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House of Commons
Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates

Planning Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Sir John Butterfill, Mr. Eric Illsley
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) (Lab)
Curry, Mr. David (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Ellman, Mrs. Louise (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Healey, John (Minister for Local Government)
Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui (Beckenham) (Con)
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Rogerson, Dan (North Cornwall) (LD)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 17 January 2008


[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

Planning Bill

Further written evidence to be reported to the House

PB 28 Mayor of London
PB 29 Conservation Architecture & Planning Ltd.

Clause 5

National policy statements
9 am
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 5, page 2, line 36, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following ame3ndments: No. 5, in clause 5, page 2, line 40, leave out ‘development’ and insert ‘developments in the fields of—
(i) energy,
(ii) transport,
(iii) water,
(iv) waste water, or
(v) waste.’.
No. 6, in clause 5, page 3, line 29, at end add—
‘(9) The Secretary of State may issue a national policy statement under subsection (1) of this section in respect of any nationally significant infrastructure project as defined in sections 13(1) and (2).’.
Mrs. Lait: I welcome you to your first sitting of line-by-line consideration of the Bill, Sir John. I would like to put it on record that I am glad that we are moving on to the national policy statements because on Tuesday, Mr. Illsley had the very difficult job of trying to keep us in order when so much discussion of the infrastructure planning commission depended on the national policy statements. Now that we have finished discussing the IPC—
The Chairman: Order. Mr. Illsley has made that point clear to me. I would be grateful if the hon. Lady would carry on with the subject now under discussion.
Mrs. Lait: I am glad that Mr. Illsley alerted you to the difficulties that we had, Sir John. I will now continue on the issue of national policy statements.
I hope that this will not stop us from having a clause stand part debate, but it is worth putting it on the record that in principle, we believe that national policy statements are a good thing. However, there are serious questions about many parts of the Government proposals.
This first group of amendments is not the most important group, but we think that it is important that we do not see national policy statements emerging in areas other than the five listed in clause 13(5). That is why the amendment would replace the conditional “may” with “must”, with regard to the Secretary of State issuing national policy statements. Amendment No. 5 would bring the list from clause 13(5) into clause 5 to ensure that national policy statements cover only those five areas. Amendment No. 6 is, in effect, another way of ensuring that amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are dealt with. In that way, we could say that it is a supernumerary amendment. If the Government are not prepared to accept amendments Nos. 4 and 5, they could instead accept amendment No. 6.
There has been a big debate in the evidence that we heard and among lobby groups about whether the policy statements should be focused tightly. In the evidence sessions last week we had a brief debate about whether there should be an environmental policy statement. We understand why that suggestion was put forward, but I think that it is important that every policy statement includes environmental considerations, so it is unnecessary to have a separate one. However, there is a demand for one. The Minister is looking either very interested or wishes to intervene.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I am very interested because the view expressed by the hon. Lady is entirely different from that of her hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. He supported the proposals of the Liberals last week. That is what interested me.
Mrs. Lait: Indeed, the Minister indicated his interest in this matter last week, so we are going over worn ground. My hon. Friend has accepted the arguments for environmental issues to be addressed within each national policy statement.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): If my hon. Friend consults the record, I think that she will find that I did not say that I would support, but that I would be minded to support the proposals. I will continue to listen to the debate, but I have not fully committed myself to any position.
Mrs. Lait: What this brief exchange demonstrates is that there is the potential for mission creep in the national policy statements. We are keen that national policy statements be limited to the five issues in clause 13(5). I shall be interested to know whether any of my hon. Friends have positive views on any other area that they think should be brought in. However, for all the reasons that will become apparent, we want to limit the number of areas in which the Secretary of State must issue these national policy statements. One of our principal reasons for keeping it tight is to ensure that there is no mission creep and that the policy on national policy statements is kept clear from the practicalities and the details.
John Healey: May I welcome you, Sir John, to this sitting. We are making speedier progress than we did on Tuesday. [ Interruption. ] Perhaps it is rather early to be tempting fate with such an observation.
Under amendment No. 4, the Secretary of State would be unable to issue a statement setting out national policy in relation to any of the specified fields, without designating that statement as a national policy statement. I am not sure that that is exactly what the hon. Lady had in mind, but that would be the effect of the amendment. She was a little clearer about amendment No. 5. It seeks to restrict the areas in which the Secretary of State can set out policy in a national policy statement so as to match the types of nationally significant infrastructure development which are to be covered by the new regime: developments in the fields of energy, transport, water, waste water and waste. Amendment No. 6 seeks to clarify at this stage of the Bill that national policy statements may be issued in relation to the categories of project set out in clause 13.
My problem with the amendments is as follows. The principal purpose of national policy statements is to bring together all the factors that will be relevant for the infrastructure planning commission when deciding on a particular application. However, there may be occasions when the Secretary of State wishes to set out aspects of national policy in relation to the fields in question, but not to designate them, for the purposes of the Bill, to be the framework within which the IPC should consider applications. That could, for example, be
in the form of an overarching statement of national policy, which may set out long-term strategic goals but which would not necessarily be suitable as a decision-making reference point, or tool, in itself. Such documents would form part of the policy background, which national policy statements would then need to take into account. A national policy statement would also need to explain how it had taken into account the full range of factors that are relevant to the commission’s decision-making process.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for explaining his thinking on the proposal. However, I want to press him a little further. He gave us an idea of the type of use to which a national policy statement might be put in those circumstances. Given the implications for members of the public, which we discussed when considering the consultation process in earlier clauses, in what fields does the Minister envisage that it might be necessary or desirable to have a policy statement that is not linked to the work of the infrastructure planning commission?
John Healey: It is less a question of the field and more of the type and nature of a broad policy statement that may be required or desired by Government. Ministers may not wish to designate it as a national policy statement because it is not specifically suitable or necessary for the conduct of the work of the IPC.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Will the Minister explain what “designate” means, because it can cause a lot of confusion? The clause says that a statement may be “designated” as a national policy statement. Are there circumstances in which a statement that has already been made might subsequently acquire the status of a national policy statement by being designated?
The Minister said that the national policy statements will bring together a wide range of issues that impact on a particular circumstance. Could elements of a national policy statement be comprised of a statement on matters that are relevant and be incorporated into a national policy statement? In other words, is every national policy statement newly minted, or can it be something that already exists or that incorporates elements of existing statements?
John Healey: The significance of designation is that it then becomes, for the purposes of the legislation, the principal reference point for the IPC in considering any applications related to that type of nationally significant infrastructure project. To be capable of being designated as such by the Secretary of State, it would have to fulfil the criteria set out in the Bill—the standards that the national policy statements must meet.
It is possible that an existing policy statement could become designated and therefore become a national policy statement, which we discussed in our evidence sessions with reference to the aviation White Paper. Were that to be something that the Government considered, the policy statement, which the Secretary of State for Transport might wish to designate as a national policy statement for the purposes of the IPC and infrastructure applications, would have to meet, and to show that it meets, the criteria set out in the Bill. That includes aspects of consultation, of the sustainable development duty and the other things that we have been considering for national policy statements.
Mr. Curry: In terms of the procedure that would then follow the designation of an existing document as a national policy statement, the consultation procedures that accompany the national policy statement will be applied to an old document. Any scrutiny that it had already received would not be deemed to have been part of that consultation.
Let me explain further. The Government could well make a statement, and the Select Committee may want to look at and comment on it. It might become a national policy statement, and the Minister has said that there is a procedure laid out for consultation, which flows from a national policy statement. I want to ensure that when something is designated, all those consultative procedures start to flow again and are not deemed to have already been completed or partially completed.
9.15 am
John Healey: It might help the Committee if deal with the specific example of the aviation White Paper. As sensitive as it is and as cautious as I am about dealing with it, I shall nevertheless try to do so.
The aviation White Paper is due and the Government are committed to reviewing it sometime between 2009 and 2011. At that point, should the Secretary of State for Transport wish to review it, either as it stands or as the basis of a national policy statement, she would have to consider policy questions about whether it was sufficiently up to date, current and comprehensive. I guess that those would be policy matters for her.
With regard to the Bill, however, the Secretary of State would also have to consider whether the criteria had been adequately discharged, including the extensive scope for public consultation and the scrutiny of a potential national policy statement by the House. If not, she would be open to challenge. Clearly, I cannot say definitely in January 2008 what decisions she might take at that point.
Mr. Curry: Or he might take.
John Healey: Indeed, although I have a lot of faith in the Secretary of State for Transport
It is possible to anticipate that aspects of that White Paper might need to be updated and that the Secretary of State, to meet the criteria that we are setting out for consultation on national policy statements, the likes of which were, of course, not in place when the aviation White Paper was produced, might take the view that further consultation is appropriate. It is probable—it is probably even more certain than that—that the parliamentary scrutiny and examination to which the White Paper is subject would need to be revisited and refreshed to meet the process that we have set out.
Mrs. Lait Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
John Healey: May I just answer the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon? I am trying to do so as fully as I can for the assistance of the Committee.
Because of the importance that we are attaching to a new form of more exacting parliamentary scrutiny, it is highly likely that any proposed national policy statement on aviation, whether it is a development or the extant White Paper, and irrespective of what public consultation process was deemed appropriate, would be subjected to parliamentary procedure.
I say bluntly and clearly that I understand the fear that some have that the aviation White Paper as it stands will somehow be capable of becoming a national policy statement overnight. Under the Bill, it will not be possible to say, “Hey presto, here is one I prepared earlier,” not least because of the degree of parliamentary scrutiny required. For a national policy statement to be legitimately designated, the Secretary of State will have to go through at least that process as part of considering moving the White Paper to, perhaps, a national policy statement on aviation. I hope that that explanation is helpful.
Mrs. Lait: I am sorry if I interrupted the Minister in full flow, but I did not want him to move on from this point until I had asked my question.
It will be very reassuring for everybody to have that clear explanation of how the Minister sees aviation policy developing, and of course the waste policy of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also needs to come into consideration. However, in explaining his objection to our amendments, he has put that explanation in terms of existing policy documents. Will he give an example of how he sees those policy documents working? I say that because we have the aviation policy, the waste policy and potentially a nuclear policy, but how will they operate in any new area, or within those five areas but with a new document that will not be seen to be part of the national policy statement process? Is his objection entirely retrospective?
John Healey: I think that the hon. Lady is asking me, as her right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon was asking me, for a little more explanation of my concerns about amendment No. 5. Is that correct?
Mrs. Lait: Yes. I apologise if that was not clear.
John Healey: Let me try to give the hon. Lady and the rest of the Committee another example; I think that, where it is possible for me to do so, that would be helpful. Let us take the field of transport. We have talked about aviation. Previously, we have talked about the prospect of ports as major infrastructure and the possibility of a national policy statement designed to deal with them. One could also see the role of a national policy statement on major highways and possibly on rail networks.
Given that one might anticipate with just those examples, and there may be more, that there would be four national policy statements, each one designed to provide the principal framework within which the IPC would be expected to take decisions on major applications for infrastructure and investment in those fields, it is also possible to envisage—if the hon. Lady were ever to be Secretary of State for Transport—
Mrs. Lait: I look forward to it.
John Healey: Perish the thought. However, let us deal with hypotheticals, because the hon. Lady encourages me to do so. It is quite plausible to imagine that to give broader coherence to those policy statements in four areas, she may want to be able to issue some type of overarching policy statement on transport. Nevertheless, that overarching statement would not be specific or directly relevant for the IPC’s consideration, because the principal framework, were the IPC to consider a port’s application, would be the national policy statement on ports. The same would be true for airport-related developments, and so on.
The hon. Lady may or may not remember that that type of overarching policy statement is the sort of thing that Rod Eddington’s report on aviation suggested would be valuable. The reason he said that was because it would be likely to give a consistent, analytical and broad policy framework within which the specific national policy statements for those types of infrastructure would be developed. In that circumstance, the Secretary of State might want to produce a policy statement related or relevant to those sectors, but she might not designate it as a national policy statement because the principal framework for the purposes of planning applications and consideration of those applications would be the national policy statements specifically designed for ports.
That is why I am concerned about amendment No. 5 and the way in which it would constrain what is potentially a sensible and important scope for the Secretary of State to be able to issue statements without them automatically having to be designated or categorised as a national policy statement.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I am following the Minister’s argument, but the debate is about retrospection, which rightly is a fairly rare bird. He should read clause 11 in conjunction with clause 5. Clause 11(3) states:
“The Secretary of State may take account of consultation carried out, and publicity arranged, before the commencement day for the purpose of complying with the requirements of section 7.”
That means that if a statement issued before the commencement day is to be designated as a national policy statement, the Secretary of State is not bound to take into account the consultation carried out in connection with that statement. That is a great worry.
John Healey: We can dwell on that at length when we discuss clause 11. However, if the hon. Gentleman checks the record, he will see that I was trying to exemplify the points made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. I said that it is possible that a Secretary of State for Transport might take the view that fresh consultation is necessary to comply with the standards for a national policy statement in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is provision for Secretaries of State to consider consultation that has already taken place on the content of a policy statement in coming to their judgments. That is reasonable. It will also be up to the House and ultimately the courts to consider that. The case that I used to exemplify the point was the aviation White Paper. I was quite careful about how I described the hypothetical situation of the aviation White Paper being considered as a potential national policy statement.
Robert Neill: On the Minister’s point about the overarching national policy statement in a particular area which is not for the purposes of the IPC, surely, however it is dressed up, it is inevitable that such a document would be at least a material consideration for the purposes of any application considered by the IPC. Under those circumstances, what harm would be done by requiring it to be designated as a national policy statement?
John Healey: The hon. Gentleman may well be right. It would depend on the circumstances of the individual case. However, I take him back to the evidence that we heard last week and the observations that he and the Conservative Front Benchers made about the value of a single consent regime for the IPC. I know that the hon. Member for Beckenham would prefer to see another body dealing with such things. Nevertheless, having a principal framework and a single consent regime would be enormously valuable to whoever considers such applications.
The hon. Gentleman puts the point as strongly as, “What is the harm in it?” The implication would be that if the statement were designated as a national policy statement, the IPC would be obliged to take into account at least two documents, two frameworks, two policy statements. That is not sensible, and I do not think that it is consistent with some of the views that he and his hon. Friends have expressed to date.
Robert Neill: Of course, material considerations of all kinds can be taken into account, so it is difficult to see how there is a contradiction. I am grateful for the Minister’s explanation, but he will appreciate that we want to reinforce the single consent regime by ensuring that everything that might be encompassed within the national policy statement is clearly and specifically set out. There may be a difference between how my hon. Friends and I would achieve it, but I do not think that we are saying anything that undermines the basic thrust of our argument. If he also looks at subsequent amendments tabled by us, he will know that we are trying to toughen up the policy aspect but remove the site-specific aspect of things. We are seeking to do that throughout this part of the clause.
9.30 am
John Healey: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point a bit more clearly the second time around. I explained that an overarching policy statement of the nature that I have talked about would be taken into account, incorporated and reflected in the national policy statements. In other words, its relevance would be its incorporation into the national policy statement for ports or for aviation, which addresses his concern that relevant factors would be covered without creating a duplication or triplication of national policy statements, and thereby undermining the objective of having a single principal source of reference and a single consent regime for the IPC. I hope that that is helpful.
Mrs. Lait: I am sorry to push the Minister on what I thought were fairly key but not terribly controversial amendments, but I seek further clarification.
Let us take transport. The Minister referred to the possibility of a port policy statement, a roads policy statement and a railways policy statement, and to his desire that the IPC, or, in our case, the Planning Inspectorate and the Minister, does not have to consider more than one document. However, creating new ports can only be done if there is access to that port. That, by definition, means roads and rail. Is he saying that a national policy statement on ports would not include roads and railway? If that were the case, the IPC would have to look at three documents: the statement on railways, the statement on roads and the statement on ports.
John Healey: No, I am not saying that. We discussed that already. I, and witnesses who came before us on Tuesday, pointed out that in any ports national policy statement consideration would have to be given—
Mrs. Lait: Of course.
John Healey: Sorry, but I am trying to clarify for the hon. Lady what I and the witnesses said. In the development of any ports national policy statement, judgments would have to be made about the extent to which the access infrastructure was an important element of any sensible policy statement that the IPC could be expected to use as a framework for decision making. I am saying that again; I am not saying what the hon. Lady paraphrased as my position.
I hope that I have made clear my concerns about the impact of the amendments. I am not sure that they would have the effect that the hon. Lady seeks. I hope that she is using them as probing amendments and, if so, that she feels that they have been useful. She was right to say earlier, from a sedentary position, that I was tempting fate when I stood up about half an hour ago to say what good progress the Committee was making. I hope that she will withdraw the amendment.
Mrs. Lait: I think I made it clear that I did not expect the group of amendments to take quite the time that it has. However, it has raised some interesting points which we will have to pursue subsequently. The Minister was quite generous in indicating that, while they may not be the most perfectly drafted amendments, he had some understanding of what we were trying to achieve. We would be more than willing for him and his experts to redraft them. That brings me briefly back to the matter of mission creep, which we do not want to see. I notice that some amendments have been tabled which relate to transport, indicating that footpaths would be regarded as an infrastructure project. Will he comment on that before we finally decide whether to vote on the amendment?
The Chairman: I think that goes a little wide of this group of amendments. I ask the Minister to be brief.
John Healey: We will have a good opportunity to look at that when we come to it. The reference to footpaths relates to footpaths that are an integral part of the development of major new roads. No doubt when we come to a detailed debate on this, we will want to hear in fuller detail what the hon. Lady has to say. My good friend and colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Transport eagerly awaits that debate. He will be keen to respond in appropriate terms.
Mrs. Lait: I was under the misapprehension that perhaps the Under-Secretary had something to tell us, and I was giving him the opportunity to do so. We look forward to hearing what he has to say. We will consider what the Minister has said. It was very interesting. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Llwyd: I beg to move amendment No. 69, in clause 5, page 2, line 38, after ‘State,’, insert—
‘(aa) has been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons,’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 280, in clause 5, page 2, line 40, at end insert ‘, and
(c) has been subject to Parliamentary consideration in accordance with section [Parliamentary consideration of national policy statements], and
(d) has been laid before, and approved by, a resolution of each House of Parliament.’.
Amendment No. 184, in clause 5, page 3, line 5, at end insert—
‘(3A) A statement may be designated as a national policy statement for the purposes of this Act only if 4 months have elapsed since the proposals were sent to Parliament and the Secretary of State has considered any report produced by any committee of either House of Parliament on the proposals.’.
New clause 6—Parliamentary consideration of national policy statements
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament a draft of a statement which the Secretary of State proposes to designate as a national policy statement for the purposes of this Act.
(2) The Secretary of State may not lay a national policy statement before Parliament under section 5(1)(d) until after the expiry of the period of Parliamentary consideration of the draft of that statement, as defined by subsection (3).
(3) The period for Parliamentary consideration of a draft national policy statement means the period of 60 days beginning on the day on which it was laid before Parliament.
(4) In reckoning the period of 60 days referred to in subsection (4), no account shall be taken of any time during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which either House is adjourned for more than four days.
(5) In preparing a national policy statement under section 5 following the laying of a draft of that statement under subsection (1) of this section, the Secretary of State concerned shall have regard to any representations made during the period for Parliamentary consideration and, in particular, to any resolution or report of, or of any committee of, either House of Parliament with regard to the document.
(6) Together with a national policy statement laid before Parliament under section 5(d), the Secretary of State concerned shall lay a statement giving details of—
(a) any representations, resolution or report falling within subsection (5); and
(b) the changes (if any) which, in the light of any such representations, resolution or report, the Secretary of State has made to the draft of the statement laid before Parliament under subsection (1).’.
Mr. Llwyd: I mentioned that retrospection is one of my concerns about this whole area. We in Parliament are wary of retrospective legislation for good reasons. In the wrong hands it can cause quite a bit of mischief. According to the Minister the other day, national policy statements will not come forward very soon; it will be 18 months or a couple of years before they come in. Why cannot existing statements that might become national policy statements be subjected to the same criteria and rigour as policy statements that will be created after the Bill is enacted?
It is essential to ensure that the public are fully engaged in the process. As the Minister well knows, nothing impinges more on an ordinary member of the public than planning law. They may not be engaged in it every day or discuss the minutiae of policy, but they get engaged in it when it affects them because it can damage their property rights, their quiet enjoyment of their property and so on. As mentioned previously, of the 13 examples of large projects mentioned in the Bill, 10 are potentially or obviously bad neighbours. We have to be careful because we must be seen to be totally open. There must be a proper opportunity for the public to get engaged at all stages.
Amendment No. 69 would lay an obligation on the Government to place a national policy statement before Parliament. I am delighted that the Minister has tabled new clause 6, which effectively does that.
John Healey: My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe tabled new clause 6.
Mr. Llwyd: I hope that it receives a fair wind, because it is absolutely what is necessary and would greatly improve the Bill. If we are to have this retrospection, at the very least we must have public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny too. Will the Minister tell the Committee in due course how many of such statements that are already in existence does he foresee coming in as national policy statements, if that is not an impossible question to answer? If it is, clearly, I will not receive an answer, but if it is not, I would be greatly obliged to receive one.
I mentioned that we must be careful about retrospection. I am very much taken by the wording of new clause 6, because it fleshes out far more of the intention that I had in mind when I tabled my short amendment.
My other concern is that clause 5(5) essentially gives the Secretary of State the power to decide what level of detail is to be provided in the national policy statement. That is at the discretion of the Secretary of State. Other commentators who are far more versed in planning law than myself have explained that there are great concerns about that. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, for example, said:
“The government’s failure to include a national spatial framework for the proposed infrastructure plans is extremely disappointing. A framework would supply a link into the regional spatial strategies and provide the bedrock for national policy statements. Without this map, government policy could ignore regional inequalities, leaving many regions neglected. In planning terms, this policy is like a map without reference points.”
That is quite important.
A similar point was made by Sir Peter Hall, the eminent town planning academic, when he said:
“Doubts deepen when it emerges that they would refer to individual pieces of infrastructure: airports, railways or ports, rather than transport as a whole. So the Department for Transport could produce a statement on airports without considering the case for a new high-speed rail line. To an extent this has already happened. The white paper stresses more than once that pre-existing statements, notably the 2003 airports white paper, should be automatically incorporated into the new national statements, with only cursory revision to deal with developments such as the rise in the profile of the climate change debate and the case for limiting air traffic growth”.
There are genuine concerns. It is not a case of opposition politics for the sake of it. I know from the way in which the Minister is dealing with the issue that he is trying his best to explain the position, and he has been very generous in taking interventions. Nevertheless, this measure is crucial.
Quite honestly, I have always had a difficulty with retrospective legislation. Some of the existing policy that may formulate national policy statements may well be worthy, proper and acceptable, but it must be seen to be so. In that regard, we must have a public consultation properly undertaken. It should not be the case that that consultation “may” be taken into account by the Minister, as set out in clause 11, but rather it should be the case that it “shall” be taken into account. That change, coupled with parliamentary scrutiny, which, after all is said and done, will not delay the passage of this Bill, would deal with the problem.
I would fully adopt what is set out in new clause 6 and regret that I have not signed up to it. The time frame set out in that new clause is reasonable; it would not add any delay to the passage of this Bill, but strengthen and democratise the process, and that, surely, is a good thing.
9.45 am
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): It is fairly clear from the comments that I have made so far that I have a great deal of sympathy with the aims and objectives of this Bill and the intention of the Government to try to ensure that we have more appropriate, better, more efficient and more effective ways of considering major planning issues on major infrastructure projects, while recognising the appropriateness of ensuring that the general public, appropriate interest groups and, of course, Members of Parliament have the right to be involved in that process.
We are looking at what I think everyone has accepted is a crucial part of that process, namely, the formulation of national policy statements. Indeed, it has been accepted that national policy statements, particularly when they relate to certain localities, almost effectively determine the outcome of the planning process. They are, therefore, extremely important.
As I said, I certainly do not question in any way the general good aims of this legislation or, indeed, the good intentions of current Ministers when they say that they are committed to a full and proper process of consultation on the national policy statements, both inside and outside Parliament. In tabling the amendments, my only concern is that even though Ministers might have good intentions now—properly expressed and taken at face value from my hon. Friend—if those are not put into some sort of formula embodied in legislation or in the rules of the House, unfortunately, in 10 years’ time, other Ministers might ride roughshod over those good intentions, if they are not required by the laws that we pass or the rules of Parliament to act in a certain way.
John Healey: Does my hon. Friend really believe that we are likely to have a change of Government in so short a time as 10 years?
Mr. Betts: No, but it is just possible that we might have a change of Minister.
While commitments given by Ministers in Committee and on the Floor of the House are important in giving reassurance on the intention as to how national policy statements will be considered in the future, it is important to go a little further if we can tempt Ministers down that road. I am sure that the ministerial statements in response to that point have already been written and we will have an explanation as to why it is perhaps not a good idea to be so specific about how those matters will be considered. However, I ask the Minister to recognise that many of the concerns surrounding the legislation come not only from organisations that do not want it at all, but from other organisations, such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, that want the legislation to have a fair wind and also want to be certain that the assurances given about the role of consultation in the process of setting up the national policy statements will be delivered in practice. I hope that my hon. Friend will look at amendment No. 280 and new clause 6, which stand in my name, and see that even if they are not precisely to his liking, he could move a little further in that direction than the Bill currently does.
I also recognise that there is an issue in relation to what we put in legislation and what is in parliamentary procedure, and that clearly needs to be resolved. I know that my hon. Friend has said that he is meeting the Chairs of the relevant Select Committees to look at the issue of parliamentary procedure. In the new clause and the amendment, I have not tried to stray down the road of saying to Parliament, “We will enshrine in legislation how you are going to conduct internally your part in the consideration of national policy statements.” In amendment No. 280, I am simply trying to ensure that Parliament has time to give proper consideration to national policy statements when they are drafted and to approve them when they are eventually formulated.
New clause 6 lays out in more detail the timetable in which Parliament might be allowed to do that. I am not prescribing how Parliament should do it. It is entirely up to Parliament to determine the nature of its scrutiny, whether it is done in Select Committee, whether a special Committee is set up, whether it is done on the Floor of the House, or in a Select Committee and then referred to the Floor of the House. All those are properly matters for parliamentary rules and procedures to determine.
If Parliament is going to have the opportunity to decide how it is going to scrutinise draft policy statements, it must have the proper time to do so. That is what new clause 6 tries to set out: a proper window of opportunity during which Parliament can determine precisely how it will consider the draft national policy statements before it. I hope that Ministers will at least consider that.
I return to the point that many individuals and organisations who feel that the legislation is generally moving in the right direction want some reassurance about Ministers’ commitments to democratic consideration, which they want to be more firmed up, with certain considerations written into the legislation. I hope that Ministers recognise those concerns and genuinely consider how they can go some way to meeting them.
Mrs. Lait: All the amendments in this group are trying to help the Government get themselves out of the hole into which they dug themselves in the ministerial statement of 27 November, which stated:
“To provide the stronger role for Parliament, we encourage the House to establish a new Select Committee with the main purpose of holding inquiries into draft national policy statements in parallel with public consultation. We suggest that this Committee should be comprised of members from existing Select Committees on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, on Transport and on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 11WS.]
That rather put the cat among several pigeons because, in essence, it was telling the House what it was going to do, and I cannot imagine a quicker way to get the House of Commons on its high horse than for the Government to tell it what to do. We are trying to help them out of this hole with all the amendments, including that which the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy so ably moved, and those to which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe spoke. We would all agree on exactly the same aim.
We are keenly concerned that Parliament gives adequate and full consideration to the national policy statements. There are many suggestions about how that can be done, but it is not for the Government to tell the House how to do it, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe pointed out. I understand that the Minister is planning to meet the Chairmen of the relevant Select Committees to try to sort out the mess that they got themselves into, but that no date has been fixed. I hope that at some point during the Committee, the Minister will report back to us so that everybody who has these concerns, such as the Royal Town Planning Institute and other outside organisations, as well as ourselves, have a good idea of the parliamentary way forward for consultation.
Many concerns have been expressed. For instance, it is entirely possible that a national policy statement on nuclear power might not take as long to go through the House, because the issue has been fully debated over so many years, as one on a totally new area of technological development in fossil fuels such as carbon capture. There is no need to set down a formulaic procedure whereby every Select Committee must have an inquiry; that is entirely up to each Select Committee to decide. However, we need to know that Parliament will have a vote on the matter at some point. We need to know that what Parliament has recommended is not just accepted by Ministers but taken seriously into consideration. If Ministers do not agree with Parliament’s recommendations, they must give a clear explanation to Parliament as to why. We need to know that when Parliament decides on a national policy statement, there will be a substantive vote, not one that is taken on the Adjournment. We all know that it is very rare to have a vote on the Adjournment, and technically it does not give the answer that Parliament would wish to have.
All of us are trying hard to help the Government come to a satisfactory conclusion with Parliament on a structure to, and formula for, genuine parliamentary consultation and consideration. We all want that, but currently the proposal is to run it in parallel with outside consultation. I can see considerable difficulties with that proposal, too, but it is not within the scope of the amendments before us. We want parliamentary consideration to be fully taken into account, and any disagreement between Ministers and Parliament should be resolved by a vote in Parliament. That is crucial. The national policy statements must have the necessary validity to be accepted by the British public. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, planning issues are deep within the British psyche, because everyone understands them, and if we do not get the provision right, the system will be brought into disrepute and there will be an even bigger disconnect between Government, Parliament and the people.
That is why it is so important that the Government take on board the amendments. We, like the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe, will not be fussed if they wish to redraft them, but if the British public are to accept the policy statements, the Bill should, by the time it leaves the House, include an agreed formula for proper and thorough consultation between Government and Parliament.
Dan Rogerson: Hon. Members have made a persuasive case for including in the Bill a cover for the Government’s public commitment to parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements. One of the most important aspirations of the Bill, which is shared by the majority of people from whom we have taken written and oral evidence, is the need to ensure that when individual applications are considered, some matters of national importance can be dealt with and taken out of the equation, because, currently, public inquiries cause the process to drag on far too long. The Liberal Democrats share that sensible aspiration. However, if the process is to be valid, and if people are to be confident that the decisions on framing national policy statements stand up, as a national policy, the statements must be scrutinised nationally.
The Bill must include the provision that Parliament will consider national policy statements in detail, evaluate them and have the opportunity to suggest corrections when Members feel that there are problems. That provision would be one of the system’s strengths. Members from all parts of the House will have examples from their constituencies of problems that have occurred and applications that have been dealt with in certain ways, of which some will have been unsuccessful, and some will have been successful, and that collective experience and wisdom could contribute a great deal to the statements.
There will of course be opportunities for formal consultation without parliamentary structure, but if we are to invest the statements with the authority that the Government seek, it is vital that Parliament has the opportunity to consider them. The Government have said publicly that the process will take place, but when we are framing legislation, that is not good enough. We need something in the Bill that says that it will take place and that there will be adequate time for it. I, like the hon. Member for Beckenham, hope that by the time the Bill emerges from consideration in this House and another place, it sets out how the process will take place. I commend the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and for Sheffield, Attercliffe on exploring methods of doing that. I hope that we will have an opportunity to express our firm support for such a proposal as a Committee.
James Duddridge: I, too, want to thank hon. Members for putting forward the amendments and the new clause. The degree of parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements in the Bill is inadequate. I was excited when I heard that new clause 6 was a Government proposal but then disappointed, with all due respect to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe, to find out that it is a Back-Bench proposal. I am sure that it will be looked on favourably by the Minister. I hope that he will take away a number of ideas.
10 am
It is essential that we have full public and parliamentary scrutiny. By parliamentary scrutiny, I mean that there should be a substantive debate on the Floor of the House, followed by a vote. It is wholly inadequate to push the proposal into the realm of Select Committees. Those are already overburdened and provide too strong a distraction from the main Chamber, which should be the thrust of this place. I have served on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and on the Select Committee on International Development.
As a member of the International Development Committee, I served on the Quadripartite Committee, which provides a similar level of parliamentary scrutiny to that which is proposed by the Minister as an alternative to the amendments. That Committee, while doing its best, is currently looking at whether the arrangement is working. The Minister is looking to replicate an arrangement that is not working at the moment. There is the additional problem of pulling together different Select Committees. The Quadripartite Committee has semi-permanent representation from the four bodies, but any member of those Committees can turn up and has voting rights.
Mrs. Lait: Will my hon. Friend outline for the Committee the problems with the Quadripartite Committee?
James Duddridge: It does not have the same strong dynamic that a Select Committee has because the group does not work together; it does not have the same level of staffing support; because it does not meet as frequently, it does not have the right momentum; and it does not have a broad enough set of focuses. In addition, in Committees that are brought together from the memberships of other Select Committees, there are strong Chairmen with different views in terms of substance and style. The Minister’s proposal for parliamentary scrutiny is riddled with problems.
On Second Reading, one Chairman of the proposed Committee mentioned that the four Chairmen had got together and expressed surprise that they were hearing about the proposal for the first time. I am very disappointed, given the strong comments made on Second Reading, that the meeting between the Minister and those Chairmen has not gone ahead. If it had, perhaps the Minister would be proposing slightly different measures and would be slightly more receptive to the proposals in amendment No. 69 to provide the proper parliamentary scrutiny that is needed from the full House.
Unless that scrutiny takes place, how will hon. Members contribute to the substance of the debate if they are not on one of those four Committees? It is wholly inappropriate to go forward with the Minister’s proposal and I urge him to look at the matter again. Very strong points were made by a number of hon. Members on Second Reading and very strong views are held by all members of this Committee on this matter.
Mr. Curry: I begin with a note of caution. A certain amount of tail chasing is going on because it is not clear at what stage a document becomes a national policy statement. We all agree that there should be a process of consultation, but does a document come under scrutiny and then become a national policy statement, or is it postulated as a national policy statement and subjected to scrutiny before being confirmed? Much of this debate is slightly circular in that sense.
I am very cautious about the recourse to Select Committees. I chaired the Agriculture Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for a number of years. For my sins, I serve on the Public Accounts Committee and the Standards and Privileges Committee, so a great deal of expiation is being delivered at the moment.
Select Committees are under a huge strain, and, as far as we know, the Government still intend to set up regional Select Committees. The Minister is also responsible for the regions, so he should be able to tell us what has happened to the proposal, which was made before the summer recess. It will soon be a year since that wonderful constitutional innovation was announced, and it seems to have died in its sleep; it has had a sort of cot death. Is it still alive?
The demands on Members’ time are huge. There is the Chamber, which we all allege is the heart of Parliament, although I have my doubts about that—occasionally it is, but it is not constantly so. There are also Select Committees, and most colleagues want to serve on Public Bill Committees from time to time to keep their hand in because they are part of the day-to-day debate. We invented Westminster Hall, which is another diversion for Members.
When I was Chairman of a Select Committee there were times when five colleagues would disappear because they were on a Standing Committee or they had to be in Westminster Hall. The idea that we will be able to put together a super, Joint Committee is wishful thinking. If it does happen, it will denude the existing Select Committees, which will have to scratch around like mad for a quorum.
I want to make a different suggestion: the issue should be put to a Joint Committee of both Houses, for which there are precedents. The Minister keeps saying that we must have expertise because that is what counts. There is an awful lot of expertise just up the corridor. A Joint Committee of the two Houses would make fewer demands on Members of the House of Commons and be able to draw on the expertise of people in the other place. This is not an aspirational statement—
James Duddridge: Or a job application.
Mr. Curry: It is neither. I fear that any aspirations I may have will be short-lived after next week’s debate.
I am looking for a practical way in which proper, informed scrutiny can take place without either draining other scrutiny activities of the House or being just a token. We have a Joint Committee on Human Rights, which works well. A Joint Committee would be able to report to both Houses; it would not replace final scrutiny in both Chambers but it would get us over the problem of getting together the expertise in the time available. I make the suggestion for the Minister’s consideration and, indeed, for the consideration of the House, as it is a decision for the House at the end of the day, that that might be an intelligent way of taking forward what are bound to be broad issues of policy, but which contain a lot of detail.
Technical expertise will have to be brought to bear on what I suspect will be very complex documents. The national policy statements will not be written on a couple of sides of foolscap; there will be volumes, with annexes attached, and the work involved in producing them will be hugely demanding. We will have to look for someone to do a bit of lateral thinking if there is to be effective scrutiny of them.
John Healey: I shall deal with the points raised and try to be as clear and firm as I can about our commitments, how important parliamentary scrutiny is and how the Government will ensure that they play their part in that process. Such commitments are rather unusual for Ministers to make at this point in a piece of legislation.
It is hard to anticipate precisely the number of national policy statements, but the annexe to the document published on November 27 identifies those that are likely to be made. The short answer to the question of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy about how many national policy statements we expect is up to or around a dozen.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny are essential, and I entirely subscribe to that general approach. The Bill’s provisions and the Government’s commitments underline that. Both those things are essential, and they will be central to the development and, ultimately, the designation of national policy statements.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe said that the legislation is moving us in the right direction. I understand his desire for a firm Government commitment to the role of Parliament, and we will respond to that as far as possible as we consider the Bill. However, I should clarify one point, not to do with scrutiny, but with what underpins some of his arguments in favour of new clause 6. A national policy statement containing location-specific elements would not pre-empt an IPC decision. Like any other national policy statement, it would provide the principal framework within which the IPC would consider any applications, but there are clearly some areas, sectors or, to use the terms in the Bill, fields in which it will be sensible to identify suitable locations for certain major infrastructure developments. It will likewise be sensible to rule out other locations.
I suspect that we will return to the question of whether including location-specific elements in national policy statements is reasonable and right, but they will be an essential part of some national policy statements. When they are included, an individual application will nevertheless need to be considered in detail, which is what the IPC is for. It will need to examine applications in detail and, clearly, it will have the power to reject applications as well as to approve them. Like any other decision-taking body, it should be expected to do the former in certain circumstances.
Robert Neill: I am genuinely grateful to the Minister for that helpful explanation. However, does it follow that when a national policy statement refers to locations—I see the sense of what he said—there should be alternative locations? Has he envisaged a situation in which a national policy statement would say, “We need two facilities but we have identified only two sites.”? Such a situation would pre-empt the IPC. I can see his point on identifying or ruling out certain areas. In certain situations, it would be down to the IPC to decide on specific locations. I see where he is going, but will he clarify the situation?
John Healey: The hon. Gentleman delves into a level of specificity that is impossible to respond to in general terms. I suspect that the situation will be different in different policy fields and national policy statements.
The hon. Member for Beckenham said that she was trying to be helpful. Her amendments would not be helpful, but her comments and explanation were. She made a clear argument for not tying Parliament’s hands in primary legislation and for not telling the House, through legislation, what it should do or how it should go about its business.
I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East. He gave a sweeping critique on the weaknesses of the Select Committee system. However, on the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements, his proposals and solutions to the problems were not clear. Like the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, he described himself as cautious of Select Committees. In the end, he was right: at the end of the day, the House must decide how it goes about its business of scrutinising appropriately each national policy statement in the production process. That is the core of my argument. The situation will be different, and it will probably be judged appropriately different—the hon. Lady touched on that—for different national policy statements.
10.15 am
If the hon. Gentleman is worried about the work load of Select Committees, I suspect that he will not look kindly on the content of amendments that attempt to specify that any Select Committee charged with considering national policy statements—under any circumstances, for any national policy statements—would, for example, be obliged to produce a report. It well may do so, but, in certain circumstances, it may decide that that is not appropriate. To tie our hands in primary legislation in the way that is proposed is not sensible.
The amendments and new clause contain at least three different ways of building into the Bill the requirement for parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements. There are three proposals, and, including the Ministers, I count 21 members of this Committee. There are at least 30 times more Members in the House, and I suspect that each and every one could come up with a slightly different variant on how appropriate scrutiny procedures might be conducted. [ Interruption. ] Perhaps the bloc of Plaid Cymru MPs would be of a single mind, but that does not actually very much change the numbers or my general point.
My general point is that the proposal that this Committee and this Bill should tie the hands of Parliament, or specify in such detail how it should go about its business, confirms the wisdom of the approach that the Government are taking: first, in principle to be clear, firm and consistent about the essential importance of parliamentary scrutiny as a necessary part of the development, and then the designation, of national policy statements; and, secondly, as a starting point, to propose that we form a special Select Committee to lead that work in Parliament.
I have explained to the Committee that the Secretary of State, the Leader of the House and I will try to meet the Chairmen of the four Select Committees that may form a suitable quadrilateral Select Committee to consider national policy statements. The Leader of the House has written to the Chairmen, and, at present, the ball is in their court. I hope that we can move shortly to set up such a meeting because it will be an important first step in encouraging the House to consider seriously how it wants to set up its own arrangements to do the scrutiny job that is essential to the Bill, and which I am sure the House would want to conduct.
James Duddridge: May I encourage the Minister also to set up a meeting with representatives of the Quadripartite Committee and, perhaps, the secretariat to understand fully the problems with the type of structure that he envisages, which we are experiencing already?
John Healey: Clearly, we will take into account, as I am sure the four Chairmen of the relevant Select Committees will take into account, the experience of the operation of the existing quadrilateral Select Committee. My view is that the focus and the nature of the Select Committee that we are proposing to consider national policy statements would be different. Its dynamic and focus would be different and not potentially susceptible to the sort of flaws, if they exist, that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Mr. Betts: I am sure that we shall be clear about what will happen after the meeting with the Chairs of the Select Committees. Amendment No. 280 and new clause 6 prescribe how Parliament should undertake scrutiny. They lay down, first, the right for parliamentary scrutiny; secondly, a period for it to be allowed to happen; and, thirdly, that there should be a vote on each national policy statement, however the House chooses to conduct it. I do not understand why those principles cannot be enshrined in the Bill. I have not heard the Minister address those particular issues, which are simple yet fundamental.
John Healey: We had a little exchange earlier. Let us suppose that there was a change of Government, a change of Minister and that, in such circumstances, Parliament wanted to strengthen or change the way in which it scrutinised the national policy statements. If we were to accept new clause 6, Parliament might want more than 60 days to have the report laid before it.
Specifying matters in such detail as proposed by the new clause and amendments is not sensible. It may not suit the purposes of the system or Parliament as it develops. I am yet to be convinced that it is right to specify in primary legislation how Parliament should go about the business of scrutinising the Executive. I have said consistently that we are clear that the importance of national policy statements demands that Parliament holds the Executive closely to account and plays an active part that we recognise and will build into the production of national policy statements before they are finalised and designated.
James Duddridge: I asked the Minister to meet the Quadripartite Committee or its representatives. There was resistance to that. I have some genuine worries. For him to show the Committee that he is taking the matter seriously, will he arrange for his staff to meet the staff of the Quadripartite Committee? I want them to discuss the issues that it faces and the debates that it is having on forming a Committee in a different way to overcome the problems. I want them to report back to him, so that he does not make some of the same mistakes that the current Quadripartite Committee is dealing with.
John Healey: A standing quadrilateral Committee that considers the arms trade generally—the remit of the current Committee—is different from one that may be charged with looking at specific national policy statements as and when they are produced in draft and offered by the Government. If, indeed, the problems identified by the hon. Gentleman exist with the current quadrilateral Committee, they are unlikely to be characteristics that we will see in future. However, when I said that we will take into account the experience of the current quadrilateral Committee, that was a precise signal to him that I will ensure that officials contact that Committee and take advantage of its experience and observations about how it conducts its work to see whether there are any lessons that we could look at for future arrangements.
I am not convinced that the Bill is the right place for such detailed processes nor that it is right for it to specify how Parliament should conduct its procedures. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe, the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy will not press the new clause or the amendments to a Division.
Mr. Llwyd: With respect to the Minister, who said that he was unpersuaded, I must say that I am unpersuaded, too. I prefer new clause 6 to my amendment. He said that there were three variants of the way in which we can proceed with that Committee. Yes, there are and they have been tabled by three hon. Members who represent three different parties. That is a worry. He said that we can come up with any number of variations, and that four lawyers in a room would have four different opinions, but that statement underpins the fact that we are all concerned about scrutiny, public access and public accountability through Members of Parliament. I was rather hoping that he would say at least that he would consider new clause 6. It is with great regret that I must say that I wish to press amendment No. 69 to a Division.
It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.

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