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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Planning (Application to the Houses of Parliament) Order 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Janet Anderson
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Burrowes, Mr. David (Enfield, Southgate) (Con)
Challen, Colin (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)
Fisher, Mark (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab)
Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow) (Lab)
Gove, Michael (Surrey Heath) (Con)
Jenkins, Mr. Brian (Tamworth) (Lab)
Keen, Alan (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
Stunell, Andrew (Hazel Grove) (LD)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Woolas, Mr. Phil (Minister for Local Government)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Glen McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 8 May 2006

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Draft Planning (Application to the Houses of Parliament) Order 2006

4.30 pm
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Planning (Application to the Houses of Parliament) Order 2006.
The order is, like myself, I hope, small but essential. It is a small but essential part of the package of subordinate legislation that is necessary to bring part 7 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 into force. It is a technical measure, and I hope that it is a non-controversial one, but I thought that it would be right to bring it before the House under the affirmative procedure, because although it is consequential on the 2004 Act and on principles already determined by the House, it affects parliamentary privilege, as I shall explain.
It may be helpful to the Committee to remind hon. Members of the background to the draft order. Part 7 of the 2004 Act is entitled “Crown Application of Planning Acts”, and when brought into force it will end Crown immunity from the planning system, by applying the planning Acts to the Crown. There is a long-standing policy to end Crown immunity in cases in which it is no longer necessary—the national health service lost its Crown immunity in 1991, for example. A further compelling reason for that measure is that infraction proceedings were taken against the United Kingdom by the European Commission, as a result of which the United Kingdom has now received an adverse judgment from the European Court of Justice for failing completely to transpose the environmental impact assessment directive. The directive was transposed through planning regulations which did not apply to the Crown because of Crown immunity, which meant that there was no transposition for Crown land. Hence, the United Kingdom was in breach of its obligations and has had to legislate to remedy the situation.
The main package of subordinate legislation required to bring part 7 into force will shortly be made and laid before Parliament. It comprises a commencement order and three other statutory instruments subject to negative resolution procedure, which measures will apply a modified version of existing subordinate legislation concerning planning to the Crown. They will amend the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and the Planning (Hazardous Substances) Act 1990 and provide rules covering the role of special advocates in planning cases that have national security implications.
In order for the Crown to be properly integrated into the statutory planning system, all categories of Crown land must be identified, and each category must have an appropriate authority that can interact with the local planning authority—typically the Government Department that owns or manages the land. However, certain parts of the Houses of Parliament are Crown land, including places as diverse as Her Majesty’s Robing Room, the adjoining staircase and ante-room, and the Royal Gallery—for which the Lord Great Chamberlain is the appropriate authority. There are also Westminster Hall and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, for which the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Speakers of both Houses acting jointly are the appropriate authority. Provision for that has been made in new paragraphs (f) and (g) of section 293(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which I shall call the principal Act, as inserted by paragraph 6(4) of schedule 3 of the 2004 Act.
As members of the Committee will recognise, paragraphs 7 and 8 of schedule 2 to the 2004 Act made similar additions to the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and the Planning (Hazardous Substances Act) 1990. To avoid over-complication I shall not mentions those Acts again. References to “the principal Act” should be takento refer also to the equivalent provisions of thosetwo Acts.
The rest of the Houses of Parliament—essentially the Lords and the Commons—is not Crown land. Crucially, however, for the purposes of planning legislation they are treated as if they were. That is set out in the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies (Crown Immunities etc.) Order 1992, and brings us to the purpose of the order that is before us. To avoid the Houses of Parliament being left in legislative limbo once planning legislation is applied to the Crown, it is necessary to define the areas in question as Crown interests. That is the purpose of article 2. Once that definition has been made, an appropriate authority must be designated; that is the purpose of article 3.
It might help the Committee if I clear up some potential technical queries. The significance of23 March 1965, as mentioned in article 2, is that it was the date of the statement on the management of the Houses of Parliament by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Most members of the Committee will know that the corporate officers referred to in article 3 are the Clerk of the Parliaments for the House of Lords and the Under-Clerk of Parliament for the House of Commons, as designated in sections 1 and 2 of the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992.
Some members of the Committee may wonder why all of this was not covered in the 2004 Act, in which we specified the true Crown land in the Houses of Parliament. The principle that the 1990 Acts and the 2004 Act apply to Parliament was confirmed in section 112 of the 2004 Act. The details, however, were left to secondary legislation because of the undoubted complexity of the ownership and management of Parliament. That is why we have provided in article 2 the enabling powers of the definition of Crown interest in section 293(1) of the principal Act and its equivalents.
I hope that I have adequately explained why the order is needed, and the context in which it is being made. It may also help if I reassure the Committee that the order was prepared in consultation with the House authorities, as one would expect.
4.38 pm
Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): It is apleasure to serve under your chairmanship today,Mrs. Anderson. I shall attempt to be relatively brief. There are many other pressures on the time of the House and on that of members of the parliamentary Labour party. I suspect that meetings along the Committee Corridor later this evening will command their full attention. If only those of us on the Opposition Benches could join them in those deliberations, I am sure that our advice would help them in their counsels.
The Minister described himself as “small but essential.” I obviously do not wish to refer to his stature, but given the recent turbulence in the PLP,the essential nature of his role has been reconfirmed.Like the Minister for Housing and Planning, thehon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford(Yvette Cooper), he is a fixed point in the turbulence that was the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—my, how we grieve for him—and is now in the Department for Communities and Local Government. I wish him well in his continuing role, which I am sure he will discharge with his customary authority and efficiency.
As the Minister pointed out, the order is intended to correct anomalies. It will give effect to views that the House has expressed, and in that respect it should not be controversial. The Minister did not address one matter, and I would be grateful if he did so. That is the date at which the order will come into effect. As we know, and as he pointed out, the way in which Crown lands will lose their immunity has been widely discussed, but the date at which that will happen, which I think was slated for next month, has been thrown into doubt by some of the changes within the Department. We would be grateful for guidance and specificity on the date on which the change in immunity will come about.
To my colleagues on the Back Benches, the principle of removing Crown immunity might at first sight seem disconcerting; given the Government’s at times ambivalent attitude to the Crown, it may give rise to certain worries. We have seen the Royal Ulster Constabulary lose its royal designation. We have also seen attempts or threats to remove the Crown from the Crown Prosecution Service. However, far from threatening any of the Crown’s privileges, the order regularises the Crown’s position and eases its ability and that of its agencies to deal with planning laws. The Crown is once more put on the same footing as other institutions and certain impediments are removed.
Having said that, some Labour Back Benchers may be worried at the designation of the House of Commons as Crown land. Those of a roundhead or levelling temperament may well remember why 400 years ago this House did so much to resist the encroachment of the Crown.
Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Hear, hear.
Michael Gove: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support on this point, but let me once again assure Labour Members that the Minister is merely carrying out the wishes of the House and is not acting as an agent for any royalist interest. Nevertheless, we have specific questions that we hope the Minister can address in his summing up.
What effect, if any, will the order have on the particular rights and traditions of this House and its Members? There are particular traditions, including freedom from arrest while on its premises, and particular freedoms relating to everything from licensing to freedom of speech, which all depend on the cherishable and distinct nature of the House. As we move to regularise its position in planning law, are there any consequences which lawyers are concerned about which would mean that the distinctive status of the House in these other legal areas is threatened or compromised?
One other area concerns us. As we are all aware, the House of Commons estate has been responsible for a significant capital expenditure in the past on the refurbishment, improvement and expansion of Members’ offices. One of our worries is whether there will be adequate planning scrutiny and oversight in future. The costs consequent on the development of Portcullis house, for example, were of deep concern to my constituents and to many other taxpayers. We need to be reassured that the future planning regime, which governs any renovation, refurbishment or expansion of the House of Commons estate, is sufficiently robust to safeguard taxpayer value.
In that respect we have one other concern. This place is more than just a place of work. It is also an historic listed building. What effect will the order have on the relationship of the House and its authorities with statutory bodies such as English Heritage? What role will it continue to enjoy in advising us on how we can enhance the parliamentary estate? I look forward to the Minister’s customary authoritative and brief replies to my questions. I commend the order to the House.
4.43 pm
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): It gives me great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. I should like to start by commenting on the small, but essential nature of the Minister before us. His mere presence here today confirms that he is a small, but essential cog in a Government who are much given to grinding their gears at present. I hope that in the next 24 or 48 hours he will still be that small, but essential cog. He has done a good job of explaining this technical matter to us. I was particularly interested in his point about our concerns about the environmental impact assessment. I hope that he will perhaps consider a plain English assessment of his opening speech, because his words were opaque to say the least. Certainly, if any people outside the House choose to read the debate in Hansard, they will find his introductory remarks somewhat challenging intellectually.
I, clearly, will listen with great interest to his replies on the question of whether Members’ rights will be affected but, as Members are well positioned to defend their rights, perhaps it is more important to know whether there are any implications for staff who work in the Houses of Parliament. I hope that the Minister is able to respond on that point.
I do not have support from many Opposition Members today, but Members on these Benches will facilitate the technical resolution. We would not like the House to be left in legislative limbo. After all, the Government are facing legislative gridlock elsewhere in the House. If we are able to help in this one small respect by clearing up this piece of legislative limbo, we would be happy to help them.
4.46 pm
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Of course, you serve on the Administration Committee,Mrs. Anderson, and you know that concerned Members of all parties on that Committee have examined some of the works to this building, some of which have been extremely expensive, and the mechanisms by which decisions are taken on such work. There is a possibility that the order will havean impact on some of those decisions in future.The Committee itself cannot do this, but perhaps the Minister might consider drawing the order to the attention of the relevant domestic Committees of the House so that they can consider how planning decisions could and should be taken in the future, where those decisions should be taken and who should be involved in them, as the matter is of considerable interest to Members who serve on the Administration Committee and similar bodies such as the House of Commons Commission. It would be in everyone’s interest if we were clear at an early stage how changes to the planning regime will impact them and how decisions will be made on planning applications and permissions.
4.47 pm
Mr. Woolas: I shall attempt to answer directlythe questions that have been put. The first one,which was from the hon. Member for SurreyHeath (Michael Gove), was about the date of commencement. Our intention is that it will be 7 June or, to be very cautious, shortly thereafter. On the listed building status that we enjoy, Parliament will continue to apply for listed building consent on any changes that are made—that is right and proper.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow(Mr. Gerrard) said that the order should be brought to the attention of the House Committees. I said in my opening remarks that we had been in consultation with the House authorities. However, it is incumbent on me to bring the order to the attention of the House Committees as well.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) asked me to speak in plain English, and I welcome that request, but he will understand that it is important to put the technical explanation on the record, not because lawyers make money out of such things but because there is always that potential. There are no changes in procedure, but, in layperson’s terms, what we are doing in essence is saying that at present the House can apply for planning consent on a voluntary basis. The order puts that on a statutory footing, albeit within the remit of Parliament to retain its sovereign rights. The plain English version of events is that we are trying to regularise the House in line with the rest of the country and Crown properties, but that does not take away the important point about listed building status and the other requirements on us.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked about the effect on the rights of the House and freedom of speech. I think that he mentioned licensing, freedom from arrest and so on. There are no criminal penalties in respect of planning enforcement on the Crown and Parliament so those rights are not affected, and whether or not one is a royalist that remains the case. No implications are expected for the staff of the House and enforcement procedures would be against the owner-occupier who is defined as the corporate officers, so hon. Members may rest assured about that, if they were not already.
The sensible point about the order is that it is an affirmative order to accept the principles that were passed by the House in the 2004 Act. Other tidying-up amendments will be subject to the negative resolution procedure, but I brought the order before the Committee because it affects important matters. I am sure that the Committee will be asked about it by other Members of Parliament as well as staff of the House, which is why I wanted to bring it before the Committee. I am grateful for the Committee’s support and I believe that I have answered all the questions that have been raised.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): On the point about liability, the Minister referred to corporate officers of the House, but surely they are employees of the House. Therefore, as tenants in common, are we not the ultimate responsible persons in terms of legal liability?
Mr. Woolas: As the sovereign Parliament of this country, we are ultimately responsible for everything, so I suppose that the answer is yes. My hon. Friend had better go to see his lawyer to check it out. However, more seriously, the planning procedures designate appropriate authorities and during my opening comments I gave the definition of corporate officers. The hon. Gentleman’s local authority has designated officers who are accountable and the same is the case under the order, notwithstanding my caveat about how it seems nowadays that Members of Parliament are held to blame for everything, including the weather. The serious point is that the procedure is designated in law and I commend the order to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Planning (Application to the Houses of Parliament) Order 2006.
Committee rose at seven minutes to Five o’clock.

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