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10 Dec 2007 : Column 66

I would have no objection—I am echoing the points made by a number of Members—to an expert body having a major independent advisory role, but not a decision-making role. It has been suggested that this role might be allocated to the Planning Inspectorate rather than creating the IPC. I can understand the attraction to Ministers of insulating themselves against the pressures of taking decisions on what are often highly charged political issues. It is a little like the process that the Conservative party is considering to distance itself from unpopular local decisions in the NHS, if it ever manages to get into government. I doubt whether that will work and I am not sure that the IPC will work as a similar barrier.

Finally on democracy and public engagement, may I express my objection to what could be viewed as retrospective policy formulation, a point made effectively by Opposition Members? I am concerned that clause 11 allows the Secretary of State to designate existing policy documents as national policy statements. Obviously some of these documents pre-date the more robust sustainability assessments that have come into force more recently. Previous policy documents were not designed to take into account recent statutory targets, such as the carbon emission reductions that we will look at in due course. The best example has already been quoted—the “Future of Air Transport” White Paper 2003, which was obviously published before there was a requirement to comply with either the strategic environmental assessment directive or the habitats directive.

The Department for Transport has already indicated that the air transport White Paper will form the basis of an NPS on airport developments—something I do not feel I could possibly support. This approach also negates the principle that any consultation exercise must be clear on the effects of the proposals being consulted upon. Designating an existing policy document as a national policy statement would afford it a far greater status in the planning system than the public could reasonably have assumed at the time of the original consultation, when the idea of national policy statements was not even a twinkle in the Secretary of State’s eye.

Finally, I wish to outline some of my concerns about how the Bill relates to climate change. Ministers have said that one justification for the Bill is that it will create a structure that speeds up the shift to renewable and lower-carbon energy and supports development of low and zero-carbon building. The fear I have is that it could equally create a structure that allows other applications that are far less positive in these terms to go ahead.

I am certain that Members on both sides of the House share my view that every relevant policy and Bill must have climate change printed through it, like a stick of rock. It feels as if it is simply scribbled on the surface of this Bill. I welcome the proposal that a sustainable development duty be placed on Ministers in preparing national policy statements, but that needs to be strengthened in order to be convincing and fully effective. The IPC should also have a sustainable development duty that would require it to operate in line with the UK’s climate change objectives. The Bill should also provide for the monitoring and reporting of that duty by Ministers and by the IPC. I also support the proposal that the independent committee on climate change that features in the Climate Change
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Bill should be a statutory consultee in the NPS process and in specific applications considered by the IPC.

My time has run out, so I end by saying that I really look forward to the Minister for Local Government, assuring me that the Bill is not the retrograde step I fear. As it stands at the moment, I would have great difficulty in supporting it in its entirety.

6.8 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): It is somewhat surprising to range in a planning debate from Oliver Cromwell to Napoleon Bonaparte, but given the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), I think I had better come down on the side of Napoleon, which might well have been my preference in any case.

When one represents the Pennine dales of North Yorkshire, it is easy to look with a certain detachment upon arguments about terminal 5 at Heathrow, for example. It is a long way from terminal 5 to the Long Preston bypass; most of my constituents would be much more concerned about the bypass, although they will be eager users of terminal 5. That brings us to one of the key points in the debate: planning is not like many other policies or areas of debate. The culture of our political system is to crystallise a difference in view and then to make a choice. Planning is perhaps unique in that it has a role for mediation. It is trying to set a framework in which opinions are collected and weighed and an attempt is made to draw a balance. There are conflicts of interest, and conflicts between individuals and between the community and the nation. The planning guidance and the regional and local plans are all designed to provide some sort of parameter around those conflicts. The result is, of course, a near universal discontent. Businesses complain about the slow process and the anti-development culture within local authorities. Individuals complain about their local concerns being ridden roughshod over and about the absence of an appeal against the granting of planning permission. If we are honest, most Members will agree that when constituents come to our surgeries to talk about planning, it is almost always to ask us to get something stopped rather than to get something done.

We must therefore adopt a hard-headed realism in approaching this debate, because in planning terms the national interest is not the sum of local or individual interests, although the national interest does require the submission of a local or community interest. We need to provide prisons, asylum-processing centres, power plants, new runways and nuclear waste repositories, and we must decide as a nation how we provide them.

International competitiveness, to which the Secretary of State referred as a key reason for the Bill, means that Governments have far less power now than in the past. The choices that they can make are much more restricted, because if we wish to survive as a nation in the global economy we must deliver the conditions that maintain our competitiveness. That means that we do not have the same degree of discretion that we had in the past. Another consequence is that the Government have less power over individuals than previously, because modern technology and the internet have empowered
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individuals in a way that was not possible even when I first entered the House, when my constituents were perhaps willing to say that I was in a position to make decisions that they were not able to make because I had access to information that they did not have access to. Such information is now accessible to all of them.

On the provisions relating to major infrastructure projects, I am concerned that the Bill might be setting itself an impossible task. It is setting itself to speed up very sharply the process of decision making while simultaneously providing for a complex panoply of consultation, and also ultimately running through it are what I see as blurred lines of accountability. It will be difficult to bring those measures together in a working mechanism. The procedures are top-down because we will have the national strategy statements, but they are bottom-up because of the pre-application consultation procedures, and there is an intermediate bit in the middle, which is the stage of parliamentary scrutiny and the proposals for Select Committee scrutiny. I am unsure how reconcilable those objectives will turn out to be in practice.

It is easy enough to agree on the national challenges that demand a more ruthless approach to planning—I use the word “ruthless” advisedly, and not necessarily pejoratively—including economic interests, which I have mentioned, and the need to respond to the challenges of climate change. They are very new challenges, which are linked. Although the procedures by which the Government intend to address them are clear in their architecture, however, they are much less so in their content; this is a building without any furniture in it—and I am also not quite sure where the directions flow within that building.

How detailed will the national policy statements be? If a statement effectively determines the policy on nuclear power, will the commission have a discretion other than to decide where the plants will be built? Frankly, we all know where any future new nuclear power plants are likely to be built. That is not a closely guarded secret; there are not, as the French would say, trente-six solutions. There are a handful of places, all of which we know of, where they might be built.

Mr. Gummer rose—

Mr. Curry: I give way to my right hon. Friend, proud possessor of two of them.

Mr. Gummer: Does my right hon. Friend accept that there are issues to do with such locations even if we know where they will be? My constituents would not want a new nuclear power plant unless there was a proper road on which to bring the materials to it. They should be able to have their say on such issues.

Mr. Curry: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is precisely such nuts-and-bolts issues that concern our constituents. How many heavy lorries will pass by? Will they be tarpaulined if they are carrying infill for sites, for example? What will the access be like? Such questions are crucial to people’s standard of living.

Mr. Prisk: I apologise for not having been present for some of the debate; I had Standing Committee business. My right hon. Friend is rightly talking about a gap in the national policy statements. How can one
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develop a national policy on airports, for example, if the location is not included in the discussion? That is what the Secretary of State seemed to imply at the beginning of the debate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is peculiar for the Government to suggest that the House should discuss the national policy on airports without discussing where they should be?

Mr. Curry: I entirely agree. Any national policy on airports is in fact solely about Heathrow and Stansted. Any significant expansion has been ruled out for Gatwick, but there is currently a huge argument about Stansted. I should, perhaps, point out that I live 12 miles from Stansted’s central terminal; that is where my family home is. Plans to expand Luton have been abandoned, and the discussion is now about Heathrow. Once again, one does not have to be a prophet to know about such matters. The national policy statement is so close to the planning decision that it is difficult to see a real distinction between the two.

On consultations by the developer, I am always suspicious of anything that talks about stakeholders. North Yorkshire’s bid for unitary authority status was based on detailed consultation with the stakeholders who all said that it was a very good idea, but the public did not think it was a good idea at all. The public are not the same as the stakeholder. The public are the public as individuals, not the public constructed into representative bodies. We must be careful that such consultations are real.

What about the decision makers themselves? There might be 45 cases a year—one for every working week, setting aside the inevitable gap over the summer holidays. If the commission has added expert panels—there might be an energy, aviation or water panel—in practice we will ask perhaps three or four people to deal with the cases. They will take a huge degree of responsibility, and they are appointed people. They will not have the quasi-judicial status of the inspectorate even if the Government wish to endow them with that quality. How will they be chosen? Will that be like the process for selecting members of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England? Will they be nominated for a certain period? Will they be subject to parliamentary confirmation hearings? If Parliament is to be given a new role, it seems a good idea for them to have to submit themselves to parliamentary hearings. Is the expertise required a planning or policy expertise, or is it more important for there to be submissions of a representative nature, following on from the remarks on community engagement? I sometimes think that it is a pity that Sir Michael Lyons is now otherwise engaged, as he served so many useful purposes for the Government when they were in a bind. What is clear is that the commission will not sit on any matter as a college, but it will endorse panel decisions. It is difficult to see it not endorsing them. To whom will it at the end of the day be accountable?

One element of the proposals requires particular explanation. The Secretary of State told us in a written statement of 27 November that

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Yet at the same time we are to have a statutory timetable on inquiries and decisions of perhaps nine or 12 months. How are those two needs reconcilable? We all know that if our constituents come to us and say, “We object to this development, it has been rejected by the council and there will be an appeal,” we say, “Don’t agree to a written exchange. Make sure you go for a public inquiry, because you will get your voice, that will push the whole procedure back and the developer might walk away at the end of the day.” So what happens if the objectors are sufficiently organised to make sure that 10,000 people register their interest? How do the Government intend that their promise that those people’s voice will be heard will be compatible with the speed of the decision making which we have been promised?

I do not think the Select Committee will necessarily be of huge assistance in practice. First, there is beginning to be a huge overload of work and commitments, especially if we are to have regional Select Committees as well; the Government have gone rather quiet on that idea, however, so I am not sure where we are on it. They might regard dealing with such matters as their role; if there is to be a major development at Heathrow or Stansted, for example, the relevant regional Select Committee might think that that is much more its business than that of an inter-group, as it were, whose membership is drawn from other Select Committees. How will those involved avoid being swamped by the demand to be heard? What distinct marketing niche can be offered?

We need to know what is envisaged on the reservation to the Secretary of State of decisions on exceptional projects. In a sense, the whole structure exists to deal with exceptional projects. I find it difficult to see at what stage something becomes so extra exceptionally exceptional that is goes to the Secretary of State for a decision. What is the factor X that sends something back to Whitehall?

On the community infrastructure levy, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) explained that on aspects of the Bill he was confused about whether we were talking about a levy or a tax. I share that confusion, but I shall not draw my confusion to the attention of the House, because his confusion will serve for us both. I hope that both our confusions will be simultaneously enlightened.

Of course, we welcome the abandonment of a planning gain supplement, but it is important to know how the roof tax, as I suppose we will end up calling it, will work in practice and what the relationship will be between the infrastructure levy and the site-specific levy. I understand that they will both be wrapped up in the much-maligned, but extremely useful, section 106 agreements. It is important that social housing, more of which has been built as a result of section 106 agreement planning gain than of any other mechanism, should be maintained. How widely will the infrastructure needs be assessed? Will that be done on a local, area or regional basis?

The regional development agencies are to have competence in this regard. Let us remember that a few months ago the Government were explaining their views on the role of regional bodies and regional agencies, but they are removing accountability to regional assemblies. We do not yet know how RDAs will be made accountable,
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given the huge new planning competence with which they are being endowed by the Government.

There is an argument for some sort of cross-border use of funding. It applies particularly in places bordering metropolitan areas—travel-to-work areas where people go from rural areas into the metropolitan ones. I do not take an ideologically hostile view of such proposals, but there is a good explanation of why it matters to local people if that is to be how the money is used.

We must ensure that the new needs are being met. The emphasis is that they must be new infrastructure needs; this is not about all the old deficiencies. It is sometimes not easy to make a distinction between a long-time aspiration and a specific infrastructure need that flows directly from the development taking place. How will the scheme work on brownfield sites that have been assembled by compulsory purchase orders, which are themselves governed by a statutory provision, where developers might turn out to be the occupiers?

How confident are we that local authorities have the capacity to manage the rather more complex system? All of us have encountered severe problems in the manning of planning departments. An army of itinerant antipodeans seems to park for periods in planning departments as part of a world tour. I hope that some sort of guidance will be available—the industry is talking about having some sort of body to help with this—because if local authorities are to have discretion on what levies they raise, it will be important to have some lubrication of the process to ensure that it works smoothly.

Finally, may I make a small plea? Nothing discredits the planning system more than people who deliberately bend the rules by getting planning permission for A and then doing A and a bit more, such as developing the site a little more densely, making the roof lines higher than suspected or doing something thinking that they can always obtain planning permission later. Local authorities are extraordinarily reluctant to take such matters up, because they think that doing so will be expensive or a barren sort of passage. People rightly get extremely upset when they see that someone has deliberately decided to play fast and loose with the system—we all know that some businesses seem to specialise in doing that—and that there is no, or infrequent, redress.

We want the system to have credibility and legitimacy, but there are huge questions about the legitimacy of the mechanism that is going to be erected. An enormous amount will depend on the people involved, the manner in which they take decisions and the decisions that they take in the early period. If the final decision-making power is to be removed, despite all the apparatus of consultation, the citizen must feel that when a decision is taken it sticks. Decisions that remain more local must be much more rigorously enforced, so that a decision taken is what finally appears. That is a niggly point, but credibility and legitimacy are essential to a system that seeks to mediate between interests that are often difficult to reconcile and that on some occasions may not be reconcilable. Those cultures are hugely important in making the system work well.

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6.25 pm

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I welcome the two major proposals that the Government are introducing: the different ways to deal with major infrastructure projects and the community infrastructure levy to try to ensure a general benefit to a community from developments that take place in its area. I agree with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) that one of the interesting aspects of the planning process is that, by and large, one is dealing with projects that are bitterly opposed by those most closely affected by them, although it is essential that such projects go ahead for wider area, regional or national benefit. That is one of the difficulties that we face throughout.

Delays to inquiries into major projects cause genuine concerns. The Government rightly focus on that, and recognise that such projects are important in the wider national interest. It is equally important that we do not introduce a process that is seen to exclude, in any way, the community’s involvement in the determination of such matters. We must make it clear that most inquiries into major projects are not decided by elected representatives; effectively, they are decided by a planning inspector. The decision may be referred to the Secretary of State, but the planning inspector who hears the matter on appeal makes the decision, outside the formal democratic process.

The Government’s proposal that we set up an infrastructure planning commission is only an enhancement of the current planning inspectorate. I am unsure why they have found it necessary to opt for a completely new and separate commission, because people who would be involved as planning inspectors plus a few experts in particular matters are being called a new commission. Why is it necessary to have a new commission? Should we not just expand the planning inspectorate by adding a specialist wing, which could deal with these matters in the way in which we would expect planning inspectors to deal with inquiries?

On the democratic argument, we should robustly say, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) said, that the current system is not democratic in another respect. It is not democratic to have national policy matters—statements of national policy—determined by an individual planning inquiry. That happens at present, because we make up policy at a planning inquiry on an individual application. I welcome the approach of introducing national policy statements, which should then set out the framework that follows an application for a major infrastructure project, to which the infrastructure planning commission would be bound to have regard.

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