Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Planning legislation: what a carve-up!

Even with a Conservative government clearly determined to be more Thatcherite than Thatcher, setting up a market in processing planning applications seems a fantasy aspiration. Yet that is just what ministers aimed at as an amendment (Hansard, column 241) to the Housing and Planning Bill towards midnight last night. As Roberta Blackman-Woods said on behalf of the official opposition:

[It is a travesty that there can be no real scrutiny of] new clauses 43 to 45, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has said amount to a privatisation of the planning process. That is what we think they will do. They will require local authorities to contract out at least some of the processing of their planning applications in order to give developers some ability to choose who processes their planning application. I cannot believe that the Government are serious about this. I know that they tend to carry out pilots, but they must realise that the potential for this mechanism to generate a degree of corruption and totally inappropriate conflicts of interest is probably endless. These new clauses need to be subjected to a degree of scrutiny that will not be possible this evening. It has not been possible for the planning agencies that will be affected by the changes to have a say or to have any input into the process. That is quite frankly disgraceful, because these will be huge changes to the planning system.

We in Wales can be thankful that the Bill is practically restricted to England alone. However, the manner of conducting the report stage of the Bill is symptomatic of the Cameron government's attitude. A large batch of amendments was tabled during the Christmas holiday for discussion in the night and early morning following contentious Statements. Admittedly, when the report stage was originally scheduled, it could not be anticipated that the Saudi Arabian situation and flood damage in the north of England would be so severe that the Speaker would have to permit debate on each, but it was open to the government's business manager to adjust the programme for the Bill to allow more debate at a more sensible time.

A neighbourhood right of appeal

Many of us have complained for a long time about the asymmetric nature of the planning appeals system. Applicants may appeal, and carry on appealing, against refusals of planning permission up to the highest level that their funds for legal services can support. Once granted, it is virtually impossible to overturn a planning permission unless the relevant minister calls it in. In an attempt to return some power to communities, Nick Herbert, the Conservative member for Arundel and South Downs, proposed new clause 48 which would give communities or defined people in a community, such as a parish council, the ability to mount appeals against speculative planning applications that are granted if they run contrary to a neighbourhood plan or an emerging neighbourhood plan that is very close to being completed. Even this clearly sensible, minimal. change was rejected by the government.

The Cameron administration is clearly set on eradicating all the localism which was introduced in the previous parliament. It was at least good to hear from a Labour speaker last night an acknowledgement of how much the coalition had achieved in this area.

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