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10 Dec 2007 : Column 29

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Hazel Blears: I will give way, and then I shall get on to 1960.

Mr. Cash: In the light of what the Minister has said about the prospective 45 schemes per year, does she agree that it sounds remarkably as if those sorts of schemes would have been dealt with under private legislation before a Committee of this House? They would have been decided on by Members on behalf of their constituents on the Floor of the House.

Secondly, where major projects with huge resources behind them are concerned—where those driving them can afford to pay—does the right hon. Lady agree that it would be a good idea if there were some means whereby residents associations or amenity societies could call on public funds in order to fight their cause at a local level?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of hybrid Bills, and some of these matters might have fallen into that category.

Mr. Cash: Private legislation.

Hazel Blears: Some of them would have been hybrid Bills because they impinged on private rights. The new system, I think, is a much better way to deal with complex overlapping consent regimes, which are often based on a range of legislation, some of which is pretty ancient. The new system will be better. In relation to the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that we would fund substantial extra resources for Planning Aid. It will go out and help the residents groups to have their say in the inquiry process. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).

As I said, the system is complex and we have lots of different bits of legislation. For example, Heathrow terminal 5 apparently required 37 different applications under seven pieces of legislation. That complexity makes it harder for people who are poor in time, resources and expertise to get involved. We are proposing some fundamental changes. The Bill will introduce a new, single system, which will run alongside the town and country planning system, to handle big infrastructure projects such as ports, power stations, major roads and reservoirs.

The Bill contains three stages. First, the Government will set out the case for the infrastructure that the nation needs in national policy statements. That is the heart of the Bill. The national policy statements will be subject to debate across the country and in Parliament. I want to ensure that there is good parliamentary scrutiny. Secondly, for the first time, whenever a developer puts together a proposal for a major project, they will be required to consult local communities before they submit the planning application, as well as carrying out the environmental assessment that is usually required under European law. The third stage is the establishment of the new independent infrastructure planning commission. It will consist of leading experts from a range of fields—including community engagement,
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to ensure that the processes work, as well as planning, local government and the environment. Those experts will work within the legal duties set by Parliament and the policy set by Government and they will make the decisions on individual projects.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Planning Bill and the new Climate Change Bill will mesh together properly to ensure that we cut carbon emissions? Will she therefore ensure that the independent committee on climate change is a statutory consultee in the development of national policy statements? Will she also ensure that individual—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is intervening in a debate. That is not an opportunity to read out a written speech or note. I will ask the Secretary of State to do what she can to respond to the hon. Lady.

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know that she takes a significant interest in these issues. This Bill, the Climate Change Bill and the energy Bill are part of an integrated package to ensure that we can meet our challenging targets on climate change. If we can speed up some of the applications in the system for renewable energy sources, particularly wind farms, that will help us significantly. We will be drawing up a list of statutory consultees, and I am sure that a range of bodies that deal with climate change will need to be included. I shall confirm that to her at a later date.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the national policy statements, which could define an individual project, will be subject to amendment on the vote of this House?

Hazel Blears: It is not a matter for me as a member of the Government to dictate to Parliament how it should scrutinise the national policy statements. However, it is important that a new Select Committee should perhaps be drawn up to consider the range of policy statements. Parliament may decide to include people with experience from the existing Select Committees in that Committee, because they will have the expertise to probe and ask questions. If that Committee were to decide that the issues were of such importance that there needed to be a debate in both Houses of Parliament, we should make time for that debate to happen. If Parliament were to want a vote on those issues, that will be the right and proper course to take. I mean to ensure that there is proper parliamentary scrutiny of the national policy statements. It is so important that we get them right, because they are where the accountability in the new framework lies. I am determined that not only Parliament but the public should take part in a national debate about what infrastructure the country needs.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The Secretary of State will understand that many hon. Members have great sympathy with the Government’s objectives. However, we are concerned about the lack of democratic accountability and transparency. The right hon. Lady reckoned that some 45 cases a year would be major infrastructural projects. Is she seriously suggesting that we will have long debates in the House on each of those cases?

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Hazel Blears: No. I know that a range of hon. Members of all parties want the system to work better, be quicker and provide more certainty. The debate will be on the national policy statement, which could be about aviation or energy. If it was about energy, it could deal with nuclear, coal and gas. Once the debate has happened and the framework has been set, the inquiry stage for the independent planning commission should be quicker and less contentious because the national policy statement will be the primary consideration for the commission. The debate on need, which is often repeated time and again at every inquiry, will happen when formulating the policy statement. The decision making will be better because every single inquiry will not go over the same old ground of the national need for the infrastructure.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): An application is likely to be made for a nuclear power station in my constituency. I would be in favour of that. When the previous application was presented, the same argument was made again and again, and the Secretary of State is right that such matters can be decided centrally. However, people in my constituency wanted to know how the goods would be brought; how the lorries would get there, and where the roads would be. Those matters were debated in front of a judge, and the people believed that the judge was independent—the inquiry was independent of any Minister—and would therefore make an independent decision. Instead, they will now get a quango, appointed by the Secretary of State, to make the decisions. They will not put up with it. The Secretary of State will not get what she wants quicker, but very much slower, because Swampy will rule.

Hazel Blears: I was happy to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. I stress that the decision-making process will be independent. The infrastructure planning commission will be independent and robust and include experts who are renowned in their fields. That will reassure people that the decisions are being made properly.

It is interesting to note that as many people say that Ministers should make the decisions as those who say that they should not. Some people claim that the planning commission will be too independent rather than not independent enough, so I look forward to that clash of ideas in the House. Some people claim that ministerial decisions—the way in which matters are tackled now—are somehow more accountable. However, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, Ministers make quasi-judicial decisions in a legal framework that can be challenged only in the courts, not by Parliament. I therefore believe that the process for the national policy statements will give us more, not less accountability.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con) rose—

Hazel Blears: I give way to the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect.

Mr. Curry: There is a significant distinction between a debate on a national policy statement, which, by definition, is about a principle, and that about the positioning of a power station or a runway. If 45 decisions a year are to be made, will the entire membership of the commission hear the whole submission in every
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case, or will a handful of members perhaps chair sub-committees—instead of the entire commission, according to the Secretary of State’s written statement of a couple of weeks ago, receiving representations from every member of the public who wishes to be heard?

Hazel Blears: As I expected, the right hon. Gentleman made a genuine and practical point. When he has a chance to examine the Bill in detail, he will realise that it includes provisions that set out exactly how the panel will operate.

In some circumstances there will be a panel of three to five commissioners who will consider applications, because some of those 45 applications will relate to energy, some to aviation and some to ports and harbours. We will want people on that commission with a degree of expertise and knowledge that is specific to an application. We anticipate that probably only 30 of the 45 applications will be major applications and that the other 15 will be ancillary to those applications, so some could be considered by a single commissioner reporting back to the council of the commission. That is all in the Bill, however, if the right hon. Gentleman has a chance to look at it.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Hazel Blears: I am going to make a little more progress, because I am conscious of the time and other hon. Members will want to get in. I want to say a little about town and country planning, because the Bill has a bit about that in it. I think that we are up to about 1970—I feel a bit like Gene Hunt in “Life on Mars”—but I promise that we will get there. [ Interruption. ] It is one of my favourite shows.

The changes to town and country planning seek to make it fairer, more proportionate and greener. They will also devolve more power to the local level, which is something close to my heart. The changes are part of the widespread continuing improvement to the planning system. First, we propose the community infrastructure levy in part 10, which will increase investment in the vital infrastructure that is needed for many new communities, which hon. Members have already mentioned. The levy has the potential to raise hundreds of millions of pounds of additional investment, on top of current Government funding and the section 106 negotiated agreements. It is for local authorities to decide what community infrastructure is needed, which could relate to transport, new schools, parks or health centres. It is absolutely right that local developers contribute to the cost of that infrastructure and that local communities benefit from the increase in land value when permission is granted.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): Some 13,000 houses are expected to be built in my constituency over the next 20 years. That will generate huge demand for infrastructure, with a significant amount from the levy. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that money raised in Fareham will be spent there and that priorities will be determined locally, not nationally or regionally?

Hazel Blears: Yes, I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman that the levy will be determined by the local authority. The levy is there to fund the necessary infrastructure for that community. Some of that
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infrastructure—a road, for example—might go beyond the boundary of the local authority. It might therefore be necessary for some of the moneys raised from the levy to contribute to some wider infrastructure, and the Bill makes provision for that. The levy is very much a devolutionary measure, in that it is for local authorities to determine, in order to get infrastructure in the right place. I was pleased by the letter issued today by the British Property Federation, which indicated the widespread positive consensus for the levy across a range of bodies, including the Local Government Association.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con) rose—

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con) rose—

Hazel Blears: That appears to have been quite provocative. I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Betts: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will accept that there is general support for the approach of the levy, but so far we have only 10 clauses in the Bill that merely sketch the outline of the complicated system that will ultimately be introduced. Will the Government table more detailed amendments during the Bill’s passage through Parliament to flesh the system out, or is all that likely to be left for secondary legislation? If so, can we in the House and those outside be assured of full consultation on the important details needed to ensure that the levy works properly?

Hazel Blears: Yes, my hon. Friend is right. What we have in the Bill is the architecture for the scheme. We have committed to issuing regulations that will fill out the detail. I assure him that we shall provide more detail as the Bill goes through, too, because it is important that the system, which will beneficial for communities, can work properly, and is practical and feasible. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to pursue that as the Bill goes through.

Mr. Bellingham: Before the right hon. Lady moves on—

Anne Main rose—

Hazel Blears: I give way to the hon. Lady.

Anne Main: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. May I take her back a sentence or two, when she said that the funding would go back to the community? In a sitting of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, there seemed to be some vagueness about whether, as I understood it, the funding would go into a central pot and then be reallocated back. Is that correct or does the funding stay immediately local, without being taken into a central pot?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Lady may be aware that there were proposals for a planning gain supplement, which is different from the community infrastructure levy, so things have moved on since then. I want to be clear to the House that the assurance that I gave the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) was that the levy is
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there to fund the infrastructure in local communities, but that some of that infrastructure could well have wider implications, making it necessary for something wider than a particular community, and I would not want the House to be under any other impression. It is for local authorities to make determinations in that way.

Mr. Bellingham rose—

Hazel Blears: I cannot resist the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bellingham: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Further to the excellent intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), she pointed out that some of the money might be top-sliced. Will she confirm that, if a levy were to be raised in Norfolk, that money would stay within the county of Norfolk, if not in the specific district involved, and not go outside the area?

Hazel Blears: All hon. Members will want to see something for the money that has been raised. I am trying to give them the assurance that this money is there for the much-needed infrastructure in such areas, although it might go a little wider than that. We shall certainly set out further details as we develop the Bill, but the intention is very much to ensure that the health centres, parks and other facilities that make life worth living in a community can be properly funded.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): The Secretary of State is being extremely generous in giving way, but these points are of immense importance and her answering them might save a lot of time later on. It is clear from the Local Government Association briefing on the community infrastructure levy that an element of the levy would be assigned to regional and sub-regional projects. Is she saying that she has now retreated from that view?

Hazel Blears: No. If the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to read the record of this debate, he will see that I have tried to give the House reassurance and to be straightforward about this matter. The levy is intended to fund the requirements of developing communities, but some of it might well go wider than the particular area involved. As we develop the proposals for the levy, we will make that as clear as we possibly can, so that people are under no misconceptions. The purpose of the fund will primarily be to ensure that we fund the infrastructure for which Opposition Members have been calling for a considerable period. I hope that they will therefore welcome the levy, as most other people have done.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): May I help my right hon. Friend with a practical example from Milton Keynes? Junction 13 of the M1 is hugely important for supporting infrastructure and for the growth of housing in Milton Keynes, but it is not in Milton Keynes. Indeed, it is not even in Buckinghamshire; it is in Bedfordshire. It is, however, an infrastructure scheme that could have huge benefits for Milton Keynes, and it would be perverse if such a scheme could not be funded by such an infrastructure levy.

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