This is entry number 248, published on 8 June 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today’s entry reports on the second reading of the Localism Bill in the House of Lords.

Yesterday, the Localism Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords (a debate on the general principles of the Bill).  The debate lasted for nearly seven hours and 51 peers spoke. Although a link to the Hansard report of the debate can be found here, here are some of the points that were made, reordered by subject-matter rather than chronologically for ease of reading.

In a nutshell, the main issues of contention were:

  • the protection of community assets,
  • neighbourhood planning,  
  • the creation of shadow mayors before elections are held,  
  • the declaration that financial incentives can affect the grant of planning permission,  
  • sustainable development and the replacement of regional planning with a duty to co-operate,  
  • the 5% referendum threshold,  
  • the passing on of EU fines to local authorities, and  
  • the community right to challenge the provision of local authority services  

So many peers declared interests that one Baroness declared that she unusually did not have an interest.

General principles

Lord Beecham for Labour said that with all the local democracy in the Bill, Eric Pickles was like the Athenian Pericles, who nearly had the same name.  He said it was ironic that clause 28 of the Bill repealed the duty to promote democracy.  Lord Shipley said that the Bill had not been drafted in a spirit of localism. Lord True said that the Bill should be permissive, not prescriptive.

Lord Patel said that the 'people power' parts of the Bill could be accused of replacing highly developed and expert services with an underdeveloped and poorly resourced altarnative. Lord Adebowale noted that communities often knew what they wanted but were denied the resources to bring this about.

The Bishop of Derby said that the Bill's powers would be used by the wealthy and articulate and not by the disadvantaged.

Some, often with local authority backgrounds, said that localism already existed, but needed proper funding to be realised rather than legislation.  Baroness Bakewell (i.e. Joan Bakewell) said that in Camden they had managed to prevent library cuts and scare off Starbucks with local action that did not require a Localism Bill.

Baroness Hamwee said that the Government need to get away from the idea that people needed protecting from their local authority.

Protection of community assets

Somewhat unexpectedly, the provisions about protecting community assets probably came in for the most widespread criticism, and this may reflect a campaign by the Country Land and Business Association.  This is the provision in the Bill where a community group interested in protecting a community asset (such as a village pub or post office) can be given a chance to put a bid together to buy it.  In opening, Baroness Hanham for the government referred to this correctly as the 'right to bid to buy' but in closing called it the 'right to buy', an incorrect shorthand often used.

Baroness Scott noted that the six clauses in the Bill on assets of community value required 54 sets of regulations to be issued by the government - a civil service job creation scheme.

Earl Cathcart wondered if farmers offering their fields to play cricket might withdraw that privilege if there was a danger of the field being declared an asset of community value.  He said that the intention of the Bill might thwart the sale of a pub to a different brewery with no change of use contemplated, and it was the change of use that was the important point, not sale.

Neighbourhood planning

The phrase of the day was 'double devolution' i.e. devolving power not one but two levels down.

Lord Ouseley said that the neighbourhood planning proposals would lead to greater complexity, increased bureaucracy and risks to community cohesion.

Baroness Hanham noted that neighbourhood plans would have to be consistent with the 'national planning policy framework' (NPPF) - of which a suggested draft was published a few days ago - and the local plan.  In my view, this issue of consistency is going to be the making or breaking of neighbourhood planning.

The Bishop of Norwich noted that only 35% of the population live in parishd areas - the remainder will be able to create ad hoc neighbourhood forums of 21 people or more.  He warned that 'more localism may not mean more harmony and unity in society'.

Lord Wei gave a very pro-Bill speech in which he said that neighbourhood planning was the alternative to an expensive and adversarial process where every little change needed to be argued over.  Hmm, OK.

Lord Cameron thought that bad developments might gravitate towards communities that did not have the capacity to do their own neighbourhood planning.  Viscount Simon said that neighbourhood planning should be concerned with land use planning and not purely economic goals.

Lord Lucas suggested informal neighbourhood plans as an intermediate step.

Baroness Valentine did not like the idea of the community infrastructure levy being passed directly to neighbourhood groups.

Shadow mayors

Lord Beecham equated the concept of shadow mayors - give them powers now, vote for them later - with the Anschluss, and he also questioned the conflation of political and executive roles in the office of mayor.

Financial incentives as material consideration

In opening, Baroness Hanham slightly watered down the controversial clause added to the Bill in the Commons where financial incentives can be a material consideration when considering planning applications by saying 'but they don't have to be'.

Baroness Parminter thought that stating that finance could be a material consideration in statute would elevate it above all other material considerations.

Viscount Simon quoted the CPRE's disquiet that financial incentives can affect planning decisions, which is ironic since it was the CPRE's advice that led to the clause (albeit not their intention).

Loss of regional planning and duty to co-operate

Baroness Andrews said that the Bill lost the spatial view of planning that allowed competing interests to be balanced.  She said that the duty to co-operate should not be optional.  She called for the government's version of the NPPF to be published and said that the practitioners' version of 'sustainability' erred on the side of economic growth.

Lord Cameron said that the duty to co-operate was a 'wing and a prayer'.  Baroness Young said that it was a bit woolly and was not enforced.  Baroness Parminter also wondered how it would be enforced and called for a duty to plan jointly.

Lord Marlesford warned against replacing PPGs and PPSs with the NPPF.  Lord Redesdale said that the House needed the government's definition of sustainable development before considering the Bill in detail.

Lord McKenzie said that the 'duty' to co-operate was essentially voluntary and fell short of an effective strategic approach to planning and also called for a definition of sustainable development.

Referendums

Earl Cathcart thought that the referendum bar was too low at 5% of the electorate.  I hadn't appreciated that a referendum could be held following a petition by 5% of the electors of a single ward.

Infrastructure planning

Little was said about infrastructure planning.  Lord Cameron said that the abolition of the IPC was a retrograde step, but Lords Jenkin and Marlesford were glad it was being abolished. 

Lord Berkeley asked where the National Policy Statements were.  He wondered whether a local referendum could have the effect of killing a national infrastructure project in the area and that such projects should be excluded from the scope of referendums (the Lords seem to prefer 'referenda').

EU fines

Lord Teverson and others were concerned about EU fines provisions, although the debate ranged between unfairly penalising local authorities without sufficient redress, to the whole issue being pointless since the UK had never been fined.

Community right to challenge

Baroness Whitaker did not want religious groups to be able to take over council services and yet be exempt from parts of the Equality Act, but Lord Mawson argued for churches taking over local services.

Baroness Thornton said that Eric Pickles was settling old scores from his Bradford days using the Bill.  She said that the community right to challenge may accelerate access to the private sector.

Lord True said that local authorities should be able to challenge provision of public services by others, e.g. social landlords.

Next steps

The Bill starts its committee stage on 20 June.  Note that in the House of Lords committees are always 'committees of the whole House', i.e. every peer is able to contribute.  Given what their Lordships had to say, we can expect a considerable number of amendments.