Lord Deben debates involving the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities during the 2019-2024 Parliament

As I said, it is a matter of great regret that this debate is taking place before the Select Committee report appears next week. I encourage noble Lords to read it when it appears. I think they will find a great deal of evidence in it that is relevant to what we are discussing today.
Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, we ought to remember that we are discussing the amendments that the Government have put before us, rather than a committee report that we have not got and which will, no doubt, be of great interest.

We have to recognise that there may well be an issue here that needs properly to be addressed. My concern is that this is not the way to address it. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, suggested that when we deal with the environment, we should consider it very carefully, go out to consultation and make sure that what we are doing is right. None of that has happened here. The Government have put down a whole series of amendments to this Christmas tree of a Bill and some of us are suggesting that we should not do this—although, were they to come forward with something that met the particular problems in a way that was not so manifestly bad, I am sure we would be supportive.

I rather object to the fact that the newspapers say that I am a Conservative rebel. It is the Government who are the rebel here, because they are not being conservative over this. First, they are asking local authorities—I can hardly believe it—to disregard the facts. This is the kind of attitude that we see in the Republican Party in the United States, the people who do not believe in climate change, the anti-vaxxers, who say “Don’t look at the facts”. The second thing that local authorities are being asked to do is encourage ignorance: not only “Don’t look at the facts” but “Don’t look at any evidence or find any evidence—just do what the Government say should be done”.

The argument the Government have put forward is that we need this to build more houses. I was the Secretary of State responsible for that. I had a long history of dealing with the housebuilders, who tell us that this will increase the number of houses. The number of houses built has nothing to do with this at all—it is about whether the housebuilders think that that number will keep the price up at the level at which they have it. The housebuilders are not building the houses they have already got planning permission for in areas which are not in any way affected by this. We know that perfectly well. It is a canard, if I may use a foreign word, to suggest that this will have any effect on the number of houses. The number of houses in this country is not reaching 300,000 because the housebuilders have bought the land at a price which means that they can sell only at a level which is too elevated for the present time, with mortgages as they are. Let us not kid ourselves that, by voting against this, we will in some way reduce the number of houses, because we will not.

I find it extremely difficult when I am told that the housebuilders should not pay for the damage they do. Three arguments are used. First is the housemaid’s argument: it is only a very little bit—“It is only a very little baby”—and therefore we do not have to take it into account. As a former chairman of the Climate Change Committee, I have to say that that is the argument everybody uses every time you want to do anything—“It isn’t me”; “They are bigger than we are”; “Don’t do it in Britain because of China”; “Don’t do it because of the farmers”; “Don’t do it for anyone, but don’t ask me to pay for my pollution”.

Secondly, I thought that the Conservative Party was in favour of the polluter pays. Were my noble friend the Minister canvassing in the Mid Bedfordshire by-election at this moment, would she turn to an elector and say, “In future, housebuilders building in the Wye Valley or near the Monnow will not have to contribute for the cost and the damage they do, but you will through your taxes. You, the Mid Bedfordshire voter in the by-election, will now be asked to subsidise the housebuilders”? That is what these amendments are about—the subsidising of the housebuilders.

In the end, we could go even further. Why do we not have a Bill to say that housebuilders can ignore health and safety arrangements because then more housing would be built? Why do we not say that local authorities must not know what the health and safety laws are and must not investigate what they might be so that houses might be built?

This is one of the worst pieces of legislation I have ever seen, and I have been around a long time. It is entirely unconservative. If all this was so obvious so long ago, why was it not included in the Bill in the first place, or in some other Bill? As we have, in my view, some pretty peculiar legislation on ex-EU laws, why have the Government not used their powers therein?

I sat through debate after debate on how we were going to protect the British people instead of the court in Brussels and on how we would have proper protection against government mishandling of the environment. We were assured that Glenys Stacey and her department would be treated with all the respect that one would have expected. We were told that she would have all the powers necessary for the Government to take her seriously. What have they done? Two pathetic letters, and no statement—this is a judgment that you should make and we will change things because that is why you are there. That means that the British people are now less protected from government mistakes than any country in the rest of Europe. I make no comment about Brexit, but that is where this House and the other place have left the people of Britain.

I do not believe that the Government can do these things and not expect future generations to say, “If they could do that on this issue, what about other things?” They could say that local authorities can ignore this, that and the other and do not need the facts. Indeed, we do not have the facts here—there is no proof about these houses or any of this; it is an assertion by the Secretary of State.

I am not a Conservative rebel—I am a Conservative. Therefore, I am voting for the principle of the polluter pays, for facts and for knowledge, and I am not voting for ignorance and the disregard of facts.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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The noble Lord, Lord Deben, is not an easy act to follow, but I shall try.

We were lied to in this House. Our Government promised us repeatedly that there would be no lessening of environmental protection at any time. They promised us that and they lied. As a result of Brexit, we are now almost unprotected. Loads of us knew at the time that they were lying.

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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As far as I understand these amendments, they are an intention to return the planning system to the time before 2022 happened—the golden age when the system worked. I must say that I was looking for some fairy dust. I will explain by going back to 2010, when an incoming coalition Government discovered that only 15%—I think it was 15%—of local authorities had an up-to-date local plan. That is when the Department for Communities and Local Government, in which I was then a junior Minister, came up with a way to encourage local planning authorities to speed-up their local plan process.

That was after a 30-year statutory requirement—it is 30 years old—that they should have such a local plan. This was essentially to let developers loose in areas where there was no up-to-date local plan. I have scars from an Adjournment debate in that place, which is a bit like a QSD at this end. As a junior Minister, I drew the always available short straw, and I was faced—or rather I was backed, because they were behind me— by 20, 30, 40, although it seemed like a thousand, angry MPs complaining that the Government were blackmailing their district council by setting developers loose. It was like Dunkirk, only there were no boats.

The coalition Government kept their nerve, and so that system endured until 22 December, I think—the dispatch date given by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. However, whether the coalition Government held their nerve, or whether, like the Conservative Government, they did not hold their nerve, the outcome was still not 300,000 homes a year. The missing ingredient for us was fairy dust. That system does not deliver 300,000 homes a year. I wish the noble Lords good luck with their amendments, and I shall be interested to see what the Government have to say, but even if passed, it will not deliver 300,000 homes a year. That seems to me to be the fundamental point. I absolutely take the analysis delivered so powerfully by the proponents of this. Unfortunately, the lever that they intend us to use for it is already deficient, and we have seen it. So, please, where is the fairy dust?

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I refer to my registered interests, particularly that I chair a company that advises people on sustainable planning. I must say to my noble friends, with whom I very often agree, that I find this debate extremely difficult. First, this Bill should never have been in this form at all. No previous Government would have provided a long title for a Bill that means that it takes this long to go through Parliament and that, every time they think of something, they can add it to the Bill. We must be very clear about this Bill. Historically, we used to have the tightness of a title which enabled you to keep responsibly and respectably within the subject. So I start with this difficulty.

Secondly, this concentration on the numbers misses the point. Since the Government got rid of the net-zero requirement for houses, we have built over a million and a half homes that are not fit for the future. Every one of them has meant that the housebuilders have taken the profit, while the cost of putting those homes right has been left with the purchaser of the home. That is a scandal which is shared between the Government, who were foolish enough to get rid of the net-zero requirement, and the housebuilders, who knew precisely what they were doing. One of them made so much money that it offered its chief executive £140 million as a bonus. He did not get all that in the end, but that was the situation.

My problem is that in the absence of a proper policy, we are talking about the wrong thing. We should not be talking about the numbers, except to say that we need significantly more homes. We should be talking about the quality of the homes and the places where they should be. I go back to my own experience as Housing Minister. We were very interested in ensuring that we built homes on already used land. We thought it important to recreate our cities. We thought that was just as important a part of this as the numbers. At the moment, I can drive back from my local railway station and see every little village, every little town, spreading out into the countryside, homes being built on good agricultural land and homes being built which are, by their nature, the creators of commuters, as there is nowhere else for people to work.

If I may say so to my noble friend, it is no good ignoring that many district councils have a real problem with the number of places in which they can build the homes that they were asked to build. A lot are NIMBYs, and some I quite agree you would not like, but if you are faced with building homes in a council where most of the area is green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty or historic areas, you find yourself in a huge difficulty. I agree that many of them do not try as hard as they ought to, but let us not kid ourselves as to what the local issue is—not just wanting to win that particular ward but a matter of real difficulty.

For that reason, I say to my noble friend that I am sad that in this elongated, extended, overblown Bill, we have not had time to do four things: put in the future homes requirements to raise the standards of housebuilding so that they are fit for the future; create a system whereby housebuilders should provide the resources for rebuilding the insides of many of the homes that they built over the last five or 10 years; and understand that we should reuse land and think about place-making where people are within a quarter of an hour of the resources they need. Then, we can talk about how we can have a relationship with local authorities that can build the number of houses that we need.

I intend to support the Government on this amendment because I am not prepared to be put into a position where the answer to our problems is numbers. That is not the answer. The answer is a housing policy which looks at sustainability, the ability to buy and the future, not a collection of odd clauses stuck together and added when it happens to be convenient.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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My Lords, I have a much less eloquent and much less exciting question to the proponents of Amendment 195, and certainly no fairy dust. If you are linking national targets to the local plan, what happens when national targets change during the five-year plan period? Does the plan have to be rewritten, do parts of it have to be rewritten, or do you have to wait until the end of the period and then apply the new target? It is a purely technical question and, as I say, much less exciting than some of the material we have just heard, but I would be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, could help me with that.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as an honorary fellow of the RIBA. I support this amendment because I think there is a huge need for people to know where they are. It is very simple but there is so much of this in government—and probably elsewhere—that people find it very hard to understand and react properly because they do not know where they are. In the planning system, this is particularly notable.

As my noble friend Lord Lansley made his speech, it all sounded so obvious and natural. It is exactly what we should do. Therefore, we know what the Government’s answer will be: “We will do that, so we do not need to put it into the Bill”. I am afraid I am becoming less and less willing to accept the promises of Ministers based on simply saying they will do something. We recently had a very good example of this. I thought we understood that we were not going to make deleterious environmental decisions in any legislation at all because we could trust Ministers not to do that. It is very debatable that that is now being maintained.

I say to the Minister that if it is something we do anyway, there is no harm in putting it in the Bill. If the Government object to something because they do not do it, then they should explain that they do not do it. However, if the argument is that the Government already do it and therefore do not need to put it in the Bill, I do not think the House should accept it any more. If the Government feel unhappy with that, I suggest that they remember they are not necessarily going to be the Government permanently. Therefore, when they are thinking deleteriously of those who might replace them, surely they would want to ensure that were they to be replaced, the new Government would have to accept the same rules. I do not think they need to feel unhappy; rather, they should say they are ensuring that the system works for everybody, whoever may be running it. It is also a good thing for a Government to recognise that people really want to know where they are, and this is one of the areas where we do not.

Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has raised a very important point about the effectiveness of a plan-led system if local plans are not up to date. The noble Lord, Lord Deben, has enhanced that argument by saying that people need to know where they are. If this is only in guidance, but we require there to be local plans—as we do in a plan-led system—why is it not incorporated in statute? I hope the Minister will answer this question.

The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, has raised a fundamental issue. Local plans are at the very heart of a plan-led system. As well as setting out local planning policies, the local plan allocates land for new housing developments; it allocates land for business development, thereby allocating land for jobs; and it allocates land to be protected, such as the green-belt land allocation.

If local authorities are not preparing, or do not have, an up-to-date local plan, then land is not being allocated for development. We will later have debates about housing targets, but one of my concerns about housing targets is that, if local authorities do not have an up to date local plan, land is not being allocated or set aside for housing development. If land is not being set aside for housing development, it is very likely that new houses are not going to be built.

The government website helpfully has an alphabetical list of authorities and the status of their local plans—although it is unhelpful in being able to look at them more carefully. The vast majority do not have an up-to-date local plan. In fact, one or two on the list do not appear to have updated their local plan for several years. What that tells me is that, currently, the expectation is that local authorities will develop a local plan and have it agreed, with a full review after five years. Helpfully, my own authority is not one of those that does not have an up-to-date plan, and it is currently beginning a review a year ahead of expectation.

If land is not allocated for housing, how on earth do we expect housebuilding to take place? I hope the Minister will be able to help me with this, because some time ago in a previous debate on this, I thought I recalled the Minister stating that a five-year supply of land will no longer be a requirement and will be waived by the Government. As I understand it, at the moment that is the only stick to encourage—or force, even—local authorities to allocate land for housing in a local plan. Currently, although it may be waived—and I am waiting for the Minister to respond to that—as I understand it, if a local authority does not have a sufficient supply of land for a five-year allocation according to government housing targets, then developers can choose where to develop. It is open season for housebuilding. If that one stick is being waived—and I hope I have remembered that correctly—then I would like to hear from the Minister on how they will encourage local authorities to have up-to-date plans, because without them, I do not see how we will meet housebuilding targets.

The issues that the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, raised, are fundamental. When he replies, will he say whether he wishes to test the opinion of the House on this? Without an up-to-date plan, all the Government’s housing targets approach—which my party does not necessarily agree with—comes to nothing. Only the authorities that do the right thing, having difficult discussions with communities about allocating land for housing and other development, will supply the houses that need to be built. Everyone across parties accepts the importance of building more houses; how we get there is the issue. However, I would love to hear from the Minister how that will be enforced without an up-to-date local plan. If the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, in responding wishes to push this further, we will support him.

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Lord Carrington of Fulham Portrait Lord Carrington of Fulham (Con)
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My Lords, I too rise to support Amendment 190, to which I have added my name. Your Lordships will be delighted to know that I do not have to speak for very long as everything I was going to say has already been said. The House sounds as though it is unanimous in the view: that there needs to be some sort of constraint on the proposal in this clause, to ensure that there is consultation; that local communities should have primacy in deciding what happens in their area; and that the policy that general consultation should be in the hands of Secretary of State, without the definition of what that consultation should be, is one that no parliamentary assembly should readily accept.

I believe there is a principle in this amendment, that we can trust my noble friend the Minister, and we can probably trust my noble friend the Secretary of State in the other place; but, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, they will change. They will inevitably change. They may change for the better or for the worse; we do not know. But one thing is certain: if you give a power to centralise decision-taking, sooner or later that power will be abused. It is essential to make sure that we do not pass legislation in this House that allows the abuse of power—particularly, the forcing on to local communities of policies that they reject themselves.

It may well be—indeed, I think there is considerable evidence—that our planning laws do not work; we need only look at the problems over the environment, housing and so on. We should absolutely be looking at how our planning laws should be changed and how we should free up, speed up and make less expensive the whole planning process. But the way to do that is not by giving powers to the Secretary of State to override any consultation, any local decision-making and, indeed, the local power of other constitutionally established bodies such as local government.

I support the amendment for a lot of reasons. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree that this issue needs greater clarification, that it needs to be properly addressed, that this amendment almost certainly achieves all of that, and that, possibly with a few tweaks from the Government, this amendment could form part of the Bill to everybody’s benefit.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, some issues continue to affect almost everything we do. One is the principle of subsidiarity—that we should ensure that we do not have a system where all power is centred at the top. That was a very important principle that the Popes upheld when dealing with both the Nazis and the communists, saying that both got rid of all the subsidiarity powers and concentrated them at the centre. Of course those people did so because they were, largely, wicked. The trouble is when it is done by people who think it is the best way forward, and that is what I fear here.

The planning system is obviously not good enough. I declare an interest here, having spent almost a whole year trying to turn a house back into the pub that it was before. You would have thought they would have been keen on all that but, my goodness, there are many complications in trying to do it. However, although we recognise this about the planning system, you do not overcome it by putting on top of that system something that is seen by others as being dictatorial. Unless this power is clearly controlled and confined by the parliamentary procedures that enable it to be used in a way that the public will see is subject to democratic control, then I believe it will fail. It is not just a question of it not being suitable, and it is not just a philosophical question; it is that it will not actually work.

One knows what Ministers have been advised to say: the amendment would make the process more difficult, slower and more complex. Well, sometimes doing things more slowly is a good thing because it gives you time to make sure that you get it right. Sometimes making it more complex is necessary because the issue is more complex, and pretending that it is not means that you make a mistake.

I come back to a question that is particularly affecting me at the moment. We have now seen a number of examples where Ministers have said, “It’s not necessary to do this because we’re going to do it anyway”. I remember Ministers who promised us that we would not sign contracts with other nations that undermined our farmers, but we have done precisely that. We have a case at the moment where Ministers said there would be no diminution of environmental protection and therefore we did not need to put it in the Act, but I fear that is precisely what has happened.

I am in the same position here. I am sure that Ministers intend to do the right thing, and I am sure that Ministers coming from any reasonable party might intend to do so, but, as a former Minister of 16 years, I think it was very good for me to have to do the right thing. That is what I think we ought to put here.

Baroness Pinnock Portrait Baroness Pinnock (LD)
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My Lords, this policy proposal is one of the most contentious issues that we have debated throughout the course of the Bill. So far, it has been a very thoughtful and considered debate about the importance or otherwise of having a centralised group of planning policies imposed on local authorities.

This approach, of having a set of national policies that are imposed on local planning authorities, is not new and does not have a happy history. Even from before my time in local government, some will remember the imposition of county structure plans. Local authorities had to agree to those plans and abide by what was stated in them. That did not end very well. Then in 2004 there was the introduction of regional spatial strategies—this just goes to show that all parties in government have a tendency to centralise—which I remember debating, and they did not end well either. My serious point is that these are messages from history for the Minister and the Government showing that, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has said, trying to impose on local communities the Government’s idea of national policies that must be adhered to does not have a happy history.

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I shall just quote some figures on this. They are open to interpretation, but one set I saw calculated that the EU is planning to spend over 10 years the equivalent of $440 billion in public spending. In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act accounts for $336 billion. This is a modest amendment, a “draw up a plan, look to see what we could do” amendment. I am going to put this in the framework of time. The EU and the US have already acted. We know that in a year’s time, more or less, one way or another we will have a new Government. I am not even, since I am being emollient, going to make any suggestion about what that new Government might be, but what your Lordships’ House could do, what the Government could do by backing this amendment, is set out a plan directing the Civil Service to look in a strategic way, given the current situation we are in globally, at what the UK could be doing. That could set up the new Government, whatever they look like, to be ready to act. Surely, we need to act, given that we are clearly world trailing on green industrial strategy and we desperately need to catch up.
Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I refer to my past as chairman of the Climate Change Committee merely to say, in very short terms, why I think it is important to take seriously the way in which the planning Acts affect decisions made by the whole nation when it comes to dealing with climate change, both adaptation and mitigation. There is no doubt that we will have to make all our decisions through that lens, because that is the only way we are going to be able to fight the existential threat we now face. No one who has looked at the effects of climate change this year, all over the world, can possibly misunderstand the reality of the threat. If we are going to deal with that, it is not just about policy or programmes but action and delivery.

This Government have been extremely good on their policy and programmes. We cannot complain about a Government who have set the best targets in the world, who led the world in Glasgow, who first set a net-zero target for 2050. We really have to accept that this Government have done all those things, but the criticism is delivery. Doing those things is essential. Setting those targets is crucial. Leading the world in all those ways has been a privilege for all of us, but we now have to deliver. In this amendment there is a real chance to do one of the pieces of delivery which is vital.

I say to my noble friend, with whom I have worked for many years, including in the Department for Environment, when we began the journey to where we have got today, imagine putting the word “not” into Amendment 191:

“The Secretary of State must”


not

“have special regard to the mitigation of, and adaptation to”.

Imagine doing the same in sub-paragraph (2):

“When making a planning decision”,


he must not “have special regard”. We would find that utterly unacceptable, because we know perfectly well that this is central to the future of this country and of the world, and we therefore have to have that. No doubt we will be told that the Government have got that. Well, once again—which is why I intervened earlier, in wicked preparation for this one—it is not good enough just to have the intention. We know which road

“is paved with good intentions”,

and that is not a road we ought to travel, although it is the road down which we are all travelling at this moment. Therefore, I say to my noble friend that I very much hope that he will understand why it is crucial for us to make it clear that the planning system must be used throughout its length and breadth to ensure that we make the decisions upon which the future of our children—and, indeed, ourselves, even those as old as I am—really depends.

I finish by saying this. People attack some of the techniques and ways of behaviour of the extremist organisations, and I join them in that. It is not what I believe in. But what I object to is that people do not ask themselves why they are doing it. It is because there is a whole generation that does not believe that the democratic system can deliver what needs to be delivered on climate change, and we in this House and in the other place have got to overcome that. That is why this amendment is so important as part of reassuring and reasserting that the democratic system can deliver and that you do not have to take to the streets, you do not have to behave in the way that all of us deplore; you have instead to accept this kind of amendment. I hope the Government will see why it is crucial.

Lord Lansley Portrait Lord Lansley (Con)
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My Lords, I intervene for a moment in support of Amendment 191, to which I have added my name, and to say a couple of things, partly by way of reiteration of what the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, said in what I thought was a very capable exposition of the reasoning and purpose behind the amendment.

First, of course we already have in legislation, and have had for some time, a duty in plan making to contribute to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, but I am afraid it is not doing enough. That much is evident, and what the noble Lord said, which is absolutely right, is that some local planning authorities who want to do the most to change their approach to plan making and spatial development in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change are finding that the structure of planning law makes that more difficult.

In resisting the amendment, my noble friends may say that it would lead to litigation. Well, first, it all leads to litigation. Secondly, the problem at the moment is that, for a local planning authority, going down the path of doing the really necessary things to mitigate climate change involves transgressing other objectives under planning law. For example, we can have a big debate about the green belt, but sometimes—as Cambridge’s examination before its local plan process demonstrated—if you really want to make a difference, the structure of development must focus on urban extensions and along public transport corridors—and if you try to do that around London, you hit the green belt. So you have to balance these things.

If we are serious about adaptation to or mitigation of climate change, we must raise it in the hierarchy of considerations—which is exactly what the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, sets out to do. It is not an objection to the amendment that we create a hierarchy that could give rise to challenges; it is its purpose and objective and that is why we should do it.

I will reiterate a second point he made so that noble Lords understand the value of the amendment. It takes a principle presently applied to plan-making and applies it both to the Secretary of State’s policy-making functions, including national development management policies, and to determinations of planning permissions. It puts it right in the midst of the whole structure, from the Secretary of State making policies to local authorities making plans and looking at planning applications and determining them. That is the only way competently to address the range and scale of issues that climate change presents to us. It takes it from policy through to individual decisions, and that is why I think it deserves our support.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to support every word that the noble Viscount has just said—a rare event.

I have recently joined a group of people who meet monthly to assess the health of the chalk stream that runs through their village by counting river flies, and the experience has been a real pleasure. There is nothing as satisfying as seeing a healthy ecosystem, and luckily theirs is.

However, as the noble Viscount has pointed out, chalk streams are extremely vulnerable. In fact, the amendment should not be necessary at all because we should automatically be protecting the health and well-being of our chalk streams. So I very much support the amendment. I hope it comes back again and again and we vote on it—or perhaps the Minister will snap it up as a good thing to do.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I too am not always in agreement with the words of my noble friend, but I strongly support the amendment.

The key point is that chalk streams are more vulnerable than almost any other water because they are concentrated in areas of considerable development and they are subject to considerable abstraction and the results of sewage disposal. There is therefore a particular reason for isolating them as opposed to other things.

The crucial reason is that we are fortunate enough to have the majority of the chalk streams in the world. Britain needs to be very careful about protecting those few things that we have almost uniquely. I have to say to the Government that, awful though the REUL Bill is, this subject is clearly not going to be part of it, so this is an ideal opportunity to make that statement.

I fear that I know precisely what the civil servants will have said to the Minister. First, they will have said: “First of all, we really need a wider range of things here. We need to apply this much more carefully because otherwise people who will not be covered by this will object”. Secondly, they will have said: “It’s very difficult to isolate chalk streams when we are not covering this, that and the other”. Thirdly: “There will be other opportunities to do this in other legislation”. Fourthly: “This is a very big Bill already and we don’t want to burden the system with anything more”. Fifthly: “This particular amendment doesn’t cover all the chalk streams that ought to be covered, and therefore it would be better to wait until we can cover them all”.

There may be other things that civil servants will have told my noble friend, but I suspect that those are the first five. I suggest to him that this is the moment in which he does not listen to, “Better not, Minister”, and puts in, instead of that, “Be off, civil servant!” We need to have this. It is not perfect, but if we wait for perfection, we will do nothing. I just hope that the Minister, in whom I have great confidence, will be able to say, “This is a sensible thing to do and I can’t really think of any good reason for not doing it”—and therefore will do it.

Lord Randall of Uxbridge Portrait Lord Randall of Uxbridge (Con)
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My Lords, briefly, I join all those who have supported my noble friend’s amendment. I think that if my noble friend the Minister were sitting on the Back Benches he would probably have added his name. We know he has a difficult task but we wish him well in his endeavours.

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Therefore, with these assurances about the scope of the definitions and the opportunity for further scrutiny of outcomes, I hope that the noble Viscount will feel able to withdraw his amendment, but with the absolutely clear commitment from me that further conversations will be had, with him and others, about chalk-stream restoration and how we can better make sure that this continues to be a priority.
Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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I am sure that my noble friend’s comments are absolutely acceptable and I see perfectly well why he does not want this here. But is it possible just to consider whether attention might be drawn to this point somewhere else in the Bill? As he said, it is very special; I say this with a perfect lack of interest because, coming from the flatlands of Suffolk—where I am afraid we do not have any chalk streams—I am particularly keen to support the noble Viscount. Might the Minister consider putting this somewhere else in the meantime?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I will have to have discussions with colleagues and officials to see whether there are other areas of legislation, or areas in this legislation, where we could reassure the House. I have listened and will continue to listen on this, and I hope that noble Lords will reflect on this.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow 11 minutes of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, explaining the amendments. I have tabled amendments in this group and supported others because of the potential importance of strategic planning in tackling the climate emergency. We need to embed it in everything that councils do, alongside solving the acute housing crisis in this country.

Mine are probing amendments to find out how the Government see the role of county councils within the production of a joint spatial development strategy. County councils sit one tier above planning authorities, but many have strategic functions—for example, transport, health, social care or education. It seems slightly odd that they do not have a planning role as well.

Schedule 7 as currently drafted would need participating planning authorities to consult the county council once a draft strategy has been produced. It seems to me that this perhaps misses the opportunity to involve county councils actively in the development of the strategy, which I think they could very much contribute to. Taken to its highest level, the county council could even initiate the process and convene the planning authorities to work together. It seems to me that that is likely to happen anyway.

I would like to know the Minister’s thinking on how the Government see the role of county councils in strategic planning and whether they might explore the opportunity of more fully involving counties in spatial development plans.

For most Bills, the more I get involved the more fascinating they become. This Bill is an example of that not working at all. I am finding it incredibly difficult, and I sympathise with the Minister dealing with it. It is very difficult to find a coherent thread through this whole Bill. I applaud her and the Labour Front Bench for toughing it out.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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I wonder if my noble friend would accept that it sounds a bit odd to those of us who live in the countryside that counties should be left out. I know why it was; I can see the civil servant saying to her, “Well, you know, counties don’t have planning powers, except for minerals, so it really doesn’t count here. It’s the district councils that have it”. I know what they have said; they would have said it to me all those years ago—that is what they would do. I say to my noble friend that I will not easily be dissuaded from the fact that the county council is crucially important if you go in for spatial planning. I do not see how you do it otherwise.

Take the planning authority for Ipswich. Several of the housing developments and industrial sites that anybody else would have thought were in Ipswich are not; they are outside it, in another district council. The county council has to provide many of the services that service the whole group. If the county council is excluded from this, it is not just a bit odd but it will not work—the county council is crucial.

The second reason why I ask my noble friend to look again is a simple matter. We had the welcome announcement of a new relationship between national and local government. I am distressed by the way that national government often treats local government as if it is a sort of incubus, and I am afraid that civil servants often have a view of local government officers which is other than entirely polite. They say, “Better not, Minister—you never know what they might they do. Therefore, don’t give them any powers without us being able to pull them back.” I am afraid that is the view of many of the civil servants who serviced Ministers and continue to do so, so I want to break into that.

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I thank my noble friend Lord Deben for supporting this. I reassure him that, through the Bill, the rural county areas will now have the opportunity to have powers similar to those of Manchester and the West Midlands, as they can go forward to a county combined authority—CCA.
Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My noble friend has just said how much she wants the counties to be involved, but why can they not just be part of it? I do not understand this—it seems that there is no reason for it, except that it is in the Bill.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I disagree. The district councils, about which we have been hearing, are the planning authorities in those areas, and the county council is not. So it is important that we make sure that this is district-led but that the county has the important role of statutory consultee. But that will be different in different counties, depending on whether they are unitary authorities; in which case, they will of course be the planning authority and therefore can lead on this spatial strategy.

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Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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The county authority is the mineral planning authority, so how can we talk about spatial planning if we exclude the things for which the county authority is a planning authority. Making the distinction between being consulted—having a consultant role—and being part of the decision-making seems to me to be a false distinction. As the planning authority for minerals and similar things, it has to be part of such a spatial plan. I just do not understand the distinction.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I do not think that there is a distinction. They can be, and will be, part of it. I am sure that they will be part of whether that particular geographic area or group of councils will decide to go to a spatial strategy in the first place—that is how local government works. But I will give it some more thought; I am sure that we will come back to the issue on Report.

Levelling Up Fund

Lord Deben Excerpts
Tuesday 24th January 2023

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, no, I do not, and I do not think it is necessary to employ expensive consultants to do the bidding. Local authorities know what is important in their areas and they have officers who can put forward bids. The Government will support them. It is a very clear and transparent process.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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Does my noble friend accept that local authorities spend a great deal of time working out bids right across the board, instead of seeking to use that money in the way that is needed locally? Although I agree with her argument, there is widespread dissatisfaction among local authorities with the way that it works at the moment. Would it not be a good idea if the Government looked at whether there was a better way of doing it?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I agree with some of my noble friend’s views. If I remember rightly, I answered a similar question yesterday from my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and said that the Government are committed to reducing the complexities of local government funding, as set out in the levelling up White Paper.

Called-in Planning Decision: West Cumbria

Lord Deben Excerpts
Thursday 8th December 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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Oh, come on.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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I am sorry. There is not a timeframe—

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Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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Has the Minister finished?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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No.

We have talked about the exports. The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, brought up wind farms. These are part of our green energy policies, but as I said before, these wind farms need steel, and I would rather be using steel produced in this country from coke that comes from a net-zero mine than importing it from elsewhere. I will look at Hansard. If anything else needs responding to, I will do so in writing.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Climate Change Committee and a former Minister who had to do precisely this: act in a quasi-judicial manner. So I have to say to my noble friend that it would have been perfectly possible for the Secretary of State to turn this down and not agree with the inspector. Can my noble friend explain how the Government are going to say to the rest of the world that they preferred the judgment of a generalist planner to the expert advice of the Climate Change Committee, the International Energy Agency, my right honourable friend Alok Sharma, who led our delegation for net zero at COP 26, and, as the noble Baroness opposite referenced, the chairman of the Climate Crisis Select Committee? It seems we prefer the reference of a planner to all the expert advice that the Government have.

Secondly, how do the Government maintain that this is carbon neutral when it does not take into account the burning of the 85% of this coal that will be exported? We do not know whether it will go to the European Union or to countries that have no interest in fighting for climate change; it could go anywhere.

Thirdly, can my noble friend the Minister explain something? There is a plenty of coking coal in the world. No one is going to dig less coking coal because we are doing it. How do we know that we will be able to compete with them? After all, they are not going to do it to the standards of which my noble friend has spoken.

Why did the Government not say no to this and instead ensure that the 500 jobs would be replaced by jobs in new renewables and nuclear generation? This shows the rest of the world that, when push comes to shove, we do not up stand up for what we promised.

Housing: Manifesto Commitment

Lord Deben Excerpts
Wednesday 26th October 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I think I have given a clear answer to that. The future homes standard will provide fewer CO2 emissions, but this is not just about new houses; it is also about the houses that exist at the moment. We have our Help to Heat programme, which I spoke about in the last Question I took at the Dispatch Box, boiler upgrades, local authority delivery schemes, home upgrade grants for sustainable warmth and social housing decarbonisation—I could go on. We are looking at energy efficiency in not just new houses but the housing stock we have.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords—

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con)
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My Lords, we have plenty of time. Can we hear from my noble friend Lord Deben, then the Liberal Democrat Benches and then my noble friend Lord Naseby?

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for the answer on insulated homes, but since the Government went back on the promise of zero-carbon homes, we have built 1.5 million homes that have to be retrofitted, at the cost to the owners, and the profit was made by the housebuilders. Is it not time that the Government brought their future homes standard forward and enacted it immediately, so we do not put the bill for extra costs on people who buy new homes?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I will take back to the department what my noble friend says, but we are investing £12 billion in upgrading. So it is not just home owners who are paying for this; the Government are supporting them.

Land Use Framework

Lord Deben Excerpts
Thursday 28th October 2021

(2 years, 9 months ago)

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Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a small organic farmer, as someone who is involved in sequestration of land and as the chairman of a company that advises quite a few food companies. I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, for what I thought was a remarkable maiden speech. I ticked off all the things I agreed with him on and found no crosses, so I thank him very much indeed.

I wonder if I may say something to the last speaker. We often get more by saying “thank you” for what we have been given and then asking for more than by constantly attacking. That, I must say, I find an unattractive part of the Green Party. The truth is that this Government are doing more than any other Government in the world, and I say that as a man who spends most of his time holding their feet to the fire and pointing out where they get it wrong. I do not think you help your case if you do not accept, first, that we have set targets which others have to reach and, secondly, that we are now doing the next step, which is seen in the net-zero strategy, the heat and buildings strategy, and the absolute decision that there will be no cars sold after 2030 which are not electric or equivalent. All those are extremely important and good things, and having said “thank you” for them, I hope the Minister will accept one or two criticisms about where we could go further.

I think my noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, thinks I am sometimes a little critical of a land use strategy. I always worry about the word “strategy”, because sometimes it becomes enclosing rather than releasing, but she explained very clearly what she means by this and I am therefore entirely on her side. There is no doubt that this Government, like previous Governments, are benighted by their silos; they do not seem to be able to break out of them. This is a serious matter when it comes to land use. If you read the Net Zero Strategy, there is very little about land use, mainly because it was written by BEIS, and Defra appears to have had no influence on it—it could not, because it has not got a policy. The trouble is that there is no Defra policy, just general comments about what will arise. I repeat what the EFRA Select Committee of the House of Commons said: you cannot move from one system of support to an entirely different one in a haphazard manner. That is precisely what we are trying to do at the moment.

As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, asked, how does a farmer make any decisions today? He is told it will all be in the ELMS but we do not know what will be in the ELMS or how it will affect them. We do not even know how it will integrate with private decisions outside. What will be the terms? How do we deal with this? There is none of that in the present circumstance.

I do not blame Defra for finding this difficult; we found that in debating the Environment Bill. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith, who we know is on the side of the angels, found it very difficult to argue the soil issue, because the real answer is that Defra has not got its act together on that and therefore did not want to put it in the Bill. We have to recognise that “siloisation”—if there is such a horrible word—is almost endemic; it is a problem of government generally, not just this Government. There is therefore a need to, somehow or other, bring together the parts of government when that is so essential that we can no longer resist it. It seems to me that that is exactly the point we have reached with land use.

The Climate Change Committee said very clearly that we cannot meet net zero unless we have a significant amount of land use which brings carbon out of the atmosphere. I always want to remind people of the reason we managed without all this before: historically, balance was created. Human beings, animals and plants all have emissions; we do not have zero emissions, which is why the concept of moving to a zero-emission world is nonsense. We are emitting at this moment—I am, particularly, because I am speaking. We need to remember that the world balanced that: for the emissions that came out, there was sequestration taking carbon in. That balance is the issue; a point made in the wonderful book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. We have to get back to that balance of nature.

Land—the earth and the soil—will play a big part in that. Therefore, I was very disappointed that the amendment fell which would have insisted on setting a date at which the Government would treat soil with the same concern as they claim to have now for air and water. We in the House of Lords have certainly changed the attitude to water—suggesting that we should not contaminate it with sewage—so now let us get to soil, which is so important.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I am very pleased that she secured this very important debate. If we are going to do this, I would like to see a department of land use. We really need to bring agriculture, the natural environment, forestry and planning together. As the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches said, planning is crucial here. It is important to have a land use strategy—and I would like to go further and have a land use department—because the planning system we have at the moment does not address in any way some of the major issues of land use. There is no connection with the net-zero strategy. This is the crucial issue. Unless the planning Bill which we are told we will have makes clear that the principal issue of planning is to help us meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement and our statutory commitment to deal with climate change and get to net zero by 2050, it will not have done its job properly.

We then come to the arguments which I have heard from others on both sides. It was extremely helpful to have my noble friend Lord Carrington speak first and then the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, second. I like to be in the middle, and I come between the two of them. I have to say to my noble friend that we must have a big change among farmers; it is not a question of just going on as we are. We cannot go on farming in the way we have. We have done great damage to the land, using things we should not use, and we will not be able to do it again. The appearance of flea beetle, black-grass and all the rest of it has shown what we have done and how we have ceased to deal with nature as we should. All of us should take some blame for that.

On the other hand, I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that the idea that somehow or other some great hand would decide what should be grown, how it should be grown, what it should be and all the rest of it seems thoroughly despicable. We really do not need that. We have to create the circumstances, as all Governments should, in which people find it easier to do good and more difficult to do bad. That is a very important mechanism that we have. We do that by having a proper planning Act, by helping farmers to move to responsible and regenerative agriculture, and by moving away from the use of artificial phosphates and the other things we have been doing, particularly poisoning so much. This has made us the worst country among developed countries for biodiversity. That is a terrible statement. I am afraid that part of that has been the fault of agriculture. We have to recover from that point of view.

To finish, I merely say this. If we are going to deal with these things, we have to deal with them holistically, but there is no means of doing so at the moment. I hope we will move to a Government with a ministry of land use, but, until we do, it seems we need a proper framework, within which each department can work, and which will help Defra to stand up and be counted on these issues and be more able to influence the decisions made by the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education, BEIS and the Treasury than it appears now to be. This is important for Defra, and I hope it will take this opportunity.

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Lord Greenhalgh Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Lord Greenhalgh) (Con)
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I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I did not realise that the first thing I would need to address is how to pronounce the acronym for my department. To my knowledge, it is not known as the department for “LUHC”; we tend to call it “DLUHC”. Some other people have called it the “DLHC”, but I think “DLUHC” is winning the day at the moment.

I thank the noble Lady, Baroness Young of Old Scone, for moving the Motion on this topic. I have listened with great interest to the various points raised and will address them in turn. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her continued scrutiny through her roles in the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, the Woodland Trust, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee and the Rural Economy Committee. She is certainly keeping herself extremely busy.

I thank the noble Baroness for her valuable work in ensuring that planning is considered alongside other infrastructure, landscape and agricultural land processes. There can be no doubt that these are all important considerations when making decisions on land use. The Government agree that a strategic approach to planning—alongside infrastructure, environmental, landscape and agriculture considerations—is absolutely essential. That is why we have a National Planning Policy Framework, which provides a streamlined, cohesive framework within which locally prepared plans for housing and other development can be produced. It must be taken into account by local authorities in preparing their development plans and it is a material consideration in planning decisions.

The framework supports a flexible approach that can be tailored to the specific nature and extent of the strategic issues facing each local area. It is complemented by a number of other measures right across government that set out planning, infrastructure, landscape and agricultural processes. This includes the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime, which applies to major infrastructure. It ensures that the environmental benefits or disbenefits, and the views of local communities and local authorities that may be affected, are taken fully into account by the Secretary of State, who makes decisions on whether to grant development consent.

I also know how important it is to local communities that new housing development is supported by the provision of infrastructure that benefits both new and existing residents. Contributions from developers play an important part in delivering the infrastructure that new homes and local economies require. My colleagues in Transport have set out a number of important measures to support the delivery of important transport infrastructure. England’s long-term National Bus Strategy, Bus Back Better, sets out a bold vision for bus services across the country, and the transport decarbonisation plan is the biggest piece of work we have ever done to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

We are confident that our planning system can and will enable multifunctional land use for the benefit of the environment, without needing to completely tear up the rule book and use a framework for all land uses.

I wholeheartedly agree with the statements made by my noble friend Lord Goldsmith when this topic arose in your Lordships’ House in September. It is critical that we take a long view on our natural wealth and ecosystems as part of our strategic approach. I echo his message that the Government are already taking a strategic approach to land use, particularly when it comes to environmental aims.

Again, I thank your Lordships for your contributions today and will now endeavour to respond to the points raised. I start by saying what a tremendous maiden speech my noble friend Lord Harlech gave. He will certainly grace this House for many years to come—far longer than I will, for sure—and will make some powerful contributions. I appreciated his comments about the importance of digital connectivity in rural settings.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, mentioned that today a memorial service for the Earl of Selborne is taking place. I got to know him when I was leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council and I asked him whether he would be able to conduct a commission for me. I know what a champion of the environment he was, in particular pushing the case for sustainable urban drainage as an alternative solution to grey infra- structure. He is a great loss to this House and someone I admired greatly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, spoke about the current mechanisms we have in place to integrate decisions across all land uses. What we are hearing is a call for integration, and we are working with other departments. DLUHC is working with Defra and BEIS to ensure that our environmental goals are achieved in an integrated and efficient way. Trade-offs are being carefully managed and the Government are focused on achieving multifunctional land use.

I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch—this point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty—that I simply do not agree that the balance has tipped entirely so that powers are solely in the hands of developers. As someone who spent six years as a council leader looking to grow my borough, I simply do not accept that. We have recently reaffirmed that local authorities remain very much in the driving seat in designating, protecting and enhancing land use and protecting the green belt to prevent urban sprawl and encroachment on to greenfield and around towns and cities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, also raised the question of how local nature recovery strategies relate to the planning system and decisions on agricultural land. Our approach to spatial prioritisation is intended to integrate with the local nature recovery strategies. Doing so will create policy coherence for land managers on the ground, as well as enabling environmental land management schemes’ funding streams from schemes that reward farmers and land managers for producing environmental benefits to dovetail with other funding streams such as biodiversity net gain.

A number of noble Lords—among them, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone, Lady Boycott, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle—called for a new land use framework or a new land use strategy. In fact, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, offered to send over a draft strategy from the recent Green Party conference. I am sure our officials will be happy to take a closer look at that. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Deben called for another ministry, for land use. I am sure we will have to work out the acronym before we create another ministry, but that is a central thing that all the speakers were calling for.

The Government are already doing much to ensure a strategic approach to land use across England. They are also reviewing what more might be needed following the excellent food strategy report led by Henry Dimbleby. We have made a commitment to answer the recommendations within six months, so your Lordships will have to wait a while for a full response.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and my noble friend Lord Deben mentioned that ELMS will not be available until 2024, and that we will not know what is in it until then. It is fair to say that part of ELMS will be rolled out before 2024. We have been conducting tests since 2018, which will continue throughout the transition period. We plan to start a phased rollout of the local nature recovery scheme from 2023, so by 2024 we will have fully introduced our three new environmental land management schemes.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, this does not seem to me to have anything to do with the timetable of farmers. Farmers have to plant and then, when the harvest comes, plant again. This means that they will have no certainty about what to do when one system is phased out and the other is only half in. That is what the EFRA committee said and that is what we are trying to drive home to the Government: it is a question of the harvest, which the Government cannot change—that is the way the world works.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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I recognise that, as we phase out the old system and bring in the new, we need to work on proper communication, so that our farmers have that framework. I am sure my colleagues in Defra will continue to ensure that there is a clear direction of travel. I take my noble friend’s point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised the need for a guide to how ELMS are being rolled out. We published the agricultural transition plan in November 2020, and a progress update in June 2021, setting out a timeline for how ELMS are being rolled out; we will be publishing more information later this year. I hope that also addresses my noble friend’s overarching point.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, raised the importance of having sufficient land for food. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised the question of how food is produced. I know she is an absolute expert on this, as the former chair of the London Food Board when we both served the then mayor in City Hall. The Government agree that there is an urgent need to protect the natural assets that are essential to food production in this country. Under our new environmental land management schemes, farmers, foresters and other land managers will be paid for delivering environmental public goods. ELMS will support farmers to increase productivity and enable the more efficient use of land. The farming investment fund and the farming innovation programme will support investment in equipment, technology and infrastructure.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornhill and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, all pressed for a further update on planning reforms. It is clear that our planning system needs modernisation, to be one that embraces digital technology, benefits communities and creates places that we are proud of. I know that some aspects of the proposals have attracted great debate, so it is unsurprising that we are taking some time to review the reforms and listen to voices from across the sector. We will announce the next steps in due course. However, we are clear that the reforms must address the priorities of this Government: levelling up, delivering infrastructure, supporting communities and delivering the homes that we need in the places where we need them.

I point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, that I think you can achieve more homes without necessarily having to build a future battery of high rises. It is quite obvious that we can learn from the Victorians, who used their pattern books and developed high-density homes—particularly mansion blocks, such as the one where I grew up as a child, in Fulham. They often had between 750 and 900 habitable rooms per hectare. They are not that tall but they are dense, and provide decent accommodation for many families. Housing typology does not always mean that you have to revert to the high-rise.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, there have been a number of housing secretaries, but I would point out that the current one, Chris Pincher, has been in office longer than I have. He had been there for a month before I was appointed a Minister in the February reshuffle of 2020, so we have already gone a good 18 months with some continuity. I am sure he will continue to serve for some time to come, so we have continuity in place.

I assure the noble Baroness that the Government already take a strategic approach to land use that covers urban and rural development. However, as the processes that I have outlined today cut right across multiple policy areas, it is only right that they remain separate and that we keep localism at the heart of our approach.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, once again for the topic of the debate. As someone who grew up in a city environment, I have certainly learned a lot about agricultural land-use planning. I thank noble Lords for all their expert contributions, and I look forward to continuing to work with this House on such important matters.

Northamptonshire (Structural Changes) Order 2019

Lord Deben Excerpts
Tuesday 11th February 2020

(4 years, 5 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Finally, I would point out that England has the fewest elected representatives of all the major European countries, and when compared to the United States of America. The direction of travel is to reduce them here. I worry that we are reducing the number of elected representatives to the detriment of local democracy. Again, I think that will fuel discontent. If people do not feel that they know who is taking the decisions, and where, it does not help anyone; it makes people cynical about local government. Having been a representative in local government for a large number of years, that is the last thing I would want to happen. However, I understand the need for the order, and I support what is going on.
Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I query the process. Having been the Secretary of State responsible for local government reorganisation, I find this process extremely peculiar. The Secretary of State asked the principal councils in Northamptonshire to decide how they wanted the future to be, but he said that Northamptonshire could not be a single unitary and if it were going to be three unitaries, they had to find some extremely good reasons for it. What we have here is a series of commissioners proposing a particular answer and the Secretary of State thanking the commissioners for all their work and presenting local people with a choice that is not a choice. I am not happy with that as a procedure.

Then we discover that we are supposed to think that the local people will be thrilled about it because there were 300-odd responses to a statutory consultation from a population of something like 700,000. We also had a number of businesses and others who thought it was a frightfully good idea. One of the questions that was asked—this is fascinating—which was thought to be a very good argument, was about whether there should be fewer councils. That is not the issue. The issue is why should we have two councils rather than three or one. That is the first question. I find the process very peculiar.

The second thing that seems odd about it is the decision that the historic county of Northamptonshire should be treated differently from the historic country of Cornwall. I am not suggesting that either is the right answer, but it seems that you have to have a reason for it. When I had to deal with Sir John Banham’s report, one of the things I found very difficult was that a number of the proposals did not seem to tie up with other proposals; it was therefore quite difficult to present them to the House of Commons because the other place, quite naturally, asked why it was that the proposals for this place were based on these arguments and the arguments were overturned in the proposals for some other place.

That leads me to question whether we have any idea about what we are trying to do. What is the Government’s view of local authorities? If we are going to do them piecemeal because of a disaster, I understand that we have to do it quickly—I will not hold up the proceedings any longer than I have to in asking these fundamental questions; I certainly will not suggest that one is not content with this—but it does not seem to be very good business. It does not seem to be a sensible way to proceed.

That leads me to my third point, which is simply this: we have had some quite successful changes in local government. If I remember rightly, the original changes in 1974, which were Conservative ones, were largely bad because they were based on the principle of having a whole lot of councils, many of which were not viable. For example, in my county of Suffolk, we should have had two unitary authorities: the old county council of east Suffolk and the old county council of west Suffolk. That would have been sensible. Instead, we had eight district councils and a county council. It is a very large area, much bigger than Northamptonshire, and it was not a sensible thing. Ever since, there have been attempts for councils to work together. That is now happening. East Suffolk Council is an amalgamation of two district councils. It is true of Mid Suffolk District Council and Babergh District Council and of the western district councils, which are now working together because that is the only way in which they can provide proper services at a proper price.

I do not particularly like neatness. It is the enemy of civilisation. I do not like the concept of being neat for the sake of it, but I do like rationality, and my problem here is that I see no rationality behind this. It looks to me as if there was a failing county council, it was a disaster, we put in some people to hold the place together and now let us get some answer, which we will have, but let us not be too careful about whether we have a philosophy behind it. What sort of numbers should we be dealing with in the historic county of Northamptonshire? Somebody should have said, “What about a unitary authority?” That is one answer. I am not suggesting that it is necessarily right, but should it not have been a question that was asked? Would it have been significantly more expensive? Then you would not have had to have a children’s trust. I am a bit worried about the need for a children’s trust but nobody thinks that you have to have any other, countywide, for what is not an enormous county and one that is quite a reasonable shape.

I have stayed behind because I want to know what the Government’s philosophy is. I know a number of the Minister’s civil servants from my own history—they have been around for quite some time—and I always want to know why we decide on a particular answer. This decision is not based on a “why”; this decision says that we are doing it because it is the easiest, quickest, simplest way—and pray to God it works. I am not sure that that is government.

Lord Liddle Portrait Lord Liddle (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a county councillor in Cumbria, and some of my remarks are going to relate to Cumbria in the context of what the Government have decided on Northampton- shire. I agree with many of the general points that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Deben, have made, but I am rather concerned that the Northamptonshire model is being seized on by Ministers as something that they can go around the country imposing on people, whatever they think. The cause of that suspicion is that Mr Jake Berry, the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, summoned the leaders of the councils of Cumbria to see him and basically told them that the only option for the way forward was two unitary authorities in Cumbria—a county of some 500,000 people but obviously a vast geographical area—and that that was basically the Government’s intention. I realise that the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, may not be in a position to answer my questions, but I would be very grateful if he would commit to send me a letter in answer to the points I am about to make.

First, what is the current position on ministerial powers in relation to local government reorganisation? As I understand it, there was a provision in the Local Government Act to allow the department to impose schemes on areas but these powers have now lapsed. I am not sure whether I am right about that, so I want to know what the statutory power is at present and whether the Government are considering—because I know that there is talk of a devolution White Paper later in the year—taking on the power to reorganise local government even if there is not unanimous agreement? I rather gathered from what the Minister said that although seven of the eight authorities said they would accept the two-unitary structure in Northamptonshire, it was not necessarily unanimous of all the authorities. I do not know what the position is there. So, the first question is: where do we currently stand on ministerial powers and on the Government’s intentions for the future, given the Prime Minister’s laudable desire to make local government work better as he sees it and to devolve power?

Secondly, do the Government have rules about what they regard as the minimum size of a unitary authority? Again, there is talk of the normal rule being a population of 300,000, but is that a rule or is it just a thought when people are looking at these questions?

--- Later in debate ---
Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie
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I thank the noble Lords who took part in the debate, which has been not only interesting but informed. It has also been somewhat philosophical, particularly in the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and my noble friend Lady Scott referred to the children’s trust. I absolutely take note of their comments. All I can say is that I will take these concerns back as I am not in a position to answer them; perhaps these views are of a more philosophical sort.

In the same breath, let me say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that a letter will be delivered to all noble Lords who took part in the debate, perhaps to put a little more meat on the bones of that particular comment relating to the children’s trust, but also to answer his questions. In fact, I will attempt to answer some of those questions during my closing remarks, but I suspect that I will not answer them in full.

Perhaps this is me being a bit philosophical, but this subject leads to endless debate. Everybody has their own view on how local services are best met and how local authorities and local councils come together best. I understand that. I have my own views; obviously, they are the views of the Government.

I start by setting out our high-level policy: what are we trying to do in local government reorganisation? I hope to allay some fears. The Government are open to innovative, locally led proposals that will improve services, enhance accountability and deliver financial sustainability. Any proposal considered under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act process will require unanimous consent from all councils. Alternatively, the Secretary of State may issue a formal invitation for proposals.

Two circumstances will be considered in issuing such an invitation. The first is where the following two conditions are met: there is a local request for an invitation, and that request demonstrates that local opinion is coalescing around a single option that is reasonably likely to meet the existing publicly announced criteria for unitarisation. The second circumstance is where it is considered that this action would be appropriate given the specific circumstances of the area, including the long-term sustainability of local services. We are clear that any change to council structure should not be dreamed up or imposed by Whitehall, but led by councils and local people. Councils are much better placed to develop proposals that suit the unique needs of their residents and businesses. That is the overarching policy, which noble Lords have no doubt heard before.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben
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I am sorry to press my noble friend on this, but this proposal does not meet any of those things. First, it was not unanimously accepted by the local councils. Secondly, it was the Secretary of State who said what they could and could not agree to. There was no opportunity for innovative proposals; indeed, they were told precisely that there could not be innovative proposals. It is that that worries me. It is not that there is not a philosophy; it is that in no single case have I found that philosophy being followed. My noble friend, the former leader of Wiltshire Council, pointed out that Wilshire works perfectly well and so does Cornwall. Why was Northamptonshire not given the choice to have a single unitary authority? It is that that worries one. We are not keeping to what we said was our policy; I therefore wonder whether we really have a policy.

Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie
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I hear what my noble friend says, but I do not agree with him on this. There are several reasons for that. Of course he will expect me to say that; I will say it. We see a fresh start for the people of Northamptonshire. It will provide new councils in which local people can have confidence, providing effective, modern and sustainable services. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I thank the leaders of the eight—not seven—Northamptonshire councils and the commissioners for the leadership that they have shown to take us to this point.

On the lack of unanimity and there being one council —Corby—that was not entirely on board, it has consistently shown great strength of purpose in nearly supporting things, so when we say that it is not entirely unanimous, Corby was behind many of the issues. Perhaps a letter is required to give a little more information on that.

One of the most important things in this process is consultation. The local consultation described the majorities in favour as overwhelming, with 74% support overall and 77% and 70% in West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire respectively. I do not want to be drawn in on the names—I do not think that I can comment on that—but I take the noble Lord’s point on the names that were given.