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10 Dec 2007 : Column 59

One can perfectly well take the generality of the decision in Parliament that we accept nuclear power. It is right that a particular part of the Bill should provide for that and the quality of life commission, which I chaired, was one of the earliest advocates of doing so. There is something in common here and I shall point out the several other things that the Government have taken from that earlier vision. They are very interesting, and perhaps more importantly they illustrate the bits that they have not taken from it. Having agreed the general principle, though, someone has to apply it to Sizewell. It is at that point that local support must be gathered.

After all, what is the planning system other than a means of reconciling a whole range of different interests—the national interest, the local interest, the particular interest? Reconciling those is crucial. Very often, people want to do different things on the same site and the planning system enables society to make that decision. It is always a second best, of course, because although the law of property should be that one can do what one likes with one’s own land, we decide that that is not acceptable because there are community interests that have to be reconciled with the particular interests—so we reconcile them.

The trouble with the Bill is that, although it deals more sensibly with the idea of taking the general decisions, it makes much worse the problem of how we deal with the local community. When we had the Sizewell B inquiry, I was able to present the interests of my constituents in front of a judge. The judge was not there as an expert. Indeed, I dislike this concept of planning experts—people who are supposed to be experts in energy, experts in this, experts in that, experts in the other. That is not what my constituents want.

My constituents want somebody whom they believe to be an expert in judgment who will listen to the points that they raise and decide whether, in addition to having a nuclear power station, which is decided here in Parliament, they must have a new road or whether, as in the last case, there has to be an insistence on 80 per cent. of the heavy goods coming in by sea. It makes a lot of difference to people if they do not have 10,000 lorries passing in front of their houses.

Those are the issues that my constituents will want to present, but they will not want to present them to some Government placeman who happens to be an expert in this, that and the other. They want to feel that they can appear in front of a judge who can make the decision himself. That is also true in relation to planning inspectors. At least a planning inspectorate is a professional body of people.

We want professionals, not placemen. That is the difference, and that is why we believe it necessary to have the first part of the proposals but then to accept that there should be a local inquiry on the particularities of the local impact of a national decision. Of course we would not have to discuss the issue of nuclear power again—in Suffolk as in Somerset, or in Bedfordshire as in Devon. That would be decided by the House from the planning guidance produced by the Government, but what happens locally is crucial to every local community. Those communities must feel that the process is proper.

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I submit to the House that a quango wandering around the country—no doubt chaired by Dame Deirdre Hutton, or another person of that kind who chairs everything around here—would be a set of placepeople, if I am to be politically correct. That is what they would be and that is what the public would see them as.

Mr. Raynsford: When the right hon. Gentleman reflects on his period as Secretary of State, does he feel that his strictures about placemen, and about having experts rather than others, would apply to the Local Government Commission under Sir John Banham, which the right hon. Gentleman appointed to reflect on the structure and shape of local government in England?

Mr. Gummer: Happily, I did not appoint it and I did fire him, so that situation does not really arise. [Interruption.] Well, perhaps I ought to say that he resigned. The situation is not as the right hon. Gentleman puts it.

I am looking for sensible decisions that are taken centrally, whereby we, as Members of Parliament, take the decision in the House. I am a great believer in our taking decisions on all subjects and not going out to other people through referendums and the like. That is what we should do here. We should make decisions on the big issues, and people should know how we voted. We should stand up and say, “We are in favour of nuclear power,” or that we favour a new railway or whatever it is. That is what parliamentary democracy really means.

When the political decision is made, however, it must then be subject to the views and attitudes of the locality. Unless we do that, we shall find that the public will not have it. That is what I meant when I mentioned Swampy. If people feel that there is no local ability to make the comments that they want to make to someone who is not appointed by the Government, but who is a professional person—whether it be an inspector or a judge—we will find that more and more attempts are made to try to hold up decisions because there has not been proper local consideration. We have to change that aspect, and do so to speed it up. That is my first point.

Secondly, I am also not entirely opposed to the idea that the Government have now come up with as a variant on section 106. Although I take much the same view as the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), I say to him that we must have clarity about where the money is to be applied.

The negotiation has been Treasury driven, and we all know that the original proposition was a means of nationalising section 106 money. The idea was to get the section 106 money, add it up and take it off the Government grant. That is what was going to be done, and it could have been done without legislation being passed by the House. I am therefore very suspicious, and the Minister must accept that most of us are very suspicious, following the history of Treasury meddling.

My worry is, if the proposal is to apply on a region-wide basis, what will that mean for Suffolk? We could have agreement on a nuclear power station in Leiston, but the money could go to Luton. Most people in Leiston have not been to Luton, do not want to go to Luton and are not interested in Luton. The fact that it is in the
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eastern region is nothing to do with them because they do not understand, nor are they interested in, the regional government that this Government have produced. They want to think that if money is for a development in their area, it will have an effect in that area. I was surprised that the Secretary of State was not prepared even to say that it would go to their county, which is at least something that they understand. I suspect that the change is much more dangerous than anything that she is prepared to say.

Thirdly, we have the issue of hybrid Bills and the like. I agree with the concerns of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich about those Bills. A huge amount has been achieved by them. There is proper public discussion of big infrastructure projects, and people feel that they have a way of reaching those who make the decisions. Even if we do not continue with that system, it reminds us of the dangers of the particular system that is proposed.

Fourthly, I am concerned about some of the significant gaps in the Bill. This is the most autocratic Government since Cromwell. There is no doubt about that. They are centralising and like to do by secondary legislation what they do not dare debate on the Floor of the House for primary legislation. This Bill is a good example of that. We cannot debate it properly because the details on which those debates should take place are not known. Indeed, they are so obviously not known that when the Secretary of State was with us for that short period of time she admitted that we would get to know more about them as the Bill goes through its stages. Frankly, the Minister must understand that that is entirely unacceptable as a parliamentary system. Bills should come to this House with sufficient information for us to debate them. We should not be told that we might get other bits and pieces as we go through the Bill if it is convenient to the Government and if we press them so hard that they cannot fail to tell us, which is really what they are threatening us with on this matter. We cannot argue about a whole range of things that are seriously deficient in the Bill because we do not know the answers.

That leads me to the fifth point. Some of the issues that we are going to cover are important. How on earth can we talk about aviation if the proposals in the aviation White Paper—that appalling White Paper, recently produced by the Government—are to be transferred lock, stock and barrel into what will, in fact, be the direction for this new independent commission? I consider that document to be very, very empty of an understanding of the environment. It is appalling when it comes to carbon and climate change, and it is ignorant when it comes to discussing most of those issues. Yet we are not going to have much discussion of such matters because, under this proposal, they will be part of the general guidance that will be brought before the House. We need to know a lot more about what the national policy statements are and about how they will integrate with other statements and policies, none of which we have been told about so far.

Lastly, we have to recognise the advances that have been made by suggesting that permitted development should be extended. That was part of what the quality of life commission proposed. Soon after that, however, the Government made their announcement; it was the usual technique. However, as is often the case, they got
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it wrong. The Government have decided not to permit as much development in proper circumstances as they could have done. Our proposal was that people could develop as they wished on estates built since 1945. They would have to give notice to the local authority and the contiguous neighbours. If they objected, an arbitrator would decide whether the neighbours’ interests were greater. That is a reasonable proposition. Much more development would have been possible, and many of the difficulties rightly identified by the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) would have been avoided. If the process were removed from the planning department it would become a neighbourhood issue, and a decision would be made on the spot.

The problem is that the Government have not only failed to adopt that proposal, but failed to do the other half of what should be done. They have made it possible to build, for example, a conservatory willy-nilly, with no requirement for it to meet the highest energy efficiency standards. However much such a development may accord with planning desires, constructing it with no regard for carbon emissions or climate change is an example of the ways in which we are increasing energy consumption to a significant extent. It will be too hot in summer and too cold in winter, which means more central heating and more air conditioning. But the Government seem to consider such developments perfectly reasonable.

Again, I challenge the Minister. I want to know his precise estimate of the increase in global warming gases that will result from the Bill. The Government do not know the figures relating to the 2,500 post offices that they have closed or the effect of the heating provided for people to smoke outside pubs following the smoking ban. They do not bother to find those things out. It is all words, with no practical figures relating to the increase in emissions that results from their actions.

These are my objections to the Bill. First, it ought to be unnecessary. The Government promised us that the last planning Bill was all we would need, and we should therefore suspect that this Bill will be as ineffective as they now claim the last one to have been. Secondly, it is not “joined up”, in that they have not worked out how it will be implemented, and we will not have that information. Thirdly, it is destructive of local democracy. Fourthly, the Secretary of State can say as loudly as she likes that it extends democracy, but we should always be suspicious of Ministers who say that. What it means is that they know perfectly well that the opposite is the case, and if they say it several times, we know that we should be suspicious.

The Secretary of State knows perfectly well that this is a centralising Bill, an autocratic Bill, and a Bill that is typical of a Government who have done more to reduce the rights and freedoms of the individual than any previous Government since Oliver Cromwell.

5.52 pm

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): A number of Members throughout the House have already commented on the challenge posed by the planning process. There is an increasing polarisation between engaging the community, maintaining sustainable communities and tackling major challenges such as climate change on the one hand, and
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the promotion of enterprise, employment and wealth on the other. I believe that the Bill gets the balance substantially wrong.

I appreciate, and would not seek to minimise, the difficult balancing act that Ministers must perform in the face of lobbying from business and the one-sided findings of the Barker review of land use planning. Like many Members, I am closely involved in supporting the communities in my constituency in expressing their view on local planning applications and their impact on the quality of their lives, and trying to ensure that developments are sustainable and address issues of climate change. My main starting point is the extent to which the Bill deals with community participation. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was performing her piece at the Dispatch Box, I was taken back a few years to a similar debate on public involvement relating to the abolition of community health councils and their replacement with patients forums, which are themselves to be superseded.

In the context of public involvement, I recognise that the Bill will have no great impact on the overwhelming proportion of local planning applications decided under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. If I have any criticism in that respect, it is that the Bill provides no means of promoting and enhancing community participation in respect of local planning applications. In the past, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I have advocated a qualified third-party right of appeal to give communities an opportunity to challenge significant local planning decisions made by councils on applications requiring an environmental impact statement.

The Bill relates principally to major infrastructure proposals, or MIPs. I have therefore tried to view it from the perspective of how it might operate in respect of MIPs with a potential impact on the communities that I represent. For example, Conservative and Liberal Democrat-controlled Leeds city council is considering options for major waste disposal facilities that may include the building of a huge incinerator. We also have on our doorstep Leeds Bradford airport, recently privatised by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. Those were the very people who condemned the passenger projections in the aviation White Paper, but then sold it off—and with it, absolute control over its future development—so that they could, in their own words, secure private investment to promote its growth. Only time will tell whether that particular development will lead to a planning application that will amount to an MIP, but it is a possibility.

I ask myself how, if planning applications for an incinerator or airport are submitted, the process proposed in the Bill will enable local people and communities, environmental groups and elected representatives such as councillors and Members of Parliament to express their views. That includes their ability to make representations on national policy statements that would set the framework for individual decisions, as well as individual inquiries on specific applications.

I have great sympathy with those who regard the Bill’s proposals as an unnecessary dilution of existing procedures for engaging the public. We are told that the present inquiry process is unfairly protracted, but little
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empirical evidence appears to have been provided by Ministers to demonstrate the extent to which the present opportunities for public involvement and engagement are responsible for that. In some cases that are cited as examples of the protracted process, the way in which applicants have presented their case and the delay between the end of an inquiry and the announcement of a decision by Ministers have been the main culprits. I dare say that, if he manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) may even cite the oft-quoted example of Heathrow’s terminal 5. In that instance, the process was prolonged by the applicant’s lack of preparation and subsequent changes in the application, and by the time that it took for a decision to be made once the inquiry was over.

We have been told that the present inquiry process is a barrister’s beanfeast. Barristers are always good whipping boys in any discussion of this type. It is asserted that many citizens lack the confidence to contribute to a process in which they may be cross-examined by those intimidating successors to Torquemada. I find that argument somewhat tendentious, if not patriarchal and patronising. In any case, whatever the process, many people—irrespective of their background—lack the confidence to contribute at any public meeting. It is not unusual for them to defer to others to provide representation, whether those people are members of their own community or organised pressure groups—“green” groups, for example.

There is also a mindset, which I consider particularly unhealthy—I do not accuse my hon. Friend the Minister of holding this view—that sees objectors to planning applications as nimbys, and the present procedures as a nimby’s charter. As Churchill once observed, the trouble with democracy is that it is the worst form of government apart from all the rest. The Government’s wish to truncate the process in the way that the Bill suggests is another aspect of the desire to remove some essential, but sometimes slightly awkward, democratic elements. It seems that Ministers are exaggerating the murkiness of the bathwater to justify throwing out the baby.

Perhaps I am guilty of a touching naivety, but I do not think it beyond the wit of Ministers or their civil servants, particularly in the context of the proposed national policy statements, to analyse the lessons of previous protracted processes and to inject a greater discipline that does not require removal of the right to appear and to cross-examine.

I believe that the Bill transmits the wrong message: support for business at the expense of the community. Councils such as Leeds are constantly spinning the political line that over-intensive development on brownfield sites, including gardens, is being forced on them by the Government. Of course, they do not reveal that the guidance on brownfield development of gardens was introduced by the last Government. They do not reveal that they have powers under the 2004 Act to draw up plans to provide action plans and a local framework to address local issues of over-development. Nor do they admit that PPS3 on housing allows them to examine planning applications in the light of local housing needs, particularly for families. Far from helping to explode some of these political myths, the Bill simply helps to reinforce them.

NPSs are key documents in determining applications and obviously can be site-specific. Yet despite their
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power and influence over people’s lives, there does not appear—I may be wrong—to be any clearly specified right to be heard in the preparation process. Paradoxically, this right does exist for local planning documents under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, but it is essential that NPSs are likewise subject to robust and guaranteed public consultation. The consultation provisions contained in the Bill seem a little vague and subject to a very broad exercise of discretion by the Secretary of State.

The Bill needs to be strengthened to ensure that a clear and unambiguous commitment to publicity and consultation exists in respect of NPSs and, for the process to be effective, it should include policy options so that people can look at what has been considered. If the Bill is not to represent a retrograde step in terms of public involvement, it should build on the 2005 rules for major infrastructure project inquiries and contain an effective right to be heard in person at all stages of the inquiry process with qualified rights to cross-examine and to test evidence.

It is essential that the Secretary of State and the IPC issue specific guidance on community involvement and, as we have heard, it is essential that we have adequate resourcing of groups such as Planning Aid to allow people to participate effectively in the process.

Most, if not all, of us will have had experience of pre-application consultations conducted by developers. Often they are merely a lip-service exercise. Often they make little or no difference to the eventual application that is submitted. I believe that applicants must be guided in much greater detail as to their responsibilities in consulting local people. If the process is to mean anything, the applicant must be required to consider the reasonable mitigation of the proposals that they submit, perhaps in the form of a statement of the impact of the development that is considered by the IPC.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem with applicants undertaking a great deal of consultation, which can be subjective and lead to a decision that they want in the first place, and then presenting it to a public body as though the development had the support of the entire community? Should not the consultation be supervised by an independent public body rather than by the applicant?

Mr. Truswell: It sounds very much as if my right hon. Friend has had—

Jeremy Corbyn: I am not a right hon. Member.

Mr. Truswell: Sorry. It sounds as if my hon. Friend has had a number of constituency experiences that exactly reflect the sort of point I was trying to make.

I cannot help but feel that the IPC cuts fiercely against the grain of what a democratically accountable and responsive planning process should be. Anybody wielding the immense powers that are to be allocated to the IPC must be democratically accountable and allow proper public engagement by allowing for robust testing of evidence. The Bill does not appear to make any real provision for this.

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