Hazel Blears: I am very conscious of the amount of time that we have to debate the range of amendments to which you refer, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to concentrate largely on the areas that Members are most exercised about. Members are concerned about three main issues: first, the principle of independent decision making, which, as they have said, goes right to the heart of the Bill; secondly, what happens at the examination stage and the publics right to be heard, not only at that stage but under the rest of the Billpublic consultation and the right to be heard is absolutely centraland, thirdly, the impact on the local community of decisions on major national significant infrastructure projects, which is the aspect that Members have expressed most concern to me about. We should make those three areas the principal focus of our debate, and I intend to do that.
The amendments fall broadly into nine blocks. If Members will bear with me, I propose to deal briefly with the Government amendments, which fall into blocks 1, 2 and 3. The issues at the heart of the Bill are dealt with in blocks 4, 5 and 6, and then we have some Opposition amendments towards the end. If I refer to minor issues, I do not mean to denigrate them, but they may not be at the centre of peoples concerns.
The Government amendments deal broadly with changes to procedure relating to ministerial intervention. Contrary to some of the views that have been expressed, there is
provision for ministerial intervention in certain narrowly defined circumstances, one of which relates to national security and defence. A series of Government amendments seek to prescribe a procedure where intervention takes place on the basis of national security or defence issues. They relate primarily to being able to take evidence in a particular way because it might involve sensitive matters, in order to ensure that if there are hearings in private the interests of people who might be affected are protected by special procedures. In many ways, the procedures mirror those that we have in criminal law and civil law where issues of national security are touched on and there is a need to protect the sensitivity of the information.
That is the broad thrust of that group of amendments, and I hope that they are agreed to. There are provisions for the Attorney-General to appoint people to protect intereststhat sort of thingand they are in the interests of good government.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): One of the causes of concern is whether the legislation was put together in a hurry, and although we welcome the points that the Secretary of State has just made, how was it possible to introduce legislation without such vital elements already in place? Why was there so little understanding, and why was the legislation not fully thought through?
Hazel Blears: I refute entirely the idea that the legislation was brought forward in a hurry. We had a White Paper and a lengthy period of public consultation. We responded in great detail to that consultation, and as hon. Members would acknowledge, the Bill was significantly different from some of the proposals in the White Paper as a result of our listening and responding to peoples concerns. Equally, if we have process issues that can help to refine the procedures in the Bill, it is right to bring them forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that these are matters of process, not principle. The issues were already in the Bill; the proposals simply concern how we are going to put it into practice, so I hope that they find favour across the House.
The second block of amendments also deals with process issues. The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 contains provisions that set out that development is deemed to have commenced if developers take certain steps. In the case of major infrastructure projects, it is more difficult to delineate the point at which we trigger the commencement of development. Therefore, we want to introduce a set of criteria that will set out what actions do not trigger the commencement of development, so we can give a bit more certainty in that area. Those issues have been raised many times by developers who are not sure when taking preparatory steps whether they are commencing their planning permission or not. That set of amendments is broadly sensible, and I hope that they are supported across the House.
Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that open-cast coal operators will not be allowed to circumvent the current planning system by referring new applications directly to the new planning commission, citing the national interest?
Hazel Blears: I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that assurance. Clause 13 sets out in great detail the areas that are subject to the process of national policy statements, which involves the jurisdiction of the national planning commission, and he will find that open-cast coal mining is not one of the areas set out in the clause. Therefore, it would not fall under the jurisdiction of the Bill. I am delighted to give my hon. Friend and his colleagues that reassurance.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is well aware that between the Birkenhead and Wallasey constituencies, Peel Holdings wishes to create over time what is, in effect, a new town. Will she give me an undertaking that that terrific development, which has huge significance for Merseyside, but may not rate as a national event, will be covered by the current planning procedures and not the new ones?
Hazel Blears: I am delighted to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. I have visited the area, and I have gained a little understanding of the exciting vision for the community. That project would not fall under clause 13, which deals with energy, wind, water and waste waterthat sort of big infrastructure project. The sort of project he mentioned would be dealt with by the existing system, and I am delighted to give him that reassurance.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What is the position regarding the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste? I understand that we had a paper on that matter a week or two ago, but the Government have not quite made up their mind on it.
Hazel Blears: I understand that that issue is still being considered by the special committee established to deal specifically with it. It is a matter of national importance, and getting those decisions right will be fundamental.
the construction of a pipe-line.
If the Secretary of State talked about that a tiny bit, I would be grateful. Some long and important pipelines have gone through my constituency quite easily, but a very short gas pipeline that is about to be dealt with under the procedures goes through several beautiful areas in my constituency. It is a tiny matter in many ways, but it is emotionally important. Would that matter be taken away from the local authority?
Clearly, there are issues involving the distribution network for gas and electricity. Some of the pipelines and distribution mechanisms may be small in themselves, but fundamental to a major application. Discussions are ongoing about ensuring that we get the threshold right. This Bill, this structure and this procedure deal with major national projects, but there is also the need for a single consent regime. That is a big prize of
this Billwe do not want decisions to be taken under different regimes when they comprise parts of the same project. If the hon. Gentleman wants further detail on that, I would be delighted to write to him.
As the details of the Bill have emerged, a large number of my constituents have become concerned that it is not only the expansion of runways at Heathrow that will be covered by the new procedure, but changes to the pattern of operations and the ending of runway alternation. Will the right hon. Lady give us some clarification on that issue, because it is causing a great deal of disquiet?
Hazel Blears: As I said to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), the purpose of the Bill is to ensure a single consent regime for major infrastructure projects. We will come to other powers of the independent planning commission when we discuss some of the amendments. We want to ensure that in the field of aviation, for example, there is a clear exposition of national policy in the national policy statement. Individual applications will then be dealt with by the independent planning commission. Clearly, it is a matter of assessing the national need and then looking at the detail of individual applications. If the hon. Lady has concerns on a specific issue, I shall write to her with further details, and I am more than happy to do so.
The second block of amendments, which I shall mention quickly, deals with where we trigger development, and ensure that the lines concerning such triggering are appropriate. Again, I hope that the amendments will have the support of the House. There is a third block of amendments dealing with cases in which different terms of consent might be granted to the original application. Members have expressed the concern that, if in the process of considering an application, some detail turns out to be slightly different from what was originally intended, there should be a notification procedure to ensure that people are aware of it. That is entirely proper because the whole point of the process is that there is a dialogue. There should be interaction, and the ability to dig into issues to get the right result. It is absolutely appropriate that people should be notified, and, again, I hope that the amendments find favour. Hopefully, those non-controversial amendments will lead us to discussions on amendments that will not find universal consensus.