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Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 9 July 2002
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Town and Country Planning (Major Infrastructure Project Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2002
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Town and Country Planning (Major Infrastructure Project Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 1223).
May I say how delighted I am to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Miss Begg? I look forward to our deliberations this morning.
This matter was raised in another place some weeks ago, after which the considered view of many people there was that the proposals in the statutory instrument are relatively benign, although some Committee members may not agree. It was considered in the other place before the then Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions produced its report on the Green Paper on planning, which raised a number of concerns about a wide range of aspects of the Government's planning proposals. It is important to place our consideration today in the context of those wider proposals. One of the questions that must be asked—I hope that the Minister will comment on it—is whether the Government believe that it will be necessary to introduce other relevant proposals covering major infrastructure projects.
As I said, the Select Committee report on the Government's wider proposals on planning was fairly dismissive of them. However, I am sure that the Committee will be aware that in relation to the specific proposals before us the Committee was relatively supportive. Paragraph 169 of the Select Committee report states:
''We welcome the Government's proposals for making public inquiries more efficient, and emphasise the need to keep the Major Infrastructure Projects inquiry rules under review and update them when necessary.''
Today, we are discussing a review and updating of the rules and it is important that the Minister assures us that, notwithstanding whether the rules are accepted, the Government intend to continue to review them in the light of experience and to consider further changes as necessary.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the proposals is the way in which the timetable for public inquiries will now be proposed specifically by the inspector and can be changed only with the agreement of the Secretary of State.
I asked the Library to prepare a briefing note on the proposals and one of its comments is worth reading to the Committee. It states:
''The measures are clearly aimed at preventing a situation in which an inquiry rambles on with inconsequential cross-examination
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and endless hearings causing great delay . . . The fixing of a timetable is likely to be controversial, particularly since it cannot be varied without the consent of the Secretary of State. Once the timetable is fixed, the inspector would be left with the difficult job of curtailing cross-examination where necessary in order to comply with it.''
I should be grateful if the Minister would explain how the Secretary of State is likely to react to requests from an inquiry inspector to extend the length of time for an inquiry and what evidence the Secretary of State will require from the inspector to justify such an extension.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I have followed the hon. Gentleman's speech with care and I find the note from the Library very interesting. Might not the controversy in such cases be that vociferous objectors might want to spin out an inquiry? Will the hon. Gentleman accept, from someone who was closely involved in the debates on Heathrow airport's terminal 5, that to silence people who want to spin out an inquiry for four years would be a good thing, not a bad thing?
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has raised a fair point, but that is why I couched my question as I did. It is important that procedures for streamlining are put in place. That is why the other place was correct to conclude that the procedures are relatively benign. However, we have an opportunity to hear from the Minister how the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised will be handled. I entirely agree that we do not want inquiries such as the T5 inquiry to be spun out in the way that he described.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Foster: I will do so in a second, if I may.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. That report reminds us that, since 1984, there have been fewer than a dozen national-scale projects in which a public inquiry has lasted for more than three months. Although many of us will have the memory of the T5 inquiry very much to the fore, we should not be fooled into believing that that is the normal way in which such inquiries have been carried out.
Mr. Mitchell: I have some sympathies with what has been said by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who is armed with such an intimate knowledge of what happened at Heathrow. However, I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring partly to rule 8 and partly to rule 17. What to one adjudicator is someone spinning out the inquiry is to another someone taking the opportunity to get across their point of view and to ensure that objections are heard. Such objectors may even represent large groups of local people, for whom it is a most important and fundamental right to have their point heard. I hope that I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Miss Begg, to raise a point on that matter later—
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. I hope that he will catch my eye, but he must remember that interventions must be short.
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Mr. Foster: We all look forward to the hon. Gentleman's contribution, as he has raised an important point about the wider aspects of planning inquiries in general. I hope that he shares my view that we need to strengthen the right of third-party objectors throughout the planning process. Of course, we need to do that in a way that does not clog up the process. In their Green Paper on planning, the Government have almost admitted that there is a need to ensure that third-party objectors have the right to appeal. It has always struck me as ludicrously wrong that, whereas developers have a right to appeal if their proposals are rejected by a local authority, objectors do not have the same right if the proposals are accepted. Clearly, that needs to be addressed in a way that gives rights to third-party objectors without clogging up the planning process. The two hon. Gentlemen were right to be concerned about that careful balance between the rights of objectors and of developers. That is why I ask the Minister to explain how the inspector will be expected to discuss the issues with the Secretary of State and what criteria the Secretary of State will use to allow an extension in the event that a large number of people still want to have their voice heard but the timetable no longer allows it.
That gives me an opportunity to ask the Minister who will have the right to appear before the inspector. The rules are clear that the inspector will make the final decision, but if an inspector refuses to allow an objector to be heard, what right does that individual or organisation have to ensure that what they, at least, believe is their legitimate voice is heard?
The order proposes the introduction of pre-inquiry meetings. There is a great deal of sense in the broad principle behind such meetings. Can the Minister tell us a bit more about them, and particularly whether they will be held in public or in private? When that specific issue was debated in another place, Lord Rooker responded. His reply was instructive, and I wish to share with the Committee what he said about whether pre-inquiry meetings would take place in public or in private:
''My Lords, I cannot say, but as they will be pre-inquiry, I suspect that it will be up to the parties concerned. They will not be dragooned there. Some people may say that they will do it only if it is in public. That will be up to the chairman and the people round the table. I do not think that we are being prescriptive about that. If we are, no doubt I shall be advised pretty quickly.''
I had the opportunity to meet Lord Rooker last night at an excellent party given by Sky News. I asked him whether any of his officials or anyone else had told him since his 24 June statement that his interpretation of the rules—that it would be up to the people who attend the pre-inquiry meeting to decide whether it would be held in public—was incorrect. I note that in the same contribution to the House of Lords debate, Lord Rooker also said:
''There is no reason why these things should be done in secret.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 June 2002; Vol. 636, c. 1187.]
and went on to advocate openness at all times as a good thing. Given that a fairly long time has passed since even Lord Rooker seemed uncertain as to the Government's intentions, by now the Minister should, presumably, have a clearer answer to the question and
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should be able to tell the Committee whether pre-inquiry meetings will be held in camera.
I have mentioned already that the Government have proposed in their Green Paper some wider changes in respect of major infrastructure project inquiries. As I said, those wider proposals have been fairly extensively rubbished by the Select Committee. No doubt the Minister and his team will have had the opportunity by now to study the Select Committee's proposals. In the light of the report and various other comments that have been made, can he tell us whether the Government are still minded to go ahead with the wider changes in the Green Paper? If they are, certainly there must be questions as to whether it is sensible for us today to approve what is, in effect, only a small part of some wider proposals. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether there have been any changes of heart in the Department.
The Select Committee made one other important comment about procedures for major infrastructure reports. It said that it was in favour of speeding up the inquiry process—these proposals are intended to do so—and that it was in favour of the inspector reporting as quickly as possible to the Secretary of State. Indeed, the proposals contain plans for the Secretary of State to give a clear timetable for reporting to the inspector, so both of the Select Committee's requirements are met. However, the Committee made a third recommendation, which was that the Secretary of State, having received the inspector's inquiry report, should announce the final decision as quickly as possible.
The rules contain reference to the Secretary of State making decisions as quickly as possible, but when everybody else is to have a timetable imposed on them—those who come to the inquiry will have to convey their points within a period ultimately agreed by the Secretary of State, and the inspector must produce his report within a similar timetable—it strikes me as odd that the proposals do not contain a very specific arrangement for those timetables. Many people are deeply concerned that it would be perfectly possible for the Secretary of State, for party political gain, to delay making an announcement. At the very least, we need an assurance from the Minister today that there will be no attempt by the Secretary of State—whoever he or she may be—to delay making the final decision when the information is available.