Andrews contributions : Impact of Environmental Regulations on Development (Built Environment Committee Report)

Hansard Contributions By Lord Mawson (CB) On 19th April 2024


Lord Mawson (CB)


“My Lords, I will not rehearse in this speech the points made in the committee’s report. They are now in the public domain and are clear and have been set out in this debate. I would, however, like to share a few reflections on the process that we have been through and the lessons learned. I thank the committee clerks and Kelvin, our special adviser, for the support they gave us and the production of what I thought was an excellent and timely report. I also thank the chairman of the committee for setting out the issues so clearly in the press briefing and media interviews that he took part in.

I begin by sharing my disappointment at the way the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Intergovernmental Relations, Michael Gove, dealt with the challenging questions that we sent him. They were set out clearly in writing by the clerks when we met with him on 6 February. They were questions that our committee had researched in detail. We are living at a time when there is decreased trust in politicians of all parties and in the machinery of the state and its ability to deliver anything effectively. Members of the public, let alone Peers of the Realm, are sceptical and deserve a grown-up conversation with our politicians on challenging issues and the functions of the state. We all know, and have experienced at first hand, that this machinery is not working for us in so many ways. There is a desperate need for a frank and honest conversation, in which we grapple together with the issues, admit failings and challenges and attempt together to find ways forward.

The Secretary of State arrived at our meeting with 13 civil servants in train, at great cost to the public purse—only two of whom spoke briefly. The two-hour session, I am afraid, was a great example of a clever politician who has been meddling in the systems of state for some time now but who actually told us very little. This was a real opportunity missed, and an example of what is happening on all sides of the political spectrum in our public discourse about serious issues such as the ones we are discussing today. It is a discourse that sheds very little light and, more importantly, produces very little learning.

I raised with the Secretary of State the impression that we had clearly been given in our evidence sessions of the lack of joined-up working in the siloed systems of the state for which his department was responsible. We were told time and again about the fragmentation in many of the processes of those bodies that his department was responsible for, about people not communicating effectively with each other and about the machinery’s lack of fitness for purpose, with questions over whether any real learning was going on between these various bodies dealing with these important issues.

Instead of serious engagement and grown-up discussion about the challenges—which certainly predate Michael Gove—in the systems and processes that sit below him, we were told that all was fine and dandy in the kingdom. I do not believe it for a minute, and our evidence clearly suggests otherwise. If everything is fine with the machinery below the Secretary of State’s office, why were we told, in the recent Public Accounts Committee report on levelling up, that only just over 10% of the promised funds had actually been spent and were making a difference on the ground? That report asks why the Government are unable to provide any compelling examples of what levelling-up funding has delivered so far in one of the Government’s flagship policies.

As a person with direct experience of these issues on the ground, I declare my interest. This all speaks volumes as to the challenges of this department’s machinery—top, middle and on the front line—and accords with the evidence that we heard. Our encounter with the Secretary of State was disappointing, and an opportunity for real, informed dialogue and learning was missed. These machinery issues are not a party-political matter, of course. They will equally apply to, and have to be faced by, any new and incoming Government—they are not going away any time soon.

To move on, I agree with the conclusions of our report and think that their implications are very serious. All parties are promising to solve the housing crisis, but I am afraid that this will not be possible until we are all willing to have hard, honest and grown-up conversations about the challenges that we all face with the top, middle and front line of the machinery of the state, its fitness for purpose and its ability to deliver. Trust in our democracy depends on it. There is a desperate need for innovation, new ways of working and what I call a learning-by-doing culture at all levels of the state apparatus. But what does this look like in practice?

One very interesting piece of innovation that we heard about during our evidence sessions was from the Honourable Justice Brian Preston, Chief Judge of the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales. Having done several speaking tours in Australia, I know that Australians can sometimes—given our shared history—unfairly feel a little dependent on the UK and often want to learn about our latest thinking and practice on this small island. In this case, I suspect we may have important lessons to learn from them, and rightly so. Justice Brian told us about the Land and Environment Court in New South Wales, of which he was the Chief Judge. It was established in 1979 by legislation. At that time, we were told that planning and environmental law was quite primitive and even incoherent—sound familiar? The resolution of planning and environmental disputes was dispersed between multiple institutions, not only courts and tribunals but boards and government bodies. If you had one dispute, you could go to six different courts, tribunals or boards. This led to delay, transaction costs, inconsistent decision-making and incoherence in the administration of the legislation. In New South Wales, there was a desire to rationalise this fragmentation process and bring everything into one place to create, in effect, a one-stop shop. The consequence, we were told, has been the much speedier resolution of conflicts.

There is so much more to say about the lessons that we can learn from the Australian approach but, frustratingly, we have not been given the time to have a proper discussion about it. The Secretary of State could learn a lot. This learning-by-doing environment—the 360-degree approach—may not be perfect but I suspect that it has much to teach us all. My question to the Minister is: what are we actually learning about how to resolve the tensions between environmental issues and housing, and how are we applying these lessons to practice?”

The full debate can be viewed here.