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First, I have heard the words business and certainty mentioned all the way through these debates, and I believe that my amendment, unlike the Governments confused amendments and explanations of the Bill, gives business the certainty that it requires in promoting big infrastructure investments. As has been pointed out, the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe will create great uncertainty. In two years time, a review will be conducted, so perhaps the whole system will change. The Secretary of State
listed all the criteria whereby Ministers may take decisions under the proposed system. On Newsnight last night, the BBCs political correspondent suggested that decisions on all nuclear power stations, for example, could be considered under the national security criteria. Massive confusion is being created, whereas my amendment, specifying a definite six-month period for Ministers to take decisions, would be welcomed by many businesses. When I rang many business people this morning, I found that they were alarmed by the confusion apparent in the Governments proposals.
Secondly, there is the issue of democracy and ministerial accountability. As my right hon. Friend suggests, tough and controversial decisions are being made. It is all the more important for such decisions to have, and be seen to have, democratic legitimacy if there is not to be a series of protests up and down the country that would slow down the vital national infrastructure projects to which the Government are referring.
I have reviewed the morning newspapersjust for myself; I was not invited to do so on any radio or television programmes, mores the pityand it is clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no support. Every leader writer in every newspaper, from the Morning Star to the Financial Times, was against her this morning. The Guardian said that the final call should be taken by a Minister. The Financial Times said
Ministers cannot duck having the final say.
It is interesting to note that some of the bodies that the Secretary of State is calling in aid are beginning to evaporate, or are becoming a bit flaky. John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said on Radio 5 Live this morning that he thought it might be quite a good idea to have a vote in Parliament on the national policy statements. If only we had known that two weeks ago! I was persuaded to abstain, such is my loyalty to the Government, but had I known that the CBI thought that it was a good idea, I would have changed my mind.
The Town and Country Planning Association has also issued a statement. It is not just the Minister who receives last-minute statements, by the way: they come to Back Benchers as well. The association has told us that it
believes that the use of land is justifiably a political as well as a technical question and therefore that ultimately accountability must lie with elected Ministers.
I read all the pamphlets written by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I take them on holiday and analyse them. She is very strong on democracy. She has brought a great many focus groups to the country, along with a great many scrutiny committees and a great deal of consultation. However, she needs to firm up a little on votes, ministerial accountability, the need for people to stand up and be counted, and the need for others to be able to criticise them for vital decisions, whether on nuclear power stations or airports.
The cult of experts has its limits. Everyone mentions the Monetary Policy Committee, but it has a pretty narrow remitmoney supply. We could mention the
committee that chooses the sites for super-casinos, perhaps a less happy experience for the Government. The Government pray in aid the Competition Commission, which, interestingly, has dispensed with all public interest decisions, rightly confining itself to decisions on technical economic matters relating to competition.
That brings me to the phrase quasi-judicial. It is said that Ministers merely make quasi-judicial decisions, and are very constrained. As other Members have pointed out, there is a public interest element here. That is why an average of 20 applications a year are turned down: 20 times a year the Government do not approve the recommendations of the Planning Inspectorate. A couple of applications in recent years have been the type that we are discussing today. One was for a gas storage plant, and the other involved a port. On occasion the public interest is weighed up, and Ministers find the experts wanting.
Let us examine what our great judges have said about the matter. I am sure that, as a lawyer, my right hon. Friend will be well aware of the judgment in R (on the application of Alconbury) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (2001 UKHL 23). Lord Nolan said:
In the relatively small and populous island which we occupy, the decisions made by the Secretary of State will often have acute social, economic and environmental implications. A degree of central control is essential to the orderly use and development of town and country. Parliament has entrusted the requisite degree of control to the Secretary of State, and it is to Parliament which he
must account for his exercise of it. To substitute for the Secretary of State an independent and impartial body with no central electoral accountability would not only be a recipe for chaos: it would be profoundly undemocratic.
When my right hon. Friend delayed tonights vote for two weeks of intensive discussionsI am very disappointed, incidentally, that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe did not invite me to meet the Prime Minister on Monday evening; I missed out on thatshe said that she wanted the decision to be made in the House of Commons. I am sure that it is just happy coincidence that there is a by-election in Henley tomorrow and some Members will not be here to take part in tonights vote, but I hope that the right decision will be made in another place. It is interesting that Sir Jeremy Beecham, the Labour leader on the Local Government Associationand another man who has written to us at the last minutesays his group profoundly disagrees with some aspects of the IPC, but that it wants to sort it out in the Lords. We in this House should make a clear statement tonight that we are not happy on the grounds of certainty for business and of democracy. I shall ask for permission to press to a vote amendment No. 339, and also amendment No. 66, which I have not had a chance to talk about. This House should stand up and be counted tonight.
We should be grateful to the Secretary of State for coming before the House to argue her case, and she has done so with her usual enthusiasm and consideration. There were times, however, when she reminded me somewhat of Napoleon. Her categorical assertion of the primacy of the national interest, which must override any other consideration, was very powerfully put, and in many ways she is right, in that the issues we
face call for bold decision making. The question is how we reconcile the need to take decisions in the national interest with the requirement that ownership should be felt at the level of those people who will pay the price, because in all planning decisions some people pay the bills and others reap the benefits. We must find a way of reconciling that, and find a process that people feel is reasonable.
A lot will depend on how the mechanism the Secretary of State has outlined will work in practice. It will be up to this House and its Committees to get hold of this mechanism by a prominent part of the anatomy and shake it, and to assert from the very beginning that it intends to play a major role and to call to account in practice, and not just theoretically. We talk a great deal about accountability; we sometimes fail in our own duties to assert it, but we have the power to do so.
One of my concerns is that we will have yet another quango. It is a curious fact that in England and Wales more people serve on quangos than serve as elected councillors. The quangocracy has taken over from the democracy to a significant extent in our life. The Government have been prolific in creating quangos, and here is yet another very important one.
Planning is an intensely political activity. People sometimes blithely say, Politicians interfere in the planning process, as if planning were some eternal, infernal or esoteric machine that ought not to be interfered upon by the sort of people who get themselves elected and stoop to that rather dismal task. It is intensely political; it is about mediationabout mediating between individuals. That is what happens when someone wants to build a conservatory or plant a leylandii hedge. It is about mediating between the individual and the community, and between the community and the nation. Planning decisions can overturn peoples lives, not merely the value of their properties. The amenities people enjoy shape their lives fundamentally. It is important that their voice is heard, and that they should feel it is heard. It is easy for us to say, We have provided a lot of consultation, but if people do not feel it is realif they feel it is a formal mechanism that sweeps them up but that nobody listensthey will be seriously disaffected by the entire process.
Therefore, this is about people, not stakeholders. There must be clear lines of accountability, because at the end of the day the public have to be able to kick somebody, and they have to be able to kick somebody who feels the pain. On the whole, quangos do not feel the pain, so the kicking can be futile. Politicians do feel the pain, however, for the obvious reason that from time to time that pain can have fairly cataclysmic results for us. It is a mistake to talk about a policy of principle as being the same as the acceptance of the conclusions to that in the specific.
We do not yet know much about the commission. During the progress of the Housing and Regeneration Bill the name of the new boss was announced at a very early stage, but its passage was rather more rapid than that of this Bill; this has been the most stuttering Bill I can remember in a long time. There has been a huge gap between when it came out of Committee and the first attempt at the Report stage, and then a huge gap before the second attempt at the Report stage. It almost has the feel of being fatally wounded before it gets anywhere near the completion of its passage. Personally, if we are to have this body, I would rather that it had independent
people with analytical skills on it than make an attempt to represent every single interest group. I hope that we will never hear the word stakeholders used in reference to the people manning the committee. That would be entirely the wrong approach.
The Secretary of State made two specific concessions. First, she talked about nuclear and airport decisions being locationally specific. However, she talked in terms of having a shortlist of placesareas that might be eligible and areas that would not be. I just want to know how specific the location will be, because that was not clear from her remarks. I cannot conceive, for example, that a decision to build a new runway should not be one for the Cabinet to make. Given its huge implications, such a decision should not be taken any lower than Cabinet level. Secondly, the Secretary of State mentioned the review after two years. I am glad about that, but I wonder just how many cases the commission will have adjudicated on by 3 June 2010.
We all want more speed in the planning process, but I wonder whether the Bill will improve matters. From the promoters pre-application consultation process, by the time an application has worked through the system, with all the opportunities for judicial review, I wonder whether we will have done anything more than introduce a system that will take just as long but has had some of the democratic accountabilityon which people depend to a significant extentremoved, in an area on which people are pretty disaffected already.
Mr. Truswell: I speak in support of amendment No. 66, which I tabled. On Second Reading, I said that I would subject the Bill to a simple test: if my constituents face a major infrastructure planning application, how far would the process allow them to play a significant role in the decision on it. The process by which the IPC will undertake inquiries is grossly inferior to the current system. The measures proposed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would have been a magnificent addition to what already exists: they are not a substitute for it.
Removing the right of interested parties to test the evidence through cross-examination is a retrograde step. The other proposals in the Bill, such as the open floor session, do not compensate for the removal of the essential right to cross-examine. The open floor session does not include a right to ask questions, to produce witnesses or more formally cross-examine the applicant. It downgrades the right to be heard to little more than a right to sound off. Communities will not be satisfied with the limitations of the measure and the result may be more direct action, as we have seen in the past, or judicial review.
The Bill provides opportunity for pre-application consultation that does not exist in the current system, but my experienceand that of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait)is that such consultation is largely meaningless, because it is organised by the developer, who is not an independent arbiter of such matters. To be credible, consultation should and must be organised by publicly accountable bodies with a transparent process.
Despite all the research that I have done, there is little evidence that the present opportunities for public involvement through oral hearings and cross-examination are responsible for inordinate delays. The terminal 5 inquiry is often mentioned in aid of such arguments, but much of that delay was down to the applicants lack
of preparation, the number of documents submitted, the several regimes under which the application was heard, and the time taken to reach a decision once the inquiry was over. The present system has been caricatured as a barristers bun fight and we have heard talk of nimbyism and well-resourced non-governmental organisations. HoweverI think that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) nearly touched on thisit all comes down to what Winston Churchill once said about democracy being the worst form of government apart from all the rest. I believe that the measures that the Secretary of State is seeking to introduce to replace the current situation are simply a case of throwing the baby out of the bathwater, and so I shall want to press amendment No. 66 to a vote.
(8) The Secretary of States examination of the application is a statutory inquiry for the purposes of Schedule 7 to the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (functions etc. of Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council).
(9) Subsection (5) of section 250 of the Local Government Act 1972 (provisions about costs applying where Minister causes a local inquiry to be held) applies in relation to the Secretary of States examination of the application as it applies in relation to an inquiry under that section, but with references to the Minister causing the inquiry to be held being read as references to the Secretary of State.
(10) Subsections (6) to (8) of section 210 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (provisions about expenses applying where Minister causes a local inquiry to be held) apply in relation to the Secretary of States examination of the application in so far as relating to a hearing held in Scotland as they apply in relation to an inquiry under that section, but with references to the Minister causing the inquiry to be held being read as references to the Secretary of State.
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