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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has just said that he did not get time in the earlier stages of the Bill to discuss some of the amendments that the Government have accepted, and which he is now detailing. Perhaps he did not get time because the Government had imposed a timetable on those proceedings, which meant that discussion was not allowed. Surely it is an abuse for the Minister to start going through those measures now.
Keith Hill: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I might say to the hon. Gentleman, through you, that, as one former Deputy Chief Whip to a current one, I know exactly what game he is playing at this juncture.
We have strengthened the application of the sustainable development clausethat is clause 38and introduced amendments to the standard application form provisions to require access and design statements in appropriate circumstances. That is in clause 42. In addition to these amendments, we have also again listened to the debate and brought forward amendments on mezzanine floors, on the requirement to give reasons for substantive decisions, to introduce provisions for temporary stop notices and for appeal on second applications, and today we are also seeking the agreement of the House to amend the major infrastructure provisions to require an economic impact report.
Against the background of this substantial package of concessions, I have to express my strong disappointment that we are here again today to debate Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 3. I find it difficult to understand the grounds on which these amendments are being pursued. The effect of amendment No. 1 would be to end any system of regional planning where there was not an elected regional assembly. I cannot believe that that is the serious intention of either the official Opposition or the Liberal Democrats, and I am particularly surprised that the Lib Dems continue to cleave to this amendment. I am absolutely certain that they share the Government's belief in the need for strong regional planning.
Regional planning policies that form part of the development plan are essential to address the particular opportunities and challenges faced by an individual region. Effective regional planning policy is vital to tackle historic regional disparities and respond to the challenges of the modern knowledge economy. We need a system for strategic planning that is based around areas that are interdependent on the ground, not one that is constrained by administrative boundaries. County boundaries simply do not work as the basis for
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effective strategic planning. Many strategic planning issues cut across county boundaries and are best dealt with at regional or sub-regional level.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The region that produced the Minister and in which I still live, the east midlands, has no elected regional assembly. There is some merit in the amendmentalthough I shall not appear in the Division Lobby with those who are promoting itin that our region has a Nottingham-Derby dominated caucus that is dumping on the northern parts of Leicestershire the adverse implications of uncontrolled airport expansion, which would be covered by this type of approach to planning. Does the Minister not see that, in the absence of an elected regional assembly, such circumstances can sometimes emerge?
Keith Hill: I share my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for an elected regional assembly for the east midlands, the region of his and my birth. In the meantime, however, before that particular utopia is secured, we are best to go forward with the existing regional planning structures, which provide precisely for the kinds of exchanges that could limit the undesirable development mentioned by my hon. Friend. As ever, he and I essentially are on the same tack: two souls with a single mind on this subject. I am grateful that he will be joining me in the Division Lobby; that has not invariably been the case, as he and I well know.
There are many examples of the existing regional planning bodies coming forward with solutions to the cross-boundary problems that have bedevilled us for years. But under the current system those solutions are hard to put into practice. The system itself is a barrier. However good the solutions are, however much work has gone into preparing them, and however much support they have, they will be only a material consideration when it comes to deciding planning applications, and structure plans can delay them or prevent them from happening.
I know that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), who speaks for the Lib Dems, has concerns about accountability, which I understand and appreciate. I have reflected very earnestly on a practical way to respond to these concerns, and I hope that the democratic guarantee that I offer in amendment (a) will commend itself to the hon. Gentleman. I have to say that the alternatives that one might contemplate offer a recipe for delay, obfuscation and perhaps litigation.
Most uncharacteristically, the approach of the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), smacks just a little of cynicism and opportunism. The Conservative party appears to combine support for regional planning for regions with elected regional assemblies with an equally avid determination that none will actually be established, and with an express intention to campaign against them in regional referendums. He and I both know that this amendment would effectively mean no regional planning. However, regional planning guidance was introduced by the Conservative Administration in 1990, with the publication of RPG15. The Conservative party is the parent of regional planning. This is a case of throwing the baby out with
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the bath water, and I invite the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the inconsistency of his position.
Lords amendment No. 3 is not acceptable because it imposes the burden and bureaucracy of blanket sub-regional planning irrespective of whether it is needed or adds value. Surely it is also defective in that it would require those plans to be drawn up by county councils and other authorities with strategic planning expertise, but would exclude others who may have an essential and valuable role to play: district councils or the regional development agencies, for example.
Our package as a whole is the right approach to sub-regional planning and gives a properly central role for county councils and other authorities with strategic planning expertise. The Bill and our draft guidance to regional planning, planning policy statement 11, in dealing with sub-regional strategies, makes it clear that those should be prepared for areas that are interdependent on the ground and that therefore need a distinct set of sub-regional policies. The Bill and our guidance guarantee that county councils and other authorities with strategic planning responsibilities will advise, and they make it clear that, where appropriate, those bodies are expected to lead on this work.
I appreciate that this is an important issue to many, and particularly to county councils. There are anxieties about decisions on which areas on the ground warrant a sub-regional strategy. There are concerns about ensuring that counties and other authorities play a full part, and I appreciate them and the fact that perhaps they have not come much to the fore in earlier debates because of the importance of other issues. I believe, however, that our approach to sub-regional planning, which is flexible and practical, is the right one for our communities and our planning system. It does not prescribe an across-the-board, universal requirement for sub-regional plans but fully supports the involvement of sub-regional partners where there is a clear case for sub-regional structures and planning. That will happen within the overall framework of advice from and consultation with local authorities and a local government-led regional planning body.
I am reasonably confident that it would be otiose, as we say in this place, to make specific provision in the Bill for an essentially flexible and locally and regionally driven arrangement. I note the concerns on the matter, however, and in the light of those, let me say that I am prepared to review the package ahead of the Bill's return to the other place.
Meanwhile, we ought to reflect on what these Lords amendments would mean. Lords amendment No. 3 would provide for sub-regional plans as part of the regional spatial strategy, with boundaries chosen by the regional planning body because the boundaries of counties do not fit for this purpose. I think that I have made it clear that the difference between us relates to how extensively this principle should be applied. I need to point out to the House, however, that that approach would simply not happen or would be considerably delayed under Lords amendment No. 1.
I shall now turn to amendment (a). The regional planning process needs to be driven forward by bodies able to represent the region and take a strategic view.
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Regional chambers are best placed to fulfil that role. We are not suddenly transferring powers from counties to regions. We are removing a filter that has slowed down the expression of strategic regional policies in local plans. We are clearing out a system that allows out-of-date structure plans to take precedence over up-to-date regional plans. Chambers are, of course, not directly elected, but they are representative of both local authorities and wider stakeholders in the region. Local authority members represent their local authority on the regional planning body. Equally, other stakeholder group members, such as business or the voluntary sector, will speak for the interests that they represent.
Where elected regional assemblies are established, it is right that they should take over responsibility for regional planning. But we should not conflate that with reforming the planning systemthat reform needs to happen now. Of course, we need the safeguard of democratic accountability, and it needs to be the best one possible, consistent with our current governance arrangements. Local authorities speak for their communitiesthat is what they are elected to do. This Bill, along with its regulations and guidance, guarantees that theirs will be the loudest voice in regional planning. Local authorities are in the majority on regional chambers, which will be the regional planning bodies. Where there is consensus, the local authority's view will prevail in the RPB's work.
I recognise the views expressed, and I am willing to move, as in so many other areas, to deal with the concerns. Amendment (a) therefore highlights the leading role of local authorities and provides a statutory guarantee for the future. The Secretary of State will not be able to recognise a body as a regional planning body unless at least 60 per cent. of its members are drawn from county councils, unitary authorities, district councils, national parks authorities or the Broads Authority. I commend the proposal to the House.
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