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Under the heading “Scheme type”, it tells us that the cost of an application for an aviation scheme is £75 million. It seems to me that too much attention may have been paid to the cost of an individual work station, and not enough paid to the bigger costs involved in the private sector. I shall say more about costs in connection with the community infrastructure levy, which has been dealt with in an equally inadequate fashion.

On climate change and flooding, the Association of British Insurers has called on the Government to engage much more with the Environment Agency through the Bill, and I agree with what it has said. In the Thames Gateway we have problems with flooding, and with pressure to build housing on floodplains. There is a lack of joined-up government, which may be partly due to the fact that the Department has undergone five major changes since the Government came to office. I do not blame officials; I put the blame fairly and squarely in the Government’s court.

In the context of flooding, I have grave concerns about infrastructure. In a very good “Dispatches” programme, the head of the Environment Agency failed to answer basic questions about the number of power stations built in a floodplain area. I should be interested to know whether Ministers are thinking again about whether that information could be provided, because we need to plan for contingencies. As well as existing power stations, future infrastructure projects should be considered in connection with climate change and flooding, be they power stations, sewage treatment plants or motorways.

I was no great fan of the Barker report, but climate change was at its centre. I think it was the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) who, no doubt noting my presence, appealed to my constituency interest in rock. He suggested that the words “climate change” should run throughout every Bill like the words on a stick of
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rock, but they certainly do not run throughout this Bill. Climate change seems to be somewhat of an afterthought, or footnote.

Let me say something about the democratic deficit. In Southend, we have a veritable and indigestible feast of alphabetti spaghetti in the form of acronyms for quango after quango and cost after cost. The IPC seems to be just another example of an undemocratic quango that further distances the electorate from the Government. That does not do the Government justice, it does not do the House justice and it does not do politicians justice. When we knock on doors, we are often told that politicians—all politicians—do not represent the views of the electorate. We need to get closer to the electorate, not further away, handing more power to more quangos.

I understand that the CIL—the community infrastructure levy—replaces the previous acronym for the planning gain supplement. Let us be honest: this is just a tax under another name. Rather worryingly, the tax-raising power has been given to a quango rather than to the Treasury, and the Bill does not make clear how much tax can be raised and how. There seems to be little indication of the transitional relationship with section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Like other Members, I recognise that section 106 is flawed, but it is not made plain how the Bill will improve on it. The levy is simply a tax.

The British Property Federation has said in a briefing:

The last thing we need is yet another tax. If we are going to get it, let us be clear and transparent about what it is.

There has been some encouragement for the levy in the industry, which wants clarity. In business, one needs certainty and the levy provides a greater degree of that. But where will the money go? If the Treasury had made its section 106 grab and said that it would take all the money centrally, it would have been a disaster for areas such as Southend. I could accept planning gain money going outside Southend, but not far outside; perhaps to the A13 to improve the infrastructure or to the A127 heading through Essex. But giving that money to Cambridge would make no sense. Some have said that the local area may have an interest in the money going that far afield, but, if so, that should be stated and approved by the local district or county council. We cannot and should not say that a fixed percentage will go every time to a given region. One size does not fit all. Heaven forbid, there may be examples where the local community wants more money to go outside the area, but that should be driven locally, not from Whitehall or by regulations.

I am disappointed that there is not more detail in the Bill. I hope that plenty of time will be afforded in Committee to go through every amendment in detail. I also hope that the Government amendments will be focused and deal with some of the detailed concerns, confusion and lack of clarity to which other hon. Members have referred.

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8.46 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and to learn of his interest in cockles, which he shares with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). After her graphic speech, I do not think I will be eating cockles again for a while.

Reform of the planning system is an admirable objective. The current system appears sometimes to be cumbersome, expensive and, at times, virtually incomprehensible. It could certainly do with some simplification and refinement. If anything, we need to strengthen, not weaken, the voice of local communities. In Leckhampton on the edge of my constituency, there were recently 700 objections to a planning proposal, which was duly defeated. Almost identical planning proposals have now been submitted and those 700 objections now count for nothing.

In Charlton Kings on the edge of my constituency, we now face a concerted assault on the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty, which most of us would have assumed was sacrosanct. However, the signals coming from Government are so mixed that developers are now eyeing up the AONB. Back gardens across Cheltenham are now being treated as brownfield sites and tilting the scales too far in favour of overdevelopment. I still find it odd that simple values such as ugliness and beauty still count for nothing in our planning process.

The system needs reform and refinement but, in its way, it works. Local communities do come together to oppose unpopular developments. They trust the system enough to spend enormous time and effort on planning inquiries. My father Don Horwood spent the last years of his life fighting many planning inquiries on behalf of the Leckhampton greenland action group, which carries on that proud tradition of using the current system to represent community interests effectively.

Such community action is sometimes inconvenient for Governments, and even more inconvenient sometimes for commercial interests. But that is democracy. If democracy does not sometimes make life inconvenient for those who have wealth and power in our society, it is not working. My worry about the Bill is that it makes life far too convenient for both Governments and unelected authorities as well as commercial interests.

First, let us look at the powers of the Secretary of State. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is no longer in his place, mentioned aviation and the ability of the Secretary of State to incorporate wholesale existing policies such as the Government’s aviation policy into the structure of national policy statements. On my reading of the Bill, this seems to be possible without going through the consultation process set out in the Bill, which will apply only to new national policy statements. So a decision to promote growth in aviation could be used to promote critical decisions such as Heathrow’s third runway.

Would not it be useful to be able to cross-examine the evidence for that runway? In a debate last week, I cited Friends of the Earth’s insight that the cost of carbon in relation to the decision was three times lower than that recommended by the Stern report. It looked on the surface as though the Government were fiddling the cost of carbon to give a green light to a project that actually will help to defeat their own objectives on
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climate change. I raised that question in the debate. The Minister on that occasion chose not to answer the question, but instead to read out excerpts from Gillian Shephard’s memoirs. That demonstrates the limits of parliamentary cross-examination, but at least the current planning process does offer cross-examination rights, which can be very useful in exposing the weaknesses—especially the environmental weaknesses—in major projects. In that system, people would not get away with reading excerpts from others’ memoirs by way of an answer. Under the process described in the Bill, however, cross-examination can disappear altogether, in favour largely of a process of written submissions—and also, perhaps, of open-floor contributions, which sounds to me like a sop, in which people are entitled to stand up and say their piece but are then patted on the head, shown the door and never heard from again.

Under the Bill, the Secretary of State has other unprecedented powers, for example, the ability to designate new areas of nationally significant infrastructure without resorting to further primary legislation. The planning White Paper addressed such new areas and chapter 2 related to nationally significant infrastructure, which included:

If even recycling and housing are to come within the remit of what is nationally significant infrastructure, it might be quicker to list the things that are left out. There is also a clear temptation for the Government: where they fear political controversy, they can simply declare the issue a matter of national significance and close down key opportunities for debate and challenge.

At least the Secretary of State is elected, however. The scariest part of the Bill, which has rightly been condemned by Members of all parties—I have been encouraged by the number of Labour Members who have criticised this—is the unelected and unaccountable infrastructure planning commission. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, its powers are extensive. It can pick and choose how to apply, modify or exclude provisions in other primary legislation. The list of that primary legislation is long: it includes the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938, the Coast Protection Act 1949, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, the Harbours Act 1964, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990—indeed, the list of legislation within the reach of this essentially unaccountable body goes on and on. It can also repeal or revoke local Acts that are also, in their own way, primary legislation.

Let us consider the basis on which that drastic power can be exercised. Clause 105(6)(b) makes that clear—it is when it appears

That is not a very high test. It is also unclear whether the infrastructure planning commission will actually be accountable at all to Parliament, or even to a Minister, on individual decisions. I entirely support the earlier remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) who was concerned about the ultimate unaccountability of the body. That is an alarming prospect, and the commission should be either removed
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from the Bill altogether or reduced to the status of an advisory body to the Secretary of State.

As many Members have said, the Bill is something of an invitation to non-violent direct action, as people might feel so excluded from the process that they consider the only ethical option open to them to be to protest and have their objections heard, especially as in environmental terms the Bill also offers many grounds for concern. The Bill could lay the foundations for a hugely damaging set of policies that deserve to be thoroughly challenged, from transport strategies that could foster increasing car and plane use to a new generation of nuclear power stations that could leave a poisonous legacy to our descendents.

Organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England have pointed out further weaknesses in the detail of the Bill. The sustainability appraisals required for each national policy statement are unspecific in their quality and depth. The CPRE suggests that they should be in accordance with the EU strategic environmental assessment directive, but there is no evidence of such rigour in the Bill at present.

If all that were not concerning enough, the Bill may not even achieve the Government’s more worthy objectives. They want to speed up the planning process, but as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) eloquently said in relation to terminal 5, delays on major projects are often due to delays at ministerial level, poor developer applications or even funding issues.

The Secretary of State’s opening remarks made reference to the cost savings that the Bill is designed to achieve, but most of those are not in government. The cost savings that she identified seem to derive from shorter time scales putting a smaller burden on the private sector. Such savings do not derive from the changes in the Bill and could be achieved, for instance, by providing the Planning Inspectorate with much better resources to speed up the current process. The savings to Government will be largely offset by the costs of setting up and running the infrastructure planning commission. The Government’s impact assessment estimates those to be £5 million to set it up and £9 million a year to run it.

The Bill looks expensive, ineffective and, above all, undemocratic. Perhaps the Minister will be able to answer its final mystery. What exactly is it about the Town and Country Planning (Major Infrastructure Project Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2005 that is so inadequate? Only two years ago, the Government produced those procedures, which were supposed to strike a fair balance between a full exploration of the various issues involved and providing the necessary speed for major infrastructure projects. They allowed for cross-examination, and for it to be limited in some cases, so they went some way towards allaying the Government’s fears about the process running out of control. If the Government are to insist on forcing through this Bill, which is proving unpopular on both sides of the House, they must explain why only two years ago they got their proposals so badly wrong.

8.56 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to discuss this Bill, even at this late hour. I would have spoken earlier, but the Select Committee on
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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is still labouring on the issue of bovine TB, which is another matter that takes my interest. I hope not to go over exactly the same ground as earlier speakers.

I wish to speak about three pertinent points that are worthy of further amplification. I hope that the Minister will respond in due course and that they will be examined in Committee. I congratulate the Government on introducing a planning Bill at this stage. I know that planning Bills are not unusual, but the planning legislation needs updating. I start from the perspective of feeling that far too often the planning system is not just and not equitable. Too often, I find that constituents who do not have an effective voice are not listened to and that the developer has the whip hand, so I welcome the fact that the Bill aims to increase participation. I have some questions to ask. It was good to listen to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), my neighbour, because I share a number of his misgivings. We must widen participation and ensure that the participatory process will stand the test of time.

I want to examine participation and to say a few things about the natural environment, which is important when dealing with any planning Bill and larger infrastructure projects. Any such Bill will have implications for the natural environment. Finally, I shall briefly say some things about the impact of energy efficiency changes and renewables on households and, in particular, on listed buildings.

As I said when I intervened during the Secretary of State’s introductory remarks, I have always been convinced of the need for a process of third party rights of appeal—I make no apology for saying that. We could overcome the democratic deficit in the planning system. At the moment, people feel disempowered when planning applications are dealt with—I do not mean planning applications for loft conversions, but those that would lead to major change in an area. Too often, people are given no voice. They either join an action group, which may or may not represent their views, or they go to appeal in an attempt to mitigate the application’s worst effects, and too often they are squashed. I have been to many planning appeals, and the public are squeezed into a short time and given little help to put their case. If they are cross-examined by a barrister who is an expert in planning law, it is not a pleasant experience, because the inadequacy of their legal knowledge is easily exposed, even though the rightness of their case is clear for all to see.

I hope that we can have a proper debate and that the two Opposition parties will continue to support third-party rights of appeal. I accept that the details need to be worked out, but when it comes to large infrastructure projects it is even more important that people’s voices are heard. Such projects can result in major changes in people’s lifestyles and have a huge impact on their environment.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham also mentioned the independent infrastructure planning commission. I cannot understand why the Government are so averse to the idea that Parliament should eventually arbitrate on issues of national importance. No one expects all the 30 to 40 major projects a year to require parliamentary arbitration, but there will be some issues that deserve and should have parliamentary scrutiny. For a long time, we have scrutinised private Bills, and I like to think that Members can approach such issues independently.
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Clearly, some would have to declare an interest and could not sit on the Committee, but other parliamentarians have a role to play in considering planning applications of national importance. We are elected to fulfil that responsibility, and I find it galling that we try to find ways to give it to the great and the good. We are expected to believe that they can be objective and deliberative, but it would be even better if Parliament had the responsibility. We should be careful, because we could be bogged down by some of the larger projects, but it is an abdication of our responsibility if we do not even consider fulfilling that function.

I ask the Minister to consider whether, even at this late stage, we should have a different form of accountability than an independent commission. We have a range of them—the Monetary Policy Committee, the committee on climate change and now this one—and we will run out of experts to put on them at this rate.

I do not want to labour my second point, because I am sure that colleagues raised it earlier. In order to balance the system, under which larger projects are given permission, we should look at whether we need a national policy statement on the natural environment. Wildlife trusts have long advocated that. Areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks are already formally designated, but my wildlife trust in Gloucestershire believes that we need an appropriate set of rules to protect the landscape and to set out what development is allowed.

I have never been in favour of treating AONBs as completely sacrosanct, because that is unreasonable and leads to rural decline. Villages have always been situated in such places and people have wanted to live there to maintain the vitality of those areas. However, there must be rules so that we can make sure that the planning process is sympathetic to the natural environment and that we do not see open-cast mining or inappropriate development and so that we protect the landscape in perpetuity for all our benefits. I hope that, in so doing, we develop the idea of a national spatial framework for land use, so that we decide where, what, and to a certain extent how we are going to develop. In the areas that need to be protected, we need to be clear about the measures we can put in place to make sure that that happens.

I declare an interest in relation to my third point, because I am looking to put up solar panels. When one applies for permission, there is a lack of clarity, at least, in how local authorities interpret the planning system. Two different local authorities apparently interpret the rules in two different ways. We can overcome that and I hope that the Bill will allow us to be much more forthright in encouraging energy efficiency measures and the use of renewables to reduce the impact of climate change. It would be even better if we had the feed-in tariff system, but we will not go there at the moment.

There is one problem that continually arises in my constituency. An article a week ago last Saturday in The Guardian highlighted one of my constituent’s problems. I am talking about people who have the good fortune, I would like to think, to live in a listed property. Listed properties, by their very nature, tend to be older and more difficult to heat. They are in need of some up-rating when it comes to all the different ways in which their energy efficiency mechanisms can be improved.

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