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Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): The Government do not dismiss the fact that some parts of the country will clearly not have elected regional assemblies. Clearly, my own area will not a have regional assembly. Does my hon. Friend agree that county councils provide an important input into planning in those areas? What he proposes would be very much supported throughout the shire counties of Englandareas such as my own.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My right hon. Friend is exactly right. We tried very hard in Committee to persuade the Government to give county councils a statutory role in the regional plan-making process. Although we won the argument, we failed because the Government used their huge majority. Members of another place will wish to return to this subject. At this stage, however, I am dealing with the local plan-making procedure, and it is absolutely right that county councils have a statutory and proper role in that process.
My new clause deals with clause 14, which provides that documents should be submitted to the Secretary of State for independent inspection. Both my new clause, however, which is modelled on the Bill, and the Bill itself provide that other documents are to be submitted to the Secretary of State. The Law Society and others have concerns about that provision, because they feel that if other arbitrary documents are submitted, confusion may arise about what are legal documents and what are not. I would therefore prefer the new clause to be drawn with just the plan and the documents, and no other documents, to be submitted.
My proposed new subsection (6) allows the local planning authority to withdraw its documents at any time up to submission to the Secretary of State. The Bill allows those documents to be withdrawn at any time up to adoption. In other words, they can go through all the independent examination, and consultation with neighbouring authorities, regional planning bodies and so on, and then suddenly, a few days prior to adoption, be withdrawn. What a waste of time and money.
In my proposed new subsection (8), the Secretary of State must give reasons for directing a local authority to make amendments to its plan. Again, if a local planning authority has gone through all its committee structures, has carried out its community involvement, has consulted the regional planning body and neighbouring authorities, as required under my new clause and the Bill, and the Secretary of State comes along and directs it to change the plan, surely it is only reasonable and fair that he must give his reasons for doing so. The Bill does not provide for that.
My proposed new subsection (16) provides that all or part of the plan and documents are to be subject to an independent examination. That gives much greater flexibility than the Bill, which requires all documents to be subject to an independent examination. I envisage that under my system, the plan, which sets out the overall strategy for the area, might remain in place for 10 years. The analogy in relation to my system is that the
My proposed new subsection (17) provides that in an independent hearing certain repetitive evidence need not be considered by the inspector. We all know of cases in which action groupssuddenly formed, not particularly well organised and with one typewritten statementfile into an independent hearing one by one and read out exactly the same statement. Surely the inspector must have powers to disregard such repetitive evidence, or a great deal of time could be wasted under clause 19(6), which provides that everybody must be heard orally. The Minister must consider that, if nothing else in my new clause.
Mr. Gummer: Does not my hon. Friend agree that for a very long time inspectors have requested, when they are going over such repetitive ground, that they should be able to say, "We have heard about that, we know about it, and we can now move on." Is it not a great pity that the Government have not taken their advice?
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I imagine that my right hon. Friend, who is a former Secretary of State for the Environment and has huge experience in these matters, will have come across this problem time and again. He makes a timely and potent intervention, and I hope that the Minister will consider such an amendment even if he does not consider anything else.
David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I have some sympathy with the point that has just been made about saving time in inquiries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that it is important that if 100 people, for example, submit the same piece of evidence, those 100 people are counted as objectors or supporters of a proposal? If we are not careful, the system that he proposes could be used to lower the number of objections, and in some cases stop an inquiry being triggered.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I would have no objectionin fact, I would find it desirableif when the independent inspector makes his report he were to say, "And 150 residents of Little Acacia on the Green objected to this proposal with the same evidence. Although I took evidence from Mrs. Black, I had similar evidence from another 149 residents." That would be perfectly reasonable, and I do not seek to stop it in any way whatever. We need some form of power, however, to stop repetitive evidence. After all, in this House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would soon rule me out of order if
My new clause provides for strict times within which various events should happen. Again, the Secretary of State reserves powers to do that by regulations in the Bill. Those are arbitrary, however, and can be revised at any time. It is vital that timetables, or at least the main timetables, are laid down in statute. Otherwise, the new system will fall into exactly the same failure as the present system. The problem with the present one is that nobody forces local authorities to draw up their plans and to revise them within a certain timetable. Unless that is rigorously upheld, with the complexity of the new system, we will hear every excuse under the sun as to why the new plans are not to be revised. My new clause therefore provides that within five years the plan and the documents must be revised. On reflection, the plan must be looked at but it does not have to be revisedsome documents, however, must be revised within the five-year period.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I very much agree with my hon. Friend on the need to introduce sensible timetables for provision and revision of development plansI prefer to call them development plans rather than documents or schemes as he has done in his amendments. Good precedent for that, whether or not the system works properly, is provided by the fact that a local planning authority is required to give a determination of a planning application within eight weeks; otherwise, the applicant has the right to appeal.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend, who has huge experience in these mattershe referred yesterday to his entry in the Register of Members' Interests and to his previous postsis absolutely right. A strict timetable should be in place, particularly for revisions of plans, or at least of documentsperhaps the plan should be looked at to determine whether it is still current, but the documents must be revised.
The timetable should then provide that when the plans have been submitted to the Secretary of State for independent inspection, the independent inspector has three months to carry out his work. Again, unless the independent inspector has a strict timetable, things will just drift and not get done. There must be a proper impetus for him to provide his report within three months unless the Secretary of State directs otherwise. The local authority must then publish the results within one monthhaving received his report, which may in some cases be quite lengthy, there is no reason why it should not do so. When the Secretary of State confirms the plan or modifies it, there is no reason why it should not be brought into effect within six months.
I am not saying that those timetables are absolutely right, but some form of timetable along the lines that I have suggested must make eminent sense. Again, I hope that the Minister will consider whether those timetables can be included in the Bill rather than being determined by regulations, which are arbitrary and can be revised at any time.
New clause 10 represents a simpler approach. It considers the plan-making process as one entity to allow local planning authorities, businesses and individuals to be much clearer about how the system works and make them more likely to become involved in the process. If it is to be as complicated as the Bill prescribes, people will feel alienated from the planning process and will not have a clue about it. Few people get involved in the planning process even now. They become frightfully surprised when a planning application for several houses next door comes along and a local authority says, "We can't refuse that because it was in the plan that we made four years ago," although the residents had no idea about the plan. That is an unsatisfactory way in which to proceed, so I hope that the new process will at the very least encourage more people to participate in the community element of the plan-making process.
The already overly complicated plan-making process has been made even more complex by yesterday's proceedings, so I fear that it will drown under such complexity. If that happens, the Bill will utterly fail to achieve the Government's stated aim of promoting speed, transparency, community development and a user-friendly process, with the net result that economic growth and sustainability will suffer.
The Government will probably reject new clause 10 today, but I hope that those in another place will appreciate that having one holistic wholea dreadful phrasefor the local plan-making process, set out in a relatively simple new clause, would be far better than the provisions in the Government's eight equivalent clauses.