Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 640-659)



  640. Do you see the temptation for some of the poorer parts of the country, in a sense, being prepared to sell off or to allow some of their best sites to go because they are looking at the income from the tariff?
  (Professor Grant) Yes, but perhaps to no greater extent than is presently the case. When you look at the planning system across the board, the north/south divide is dramatic in every respect.

  641. You do not think this Green Paper is going to do anything to improve that.
  (Professor Grant) Well, I think there is a limit to the aspirations it can have loaded upon it.

Chris Grayling

  642. Could I take you on to the major infrastructure proposals. Do you have a sense that the Government proposals are right or wrong? Is the need really there for such a major change?
  (Professor Grant) It is, again, a very significant question of trade-off. Also, I think it is important to understand that this is not a new debate. I can take you back to 1842 and the industrial revolution and the construction of the Manchester ship canal and the railways, which demonstrates exactly the relationship between public protest, landowner objection and parliamentary sovereignty. I think it is vital that parliament should have a role when it comes to decision making on major infrastructure projects. I am not at all opposed to that. Indeed, I would suggest that it has been the Government's abrogation of its own responsibilities over the years that has led to the long-running public inquiries that we have seen. T5 need not have taken the time it did take, had there been a fair statement of Government policy in place which was sufficiently robust to have lasted unamended during the period of the inquiry. But that was not to be.

  643. Are politicians using the public inquiry system as an alibi for not taking decisions?
  (Professor Grant) I think they have used the public inquiry system to take policy decisions for government. All of the airport inquiry process over the last 40 years, going back to Cublington and the Roskill inquiry, has been about asking inspectors to take policy decisions for government. Policy decisions belong with government, so the first aspect of these proposals—which is that there should be statements of national policy made by government and brought to this House—is entirely appropriate. The second question, though, is whether in relation to a specific project parliament should decide the principle, the need and the location, because what that is inviting parliament to do is to grant outline planning permission for the project, and a compulsory purchase order where that is needed, and leave very little to a public local inquiry.

  644. You have talked before about the way in which the procedure might work in parliamentary terms. Can you give us a sense of what your view is, if there is to be a parliamentary mechanism for deciding policy?
  (Professor Grant) There again is a tension between the policy and the exact application. Policy is for government and for parliament. The exact application of policy to a specific site is a task that parliament can undertake, but only with some difficulty. It has done it in the past, with private bill procedure, and then in 1992 resolved that it should no longer entertain private bills—and the reason for that is instructive. One backbench MP refused any longer to sit on the select committee that was hearing objections to the Felixstowe Dock and Railways Bill. That committee became inquorate and could no longer function. It generated a widespread concern within parliament that it could no longer service select committees inquiring into specific works proposals. That was the ultimate justification for the Transport and Works Act which took that outside parliament. But the TWA specifically preserved the capacity of parliament still to entertain public bills which were hybrid because of a special element. So one approach would be to look at these as public bills. That procedure was used for the Channel Tunnel and for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and it is perfectly possible to combine approval of policy with applications for specific cases. But let me just be clear about the implications of doing that. First, two things have changed. One is that the UK Government is now bound by a Directive on environmental impact assessment and parliament becomes the body, the competent authority, which carries out the environmental impact assessment—a process which it must do with an open mind because it must take into account the environmental statement and the consultation responses to it. I would have thought that that is incompatible with the whipping of parliament, depending of course on how far the whipping went. If the whipping was simply in terms of the national statement, no problems; but if the whipping is around driving through a piece perhaps of linear infrastructure which has a direct impact on people's properties, then there is, I think, a potential conflict.

  645. How can you avoid whipping in a place like this?
  (Professor Grant) That I would have thought is not the question for me but one on which members of the Committee will wish to reflect.

  646. No, but you make it clear, I think, in you speech that you think it has to be done without whipping. I am just suggesting to you that that is a little naive. One way or another, whips have a way of getting at individuals.
  (Professor Grant) I will ignore the question mark at the end of that sentence. What I would say is this: there is no objection to whipping on policy—there cannot be such an objection—but there is a point at which policy interacts with private rights and, where private rights are activated, so the environmental impact assessment Directive will impose an obligation on the UK Government to ensure that the decisions have been taken with an open mind.

Mrs Dunwoody

  647. Are you not coming back to the same point again? First, you have a policy layer and a strategy layer. Secondly, you have a specific site, a specific problem.
  (Professor Grant) Indeed.

  648. It could be a major or a minor site dispute, but it is actually very specific and inevitably parliament will then get itself into this situation.
  (Professor Grant) Given that what the Government is proposing is that parliament should approve the location as well as the principle and the need, yes, that is right. Now, the Government is also saying, "We know it will not necessarily propose that in any individual case," in which case you avoid that dilemma. But once you come to location, I would have thought that it would be necessary to have a select committee hearing process in which the merits of the policy were reviewed against the location aspects. If you have that, that has to be an opportunity for people to be heard. Now, history also suggests that there would need to be clarity from within parliament about how rules of locus standi were to be applied. For example, on the Channel Tunnel Bill the Government stood back and did not challenge objectors; the select committee then complained that too many people had been heard and it all took too long. On the King's Cross Bill the objections on locus were so ferocious as to exclude English Heritage, who were the only statutory body entitled to object on listed building grounds, and so you have the obverse. You need to be very clear in a parliamentary process who is entitled to be part of that process.

Christine Russell

  649. Professor Grant, can I move you either onwards or backwards from these major infrastructure proposals to the more run-of-the-mill planning applications. One of the criticisms of the existing planning system is the delays. One of the criticisms of the new proposals is the reduction, as some people see it, of participation. If we stuck with the existing planning policies and planning system, how could we improve it but still square that circle of speeding up the process but at the same time promoting and encouraging greater public participation?
  (Professor Grant) I think there are a lot of bogies about public participation. One of them is that it is all to do with structures. Actually, a lot of this is to do with political will. There are parts of the country where the present planning system is not actually broken because there is the political will to have it carry through a vision. I think an example is probably the Cambridge sub-region, where there has been fairly specific use of the RPG process, RPG6, which has identified growth options. The county has moved quickly forwards with a draft structure plan which is quite specific, and we anticipate that local plans will follow quite quickly but without a denial of public participation and an effort on the part of the county to be very open in its processes. So it can be achieved. The point being that delay is not simply a question of rights and specified process: delay is often a political response to the exercise by people of their rights and often also a failure by the political process to engage people at an earlier stage, as the Government is now proposing.

  650. So you would agree with the CBI that to some extent it is the fault of local government, the delay, whether it is at officer level or member level.
  (Professor Grant) I am not going to ascribe fault. I am going to say that in certain circumstances, particularly in areas of economic growth, the present system can be made to work. Let me take a different example, which is housing allocations in the south east, where there is a clash between local governments' politically led drive to protect vulnerable areas of the south east from further development and the Government's drive to have more housing. It is easy to blame the planning system for those delays, but you are actually setting up a surrogate for a political clash which happens to occur through the planning system but which is not quickly resolvable.

  651. Can I move quickly, because I know we are running out of time, on to the Green Paper's proposals to abolish structure plans. I think, in your evidence you describe structure plans as the glue that holds all the district plans together. Why do you regret the proposed loss? Again, is there anything positive that could go into the new proposals that would replace the loss, as you see, of the structure plans?
  (Professor Grant) One of the problems with structure plans is that they are done to administrative boundaries that do not make any sense. A number of those boundaries were devised before the Norman Conquest.

Mrs Dunwoody

  652. They must have had more sense then.
  (Professor Grant) Yes, but patterns of human settlement have changed a little since 1066.

  653. Not attitudes of mind but possibly human settlements!
  (Professor Grant) If you lose structure plans, you have a gulf between regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks. That gulf, I think, has to be filled. It has to be filled by some form of sub-regional planning and this needs to be spelt out much more carefully. The pre-requisites for it are, first of all, the requirement that there should be an identification of areas where sub-regional planning is to be undertaken, and that needs to be settled at a regional level. Secondly, local authorities need to be given the machinery to work collaboratively together and to cooperate together. And, thirdly, you need an implementation mechanism that binds those authorities together. Those are the big challenges which the Green Paper, I think, has yet to develop.


  654. Finally, if you were the Minister would you see the way forward as going for organic change or would you prefer to see a big bang, with some new legislation and the metal for getting legislation through the House?
  (Professor Grant) The Minister is not starting with a blank sheet of paper. He is treading in the shoes of at least two or three previous ministers of planning who have tried to change the system and failed. The only way in which you can achieve change, I think, is through the "aspirational" rhetoric that you find in the Green Paper and the impetus that that created to stir up alternative views in the future. I think that we do need quite radical change. I do not think that the process of incremental pragmatism that has guided our changes over the last 50 years is going in the right direction. So, if I were the Minister, I would be proceeding in the similar direction—no doubt with greater caution.

Mrs Dunwoody

  655. If you were the Minister, you would not start from here.
  (Professor Grant) No, I would have to start from here, as, indeed, does he, but I would be seeking now to sketch out in more detail the aspirations which I had penned in the Green Paper.


  656. You think a draft bill next year and legislation the year after is the way forward.
  (Professor Grant) The only alternative to that is a framework Bill for the forthcoming parliamentary session, but it would be, I think, unlikely that the Government could have by then formulated its proposals in sufficient detail and with sufficient consultation to produce a piece of legislation which was workable.

  Chairman: Professor Grant, thank you very much.


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