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10 Dec 2007 : Column 98

Mr. Prisk: My right hon. Friend shows his expertise in the subject and as a former Secretary of State, and he is right to say that we cannot somehow divorce those two subjects as if they have no relation. They are related and they should be dealt with in that way; he is quite right to make those points.

The Bill is the Government’s latest attempt to reform the current system, so let me start by welcoming its principal stated aim—to simplify how essential infrastructural projects secure planning permission. That is a worthy aim. For too long, projects of national importance have been treated in largely the same way as domestic planning applications. Thus we have seen the peculiarity of treating the installation of a major waterworks in much the same way as we would treat our neighbours’ extensions or loft conversions. There is no sense in that. Planning for our national infrastructure needs to be long term, holistic and proactive, and any development control or planning system must reflect that point.

Having made that broad general sweeping point, I would like in my remaining time to touch on three areas. The first is the infrastructure planning commission. Although I support the need to reform how we plan our national infrastructure, I have to tell the Minister that I have yet to hear an intelligent argument for setting up another democratically unaccountable quango— [Interruption.] I have heard arguments for it, but I am not sure that they have been intelligent.

The proposed commission would be responsible to the Secretary of State, but would not be directly accountable to this House or those whom we represent. I think that that is wrong in principle, and it will be viewed by the public with the greatest degree of scepticism. In my constituency, we are fighting the nonsensical plans for a second runway at Stansted airport and, I might add, speculative development on 1,500 acres of green-belt land. The idea that an unelected quango, which reports to Ministers and is appointed by them, should decide our fate would be seen by my constituents as both undemocratic and unacceptable.

On a practical note, the commission’s role seems frequently to overlap with those of a variety of other Government-inspired quangos, not least the new Homes and Communities Agency and the Government’s beloved regional quangos, the regional development agencies. I posed this question to the Secretary of State, but perhaps the Minister can provide a better answer. If the Homes and Communities Agency proposes a new eco-town settlement in one location, but the new commission envisaged by the Bill determines that the utilities, including power and water, and the road system should require a different location, who will arbitrate? What will actually happen? Who will be in charge? Will it be the Minister, and will there be an endless row and legal complaints? It will be interesting to see whether the Minister can respond. The Secretary of State tried to say that housing was nothing to do with the new commission. Indeed, but we cannot have a new town without roads, and we cannot have new houses without the water and electricity that go with them, so the idea that we can separate infrastructure from housing and assume that there will be no conflict is a mistake. I hope that the Minister will address that point.

It is true that there could be an argument for an independent body that sets a long-term framework for our national infrastructural needs. Such a body could
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be advisory, but it must be clearly independent of ministerial interference; indeed, it might work much as the chief scientific adviser works within the Whitehall machinery today. Several professional bodies, including the Institution of Civil Engineers as well as my own professional body, have made a powerful case for such a framework, but it would be more than is envisaged in the Bill, not least because it would provide an holistic approach rather than trying to detach utilities from roads, for example, or airports from the former. I would be grateful if the Minister expressed his views on that.

On a more detailed point, I notice that there seems to be no inclusion of flood defences in the list of nationally significant infrastructure projects. Given the various references in the debate to climate change and events earlier this year, perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that is deliberate or just an oversight.

I would like to deal briefly with the question of how the planning system will affect the development of our town centres, as the Bill contains some relevant powers. I am concerned that the future of our high streets is in peril—not just from the coming consumer slowdown, but more fundamentally because independent shops in traditional high streets face a wide range of issues that restrict them from competing. In the context of the Bill, I am particularly concerned about how the tests used in planning are being undermined by Ministers and their advisers. As the “Save Our Small Shops” campaign in the Evening Standard has shown, people value their local shops, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for those enterprises to remain in business.

In particular, and following reports from Kate Barker and the notorious Rod Eddington, I am concerned that the needs test may be removed by Ministers. The danger is that that could allow more out-of-town supermarkets at the expense of our town centres and local high streets. Competition between supermarkets is not the only issue. The planning system must have regard to the socio-economic and environmental importance of town centres and high streets. After all, a city whose centre is struggling is a community that is losing its heart. If we neglect that centre by permitting badly placed out-of-town developments, the result will be felt throughout the community. I say to Ministers, “Be very careful to whom you listen.” Thousands of independent firms need town centres that can compete, as indeed do many of our long-established businesses, such as the John Lewis Partnership. If Ministers loosen the planning system, they could undermine not just the independents, but the long-term town centre investment that we all want.

Part 10 deals with the community infrastructure levy. I welcome the Government’s second thoughts on their proposals for a planning gain supplement—a wise decision taken somewhat in elongated fashion, but they sort of got to the right decision in the end. The planning gain supplement was ill conceived and prematurely presented. Quite why it has not been repealed I do not know, but I hope—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the Government do not still have some bizarre hope of bringing it back in a different form. If they do, it will make the home information packs fiasco look like a glorious triumph.

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Of course, there is no doubt that the way in which planning gain is captured financially needs to be reformed. I fully accept that. Section 106 agreements were fine when they began, but they have become a serious delay in planning decisions. The principles of that reform need to be based on a clear link between the proposed development and its local impact. Various Members have referred to that point. It means that any Treasury attempt to claw back moneys into its coffers or to do a little top-slicing for the regional quangos would be a serious mistake. Ministers have given a hazy response on the question of top-slicing.

Part 10, which introduces the levy, is nothing more than a blank cheque that Ministers expect us to approve, without any idea of what will be changed or indeed charged. For example, it provides for a levy, but does not say what will be levied. It provides for empowering authorities to charge a levy, but does not state exactly which authorities they will be. When it comes to the amount charged, and its collection and enforcement, we are asked to agree to the Government’s deciding all that later on, but without a full debate here in the Chamber.

I have to say to the Minister that that is an appalling way to legislate. When he was at the Treasury, the stamp duty land tax was introduced in the same haphazard way. The general message from the then Chief Secretary was, “We’ll correct it along the path.” We are being asked to agree to a tax on something yet to be defined by authorities yet to be named for an amount yet to be decided. Would it not have been wiser to introduce the measure in a few months, perhaps in its own Bill, after detailed discussions with the industry? For example, what exactly does the Bill mean by “community infrastructure”? I have seen various reports that the Minister for Housing has said that that could be negotiated locally. Although I understand the need for agreements to reflect specific and local circumstances, it would help everyone if some simple parameters were set to avoid protracted negotiations in each and every planning authority.

The need to reform and improve the planning system has been accepted on all sides, not least regarding our national infrastructure needs. Although there are some good measures here, I am extremely concerned that they have been undermined by Ministers failing to strike the balance between democratic accountability and administrative efficiency. If the Bill is given a Second Reading, I hope that Ministers will listen carefully to the debates on amendments tabled in Committee, even if they would change substantial parts of the Bill. We cannot have another planning Bill in a couple of years because we got it wrong again this time.

In the end, the effect of getting this legislation wrong will be not just an administrative problem, but something that we have to live with in every town, city and constituency, and that is visible to this and future generations. If the Prime Minister is looking for a legacy, I would advise him carefully to ensure that the Bill does not form part of it.

8.26 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate. I want to focus on a specific issue. Although I will illustrate it
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with examples from my constituency, I am sure that many hon. Members know of similar examples from theirs.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned in her opening speech the issue of statutory consultees. I ask her to ensure that water companies become statutory consultees. That is important for the development of nationally significant infrastructure and for far more modest local developments such as housing. Although local planning authorities often consult local water companies, there is no obligation to do so. Clearly, submissions from water companies would carry much more weight if those companies were statutory consultees, as other utilities are.

Developments, whether large or small, produce additional sewage and surface water. Even if a new development provides for separate foul water and surface water systems on the development site or its immediate vicinity, all too often, further down the line, the foul water and the surface water enter existing systems. That puts increased pressure on existing and ageing structures, which causes particular problems when, as in my constituency of Llanelli, the original sewerage system has only one pipeline for sewage and surface water.

Two specific issues arise from the overloading of existing systems—pollution and foul water flooding. Water companies seek consents from the Environment Agency to discharge spills into the sea. In Llanelli, overloading the system has resulted in significantly more spills into the Burry inlet than the number Welsh Water is permitted. In today’s edition of The Western Mail, under the headline “Sewage overspills ‘turning nature sites into cesspit’”, we read that Welsh Water is permitted no more than 10 “storm” spills per year, but that in the year to December 2007, at two sewage treatment works that open into the Burry inlet, and at the Northumberland Avenue pumping station, there have been 111, 115 and 118 spills respectively. That is absolutely disgraceful and of major concern in respect of the quality of bathing water in an area that is trying to develop tourism.

In summer 2005, for example, Carmarthenshire county council’s environmental health department warned against bathing at Llanelli beach, but not only bathing is affected. This is a unique area for cockles, and pollution is of particular concern to me because of how it affects the local shellfish industry. Local cocklers have explained to me that the amount of sewage pollution—the faecal count, to be precise—is critical to how cockle beds are graded. The cocklers also explained that the concentration of sewage is considered to be responsible for the dreadful cockle mortality in 2005, which devastated the cockle beds and badly affected the livelihood of the cocklers.

The other effect of overloading sewerage systems is the increased risk of foul water flooding. Such flooding has occurred more than once in Nelson terrace, Llanelli. It was an absolutely disgusting event, which sadly was experienced by numerous families across Britain this summer. Although I welcome the new pumping system promised by Welsh Water for Cambrian place—I sincerely hope it will provide relief for the residents of Nelson terrace—it is an example of treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Of course Welsh Water should be doing everything possible to stop the spillages and reduce foul water flooding, but in the water company’s
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defence it has to be said that one of the major causes is undoubtedly the mushrooming of development. The sewage and surface water that result from such development ends up putting pressure on existing systems.

Water companies are also concerned because they are increasingly having to take over sewerage systems that developers have provided for developments here, there and everywhere. Apart from the water rates paid by the new occupants, which are revenue funding to provide water and sewerage, the companies do not get any capital moneys to cover the costs of adopting new sewerage systems or upgrading structures to cope with the effects of additional load further down the line.

For those reasons, I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that water companies are made statutory consultees. If that happens, they will have a duty to use their powers to the full. They would have to use their expertise to point out the full consequences of any proposed development on the whole sewerage system of an area. They must be listened to if we are to avoid polluting our beaches and seas and putting an increasing number of homes at risk from foul water flooding.

8.31 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), with whom I share a rather bizarre niche interest in the form of both sewage and cockles, also for constituency reasons. Sewage is a problem in the north of my constituency, and cockles are enjoyed along the Thames. I was interested to hear about her constituency.

I was concerned when I looked at the Bill and only came to understand it when I saw it through the prism of potential case studies. I found the speech by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) incredibly powerful in relation to Heathrow. Prior to the debate, I jotted down one or two issues and inquiries that I could foresee. I thought that Heathrow, Stansted or the lower Thames crossing would be an acid test of whether the legislation can work, and, quite simply, it has failed the test.

There is a broad consensus that there is a problem with planning, but equally there is a broad consensus, demonstrated in the points raised, that the Bill creates as many problems, issues and confusions as it solves. In excellent and well-researched speeches, many hon. Members said that they have been confused about aspects of the Bill, that they need greater clarity and that it is not clear what is proposed. To push things beyond Second Reading and into secondary legislation is not good enough. That may be acceptable for the few people who have the privilege of serving on the Committee, but it is not acceptable for other hon. Members who want to debate such matters on the Floor of the House on Second Reading.

The disturbing thread running through the speeches is that having more planning and more development, and doing it faster, is a good thing. The Bill will mean more development faster, but it will not necessarily be the right development—the development that our constituents want.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made an excellent speech covering Swampy, Napoleon and Cromwell. I am not going to delve
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further back in history, but the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said that the Bill offers a generational opportunity. I suspect that if we look through Hansard we will see that someone said that in 2004. My right hon. Friend described this Bill as a declaration of failure in the 2004 Bill. Although I agree that it was a failure, I do not think that this Bill will be remembered in that way; it is more likely to be remembered by the problems that it incorporates in the future.

I want to touch on five key points: the national policy statement, the IPC, climate change, the democratic deficit and the community infrastructure levy, which is perhaps one of the most concerning parts of the Bill. I am not inclined to support the Bill and expect substantial changes in Committee to make it reasonable. The right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) talked about maximising the NPS and minimising the IPC. I think that that is the right direction to take. The concept of national policy statements is superficially alluring. It would allow us to remove some of the broader strategic and technical debates from a local level so that we do not discuss the merits of nuclear against other renewables, or other big issues that are not site specific, at every public inquiry. However, a number of planning issues focus on the interaction between different policy statements. For example, the interaction between airport and road policy is surely what is meant by integrated transport. Seeing such things in silos does not make any sense.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington talked about the reasons for introducing the Bill in terms of the problems of Heathrow. It would have been better to deal with that issue head on rather than simply having a Bill that may or may not cover such problems in the future. Coming from the Thames Gateway area in Southend, I was concerned that the lower Thames crossing would not be covered. I suspect that a Thames crossing between Shoeburyness in my constituency across to Kent would not be covered either.

I am concerned about the IPC’s structure and the costs involved. The Department’s impact assessment makes it look like a well staffed operation. The chief executive will be paid £140,000, the chairman will be paid £150,000, the three deputy chairmen will each be paid £130,000—I do not know why such an organisation needs three deputy chairmen—and there will be 30 commissioners. From the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), I learned that one of the commissioners will be appointed by the Welsh Assembly. It will be interesting to know whether any of the remaining appointments will be as significant or whether the commissioners will simply be selected.

The documentation makes cursory mention of a register of members’ interests. It is incredibly important to consider the problems caused by conflict of interest that have been created in quangos in my area. More detail on the register should be in the Bill. We should also talk about people’s experience before they serve on the commission. That needs to be registered and fully understood.

Mr. Prisk: I am sorry to stop my hon. Friend’s flow, but he raises an important point. The experts that the Government require on the commission will need to have been involved in many of the strategic projects.
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There will inevitably be a potential conflict of interest because they will have an interest and expertise. Does he agree that it is one thing that Ministers have failed to notice?

James Duddridge: There has indeed been a complete failure to recognise that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal made the point in a slightly different way when he said that we did not need experts in subject areas, and that in many ways that could even be destructive. Other Members said that we wanted the process to involve local representation rather than construction. What we want are experts in judgment, rather than technical experts. Technical experts are not always right in their own expertise. We see fashions and fads based on recent research—good research, but research that turns out to be wrong in the longer term. I am particularly worried about circumstances in which a single commissioner acts on behalf of the IPC.

Let me return to the question of costs, about which there seems to have been little discussion, especially in the private sector. In contrast, the impact assessment even discusses the number of work stations that the IPC will have—eight to serve 10 staff—and identifies the cost very precisely as £10,180 per work station. A few paragraphs later, having referred to tens of thousands of pounds for work stations, it states, almost by the way,

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