House of Commons
|Session 2007 - 08|
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 15 January 2008
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]
Further written evidence to be reported to the House
PB 25 TCPA
PB 26 Institute of Historic Building Conservation
PB 27 North Lincolnshire Council<++++>
The Infrastructure Planning Commission
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 230, in clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out subsection (1) and insert
(1) The Secretary of State shall constitute an Infrastructure Planning Commission (in this Act referred to as the Commission) as part of the body corporate of the Planning Inspectorate..
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 7, at end insert
(2A) The Commission shall be appointed by the same means as the Planning Inspectorate..
No. 40, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, leave out subsection (3).
No. 16, in clause 53, page 27, line 31, leave out single Commissioner under Chapter 3 and insert Planning Inspector.
No. 41, in clause 53, page 27, line 35, leave out single Commissioner under Chapter 3 and insert Planning Inspector.
No. 42, in clause 53, page 28, line 4, leave out single Commissioner under Chapter 3 and insert Planning Inspector.
No. 17, in clause 54, page 28, line 7, leave out single Commissioner under Chapter 3 and insert Planning Inspector.
No. 43, in clause 54, page 28, line 12, leave out single Commissioner under Chapter 3 and insert Planning Inspector.
No. 18, in clause 54, page 28, line 26, leave out single Commissioner under Chapter 3 and insert Planning Inspector.
No. 44, in clause 55, page 29, line 1, leave out subsection (7).
No. 45, in clause 55, page 29, line 12, leave out subsection (10).
No. 19, in clause 70, page 34, line 21, at end insert
and who shall be a member of the Planning Inspectorate.
Mrs. Lait: May I welcome you to your stint as Chair of this Committee, Mr. Illsley? You missed our interesting sittings last week when we took evidence. Now you have the hard grind of the amendments. I look forward to your wise and sure guidance.
This group of amendments is key to our view of the Bill. Basically, they would bring the commission within the Planning Inspectorate. I accept that we may not have picked up every implication and change that needs to be made to achieve that, but that is the tenor of our amendments. Should they be accepted, I am sure that we could subsequently move to the other changes that are required to ensure that the planning commission is not created and does not cause extra cost to the taxpayer.
I want to put it firmly on the record that I do not think there is any disagreement across any of the parties in the House, the various interested bodies outside it and the residents and communities affected by planning applications that the current system takes far too long. We would all wish to see a much faster and speedier planning process. Our argument is that the Governments proposals will not do that. Indeed, most people fundamentally believe that Ministers should take final responsibility for large planning applications such as those relating to infrastructure, and the proposals abrogate that.
None of us wishes to go through another Heathrow or Sizewell, which seems to be looming on the horizon, or, as was often mentioned in evidence, the north Yorkshire applications for improved electricity connections. It is a sadness to us all that the 2005 planning rules have not yet been thoroughly explored. Certainly the evidence from where they have been brought in is that they have speeded up the planning system quite considerably. The inspectors powers to hold pre-inquiry hearings, which are limited but still considerably greater than they were, have narrowed the grounds for discussion and have prevented the endless repetitionit is regularly described as watching paint dryof the same evidence and cross-examination on exactly the same point. Applications that have so far gone through the process are being decided much more quickly.
It is symptomatic of the Government that rather than wait and see how their changes have improved things, they decide to make more changes before there is any evidence that they are needed. We are concerned, as ever, that no serious analysis has been undertaken of the improvements that are already in the system.
We agree in principle with the introduction of national policy statements to try to speed up the planning process. I wish to stay in order, so I shall not digress at great length on that issue, especially as we will come to it relatively quickly, but we accept that if policy statements are in place, much of the delay in planning applications would be removed because there would no debate about policy. A large element of the time delays that we are experiencing would be taken out once the policy statements are in place.
I agree in principle with the Governments proposals that developers should consult more effectivelyI would probably go even further in respect of pre-application consultationbut if planning inquiries can be speeded up by the existence of proper pre-inquiry hearings and if the policy statements are in place, why do we need the commission? Why do we need to set up
We heard conflicting evidence of the number of policy statements we will need, varying from under 10 from the Local Government Association to 45-plus, depending on how many energy statements there are and how the transport statements are set out. The combination of the delay while the statements go through the House, the setting up of the commission, the training of the commissioners, and the number of commissioners proposed given the potential number of applications that will be made, quite apart from legal challenges, will mean a stagnation in major developments for some years. We have accepted the 2005 planning rules, the policy statements, pre-inquiry hearings and the developer consultation, but why can the Planning Inspectorate not conduct the inquiries? Why do we need a new body?
We heard some interesting and powerful evidence last week. I do not often agree with Friends of the Earth, but I agreed with everything that its representatives said about the difficulties that there will be with the commission. The Opposition have a fundamental problem with the speed and the regularity with which Ministers in this Government abrogate their responsibility for decision taking, and the commission is another example of it.
There is a belief among the population that Ministers should make the big decisions. As that is ingrained, I suggest that if that right and responsibility is taken away, the body politic will not understand why. Hence, there will be legal challenge after legal challenge. If we, as Members of Parliament, are not elected to take responsibility for the import of our decisions as legislators, the disconnect between the voter and MPs and Ministers, about which we are all so concerned, will only become greater, particularly with an issue such as planning, which is of such importance to all our constituents.
I would challenge anyone in the Committee to say that the most important issue to their voters on a continuing basis is not planning. They see us, as Members of Parliament, as representing their views, both in detail and in principle. If Ministers say that something is a quasi-judicial decision, which technically it is, but outside this place it is understood as a ministerial responsibility, it will not satisfy my constituents whether it is quasi-judicial or whether it takes into account other factors. I would be most surprised if any member of this Committee felt that it would satisfy their constituents. Therefore, there is a deep constitutional reason for Ministers not abrogating their responsibilities for taking those major decisions.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Is my hon. Friend saying that planning is fundamentally not a simply technical issue? That is at the heart of the matter. A large degree of politics is involved, and someone with broader skills than the technical ones for planning should be brought in at
Mrs. Lait: My hon. Friend is right. We must decide the difference between the quasi-judicial role that all our Planning Acts have given Ministers, in terms of making the final decision, and the expectation and belief of our constituents that those decisions are taken bearing in mind not only the quasi-judicial, but the reality of the balance of the arguments on both sides and the factors that affect them so directly. That is part of the fundamental reason why we believe that the commission, if that is what we wish to call it, should be brought within the remit of the Planning Inspectorate and should then report to Ministers for their final decision.
In setting up this new body, we must also bear in mind that even if many of the more experienced members of the Planning Inspectorate move over to become commissioners or to staff the commissionquite apart from the impact that that will have on the smaller planning deals that go to them, and we can take out proposals that will no longer go to the Planning Inspectorate because of the proposals on the local member review boardthere will be congestion for the smaller planning applications. That is possibly why we have heard so much evidence saying that various organisations would like to expand the definition of a national infrastructure project, because they can foresee this particular problem. I have great sympathy with them on that problem, but the proposal is that there should be a wide range of people on the commission who have experience other than in planning.
Anybody who is brought in would have to be trained in planning law. One assumes that if they have not come through the Planning Inspectorate and are not from the legal profession and in the planning Bar, they will have to be trained quite intensively in planning law. They could come from the environmental or the business sectors. Network Rail has stated that it would like a rail engineer on the commission, and the nuclear sector has said that it wants a nuclear engineer among the planning inspectors.
Many hon. Members among us have legal training and will know that the commissioners will have to be trained in not just planning law, but methods of dealing with witnesses. A problem that many of us have with the Bill is about the right to be heard, the open forums, the questioning of witnesses, and ensuring that people feel that they have the opportunity of putting their case and of challenging those who have a different view. Since the White Paper, the Government have moved from the desire for a paper-based system to open forums. We managed to get a slight concession when the Minister gave evidence last Thursday that there would be the ability to cross examine in a small number of casesI am not quoting him precisely. The commissioners will need all those skills on top of their original skills. They will be rare birds, if we are able to find them. I have a suspicion that, with the best will in the world, any decision that they make could be challenged, sadly, on the grounds of whether they have the sufficient skills and expertise to make those decisions.
There is also the potential for conflicts of interest. In due course, we will come on to codes of conduct and all the other constraints that will potentially be put on commissioners. However, it will be very difficult to find people whose background is not challengeable on the grounds of conflicts of interest. I was peripherally involved in the debate on the single casino and within the community that took an interest in that issue, every member of the committee, bar one, was potentially open to a challenge of a conflict of interest. I suspect that it will be very similar with these commissioners.
The commissioners will be exceedingly rare birds to find. The nuclear industry has a desire for a nuclear engineer to be among them. However, the Government recently made a statement on an increase in the number of nuclear power stations and there will be a national policy statement on nuclear energy. They will be very difficult to find in the first place because any nuclear engineer who becomes a commissioner will probably be much better paid in the private sector. We will have a problem of expertise, whereas people within the Planning Inspectorate already have the skills. If there is a desire to widen the membership of the commission, the Government would be well advised to start hiring some of these experts and get them trained up through the Planning Inspectorate.
We want to bring these matters within the Planning Inspectorate because I suspect that the number of commissioners required under the Bill will not be sufficient, and we will come to that in greater detail. It would be possible for the Planning Inspectorate to adjust its business and processes to absorb the extra people who will be required to deal with the national policy statements and the infrastructure appeals. If we were to combine the potential number of infrastructure applications, the eight-month timeline and the numbers of commissioners, someone will fall down somewhere because it is difficult to see arithmetically how the number of commissioners set down in the Bill will deal with the number of applications within the timeline. Something is going to have to give somewhere, and I suspect that the Planning Inspectorate would be much better able to deal with it than any new commission.
The other area where the skills and expertise of the Planning Inspectorate are regarded so highly, but where the commissioners could run into problems, relates to the panels. Anything from one to five commissioners could make up a panel for any one application. Let us suppose that there is a big planning application for a nuclear power station and let us say that it will be in Sizewell, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has already said that he would be happy to see a third Sizewellalthough this is not the right place or time to discuss whether others would.
Let us suppose that the commission decided to have a panel of five experts in Sizewell. Under the Bills provisions, the commissioners could be split on different aspects. For instance, if a nuclear engineerone would assume that someone with nuclear expertise would be on that panel of fivewas asked to look at the safety implications, in the legal challenge that would be raised by those against it he, and I say he advisedly, could be accused of having a conflict of interest for being in the pockets of the nuclear industry. I am sure that he would not be, but that would be a
I still cannot get my head around how a broad cross-section of special expertise that comes together in a panel could not be challenged by those who wish to do so. The one thing that will slow down the rebuilding of our infrastructure the most is legal challenge, because we all know how long it can take to get things through the courts and the ingenuity of people when it comes to finding a way to take their case one step further.
I referred fleetingly to the right to be heard. The Planning Inspectorate currently has the skill and, indeed, power to ensure that everyone has the right to be heard. Members of the Committee will be glad to know that I am not a lawyer, as I have already talked too long. [Interruption.] A Whip would say, Hear, hear.
I am told that the right to be heard has been enshrined in British lawI use the term advisedlysince mediaeval times, and it is understood as the right to cross-examination. If the right to be heard is to be reduced under the Bill, there will be considerably more legal challenges, potentially both in relation to this House and under the Human Rights Act 1998. The Planning Inspectorate, however, already has the power and skills to ensure that everyone has the right to be heard. One occasionally hears the criticism that the inspectorates skills could perhaps be strengthened in that area, but I do not wish to comment on that. If that is one of the analyses, however, there is nothing to stop members of the Planning Inspectorate getting that further training. However, if the commission will in any way limit peoples right to be heard, the challenge will be to the courts and the process will again slow up. The Planning Inspectorate, which has the powers and the people with the necessary skills and abilities, already exists, and I cannot see why the commission needs to be set up if the Government do not contemplate ending the citizens right to be heard.
Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument. In essence, she is saying that in the Planning Inspectorate we already have a reservoir of talent and experience and we should take advantage of it, not cast it aside. Does she share my concern that the Planning Inspectorate already has the skills, both legal and otherwise, to spot the potential pitfalls that can arise during a long and complex hearing, which would not necessarily be in the hands of those who might recently have been co-opted on to the panel of the IPC? We run the risk of the nightmare scenario of not just one but a series of judicial reviews during the course of a hearing, which might considerably lengthen the procedure rather than shortening it.
Mrs. Lait: I am most interested in my hon. Friends suggestion. I envisaged many judicial review applications at the end of a hearing but not the nightmare scenario of such applications during a hearing. However, I absolutely agree with him that the potential is there because of the challenge to the skills of the commissioners. He makes a valid point.
The Government have brushed aside the issue of legal challenges time and again because it is something that no one wants to think about. At the risk of repetition, everyone wants the planning system to be speeded up but legal challenge and the opportunity to widen and open up channels for legal challenge have not been sufficiently thoroughly explored, despite the Committees evidence-taking sittings, because no one wants to consider that the new system has the potential to increase greatly the number of legal challenges, and, sadly, that has come through very strongly to me. When one wants something so much, one never thinks of the down side, and that creates an interesting psychological impetus.
My final point in considering matters relating to the Planning Inspectorate and whether we need to set up the commission is that there is already a planning inquiry commissionit was set up under the Town and Country Planning Act 1968 and consolidated in the Town and Country Planning Act 1971which has never been used. It was set up with exactly the same idea of speeding up applications for big infrastructure projects, although not precisely in the way that the Bill proposes, by the right hon. Peter Shore, who was then the Member for Stepney and Poplar or Poplar and Stepney.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I think it was Bethnal Green.
Mrs. Lait: He was a very eminent Member of this House who scuppered it himself by saying that the planning inquiry commission as set up in the Act did not allow the voice of local people to be heard sufficiently. In 1990 the then Conservative Government resurrected the idea because of increasing concerns about environmental issues. Again, it has never been used and one suspects that that is for exactly the same reason. The Government have fallen into exactly the same trap with their IPC. It potentially limits the rights of local people to be heard properly. I was rather surprised that we have a whole new Bill dealing with this rather than, if the Government believe that some sort of commission is the right way forward, simply an amendment to the 1990 Act to bring it into line.
The gist of all of these comments is that the commission is redundant. It would be unnecessary if the Government accepted our amendments and if the developer was required to consult and to act on the results of that consultation pre-application, and if there was a pre-inquiry hearing of greater extent than outlined in the Bill. The existence of national policy statements is another factor. We agree with the Government on the single consent regime. I remember in the mid-90s arguing that the Electricity Act 1989 provisions on planning should be brought within what is now the Department for Communities and Local Government, so I have a track record on the single consent regime. I am happy to admit that because it is nonsense that different Departments should deal with planning issues. The Government have not been completely wholehearted about that but they are nevertheless going in the right direction.
There needs to be better Government co-ordination. Terminal 5, for example, was scuppered because of a statement made by the then Deputy Prime Minister about motorways, which led to one of those horrendous delays. If those 2005 rules were properly implemented and if there was further training for people in the inspectorate and perhaps a widening of the membership, we would not need the commission. That is the burden of the amendments.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): May I add to the remarks of the hon. Member for Beckenham in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley? It is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship on a Public Bill Committee, but I have served under your chairmanship on all-party groups. I know that you will keep us on task and ensure that we stick to the timetable very closely.
The amendments focus on matters to which we shall return in the stand part debate. They are a sensible step forward in terms of looking at what we already have as a resource in the Planning Inspectorate before setting up another quango and another bureaucratic organisation. Such organisations all set out with noble aims to improve the way that things are done and to achieve a high reputation among all who come into contact with them. But what tends to happen with such things is that if we get duplication and over-complication, those noble aims are soon abandoned.
As the hon. Lady has said, many provisions in the Bill stand up to scrutiny with perhaps a little amendment. We will come to those in due course. The evidence last week from those who kindly came to give us their views showed that the commission was the element in the Bill with the least support and which was felt to be the least necessary.
Bearing in mind that we will be having further discussion and that other hon. Members want to speak, I will confine my remarks to saying that the hon. Ladys amendments are sensible in exploring what can be done with the resources and the expertise that we already have. The provisions elsewhere in the Bill could make use of that resource far more effectively, rather than having recourse to a new body and a new set of costs, which the Government will have to recoup elsewhere.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): It is a pleasure to sit under your authoritative guidance, Mr. Illsley.
Whenever I discuss planning, I am always brought in mind of a conversation on Audley End station, where one frustrated commuter said that he wondered why on earth the station for Saffron Walden was so far from the town, to which another sardonic commuter replied that he thought that it was probably because people wanted it to be somewhere near the railway line.
Currently in planning, we have a call-in, followed by an inquiry, followed by an outcome, which is issued in the name of a Minister. However, the Minister is accountable at that point only if there is a judicial challenge to process. I know from my own experience that when Ministers have to report difficult decisions such as this, the sheer amount of bureaucratic energy that goes into making those decisions proof to judicial
The important part of the Bill is not about the commission; it is about the national policy statements. What changes the essential process is the national policy statements. Who implements those decisions is a matter of detail. National policy statements, by their very nature, will be prescriptive if they are to mean anything at all. If there was a national policy statement covering airport facilities, we all know that there are only a handful of places to which that might refer; it is inconceivable that it would not specify what was being talked about. Equally, if we were talking about nuclear power plants, it is not rocket science to know the sites which are being referred to, and the policy statement would be very likely to be specific about such things. If we were talking about major port development, we could all name the handful of ports that the national policy statement would concern.
If national policy statements are to be effective, they will give a very strong indication on the process to whichever body is taking the ultimate decision. That bodys main task will be to organise and orchestrate the consultation proceduresthe mechanics of finalising a decision that has been foreshadowed in the national policy statement. Therefore, the commission is a matter of detail.
The decision that we must take is whether we want that process to lie in the hands of an existing body, the Planning Inspectorate, about which people moan from time to time because they do not like the outcome of inquiries, but which has a very high reputation for unimpeachable neutrality, or to lie in the hands of a new body, staffed by experts in certain areas. As we heard in our sittings last week, bodies will expect to have some sort of representation on that board, in the same way that the Food Standards Agency has people on its board who have expertise in and links to particular parts of the food industry. I think that that has worked very well.
What would a new commission do that a planning inspectorate cannot do if set up with some coherent distinct or discrete element to deal with those super-decisions, as we might call them? It is difficult to see what it would deliver. Would it depoliticise the decisions? To all practical purposes, the decisions are depoliticised already, because they are issued in the Secretary of States name but we know that they are the outcomes of the Planning Inspectorates work. The Minister would have to have a huge degree of courage to overturn a decision that had been recommended by the Planning Inspectorate. That would have all sorts of judicial consequences, so the issues of accountability are rather difficult.
Would the commission be compromised by the fact that it will deliberately be staffed by experts? I would be slightly happier with the idea that it would be staffed by people who were not experts, because the experts should be there to advise them. I remember a conversation I held with the chairman of Shell in which I asked him which graduates he preferred to work for the company. He said, Classicists. I asked, Why classicists?, and he replied that they sell more petrol. I suppose that that
I prefer to have sensible, well-balanced people with a broad knowledge, who can then receive expertise on particular areas. The danger of saying, We must have someone who is an expert in the nuclear industry. We must have someone who is an expert in the maritime industry. We must have someone who is expert in power generationthe Minister was quite impressed when we agreed last week that we must have someone who has good social skills and who can be regarded as a community relationship expertis that they will be seen to be representing lobbies. Therefore, they will take a long time to establish and, perhaps more importantly, to be credited with a culture of absolute neutrality. On those grounds, there is a good argument for saying that the radical step having been accomplished, which is the national policy statement, it would be better to let the existing body of well-known reputation and calibre deal with the implementation and consequences than to go to all the trouble and expense of setting up a new body.
Accountability and planning is a fairly tenuous business, and it is supposed to be. There is no point calling it a quasi-judicial process if we expect to apply to it the normal rules of accountability. The whole point is that there is a sort of political ha-ha between the decisions and their judicial accountability. The key will be the political challenges to the drawing up of national policy statements. The improvements in accountability will lie entirely in the input into the development of national policy statements. We should have a significant debate on that, because I am not convinced that the scrutiny ideas in the Bill are very practical for the House.
Therefore, the commission will not be accountable and, in a sense, it will be even more unaccountable than it is, relatively, under the present system. I think that we should look, in preference, at building on the existing Planning Inspectorate. I would be very interested to know what happens overseas. I know that sometimes we are rather reluctant to take foreign lessons in relation to what happens to us. My willingness to do that from time to time has been one of my political problems, but how other countries manage these things can often give us very good lessons. I would be interested to know how many countries have the type of autonomous body that is being envisaged, and how many have been able to incorporate it into a structure which is on a continuum with the normal planning processes.
Therefore, I think that the idea that we should build on the Planning Inspectorate is perfectly valid. I think that we need to focus on the planning policy statements, which are the real changes as far as the Bill is concerned. The rest is a matter of detail. The commission will be a very expensive detail indeed, and I would much rather stick with the devil we know.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon and I agree with much of what he has said. I also think that the present system could be tweaked without having to go to the huge expense of legislating in order to bring in the IPC. One of the
The right hon. Gentleman said that the IPC would need experts of various kinds and mentioned the example of the nuclear industry. In my experience, experts on the nuclear industry, and there are many, are either very much in favour of or very much against planned developments, so a lot depends on what kind of expert is put on the IPC to begin with because those on either side might be biased in any event.
I will pause for a moment, because I always thought that the Government, when they were in opposition, did not like quangos. They went on ad nauseam about them and how they were going to do away with every quango on earth. Now probably the biggest example of an unaccountable quango ever is being put in place at the cost of £9.3 million per annum, with a set-up cost of £5 million according to the Governments figures.
Last week, we heard from the Planning Inspectorate, whose representatives were forthright in saying that the new rules and regulations were working well. They are currently streamlining the process so that they are able to truncate hearings when it is judged right to do so, and to offer people the opportunity to be heard and to cross-examine, within certain guidelines, so that, broadly, they can ensure a fair trial or hearing. We heard that things are working well and that the new rules and regulations have been in place for almost two and a half years. I think that it is a bit early to try to legislate and that they should have had more of an opportunity to bed down.
The right hon. Gentleman was also right when he said that there are probably two crucial parts of the Bill. The IPC is one, but it must surely be underpinned by the idea of national policy statements. Last week, we had the nuclear statement, and the right hon. Gentleman asked the Minister for Local Government if that was actually a national policy statement. He responded that it was not. I am not so sure that that could easily be adopted as a national policy statement under the Bill without further ado, because if one looks at the powers of the IPC, one will see that it will have unprecedented powers to apply, modify or exclude provisions in primary legislation and to amend, repeal or revoke the provisions of local Acts and primary legislation when, according to clause 105, it is expedient to do so. In every case, those decisions can be taken without parliamentary scrutiny, and it seems that the right hon. Gentlemans only power will be to give a direction in narrow circumstances where a revocation could be contrary to European law or the European convention on human rights.
I hope that I am not being cynical, but when I read clause 13 I have a nasty feeling that we are setting up a body to steamroller through bad-neighbour applications, limit discussion and prevent locals from having their say. If one looks at the examples of projects listed in clause 13, one will see that it provides for the underground storage of gas, pipelines, highways, airport facilities, rail freight interchange, dam or reservoir extensions, waste water treatment plants and hazardous waste facilities. Quite apart from the issue of the proliferation of nuclear power stations, I do not want to see communities being
Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will of course be aware that Nirex no longer exists.
Mr. Llwyd: The body that took over Nirex does exist. Is it the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management now? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell me.
Mr. Reed: The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority subsumed the functions of Nirex by Act of Parliament last year.
Mr. Llwyd: But the people who work in that new body are the same people who worked in the previous one; that I can confirm. They come from the same roots.
Mr. Reed: The technical experts are exactly the same; the corporate face, the ethos, the functions and the whole way of doing businessI am not here to defend the NDA, although its headquarters are in my constituencyare entirely different.
Mr. Llwyd: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should declare an interest; I do not know whether he is sponsored by the NDA. I attended one of its meetings unfortunately, I did not pick up on the new nameat which it said, We are going to be open and transparent now. We are going to enter into detailed discussions. That did not happen perfectly under Nirex but it will from now on. We are currently looking at five sites. I asked where those five sites were and the reply was, Sorry, we cant tell you. That is the transparency business. It has inherited some of the worst facets of Nirex.
The Chairman: Order. We are not debating Nirex or its successor body. I ask the hon. Gentleman to return to the amendments.
Mr. Llwyd: May I therefore refer to the construction of a hazardous waste facility, which is listed under clause 13, and which will be under the auspices of the IPC? Such facilities are bad neighbours and people outside this House will be very worried about attempts to limit local input. National policy statements are crucial in that respect; perhaps they are the vehicle that will ensure that people are heard properly and they are key if the Bill is to get off the ground. I am very concerned about the matter, especially in view of the recent announcement on the new wave of nuclear power stations.
I accept that in the past there have been long, drawn-out planning appeals, which should have been curtailed. Day after day, there were long cross-examinations, evidence sessions and so on, sometimes to no avail. Having said that, planning law affects every one of us, potentially in detrimental ways, so we must be very careful in our deliberations on the Bill.
I agree that policy statements are vital and we shall examine those proposals in great detail, but I am concerned about the accountability of the IPC. It is all very well saying that if the IPC gets something wrong there is always judicial review, but according to the Wednesbury definition there can be a judicial review only when conduct has been unreasonable. In any event, judicial reviews are costly proceedings. Are we saying that if people in a small locality felt aggrieved, their only recourse would be the High Court? That would be an abominable situation.
Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman mentioned accountability, which is extremely important, and the fact that the IPC will have the power to amend, modify or, in some cases, overrule existing primary legislation. Does it not fly in the face of any meaningful accountability that a member of the public who is aggrieved by such a decision cannot go to a Member of Parliament who can go to the Minister responsible and complain about it? There would be no one to complain about such a decision.
Mr. Llwyd: That is a grave concern and I cannot for the life of me understand why some form of reporting from the IPC to a Minister with the appropriate responsibility is not built into the Bill. I would be far more comfortable with that. I have tabled amendments to later clauses regarding reporting to Parliament and laying reports before Parliament annually to tease out whether there is any accountability in these matters.
I accept that the planning process has improved, but we could improve it further. To say the least, at the moment I am a sceptic on the IPC. I am very concerned about the nature of this beast and whether it will ride roughshod over communities with no recourse to any sort of second or third discussion.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Copeland for putting me right about Nirex, but I am still concerned about some of the vested interests. I do not suggest that the Government are hand in glove with them, but clause 13 is shot through with vested interests and there are some very powerful players in the current planning process. I hope that they will not skewer this process, because unless we are careful the IPC will do whatever it wants at their behest.
James Duddridge: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Illsley. Clause 1 and this group of amendments go to the heart of this Bill and the question of why we are creating an IPC and moving away from the Planning Inspectorate. Could the Minister explain some of the terminology used? What does a commission do that an inspectorate does not? What does that change in terminology mean? Why is this not an infrastructure planning inspectorate? Is it really right to say that it is a planning body in the sense that the national policy statements set out the framework and go through Ministers and to some degree, although not enough, through Parliament? Does it do future planning? That is not really the case, in that it looks at propositions brought forward to it by, for example, the nuclear industry, other private sector developers or quasi public-private sector developers.
We already have the Planning Inspectorate. It is a fit-for-purpose body that could easily do the tasks that are being assigned to the IPC. Not only is it fit for purpose, but by creating a secondary organisation, we may build into the system confusion, problems and contradictions. It has the expertise, and there is a limited amount of such expertiseI presume that someone cannot serve on both bodies at the same time. There is a limit to the number of planning experts. There is also the issue of the additional costs. A cost basis for the IPC of about £50 million was bandied around. That was based on 30 individuals as commissioners. That number has now risen significantly. Will that figure of £50 million, which has already gone up once, go up again? Perhaps the Minister could address the issues of longer-term cost. Presumably, a new organisation will involve new premises. Commissioners will largely be drawn from groups such as the Planning Inspectorate and will have to move en bloc across the country to this new head office. Again, those are unnecessary additional costs that will cause a greater degree of confusion.
Other hon. Members have talked about ministerial decision making. While the Minister is perhaps not making the individual decision, those decisions are made in his name. For claritys sake, could the Minister confirm that he or previous Ministers have not turned down any recommendations from the Planning Inspectorate? Alternatively, are their circumstances in which the Minister does not give his approval, because the process has not gone through, and in which the Minister asserts a greater degree of ministerial responsibility?
It is important that our constituents can come to us and that we can pay a visit to the Minister responsible when our constituency is affected by major infrastructure projects. I fear that Ministers and Departments are abdicating responsibility to an independent planning commission, so that they can say, We as Ministers do not take these individual decisions. We rise above that. We have national policy statements and devolve responsibility for some of the detail to the independent planning commission, with some site-specific national policy statements. I fear that that is an abdication of responsibility because sometimes it is only when looking at individual decisions and applications that the national policy statements come into focus. There should be a greater degree of ministerial and political accountability for those decisions.
The infrastructure planning commission will still be quite small, whether it has 45 commissioners or more. There will be difficulty in getting people with the right skill set, such as skills in taking oral evidence. The point was raised that we will need commissioners with broad social skills, rather than technical skills. I do not want to suggest that people with technical skills do not have social skills, but there is a great case for having generalists who receive specialist advice, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon has already noted.
Planning is fundamentally a political issue, which goes to the heart of some of our communities. It is not simply a technical issue whereby a simple calculation
I believe that we will have an opportunity to discuss this matter further in relation to schedule 1, but I have concerns about challenges to the appointment of commissioners that might strike at the heart of whether the IPC is credible. Will commissioners
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order as he is debating schedule 1 and not clause 1, to which the amendment relates. Will he come back to clause 1?
James Duddridge: I thank you for that clarification, Mr. Illsley. The point that I was trying to make is that the IPC itself might lose credibility because of some of the issues that will be raised under later provisions of the Bill. I know that there will be plenty of time to discuss schedule 1.
Therefore, to conclude, I believe that the Planning Inspectorate is fit for purpose. The establishment of the infrastructure planning commission is not the right way forward and will incorporate problems into an already complex situation.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): As others have said, it is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mr. Illsley.
Before saying anything else, I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members Interests. I am a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, as a lapsed surveyor. That is a bit like being a lapsed Catholic, but without the guilt. Nevertheless, I subscribe to what that organisation says about this important issue.
No other Member of this House has more cause than I to wish to see the planning process speeded up. Hon. Members will remember the Newbury bypass and the controversy that surrounded it. The Member of Parliament for Newbury just after the war, Sir Anthony Hurd, started the process of campaigning for that piece of infrastructure and it was not opened until the late 1990s. It is worth looking at the inquiry process and what was said in the planning inquiry.
I will give one example that relates directly to the amendments. There was a bugI cannot remember its namethat lived in one part of the site and went to the other side of where the road would be, to mate. Days were spent discussing that bug and eventually the chairman said, What are those things on either side of the bug? The expert replied, Those are wings. The chairman said, Surely it can fly to where it has to go to mate. Let us move on. That is an example of how planning inquiries can get bogged down in seemingly
I would like to reiterate the question of costs that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East has just mentioned. I would like to tease out from the Minister a further indication as to what he thinks the running costs of the commission will be, bearing in mind that we are hearing a variety of different figures for how many projects the commission might take on in an average year. We heard originally that perhaps it would be 30. My hon. Friend has quoted other organisations saying that it could be as many as 45. One starts to wonder what the costs will come down to. In a written answer from the Minister, start-up costs are estimated at £5 million, which I would concede is not a deal-breaker, but it is important to know the basis of that £5 million. We have in place a Planning Inspectorate, a structure, a system, which can easily incorporate start-up costs and many of the on-running costs of the proposal.
Leading on from my earlier point, by including people as commissioners with vested interests, coming from particular backgrounds, we risk increasing the problem and creating a planning atrophy whereby the system will stagnate as interests conflict. The Planning Inspectorate has a degree of neutrality and a high degree of professionalism. I do not believe that the process will be cleaned up by the Bills current provisions.
I also believe that the amendment will create other tensions beyond those of the proposed organisation and the Planning Inspectorate, as it currently exists. Another quango has recently been created, the Homes and Communities Agency, which may well suggest that there should be a new eco-town in some of our constituencies. Clause 13 specifically does not mention housing as one of the IPCs responsibilities, but if another quango recommends an eco-town, it is sure as anything that that will mean infrastructure requirements. Let us suppose that the planning commission and the Homes and Communities Agency were coming at this from different angles; that would be another cause for planning atrophy to occur. In addition, the Governments own favoured development agencies also currently have responsibilities in some of those areas. So who will make the decision? If it all comes to a grinding halt, who will ultimately decide? Will the Minister be subject to legal challenges? Will the proposals, as we have heard, result in many more legal challenges and judicial reviews? Judicial reviews could come at a fairly early stage in the process; they could be held on the commission personnel and their backgrounds.
Therefore, many questions need to be answered and I hope that, in support of the amendments, we can tease some of those answers out of the Minister. I will state clearly that we believe that this is an important part of the Bill that is taking planning in fundamentally the wrong direction. I hope that the Minister can respond to the points that we have made.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I have enjoyed serving under your chairmanship previously and look forward to doing so again under you and your co-chair, Sir John Butterfill. I am sorry that you missed the
The evidence sessions were a useful addition. It was the first time that I have been involved in a public Bill process of which that was a part. I would like to record my thanks to those witnesses who gave verbal and written evidence to the Committee. I think that it helps our deliberations. We have had a good and detailed discussion. Rightly, we have given significant consideration at the outset of the Committee to the nature and purpose of the infrastructure planning commission, although we have strayed on to some of the detail. Nevertheless, it is a major area of the Bill and I realise that there are some significant questions and concerns about it from some quarters. It is therefore proper that in our first scrutiny sitting, we give it this sort of treatment.
I also think that that the tone that the hon. Member for Beckenham used in leading off the debate, and which other hon. Members have used when contributing, has been useful. It has been serious, searching and, essentially, constructive. I have made it clear from the outset of this process that my interest is in getting the strongest and best possible legislation in place to achieve the policy purposes that we have set out. As the Minister responsible for the Bill, I hope that hon. Members approve of the way in which we have handled the development of the proposals from the White Paper to the Bill and of the way in which we are prepared to consider the strength of the cases and the evidence that people put to us for improvements. I am determined that we will continue to do that throughout the process of considering the Bill, along with my colleagues who are assisting me as part of the ministerial team.
Turning specifically to the important points that the hon. Lady introduced, I welcome the fact that she agrees in principle with national policy statements. She is right that they will remove policy examination from the consideration of major applications and she is right to say that it is important that we do so. I welcome her agreement that the pre-application consultation procedure is a good step forward, although she may have suggestions for improving it.
That leaves us with the hon. Ladys two principal questions, which other Members have echoed. I will try to deal with them. Why should we have the infrastructure planning commission and not the Planning Inspectorate? The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East argued that the Planning Inspectorate is fit for the purpose that we envisage. As I hope he will understand from the comments that I make, the Planning Inspectorate is not fit for the purpose that we have for the IPC. That was also argued by the planning inspectors who came before us in the evidence session last week. It might be worth revisiting the minutes of the evidence sessions.
James Duddridge: The Minister says that the Planning Inspectorate is not fit for purpose, but could he give the evidence, perhaps later in his comments, as to why it could not be made fit for purpose at a cost and in a process that is more effective than that of setting up a brand new organisation?
John Healey: If the hon. Gentleman feels that I do not meet that test or answer those points in my remarks, he may intervene again and he can return to the issue in further debates.
Why should we create the IPC? Essentially, there is a degree of consensus about the problems in the current process, particularly when dealing with major infrastructure projects. We see three main benefits in setting up the IPC. First, it will improve the speed and efficiency of the system, which the hon. Lady was concerned about. At the moment, major projects are examined by the planning inspector, often subject to inquiry, and then decided on by Ministers. That means that, sequentially, there are two processes and two separate bodies going over the same ground. With some decisions, the process can involve more than one Minister from more than one Department. That adds complexity and a potential delay, particularly when Ministers look for clarification or go back for further information on key points. The IPC, set up and operating in the way that we propose, will deliver the principal benefit of a faster and more efficient planning system.
Secondly, we believe that the IPC will lead to better-quality decisions. I think that all Members recognise that the big, nationally significant infrastructure projects, for which this is solely designed, are often uniquely complex and involve some significant technical questions, and we at least need to question whether Ministers are best placed to determine such questions. That is the purpose behind the proposed commission and its composition, which we shall examine in detail in our subsequent scrutiny.
Thirdly, we see greater clarity and transparency as the benefits of the IPC. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town will know, that is because, in transport-related projects such as highways, we can have a situation in which an Under-Secretary in the Department for Transport is responsible for policy, oversees the proposing and generation of proposals for major applications and, ultimately, decides and determines them as well. To us, that seems to be a potential confusion of roles, does not help the degree of clarity or certainty and, as a result, will not help the proper degree of accountability that the system for such important decisions should have.
Mr. Llwyd: On that point, can the hon. Gentleman distinguish between the situation that he has just described and that in which he might make a national policy statement, which will have to be followed by the IPC without fail?
John Healey: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will realise that we are now dealing with the IPC and that the introduction of national policy statements for the first time is a significant introduction, which we will deal with under part 2 of the Bill. Those policy statements will be rightly proposed by Ministers and rightly subject to wide public consultation and detailed scrutiny in Parliament. Only then would they be approved and stand as national policy statements. They will then set what is essentially the single policy framework and the principle source of reference for the IPC when it considers major infrastructure applications. The IPC will therefore operate within that policy framework.
Mr. Curry: Does the Minister accept that there must be a significant number of cases in which the policy framework in practice prescribes the detail of the development, because there are areasI cited airports and nuclear power stationswhere the national policy statement does everything but sign off the development? I do not understand where the improvement in process lies.
John Healey: The national policy statements will be properly produced and introduced by Ministers and will be subject to detailed parliamentary scrutiny. Some may include locationally specific elements as part of the framework within which the IPC will oversee the preparation of applications and manage their consideration. However, it will still have the important role of determining that application: first, is it consistent with the framework of the NPS; and, secondly, does the potential national benefit and its consistency with the national policy statement outweigh any potential local concerns or disadvantages? It is quite clear that the IPC is not there to rubber stamp any application that happens to be in a particular site that could be mentioned in the national policy statement. It has an important role in the process that we propose for it. I fully expect the IPC not just to say, Yes to certain applications, but also rightly to say, No, despite having a role in ensuring that the quality of any applications that come before it meet the standards that it sets.
Mr. Curry: I do not want to stray too much on to the subject of policy statements, but so much of what we are discussing depends on it. It is almost a pity that we are not looking at that first. Will a national policy statement be amendable in the course of parliamentary scrutiny? The Select Committees will scrutinise, but they do not amend, as such. Will it be amendable by the House?
John Healey: The Secretary of State and I have made it clear how seriously we take that element of the process of the production of national policy statements. That is not only because Parliaments role is important, but because, to the extent that Parliament plays an active, strong role in scrutiny by potentially debating and revising national policy statements, the statements will be stronger, more authoritative and a better basis for determining any individual applications that may follow as a result.
We have made it clear that we would expect to and would be required to consult widely as Ministers on any potential draft national policy statement. We would expect Parliament to give that close scrutiny. Ultimately, it is for Parliament to determine the arrangements that it sets up to do that, but we are proposing and will seek a quadrilateral Select Committee to discharge that function.
I suspect that the Select Committee will take evidence, come to its view, publish a report, and, no doubt, have recommendations for the ways in which the draft national policy statement can be improved or amended, or whether it should be reconsidered. Ministers will inevitably take that carefully into account, as we always do. We will make any revisions that we think may be justified at that point, butthe right hon. Gentleman knows the procedures of the House better than I doit is also open for Select Committees to regard a particular policy area or report
Mrs. Lait: I find the Ministers comments interesting, and we will, undoubtedly, pursue them. However, may I take him back to his concern about what he believes is a conflict of interest for Ministers when dealing with matters set out in clause 13(1) and its 13 paragraphs as to what are nationally significant infrastructure projects? I have just looked quickly down the list
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady is jumping ahead into clause 13 and infrastructure projects. The Minister talked about national policy statements, but we are still debating clause 1 and amendments relating to the planning commission. May we come back to the amendments?
Mrs. Lait: Indeed, with pleasure, Mr. Illsley. I was about to come to the relevance of the amendments. The Minister raised the issue of the perceived conflict of interest for Ministers and the reason for establishing the commission.
Our argument is that of the 13 nationally significant infrastructure projects listed in clause 13, Ministers are technically involved in only two, both of which are in transport. One is roads, because the Highways Agency is a wholly funded Government agency. The other is railways, because Network Rail is essentially[ Interruption. ] I have said on the Floor of the House that it is a nationalised industry, but, technically, it is a company limited by guarantee. However, the way things are going, it will very quickly be nationalised.
In only two of the 13 does that conflict of interest exist. To create a national planning commission for two conflicts of interest is a very expensive exercise in self-indulgence.
John Healey: The hon. Lady should check the record. At no point did I say that there is a conflict of interest. I said that there is scope in our proposals for introducing greater clarity, a greater separation of roles and, therefore, a greater ability to hold to account.
On why we are not using the Planning Inspectorate, the planning inspectors explained in their evidence to the Committee that they are appointed by the Secretary of State to make decisions on her behalf or to make recommendations to her on major projects, such as the ones that we are considering for the IPC. At the heart of what we are doing is the wish to create a distinction between policy making and decision making in major projects. Developing the Planning Inspectorate would not allow us to deliver that separation. I shall come on to a couple of other reasons for that, but I do not believe that the Planning Inspectorate system as it currently stands is the right way to deal with those major projects.
On the hon. Ladys concerns about why we should not let the 2005 reforms play through, I hope she remembers the Eddington report into transport and the Barker report into planning and housing. They were clear in their analysis about the weaknesses of the current planning system. Both inquiries clearly said that simply fine-tuning or tinkering with the current system would not be up to the job of delivering the housing that we require, in Barkers case, or of delivering the transport infrastructure that we need, in Eddingtons case.
The energy White Paper, along with the work that we have done on the importance of energy security and the commitments that we have made on the challenge of climate change, require us to look for reforms if we want to meet this countrys obligations on climate change. We want to deliver a better balance of energy sources for the future, including renewable sources, and we want to make them more secure. We want to secure the same sort of economic success that we have seen in the past 10 years, as global pressures become much greater. To achieve those aims we will need a better planning system that will help us to deal with those big challenges. Major investment in infrastructure will be required in all those areas.
Mr. Curry: Before the Minister moves on, will he comment further on those reports? The Government treat the Barker report as if it is a re-write of the Old Testament. A lot of things in the Barker report were not right. It asked for yet another shot at the planning gains tax, which I am delighted to say the Government have rejected. Some of the points that she made about land being hoarded by developers and some of her reasons for the absence of a sufficient rate of house building have not been sustained in practice.
John Healey: My point about the Barker report related to those matters on which she was absolutely right. She was concerned about the performance of the planning system, and right in her criticisms and suggestions for some of the major reforms that were required.
Dan Rogerson: I am sure that few hon. Members would dispute that there are problems with the planning system and issues that need to be addressed. The question is whether the IPC is one of the solutions that we need to resolve those problems. Does the Minister feel that that aspect of the current proposals was not as well supported, whether in those reports to which he referred or in the evidence last week?
John Healey: I was quite encouraged by the evidence. The core case and requirement for the IPC was strongly supported by a number of significant witnesses. Clearly some disagreed, which is only to be expected, and
Mrs. Lait: The Minister referred to the Barker and Eddington reports. My sense of timing may be incorrect, but given that we still have not seen the impact of the 2005 planning changes and that nobody has done any analysis of them, were Barker and Eddington not published before the process had even been established? How could they comment on the changes on a process that had not been worked through?
John Healey: I was going to deal first with the hon. Ladys point on whether Ministers should be doing this. It was also made by other hon. Members. I was then going to come on to the 2005 reforms. I can switch the order if she prefers, but perhaps she could give me a little longer to proceed with my points. She can come back later if I do not cover her comments.
I understand the arguments that hon. Members make about Ministers. I understand Members fierce pride in this place and the importance that they place on the ministerial accountability to it. However, as I tried to explain in evidence last week, when taking decisions on planning as Ministers in the Departments with those responsibilities, we act less in a political role. Indeed, were we to make decisions on a political basis, they would readily and rightly be challenged legally, as they often have been when Ministers have tried it in the past.
Ministers make decisions in that capacity in a quasi-judicial role, strongly constrainedrightly, many would saywithin the legal framework of the planning process. That means that if I as a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government make a planning decision, I am accountable not to Members of this House or to Parliament. I am not challengeable for that principally in this House; I am challengeable principally through the courts.
John Healey: Principally, I am accountable to judges and juries and not to this House for those decisions that I take. I may have to explain it to the House, but ultimately I am accountable to and challengeable through the judicial process, not the political and parliamentary process.
James Duddridge: I put it to the Minister that he is wholly and totally wrong and that he is accountable to the electorate, who will kick him out if he and his colleagues get it wrong. I was going to ask whether an oral question can be asked on an infrastructure project, but I think that after I indicated that I wanted to intervene, he distinguished between the word explain and words that he had used previously. One has to explain, but that is not the same as being accountable to Parliament. Does he believe that he is indeed accountable to Parliament collectively?
John Healey: Of course I am accountable to Parliament: I am a Government Minister and that is the nature of our work. The right hon. Member for Skipton and
Mr. Llwyd: This is an interesting discussion, but I take issue with the Minister on one point. When acting in a quasi-judicial capacity as a Minister on planning, he is of course open to scrutiny from the courts. If he were to make an entirely improper decision, which I do not think that he would ever do, would not he be accountable to Parliament?
John Healey: I am not certain what the hon. Gentleman has in mind when he refers to acting improperly and I find such a hypothetical situation difficult to contemplate.
Mr. Llwyd: I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not understand because I know that he is a very decent man. Let me give him an example. Let us say that a Minister came under pressure from someone to do something that he should not do or, worse still, was in some way beholden to a vested interest to do somethingI cannot think of any current example, thank God. In circumstances in which a Minister might behave improperly, surely he would be accountable to Parliament. When he acts quasi-judicially, his decision is viewed in the courts only if one gets through the gateway of having acted unreasonably, according to the Wednesbury principles. I am talking about conduct that would be criticised in this place, and he would be accountable to Parliament, would he not?
John Healey: I have been lucky enough to be a Minister for seven years, and we are of course subject to criticism in this place. The essential point is that the system means that any planning application decision would be overturned not here, but through the courts, and that fact remains. Proposing that the Planning Inspectorate acts as the body responsible for the decision would not get over the problem of separating policy making and decision making, or the problem that the system would have two or more people separately and sequentially going over the same ground, which risks introducing delays and uncertainty, particularly where further information or clarification is required.
The 2005 rule changes have generally been regarded as an improvement. However, they only apply to major infrastructure projects that are submitted under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. They do not apply to any major projectshighways, ports, railways, gas pipelines or water. They have not yet been used as there have been no major infrastructure projects to which they would apply. As I explained, the rule changes do not apply to the other consent regimes that we are trying, first, to marshal through the national
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those changes could also be applied to other regimes?
John Healey: First, as I explained, we do not know how the rule changes will work with major infrastructure projects. Secondly, we take the view, especially in the context of the major challenges that we face in the areas I mentioned and reflecting on some of the concerns expressed by Eddington and Barker, that more thorough reform is required. We need a single consent regime, separation between policy making and decision making, national policy statements and better developed projects for major infrastructure before they are considered as an application. We also need more streamlined but more accessible processes for making those decisions. The Bill lays out an overall set of reforms, of which the IPC is one element, which will have the impact that we seek for the future.
We are not proposing to end the citizens right to be heard, as the hon. Lady suggested; precisely the contrary. I shall not stray too widely as we will return to the matter at a number of points in the Bill. I simply say that our proposals and the system that the Bill sets out strengthen and widen the scope for the public to put their views in the consultation and lead-up to the national policy statements, in the pre-application process before a major project even comes to the IPC, and then in the conduct of the examination of the application by the IPC.
You may wish me to deal with the matter when we discuss in schedule 1, Mr. Illsley, but there are clear rights for the public to be heard at specific-issue hearings and in open hearings. All hon. Members have experience of the current system of the public wanting to make their voices heard, and they will agree that the system is complex, often intimidating, lengthy and dominated by barristers; it is expensive as well as professionalised.
It is a misapprehension and a misrepresentation of an important principle to say that the right to be heard is equivalent to the right to cross-examination. In respect of cross-examination, members of the commission will test the evidence for themselves, just as members of Select Committees do. They will be able to draw on experts to advise and assist them if they so require. If they believe that it will help them in conducting their hearings or if they believe that it is necessary to ensure that the views of certain interests are not disadvantaged, they have the scope to invite participants to cross-examine those giving evidence.
To be clear, we do not expect cross-examination, especially led by professionals who currently make a good living from it, to be the principal method of conduct, but the Bill does not outlaw cross-examination. It gives the commission scope to use cross-examination in those circumstances where it has a role to play in the commissions hearings.
Mrs. Lait: As the Minister says, we will return to this subject regularly. My question is whether, in his desire
The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister responds to that, could I ask him to be very brief, and to save the bulk of his comments for the later part of the Bill, when we will discuss cross-examination?
John Healey: The principal responsibility in testing the evidence before the commission will be for the commissioners conducting the hearing. We will look at that area in detail. They will be guided in the way that they do that, but given discretion where they think that it may be required.
I will now move on to the hon. Member for North Cornwalls amendment. I congratulate him on his new job, leading for the Liberal Democrats on the Front Bench. He was right to thank the witnesses who appeared before the Committee. Beyond that, I think that he was still warming up in the fairly brief comments that he made. If I missed any questions or points that he put to me, I am sure that he will let me know.
Like other members of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon brings great experience to these matters and to the Committees scrutiny. He loyally supported the position of his Front Bench on the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Beckenham. As he rightly said, most of these matters are ones of detail and are perhaps for subsequent examination under other amendments that we will consider.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy who speaks for Plaid Cymru said that the Planning Inspectorate was the answer. He was worried, first, about the cost and, secondly, about the fact that we were having to legislate. On the latter point, I hope that I answered the concern about the 2005 rule changes, but, even if we were looking to use the Planning Inspectorate, primary legislation would be required in many cases.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was present for the evidence session in which we covered the question of cost. We estimate the running costs of the commission to be around £9 million. Last year the budget for the Planning Inspectorate was more than £56 million. Up to 35 commissioners will be required to run the commission. Inspectors for the Planning Inspectorate, both those who are salaried and those who are consultant, total over 400. We estimate that the commission will hear up to about 45 cases in any one year. Last year, the Planning Inspectorate not only received but decided more than 900 separate inquiries on appeal. That should give him a sense of scale and proportion for the commission. It may also cause him to question whether it is plausible that a body charged with such traffic and work could develop the kind of
Finally, if the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy reads Hansard tomorrow, I think he will find that he slightly overstated his case. He suggested that the commission was the biggest quango ever put in place. I was Minister with responsibility for adult skills at one point, responsible for the Learning and Skills Council. I have rather lost track now, but I believe that the budget of the Learning and Skills Council is about £9 billion in the current year.
Mr. Llwyd: I very much appreciate the way in which the Minister is dealing with this issue and the tenor of the debate. Can he explain to me once more where the direct line of accountability between the IPC and this place or a Minister is? I have read the Bill and I cannot find it. Perhaps he could me help me on that.
John Healey: I will endeavour to do so. The IPC will always be required to operate within the framework of national policy statements, which is an innovation. I will not go over the authority that national policy statements will have, given the process that we propose for them. If Parliament sets up the sort of Select Committee and scrutiny arrangements that we anticipate for the consideration of national policy statements, then clearly I would expect that Committee to take an active, direct interest in the IPC, including wanting to hear from it directly. It would be able, therefore, to call the chair of the commission and the commission to account for their work and the decisions that they take.
The IPC will be subject to freedom of information legislation. It will be subject to investigation, should the circumstances arise, by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Ultimately, the Secretary of State will have powers in certain circumstances to remove commissioners because of the conduct of their work. Finally, to pull together and reflect the work that the IPC will do, it will be required to publish an annual report. That report will be laid via the Secretary of State, because that is the required process in the House, and be made available to Parliament.
Mr. Jones: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation, but where would a member of the public who is aggrieved by a decision of the IPC, specifically with regard to its draconian powers to modify and override primary legislation, go in those circumstances other than to the court at perhaps enormous cost?
John Healey: The short answer is that they would, as now, have to challenge through the courts. There is no change to that and we are not proposing one.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy was concerned about us somehow limiting the local input. He will see during the detailed scrutiny of various clauses of the Bill that we are increasing, not decreasing, the opportunities for those who may be affected to make their views known and to register their concerns.
In summary, we are aiming for greater clarity. We are aiming for greater certainty and accountability in the way that the process will work through the IPC. We are
The Planning Inspectorate would not do the required job in relation to this part of the reforms. I hope that hon. Members will agree that this has been a useful and extended opening debate. It deals with an important area of the Bill, in relation to which specific and principled concerns have been raised about the proposed IPC. I hope that the hon. Member for Beckenham will not feel it necessary to press her amendments to a vote. If she does, I will have to ask my hon. Friends to oppose them.
Mrs. Lait: I thank you for your leniency, Mr. Illsley, despite your best efforts, in allowing us to range fairly widely on this issue. I remember that when I looked at the amendments and the structure of the debate, I thought that if we were to start with a discussion on the national policy statements we might be able to keep much more in order.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friends and colleagues on the Opposition Benches for bringing out so many of the points of detail. Despite the Ministers helpfulness and reasonableness, I still have serious concerns about the establishment of the IPC. I will not repeat the arguments, but one of the areas that I did not focus on, and am grateful to colleagues for raising, is accountability. On a detailed point, to which we will doubtless return, the Minister referred to the IPC reporting to Parliament. My reading of the Bill is that just the accounts will be reported to Parliament.
John Healey: If the hon. Lady re-reads the record tomorrow morning, she will see that I said that the annual report that the IPC will be required to produce will be available to Parliament.
Mrs. Lait: I am very grateful. The report might be available to Parliament, but as I understand it, that is not laid down in the Bill. Unless the Minister has tabled an amendment that I have not yet read, the IPC is not obliged to report to Parliament; the requirement relates only to its accounts.
John Healey: The hon. Lady will notice that there are no Government amendments to clause 1 or schedule 1, or to clauses 2, 3 or 4.
Mrs. Lait: The Minister is absolutely correct. I was thinking that there might have been a weasel amendment somewhere else that covers this point. Doubtless we will come back to it. I am planning to do so during the debate on schedule 1, so I will not press the point any further. I think that the Minister realises that Opposition Members still have serious concerns about accountability.
I must confess that I still do not think that the Minister has fully explored another key point. Doubtless many fine brains in the Department and he himself have spent many hours trying to work out whether it was possible to amend the responsibilities of the Planning Inspectorate, and to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 so that the 2005 planning
I am increasingly concerned about the disconnect that could emerge between the IPC and the electorate. At the moment, although technically the Minister makes his decisions on quasi-judicial grounds, the electorate believe, deep in their collective psyche, that they are properly heard by those in the political system whom they entrust with the responsibility to make such decisions. The IPC does not in any way, shape or form replace that, even though there are national policy statements and we agree that those are a good thing and that they cover many of the areas of any infrastructure application.
For those very broad reasons, quite apart from the smaller ones, many of which we will discuss later, I continue to propose a vote on amendment No. 230.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 10.
Division No. 1 ]
Question accordingly negatived.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, at end insert
(4) This section shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint..
Clause stand part.
Amendment No. 46, in clause 179, page 101, line 1, after section, insert 1(4),.
Mrs. Lait: I shall address my remarks to amendments Nos. 1 and 3 because No. 46 is consequential. Should the amendments be successful, other consequential amendments can be made.
Amendment No. 1 deals with something that was raised en passant in our first debate. It would limit the role of the commission to those conferred to it under the legislation. Amendment No. 3 is designed to introduce the Bills provisions by statutory instrument so that, on reflection and with more experience, and once we have seen the impact of the 2005 rules and other changes that there may be by the time the legislation commencesdraft policy statements, for examplewe could have another debate about its content, preferably on the Floor of the House, to decide whether it is necessary. That would be sensible. Indeed, I will argue that the clause is not necessary.
Opposition Members have raised the issuethere are amendments on thisabout the measures that state that the commission can have conferred on it the powers under any other Act. That is a draconian power to give to an unaccountable body such as the commission. It is not beyond the wit of man or woman to work out that there are many Acts that the commissioners could invoke to drive through an infrastructure project that they believe to be important against legitimate and popular opposition. Indeed, it is not beyond the wit of man to see that it could be used by people who are applying for an infrastructure development that may be contrary to their interests. We have tabled a simple amendment to ensure that the commission could act only under the terms in this Bill. We need not spend much longer exploring that issue in detail, as it is fairly simple.
I have explained our reason for wishing the measures to commence by statutory instrument, rather than by ministerial fiat, so I shall address the principle of the issuethe existence of the commission, on which we had a wide-ranging debate. The commission is not necessary. We have suggested various changes and we could give further consideration to the Planning Inspectorate, focusing on what powers it should have and how its remit could be amended. We could save the taxpayer money on the setting up of that new quango. We should focus on how to simplify and speed up the system by using the single consent regime and all the other things that we are doubtless likely to discuss. However, I do not want to be pulled up by a Chairman again for ranging too widely, and I understand his concerns. We have gone through most of the reasons why we do not think the commission should be set up.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; it will enable her to get her breath back. Does she agree that it is significant that the Planning Inspectorate itself set up new rulesthe major planning rules in 2005? It was apparent in the evidence session that many of those rules, which are designed to speed up the process and crystallise the issues to reduce needless cross-examination, have not yet been tested fully in practice. Is not a further advantage of our amendments that they would limit the application of the Bill and give time for further reflection? That would give the Government an opportunity to see how the rules have fully worked out, as they will have been tested through subsequent appeals, and it would enable them to find the means by which to achieve efficiency without
Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He is right. The Government are legislating far too hastily before those 2005 planning rules have been worked through and we have serious experience of them. The Minister suggested that they were governed by the Town and Country Planning Acts, and we would be happy to consider amending that legislation by statutory instrument. We would not have to sit here for the next three or four weeks, debating these matters in great detail. All the Government need to do is introduce a statutory instrument to amend the Town and Country Planning Acts so that the 2005 rules encompass national infrastructure issues.
Another pertinent issue is the predictionmy prediction; I am happy to admit to itthat it will be some time before the national policy statements come into place. We heard from the Minister that it is likely to be 2009 before we get the draft nuclear energy policy statement. That may be the first national policy statement down the line, unless the Government try to drive through the airport strategy. It will be some considerable time before the statements come into play, so it will be some considerable time before applications are made to the planning commission. There is plenty of time to review the 05 figures and the effectiveness of the 05 rules, which would allow us coherently to create the required legislation. I believe that Ministers want to bring the Bill into play in 09, which gives us plenty of time to determine whether the planning changes are working well, and indeed to go through a statutory instrument process.
We would be much happier if the clause were not part of the Bill. The planning commission will not be able to deliver the infrastructure developments that are so necessary, and the clause will hinder their development because of the learning curve that the commission will experience and the legal, human rights, Aarhus and accountability challenges that it will face. It does not even look like we will receive a proper report from the commission each year. We will get its accounts, but not a report. As somebody who is used to reading reports and accounts, I do not regard a report to Parliament to be exactly the same as a report of accounts.
We will have an unaccountable body, which will not necessarily deliver the benefits to the planning system that the Minister wants. It will allow Ministers yet again to abrogate their responsibility for taking the decisions that the British public expect them to take. That is possibly the worst insult to the British public that the Government have heaped on them in a very long time.
Dan Rogerson: I kept my remarks brief on the previous group of amendments on the understanding that we would have this debate about whether the clause should stand part. Many of the points that I could have made have been made well by other hon. Members, but I shall explore the concept of which the Minister has been a firm advocate.
There is a clear distinction between the role of elected politicians in determining policy and the role of determining applications, which should be done by an
John Healey: I am not following the hon. Gentleman. What is the committee of elected members to which such views on a particular application can be put?
Dan Rogerson: I am referring to how planning works locally. I am trying to get across to the Minister the principle that an elected person, be they the Secretary of State or elected members locally, has responsibility in a quasi-judicial system and is seen to have that responsibility. The Secretary of State has argued that the courts are the only method of challenge under the current system. However, it is clear that people feel that the Secretary of State and, as the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East said, the Government collectively can be held responsible for key decisions. We shall return later to national policy, on which there are a number of issues to resolve.
Having re-examined the written and oral evidence that was presented to us last week, I see clear agreement that much could be improved in how significant projects are handled in the planning system. There is concern about unifying the consent regime, about the time taken to determine applications and, more significantly, the transparency of the timetable for doing so and whether it will be stuck to. I am sure that we shall return to that later in our deliberations.
Such matters can be resolved in other ways, and I have still to hear a strong argument from the Minister that decisions must be taken by the infrastructure planning commission and that we need to set up a further quango, however much smaller it is than the others that he has dealt with. It is an extra complication that we do not need. That is why, although much can be agreed on to improve the planning system, the commission does not have the support of the Liberal Democrats. Will the Minister give us an example of why he believes it is such a crucial part of the Bill, and why the other improvements that he suggests could not be made in its absence?
Tom Brake: As my hon. Friend said, the infrastructure planning commission is the major sticking point for us in the Bill. We could half-heartedly have attempted to enhance its legitimacy and accountability, but our view is that it cannot be fixed, so a more sensible approach is the big bang approachto scrap it altogether.
Although the Minister is articulate and has put a strong case on a number of aspects of the Billnational
The Minister rightly identified the need to address the speed of the planning process. Will he respond to what was said by, for instance, Friends of the Earth: that because of the commissions lack of legitimacy, there is likely to be a significant increase in legal challenges and, it hinted, illegal challenges, or a second wave of Twyford Down protests up and down the country, because people will not feel that it is accountable when it takes decisions on their behalf? What assessment has the Ministers Department made of the potential impact of such demonstrations on the speed with which planning decisions will be taken? His principal concern may be speed, but everything that he has said about the Bill and about the improvements in the rate at which applications will be addressed could be completely demolished by large demonstrations and legal or illegal challenges up and down the country. It is incumbent on the MinisterI hope that he is listening to this pointto confirm that his Department has carried out a substantial risk assessment of the issue and can quantify the impact. I hope that he can demonstrate to us that, having taken the risk of demonstrations into account, he still thinks that his proposals will speed up the planning process. I hope that he will be able to respond at least on that specific point.
Robert Neill: It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I am sorry that I was unable to be here earlier in the debate, but I am familiar with the issues that were raised from the evidence sessions.
I want briefly to follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. The reason for our great concern about this part of the Bill and for our fundamental objection to itit is the reason that we are spending so much time on thisis that it changes the balance between the citizen and the state and removes certain of the opportunities that citizens currently have to make objections. That is said to be in the greater good, because there is a need for national infrastructure, which we all concede, as well as a need for speed and efficiency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, however, all of that can be achieved by other means. Not for the first time, it is the draconian means by which the Government seek to solve an accepted problem that give us difficulties, and that goes right to the heart of the Bill.
The issue of legitimacy has been mentioned, and I hope that the Minister will return to the observations of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, because legitimacy and a measure of consent on the part of those who are subject to the rule of law are fundamental to the workability of that law. If we arrive at a point at which ordinary people feel that they have not had a fair crack of the whip, there will be legal challenges and, to some degree, the sort of direct action that none of us want to see.
As an insomnia cure, I glanced through the impact assessment, which is actually a very useful document. I do not mean to denigrate those who drew it up, but it is also a jolly good doorstep, given that there are about 234 pages of it. None the less, it does not adequately address the impact on human rights and legitimacy issuesindeed, they are not really addressed at all, as far as I can see. I am sure that they are looked at somewhere and I hope that the Minister can flesh out how the Government will deal with them.
In our debate on the previous group of amendments, the Minister used the well-known and frequently repeated argument that the planning system is held up too much by the wiles of the lawyers. Perhaps I should declare an interest in that I am a lawyer and have the odd wile, although I have never done much in the field of planning, apart from when a planning officer took altogether too much money under circumstances in which he should not have done, but that is not quite the issue that we are dealing with. However, the Bill has the potential to become a lawyers charter, and instead of lots of planning lawyers being employed in inquiries, we will have lots of administrative law lawyers conducting judicial reviews. What it comes down to is that virtually everything will be subject to judicial review, and we will simply change the type of lawyer who gets involved in the inquirywe will not save any money or time. The whole solution is fundamentally ill-conceived.
The other danger of the proposed solution is that it entrenches the position of the big battalionsthe people who will have the resources to go to judicial review. However, the little peopleI do not think that I have any interest to declare in that respect, but I will do so if you so guide me, Mr. Illsley
Alun Michael: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman or I could escape the description of little people, so I will let that pass. However, it sounds as if his threat on behalf of the legal profession is: It doesnt matter what people do or how you try to bring sense into the processes, we will get you in the end.
Robert Neill: The right hon. Gentleman betrays an extraordinary degree of cynicism that I would never have expected from one who comes from a principality that has produced so many fine lawyers in recent times. The truth is that lawyers are only employed because there are clients who are aggrieved enough to employ them. That is the reality. It is the aggrieved people who will set in train the judicial reviews. That is the bit that the Bill does not adequately address.
My point is that the little people will have the biggest difficulty in mounting a legal challenge: it will be tougher for them, rather than tough for the corporates or the well-organised bodies. It might have been different if the Minister had been prepared to say, Well look at an extension of planning aid, or something of that kind, to try to assist such people. The Bill is pretty silent on that point.
I regret that we are wholly unconvinced about this element of the Bill. The Government, not for the first time, have highlighted a problem on which they could have achieved consensus, but they have gone down a needlessly dirigiste, cumbersome, over-ambitious and over-elaborate route to solve it and have, therefore, thrown away the opportunity to have the consensus that they could have had and which would have carried a great deal more weight and legitimacy in the country.
In defence of these changes, people say, Well, Ministers arent really accountable because they act quasi-judicially. But that is not the way that the public see it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham has said. Although Ministers can be judicially reviewed, as councillors canit is essentially a legal processthe public perception of that initial decision being taken by somebody whom they can either directly or indirectly remove is important. If a council keeps getting judicially reviewed, its reputation will not be terribly good and the electorate have the ability to get rid of the councillors. In the same way, if a Minister gets such a reputationit has happened, in one or two cases, that Ministers are for ever being judicially reviewedthere comes a point when a reshuffle takes place and they are no longer a Minister. Even among politicians, if someone gets it wrong often enough they get JRd. That discipline ought to be there.
James Duddridge: My hon. Friend is making an ample case on behalf of the little people. I hope that I will be large to his little, making it little and large.
My hon. Friend has talked a lot about the representation of little people, but paragraph 13 of schedule 1 states:
The Commission may make arrangements with such persons as it thinks appropriate for assistance to be provided to it...The arrangements may include provision for the payment of fees.
Does that reassure him in relation to little people being involved in the process early on? Will he probe the Minister for details of that financial assistance, particularly from the perspectives of laying on extra cost and giving representation to people who perhaps cannot afford good but expensive lawyers such as himself?
Robert Neill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. If I were still in practice, I would ask him to send that comment to my clerk to put on our chambers website. But I do not think that I can do that, in the circumstances.
My hon. Friend raised an interesting point. It is not clear and the Government have not made it clear whether that passage in paragraph 13 of schedule 1 refers to assistance to people who are trying to make representations or submissions or to what one might term a consultancy arrangement for the commission. In the evidence-taking sessions it was said that the commission is having to buy in skills to assist it with its deliberations. Paragraph 13 could be about that, because the commission, which will need a range of expertise that may not be readily available, might want that provision included so that it can help itself. If so, I should be saddened because it certainly would not assist an aggrieved party, whether little, medium-sized or any other size, and would mean the commission buying in, in effect, what it could have had anyway if it had gone through the Planning Inspectorate process.
It being One oclock , The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at Four oclock.
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