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5.17 pm

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): At the outset, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Interests. I also want to refer to the fact that I am honoured to be an honorary fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute and vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association.

I welcome the Bill, which contains a number of important provisions that will improve the planning process. Planning is often a highly controversial issue, and those who are involved try to reconcile conflicting interests—social, environmental or economic—and to find appropriate and sustainable solutions to the development needs of our society without prejudicing other interests. That is not always easy, but it is vital as part of a democratic society that seeks appropriate solutions.

Some people find it difficult to avoid condemning planning, the planning system and planners at every opportunity as slow, cumbersome and expensive. Although I am sure that we can all point out individual examples of unduly protracted or bureaucratic processes from our constituency experience—indeed, one of the key purposes of the Bill is to address precisely that problem—I do not subscribe to the view that planning is an inherently negative process. On the contrary, good planning has played a vital role in enhancing the quality of our cities and their economic success and protecting our environment, including the countryside, from inappropriate and damaging development. We owe a great deal to the effectiveness of the planning system, which has operated broadly in its current form for the past 60 years.

Having said that, I am aware that there are areas where the system has not worked as well as it should have. That is certainly true of major infrastructure projects. I have no doubt that all hon. Members can cite, as the Secretary of State did in her opening remarks, examples of necessary projects of national significance that have been subject to extraordinary delays. To give a slightly more local perspective, my experience of the process with the Thames Gateway bridge is deeply depressing. The project dates back to Abercrombie
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more than 60 years ago, when the need for a crossing over that part of the Thames was identified. The current planning process has been going on for approximately three years. I spoke about it to my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), when he was still a Minister, and the scheme is currently completely parked. It has been subject to one inquiry, which reported, and a further inquiry has been instituted. Even assuming a fair wind, it is expected to take a further two to three years to reach a decision.

When I say that we are considering a bridge across the Thames in a stretch of 13 miles where there is no fixed crossing between Blackwall and Dartford, which is the focus of one of this country’s, if not Europe’s, biggest regeneration schemes—the Thames Gateway—it becomes immediately clear that it is preposterous that we find securing such necessary infrastructure so hard and so slow.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will be alarmed because he knows that the Bill does not remedy the problem. As I read it, the definition would not include the Thames Gateway bridge, so the Bill would not expedite it. I personally support the measure, but the Government will have to consider matters slightly more carefully to ascertain what more can be done to expedite the process when regionally significant issues, such as the Thames Gateway bridge, are outside the definition. My hon. Friends will understand that I shall not press for restrictions on the infrastructure that the Bill’s definitions cover and I should like the Government to give further thought to widening them in specific cases.

While we are considering definition, I would welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s views on railway schemes, which hybrid Bills have traditionally tackled. I have some experience of such Bills, having served on the Select and Standing Committees that considered the Channel Tunnel Bill in 1986-87, and taken a close interest in the recent Crossrail Bill, which has just completed its Public Bill Committee stage. My experience of such Bills is generally positive. They have allowed an opportunity for aggrieved or interested parties to seek amendments—we were delighted that the amendment to the Crossrail Bill on Woolwich station was accepted—and they deliver major infrastructure schemes in a much shorter time scale than is likely under traditional planning inquiries. I am therefore a little apprehensive that the Bill, if I interpret it correctly, ends the use of the hybrid Bill procedure for such railway projects. I will miss it if it goes.

Mr. Gummer: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his example is crucial, because a local concern about how a railway station might serve the community was given voice in a forum that local people recognised would listen? The problem with the Bill is the lack of a recognisable, formal process, whereby a judge or a Committee of the House can listen to our constituents.

Mr. Raynsford: I agree. The impact of schemes of regional or national significance on localities, and methods of feeding the concerns of local people into the system in an influential way that can achieve changes, are especially important. I gave an example to illustrate the benefits of the hybrid Bill system as it has worked. I therefore regret its apparent demise. However, it is not
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impossible, if specific changes are made, to ensure that local concerns can be taken into account. I shall deal with that shortly.

Having expressed reservations about the loss of the hybrid Bill procedure, I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce the new procedures, especially the two key elements—the national policy statements, which are prepared by the Secretary of State and subject to parliamentary scrutiny and approval, and the infrastructure planning commission. Some people have attacked the commission as an unrepresentative quango. That critique appears misconceived because the commission will fulfil the same role as the planning inspectorate. Under the existing system, the planning inspectorate, which comprises people who are appointed, considers issues and reports on them. A decision is then taken by the Minister on the basis of the planning inspector’s recommendations. Under the new system, the Minister will prepare the policy statement in advance and the infrastructure planning commission will reach a decision taking account of that policy statement. That does not seem to me to be very different.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Is the right hon. Gentleman not concerned by some of the unprecedented powers of the commission, including powers to “apply, modify or exclude” provisions in primary legislation and to amend, repeal or revoke local Acts? The reason given in clause 105 is that that should happen when it is “expedient”. Does he not worry about that lack of democratic accountability?

Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Gentleman had borne with me for a moment, he would have heard me make observations about points of detail. I was expressing a general view in principle, which is what we should do in debates on Second Reading, about the merit of the infrastructure planning commission and about how it was not, in effect, the unrepresentative quango that it has been represented as.

I have no problem with the main architecture of the proposals; I do, however, have a number of concerns about specific procedural issues and about some of the framing of the legislation. My first concern is about how consultation will be handled and about the way in which the public will be able to have their say, particularly on the development of national policy statements that will have a local or regional impact—the very point that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) raised. Unless we are careful, the framework could mean that national policy decisions are taken without the people who are likely to be affected by the implementation of the proposals at a local level having a full opportunity to understand and feed into the debate on national planning policy. I would like more reassurance that we have understood the importance of enabling people to feed in at the local level at that early stage.

Secondly, I am a bit concerned about the decision-making procedures set out in the Bill. Clause 94 rightly insists that the panel “must have regard” to any relevant national policy statement, but it does not require the panel to consider other relevant planning policy statements. That seems a curious and unsatisfactory omission, which
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I hope will be rectified. The omission is even more surprising when one sees how dangerously open-ended the phrasing is in clause 94(2)(c), which requires the panel to consider

I can see all sorts of trouble inherent in that. It would be an obvious ploy for an aggrieved party who had not secured the outcome that they wanted from the panel’s consideration to seek judicial review on the grounds that it did not have regard to matters that it felt to be “important and relevant”. That is a rather worrying provision, so I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider it further.

The second main innovation in the Bill is the introduction of a community infrastructure levy. I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on abandoning the previous proposal, for a planning gain supplement, and instead opting for the tariff-based approach that appears to lie behind the community infrastructure levy. I say “appears”, because the Bill seems to be ambiguous, but in principle I welcome the move. Although the thinking behind a planning gain supplement was sound—it sought to ensure that a proportion of the gain derived from development should be captured to fund necessary infrastructure and social provision, and to mitigate adverse impacts—the mechanism chosen was suspect from the start.

There is no need to go over the ground again. Those of us who opposed PGS from the outset spelt out the risks and the disadvantages on numerous occasions, and I am grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends for listening and responding. Whereas PGS was widely criticised by those with detailed experience of the development process, whether developers or those dealing with development applications, the tariff approach commands much wider support. It is much more likely to give developers certainty on the scale of the contribution that they may have to make, and it retains the direct connection between the locality in which the development is taking place and the contribution. Provided that the level of the levy is set sensibly, the tariff approach should not inhibit development on more marginal sites, while also ensuring a much wider level of contribution than has been secured to date under the section 106 procedures, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham rightly pointed out.

Tom Brake: The right hon. Gentleman is very experienced in these matters, and I wonder whether he has a personal view on whether the community infrastructure levy should apply to energy infrastructure, for example, or to large developments of affordable housing.

Mr. Raynsford: In my view, one of the benefits of the community infrastructure levy should be that it has wide application. In general, it should apply with the smallest possible number of exceptions. I am afraid that some of the representations that Members have received from lobbyists are rather self-serving, and the danger of making large-scale exemptions is that it would be difficult to sustain the levy in other cases where parallels could be drawn. I do not want to be definitive in my response at this stage, but I am a little cautious about some of the arguments for widespread exemptions from the levy.

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The scheme was developed only in the past couple of months, because the Government committed themselves to establishing a community infrastructure levy only as recently as that, and I suspect that that has not allowed much time for the details to be explored as fully as they need to be. That might account for the fact that I find the Bill somewhat confusing. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will be able to clarify the arrangements over the next few weeks, if not tonight.

My first concern is with clause 163(2), the drafting of which seems to imply not a tariff but a tax on the uplift in value. The subsection states that

That seems to have a direct relationship to the increase in value attributable to the granting of planning permission, which was the core principle behind PGS, rather than providing for a levy designed to reflect the nature or type of the development.

My confusion is compounded when I turn to clause 166(4), which contains powers to introduce regulations. Those powers will allow regulations to

That seems to be a tariff. The power in clause 166(4)(b) will allow regulations to

which seems to refer to a tax, not a levy.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raynsford: No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am time-limited.

My confusion becomes even greater when I discover, in clause 165(4), that:

That is entirely compatible with a levy, but it does not seem to be compatible with the outstanding objective set out in clause 163, which seems to provide the basis for a tax. I am confused, and I look for guidance.

I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that there is a question about the relationship of the new levy with section 106, particularly in respect of affordable housing. My understanding is that section 106 will continue, and will provide the framework within which the levy is operated. I also understand that there will be an opportunity for a contribution to affordable housing under section 106, as well as for separate provision within the levy. That could be confusing, however, if the arrangement is not clarified, and I would welcome the view of my right hon. and hon. Friends on that.

I am also concerned about the potential for duplication arising from the list of charging authorities in clause 164. They include the local planning authority, which obviously makes sense, and, in the case of London, the Mayor of London. More generally, they also include

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That could include development corporations such as those that have been established in the Thames Gateway. Unless the relationship between the three different bodies is established, there is, in principle, the possibility of double or treble charging, so I urge the Minister to look carefully into that and ensure that a clear hierarchy avoids the risk either of duplication or of double or treble charging, while minimising the risk of disputes between the different tiers of government about their role in the system.

Those are, however, points of detail, not points of principle. As I have already said, I very much welcome the decision to bring forward the community infrastructure levy rather than the previously proposed PGS. Provided that those details, and others that have been raised, can be resolved, we will have the makings of a system that can ensure the objective that I certainly want—and, I believe, most Members want—which is a means of raising funds from the profits of development to fund necessary infrastructure and social provision.

In conclusion, the Bill is a generally good one that will improve the working of the planning system, speed up some unnecessarily delayed projects, give greater certainty and, provided that the detail can be got right, should not deny local people the opportunity to have a proper input into the decision-making process. I am happy to support Second Reading tonight.

5.35 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I refer the House to the Register of Members’ Interests and to the fact that I am vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association and an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

I hope that the Government will not mind if I deal with practicalities. There is no doubt that the Bill is in itself a declaration of failure; only two and a half years ago, we were told that the planning Bill coming before the House would solve most of the problems that this Bill is designed to solve. It is also true that even the Bill’s most robust supporter would have to admit that the Government are better at the rhetoric than the delivery, and that joined-down government is not a quality that they have managed to discover in their 10 years so far. One thus has to look into these things in great detail in respect of their practicality, not least from this particular Department. In the not too distant past, it managed to tell Ipswich that it was going to be a unitary authority, but then told it, immediately after it had spent £1 million in preparing for it, that it was not going to be a unitary authority after all. The same Ministers took a totally different decision. That being the case, this Department needs to be looked at extremely carefully when it comes to the practical results of the legislation that it puts forward.

Let me take the precise example of nuclear power. I have two nuclear power stations in my constituency: one is in the process of being closed down and decommissioned, and the other is perhaps the most successful in the United Kingdom. If there were to be a new nuclear power programme, I know that my constituency would be a prime target for it—and I happen myself to be a supporter of a new nuclear power station at Sizewell.

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