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Much of the debate is overshadowed by the public inquiry on terminal 5. There have been attempts to contrast that project with major infrastructure projects in other lands which, it is said, can be built and developed many times faster, but we are in danger of taking the wrong messages from the terminal 5 inquiry. It is not the system itself that is at fault, but a lack of precision that allows inquiries to wander off on matters beyond location and planning rules.

An interesting “compare and contrast” exercise can be applied to the terminal 5 inquiry, conducted under the old rules, and the Stansted inquiry, conducted under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Whatever the merits of the case, there can be no doubt that Stansted has made better progress, and that the new rules are an improvement. Given an effective and trusted framework of national policy statements and sensible pre-inquiry hearings to decide the major points at issue, the number of witnesses and the timetable, there is no reason why a reformed system should not resolve matters quickly.

Mr. Cash: My hon. Friend will have observed that the Secretary of State referred to consultation and the like. Does it worry him that although clauses 7 and 8 provide for consultation, it will be only

Given the legal context and the fact that that is challengeable only by judicial review, will it not be extremely difficult to set up a case for such a review if the Secretary of State is allowed to make up her own mind on exactly what its parameters should be?

Mr. Pickles: As my hon. Friend is a man of considerable expertise, I hesitate to disagree with him. I therefore agree with everything that he has said. Indeed, the problem goes deeper. Clauses 82 to 85 are rather at variance with what the Secretary of State said about the right to be heard—a point that I will develop later in my speech.

Paul Farrelly: Will the hon. Gentleman give way once more?

Mr. Pickles: Of course.

Paul Farrelly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for indulging me. I ask this question because, over Christmas or at any other time, I will not be able to find the answer in the paperback guide to Parliament that he mentioned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) asked whether there would be a vote tonight. Was the hon. Gentleman’s answer yes or no?

Mr. Pickles: The answer is the same as the answer to the question of what the hon. Gentleman will get for Christmas: wait and see.

We will seek to persuade the Government, even at this late stage, to rethink their method of delivering planning policy. Planning must always include a strong element of public accountability. The Secretary of State intends to establish an infrastructure planning commission, a new Government quango that will strip local authorities of their say on planning applications
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for airports, power stations, motorways, ports, gas and hazardous waste storage facilities, incinerators and sewage treatment plants.

One might imagine local communities having a view upon all such things.

The new planning quango will be effectively unsackable and unaccountable. Its functions will include the ability to purchase land compulsorily and

To give such wide-ranging powers without making those involved equally accountable is dangerous.

John Robertson: I wonder if I might tweak the hon. Gentleman’s memory and take him back to the Planning Act 1990, introduced by his own party, which allowed the Secretary of State to call in any planning application. The Secretary of State had sole discretion to decide what would happen. Does he agree that what my right hon. Friend is proposing is slightly better than leaving it to one person to make that decision?

Mr. Pickles: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was paying attention when I said that the national policy statements will go a long way towards dealing with the problem, which is why we support that good innovation.

In his first few days, the Prime Minister made much of his desire to strengthen democracy, yet this proposal, which is a centralising move that takes decision making and the right to oppose a project away from local people, is a move in the opposite direction. The Prime Minister also made clear his commitment to the green belt. Over the summer he was keen to say:

At a Lobby briefing, the Prime Minister’s spokesman clarified what was meant by that, saying:

Yet the Bill gives the IPC powers to reclassify green belt land; so much for a firm commitment. This one did not even make it to yuletide.

Bob Spink: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that all brown land is used before any green belt land is released, particularly in the Thames Gateway?

Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend makes a reasoned point. Building on green belt is often less expensive than building on a brownfield site.

The power now goes to the IPC. The Government’s response to any planning problem is to exclude people and hand the job over to a quango. In truth, the proposals will introduce an unnecessary, unfair and less effective extra raft into the planning system. The quality of decision making will be markedly worse and those parts of the community most affected by the proposals will be deliberately marginalised and minimised.

The existing system could be built upon and improved. The planning inspectorate is capable of reform. Why
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cannot it carry out the job instead of the commission, rather than establishing a new body? On the surface, they look very familiar.

Mr. Betts: The hon. Gentleman keeps repeating the assertion that the public are to be excluded from the process altogether. Does he not accept what the Secretary of State has said; that where the public object, they will have a right to be heard at the inquiry and have their views taken into account? I am sure he has read the Bill and will have seen that chapter 2 has a pre-application procedure that will impose a duty on the applicant to consult, including with the local community before the decision even reaches the inquiry stage?

Mr. Pickles: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will come on to that point but he is actually wrong about it. If we are successful with amendments in Committee, we will support the hon. Gentleman’s position.

Dr. Whitehead: It is my understanding that the Planning Bill will institute a single permission regime—I think that the hon. Gentleman is in favour of that—and there will be a single marine permission arrangement under the marine Bill when it is introduced; the two will be joined together. Given that, will he speculate on what the outcome would have been for the London Array project had the new Planning Bill been in place, where a single Conservative local authority held up for almost two years a renewable energy scheme able to power the whole of Kent as a result of a very particular objection that did not relate to the scheme as a whole?

Mr. Pickles: I am so sorry that the hon. Gentleman seeks to make this matter partisan. I confess that I have perhaps made the odd jibe at the Prime Minister and generally across the Floor of the House, but our intention is genuinely to arrive at consensus and to work together. We are supportive of the national statements, and we shall seek in Committee to arrive at agreement on some of the points on which there is broad cross-party consensus. The hon. Gentleman should be encouraging me in that, not trying to set traps for me.

Under the Secretary of State’s plans, responsibility for regional planning will be transferred from the unelected—and universally detested—regional assemblies to the also unelected regional development agencies. The Secretary of State surely must be able to see that this latest game of musical chairs—of passing functions from one regional quango to another—will do nothing to give local communities a greater say or to speed up the planning system. If she wants to make a difference, the first step should be to scrap the whole tier of regional planning which, on top of local and national planning policies, has created a quagmire of red tape and complexity. Responsibility should be given back to counties and the co-operating metropolitan authorities. It is clear that they are the only bodies that know what they are doing and that they are the building blocks of the system.

The Bill shifts the balance in the planning system against individuals and in favour of the state. Under the Bill, an individual householder, business man, farmer or local resident will be prevented by law from
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presenting a case in objection to a scheme relating to the compulsory acquisition of their land, or from being represented by a person of his or her choice. By law, all representations will have to be in writing—thereby preventing oral representations in person—however badly affected a landowner, resident or business may be. This will work against the little guy—the ordinary person in the street. By law, no questioning or testing of the promoter’s scheme by any person, body or individual is to be permitted. Common law has recognised since the middle ages that land should not be taken from an individual without due process, including the right to be heard. Of course, it would be speedier if the powerless were ignored, but this House is built on the protection of the property rights of the individual from the state, be it a Stuart monarch or an ambitious Minister.

The Bill is also careless in invoking the criminal law. Clause 130 makes it a criminal offence to commence development without a consent order. That appears very heavy handed in the context of clause 127, which states that development commences with “any material operation”, including digging a trench or even putting in pegs to lay out a road. As I am about to have to cough, I shall give way.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I was a little concerned that the Secretary of State talked about more freedoms but did not mention conservation areas. There is great concern in my area—it is particularly held by those who live in conservation areas—about some of the new freedoms. Will my hon. Friend comment on where we stand on the protection of conservation areas, which are so dear to our constituents’ hearts?

Mr. Pickles: Clearly, conservation areas must be protected. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to clear my throat. I am recovering from a very bad cold, but it is a pleasure to be here. [Interruption.] Thank you. [Interruption.] I feel the love coming across from the Labour Benches.

If we were to end up with a situation where merely the pegging out of some ropes could create a criminal offence, that would be a clunking fist too far in terms of our legal system.

Clauses 47 and 133 entrench the powers of the state to enter private property without warrant. Does that not pre-empt and make a mockery of the reviews of powers of entry introduced by the Prime Minister in his October speech on liberty? As a legacy of the past Governments of all colours, 266 laws already allow state officials to enter people’s houses. Is it not time that we started to rein back on those powers rather than gold-plate them?

We are pleased that the Government have dropped their discredited plans for a planning gain supplement. The Secretary of State has our support in wanting to reform the section 106 system on planning gain. If used correctly, it would help to energise and regenerate towns and cities throughout the country, but it will not have the support and confidence of local people and local businesses if the money generated is sucked away to a regional pot and is used to the benefit of people hundreds of miles away. Will she make a commitment that all revenue from the community infrastructure levy will be retained by local councils so that local people
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can receive the benefits of new building? It should not just be a slush fund to feed Government friends across the country. It must be about community improvements delivered locally, not a stealth tax.

That brings me to two constitutional issues on which I seek clarification. Clause 164 will allow both the unelected regional development agencies and the unelected infrastructure planning commission to become charging authorities and to levy this new planning tax. This is the first time that a quango has been given tax-raising powers. Clause 169 makes it a criminal offence, not a civil one, if one cannot or will not pay. Is this not the modern equivalent of ship money: additional taxation imposed by an unelected body on pain of criminal punishment? A cursory glance at the murals on the walls between this Chamber and the other place would testify why our forebears were willing to lay down their lives to defend their principles. The provision in the Bill corrodes the cast-iron constitutional principle in the Bill of Rights of freedom from taxation by royal prerogative. As ship money goes, this is a modest flotilla, but it is a worrying trend. It is a further step down the road of local management of services, rather than the democratic delivery of services.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): What is in your wallet—a clunking fist?

Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend is very excitable, God bless him.

We were concerned about these constitutional changes, so we sought advice from leading counsel who are experts on planning law. I must say to the Secretary of State that I was heartened by what she said about Scotland, but the construction of the clauses does not deliver what she told us at the Dispatch Box. Obviously, we shall be very co-operative in trying to amend it.

The Bill appears to hand the decision-making process entirely to the Scottish Parliament and Executive, even though the Bill at first sight purports to apply to the whole of the UK. That might be a very reasonable thing to do, but why is it happening so quietly? There are clear implications for nuclear power. Will England have to build additional power stations to compensate for the eventual non-replacement of the Scottish ones? Will national infrastructure projects end at the Scottish border? We must know whether the Scottish Parliament and Executive could set wholly different time scales and limits—or none at all—in relation to these matters.

Stewart Hosie: There might be a slightly more worrying problem than the one that the hon. Gentleman has identified of the Scottish Government having responsibility for these matters. On the commission’s role in relation to oil and gas pipelines, part 5 would apply under clause 187(2), and in certain circumstances, that unelected commission might be able to make decisions on oil and gas pipelines in Scotland, usurping the original, existing planning authorities in Scotland and the Scottish Government. I read that as a more worrying concern than the one that he has identified.

Mr. Pickles: I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to clause 187(1)(b), which states that only clauses 13 and 17 will apply to Scotland. We just wanted some clarification, and in terms of national infrastructure it
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makes a lot of sense for the Government and the Scottish Executive to work together sensibly. We would not want the Bill to hamper that process rather than aid it.

Some people would describe the current situation as failing, cumbersome, outdated, bureaucratic and desperately in need of change. But in this season of goodwill, it seems a tad uncharitable to describe our beloved Prime Minister that way. Our planning system needs modernisation and reform, not destroying.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the House that the 15-minute limit on speeches by Back Benchers operates from now.

4.46 pm

Keith Hill (Streatham) (Lab): Whatever else one might say about the Bill, no one can challenge its scope and ambition. It ranges, in its potential application, from airport terminals to conservatories, from nuclear power stations and wind farms to microgenerators. To that extent, it reflects the scope of the White Paper on which it is based, which ranged even more explicitly from global issues of climate change to the minutiae of permitted development—referred to glancingly in clause 155, which I mention now to justify dwelling on it at some length later in my remarks.

Before I reach that point, I wish to say a few words about the bigger issues in the Bill, including the proposals for an infrastructure planning commission and national policy statements. First and foremost, I welcome the Bill, and there is far more to welcome than to regret. I welcome the NPS and the new single planning regime for major infrastructure projects. It is sensible to unify the legislation affecting such projects so that once they have the go-ahead under development consent arrangement, they will not need further consents or approvals under other legislation. That is a straightforward rationalisation and modernisation.

I also welcome the proposals for timetabling the decision-making process in major infrastructure projects and the proposals for improving the quality of applications by developers. As the statistics show, flawed applications are a powerful cause of delay in such projects. I also admire the new and apparently tough enforcement regime for major projects. I hope that it will provide a model and inspiration for local enforcement, which is, as we all know, the Cinderella of the local planning system.

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