The government suffered two defeats - and promised to bring forward new proposals after studying another opposition amendment - during report stage of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill in the lords.
The defeats inflicted by opposition peers would mean, if not overturned, that regional planning bodies would have to have regard to government policies on spatial strategy rather than merely setting them out in their own regional strategies, and also give counties and other planning authorities a stronger role by ensuring spatial strategies must include sub-regional plans for all parts of the region.
Both successful amendments were proposed by Lord Hanningfield, Conservative leader of Essex CC, and supported by Baroness Hamwee, Liberal Democrat group leader on the Greater London Authority.
Lord Hanningfield said he recognised the importance of the government's role in giving strategic leadership, but did not understand why the regional spatial strategy (RSS) must set out the secretary of state's policies relating to the development and use of land within a region.
'Why can it not set out its own policies while having regard to the framework of national policy?' he asked.
'Is it not obvious that if one is to set up regional planning bodies, they should be accountable for their own policies rather than for the secretary of state's policies?'
Lord Rooker replied that the secretary of state had regional planning policies; he was accountable for them both now and under the changed system. 'However, if there were elected regional assemblies cutting out this function, the secretary of state would not need any regional spatial policies. The issue of de volution means that you remove completely the secretary of state's role it would be for the regional planning body', added the minister.
'The assumption that it is the secretary of state all the while, even with devolution, is simply not true'.
In addition, he said, when regional planning bodies prepared revisions of regional planning guidance now and of spatial strategies in the future and wished to make the case for diverting from national policy at the examination in public, it would be unreasonable and irrational for the minister to insist he had his own policy. Judicial review would almost certainly follow.
However, Lord Hanningfield's amendment was carried by 165 votes to 123.
Later, he proposed that the RSS must include sub-regional plans for all parts of the region, prepared by the authorities falling within the area or part of the area. He welcomed government concessions on the role of county councils and other strategic planning authorities during committee stage, but said they did not go far enough.
Lord Hanningfield said one of the main concerns identified in both the lords and commons was the wide gap between regional spatial strategies and local development. 'There is a yawning void created by removing structure plans from the process. It will create a serious problem for effective sub-regional planning and the co-ordination of transport, housing and infrastructure at the sub-regional scale', he added.
He was sceptical about how many districts would voluntarily join together to produce local development documents.
His amendment, he said, was to plug the gap by providing for the preparation of sub-regional plans, led by the strategic planning authorities as part of the RSS. 'It should not be interpreted as an attempt to reintroduce structure plans by the back door. That is not the intention', he said.
He said there would be a gradual downgrading as county councils and others lost their role in writing structure plans, sub-regional planning and associated responsibilities. T hat would be a disaster because capacity and expertise did not lie in the regional chambers or government offices.
'To disperse and get rid of that pool of expertise - which, as it currently stands, the Bill would surely do - would be a terrible waste of one of the most valuable resources in our planning system, and would hinder the government in their objectives in delivering sustainable communities', he added.
Lord Rooker said he was surprised at the tone of speeches and not clear about why the amendment had been made. He had seen nothing from the County Councils Network, for example, to say it was dissatisfied with the 'major changes' the government proposed at committee stage. As far as he knew the Local Government Association stood by its statements welcoming wholeheartedly the changes made.
'I do not know whether this is a private enterprise operation on behalf of the bigwigs from local government who see their role under threat - although as I have repeatedly made clear, it is not under threat - or whether there has been full consultation with the rest of local government', he decalred.
'Is this the final frontier? Is this it, or do those outside want more', he pondered.
However, the amendment was approved by 160 votes to 108.
Hansard 24 Feb 2004: Column 130 - 188; 194 - 224