPDO to permit the change of use of light industrial units (B1(c)), warehouses and storage units (B8) and some sui generis uses (launderettes, amusement arcades/centres, casinos and nightclubs) to residential use (C3), and changes of certain sui generis uses to restaurants (C3) and leisure uses (D2), plus the change of use to a widened retail (A1) class from betting shops and pay day loan shops (A2), restaurants and cafés (A3), drinking establishments (A4), and hot food takeaways (A5).
On the other hand, the intention to make permanent those permitted development rights which currently expire in May 2016 could be postponed for the time being. If the present government were to find themselves still in power after May 7 (which does seem a little improbable) there would be plenty of time before 30 May 2016 for them to make these further changes.
The right to make alterations to commercial premises so as to facilitate commercial filming, the installation of larger solar panels on commercial buildings, minor alterations within waste management facilities and for sewerage undertakers, and further extensions (in addition to those already allowed) to houses and business premises may or may not feature in the expected subordinate legislation in the New Year, and the same may apply to the proposed changes to Classes A1 and A2 of the Use Classes Order, which may involve the merger of these two use classes in a single new ‘town centre’ use class, so as to create a much more flexible range of uses in our High Streets, while at the same time restricting the scope of what is currently Class A2, so that betting offices and pay-day loan shops (both currently falling within this Use Class) will become sui generis uses.
I confess that I am a little hazy when it comes to the finer details of the negative resolution procedure, but I believe that a 40-day period has to be allowed for this purpose in most cases, even though such statutory instruments come into effect more or less automatically, without ever having been discussed or debated. If that is right, then Uncle Eric would need to lay these further statutory instruments before parliament between 6 January and 12 February in order to be sure that they can take effect before the General Election.
So we shall just have to watch and wait, to see whether the expected subordinate legislation does come forward in the coming weeks. If not, then it will depend on the policies of the ministers who are in office after the General Election as to whether these and the other planning changes that the present government has proposed will ever be brought forward.
© MARTIN H GOODALL