Andrew Adonis on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill

From his blog

This afternoon I am speaking for Labour on the so called Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Here is the gist:

The government seems to be re-defining the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Given the outright attack on localism in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, DCLG may as well be re-named the Department against Communities and Local Government.

The Bill, which starts in the Lords today, is also misnamed. It has little to do with infrastructure and less to do with growth. David Cameron was right when he said “If you could legislate your way to growth, obviously we would. The truth is you can’t.” It is fanciful to call a hotchpotch of planning measures a growth bill and if it were an infrastructure bill you would expect the new infrastructure minister to be speaking in today’s debate (he is not).

Labour will be probing the government on three key planning issues:

  1. The suspension of local planning authorities. If a planning authority is deemed to be failing by the Secretary of State then planning responsibilities will be removed indefinitely. There is no evidence that such a suspension is necessary when last year saw a 10 year high of 87% of all applications approved. 400,000 homes have planning permission but are yet to be built – the problem does not lie with local planning authorities.
  2. The attack on Section 106 affordable housing agreements. These agreements assure mixed housing developments and, once again, there is no case that they should be discarded. There is no evidence that failure to agree s106 agreements is routinely holding back developments and the Local Government Association point out that “councils are already responding to changed economic circumstances by renegotiating s106 agreements voluntarily.”
  3. The re-defining of ‘nationally significant infrastructure’. Such projects are dealt with centrally by the Planning Inspectorate. This is important in a small number of cases but broadening the definition to include ‘business’ and ‘commercial’ projects without defining the scope of these categories runs the serious risk of completely bypassing local communities for projects that would never seriously be considered ‘nationally significant’.

There are also two environmental concerns:

  1. The threat of new communications infrastructure in national parks. The Bill is intended to facilitate the roll out of rural broadband but allows overhead cables and mobile phone masts to be placed in national parks without the consent of their relevant authorities. As the Campaign to Protect Rural England has pointed out, “The proposal that the key purpose of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – to conserve beauty – could be overridden in order to provide infrastructure… would establish a dangerous and wholly inappropriate precedent.”
  2. The risk of development on town and village greens. Under the proposals, after a ‘trigger event’ it would no longer be possible to register to get your village green protected.  One proposed trigger event is the submission of a planning application. As Hilary Benn puts it, this is Kafkaesque since the first that most people will hear of a threat to a green is when a planning application is published.

Worse, tacked on to the end of this planning bill is the alarming proposition that employee rights be traded for shares. In effect, the Bill implements the “fire at will” Beecroft proposals by the back door.

Other than the clause destroying employment rights and safeguards, the only discernible theme of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill is the weakening of the powers of democratically elected local authorities. This contradicts the excellent proposals for growth in the recent Heseltine report – which rightly emphasises the role of self-confident local authorities in driving local economic development – and flies in the face of “localism”.

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