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Lords amendments Nos. 4 and 5 disagreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 21.
Keith Hill: The Government have been clear from the outset that one of the key elements of our planning reforms is for the recommendations of the independent inspector, following an independent examination, to be the final stage in the preparation of a development plan document. The amendments intend to retain the status quo, which is unacceptable for the following reasons.
Taken together, amendments Nos. 21, 22 and 23 would remove the important innovation of binding inspectors' reports on development plan documents at the local level. At the same time, amendment No. 21 would also muddle up the provisions for adopting local development documents that are not development plan documents, and which are known as supplementary planning documents. The amendment would result in local authorities having to take account of the inspectors' recommendations on a supplementary planning document even though there is no independent examination of those documents.
Binding reports form a crucial foundation in the proposed local planning system, and a number of key features support that function. First, there is the concept of front loading. That means that the local planning authority will reach decisions on key matters early in the plan making process. The local planning authority will start by identifying and taking the community's views and interested parties' ideas on all the potential options, and then deciding what it thinks is best for its area.
In some cases the existing process has led to the late introduction of elements in local plans, characteristically the late introduction of new proposals
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for developers, and on some occasions the introduction of unpopular proposals for development put forward by local authorities. It is precisely to obviate such risks and what might be described as a form of abuse of the existing system that we are introducing our present proposals for the powerful front loading of the system for new and stronger elements of community involvement. It should be borne in mind throughout the process that the inspector is all the time responding to various representations and inputs that emerge at various stages of the local planning process. In many respects the proposed system offers far more safeguards to local people in terms of what is likely to appear in the plan than the existing system.
Peter Bottomley: There is the question of what happens while inspectors hear what people have to say and there is the question of what happens afterwards. My local authorities, both at district and county level, have asked what would happen under the Government's proposalsunless they accept the purpose of some of the Lords amendmentswere the inspector to make a plain mistake. Leaving aside the fact that the Minister has not dealt with what would happen after an inspector's report, what would happen if the inspector made a mistake? How could it be put right?
Keith Hill: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue of concern that has also been taken up elsewhere and on which I think that I can reassure him. The local planning authority already sees the inspector's draft report and can point out factual errors. That situation exists now and we propose that it should continue under the present proposals. I hope that that serves to some degree to reassure the hon. Gentleman.
I was saying that it is the role of the local planning authority to take soundings, to consult local communities and to hear the views of interested parties on all the potential options and then to decide what it thinks is best for its own area. The job of the local planning authority is to devise policies and proposals for the development plan document for its area, involving its community fully in the process. Representations made to the authority on its preferred options will be considered by it. I emphasise that no inspector is involved at this stage and it is from this consideration that the authority will prepare its development plan document to submit for independent examination.
We believe that the local authority will be well placed to do this with the procedures that we are introducing to ensure early debate and decisions. There will be a strong disincentive for anyone to put off raising controversial proposals in the hope that they have a better chance of succeeding if sprung on people at a late stage, whether that is a developer or the authority wishing to avoid coming to a difficult or potentially unpopular decision without involving the community.
Secondly, the investment by the community and others in making representations on a development plan document, and participating in the independent examination, will now always be worth while. No longer will the community and others face the entirely unjustifiable position where all their input is taken forward through the inspector's recommendations, but
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then ignored by the authority, which may decide to do something completely different. That would undermine our intention to give communities a greater say in plan making and to secure their buy-in.
Finally, the inspector's job is to determine whether a development plan document satisfies the legal requirements on its preparation and whether it is sound. The inspector's starting point will be that the development plan document that the authority has submitted is sound unless evidence proves otherwise.
Anyone seeking a substantive change to a development plan document will need to show that the document is unsound and that the change will render it sound. That is also a requirement of the inspector. I emphasise again that any changes that the inspector recommends will not simply reflect his or her views, rather than those of the local authority, but will be changes that are needed to achieve a sound plan that is tested against the criteria for soundness that it has to meet. If, as a result of the inspector's consideration of soundness, he or she believes that the development plan document should be changed significantlyfor example, as a result of insufficient evidencethat could happen only if the examination is reconvened or if the development plan document is referred back to the local planning authority for further consideration.
Matthew Green: Is the Minister entirely confident that inspectors, who on the whole do a very good job, always manage to interpret planning guidance correctly? In some cases, the local authority's interpretation of Government and regional planning guidance has differed from that of the inspector, and I think that the Minister would have been inclined to agree with the local authority. Is he confident that the inspector is always right?
Keith Hill: First, I have a great deal of confidence in the inspectorate. My observational experience, both as a citizen and as a Minister, is that the quality of the work produced by the inspectorate is, by and large, very impressive.
Secondly, the proposals, especially on the concept of soundness, are not being unleashed on inspectors without preparation. Indeed, I recently attended a conference of the inspectorate where a great deal of practical training on the provisions of the Bill was already taking place. I am reasonably confident that there will be a high level of preparation for and understanding of the contents and definitions of the Bill.
Finally, if the inspector gets it wrong, the local authority has other recourses with which the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) is familiar. The process incorporates a large number of safeguards and fail-safes.
If there is still insufficient evidence for the inspector to recommend a change that he or she thinks should be made to a development plan document, the inspector will not be able to recommend that change in his or her report. If that happens, the inspector will only be able to advise the authority of his or her view that it should revise its development plan document or prepare a fresh one to take the matter forward. Those principles will be set out clearly in the final version of planning policy statement 12.
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As we have said on many previous occasions, binding inspectors' reports are a key mechanism for speeding up the plan-making system, because the modifications stage, which usually takes six months or more, will no longer be needed. Speeding up the process is vital if our communities are to have the up-to-date plans that they and their areas need.
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