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Further amendments have been submitted by various Opposition Members. There are amendments on whether the independent planning commission should take into account specific issues when making its decisions. There are a series of such amendments, including amendments Nos. 69, 71, 292 and 328. They would ensure that the IPC considered a list of criteria, including mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, limiting the negative impact of a development, widening the framework, looking at all relevant planning policy statements, the views of statutory environment agencies and material
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considerations. Those amendments would, in many ways, replicate the current considerations of the current town and country planning system, when the purpose of the Bill is to set up a new system of examining major national infrastructure projects. We are not seeking to replicate the existing system. This is a bold attempt to get a planning system that is fit for the 21st century, which can deal with major applications.

I say to those who tabled that block of amendments that the framework in which the infrastructure planning commission operates should be set at the national policy statement stage. That is fundamental. To add consideration after consideration—a list of criteria—would constrain the IPC. The framework in which it operates should properly be the subject of a national policy statement. I do not dismiss the amendments, but they are unnecessary.

Some amendments would make specific bodies, such as the Environment Agency, statutory consultees. The Bill provides for a range of bodies to be statutory consultees—I have no doubt that the Environment Agency will be one, but it is invidious to try to highlight only one body through an amendment. I do not believe that that would help the formulation of the proposed legislation. I am not being rude to those who tabled the amendments—I understand the point that they are trying to pursue—but I hope that I can reassure them that those planning policy considerations will be at the heart of the IPC’s framework.

The next block of amendments in the group almost proposes the necessity for a third party when consultation takes place about various proposals. It includes new clause 7 and amendments Nos. 55, 317 to 322, 326 and 65. They try to provide for mediation of and comment on consultation by a third party to assess whether it has been adequate. Again, I am worried about the proposals because the point of the consultation is that the people engaged in the debate should be responsible for it. For example, the Bill provides for a new right for people to be consulted before a proposal is made. The promoter of the proposal is responsible for ensuring that that consultation is carried out. The local authority has to determine whether it was effective, but to insert provision for a third party to mediate would get us to the point at which local people felt that they had not had a proper say because their views were being translated at second or possibly third hand. I am therefore not attracted to the amendments and ask hon. Members not to support them. They are impractical, unnecessary and inappropriate.

I am more amenable to the proposal for carrying out a diligent inquiry to assess who might be in a position to claim compensation. I am slightly more attracted to that proposal because it is important for promoters to know the range of people who might find themselves in that position. It would give promoters more certainty. I do not want to place an unreasonable burden on promoters, but I am attracted to ascertaining whether we can find a reasonable formulation of the responsibility so that there is more certainty about those who might be affected.

Sir Paul Beresford: The Secretary of State is kind to give way again. Let us go back half a step. As I understand it, the promoters consult before they submit their planning application. Who reports to the quango on the consultation—the promoter?

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Hazel Blears: Yes. The promoter would have a responsibility, but as the hon. Gentleman will realise as I deal with the heart of the Bill and the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), the role of local authorities will be significantly greater in ensuring that the IPC is fully apprised of local people’s views and the impact on the community. That is why I feel that my hon. Friend’s proposal is constructive and worth while.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I want to get the matter completely clear, because it will astound several of my constituents. Will BAA undertake the consultation on the development of a third runway at Heathrow and report truthfully and honestly to the IPC? Will the Secretary of State confirm that?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend knows that the promoter will be responsible for undertaking the consultation. That is a new opportunity for the public to be involved, which I hope that he acknowledges. That consultation will also be subject to guidance, which the Department can issue to ensure that it is conducted properly, thoroughly and rigorously and gets to the heart of the issues. Obviously, it will be subject to the IPC being satisfied, and there is also the local authority procedure. That is a pretty comprehensive belt-and-braces approach to ensuring that people have a proper say.

John McDonnell: Will my right hon. Friend just answer the specific question? Will BAA undertake the initial consultation on the third runway at Heathrow?

Hazel Blears: Yes, if it is the promoter of the scheme. Promoters have that responsibility. When I deal with the other issues and the points at which the public can be heard, I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the Bill provides much greater public consultation and involvement than the existing system.

Several hon. Members rose

Hazel Blears: May I ask hon. Members to wait a moment, because I want to deal with one more technical matter, after which we can get into public involvement and responsibility?

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Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Since the Bill’s entire philosophy is based on speeding up the planning process, will the Secretary of State jog my memory on this point? In the case of building a third runway, how long does she envisage will elapse between the promoter moving to consultation and the decision to build the additional runway?

Hazel Blears: Under current legislation, we have the precedent of the previous inquiry, which took approximately seven years to resolve. I hope that, under our new regime, the time would be much shorter, all the issues would be considered rigorously and effectively and there would be more public involvement. Those aims do not contradict one another. I do not accept that we cannot have both a quicker, more efficient system and more effective public involvement. That is what I aim to achieve, and I will deal in detail with that point shortly.

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Susan Kramer rose—

Hazel Blears: I want to press on. When I come to the heart of the matter, I am sure that the hon. Lady will have every opportunity to make her points.

I am not inclined to accept the amendments that would insert a third party into the consultation because I do not believe that it is right. However, I said that I would further consider whether there was a reasonable way in which to place a duty on promoters to implement a due diligence requirement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe has tabled new clause 39, which would retain a statutory offence against nuisance if an application goes through. I understand that that already applies for railway premises and rail network organisations. The new clause is fairly technical but nevertheless extremely useful. I read it earlier today and I believe that replicating the defence of statutory authority against nuisance claims would be useful, as the current procedures work well. Again, my hon. Friend has been constructive and practical. When I saw the title of the new clause, which deals with statutory nuisance, he did not come to mind, because he has been anything but a nuisance during the process. I am delighted to be able to support new clause 39, which helps to retain the defence against statutory nuisance in our system.

Let me turn to the large number of amendments that broadly seek to make the independent planning commission a recommending body, with decisions taken by the Secretary of State rather than an independent decision-making body, and to the other set of amendments, which would require that the Secretary of State confirm the decisions of the IPC. In many ways, those are two different formulations of the same thing. Indeed, I have been struggling to think how those two propositions are markedly different.

Amendment No. 5 would amend clause 1 to make the purpose of the independent planning commission advisory only. Amendments Nos. 6 to 51 and 60 to 64 go right the way through the Bill, either amending the relevant clauses so that the role of the IPC is to advise the Secretary of State in determining applications or replacing the IPC with the Secretary of State in those clauses that confer or refer to decision-making powers. The purpose of those amendments is to change the fundamental principle throughout the Bill that the IPC is the independent decision-making body.

The second set of amendments, which are amendments Nos. 68 and 339, seeks to ensure that the decisions of the IPC are subject to confirmation and provides a period of up to six months in which the Secretary of State has the right to make that decision.

Let me deal with those two blocks of amendments before turning to the third block, which is slightly different and provides that if the panel or the council proposes to make an order that would modify or exclude legislation, which is an important issue, that order would be subject to special parliamentary procedures. In effect, those procedures would mean that the decision would return to the Secretary of State, subject to approval by Parliament, rather than being taken by the IPC. All those areas are interrelated and interconnected, and I propose to deal with them in that way.

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Let me start with the amendments that seek to turn the IPC into a recommending body. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government explained when he gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee—it seems a long time ago now—we see three main benefits to setting up an independent body to consider nationally significant infrastructure projects and giving it the power to make the decisions. The first of those benefits is speed and efficiency, to which the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has referred. We think that our proposal will mean that decisions are made more quickly.

Currently, decisions are made and examined by the Planning Inspectorate, and are often subject to inquiry and then decided on by Ministers. [ Interruption. ] Excuse me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am talking rather too quickly and rather too loud, so I will just take a breath. The current position means that, sequentially, there are basically two processes, with two separate bodies going over the same ground. With some decisions, the proposals can involve more than one Minister, from more than one Department. That adds complexity and potential delay.

Every hon. Member who has spoken, including Opposition Members, has acknowledged that our current system takes too long, is immensely costly and is in many cases almost impenetrable to members of the public. There is a lack of transparency and clarity, and there is a recognition throughout the House that things have to change. As the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said earlier, the system is not working, and therefore needs to be brought up to date and made fit for the modern world in which we live. The proposals that we have made will help us to do just that.

We can improve speed and efficiency without sacrificing democracy and local involvement, and I am sure that this debate will explore those issues. However, it is unacceptable that, for example, the upgrade to the North Yorkshire power grid took just over six years and that, on average, wind farm applications take more than two years. In fact, wind farm applications totalling more than 1,400 MW are stuck in the system. Some 500 MW of that capacity would fall to the independent planning commission and would, I understand, be enough to power 1 million homes. All those applications are clogged up and snarled up in a fairly antiquated system that cannot process them.

I am genuinely concerned that the decisions that need to be taken in the long-term interests not just of the economy but of the environment will continually be frustrated unless we make some fairly bold and radical changes to our existing planning system.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I am interested in the Secretary of State’s terminology in respect of processing applications. I am concerned that it tends to imply that we want things decided without communities having the chance to oppose them effectively, that the Government see such projects as things that must happen and that the IPC will therefore be given a fairly firm steer that it needs to get through them quickly. I am talking not so much about what she said about a
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deliberative process; rather, the important thing is not just that decisions are taken quickly and that the process is effective, which I accept, but that they are right.

Hazel Blears: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and I agree about that. Speed and efficiency are important, but they are not the only considerations. Decisions must be properly explored; they need to be effective and to command support because they have been subjected to testing and a proper rigorous examination. I entirely agree, but there is no getting away from the fact that over the next 10 or 20 years, we are going to have to renew a third of our energy-generating capacity in this country and we will need a diverse energy policy that seeks to get the benefits from more than just gas, where we are now becoming a net importer rather than exporter. The people of this country do not want to have to rely simply on importing gas from a range of other countries, which would then be in a very powerful position over us. That is why they want a diverse energy policy. The people of this country also recognise that in terms of aviation, any decisions are controversial, but they also recognise that we need aviation and that we need the employment that goes with the development of our airport capacity. These are big and difficult decisions, but there is no shying away from them.

I have to say that what sometimes worries me is that people are prepared to will the ends—we all say we want better decisions, more flexibility, speed and efficiency—but they are not prepared to will the means to get there. That requires being prepared to take some tough decisions in the interests of our country’s long-term prosperity. That is the real political test for the Opposition parties, and at the moment, they are in danger of failing it.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I understand the logic of the Secretary of State’s remarks about the national picture, but does she not share my concern and that of many people out there about clause 13? It deals with 15 potential large-scale developments, all of which are, under the old terminology, “bad neighbour applications” that would necessarily attract the most adverse criticism from and cause the most worry to the public?

Hazel Blears: That is absolutely why we should have a national debate on what the country needs, which will take place around the national policy statement. It is why the public and Parliament should be involved and why Select Committees now have wide-ranging scrutiny powers over the national policy statement. It is why we have a debate in this House and in the other place and why a Minister has to have regard to all of that consultation and discussion before coming back with a designated national policy statement. That is a key crunch point for the Bill.

I absolutely believe that politicians need to be able to argue their case to say what they think is in the best long-term interests of this country and to have that subjected to scrutiny and challenge in a democratic system. I fundamentally believe that identifying those interests up front in the national policy statement, set against the framework of the independent commission, provides a far more transparent degree of accountability than leaving Ministers to wait until the very end of the
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process, when they then have to seek to intervene. That is far less effective and less transparent than what is proposed.

Mr. Curry: The right hon. Lady accepts the inconvenience of living in a democracy. However much people might subscribe to the need to do something in the national interest, the fact remains that in moving from the principle to the specifics, they might well decide that they do not want something on the basis of their own interest—and they are entirely right to do so. If the national interest is to be overriding, what is the purpose of the consultation? However well handled, transparent and honest the consultation by an undertaker, in how many circumstances does the Secretary of State think it will be overturned in practice because the locals do not like something, even though the national interest determines that they should be for it?

Hazel Blears: I think the right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that I have never regarded democracy as an inconvenience. I regard it as an absolutely vital and fundamental building block of our society. That is why I have stood for office both locally and nationally. I think it is incumbent on politicians to be prepared to make the argument. Sometimes it is not popular, but sometimes we have to do things that cause a great deal of distress and concern to people, because we also must think about balancing the interests of the locality with the national interest. In many ways, that is the job that we are all sent here to do. That is why I absolutely believe that the national policy statement stage, which will be open and transparent for the first time, will provide people with the opportunity to have a say about the country’s needs for aviation, nuclear power and other controversial issues.

I am conscious of the need to balance the different interests, but also of the need to take a decision, so I should like to highlight those areas where I hope to provide further safeguards in the system. That said, we can balance the interests and sit on the fence for ever, but at the end of the day, decisions need to be made.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): In replying to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), my right hon. Friend rightly identified the importance of a democratic response. Will she also recognise that there can be tension between a nationally expressed democratic view and a local democratic view? Renewable energy and the promotion of wind farms provide a perfect example. There is overwhelming national support for more effort to extend renewables, but we have found through hard experience that it is extremely difficult to obtain local consent for the installation of wind farms in many parts of the country. It is precisely because of the need for the wider national view to be taken into account, and not always to be subordinate to interests that can often be hostile for local and parochial reasons, that the framework in the Bill is so necessary.

3.30 pm

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