Yesterday was the second reading of - the first general debate on - the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, taking six and a half hours. The full debate can be found here starting at column 596, but here is a summary. The bill contains a miscellaneous selection of measures aimed at boosting growth, although the Prime Minister was oft quoted by the opposition as having said earlier in the year: "If you could legislate your way to growth, obviously we would. The truth is you can't."
Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, introduced the Bill in what Simon Hoggart unkindly described as an 'orotund' speech. He lost my support when he said that planning was 'no longer the preserve of lawyers, town hall officers and non-governmental organisations', although luckily I don't quite believe him. I will reorder the debate by subject matter for ease of understanding.
The clauses with the most debate on them were:
- clause 1 where the government can decide planning applications instead of local authorities,
- clause 5 where s106 agreements can be renegotiated to contain lower affordable housing proportions,
- clause 7 where telecomms infrastructure can be built in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty,
- clause 22 where the general rating revaluation is delayed for two years, and
- clause 23 where employment rights are given up in return for shares.
There was also some discussion of the three clauses relating to the Planning Act regime (19-21).
Taking over planning applications
According to Eric Pickles, the threat of taking planning decisions away from local authorities will 'help to localise planning' because poorly performing councils would be made to 'up their game'. The government would work with the Local Government Association to decide what is a poorly-performing council (despite the latter's opposition to this provision). Several MPs tried to draw the government on examples of such councils or the criteria that would be used, and seized on Eric Pickles when he mentioned Hackney specifically.
Hilary Benn for the Labour front bench gave a fairly comprehensive critique of the bill, saying that there was a lack of evidence that the alleged problems that the bill addressed actually existed. He said that the bill marked the death of Eric Pickles' commitment to localism, and accused him of 'taking a hammer and sickle to local democratic decision making'.
Section 106 agreements
Eric Pickles argued that allowing renegotiation of s106 agreements so they contained a smaller affordable housing proportion would mean more affordable housing being built - a smaller amount being more than not implementing the permission at all.
Hilary Benn asked if the proportion of affordable housing was holding up developments, why developers didn't just re-apply for the same development with a lower proportion of affordable housing. He also alleged that the Homes and Communities Agency, National Housing Federation and Council of Mortgage Lenders all didn't see affordable housing in s106 agreements as sticking point.
On the proposals for relaxing the construction of communications equipment in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Eric Pickles said that the proposal was not for 4G but for broadband, it would be a 'prior approval regime' and local authorities could still object. His opposite number Hilary Benn disputed the last point. In reply for the government Michael Fallon said it was intended to apply to street cabinets and not phone masts but had to be drafted to be 'technology neutral'.
Eric Pickles did have a point that delaying the rating revaluation would not mean delaying a reduction in rates, since revaluations produced the same amount overall, they just tweaked the differences between property values. He said an impact assessment would be published to show the effect of this.
On the employment clause, according to Eric Pickles employee owners would get "a different set of UK employment rights than for normal employees. ... Only the enemies of aspiration would oppose this modern embrace of co-operative values.". An interesting use of the word 'different'. He also said that "This is particularly aimed at fast-growing small companies and enterprises that will benefit from a flexible work force". Not one that has the right to flexible working, however.
While I agree with the government that the 'employee owner' status may be a genuine choice for existing employees, I agree with Hilary Benn that it wouldn't be one for new employees. He said it was Beecroft by the back door.
Planning Act regime
The Planning Act regime did get some coverage amongst the rest. Eric Pickes used the correct language to say that nationally significant developments will be decided within 12 months of the start of examination - those present may not have realised that was around 4 1/2 months after an application had been made.
When Nick Raynsford asked how nationally significant developments would be defined, Mr Pickles said rather cryptically 'First, there are national policy statements, in addition to which we are going to consult. Let me be absolutely clear that it is our ambition to ensure that, providing local authorities put together a planning performance agreement with these large developments, this measure will not be necessary; it is there to help'. He seems to be saying that the Planning Act regime would not be necessary for developments with PPAs in place. It's not really up to the local authority, though, it is the developer who will decide whether to pay for one.
When John Healey repeated the question, Mr Pickles was just as cryptic, appearing to confuse the provision with the power in the bill to make ordinary planning applications directly to the Secretary of State: "There are obviously national policy statements-full stop. In addition, we are consulting on where these should bite in. We will be looking most carefully at those authorities that have not been able to meet these targets, but there is a big distinction-[Interruption.] We are not including housing or eco-towns."
Later Clive Betts questioned this saying that the government had previously said there would not be a national policy statement. In reply for the government, Michael Fallon said that the government would consult on the types of development to be covered and also whether there would be a national policy statement.
Hilary Benn for the opposition front bench was opposed to the extension of the regime to business and commercial developments, likening it to the first clause in the bill that allows the government to take over certain local authorities' planning powers. They are not the same, since the Planning Act would still only apply to projects of national significance, and was hardly an endorsement of the regime that Labour had introduced in the first place.
Tory MP Charlie Elphicke said the provisions were to fast-track energy projects and Hilary Benn pointed out that the previous government had already done that. David Ruffley also seemed to think the same - the Planning Act regime is perhaps not widely understood amongst MPs. On the other hand, many Labour MPs made general points about planning issues rather than focusing on the provisions of the bill.
According to Eric Pickles, Special Parliamentary Procedure was apparently introduced because of the poor drafting of the Planning Act, but I doubt that it was unintentional. Furthermore, the present government had already had a chance to get rid of it via the Localism Act but chose not to do so.
The Bill received its second reading by 305 votes to 213, a majority of 88 votes almost identical to the government's overall majority of 87. It will now proceed to its committee stage, which is timetabled to conclude by 6 December.