Mr Betts: My right hon. Friend makes a good case against the Secretary of State taking from local authorities the power to determine planning applications. He has also pointed out that the applicant will lose the right to appeal. When this matter came before the Select Committee, the Minister with responsibility for planning accepted in effect that the consultation arrangements for local communities would not have to be the same as if the

5 Nov 2012 : Column 612

local authority was taking the decisions, but that the statutorily required level of consultation would apply, which could be somewhat less. Local communities could suffer in that way as well.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee so ably, is absolutely right. That is another example of how local communities will lose out as a result of this change.

I am genuinely surprised that the Secretary of State has turned out like this, especially given what he said in his speech to the Conservative party conference last month. He explained, in a purple passage, why, alongside the bust of Disraeli and the poster of Winston Churchill, he had a photograph on his wall of Che Guevara smoking a large Havana cigar. He told the delegates:

“It is there to remind me that without constant vigilance, the cigar-chomping Commies will take over. Well, that isn’t going to happen on my watch.”

Well, it has happened—with this Bill. There are a couple of words for what he is doing. It is a concept much loved by communist parties the world over. It is called democratic centralism—telling other people what to think and do. The powers he is asking the House to give him in clause 1 are, frankly, enough to make any self-respecting democratic centralist slap him on the back in gratitude and give him a cigar to chomp on. In no time at all, he has gone from claiming to be the friend of localism to taking a hammer and sickle to local democratic decision making. He fools nobody by trying to describe it as muscular localism. The really puzzling question is whether this is a genuine conversion. The House must ask itself whether the Secretary of State decided of his own volition to dump everything that he previously believed in. I doubt it; I suspect that the truth is rather different.

I think the truth is that the Secretary of State lost control of planning policy during the summer. He told us just a few months ago, “Here’s my shiny new national planning policy framework. It’s fit for a new century”, and he must have been bewildered to read those unattributed briefings suddenly appearing in the newspapers—the criticisms of his shiny new planning system from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I bet he was particularly irritated by the summonses to attend urgent meetings at 10 Downing street. Whoever was in charge of planning policy over the summer, I do not think it was the Secretary of State.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman count it a success that the previous Government had a planning policy which ran to 1,300 pages? Does he not think it is a success that the policy these days is much simpler and accessible to all?

Hilary Benn: I made it very clear, I think in my first speech after taking on my new responsibilities last autumn, that everybody is in favour of sensible rationalisation. I have never opposed that, but the Government have to get it right, and the Bill self-evidently does not get it right. I suspect that the Secretary of State’s heart is not really in these changes; maybe the planning Minister’s heart is. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, smokes cigars, but a photo of him smoking one ought to go on the Secretary of State’s wall behind him as a reminder of what can happen if he lets down his guard.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 613

Mr Raynsford: I have been following my right hon. Friend’s remarks with considerable interest. Does he think it significant that the ministerial team surrounding the Minister is entirely different from the one that sat with him in the early period, when he was formulating the national planning policy framework? Might that also be an indication of what has happened in Government?

Hilary Benn: That is an extremely interesting suggestion by my right hon. Friend, and only those on the Government Front Bench can say whether that is the case or not.

Clauses 2 and 3, which I do not think the Secretary of State mentioned, would allow the planning inspectorate to award costs. What is the purpose of this? Perhaps the Minister could say when he winds up. How can he assure us that it will not turn into a tax on local democratic decision making? Why should the Planning Inspectorate want to impose costs of its own volition, when developers can already ask it to do so under the law as it currently stands?

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the purpose of clause 2 is possibly similar to that of clause 1, which is to blackmail local authorities into giving in to the worst property developers, and that this is a belated compliment to the Conservative Property Forum, which has given £4 million to the Conservative party over the past few years?

Hilary Benn: I can only say to my hon. Friend that I do not know whether there is any connection between the two things, but it is quite an interesting pair of clauses. What are they for? Why do Ministers apparently want to make it easier for the Planning Inspectorate to fine councils for the decisions that they have made?

Clause 5 proposes significantly to weaken the contribution that section 106 agreements make to the much needed provision of affordable housing. If section 106 really was the cause of stalled housing developments, why does the clause focus only on the affordable housing requirements, rather than other section 106 requirements—for example, contributing to transport, other infrastructure or new schools? I ask because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) pointed out, the National Housing Federation tells us that 35,000 affordable homes are provided each year because of section 106 agreements, yet the Secretary of State failed to make the case that the lack of house building is because of the affordable housing element.

Where is the evidence? This will be a familiar theme in this debate. We are told that there are 1,200 sites and 75,000 homes that are stalled. Apparently the figure comes from something called the Glenigan database. When I asked the planning Minister if he would publish it so that we could see for ourselves the information on which the statement is based, he refused to do so. So we cannot see—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] Apparently it was something to do with commercial confidentiality, but are we as Members of the House not entitled to see the evidence base on which the policy is allegedly founded?

Perhaps that is why, when the planning Minister was sensibly asked by the Select Committee how many of these sites were stalled because of section 106 requirements, he came over all vague.

He said:

“It is very difficult to say. It is quite hard to say why nothing is happening.”

5 Nov 2012 : Column 614

Let us look at what others have to say about section 106. The chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency stated in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Committee:

“We are not aware of any current issues relating to section 106 agreement on the very small number due to start on site this financial year.”

What about the National Housing Federation? It has stated: “No evidence has been provided to suggest that planning obligations are routinely stalling development.”

What about the Council of Mortgage Lenders? It has stated:

“We are not convinced that section 106 obligations are necessarily the key sticking point”.

Well, if it is difficult to quantify and really hard to say why nothing is happening, and if the HCA does not think it is a problem, the National Housing Federation does not think it is a problem and the Council of Mortgage Lenders, which ought to know, does not think it is a problem, what is the purpose of clause 5? Everyone knows what the real problem is: people cannot get mortgages or raise deposits, so developers are not building houses because they do not think that they will be able to sell them if they do.

The Government admit that clause 5 will reduce the number of affordable homes built, which is why they have come up with an extra 300 million quid. If that really is the cause of the problem, I do not for the life of me understand why the Government do not just approach the developers on the 1,200 sites and offer them money to get them moving and bring forward the affordable housing numbers that were previously agreed. To reduce the number of affordable homes through the Bill and then come up with £300 million to try to replace the lost homes in an alternative way seems to me to be an extraordinarily roundabout way of addressing the problem. The truth is that everyone wants to get stalled sites moving. As the Secretary of State has acknowledged, to be fair, many local authorities have demonstrated that they are perfectly willing to enter into negotiations with developers in order to vary the conditions relating to affordable housing because they, too, want to get the homes built, and Leeds is one example of that.

The other thing that is puzzling about clause 5 is this: what will it give developers that they do not already have? I hope that the Minister will answer this when he responds. Under the existing arrangements, could not a developer who wants to change the affordable housing requirements on an existing permission simply put in a new application with the lower figure and then, if it is turned down by the council, go to the Planning Inspectorate on appeal and cite the new provisions on viability set out in paragraph 173 of the national planning policy framework?

What is the problem that this clause is trying to solve, and will it work? I doubt it. This is my last point on section 106 agreements. For a measure that is supposed to speed up movement on stalled sites, it might result, as the Royal Town Planning Institute has pointed out, in the very opposite. A developer that hopes to reduce the affordable housing obligation will now have a clear incentive to wait for the Bill to reach the statute book rather than entering into negotiations with the local authority—in other words, delay.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 615

Mr Redwood: Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that, given the weakness of the banks and the problems in the credit markets, section 106 deals will be far less generous than they were prior to the boom going bust?

Hilary Benn: Of course, and the fact that local authorities have been willing to renegotiate the section 106 affordable housing requirements is proof of that—[Interruption.] Well, lots of them have done so, and no doubt the planning Minister will tell us about those that have not.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Why does the right hon. Gentleman think so many local authorities have been unwilling to renegotiate section 106 agreements up to now? Will the Bill not encourage them to do so?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman says “so many”, but the Government have not given us the evidence. The whole Bill is based on supposition, what was whispered in someone’s ear, what was in the newspapers and what the Prime Minister fulminated against. We are legislating, and we should do so on the basis of evidence. I look forward to seeing that evidence.

The third leg of the Secretary of State’s assault on local democracy is clause 21. It, too, gives him wide powers to take planning applications away from local communities. It significantly extends the lists set out in the Planning Act 2008 by including business and commercial projects, as we have heard. We have seen the lists the planning Minister gave the Select Committee, but can he or the Secretary of State clarify whether that would include major retail or leisure developments? I will happily take in intervention. Any takers? No? It is interesting that we have not received an answer.

Do the Government intend to develop national policy statements for the new categories? The Secretary of State floundered when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) asked that question earlier.

What is this change for? The press notice issued by the Department on 6 September states:

“Thousands of big commercial and residential applications to be directed to a major infrastructure fast track”.

It only took about a month for that policy to change—another example of the Government making it up as they go along—because residential applications appeared to be pulled from it, as clause 21 now makes clear. Instead, the Government seem to have decided to make greater use of their call-in powers, as the planning Minister set out in his statement last week, but that will have the same effect—Ministers, not local people, will decide what happens in their community.

The Bill Committee will no doubt explore the extent to which the Government intend to use that call-in power to deal with applications for residential developments. If they call them in, Government and Opposition Members will suddenly find that, as a result of the change in policy, their local councils are not taking the decisions. Given that call-in powers have existed for a very long time, will the Minister who responds to the debate explain what the clause gives Ministers that they do not have already under existing planning law? How will the Planning Inspectorate cope with the additional work load? It is a mess.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 616

Charlie Elphicke: My reading of the clause is that it is directed at projects of a national significance, particularly in the field of energy, which will cut through the problems with getting power stations built. That is important. The lights are likely to go out in 2015, because the previous Government were asleep at the wheel on power station developments, which are needed to keep our lights on.

Hilary Benn: I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that we made changes to the system and that one of the groups that we brought into the new national set-up was, indeed, energy. The Government’s provision does not change how decisions are taken—it adds big commercial applications. We await an answer on whether that will include leisure and retail. The hon. Gentleman needs to consider that carefully.

A number of other clauses give rise to concern and will be scrutinised carefully in Committee. Clause 7 seems to propose to scrap the special protection enjoyed by our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and to allow telecoms companies to install cabinets and masts wherever they want. First, the Secretary of State told us earlier not to worry and that that applies only to broadband, but could he please point to where in clause 7 it says that that is the case? It does not.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend see the irony, as many Opposition Members do, in the fact that the Government, after a great hue and cry over wind farms last week, are now intent on dismantling the very special place of our national parks in British culture?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why those who care passionately about the national parks are so concerned about the clause.

Secondly, the Secretary of State said that the clause would make no change to the power of planning authorities to object. I draw his attention, however, to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport press notice of 7 September, which says that the Government will legislate to do a number of things, one of which is to ensure that

“broadband street cabinets can be installed in any location other than a SSSI”—

in other words, in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—

“without the need for prior approval from the local council”.

The notice then goes on to say, in paragraph 5(c), that

“overhead broadband lines can be installed in any area without the need for planning or other permission”.

No wonder there is great confusion and concern about this clause, because it is not clear what the Government’s policy really is. Section 109 of the Communications Act 2003 refers to the use of “electronic communications apparatus”, not “broadband boxes and cabinets”. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State, and he did not give one single example—again, there was no evidence—of the problem specifically in relation to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. As he should know, the national parks want broadband to be rolled out, but they want it to be done in the right way. I can give him lots of examples of national parks authorities that are taking precisely this approach, but here is just one: in the past five years,

5 Nov 2012 : Column 617

North York Moors national parks authority has approved 94% of planning applications and notifications for telecoms equipment. Where is the problem and where is the evidence? In the light of this, I can entirely see why the English National Park Authorities Association and the Campaign for National Parks want the clause removed. The current protection to which the Secretary of State must have regard—conserving the beauty of our national parks and AONBs—cannot be allowed to be undermined by the Government’s desire to look as though they are doing something about growth.

The Secretary of State used to boast that he was protecting village greens, but his proposals will make it much more difficult for people to register them. For instance, there is the positively Kafkaesque proposal that the moment a planning application is published, someone can no longer seek to register a green. Since the first that most people will hear of an application is when it is published, this seems to be a pretty clever way of stopping people exercising their rights, unless they happen to be mind readers. In a very small number of cases there is a problem—that is why we published the consultation paper when we were in government—but this is a heavy-handed, disproportionate and clumsy measure, and we will table amendments in Committee to create a more balanced way forward.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise, as many of us do, that the provision for registering village green status is routinely used by people who are serial campaigners against any type of development in their area and causes huge delay and cost in the planning system?

Hilary Benn: Having looked at this when I was Secretary of State, I recognise that there are some such cases, but there are also lots of others where the provision in the Commons Act 2006 is used quite properly to protect in perpetuity the public’s use of green space—village greens and so on—which they have had the right to enjoy for many years. Like lots of things, it is about getting the balance right, and this clause, as formulated, has not got it right; that is certainly the view of the Open Spaces Society.

I listened very carefully to what the Secretary of State said about delaying business rates revaluation. We all want to support measures that will help businesses at a difficult time, but we will want to scrutinise this in Committee to understand the balance of the argument. It would be extremely helpful—I put this to him in all sincerity—to see his and the Department’s assessment of who would gain and who would not, because a lot of businesses are saying that an earlier revaluation would help them. It would also be of assistance if he could set out the impact of a change on the finances of local authorities now that the Local Government Finance Act 2012 is on the statute book.

Mr Pickles: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. Of course we will publish an impact assessment and the calculations of the Valuation Office Agency on Report.

Hilary Benn: That is extremely helpful, and we look forward to seeing those documents.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 618

Amid all the centralisation, there are some clauses that seem sensible and that we will support—the Secretary of State smiles—such as those on the energy industry, on removing the anomaly on disposal of land for less than best consideration, on the review of minerals permissions, and on allowing the process for stopping up or diverting highways and public paths to run alongside the planning process— which is perfectly sensible recommendation of the Penfold review. Overall, however, the bad in the Bill far outweighs the good.

That brings me to clause 23, which is an absolutely astonishing proposal. Labour Members are in favour of businesses giving shares to employees and think it a jolly good thing. We do not, however, need the Bill for that because companies are already perfectly free to give shares to their workers. The clause does something completely different, and, for the first time that I can recall, employers will be allowed to buy their way out of legislation that protects their workers. The legislation is explicit and there is a tariff—[Interruption.] I hear the cry of “voluntary”, and we shall come on to whether that is the case.

The fact is that for between £2,000 and £50,000, a company can pay to strip its workers of their rights. That is what the clause does. Never mind cash for questions; this is cash for repeal. What on earth is the connection between giving an employee shares, and taking away their fundamental rights in the workplace? Given the wording of the clause, some might say that such a change could happen only if the company and the individual agreed on it. That, however, is true only for existing employees at the time the legislation comes into force. Their choice will be quite simple: take the cash and lose the rights, or lose the cash and keep the rights. Many of them will ask, “How lucky do I feel today and when I think about the future of the company?”

The Government have made it crystal clear that in future employers will not have to get an agreement and will be able to offer only contracts involving shares. It means that the only way someone will be able to get a job with that company is if they give up their rights—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, shouts from a sedentary position that it is a choice, but one feature of this Bill seems to be that those who are sponsoring it have not actually read it.

A Treasury background note published at the same time as the Bill states that

“new start-ups can choose to offer only this new type of contract for new hires.”

The English is a bit dodgy, but I think it refers to new workers whom a company is taking on—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary says it is a choice, but—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. It is unhelpful in a debate to have Ministers shouting from the Front Bench, and then for their question to be answered when the rest of us are not exactly clear about what is going on. If you wish to make a point, Minister, you should step up to the Dispatch Box; otherwise, I hope that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) will concentrate on his speech and ignore the heckling.

Hilary Benn: I was trying to encourage the Under-Secretary to provide clarity to the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I take your strictures.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 619

If someone wants to take a job but finds that it is offered only on the basis that they give up their employment rights, that is not a choice. If that is all an employer offers to someone who is unemployed and wants to do the right thing and contribute to the economy, that is no choice whatsoever. As for shares, what if the company is not listed on the stock exchange? Who will assess the value of those shares? They could be worthless. Who will buy them? Will they carry voting rights? The Secretary of State said nothing about any those points this afternoon, and the House must ask why holding shares should mean that someone loses the right to protection against unfair dismissal. What is the argument for that?

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can help me to understand this despicable proposal and explain where in the Nuttall report it is stated that someone has to sacrifice their employment rights and protections in order to extend share ownership? I have read that report in detail and cannot find it anywhere.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the Bill has nothing to do with that report at all and is about something else entirely. Why should holding shares mean that someone has to give up their right to redundancy payment? What is the argument for that? Why should they give up their right to apply to undertake study or training?

The Government rightly remind us how important it is to have the right skills for the future. Without a hint of irony, however, the background note published at the same time as the Bill tries to claim that this measure is particularly aimed at small and medium-sized companies

“that benefit from a flexible workforce”.

In clause 23 we find that one right workers will lose is the right to request flexible working. You could not make it up, Madam Deputy Speaker, except that that is exactly what the Government are doing.

The director general of the CBI described, in very polite terms, this provision as a “niche idea”—a pretty underwhelming endorsement. The clause will, however, be a lawyers’ paradise, because one of the consequences of it—if it passes into law—is that dismissed employees who find themselves in the position of being employee owners will try to shoehorn their unfair dismissal claims into the rights that are still left to them. That is exactly what will happen—the clause will not even work in the way the Government intend.

One might think that the Employee Ownership Association would sing the praises of the Bill, but, of the clause, it has stated:

“There is no need to dilute the rights of workers in order to grow employee ownership”.

The clause is Beecroft by the back door, and Labour Members oppose it. When the Minister winds up the debate, will he give me a very simple assurance on process? The Government are currently consulting on the employer-owner idea. Will he therefore promise the House that they will make any amendments to the clause either in Committee or in remaining stages in the Commons?

In conclusion, the Bill is not a growth Bill. It will not get the economy moving and will not build infrastructure. It is a “must be seen to be doing something” Bill.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 620

The tragedy is that the only thing it does is take power from local people and locally elected councillors and give it to developers and the Secretary of State. Today marks the halfway point of this Parliament, and all we have to mark the occasion is a shoddy, clumsily cobbled together, half-baked Bill. That really shows, and I urge the House to reject it.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I remind Members that there is a 12-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions to this debate, starting from now.

5.1 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s aims for the Bill—boosting infrastructure, cutting red tape and helping local firms to grow are laudable ambitions. I should like to focus on four aspects of the Bill: first, the balance between localism and centralism; secondly, the importance of securing proper infrastructure, both national and local, to support development; thirdly, the importance of the Government’s broadband programme, including in national parks; and fourthly, the overall role of the planning system against the background of wanting to promote growth.

First, on localism, clause 1 allows, as has been noted, direct applications to the Secretary of State if a council is placed in what could be described as special measures. The criteria for so placing a council have yet to be set out. However, I hope we remember all the reasons why, over the course of the past two and a half years, the Government felt it was important to devolve power to people and communities, not least in housing and housing policy.

Devolving power in planning decisions is also important, because there is a great danger that people will feel that decisions may be taken away from them. If decisions are taken away from local communities, the danger is that responsibility is also taken away—the responsibility of community leaders to take decisions that are sometimes difficult. Another danger is the paradox of the top-down housing targets of the previous Government. The very high stated housing numbers that were never achieved did not deliver, but merely set up conflicts between local communities and the Government.

Mrs Main: Not only did the previous Government create conflict within communities, they skewed how communities developed. Developers moved into my constituency to deliver the targets—particularly density targets—and we ended up with heaps of flats, which were bought speculatively, but not enough of the family homes that the communities wanted. I therefore welcome this Government’s approach. We can actually start to determine what we would like to be built rather than be told what to build.

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend expresses eloquently one virtue of ensuring that decisions can be taken on a local basis.

The power of the Government’s changes to the planning system, which were set out in the Localism Act 2011, is this: they introduced the idea of neighbourhood planning, with communities judging for themselves where best to

5 Nov 2012 : Column 621

site housing and what is necessary for their areas. Neighbourhood planning is an incredibly good concept. I would like to see it flourish, but it is in danger of being undermined by a series of things. I hope that the Government will look again at the neighbourhood planning process and how it might be boosted, because it is the right way to provide sustainable levels of housing provision.

First, the concept has been undermined by the continuation of regional spatial strategies. I know that there has been a problem with the European Union holding up the effective abolition of the strategies, which has been legislated for by this House. However, while they remain in place—for instance, the south-east plan affects my constituency—the danger is that, in the absence of effective local plans, the countryside can be vulnerable to speculative housing applications, with communities powerless to oppose such applications, which, if rejected by local authorities, can be appealed to the Planning Inspectorate. The consequence of such applications is that the process whereby communities come together over planning in the neighbourhood is undermined, with local consent—which can be built for reasonable levels of housing—undermined too. The swift abolition of the regional spatial strategies is therefore essential if the process of neighbourhood planning is to proceed.

Second is the issue of expense. The Government provide some support to local communities to proceed with neighbourhood planning, but it is an expensive process. More support—not necessarily financial—has to be provided to local communities. That issue is not addressed in the Bill; it usefully could be. Such support is essential also from district councils. Some councils are unwilling to yield power. Localism is not a process whereby power is simply handed down to elected district councils; where possible, power should be placed in the hands of the people and communities. That is being undermined by some district councils that do not wish to support the process of neighbourhood planning.

Thirdly—this issue has already been raised in the debate—there is the question of whether the overall housing numbers set by the regional spatial strategies will simply be reinstated if the assessment of housing need undertaken by district councils comes up with the same number. We need to take a close look at the instructions being given to district councils as they assess housing need. Otherwise, the very principle that we set out in the Localism Act 2011—that regional spatial strategies should go and that powers should be handed down to local communities—will, in effect, be undermined. If the Planning Inspectorate ends up taking decisions that should have been taken locally and imposes the same numbers as those proposed previously, nothing will be gained and localism will be undermined.

It is worth restating the virtue of the neighbourhood process. It means that communities will plan responsibly, with local democratic buy-in to the housing levels arrived at, because there will have to be a referendum. I know from my area that where parish councils are setting up local plans, they are—perhaps for the first time—looking carefully and responsibly at where a sustainable level of housing provision could be sited. The sustainable provision

5 Nov 2012 : Column 622

we wish to see in future years will be threatened if we slip back into a top-down approach, which is clearly the risk in clause 1.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I commend the right hon. Gentleman on the points he is making. Does he agree that one of the problems is the difference between housing need and housing demand, which in some areas is virtually insatiable, and that it was important for the national planning policy framework that local councils should be given the power to balance economic growth with social and environmental requirements, even though this has not yet been taken very seriously by many local planners?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend puts his finger precisely on the right point. If that balance were not achieved properly, it would be possible to come up with huge projected levels of housing in the areas I represent, because there is an almost infinite demand for housing from people wishing to come and live in West Sussex. Unless that balance is achieved, there will not be a sustainable level of housing provision in the local area.

The Bill rightly focuses on the need to secure national infrastructure, and on the importance of speeding up decisions so that that can be achieved. I strongly support that, but I want to talk about the related issue of the levels of local infrastructure necessary to support housing development. I represent a rural constituency with no large towns; it has only villages, small towns and countryside—and important countryside, at that. It already has problems with congested roads and, in some villages, of over-subscribed local schools, although I am pleased to say that the latter issue is partly being addressed by the Government’s policy of allowing free schools to be set up.

Worst of all, however, is the problem of sewage. The levels of development in some villages have not been matched by adequate sewerage provision. When combined with the lack of an adequate water supply in the area, that can result in sewage flowing though people’s gardens after not particularly heavy rainfall. There is inadequate local infrastructure to support the present level of housing provision in those villages. What are we going to do to ensure that proper levels of infrastructure are put in place to support the necessary additional development?

There is a general acceptance in the communities I represent that additional housing is needed. There is a lack of affordable housing in the villages, and people recognise that some additional housing will be necessary. The question is whether it will be provided on a sustainable basis with proper provision for the infrastructure necessary to support it. I want to ensure that the provisions in the Bill will continue to allow funding for such infrastructure provision, so that the appropriate level of development can go ahead.

A further issue relating to infrastructure is that of broadband. West Sussex is a rural county that is relatively close to London—my constituency is only 50 miles away—and it is surprising that it should contain three of the four “not-spot” areas in the country, in which broadband can barely be obtained at all. One of them is in my constituency, where broadband provision is already very poor. I therefore strongly welcome the Government’s measures to secure a reasonable level of broadband speed and 100% coverage across the country, followed by a high level of provision of superfast broadband.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 623

Such provision will be essential if we wish to foster local economic growth and the levels of infrastructure provision that businesses require in today’s connected world.

Such broadband provision is no less important in national parks. The outstanding landscape of the South Downs national park is in my constituency, and the communities in the park will also require high-speed broadband. Farmers who wish to diversify, for example, do not want to be disadvantaged, and the local economy will not be sustainable unless such broadband provision is secured. Last year, I raised the issue of a local farmer who was paying huge sums of money for broadband provision, which was creating an impediment to the successful diversification of his farm enterprise. I therefore welcome the proposals to improve broadband provision.

I am concerned about the provision in clause 7 that will override the key purpose of a national park to conserve beauty, and I would like to hear more from the Government about that. I need to understand more about the practical effects of that provision, and about the precedent that it will set. I need to be persuaded that it will not damage the landscape, which it is so important to preserve, although I of course see the importance of securing improved broadband provision.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I support my right hon. Friend’s remarks. My constituency contains areas of outstanding natural beauty, and the provision could be interpreted as undermining the protections that are at present afforded to his and my constituencies. Will he join me in asking the Government to look at the measure carefully, to ensure that it does not set a precedent for other projects?

Nick Herbert: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s remarks. She expressed herself in the same way as I have sought to express myself—by seeking reassurance that these provisions will not damage the landscape. The whole purpose of these high landscape designations, whether they be areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks, is that they ensure a level of protection that cannot be overridden. That is their very purpose, so we need to be careful before legislating for any provision that might then set a precedent for further erosion of such protection in future. I simply say that we need to be careful and that I need to be persuaded of the benefits of these measures.

My final point is about the role of the planning system in relation to growth. There is a simple fact here—that we have had high levels of growth with the existing planning system in this country under Governments of both persuasions over the course of the last few decades. The planning system is not in itself necessarily an impediment to growth, and the lack of growth cannot be laid at the door of the planning system. Nevertheless, in an increasingly competitive world—despite the fact that we can observe Britain’s projected growth as being higher than that of our European partners and approaching that of the United States—we need to compete with the best. That means that any blockage on the speed of planning decisions needs to be removed. I welcome Lord Heseltine’s review to that effect. He said that it was not about undermining the principles of the planning system; it was about ensuring that it works more speedily. That is what I suggest we need to focus on—policy clarity and speeding up decisions, not undermining the process in its entirety.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 624

5.16 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): I welcome the contribution of the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). Unlike in the opening speech from the Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman has, I suspect, reflected the genuine concerns of many Government Members about whether the safeguards are sufficient and whether the importance of sustainable development is recognised, as it barely features in the Bill. I very much hope that we will have an opportunity to look at some of the issues raised.

If anyone ever wanted a master class in how to oppose what a Government are doing, they need only look at the contribution of the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), as he provided exactly that. He absolutely made mincemeat of the hot air we heard from the Secretary of State, and we saw what this Bill is really about.

I rise to speak to the inquiry into “Sustainable development in the national planning policy framework” and draw the House’s attention to the recent Environmental Audit Committee inquiry, which is available to the House this evening. In that report, we examined the extent to which the national planning policy framework reflects sustainable development principles. On the strength of the evidence we received, we collaborated with the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government—I see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who I know is going to make an important contribution later—to press the Government, in producing their revised version of the NPPF, to ensure that there is no potential for confusion about the equal importance of all three aspects of sustainable development. It is clear from the interventions so far that this is at the top of Members’ priorities. Sustainable development is not just about the economy; it is about social and environmental considerations, too.

While we recognised the rights of local councils to determine what constitutes sustainable development in their area, we concluded that they need a national planning policy framework that does not push them to regard economic dimensions as predominant. We thus called for a clear definition of sustainable development. Perhaps naively, when the initial flawed proposals were superseded by a much more acceptable NPPF, we welcomed it. Uppermost in our minds—this stemmed from the relevance of the Brundtland report, the further benefits of the 2005 sustainable development strategy of planning policy statement 1 and was in light of preparations for the Rio+20 conference that was taking place at the time—was the need to accept the primacy of environmental limits. Indeed, what we wanted was to see local councils include in their local plans a requirement for some types of development to include environmental gain.

Additionally, and perhaps not surprisingly, as ours is a cross-cutting Committee—a concept which I believe is increasingly no longer cherished, understood or aspired to by the Government—we wanted the final version of the NPPF to be signed off not just by the Department for Communities and Local Government, but by Ministers in other key Departments. They would include the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport—we heard just now about the importance of local transport structures—the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the

5 Nov 2012 : Column 625

Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Above all, in view of its strategic significance, they would include the Treasury.

Our other key reports, most notably the one on the green economy, reach the same conclusion. We continue to urge the Government to back green growth, rather than locking us into short-term fixes with no regard for future long-term costs and environmental degradation, which is what the Bill will do. After barely six months, we have seen a complete turn-around on the Government’s part. This is a truly irresponsible Bill, which I think reveals the Government in their true colours. Members who sat through the presentation that we have just heard have every right to be concerned. The Bill shows the Government abandoning any claim to be the greenest Government ever, and it undermines their position on the world stage, where the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister seek to take forward the principles of the sustainable development goals at the United Nations negotiations.

Damian Collins: I welcome the placing of growth at the heart of legislation such as this. One of my criticisms of the proposals for the sites of the new nuclear power stations that were drawn up by the last Government was that the process involved no consideration of the local economic benefit of building a new power station. In the case of Dungeness in my constituency, that was much to the detriment of the consideration of the benefits of that site.

Joan Walley: The point is well made. Investment in power should be for the benefit of the whole community; the aim should not be for the profits to go into the hands of a very few people.

The Government cannot lead by example abroad if they cannot back up their principles with deeds at home. I believe that the Bill condemns a whole generation of people who desperately need jobs and hope for their own future now to a waste land without jobs and homes, and no say whatsoever in local affairs. So much for localism. This way lies a real threat to our parliamentary participatory democracy.

We have a U-turn on localism, a set of incoherent proposals for the financing of investment in new homes, and an NPPF which, in the light of the Bill, we shall be hard-pressed to find fit for purpose. We have a Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—I am sorry to see that he is no longer present to listen to the argument—who is taking responsibility for the ability of his friends the developers to get their own way, and a fast track to development and the profits that come from that, without any of the responsibilities for the people, the places, the footpaths, the heritage and the environmental protections which his Department ostensibly promotes. That is a very flawed definition of localism.

I assume that Parliament will vote for the Bill tonight. Incredibly, just as we forgo all rights to planning safeguards and local democracy, it seems that the Secretary of State has not already taken enough of the cake. He is just not satisfied. As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central, the shadow Secretary of State, he is venturing to trump employment

5 Nov 2012 : Column 626

rights in the workplace as well. I feel very strongly about that. We need only read the notes issued by his Department to realise how justified he feels it is to prevent people from going to employment tribunals by the back door. He is dressing it up as employee ownership, but in all but a very few cases it will be a smokescreen for depriving people of rights at work. The Government ought at least to be transparent about that.

Let us look at what the Government are doing. They are introducing drastic measures to kick-start a building programme, or so they tell us. As we have heard, it is necessary to look no further than the Local Government Association to see that the Government have got it wrong. We have been told already that

“Approval is in place for 400,000 new homes and councils are green-lighting planning applications at the fastest rate in a decade. The big problem is that developers can’t borrow to build and first-time buyers can’t get mortgages. Taking planning decisions away from local communities and placing them in the hands of an unelected quango isn’t going to fix that.”

That was a quote from Sir Merrick Cockell. The Government should be listening to find out how to address these issues.

I have many concerns about the lack of activity in construction, but the Bill will not deal with them. I am also concerned about the Climate Change Act 2008. As well as centralising the system and undermining local government, the Bill will fail to tackle climate change. I hope that there will be an opportunity in Committee to see whether duties can be placed on the Secretary of State when national policy statements are drawn up to consider climate change, whether section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which deals with the duty on climate change and local plans, can be strengthened to link to the Climate Change Act, and whether an obligation can be created with regard to the survey of plans so that carbon issues are considered. Those are all issues that need to be addressed constructively in Committee and in the other House.

Mention has been made of the concerns of local authorities, as if they were not strapped for cash enough with all that is happening under the comprehensive spending review. How on earth will they be able to carry out their responsibilities? I fear that the Bill paints a picture of a local community where there are few affordable homes. We have seen already how people in London will be forced out of the capital to cheaper homes elsewhere. There is no joined-up consideration by the Government of where we need the social housing.

I believe that the Bill will create a situation in which commons and village greens become something to resist rather than to celebrate, where the community is busy trying to develop ideas for a balanced community through a neighbourhood plan but where those who want to develop in the area can go straight to central Government, and where it may be easier to reduce or block people’s access to the countryside by changes to procedures on rights of way. I have sat through many debates about rights of way, footpaths and stopping up orders and how to get people to keep their local footpaths. This Bill could take all that away.

Our Committee had real misgivings about the NPPF at the time. We did what we could to change it for the better. Now that it is in place, what is needed is stability to allow local authorities time to get their local plans in place and to develop procedures to co-ordinate with

5 Nov 2012 : Column 627

one another under the NPPF “duty to operate” on higher-than-local issues, which were previously dealt with in regional spatial strategies. On that, we need look no further than the fact that the DCLG, when it got rid of those strategies, also got rid of the environmental appraisals that were required. There is no joined-up approach to all this. Instead the goalposts are being moved again. The NPPF was sold on the importance of local decision making in planning matters, but the Bill takes control and influence away from local authorities and centralises planning decisions. I believe that it is just plain wrong.

5.28 pm

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I want to take us back to the Planning Act 2008. There was a sense that it had an element of a fast-track system in it, but it is instructive to learn that business leaders believe that it has had no effect. We moved on and introduced the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework to lay the foundation for an improved planning system. These aim to deliver a simpler, faster, less bureaucratic system that is also infinitely fairer. It cannot be right that only those in the know knew what it was they should know. It is right that the system broadened that out so that we can all have a share in the planning system.

The first phase is complete. The Localism Act 2011 is through, and the nation is now busy planning. The national planning policy framework is through, too, and it has laid the foundations for a simpler and quicker system. However, as the Secretary of State has said, there is still much more to do. What is going to happen to the remaining 6,000 pages of guidance, which the committee chaired by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), is tackling, and how are we going to speed up the system? We must also encourage councils to deliver.

The planning system has failed to deliver the infrastructure that the UK requires. I am not alone in saying that: some 97% of business leaders questioned in a CBI and PricewaterhouseCoopers survey said that the planning system had failed to deliver, and 76% regarded the planning regime as a significant barrier to infrastructure development.

Tristram Hunt: The hon. Gentleman is setting out an interesting narrative. Is he seriously suggesting this Bill was planned before the summer recess?

John Howell: Yes, I am suggesting that parts of this Bill were planned before the recess. Its proposed changes are a natural result of the changes we introduced through the Localism Act and the national planning policy framework, and if the hon. Gentleman looks more carefully, he will see the links between the bits that came before and the bits that are coming now.

The Local Government Association stance that planning is not the problem is fundamentally misleading. It is based on an analysis—I use that term loosely—of 400,000 planning permissions that have been granted, but we are not told whether they are viable or even where they are. We are asked to believe that 400,000 houses have been given planning permissions and are ready to go today as if nothing stood in the way.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 628

Grahame M. Morris: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the two points he has raised are not material planning considerations?

John Howell: I accept that they may not be planning considerations, but they are certainly considerations in whether to move a development forward. The issue is that the planning permissions have been given but the houses have not been developed.

The problem lies not in the planning permissions that have been given, but in those that have not been given. The cost of producing rural planning applications is higher than the cost of those in other areas, and the Country Land and Business Association states that in many cases local planning authority staff clearly hope that the applicant, if faced with enough demands for expensive reports and surveys, will withdraw the application. In practice, that frequently does lead to withdrawal, especially in respect of minor developments: for instance, a proposal costing £5,000 to implement is unlikely to justify information costing £5,000 to produce. Indeed, prospective applicants often simply do not submit a proposal in the first place, which means that desirable rural economic development does not go ahead. This tends to bring the planning system into disrepute. It is therefore right for the planning system to be accused of holding up development.

The Bill is also accused of being centralising, rather than localist. This ignores the fact that the changes are meant to be part of a double devolution. The first was a devolution down to district and borough councils’ local planning authorities. The second was a devolution down to local people, so that they could put together their own neighbourhood plans. Devolution to local people is working better than devolution to councils. At the recent neighbourhood planning seminar in Thame in my constituency, which is one of the neighbourhood planning frontrunners, I was as surprised as anyone when a little old lady said, “Isn’t planning such fun?” I hope that that feeling is occurring all around the country, as people begin to get their hands dirty in doing the planning necessary to make these neighbourhood plans successful.

Alison Seabeck: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Howell: No, I will not.

Devolution to councils is being held up, either because they are incapable of dealing with it or because they are not performing well—neither is acceptable and I would expect this to be dealt with as it has been in the Bill. It is time for our councils to deliver. This approach is all part of encouraging councils, but there can be no doubt that our historical under-supply of homes, over some 20 years at least, is the result of a planning system that is not fit for purpose. That was the conclusion of the Barker review of housing supply in 2004. The Killian Pretty review in 2008 found that only five out of 64 planning applications went ahead without difficulties, with the rest often having substantial problems that either delayed them or changed the nature of the development. According to the National Audit Office, planning laws create the highest regulatory costs of any type of regulation. The Opposition have thus totally missed the point of localism, which was the double devolution down to local communities which are engaging in the production of their own local

5 Nov 2012 : Column 629

plans; they are empowered to do so and they are seizing those opportunities fully with both hands to make the best of them.

Clause 4 deals with the information requirements. There is a sense that the clause is unnecessary because other more general powers are available to ask for the right amount of information when looking at an application, but that is utter nonsense. Information requirements are now pretty wide. We have all sat through planning committees where the information requested has been wide of the mark and, in particular, has borne no relation to what might be a material consideration. I am grateful that the Bill has included information that will be a “material consideration” in the terms of the information that will be collected.

Mr Slaughter: I am slightly confused as to whether the hon. Gentleman is the same MP for Henley who said in support of a third-party right of appeal:

“We will make the system symmetrical by allowing appeals against local planning decisions from local residents, as well as from developers”.

Does he see any contrast between that view and what is in the Bill?

John Howell: I am not sure I see the relevance of the quote, but it was overtaken by time, by the way in which the Localism Act was put together and by the way in which that would have been an absurdity in how neighbourhood planning was put together. It is no use the hon. Gentleman looking up old quotes from four years ago and expecting them to somehow blow me off course, because he has not taken account of history on the way.

Let me turn now to the subject of village greens, as we have all seen how that status has been abused. In Oxfordshire, although not in my constituency, village green status has been pursued for an area that largely consists of an old gravel pit that is now a lake. It is absurd to continue in this way, particularly when legislation has given communities the ability to designate green open spaces that mean something to them. We do not require them to be the most beautiful grounds in the parish or to have special environmental significance; their significance lies in their importance to the local community. That element of the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework is sufficient.

Martin Horwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Howell: I will not, because I do not have much time.

The clauses that deal with section 106 agreements do not, as David Orr suggested, abolish section 106. They offer an opportunity to renegotiate section 106 agreements undertaken at the height of the boom when things were going well, and it is quite right that they should do so. It is important to recognise that when development cannot go ahead no affordable housing will be built, so renegotiating section 106 to ensure economic viability will mean that more such homes can be built. In other words, if we do not do this, we will get no section 106 affordable homes as opposed to some.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 630

For those reasons, I think that the Bill attacks the issues correctly and in a balanced manner. It continues many of the reforms we introduced in the Localism Act and national planning policy framework and it does so in a way that I am happy to support.

5.42 pm

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), although he will find that I do not agree with his views on the Bill.

I have to agree with the Local Government Association that the Bill represents a blow to democracy and is at odds with the Government’s localism programme. As a former councillor and planning committee member, I fully appreciate the importance of the links between community decision making and planning. As democratically elected and accountable representatives, councillors are in the main fully aware of residents’ needs, concerns and aspirations in making decisions about how their area should be developed for economic and social benefit. Any legislation that would foster that accountability would be welcome, but in the months since the then Planning Minister, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), promised in March that the national planning policy framework would support growth and allow

“people and communities back into planning”,

quite the opposite has happened.

Instead of offering local accountability, the Bill hands decision making to the unelected Planning Inspectorate and hands increased powers to the Secretary of State that turn localism firmly on its head. In Battle Hill ward in North Tyneside, a ward in which I live and which I represented as a councillor, a planning application for 66 houses on a former school playing field was rejected by the planning committee at the beginning of March. To my mind, the planning committee’s decision was quite right.

The developers have appealed, and the council has now been advised that the appeal will be heard under the new rules and that objections made at the time will no longer be relevant. I wonder what the Minister thinks of that, as many of the objections were made by local people and related to the safety of a school access road becoming a general access road and the fact that some designated open space was being lost. Where is the accountability in that?

Alison Seabeck: I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s local experience and paralleling it with the experience of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who said that an elderly lady said that planning was fun. Planning will hardly be fun if decision making is taken from local people, as in my hon. Friend’s case, and handed straight to the Secretary of State.

Mrs Glindon: I agree with my hon. Friend, and for the people of Battle Hill this will be not a fun experience at all but a very serious one that will keep their concerns going. That is exactly what the Secretary of State is doing with planning matters in the Bill, and it is why there is such great concern about his proposals.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 631

Local councils, on average, determine householder planning appeals in fewer than eight weeks and non-householder appeals in fewer than 13 weeks. Currently, the averages for such determinations by the Planning Inspectorate are seven weeks and 17 weeks respectively. If the Planning Inspectorate is given additional responsibilities, as set out in the Bill, to take over the designation of failing councils and in setting the viability of affordable housing requirements, that could lead to further delays and worse decisions.

Moreover, by stripping a designated failing council—whatever that might be—of its powers, the Bill will enable developers to have their applications decided by the Secretary of State, without being reviewed by the local authority and with no right of appeal against the Secretary of State’s decision. No wonder the Local Government Association has misgivings about the Bill. There is nothing in it to say what criteria will be used to define a failing council, as has been said a number of times today. The LGA would, quite rightly, rather central Government gave support to councils that might have performance issues ahead of any intervention. I fully support the LGA in its premise that it makes more sense adequately to fund locally accountable decision making than to fund a quango, such as the Planning Inspectorate, to make such decisions.

It is well documented that planning is not the problem for growth. What is actually needed is investment to build houses and infrastructure, and the Bill does not provide scope for real growth. It will weaken the ability of councils to negotiate with developers on desperately needed affordable housing within local developments under section 106 agreements, with, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and the shadow Minister have said, an estimated loss of the building of 35,000 affordable homes a year—a statistic that does not bode well for the 4,500 people on the waiting list of North Tyneside council.

With the Bill, the Secretary of State is reneging on his promise to let councillors and communities run their own affairs. May I say as an aside, Madam Deputy Speaker, that that undemocratic attitude is rubbing off on one of his favourites? The elected mayor of North Tyneside, who now, having only 12 members on a council of 60, with 43 Labour members and four Liberal Democrats, has at great expense to the people of North Tyneside engaged counsel to put a new interpretation on the powers of elected mayors, so that she can ignore the two-thirds majority rule. So our mayor, like the Secretary of State, has become something like a dictator, taking decision making away from the majority of democratically elected members and, ultimately, the electorate.

There are many more problems with the Bill, but the fact that it will make the planning process far less democratic and will seriously threaten future housing and infrastructure development, with no real growth—except, as the shadow Minister said, in the Secretary of State’s powers—tells me and, I hope, the House that the Bill should not get our support.

5.49 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): My starting point is that I want to support and achieve growth in our economy and good-quality infrastructure,

5 Nov 2012 : Column 632

but I also want good-quality local planning decisions. I have reservations about certain aspects of the Bill, and I seek reassurance.

As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) reminded us, a great deal of time was spent on the Floor of the House and in various Committees debating the national policy planning framework, which has only recently been approved—in particular, the need for a definition of sustainability that encompassed environmental, economic and social factors. Personally, I was very pleased with the final wording and outcomes. I thought it was an example of good government: Government listening and making changes to the draft document as a consequence of consultation.

In our consideration of the Bill, we must not lose sight of the underlying principles that we have only just agreed. I am concerned that the Bill appears to propose a massive shift away from local decision making to a centralised approach. At the very least, there should be a clear evidence base for the proposals, as well as full scrutiny of their potential outcomes. In addition, the question should be asked: can we achieve the stated objectives in a better, more effective way that would be compatible with local decision making and local community involvement?

I would like to look at four of the areas in the Bill concerning planning, the first of which is the designation of a local planning authority, with the Planning Inspectorate making the decisions. It is interesting to note the cross-party Local Government Association view of this proposal as counter-productive, centralist and at odds with localism. That raises the question of whether planning is the problem, and I am not at all sure that I would follow entirely the analysis made by the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell).

Clause 1 provides the Secretary of State with a wide-ranging power to remove planning decisions from the local level, but it does not provide any detail of the criteria. What scale of intervention are we talking about? Are we talking about intervening on a handful of authorities, or dozens of authorities? That is highly significant. We are asked to think about speed and quality of decision making. Clearly, there is a lot of variation in council performance in meeting the time targets on both minor and major applications, but we need a starting point to look at the reasons, with the Department—perhaps it has done so already; I would be happy to learn of it—working with the local authority and asking: what is it that is holding up the authority’s decision making? What is it that means councils are missing the determination targets for eight weeks and 13 weeks?

I represent an area that includes some small district councils. Their planning departments have a heavy work load in relation to the number of officers employed. The question of whether that is a matter of the council reallocating its resources, or adequate resources being provided, needs to be addressed. All in all, it seems to be a massive decision to take planning decisions from a local authority, but I am not at all sure, from what I have heard, that it is as big as it sounds. It could just be sensible intervention: working with local authorities, establishing the facts, proceeding, and then, perhaps at the end of the line there may be a case for taking

5 Nov 2012 : Column 633

stronger action with one or two authorities. However, my reading suggests that the Bill could permit a massive intervention.

I am concerned about the potential scale of the changes to section 106 agreements. Section 106s have delivered affordable housing. We know that councils are already overwhelmingly responding to changed economic circumstances, including renegotiating section 106 agreements voluntarily, and they can do that within the context of their local plans. I am not clear on the evidence that it is the affordable housing element of section 106s which, on a very large scale, is holding up planning applications. If we had that evidence, it would be much easier to make a good decision. We need to identify and sort out the problems. A big worry about losing section 106 housing requirements is that there will be no general consideration of development plan policy, such as the need for homes at a range of prices in local communities. The National Housing Federation mentions the rural exception sites, for example, which are of course very dear to my heart.

The policy could be counter-productive, and I ask the Minister to address that concern. There is a risk of stronger local opposition to developer plans if the perception grows that new developments will be just for expensive new homes, or, as in my area, for more second homes, and that local people will end up with no affordable homes. Having an assurance that there would be homes for local young people would mean that the community could sign up to them, and that is important.

There could be further delays to housing, with developers waiting for the Bill to be implemented.

Alison Seabeck: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Annette Brooke: I would like to proceed.

Enforced renegotiation means that benefits from 106 agreements may be lost for ever, regardless of the needs and views of the local community. If renegotiation outcomes were in line with local planning policies, I cannot see why a local council would not renegotiate on a voluntary basis. Developers’ profits will rise, but how transparent and independent will the appraisals be of the viability of a development with and without the section 106 obligations? It is important to have mixed communities of housing. One of my favourite places that I visit is a large housing estate. As I knock on the doors, I do not know which house was built originally as social housing and which was built originally as private housing—that is what we must aspire to. My problem is that even if the developer finds that a development is not economically viable and we all agree with that in a transparent way, we would lose that social housing. Could the £300 million not be targeted to make sure that the local planning authority keeps the housing it needs?

Mr Betts: The hon. Lady is giving a thoughtful and careful critique of the Bill. Given that she will vote later not on the warm words of Ministers but on what is actually in the Bill, will she indicate what would cause her to support the Bill given her critique so far?

5 Nov 2012 : Column 634

Annette Brooke: I am indicating clearly that a large number of areas need to be scrutinised very carefully, and that it would be wrong for me not to raise my concerns.

I want to look at positive measures, too. For example, Eastleigh council has worked well to secure affordable housing, achieving the mixed developments to which we aspire. It has worked with developers to offer a guaranteed purchase model for developers that have sites with existing planning permission but which are unsure whether they could sell the houses and where, as a result, development has stalled. The council offered to act as a purchaser of last resort if the developers could not sell them. The developers then went ahead and built new homes, and so far the council has not had to buy any new stock, and will rent out any it does purchase at a discounted rate. There is a lot of scope for innovation, if we truly believe in localism and give those powers to local councils.

On the designation of town and village greens, I have examples of applications holding up development, but I do not have overriding evidence that it is the case. The evidence is anecdotal. That again is why we need to scrutinise the proposals carefully. Through neighbourhood plans backed up by the national planning policy framework, the local designation of green open spaces is a good way forward. We have to move from one system to the other, however, and I am concerned that the transition will not be a smooth one, because there remain cases in all our constituencies where we want open spaces protected but where, for example, the neighbourhood plan has not been worked up sufficiently. Some major groups are not satisfied with the explanations given so far, and we must come up with clear reassurances and a clear outline of the transition from one system to the other. Urban green spaces, as well as the long-established village greens, are very important, so we need these assurances. I ask Ministers to address that point tonight.

Finally, on electronic and communications infrastructure, there are fears that the proposals could cause serious damage to designated landscapes, including national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. As I know from my own constituency, where access in rural areas is lagging, the Government are right to prioritise broadband access in rural areas, but it must be possible to roll out superfast broadband in these areas and conserve beauty at the same time. Again, I am concerned about irreversible damage. We have to get this right.

We should also consider historic urban locations that could be damaged by inappropriately placed street cabinets, which, under the proposals, as I understand them, could be placed in any areas other than sites of special scientific interest. Throughout this, I am thinking of both urban and rural areas, because the same theme applies to both. Is there evidence that the proposals will deliver what the Government—and I—want? It is a difficult time. We have rightly scrapped regional spatial strategies, and we have introduced many excellent measures, but they need time to bed in. We need time to look at each case carefully, to consider the evidence and to look outside the box—for example, at lifting the cap on local authority borrowing in order to jump-start the housing market.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 635

6.3 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): This is the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, but it could more accurately be described as the English local government (planning change) (miscellaneous orders) Bill with some additional provision for energy, which is important, and, in clause 23, what the Government euphemistically call “economic measures” but which appear mainly to be another attack on employee rights. It certainly is not a Bill for growth in any way, shape or form. If the Secretary of State really wanted the factories, offices and infrastructure he spoke of in his introduction, instead of this mishmash of a Bill, the Chancellor would be reintroducing the industrial buildings allowance to provide a real incentive for the supply-side investment that will bring the necessary economic enlargement.

The Bill is a bit of a guddle. Paragraphs 11 to 23 in the explanatory notes describe those bits that are executively devolved, fully devolved and reserved, and those elements, mainly in clauses 17 and 18, that require a legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament. I shall speak about the reserved and devolved parts later. Given that much of the Bill relates to this matter, however, I want to start, unusually, by looking at the changes proposed to the English planning system, mainly to determine the Government’s thinking.

The Government are suggesting the option to make planning applications directly to the Secretary of State when the local planning authority is designated to be performing poorly. On the other hand, the Scottish Government are concentrating on improving planning authority and other stakeholder performance by linking fees to performance, and are committed to performance across the entire planning service. They have worked with local government agencies and the private sector to introduce a new planning performance framework that carries a firm commitment to continuous improvement.

The Scottish Government have also drawn a clear link between performance and planning fee levels. Authorities that do not improve will have their fees reduced, and the Scottish Government are pursuing the legislative powers to do that. They already have a system that allows the applicant to appeal on non-determination of a planning application. I ask the Minister, therefore, why the UK Government have chosen to allow applications to be made directly to the Secretary of State, rather than linking performance to the fees demanded by local authorities or LPAs, in order to improve poorly performing councils.

The Bill suggests broadening powers to award costs at planning appeals. The Scottish Government have not considered that change necessary in Scotland, and instead have concentrated on streamlining the appeals process in an effort to reduce costs. In 2009, they streamlined the appeals process even further precisely to prevent developments from becoming bogged down in lengthy and expensive inquiries. Why, then, have the Government chosen to broaden the powers to award costs, rather than to take different steps to streamline the appeals process, which is a sensible thing to do in any circumstances?

Under the Bill, the Government have also proposed limiting the power of LPAs to require supporting information for planning applications. In England, LPAs can specify the content of applications, but provisions in the Bill attempt to limit that. In Scotland, the Government specify the content of applications in national regulations.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 636

Under clause 4, the UK Government plan to go about this by amending the primary legislative framework governing what local authorities can ask for in support of a planning application so that such requests are reasonable and relate to matters likely to be material planning considerations.

The regulations in Scotland specify what accompanies an initial application and allow additional information to be requested when the planning authority considers it necessary to determine the application. That might well be in response to information required by statutory consultees. The emphasis on pre-application discussion between applicants, planning authorities and statutory consultees to identify information requirements in advance seems to make sense. Will the Minister explain, therefore, why the UK Government have chosen to amend primary legislation to limit information, rather than going down the route of national regulations, which would allow information to be required over and above a de minimis level, where it is necessary to determine an application?

The Bill also allows for the reconsideration of economically unviable section 106 affordable housing obligations, with the sensible objective of freeing up stalled housing sites. In Scotland, we have the power to modify or discharge section 75 planning obligations—the direct equivalent of section 106 agreements—whether or not they relate to affordable housing. Whether in England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland, however, the problem with freeing up stalled affordable housing sites has little to do with the planning system, and far more to do with the unavailability to developers, including housing associations, of the lending required to start or complete sites. Would Government time not have been more constructively spent trying to free up cash from the banks and lenders to allow those developments to proceed? I believe, and I hope the Minister can confirm, that the Scottish Government already have the powers to modify or discharge planning obligations equivalent to those under section 106, and I hope he can confirm that nothing in the Bill would change that.

On the major infrastructure changes—non-planning changes—clauses 17 and 18 relate to the ability of the Secretary of State to vary consents for generating stations granted under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989, and therefore to avoid the need for the full panoply of consent application requirements to apply for changes in a proposal. The existing consent power is executively devolved and the related power under planning legislation for Ministers to direct that planning permission is deemed to be granted for any development that receives consent under a section 36 order. That removes the need for separate planning application and was devolved in the Scotland Act 1998. It therefore makes sense that the Bill should include provision for Scotland, although because of its devolved nature, the provision clearly needs to be ratified by the Scottish Parliament.

Clause 15, however, repeals section 14 of the Energy Act 1976 which requires developers or operators to give written notice to the Secretary of State for proposals to establish or convert electricity generating stations to be fuelled by gas or by petrol. An initial look would suggest that this is a minor removal of red tape where a section 36 consent under the Electricity Act would be required in any event. I wonder whether the Secretary of State did not rather overstate the ripping-up of the red tape to which he referred in his opening remarks.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 637

There is also the opportunity here to correct the anomaly in the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 where, when granting consent for offshore wind farms, Ministers cannot at the same time direct that planning permission for onshore ancillary development be granted. A joined-up approach to that makes sense but because, as I said, many of these things are executively or fully devolved, that will also require a legislative consent motion from Scotland.

There are only two economic measures in the Bill. One is clause 22 which postpones the next non-domestic rating revaluation from 2015 to 2017. The argument is that that provides certain businesses with increased certainty about their business rates bill and allows them to focus on running their businesses. At face value that is sensible, and I am sure that Scottish Ministers will take their own decision on the equivalent revaluation postponement or not in good time.

Clause 23 is the key to the Bill. It represents another erosion of employee rights. I am all in favour of employee share schemes. Such an incentive is good. Employees owning a part of the business that they work for makes sense. At no time ever have I thought that that should be purchased at the cost of the removal of the basic rights that everybody else takes for granted, and I am deeply concerned about that. Even the briefest look at the explanatory notes tells us that in return for this new employment status, employees will have to forgo certain unfair dismissal rights, meaning that in certain circumstances they can be dismissed in a way that would now be unfair. That seems utterly ridiculous.

Employees will forgo statutory redundancy pay, on the off-chance that the shares that they have been awarded may have some value—any value—or, indeed, any market at all for them. That raises a serious question. Should there not be an open market, do the Government intend that the business buy that stock back, which might put the employer in an invidious position at that point? In order to become an employee owner, certain rights to flexible working will be forgone. As we heard earlier, businesses—we all know them—want their employees on occasion to be able to work flexibly. This is an important drive forward, and the provision is a huge reversal of that trend.

Employees will also have to forgo certain rights to request study and training. The next time a Conservative or a Liberal bemoans skills shortages in a company, sector or geographic area, we should remind the governing parties that they are asking people, in return for being an employee owner, to give up the right to request study and training leave—precisely the opportunities that people need to get the skills that their employers require now and in the future.

Giving up the right to go back to work early after maternity or adoption leave is incredible. We all understand that businesses have costs when they put interns or temps in when someone is away on maternity or adoption leave. I have never had a single employer say to me, “I don’t want my employee who is off on maternity leave to come back earlier.” Normally employers are desperate to get back their experienced staff, so the idea that the ability to become an employee owner will mean having to forgo the ability even to request coming back early is ridiculous.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 638

I hope the Minister can answer the technical questions that I posed. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

6.15 pm

Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, said that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. He was right in the following respect: the economic crisis that this Government inherited in 2010 should allow us to be radical in our thinking, radical in our approach to economic growth policy, and radical in our approach to more and better infrastructure, for it is more and better infrastructure that will drive up productivity and total output.

It is two years since the Government announced the national infrastructure plan, and it is fair to say—I say this in a spirit of friendly candour—that it has not been progressed as rapidly and as efficiently as Ministers would have liked. In September this year the Public Accounts Committee looked at the regional growth fund. Of the £1.4 billion allocated, it found that only £470 million had been paid out; £364 million had been parked in intermediary bodies under an endowment programme. Only £60 million out of the £1.4 billion had found its way into front-line projects. It was calculated that that had bought 5,200 jobs. So a lot more remains to be done in driving through and delivering those projects.

There are signs that Ministers in this Government get it. I had the advantage of going to visit the new roads Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), with my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who is in his place. When we indicated that the excellent proposal to toll the A14 around Cambridge was one that we wanted to see earlier rather than later, the Minister was able to assure us that he had knocked 12 months off the initial timetable for when concrete would be poured. He also helpfully indicated that that road toll project would not be a compulsory road toll on heavy goods vehicles, and there was a clear sense of urgency on the part of that Minister.

What about the Bill before us? To what extent will it speed up and make more efficient the delivery of the infrastructure that all of us, in all parts of the House, want to see? I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who is not in his place but who made an excellent speech, that we should not get carried away with the idea that more residential housing development will give us a permanent boost to long-term trend growth of the UK economy. If I may say so, we have heard too much in this debate about residential housing development. In my view, the reason that we have less of it is insufficient demand from buyers, insufficient capital being supplied to developers, and the state of their balance sheets. It would therefore be a mistake to bet the farm, so to speak, on housing development getting the UK economy going.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) offered an explanation for the backlog of planning consents of around 400,000 for residential and other developments and said why that is not really as bad as it sounds. In my part of East Anglia, no developers have

5 Nov 2012 : Column 639

been beating a path to my door to say that we are not building enough homes because of a lousy council or a sclerotic planning regime. Furthermore, I understand from the Local Government Association that the approval rate for residential and commercial planning applications is now at a decade high; 87% were approved in 2011-12.

I must say that I am not a doctrinaire localist and, therefore, do not view some of the clauses in the Bill with as much trepidation as some of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches. I am more concerned about legislation that works and gets the planning system moving. Therefore, on clause 1, I will say only that, although the Secretary of State is taking quite wide powers, it is ridiculous to suggest that they will be unfettered, because subsection (8) makes it perfectly clear, in paragraphs (a) to (d), that guidance will be published setting out what constitutes a poorly performing authority. That is set out in the Bill and will come in time, so I do not think that we should get too excited about it.

However, those wide powers should be concerned with designating local planning authorities that are failing because they are tardy and inefficient in disposing of business. I would not want to see—I am sure Members on both sides of the House agree—a planning authority put into special measures simply because it had not built enough houses in a particular area, according to the lights of the Minister involved. I would find that pretty offensive, and it would certainly not be to the liking of my constituents.

I declare an interest, as I represent one of the United Kingdom’s great and iconic market towns, Bury St Edmunds. There has been a cross-party petition to keep that jewel in the crown of the east of England special. We already have a local planning agreement from the Conservative-led St Edmundsbury borough council, planning for a smaller number of residential homes in the next 20 years than was insisted upon by the previous Administration’s regional strategy. We have been able to use local council power to come up with a compromise that satisfies local housing demand. The last thing I want to see is any ministerial power being used to overturn the decisions of councils simply because they do not appear, in the Minister’s view, to have approved enough residential homes.

Clause 21 has already been mentioned. I am very relaxed about it. If we want to get the big infrastructure projects moving, whether energy reactors, rail electrification or increased aviation capacity, it seems to me to be perfectly legitimate and proper to give Ministers the power to fast-track those kinds of major national projects in the interests of efficiency, given the economic problems we face and the fact that we need to give nationally significant infrastructure projects a shot in the arm.

That brings me to a big national infrastructure project that we have not heard much, if anything, about today: the vexed issue of creating more aviation capacity. I think that it is now viewed as a mistake that my party’s 2010 manifesto ruled out making any decision on a third runway at Heathrow in this Parliament. I think that the noble Lord Heseltine was absolutely correct to say—I summarise colloquially—“Get a move on. Let’s make a decision sooner rather than later.” I also agree with the Mayor of London that we should not just go headlong towards building aviation capacity for the sake of it but should weigh up having a third runway at

5 Nov 2012 : Column 640

Heathrow with other options, as some colleagues, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), have suggested, such as extending Stansted or Gatwick or maybe even having a new airport in the Thames estuary. But we need to get on with it. It seems to me that any discussion of growth and infrastructure in this Chamber demands a grown-up, civilized, intelligent and well-informed debate about how aviation capacity can not only boost short-term growth, but improve long-term trends in GDP growth.

I want to say something about a type of infrastructure that is very dear to the hearts of those of us who are worried about broadband apartheid. I mean the parts of apparently affluent rural Britain—parts of which are in my constituency—where there are concerns that they will be left behind not only on superfast broadband, but on any kind of fibre-optic access at all. There seem to be clauses in the Bill that would allow fast-tracking, whether through compulsory purchase orders, the purchase of land or planning applications, so that we could get those fibre-optic channels dug out. I was lobbied on that question by Battisford parish council only a couple of Fridays ago. There is new housing there and small rural businesses, but they cannot possibly grow and thrive if they are at the tail end of any broadband roll-out. Therefore, to the extent that it will facilitate faster broadband roll-out, I welcome the Bill.

I broadly welcome the Bill, but I also have reservations about the future and about delivery. I am glad to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) on the Front Bench. He is, not only as the Tory Minister for growth, but as a man with a track record in the private sector and, in a former incarnation, as an Education Minister, a man who gets on with delivery. I hope that when he winds up the debate tonight he will give us an indication of the Government’s renewed sense of purpose in boosting economic growth and infrastructure in this country.

6.27 pm

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): It is no surprise that we are talking today in this Chamber about growth, or rather the lack of growth, given the parlous state of the economy. Only today the Construction Products Association revealed that in the third quarter of this year, whatever slight improvement there might have been in the rest of the economy, construction activity declined again, in both the public and private sectors, and there is no expectation of any growth in the sector until 2014, despite all the Government initiatives and those that are proposed.

What is more surprising, however, is that we are talking once again about planning. It is only a matter of weeks since we were here discussing the revised version of the national planning policy framework, which had been subject to months of consultation. To be fair to the Government, they had listened. The Communities and Local Government Committee produced a report, which was agreed unanimously by its members, and the Government accepted nearly all its recommendations. There was a general welcome for the statement, both across the Chamber and by most outside organisations. Only a few weeks after that general agreement on the way forward for planning, we are talking about measures that were not even part of the consultation that took

5 Nov 2012 : Column 641

place over many months last year and the early part of this year. It seems that we are back to the old situation: when in doubt, blame the planners.

It was interesting to listen to the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I think that he is right: there is simply no evidence for the claim that the planning system in this country is an obstacle to growth. When the Select Committee took evidence about the national planning policy framework, we could find no such evidence, and Ministers never brought forward any. If there is any, will someone please stand up and say so? We really need to put that argument to bed once and for all. We have heard that 87% of applications last year were approved and we know that 400,000 homes could be built on sites that already have planning permission. Those are the figures and that is the current situation.

When Governments start to change, or even suggest changing, the planning system, there is always a danger that that in itself will create uncertainty, both for councils and for potential applicants, and that that uncertainty will create delay and have the opposite effect of the Government’s initial intention.

What is the situation and why are we here today? My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) got it right. Over the summer, we could almost see the wringing of hands at No. 10 and No. 11 because the economy would not move. They were worried about why there was no growth, not sure what to do about it and looking for others to blame. We could almost hear the call to the Secretary of State: “Find me some initiatives. Anything will do, so long as we look as though we’re doing something.” They came up with what can best be described as a rag-bag of measures which have not been thought through. Ministers at the Department were then given the job this afternoon of trying to justify the measures with some sort of coherence, and to work out how to implement them.

In his first appearance before the Communities and Local Government Committee, the planning Minister had a difficult job explaining why there were no criteria to justify so many of the measures and why there were still going to be consultations. I thank him for replying to us, as we requested, with the list of consultations on secondary legislation that the Government intend to undertake—there are rather a lot of them—in order to implement the measures that they think will stimulate growth in this country.

I am not going to say that this is the end of the planning system as we know it, but clause 1 is a fundamental attack on localism. This goes to the heart of what the Government have been talking about for a long time. First we had localism, which is about transferring power to local communities. I support that principle and some of the things that the Government have done. We then had guided localism, which is about giving powers to local communities and then telling them how to use them. For example, local authorities have the power to decide how often to empty their bins, but the Secretary of State knows best and will tell them how to do it. Now we have muscular localism, which is a wonderful phrase. The Secretary of State embodies it—it is his own and he has taken it to himself—and we are now able to see what it means. It is about giving powers to local communities,

5 Nov 2012 : Column 642

telling them how to use them and then, when they do not use them in the way in which the Secretary of State thinks they should, taking them back. For muscular localism, read centralism, with or without the cigar to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central alluded.

We are in a peculiar situation. The Government have said that local plans should be at the heart of the planning system, but they are now proposing that local applications made by local developers should be judged against the local plan not by the local authority, but by the centralised Planning Inspectorate. That is a complete contradiction of the Government’s policies.

We do not know how this system will operate or whether it will have any great impact. When the planning Minister gave evidence to the Committee, he said that it might only apply to a few cases for a short period. He did not anticipate many problems and thought that councils would up their game and respond, but we do not know what criteria they are supposed to be upping their game against. We have some idea about the criteria, because the Minister mentioned the speed of applications and the number of decisions that will be overturned on appeal. He then recognised, however, that there were problems with the statistics on the planning performance agreements with individual applications, because they may be skewed in such a way that the Secretary of State would have to have even more powers to decide whether authorities were falling down on their set targets. I thought that the Government were against targets and central assessments, but how can the system be run as defined by clause 1 without centralised targets and centralised assessments? Surely they are inherent in what the Government now propose.

In effect, clause 1 abolishes—this is an attack on the fundamentals of our planning system—the applicant’s right of appeal, which has always been at the heart of the planning system. Anyone who has a planning application turned down has a right of appeal to someone independent of the body that took the initial decision.

As I said when I intervened on my right hon. Friend, the Minister had to accept that consultations on planning applications with the local community will now simply be those that are statutorily required. Most planning authorities go beyond that by calling public meetings, staging local exhibitions where people can see what an application means, and sending letters to far more people than statutorily required, but the Planning Inspectorate will not be required to do any of that. Local authorities will still have some of the requirements, but no fees to pay for them. What a situation to get ourselves into!

As for the nationally significant infrastructure projects, we do not know what they will be. We know that they will involve business and commercial developments, but we do not know whether that includes retail. It would be helpful if Ministers could tell us whether retail schemes are included and whether we are going to drive a coach and horses through local shopping centres without the local community having a say in such decisions. At present, national policy statements—I congratulate the Government on ensuring that they are now approved by Parliament—represent democratic accountability for such decisions. However, Ministers now tell us—the planning Minister was clear, for example, on office development—that there will be no national

5 Nov 2012 : Column 643

policy statements. There will be no democratic say on how the schemes should be judged and no democratic involvement in the initial decision. Ministers might seek to defend that, but it is another fundamental change.

Why—the Minister could not explain this—will business and commercial developments follow the route laid down by the Planning Act 2008, but housing will be subject to increased and enhanced call-in powers by the Secretary of State? Why is housing being treated separately? If the Government are concerned about the scale of some housing projects in various council areas, why do they not beef up the duty to co-operate, which is what the Select Committee asked them to do when we addressed these issues some time ago? This is about getting agreement for big schemes across authorities, so surely the duty to co-operate is the way forward, if it means anything at all.

There is no evidence of a problem with section 106 agreements for affordable housing. The letter that the chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency wrote to me said that it was not an issue. Where is the evidence that there is a problem? Local authorities are renegotiating the agreements where appropriate and in line with local circumstances, but why determine the viability of individual schemes in different localities on a national basis? That is simply not acceptable. The danger is that if developers think they will get a better deal by delaying and going to the Planning Inspectorate once the Bill is enacted because fewer affordable homes will be required, the result of the measure will be the opposite of that intended. Ultimately, we could end up not only reducing the number of affordable houses being built, but, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has said, reducing mixed communities, because those schemes will all end up being private and the extra £300 million to produce affordable houses will go elsewhere. That is not acceptable either. In some areas there will be no alternative sites, other than those that currently have planning permission to build affordable homes. That is the reality.

I am also concerned about the proposals to use telecommunications equipment in the national parks. Other hon. Members have already made those concerns clear and I support them.

With this Bill, the Government are turning localism on its head. It is a fundamentally centralising measure. If the Government were able to argue that, pragmatically, it was worthwhile for them to go back on their principles because it would result in stimulating growth as intended, I would be able to understand. The likelihood, however, is that they will abandon their principles without achieving any extra growth whatsoever.

6.39 pm

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I rise to welcome the Bill and to speak particularly about infrastructure issues, which I hope the Committee will explore when it examines the Bill clause by clause.

The Bill’s long title says that it is

“To make provision in connection”

with “the provision…of infrastructure”. In that context, I particularly welcome clause 7, which deals with the speeding up of broadband infrastructure provision. However, not all infrastructure comes cost-free; much of it is paid for out of public funds. Broadband

5 Nov 2012 : Column 644

infrastructure is made great use of by content providers, not all of which contribute to public funds as they perhaps should. Google, a big content provider, had declared earnings for the financial year of £2.5 billion, with a pre-tax profit, estimated on the basis of its global operating margin, of £836.7 million, and a tax charge of just £3.4 million, which is equivalent to an effective tax rate of 0.4%.

Payment for the provision of infrastructure is an important matter, particularly in the case of companies based overseas—big multinationals—which, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, have much higher effective tax rates in their home territories: 21% in the case of Google, whose effective tax rate over all its foreign territories is just 3.25%. The same is true of Amazon, which had declared UK earnings for the financial year of £3.9 billion, a pre-tax profit, estimated on the basis of its global operating margins, of £76.9 million, and a tax charge in the UK of £1.9 million—equivalent to an effective tax rate of 2.5%, while back in the States it had a rate of 31.2%. It is very important to tackle the abuse of the tax system and make sure that people pay their fair share to the UK authorities. I welcomed the statements that the Chancellor and Wolfgang Schäuble made about this. When the Committee considers clause 7, I hope that it will focus on how infrastructure can be paid for, because that is an essential issue, particularly when the money comes from taxpayer funds.

I welcome clause 3, which deals with the cost of compulsory purchase inquiries. In Dover we have an office building called Burlington house which is the subject of a compulsory purchase order application that will go forward in due course. There is great concern about the cost of CPOs, and it is important to speed up inquiries and ensure that resisting a CPO is not penalty-free.

Clause 5 relates to section 106 obligations. I hope that the Committee will explore in more detail the question of infrastructure contributions where a business is clamouring for infrastructure to be put in place. For example, the east Kent access extension of the A256 in my constituency cost public funds £87 million, but the contribution from the business that was clamouring for it—Pfizer, which has a plant in Sandwich—was only about £1.6 million. Business is making a very small contribution. We should be rather more robust in saying, “Perhaps you should pay a bit more for the infrastructure you’re clamouring for”, particularly when, once it is built, the company closes down its plant, losing a lot of jobs. Pfizer had declared UK earnings for the financial year of £1.8 billion and a pre-tax profit, estimated on the basis of its global operating margin, of £347 million, and it did not pay a penny in tax in the UK in the previous financial year or the year before that. We should say to large multinationals, “You ought to contribute to the cost of this infrastructure. You shouldn’t play the game of transfer pricing and royalties—you should think of helping to pay for, improve and invest in UK infrastructure, thus helping the UK to grow.”

Clause 5 deals with the important aspect of viability. My own district council in Dover has been very positive in relation to viability by engaging with developers and talking about affordable housing contributions, but I recognise that that is not true of every district council or planning authority. We need to consider the whole issue of viability and how to ensure that there are strong, overarching powers should the need arise.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 645

On the chapter entitled “Economic measures”, I welcome the provision on employer owners, but I hope that the Committee will explore the growth side in terms of open and competitive playing fields and level markets. For example, why should Costa Coffee pay tax while Starbucks, which has declared UK earnings for the financial year of £397 million and made a pre-tax profit, estimated on the basis of its global operating margin, of £59.6 million, paid no tax at all? That is a matter of great concern. I hope that we will examine transfer pricing and the abuse of our tax system to make sure that a fair share of tax is paid in the UK as well.

6.44 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Whatever this Bill is about, it is not about growth. I have the authority of the Prime Minister on that, as he said in May this year:

“If you could legislate your way to growth, obviously we would. The truth is you can’t.”

I am afraid that, as many hon. Members have said, the Bill is about turning localism on its head and it is an utter centralisation of planning policy that has served us fairly well over the past 60 years. The question therefore is why the Government are doing it. I fear that this is about finding ways in which the rights and interests of local communities can be overridden in the interests of private profit and of vested interests. I will explain why I say that on the basis of my own experience. Given the time constraints, I will speak about clauses 1 and 5, with perhaps a digression on village greens if I have time.

I represent an area where the local authority already practises the policies that the Secretary of State would like to see in operation nationwide. That is not a coincidence; he describes Hammersmith and Fulham as the apple of his eye. The Government have already adopted many of the housing policies that that authority has set out. Near-market rents, no security of tenure, no obligation for permanent re-housing, little or no capital investment, and discrimination in allocations against those in housing need: all these policies were pioneered in Hammersmith and Fulham.

Similarly, the two guiding principles of planning there are to make every decision on the side of the developer under the catch-all title “Open for business”, and to ensure that not a single new social housing unit is built in the area despite there being 10,000 people on the housing waiting list. One might describe this approach as a little pimping for developers on the one hand, and gerrymandering on the other, and both seem to be admirably reflected in clauses 1 and 5 of the Bill. We therefore have a warning of what is to come if these policies are adopted nationally. There is some irony in the fact that local authorities currently have huge discretion in being able to put into practice many of the things that the Bill aims to achieve.

There are three opportunity areas, primarily in my constituency, on which the local authority intends to construct 22,000 new homes—in one of London’s smallest and most densely populated boroughs. These are not sustainable homes. Generally speaking, two and three-storey Victorian or Edwardian houses, or similar, are being replaced with 30-plus-storey blocks of flats. The guiding

5 Nov 2012 : Column 646

principles are that not one of those 22,000 homes should be a new social home for rent, that very few of them should be for families, and that very few should be for occupation—they are, in effect, investment properties that are principally advertised abroad. This is the developer’s agenda. These types of development, which replace affordable or low-rise housing, generate the maximum profit.

Let me give an example. The largest inner-urban development outside China is called Earl’s Court and West Kensington. It is an £8 billion development involving the demolition of 760 newly modernised affordable homes and the construction of 7,500 primarily luxury high-rise homes by Capital and Counties, a large property developer. That is a matter of such contention that there are already three judicial reviews under way or planned—on the consultation process, the planning process, and the viability issues. There is a Scotland Yard inquiry and a separate inquiry that is being run by the council’s chief executive into misconduct in public office on the basis that, given that residents of the area voted four to one against the new development, there are 22 witness statements saying that individuals were offered, as a bribe or an incentive, an early mover home in the new development in order to induce them to move. The local authority will receive £105 million as a capital receipt for giving vacant possession of an area in which 760 tenants, leaseholders and freeholders currently live. The development will take 20 years and there is no guarantee that it will ever be finished. It is being organised by shell companies, and in part by a company whose principal shareholders are the Kwok brothers, currently under arrest in Hong Kong. At best, thousands of my constituents will spend up to 20 years effectively living on a building site.

The Secretary of State talked about viability, but that cuts both ways. He meant, I believe, that local authorities are over-demanding when asking for affordable housing on sites, but equally we have the spectre of developers doing a deal and knowing that their final profit—particularly over a 20-year period—will be excessive. How do they maintain that position? They do it by ensuring that agreements contain confidentiality clauses that no one can see other than members of the council’s planning committee. Once the clauses have been viewed—under conditions of great security—members of the committee are not allowed to repeat what they have seen. Although an independent valuer suggested reappraising the public benefit, over a 20-year period, of the development I have mentioned, that was not reflected in the planning report. Members of the planning committee were not informed that that was the case, and the officer’s recommendation was to turn the suggestion down.

The Secretary of State has a role in that scheme, not just in planning call-in, but in approving a significant land sale. He has refused to meet me to discuss that, however, on the basis that the matter should be dealt with locally, and there is some irony there. In such cases, when developers snap their fingers, local authorities that take the same view as the Secretary of State in this Bill, and simply jump.

I wish to give three examples of how section 106 planning agreements have been renegotiated in my constituency. First, a 100-unit housing development near Hammersmith Broadway was given planning consent

5 Nov 2012 : Column 647

that included provision for 10% affordable housing. The developer came back and said, “I’m sorry, we can’t afford any affordable housing in this development”, and the local authority said, “Yes, that’s fine.” The development was advertised not locally but in

The Straits Times

as a location between Heathrow and Harrods for people who wish to have a property in the UK. Clearly, the elimination of any affordable housing units in that area helped to ensure that the development was more prestigious and luxurious.

Secondly, several areas of affordable housing were granted as part of the planning consent for the Westfield development—a major shopping centre in my constituency. The first was built when there was still a Labour authority, and is an award-winning development of 80 affordable homes. The other two areas were returned to the developer in return for other benefits, because they were “not needed” in an area with 10,000 people on the housing waiting list. Thirdly, at the St George development at Imperial Wharf, another 250 properties—affordable rented homes in the main—were handed back to the developer because they were “not needed.”

That is what can happen under present legislation if the local authority wishes. Anyone who saw the front page of The Guardian today will have seen that thousands of people are being evicted from properties in London, and in some cases made to move hundreds of miles away because there is a shortage of affordable property. Last week, The Daily Telegraph ran a story that Hammersmith council, along with two neighbouring Conservative-controlled boroughs, wished to build a middle-class housing estate using the borrowing power it would obtain because of the value of its council housing stock. At the same time, that council is selling 300 properties on the open market and hopes to raise £100 million. The money is, in part, being used to assist developers to assemble sites by compulsory purchase, in order—again—to demolish affordable homes and build luxury homes on the site. I admit that is clever, but I do not see that it is either moral or the way in which planning policy should operate.

We do not have a lot of village greens in Shepherd’s Bush, but nevertheless the local authority wishes to “sweat the asset”—its own phrase—and build on public parks. In one case, it wanted to sell a third of a public park in Hammersmith to build a car park, a bar, and commercial sports pitches that would be unusable by local residents. We do, of course, have recourse to existing legislation. When the council tried to build on Shepherd’s Bush green, for example, a successful planning inquiry was held and because it was common land, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had the final say and the Planning Inspectorate became involved. I do not claim that the power to designate something a village green is never misused, but it is one of the few weapons in the armoury of the David and Goliath battle that takes place every week and month between local residents and developers. I would, therefore, be loth to see it legislated away in this way.

Even without the heavy hand of central Government coming in on the side of the developer, current planning policy can still be used by bandit local authorities such as mine, and by dodgy developers, to ensure that local residents always come last. Any development that takes place is unsustainable and does not serve the interests of local residents, just those of private profit. It is a great regret that, as I said in my intervention, such things are

5 Nov 2012 : Column 648

done by a number of developers who are also significant contributors to the Conservative party, and I believe that the Government have lost their way on the issue. They are putting residents last and developers first, and this Bill is another nail in that coffin.

6.56 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I always appreciate forays into family history from those on the Opposition Front Benches, and I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) is not in his place. I imagine that democratic centralism was imbued into him at the paternal knee. His references to it were undoubtedly entertaining, although the House might appreciate a modest reality check thereafter. A reality check, it seems to me, is an old advocate, and in my experience a fair one. The weaker one’s opponent’s case, the more rhetoric they feel obliged to use. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will take on board the reality, which is that the Government inherited a planning system that was seriously failing. We have put in place important measures to improve things through the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework, and improvements are being seen.

Under the previous Government’s watch, the Killian Pretty review pointed out that only three out of 64 major schemes proceeded without delay and referred to the expense that that brings. This Government have been trying to put that right. A number of measures in the Bill pick up on issues that were flagged up in the consultation on the NPPF, so the suggestion that they are incompatible is nonsense. The NPPF did not require primary legislation because it was a matter of policy. The issues that were flagged up and are dealt with in the Bill do require primary legislation, so it is perfectly logical to legislate to put those measures in place.

Let me deal with clause 1, about which there has been much heat and not much light from Opposition Members. I take on board—I have no doubt the Minister will confirm this—the response by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) to the Communities and Local Government Committee. In reality, most planning authorities do a good job, but there are issues about the capacity of smaller local planning authorities. Some matters do not require legislation, but are gradually being dealt with by good practice within the local authority sector itself. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) referred to the capacity of planning departments, particularly in some small rural district councils, and, increasingly, shrewd councils in such circumstances are sharing their planning departments. Those of us who have spent many years in local government hope that that will become the norm rather than the exception, and that valuable and comparatively expensive professional services will be shared across a number of planning authorities. That does not alter the position of local councillors, who are accountable to their electors as members of the planning authority, but sharing professional advice makes obvious common sense in the circumstances I mentioned.

That said, although there is good progress, and although the planning guarantee has been an important factor in raising the performance bar, a small number of local

5 Nov 2012 : Column 649

authorities consistently do not meet that requirement. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State set out, that is exactly what the Bill intends to deal with. It does not take many planning authorities to hold up important schemes. That stance is echoed by the Home Builders Federation, which does not regard the Bill as sweeping away the majority of planning authority procedures. In my experience as a Minister and shadow Minister, house builders work hard with local authorities. Good volume house builders such as Berkeley Homes and Countryside Properties generally do not end up on appeal, because they “roll the turf” first, using the requirement for pre-engagement and consultation with councillors, council officers and their communities. That works in many cases. The Home Builders Federations has stated that it welcomes

“the option of, in extremis, enabling home builders to apply to the Secretary of State where a local authority has a record of very poor performance.”

That is what clause 1 is about—it is sensible and proportionate.

Mr Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has said twice that a small number of authorities have, in his view, an unacceptably poor standard of performance. Will he please name them?

Robert Neill: The right hon. Gentleman tries the same old trick as the shadow Secretary of State. Importantly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that there will be criteria, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has said there will be criteria and an objective test. I am not foolish enough to go down the route the right hon. Gentleman suggests, because I am not privy to the work that we did to develop the objective test, but I have complete confidence that the test will be a sensible one. The point he attempts to make is a bogus one, as he well knows. With every respect to him, I ought to be used to that by now.

The second point to remember about clause 1 is that, although it has been suggested there is no right of appeal, the clause shows common sense. If in a rare number of cases a decision is taken by the Secretary of State, he can hardly appeal against it—that would be nonsense. However, the option of judicial review on that decision remains. As all hon. Members know, recent experience indicates that developers and other groups have not been slow to exercise the right of judicial appeal when they think there are grounds. The safeguard that remains is therefore a significant one.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman is too wise to fall into the Opposition’s trap of naming specific authorities that, in the phrase he used, were guilty of poor performance, but will he define what he means by poor performance?

Robert Neill: I do not have all the information that Ministers have to draw a distinction, but the statutory time limits in which decisions must be taken, the planning guarantee and adherence to the mechanism of voluntary local planning agreements would be a starting point in determining performance. I have perfect faith in Ministers to develop sensible and transparent criteria, and that they will assure us on that. Those proportionate and sensible proposals complement existing policy.

5 Nov 2012 : Column 650

The same applies to clause 2 and the question of costs. Some fuss was made about costs, but I hope it was based on a misunderstanding of the proposal. Clause 2 enables the Secretary of State to claim the costs of an appeal proceeding against unreasonable behaviour by any party to the appeal. It does another important thing: at the moment, in the limited circumstances in which costs can be awarded, there is an all-or-nothing situation—a party can get the whole of the costs or none. The position set out in subsections 2(1) to 2(5) is a sensible one. They mean that, where appropriate, a proportion of costs can be awarded, to reflect the fact that more than one party is responsible for delays in the conduct of the appeal. Currently, costs tend to be thrown away only when there is a public inquiry, but clause 2 sensibly says that costs can be awarded, when appropriate, when delays arise from written representations. That system works perfectly normally in virtually every other kind of civil and commercial litigation in this country. To introduce a similar and equally proportionate measure for planning is more than reasonable.

This Government have given local power to local authorities. The previous Government authored the imposed regional strategies and a standards regime that was often regarded as intimidatory by many councillors who spoke out on behalf of their residents, and they gave us 13 years of rate capping, to name but a few of their measures. It is understandable that local authorities felt they had no power in such centralising circumstances. We have returned genuine power in all those matters to local authorities, and it is not unreasonable to say, “With power comes responsibility.” In quasi-judicial matters such as planning, it is not unreasonable for us to say, “You must carry out the decisions entrusted to you in a timely and efficient manner.” In reality, that is what clauses 1 and 2 are about. It is nonsense for the Opposition to suggest otherwise.

I welcome other important measures in the Bill. I was particularly pleased to see the tidying up in clause 6 of loose legislation that this Government inherited from the previous one. The duplication of consents regimes needed to be dealt with.

I also welcome the provisions of clause 8, which deals with minerals planning. The ready supply of minerals and aggregates is important to the economic growth of this country. Generally, the minerals planning industry has shown good social and environmental sense in carrying out what is sometimes sensitive extraction. The extraction can happen only where the minerals exist, so giving more flexibility to local authorities in when they carry out minerals plans reviews is sensible. It is localist, but it also enables investors in minerals planning to have appropriate confidence to make the investment necessary. That is a small but critical step, because minerals and aggregates are critical to the construction industry. It will be worth flagging that up during debates on the Bill.

On business rates, I urge my hon. Friends the Ministers not to be put off by some of the specious arguments from the Opposition. The previous Government have on their track record one of the worst examples of abuse of the business rates system to the detriment of small and medium-sized businesses that I have ever come across. They obdurately refused, in the face of overwhelming evidence, to remove an effectively retrospective tax on businesses in our ports, which put

5 Nov 2012 : Column 651

firms out of business and put British workers out of jobs, and caused serious British investors, such as DFDS Seaways and others, to rethink their UK investment plans. The previous Government did nothing about that despite having the clearest evidence in front of them. One of the first legislative acts of this Government reversed that injustice and safeguarded that important British business sector. I therefore hope my hon. Friends the Ministers will take no lectures on that from Labour.

As has been amply demonstrated, there is good evidence to suggest that, because of the interaction of the rental values that are used to calculate business rates and the multiplier, it would be misleading to tell people that revaluation will automatically result in a reduction of the amount of business rate paid. I therefore hope that Ministers will not be put off course on that. It is also worth bearing in mind the other assistance that this Government have given, particularly through small business rate relief, which we extended for an unprecedented period—again, something that Labour did not do. The democratic centralists—[Interruption]—or, lest there be any confusion, what I might call the “cradle” democratic centralists, have been long on rhetoric, but rather short on evidence. I hope the House will see through them and support this sensible and constructive Bill.


7.10 pm

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I think Ministers know that this is a rubbish Bill. We have seen no defence at all against the attacks from the Opposition Benches, particularly from the shadow Secretary of State, who, if I might say so, did a decapitation job on the Bill.

The Bill contains clauses with which I find myself in contention—namely clause 23 and its provisions to diminish workers’ rights—but it also provides us with opportunities to devolve power to the Welsh Government, so that they, too, can promote growth and boost infrastructure. I will focus on those provisions that are not currently in the Bill, but which would improve it in achieving its billing, namely the proposals behind the “Build for Wales” programme, as promoted by my party, which is a far more cost-effective alternative to private finance initiatives. The “Build for Wales” project would establish a Welsh infrastructure investment and management company to tackle the constraints on public sector investment in Wales. A not-for-distributable-profit company limited by guarantee, it would be responsible for the funding and implementation of public sector infrastructure projects, with any profits invested in other Welsh public sector infrastructure.

As the Minister will be aware, despite the fantastically vague announcement made by the UK and Welsh Governments last week, the Welsh Government are still unable to borrow and cannot raise taxes to increase their income. Indeed, if money is unspent at the end of the financial year, the Treasury can claw it back. If memory serves, the amount clawed back in that manner last year was £400 million—money that should have been redirected to the Welsh capital budgets, which have been slashed, with 42% cuts in the current spending review. Were the Welsh Government able to establish a not-for-distributable-profit company, as we have suggested, the Welsh public sector could plan capital expenditure in the long term—a prudent approach normally favoured by the Treasury. It would also lead to the creation of a

5 Nov 2012 : Column 652

specialist company with a knowledge base in procurement and negotiation with contractors, which would help to deliver projects efficiently. Finally, the fact that profits would be reinvested in other public sector projects would increase employment in the construction industry and so boost growth in the economy. I plan to table amendments to the Bill at later stages to take those points forward, and I look forward to fruitful discussions with Ministers on these possibilities.

Many clauses in the Bill as it stands evidently aim to speed up infrastructure projects by cutting unnecessary red tape and amending existing legislation. I hope that the Minister will share my view that our “Build for Wales” proposals are very much in the same vein. Clauses 17 and 18 provide powers to vary planning consents for energy infrastructure projects, which gives the UK Government a fantastic opportunity to devolve energy planning powers to the National Assembly—a provision they unfortunately failed to include in their draft Energy Bill earlier this year. As Ministers will be aware, at present the Welsh Government have powers only over proposals for energy generation projects of up to 50 MW on land and 1 MW at sea. This arbitrary set-up means that a generating station that would generate 49 MW is decided on by Welsh local planning authorities, but those generating 51 MW or more must be decided on by the Secretary of State in Whitehall.

The Pen y Cymoedd wind farm in south Wales, for example, will generate an estimated 250 MW, so the decision to grant permission for it was made by the Secretary of State in Westminster, not the democratically elected Welsh Government in Cardiff. In my constituency I have two TAN 8 areas—so-called after technical advice note 8—one of which, area G, is in Brechfa forest. Currently, two planning applications are going through: the Llanllwni project, which is below 50 MW, and the Brechfa West project, which is above 50 MW. Local people are confused—I am confused, and I am their Member of Parliament. It would be far more reasonable to extend the Welsh Government’s remit in line with that of the Scottish Parliament, so that the people of Wales have complete control over how their natural resources are utilised. I have previously argued for exactly that provision in amendments to the Localism Act 2011, during its passage through the Commons last year, and in a ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced last January. I will be tabling similar amendments to that end at later stages of this Bill’s passage.

Clause 22 postpones the next non-domestic rating revaluation, in a bid to allow businesses in England to focus on growth. As the Minister will no doubt be aware, the current situation is disadvantageous to Wales, as the Welsh Government hold no power to alter the non-domestic rates multiplier, which is currently set by the UK Government. Devolving business rates to the Welsh Government, as in Scotland, would allow them to use the rates more strategically to promote growth and incentivise local authorities to expand their economic bases. The recent business rates review, published by Professor Brian Morgan of Cardiff university and commissioned by the Welsh Government, argues for the full devolution of business rates, describing it as

“an anomaly which needs to be addressed.”

I would suggest that the Bill affords the UK Government the opportunity to correct it.