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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I too support the amendment for all the reasons that have been expressedI shall not repeat themand for an additional reason. When the GLC was abolished, it was your Lordships' concern for strategic planning in London that led to the constitution of an advisory committeeadmittedly it was advisoryto deal with planning across the whole of London. I chaired that body for the first eight years of its existence. Having been forced into an association, which probably the boroughs would have reached, eventually a great deal of time was saved and some very good work was done and continues to be done. Noble Lords showed their concern for strategic planning at that time and I hope that they will do so now.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I too want briefly to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. In this country, we have been arguing about the level at which planning decisions should be made for at least a quarter of a century and certainly since the 1972 reforms. At that time, many noble Lords felt that the move of planning responsibilities from counties to districts had certain risks. Certainly I believe that planning should be done at the lowest possible level. In certain cases, for example, where district councils operate on the "parish council up" base, it works extremely well.
Having said that, it is becoming more and more necessary that there should be a true strategic dimension to the kind of planning that we want. From my point of view, I see it as absolutely crucial in terms of sustainable development and the protection of the countryside. I believe that the amendment of the noble
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, let no one doubt the strength of the Government's commitment to sustainable development. The sustainable development strategy which we published last year sets it at the centre of our thinking. The strategy made clear our intention to work towards ensuring that development and growth are sustainable, and to continue to develop policies consistent with the concept of sustainable development.
We are at one with the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, over the importance of the planning system's contribution to sustainable development. The sum total of decisions in the planning system, as elsewhere, should not deny future generations the best of today's environment. This should be expressed through the policies adopted in development plans.
We have taken significant steps to embody sustainable development in the planning system. Where there are issues which apply across regions or parts of regions and need to be considered on a scale wider than the area of a single authority, regional planning guidance sets broad strategic policies for land use and development. It provides for the implementation of policies for sustainable development across regions. That is the answer to the first question of my noble friend Lord Peyton. The primary function of regional guidance is to provide the necessary framework for the preparation of structure plans in which county councils set out key strategic policies as a framework for local planning by district councils.
Our planning policy guidance requires local authorities to take sustainable development into account in preparing their development plans. By law, local authorities must have regard to national policies such as this, and to environmental, social and economic considerations, in formulating their development plan policies, including their involvement in Local Agenda 21. That is the answer to my noble friend's second question.
Our guidance also requires local authorities to conduct environmental appraisals of their development plans. A systematic environmental appraisal is the most effective way to demonstrate how a plan takes account of the environment in its widest sense and how it works towards the Government's goal of ensuring that development and growth are sustainable. We have published a good practice guide to assist local authorities in this task of environmental appraisal. We will supplement it with a guide to good practice in applying the principles of sustainable development through the planning system.
On the matter of joint arrangements for strategic planning, we consider that the existing statutory provisions are more closely aligned with the general thrust of planning practice and procedures in this country than those of the noble Lord. The essence of our practice is that local authorities should have considerable discretion and responsibility in the exercise
Current legislation makes each local planning authority wholly responsible for the exercise of its development plan functions within its own administrative area. Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972 enables an authority to carry out any of its functions jointly with other authorities. There are provisions in the planning legislation to facilitate this without removing the individual authority's discretionary role to decide planning matters for its area. We are satisfied that where joint working on strategic planning is desirable, it can be achieved through voluntary arrangements based on these existing provisions. Clearly, however, there may be occasions when such voluntary arrangements fail. Although, given the long experience of local authorities in planning matters, and the fact that they have a tradition of liaison on, for example, regional planning, we expect such failures to be few.
The only difference between this concept and the concept of the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, is that the noble Lord anticipates failure of voluntary arrangements even before a local government order is made. His amendment indicates that the Secretary of State should direct and that the direction should come into force on the same day as the relevant order, so the noble Lord is already anticipating failure. That is not the way the Government think.
However, as I indicatedthe noble Lord was good enough to remind the Housewhen we were talking about the North Yorkshire and Humberside borders, should these voluntary arrangements fail, the Secretary of State already has a reserve power under Section 21 of the Local Government Act 1992. Where he considers that joint working is desirable following a structural or boundary change but such arrangements fail to emerge, he is able to establish a statutory joint authority explicitly charged with preparing a structure plan for the combined local authority areas in place of the unitary authorities themselves.
The noble Lord's amendment, by contrast, does not explicitly recognise the desirability of voluntary joint working. Furthermore, it would allow the Secretary of State a much wider range of discretion to intervene if he chose to do so. This is not a power that my right honourable friend wishes to have and I would be surprised if many local authorities were anxious that he should have a wide-ranging power. I would therefore prefer to remain with the existing provisions. They provide a clearer indication of the occasions on which the Secretary of State would feel it necessary to intervene.
We are keen to further the objectives of sustainable development through the planning system, and the planning system currently provides the means to do this both across regions through the framework of structure plans and within local planning authority areas through local development plans. We do not believe that the provisions in the amendment are desirable or necessary.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may ask one question. My fear is that the proposals of the Local Government Commission, particularly where they result in small unitary authorities, will make strategic planning for sustainable development more difficult. Is my noble friend really saying that my fear is groundless?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I cannot banish all the fear in my noble friend's mind. But what I do say is that we are working up proposals that the local authorities should form joint working arrangements so that the strategic planning concept is not just based on the identity of the unitary district or authority. That is not the concept. I agree that it is done on a voluntary basis, and that is what we should certainly like to take forward. The noble Lord is indicating in his amendment that unless, after consultation, he is absolutely assured that this is going to happen, the Secretary of State would direct it. I believe that that power of direction acts much too early in the whole process.
Lord Bancroft: My Lords, this has been a very short but interesting debate. It has demonstrated the concern felt in various parts of the House about the future of strategic planning and sustainable development in the wake of the latest round of local government reorganisation.
I listened to the noble Viscount's remarks. I think that he misinterpreted a little. The purpose of the amendment is that the Secretary of State should consult; but he should not direct unless there is no voluntary co-operation coming in sight from the local authorities. The powers of direction are very much a last resort, to be sparingly if ever used. That having been said, I should like to study the noble Viscount's remarks with care to decide whether I wish to take the issue further. I thank him. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.