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The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. All we are requesting for local authorities is a littleonly an inchof the power that the Secretary of State likes to preserve for himself. Let us consider circumstances in which the new local development documents go through all the stages and
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an inspector makes a ruling that is clearly against the wishes of the local authority, the local people and possibly even the Minister in whose name the inspector acts. That could undermine local democracy and accountability at the level at which it should be built into the planning system.
I want a planning system that works. The move to a series of local development documents rather than a local plan will reduce conflict because under the current system, the whole plan has to be called in if the inspector wants to make an objection. I suspect that many of the documents in isolation will not cause the same controversy as a whole plan. There should therefore be fewer public inquiries, and I welcome that.
However, I am worried that the inspectors might not get it right, and I shall provide an example. The Minister cannot come back at me and will simply go all quasi-judicial. I know he will do that, so he does not need to make the excuse later. Both my local authorities are currently preparing their local plans. They are at different stages and, although they have taken a little longer than the five years that they are supposed to take, they are both preparing them.
South Shropshire's plan is currently at inspector's report stage. As hon. Members who have followed the progress of the Bill know, South Shropshire has an innovative affordable housing policy. The Minister knows about it because I have sent him a copy and he expressed some interest in it. It is probably one of the most radical policies in the country. It suggests that, on sites of two or more houses, 50 per cent. should be affordable. The policy is included in the local plan. The local authority tried to introduce the policy previously but, on appeal, inspectors ruled in favour of builders who did not want the affordable houses. The local authority is therefore trying to introduce the policy through the local plan and the inspector is challenging the council, although he may ultimately accept it. I believe that the reason for the challenge is that the policy goes against Government guidance, which stipulates 30 per cent. affordable housing. However, as the Minister knows, 30 per cent. is only a minimum. The council is therefore right to propose 50 per cent.
South Shropshire has approximately 350 planning permissions left until 2011 but its local needs housing survey shows that it requires 1,400 affordable homes. The problem is that almost every home that is built needs to be affordable. The local authority cannot achieve that so it is aiming for 50 per cent. I hope that the inspector will not overrule that, but he could. Under the current system, the local authority has the final say, but if the policy was contained in a new development plan document on affordable housing in South Shropshire and an inspector overruled it, South Shropshire would have more executive homes and fewer affordable homes because an inspector had determined that it was not quite in line with what pertained nationally, although I believe that it is.
I know that the Minister cannot comment on thathe cannot even raise an eyebrow in case someone challenges under judicial reviewbut it is an example of what could go wrong with the new system and the way in which the Minister foresees it working. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Minister has not given any explanation of how the system is broke, so I am not sure why he is so desperate to fix it.
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The Local Government Association strongly supports the Lords amendments on this issue, as does my own local authority. The chief executive of South Shropshire district council e-mailed me only a few days ago to stiffen my resolve, if it needed stiffening, on this point. Inspectors have to come in from outside; they cannot be from the locality that they are to inspect, for good reasons. There is great concern out there, however, that an inspector coming in from outside might not fully understand the nuances of local need and local development in the way that locally elected people and local officers working there on a day-to-day basis should do. In the case of South Shropshire, these concerns are coming from a council that is very pro-development.
The point of having an inspector's report is to stop a council doing anything that represents a radical departure from the plan, such as not building any affordable housing. I would welcome an inspector going in to report on such a situation. Under the current system, if a council overturns an inspector's report, that report can be taken into account in an appeal by a developer. It would be a material consideration. That is one of the most effective checks. We do not need binding reports. If a council is trying to prevent development when an inspector believes that it should take place, and the developer goes to appeal having lost a planning application, the developer should win on the basis of that material consideration, provided that all other things were equal. The current system therefore has good checks and balances built into it, but the proposed system shifts everything too much in one direction. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to give councils just a little of the power that accrues to him under the Bill.
Andrew Selous: I, too, support the Lords amendmentprincipally because I have been contacted by representatives of Bedfordshire county council, who wrote to me a few days ago and strongly urged me to back it, just as the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) has been urged to back it by his local authority. The issues involved are similar to those that we debated earlier this evening when discussing other amendments, but I shall obviously not revisit those issues now. In essence, however, they relate to the undermining of local democracy and accountability, and to the fact that there will be no opportunity for local authorities to correct any errors of fact or misinterpretation that might creep into inspectors' reports.
It is also clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) explained earlier, that circumstances could arise in which an inspector's recommendations are contrary to the existing regional and national planning guidance. Under the proposals, local authorities do not appear to have any recourse to challenge an inspector's recommendation, other than by instigating a judicial review. It is certainly the view of Bedfordshire county council and the Local Government Association that that is not a course that we should force local authorities to go down, as it would be likely to be a lengthy, expensive and difficult process.
Of course, we understand the proper function that inspectors have within the planning process, but that must be balanced vis-à-vis the powers and responsibilities of local planning authorities. In my constituency, considerable disquiet was expressed at a
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recent Government inspector's decision to allow travellers to remain permanently on local green belt land. That decision involved a completely unauthorised development, about which the local authority and the local people felt very strongly. Indeed, my constituents expressed considerable resentment at, as they saw it, a Government inspector coming in from the other side of the country. They did not believe that the inspector was in tune with the wishes and views of the local people or had a proper understanding of the issues. That resulted in considerable resentment building up.
My fear is that we shall see more resentment building up. People will feel that the whole planning process is becoming more remote and more unchallengeable. If a local authority were able to challenge an inspector's decision, there would at least be some contact between the electorate and someone whom they could get hold of locally and who was accountable to them by virtue of wanting to be re-elected every few years. That link will be lost under the new measures, and that will have detrimental consequences for local democracy and for any sense of local involvement in planning issues.
Peter Bottomley: Regarding clause 22, does the Minister know when the Secretary of State last intervened to overrule a planner's view on a development plan? I could give him a whole series of cases in which the Secretary of State has overruled his inspector, when the inspector has overruled a local authority. I do not want to sound as though I am against inspectors, but the Secretary of State's considered view in such cases was that the local authority was right and that the inspector should be overruled. If that happens, it is either because the Secretary of State has received representations, perhaps from the local authority or the communitywhich we hear so much aboutor from some other source.
I am not sure how big a difference there is between the Local Government Association and the Minister's advisers. This is not the time to go back into the history of where the ghastly expression "spatial planning" came from
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