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10 Dec 2007 : Column 111

The problem with a listed building is that there is in effect a conflict. People might seek permission under the planning system to make a change and the Bill might enable us to cut through some of the current difficulties in giving permission. That would seem welcome. The problem is that people will then come up against the rules of English Heritage through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—another Department—which will say, “This will damage the intrinsic quality of the building.” Of course, there are extremes and there are buildings that would not be suitable for adaptation, but there are many ways in which buildings can be adapted. If that is done through the sensitive use of the planning system, it is about time we found the wherewithal to achieve that.

Too often, we end up with ludicrous situations. For example, one of my constituents put up some solar panels about four years ago, albeit perhaps incorrectly. However, the planning enforcers have suddenly decided that that is outwith what is expected for listed buildings, so they are trying to persuade him—in the nicest possible way—to remove the panels. That is being replicated throughout the country and there is a growing problem. I hope that we can use the Bill to sort out the contradictory state of affairs whereby we encourage people to make their buildings more energy efficient, yet conservation measures make that more difficult. I hope that we can get some satisfaction and assist my constituents.

9.10 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I declare an interest, given that the regional development agencies have been mentioned: my husband is the deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency— [ Interruption. ] He is working hard to ensure that not too much socialist legislation gets through.

We have had a very good debate. The number of people in the Chamber is no reflection of the quality of the contributions that we have heard, and I congratulate everyone who took part. I especially congratulate the last two contributors on their speedy thinking processes. However, I do not think that we have heard one single contribution that has given wholehearted support to the Bill. I thought that it might be easier if we tried to decide what we could agree on before moving on to the difficulties with the Bill that many hon. Members have raised, and the aspects of the Bill on which we will need answers from the Government so that we can give it proper and due thought.

I hope we can agree that the planning system is generally regarded as both slow and expensive. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made an excellent and understanding speech in which we heard about the horrors of the T5 inquiry. Yes, the situation was made worse by the fact that the applicants were not as organised as they should have been. The process was described as like watching paint dry, and we must remember that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, added a whole year to the planning inquiry’s length because he declared halfway through it that no more motorways would be approved, and of course T5 depended
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on a motorway. However, we cannot hand out plaudits or blame for the situation to any one party.

The idea of the national planning statement is thus broadly welcomed across the spectrum, as is the reform of section 106, which, as many hon. Members have said, is contributing to several delays in the planning system. Local planning gains from development need to be more transparent. It is encouraging that the Bill insists that developers should consult before application. As several hon. Members have said, a problem comes when consultation does not necessarily mean that there is negotiation and the resolution of problems. A consultation is just about as good as the responses that come back. We would prefer developments to be amended as a result of consultation before an application. Much of a single development consent regime is to be recommended, and I do not think that that issue has been raised by anyone else.

A number of hon. Members talked about permitted development rights. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) mentioned that there are ways, other than through permitted development rights, in which we could achieve the same result of reducing the work load of local planning departments. That would give them more time to enforce planning approvals that have been given, and to work with local communities on local approved developments that people want.

However—there is always a “however” or a “but”—as practically everybody has mentioned, we have serious concerns about the creation of the infrastructure planning commission. First, it has been tried before. Those with long memories may remember the Secretary of State mentioning an earlier planning Act this afternoon. In the Town and Country Planning Act 1968, there was a similar provision, but the then right hon. Member for Stepney, Peter Shore, scuppered it when he pointed out that it would not work because of the lack of local input. That sounds familiar. The idea was tried again in 1990 but the measure was never used. The idea of an independent commission that considers major infrastructure developments is not new, but it has never been made to work.

Many Members are concerned that the proposed commission is a classic move on the part of the Government: they want to abrogate responsibility and accountability for their actions. In this case, they are shoving off their decision-making powers for large projects to the commission, an unelected body whose members are beholden to those who appoint them, and from whom they seek reappointment—that is, Ministers. That hardly makes them independent. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said, they are placemen. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) analysed the problem effectively and in great detail.

Who will the commissioners be? We have had suggestions today, but the Government have a little list. In addition, we know that the CBI wants commissioners to have legal, environmental or planning experience, or possibly all three. The Local Government Association wants people who have political and managerial experience in local government, which is understandable. The Planning Disaster coalition wants environmentalists, and the railways want railway engineers. According to a memo leaked to the Financial Times, the Secretary of State for Business,
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Enterprise and Regulatory Reform wants nuclear engineers among the commissioners. If I were a member of the Planning Inspectorate, I would not be happy that all my years of experience were not valued. Where do they come into the new system?

How many commissioners will we need? My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) analysed the issue and pointed out that the Government are planning to have 30 commissioners. Interestingly, according to the Government’s White Paper, they expected only five to 10 projects a year. During the summer, it emerged that perhaps they should revise their figures upwards to about 30 projects, and today the Secretary of State said that the figure was 45. I am not a mathematician, but if there is an average of three commissioners on each of those 45 inquiries, 135 commissioners will be required. There is a time limit of, I think, eight months, which is two thirds of a year. Two thirds of 135 is roughly 85. The figures on the number of commissioners that we need and their cost are already way out of line with the Government’s original cost proposals.

Mr. Prisk: I am sorry to stop my hon. Friend mid-flow, but I am intrigued. During the debate, it has emerged that the narrowness of the expertise required to develop the national policy statement and then reach a commission decision on, say, airport development will mean appointing the kind of people of whom there may be not very many and who will already have been involved in that area as experts—in other words, they will have conflicts of interest. Does my hon. Friend agree that it will be difficult for Ministers to find an independent person with the expertise required who has no conflicts of interest?

Mrs. Lait: My hon. Friend is exactly right. That problem emerged in relation to the committee on casinos, which is an example of the difficulty that the Government will face in finding these commissioners.

The Government say that they are expecting 45 infrastructure projects. The CBI tells us that 56 wind farm projects have been held up for more than two years. Today, we had an announcement on offshore wind farms. Will they benefit from the Bill—if so, there is already a delay because the Government will not be able to bring the legislation into force until 2009—or will they go through the planning delivery agreements system set out in 2005? The CBI wants aviation infrastructure to be based on air traffic movements, not passenger numbers, so that freight movements can be included, which would increase the number of inquiries. It also believes that port thresholds should be halved and wants quarrying included. London First wants commercial developments and train stations included—I have 13 local train stations; I cannot imagine that it seriously wants them all to be up before the commission—as well as eco-towns and large housing developments. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors believes that flood defences should be included. I could go on. How many inquiries do we really want, and how many do we think that the commission will face?

The commission is expected to operate under a paper-based system of inquiry. We believe that the local people who will be affected should have the unfettered right to be heard. The Government challenge that at
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their peril, as we have heard from many Members on both sides of the House. I am not entirely certain, although perhaps I should not cast this aspersion, that Ministers have read clauses 82 to 85 together, because between them they take away the right to a hearing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said, that right is based on mediaeval law and includes cross-examination. Are this Government—a Labour Government—truly throwing away one of the most basic rights of the British people: the right to be heard? Despite the fact that the Secretary of State has avowed that the Bill does not contravene the Human Rights Act 1998, the right to be heard is enshrined in article 6 of the European convention on human rights, and I suggest that legal challenges will be forthcoming if the Bill is enacted in its current form.

Why are the Government ignoring the 2005 pilots under the planning delivery agreements system? They have not yet been evaluated, but seem to have worked very well in the application for the business park at Bowburn, County Durham. Why are the Government not building on that?

On national planning statements, we agree that the principle is sensible, but we must ask how prescriptive they are going to be. Will they merely be statements of principle or will they define locations? My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made absolutely clear the difficulties that there could be if locations are not included. Others have instanced the Association of National Park Authorities, which believes that other alternatives to major developments should be included in the strategies. I guess that the Government would reject that proposal, but it shows how complex the process would be, as pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms).

The Government talk about due regard to sustainability. Environmental groups are concerned that that proposal should be stronger, and the Planning Disaster coalition believes that there should be an environmental NPS. What will the process be in this House? We are faced with the idea that there should be a new Select Committee, but that that Committee should not include the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department responsible for planning. So how will that Department be involved? I also suggest a quick word with the Government’s Chief Whip who, as I understand it, is having extreme difficulty finding Members to sit on the regional Select Committees that are already proposed.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I apologise to the House for not being here for the rest of the debate; my Committee was sitting for much of the earlier part of it. My hon. Friend raises an important point about the proposed new Select Committee, which was not drawn to the attention of the existing Committees from which its members will be taken. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will clarify exactly what role the new Committee will play, and that he will undertake to consult the existing Chairmen of the Select Committees from which its members shall be drawn on exactly how it will do its work, because we currently know nothing about what is proposed.

Mrs. Lait: My hon. Friend points out succinctly many of the problems present in the Bill, of which the issue of Select Committees is just one.

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We hope that the Government can come up with a successful and acceptable process through which Parliament can be involved, but we have to ensure, as we have said all the way through, that local people can make their points of view known to the Committees. It is pretty daunting, as well as expensive, to come to Parliament, but it can be a question of someone’s whole life. Will they have the right to be heard properly, or just the opportunity to write in with their evidence? The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) described that proposal as vague.

I thought that the single development consent regime was one of the more sensible suggestions, but I have a question about it. Under the Bill, the single consent regime will work in parallel with the other legislation. The Government are not proposing to repeal the elements of planning within other pieces of legislation. Why not? Why will there be a parallel regime that could undermine and subvert what the Government are trying to do?

Many hon. Members have mentioned the proposal that current planning strategies, such as that on air transport, should become a new NPS without any further debate. The point has been made regularly that as it stands, the air transport strategy does not meet the requirements of the strategic environment assessment or the habitats directive. If that is what the Government propose to do, legal challenges will surely follow.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) mention cross-border infrastructure. Either the Government are trying quietly to cede their reserved power over energy to Scotland and Wales, or they have not realised the impact of what they are doing.

Finally, strategies need to be continually updated. Many hon. Members have talked about climate change. Everybody will know how speedily the technology dealing with climate change and energy production is changing. If strategies are set in stone, the Government will have to revise them when a new proposal using a new technology is introduced. I hope that when we get to Committee, we will agree to continuous updating of those strategies.

Mr. Syms: The Bill states that the strategy has to be updated, but there is clearly a problem. If a strategy is updated too rapidly, it undermines the planning system. There needs to be a timetable for when it is reviewed. I understand that the Government have not yet published that. Should they do that before the Bill progresses so that we know exactly what we are dealing with?

Mrs. Lait: My hon. Friend points out yet again the inadequacies of the Bill and the lack of forethought that has gone into it.

The community infrastructure levy is another of those inadequacies. There is general agreement that it is a sensible way to reform section 106 and it is based on the tariff system as developed in Milton Keynes. The proposal was, I am told, worked out by the private sector and local government and the Government have promised to consult on it. We were interested to learn that there was an idea that while we were in Committee the clauses on its implementation should be introduced. Today, we learn that we will get regulations. I am not at
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all surprised given that the consultation on the implementation of the levy has either, by coincidence, gone out only today or has not yet gone out.

I am not entirely clear about how the Committee is meant to discuss such a fundamental change to the planning laws. We will work hard to ensure that we get much more detail on how the system will work. The levy replaces the planning gain supplement, which will not be repealed. Could it be that the Prime Minister still prefers the planning gain supplement?

Mr. Raynsford rose—

Mrs. Lait: I wish the right hon. Gentleman had got to his feet earlier, but I have an eye to time. If he cares to join the Committee, we will be delighted to have a debate with him.

The structure of the levy needs to be flexible. The value of land with planning permission in my borough of Bromley is very different from that in Newcastle upon Tyne or East Anglia. Lack of flexibility will stop development if the tariff works against common sense. Who gets the money? We believe that it should be kept local; so does practically everybody else who has spoken in the debate. It should not be taken and used by the regional assemblies or regional development agencies. If the regional development agencies can raise money through the CIL, it will give power to an unaccountable, unelected body to raise taxation—the first time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said earlier, that such an attempt has been made since Hampden and Pym fought against the King over ship money. Are the Labour Government seriously giving away a basic right of the British people? [ Interruption. ] No, that was a hybrid Bill. When the Minister leaves the House today and walks out through St. Stephen’s—the ancient seat of the Chamber of the House of Commons—the shades of Hampden and Pym will go with him.

This is a Bill of shreds and patches. It shreds long-held rights of the British people and tries to patch up some of the holes in the planning system. However, by the nature of its bureaucratic and top-down approach, it is in danger of losing the trust of the British people.

It is typical of the Government. They want to be seen to do something—anything. They find it easier and showier to get a Bill through Parliament than to undertake the slow and unheroic grind of making a planning system that was admired throughout the world work properly again. The Bill will be open to legal challenge and delay. It does not solve the problem but creates more holes. I support the amendment.

9.34 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), although the last two minutes of her speech were entirely disconnected from the preceding 21 minutes. Perhaps a combination of drafters were at work. Nevertheless, I welcome her contribution and the 21 others. We have held the fullest possible debate in the time available. That is only proper for such a significant Bill. We have heard some expert and experienced views from both sides of the House, and I hope that we can tempt some of the hon. Members who expressed them on to the Committee so that we can continue our well-informed debate.

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Along with the Climate Change Bill, the energy Bill and the Housing and Regeneration Bill, the Planning Bill will help equip the country to face some of the major challenges of today and the coming decades. We need a system that will help us as a country tackle such major challenges as how we do more than our share to deal with climate change; how we ensure a secure, sustainable and clean water supply and a clean and secure energy supply for the long term; and how we maintain and develop a national and indeed international transport system that meets the demands of the future.

How do we take on the economic competition that is intensifying from other countries? In doing that, how do we strike the right balance between the social, environmental and economic interests that inevitably play a part? That balance is central to a sound planning system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who are all former Ministers with great experience in the subject, recognised that that is a fact of planning life and that, in the end, national interests are more than simply the sum of local interests, important though they are.

Let me deal with the point made by the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar—

Mr. Pickles: Just “hon. Member”.

John Healey: Surely it is only a matter of time before the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) becomes right honourable. I understand that he has not been well and I am sorry about that, but his heart was not really in it this afternoon. He gave strong support to the national policy statement system, which he described as a good innovation. He supported reforming the section 106 system. Like the hon. Member for Beckenham, whose speech was, until the last two minutes, measured and reflective—I look forward to continuing the debate with her—the hon. Gentleman said that he would not oppose the Bill outright. He and the hon. Lady said that they wanted to work constructively with us. They both said that they wanted to try to reach a consensus on the Bill. The logic of their position is that they will not oppose Second Reading. We look forward to that.

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