Speech by the Secretary of State for Wales to the annual Welsh Local Government Association conference
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
David Jones MP calls on Welsh Government to reform planning system in Wales
Check against delivery
Today, I want to talk to you about our changing local democracy.
About what I believe is the need radically to decentralise power: to move it away from Westminster and Cardiff and closer to the people and communities it serves.
And about advancing localism and embedding it in our political system.
As a government, we are strongly committed to localism, and we have achieved a great deal already.
But I have real concern that there is a growing divide between the devolutionary approach to power that we are adopting at United Kingdom level and the picture here in Wales.
I believe much more could and should be done in Wales to push power down to local authorities and local communities.
A matter, I’m sure, of particular interest to all of you here today.
We are living in an age of localism
As a government, we believe that it is right - no, essential - that those who represent local people and serve local communities should be given the right degree of power to make decisions about the issues that matter to those people and communities.
We are keen, enthusiastic proponents of devolution.
We believe in developing the devolution settlement in Wales, and that is why the Wales Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament, will give the Welsh Government and Assembly more powers to take decisions that affect the people of Wales.
But let me be clear: we don’t believe that the progress of those devolved powers should come to a stop in Cardiff Bay.
We believe in a dynamic form of devolution – with power cascading down to the right level at which it can best be exercised.
The problem is that, in Wales, this simply isn’t happening.
Power is devolved by us in Westminster to Cardiff, but, too often, that’s where it hits a barrier.
Instead of cascading down to local communities, it is restricted and confined, as if behind a dam, in Cardiff Bay.
For that reason, local councils in Wales increasingly enjoy less power than their counterparts in England.
Indeed, it is a sad paradox of devolution in Wales that the devolutionary process, far from pushing power away from the centre, has actually led to more centralisation of decision making - but in Cardiff, rather than Westminster.
And if you live in a community away from the capital, Cardiff can be as remote as London from your everyday life.
Indeed, given the train services, to us here in North Wales, Cardiff is, in journey times, actually further away!
Differences in Approach between England and Wales
We don’t think that is right.
As a government, we at Westminster are unashamed, enthusiastic localists.
And with localism you really have to mean it, want it, be committed to it…
…and deliver it.
It isn’t enough simply to pay lip service.
Now, I have no doubt that, as members of this Association, you are currently spending a lot of time considering the recommendations of the Williams commission.
The Welsh Government are, of course, also considering their response to those recommendations.
I believe that their response to Williams will be pivotal to the development – or lack of development – of localism in Wales.
This is an opportunity that should be seized by ministers in Cardiff Bay.
An opportunity for them enthusiastically to devolve more power to local authorities across Wales.
To show the same enthusiasm for localism that we have at Westminster.
To give you the power to make the right decisions…
…to take the right actions…
…to use your local knowledge to improve the lives of people in your parts of Wales.
Because reforming local government shouldn’t be about central government - whether in London or Cardiff - taking the opportunity to impose more micromanagement on local government.
It should be empowering local authorities, local councillors, and ultimately individuals, to develop their own responses to their own, unique challenges.
And that is what we, as a government, are doing in England.
Breaking down, for example, the barriers that have stopped councils, charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups working together, and sharing responsibilities and budgets for the benefit of those who need their help.
Because we believe that people who share communities are very probably best placed to make the right decisions for those communities.
And we want to trust and enable them to do so.
Planning and housing industry red tape
Sadly though, in Wales, decisions are increasingly being centralised by the Welsh Government; and those decisions are only serving to impede locally-driven development.
I believe that decisions about housing stock, for example, are best made at the local level, not by officials hundreds of miles away whose knowledge of local needs and priorities will inevitably be less than that of local elected representatives.
A flexible, practical planning regime is all-important.
It is key to economic growth.
And stimulating and supporting the housing and construction industries is critical to our economic recovery.
In England, our radical planning reforms are underpinning our long-term economic plan by unblocking the system.
And in this way, boosting house building and attracting new investment into the market.
And those reforms are working.
In 2013, new home registrations rose in England by 30%; the highest level since 2007.
Sadly, here in Wales, it is a different picture.
Last year, Wales was the only region in the United Kingdom that saw a fall in the number of new home registrations: a decline of 12 percent.
The latest construction figures also show that output in Wales is lagging well behind the rest of the country.
Over the last year, new house building in Wales declined by almost 7 per cent, as opposed to growth of almost 34 per cent recorded across Great Britain as a whole.
Let’s be frank.
These are shocking figures.
They indicate, as clearly as they could, that there is something seriously wrong in the planning and regulatory system in Wales.
The Welsh Government need to take urgent action to improve the planning process.
In England, we in the United Kingdom Government are determined to do all we can to make sure that it improves continuously.
We have, for example, radically simplified planning guidance.
What used to consist of thousands of pages of often impenetrable jargon and otiose waffle…
…has now been cut to around 50 pages of clearly written, plain English.
Guidance that, remarkably, actually guides, rather than impedes.
So the planning system across the border in England is now much more accessible - much more user-friendly - than here in Wales.
It will therefore come as no surprise that developers increasingly find England a more welcoming place to develop.
That should be a concern to everyone, at every level of government, in Wales.
And let’s consider the issue of regulation.
As a government, we don’t believe in regulation for the sake of it.
In fact, we believe that there should be much, much less of it; and where it is necessary, it should be sensible, better and smarter.
So we have conducted a “red tape challenge”, testing the need for thousands of regulations.
As a consequence of that exercise, almost half of the Housing and Construction regulations considered are going to be scrapped or improved.
Changes which we estimate will save businesses almost £90 million a year.
In the Queen’s Speech, we announced an Infrastructure Bill, designed to bolster investment in infrastructure and to reform planning law - creating jobs and improving economic competitiveness.
We are committed to implementing a zero carbon standard for new homes from 2016.
But we understand that it is not always feasible or cost-effective for house builders to mitigate all carbon emissions on-site.
So, rather than a rigid, top-down approach, we are introducing flexible means for house builders to meet the zero carbon standard.
‘Allowable solutions’, where minimum energy standards are set through the building regulations and the remainder of the zero carbon target is met through off-site abatement, will provide builders with just that flexibility.
That’s what we’re doing in England.
Regulating fairly, proportionately and sensibly.
However, in Wales, all too often the Welsh Government seems intent on maintaining, and even increasing, the burden of regulations on councils and businesses, rather than reducing them.
By imposing increasingly onerous building regulations in Wales, the Welsh Government is increasing the cost to house-builders of constructing the starter homes so many families desperately need.
And putting up the price of those homes, so that more people will struggle to get onto the property ladder.
There are examples of development costs increasing by 20 per cent as a result of the way BREEAM standards are imposed in Wales – seriously damaging the industry.
And the Welsh Government is pressing ahead with the so-called ‘Conservatory Tax’.
This will require Welsh homeowners to carry out extra work to the rest of their property when, for example, they add a conservatory, an extension or convert a loft into living space.
This is a measure that we considered, but rejected, in England.
Research showed it would harm the economy by discouraging nearly 40 per cent of households from undertaking home improvements in the first place.
The ‘Conservatory Tax’ is a straightforward tax on Welsh builders and homeowners.
It will deter people from improving their homes and damage the construction industry.
I urge the Welsh Government to abandon it.
Welsh builders are increasingly despairing, too, over the draconian way building regulations are imposed in Wales.
Redrow have estimated that, as a consequence of Welsh Government requirements for the sustainable building code, and for all new homes to be fitted with sprinklers, the cost of building a typical house in Wales will be £13,000 more than in England by 2016.
So it is no wonder that Persimmon have pulled out of investing in the south Wales Valleys, citing heavier regulation in Wales as a major factor in their decision.
Planning and localism
Yes, planning is key to economic growth.
Do it well and the economy is likely to prosper; do it badly and it will be damaged.
And planning decisions shape our localities and affect our communities profoundly.
It is therefore surely right that local communities should be given as much power as possible to make those decisions.
We at Westminster have reformed planning, so that it can help deliver the homes and infrastructure that people want and need; by working with, not against, local communities.
Our reforms and the locally-led planning process are delivering real results and speeding up the system.
We believe that Local Planning Authorities are best placed to make decisions that affect their areas – drawing up clear local plans that meet local development needs and reflect local people’s views.
And the National Planning Policy Framework in England is just that – a framework - within which local authorities are empowered to make the best decisions for their local needs.
We made a commitment to give people more power over development in their areas.
And the Localism Act has done just that.
It has introduced new powers for people to make neighbourhood plans; giving communities the power to set the priorities for local development and reducing interference from central government.
But the Localism Act largely doesn’t apply in Wales.
The reforms to the planning system and the building regulations that we have carried out in England haven’t been adopted in Wales.
And this has contributed to the decline in house building and the reduced availability of homes of which I have spoken.
Wales is now at a tipping point.
So the Welsh Government have to make a decision.
Do they want a Wales that is over-regulated, centrally driven, increasingly uncompetitive and economically sclerotic?
Or do they want a Wales in which lower, smarter regulation frees up businesses and communities, and creates more prosperity?
As a Government, we are strong supporters of devolution and the opportunities it provides to advance the cause of localism.
But devolution should not be an end in itself.
It should not be a case of accruing increasing powers to a few individuals in Cardiff Bay.
It should, rather, be a stream of power that becomes a mighty river, flowing down to every community, large and small, the length and breadth of Wales.
And ultimately, it should flow to every household, every individual in Wales, making them more in control of their own surroundings and lives.
Real devolution is about decisions being made at the right level, by people who understand local issues, for the benefit of local communities.
I, and my colleagues at Westminster, are committed to that kind of devolution.
I want to see that same commitment from the Welsh Government.
More powers being decentralised from Cardiff Bay to decision-makers in local authorities across our country.
That is what we are doing in England.
And that is what should be happening in Wales.
In short, we believe in strong, empowered, local government.
We believe in you.
Because you are the ones best placed to make decisions for your communities, your towns and villages, the people you represent.
Because you understand, better than anyone, their needs, their concerns, their priorities
You do fantastic, valuable work.
And we want to do all we can to enable and empower you to do it better.