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Lord Wade of Chorlton: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I put one point to him? Does he agree that sustainability is as much a question of our leaving at this stage the opportunity for people to continue to create the wealth, the jobs and the structure that will be required as it is of preventing further usage? Surely, sustainability means that we of this generation have a responsibility not to hold back the next generation from its aspirations.
Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I certainly agree with that part of sustainability, but there is another part to it which, as I am sure the noble Lord will agree, is that we should not use up the resources of today's world to the detriment of future generations. Sustainability requires a balance between the two.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for giving us the opportunity today to discuss the role of the land use planning system in invigorating the economy. I deeply appreciate the kind remarks which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, made, with which the Opposition Chief Whip is associating himself and, no doubt, all his Back Benchers as well. I am very grateful for the cacophony of kindness that has come from the Benches opposite.
This subject is very important. The Government are grateful for the views which your Lordships have expressed. There is no simple answer to planning; it is a contentious matter and there is a great deal of conflicting pressure applied to the countryside, the towns and the planning system in general. How we use our land determines not only the attractiveness of the land in which we live but also the ability of the nation to be successful economically.
One of our most remarkable national characteristics is that we seem to have an insatiable appetite for saying what is wrong and almost total inability ever to grasp what has gone right. In fact, the United Kingdom has done enormously well. As the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, said, planning has an important part to play in the economic success of the country. After all, we now find that 40 per cent. of all investment into Europe from Japan comes to the United Kingdom and 43 per cent. of all investment from the United States into Europe comes into the United Kingdom. Despite
None of that would have happened if we did not have a good and sensitive planning system--yes, I agree that it could be better--but such investment will not happen in the future without a good planning system. I agree with my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth that planning cannot itself create investment, but it plays a large part in ensuring that investment is made.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Wade that in order for industry and commerce to succeed, new enterprises need sites which meet their requirements. Existing firms need room to expand. The planning system has an essential part to play in identifying sites for new development as well as in considering the infrastructure, the roads, water, sewerage and so forth, needed to service these sites.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that it is one thing to have development but, as he said, it has to be sustainable development. We need not go into that phrase now, but it is important because we cannot wreck the countryside and the country for generations to come by being selfish for ourselves in the present.
The planning system operates at various levels, from the production of planning policy guidance notes by central government to the making of structure plans by county councils, to the making of local plans by district councils and to the issuing of individual planning decisions, usually by the local authorities. It is vital that all of these elements should pull together if we are going to encourage future economic prosperity.
One of the Government's main roles is to set the overall policy for the planning system. We do this through a series of national planning policy guidance notes and regional planning guidance notes. These emphasise very clearly the need for discussion to take place between planning authorities and commercial and industrial interests and for the needs of business to be reflected in development plans. Businesses should not just be told what they have to put up with. They should be involved in the planning process.
We specifically ask planning authorities to pay particular attention to the importance of encouraging industrial and commercial development, and we advise them, in preparing their plans, to think about the role which those plans have in expanding the local economy and in stimulating employment opportunities.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth that some local authorities are too keen on preserving their particular patch, as it is. That is understandable, but it can also be unkind. If local authorities do not invite--and if they do not conduct themselves in such a way as to encourage--industry then industry will not come, and people in the area will find themselves unemployed. Local authorities have a great responsibility here.
Within the framework of our general guidance, we issue advice on the needs of particular sectors of the economy and how these can best be met. A draft revision of Planning Policy Guidance Note No. 6, which deals with town centres and retail developments, was issued for public consultation last July. This advises local authorities to adopt, as it were, a "pecking order" approach in the selection of sites for retail development, with town centres as the first preference. The guidance also promotes town centres as suitable locations for other uses, including leisure.
The last thing which we want is the wholesale abandonment of our town centres--whether by businesses or by communities--thereby creating a desert where all that flourishes is crime and poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, was concerned about that and said that we should act to tackle dereliction. Her Majesty's Government have invested, and continue to invest, huge sums of money in such things as the single regeneration budget and on the work of the urban development corporations - I have seen some - which have been an enormous success in helping derelict city centres to improve. A lot has been achieved under the housing White Paper in which Her Majesty's Government have announced the target to achieve half of all new housing development on derelict and vacant land within urban areas.
Town centres are at present, thank heavens, home to many thriving small and large businesses in the retail and leisure sectors. One of the aims of our planning policy is to help them to stay that way. Planning is not just about urban areas. As we have heard this evening from my noble friends Lord Wade, Lord Shuttleworth and others, it is also about the countryside. My noble friend Lord Shuttleworth will remember that in the recent rural White Paper we said how important we felt it was continually to promote the rural economy in ways which did not wreck the countryside. At the end of last year we published a good practice guide which gave local planning authorities advice on how to encourage the development of the economy of rural areas and at the same time to safeguard jobs and the pleasure of the countryside. Later this year we will issue for consultation a draft revised version of Planning Policy Guidance Note No.7 on the countryside, and we will issue a paper on the possible introduction of a rural business use class to encourage planning permission to be given to new rural enterprises.
My noble friend Lord Shuttleworth asked for an assurance that we would not tighten up planning policy and preserve the countryside in aspic, as it were. Of course, the purpose of consultation on Planning Policy Guidance Note No.7 is to consult. It would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt the conclusion of that consultation. But I agree with my noble friend that there are all kinds of opportunities for expansion within the countryside which can be taken up without wrecking it. We must be careful not to fossilise the countryside or to be like the proverbial Victorian nanny who said, "Go and see what the children are doing and tell them not to".
Both national and regional planning guidance provide the basis on which individual planning authorities prepare development plans for their areas. We now have a plan-led system. This means that individual planning decisions have to be taken in accordance with the development plan unless there are very good reasons why that should not be so. That is why it is so important that commerce and industry should participate in the preparation of these plans before ideas become fully formulated. Arrangements have been made for this, and industry and commerce should take advantage of them.
Local planning authorities can supplement these policies and plans by preparing development briefs for particular sites. They can indicate the type of development which the planning authority wants to see on a particular site. This can be immensely helpful to those who are thinking of moving into an area and can speed up the planning process considerably. In particular, where foreign companies work to short time-scales development briefs can provide an excellent way of securing inward investment.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury spoke about delays in reaching planning decisions and the frustrations which that could cause to businesses. I sympathise with him over the utter frustration which unnecessary delay in planning matters can cause. I hope that I am able to give him a little reassurance.
We have set councils the target to decide 80 per cent. of planning applications within eight weeks of receiving them. Six years ago only 46 per cent. of applications were decided within those eight weeks. That figure has now risen to 65 per cent. I believe that that is encouraging, but clearly a great deal more needs to be done. We have announced a number of new measures to try to achieve it. We will publish separate figures to show the time taken by individual planning authorities to process commercial and industrial applications. We hope that that will keep all local planning authorities on their toes. After all, everyone likes to be at the top of the tree. When those figures are published it can be seen who is at the top and bottom.
Also, where an application has not been decided by the end of the eight-week period, we will be asking local authorities to let applicants know when they can expect a decision. That will give both the applicants and the councils something to aim for.
The main reason for introducing the plan-led system was to try to speed up the process of making decisions and to reduce the number of applications which are refused. That should also result in fewer appeals.
My noble friend Lord Wade was worried about the time taken to draw up plans. Because of the greater emphasis which is now being given to development plans, developers and local communities are taking a much closer interest in them. As a result, many authorities who are preparing plans for the first time are facing a difficult, and sometimes lengthy, process. Once they have their plan in place though updating it will be easier and a good deal quicker.
My noble friend Lord Wade asserted that there was a complete ban on development while development plans were being prepared. I accept that it is appropriate to defer consideration of some major applications while the planning policies are being considered by the inquiry. But the vast majority of applications can be decided while the plan is being prepared. The weight given to the emerging new plan in making planning decisions will increase as it gets nearer its final adoption.
My noble friend was also concerned about green belts. We recently reviewed the green belt policy advice and issued new guidance. The fundamental aim of green belts is to prevent what is described as "urban sprawl". So there needs to be a boundary beyond which the policy will apply. The guidance generally allows the uses referred to and provides for new buildings for, among other things, agriculture, forestry and essential facilities for outdoor sport and recreation. Where planning applications are refused, the applicant may submit an appeal, and we have issued a draft new circular giving advice on best practice in the operation of planning inquiries and other appeal procedures.
What we want to do is to speed up the appeals process, to reduce delays and expense and to make the system more user-friendly while at the same time safeguarding the underlying principles of natural justice.
Businesses often find themselves having to apply for a variety of different consents before they can go ahead with a new building. That can be confusing, particularly for small firms. We are, therefore, exploring the idea that local authorities should provide a single advice point--the so-called pseudo Business Link--for the different systems. We shall be undertaking a pilot project with a number of authorities and we intend to publish good practice advice later in the year.
I recognise the concern of my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury about affordable housing. That is one of the reasons why we have issued a draft circular on this subject. One of the aims of the circular is to prevent local authorities from making unreasonable demands for affordable housing on unsuitable sites. I thought I might send my noble friend a copy of the draft circular--that will keep him quiet over Easter! I am sure that he will enjoy it, and I will be interested to receive any comments which he may have, provided they are constructive and polite in nature.
Good plans, good planning and good planning decisions are all vital if we are to enable the country to build on its continuing success in a rapidly changing world. Planning decisions should be quick and be made with as much consultation with the applicants as possible.
There are bound to be enormous conflicts of interests in any kind of planning application. We all accept that. Not everyone will be satisfied, but it is important that there should be consultation and that the result should be quick. Planning authorities must not be seen as, or feared to be, "the boss". Planning should be a partnership. The applicants have much to offer the community and they should not be considered to be acting only in self-interest.
We are sensitive to the role which the planning system plays in providing the right environment in which economic development can prosper. I can assure your Lordships that we will not hesitate to make further changes where these are needed.
The House will be grateful to my noble friend for having drawn to your Lordships' attention an important facet of national life, even if it is on the last day of term and at an hour later than we had expected.
The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It is an important an interesting subject. I am grateful in particular to my noble friend the Minister for his response. I welcome his comments on efforts being made by Government to cut the timescale taken in the planning process. I was delighted to hear that he is to send me some Easter weekend reading. I am duly subdued by that thought.
I was also delighted to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that he is on my side. It is to be hoped that I shall have to remind him of that in future because as yet we have agreed only on matters to do with fishing, about which we have long conversations.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the Labour Party in wishing my noble friend the Minister well on his forthcoming trip to the surgeon's knife. I wish him a full recovery. I hope that everyone has a most pleasant Easter weekend thinking about matters to do with planning. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.