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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


[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Planning Bill

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 69, in clause 5, page 2, line 38, after ‘State,’, insert—
‘(aa) has been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons,’.—[Mr. Llwyd .]
1 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with we are taking 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).’.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. The hon. Member for Beckenham asked me late on Tuesday’s sitting about the National Audit Office and the bodies that it audits, and I promised to get back to her with a list. That list demonstrates that it is standard practice for the NAO to audit national bodies such as the infrastructure planning commission and those that essentially are non-departmental public bodies. I have responded to the hon. Lady and, for the benefit of Committee members, made available a list of the bodies that the NAO currently has responsibility for auditing.
The Chairman: That is not a point of order, but I am sure that the Committee is grateful for the information provided by the Minister in that documentation.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I was reflecting over lunch—a very light lunch—on the Minister’s comments in response to my amendments and new clause. I understand that he will never be persuaded to put on the face of the Bill the level of detail that new clause 6 goes into, but am equally aware of the discussions that he will have with the Select Committee Chairs and wonder whether he would give an assurance that he will report back to us on those discussions in Committee, or on Report if the timing so determines, and give further consideration to the possibility of putting something very general in principle on the face of the Bill: simply a commitment to the House having a vote and being allowed scrutiny. In other words, amendment No. 280 without new clause 6. I am not asking for an assurance that he will do that at this stage, but simply that he will report back in the light of those discussions and give further consideration to that point of principle.
John Healey: I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I will indeed report back to the Committee or the House on the progress of discussions and proposals for scrutiny arrangements for the important provisions on national policy statements in the Bill. I recognise the importance of the parliamentary scrutiny and how strongly that is felt by members of the Committee and will reflect on all the points that have been raised in what has been an extended and useful debate, including those that were put so clearly and strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I, too, welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. You will be pleased to know that it will be much easier to keep us in order than it was.
May I thank the Minister for those assurances and also the efforts that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe made? I would, however, like to have a vote on the principle of scrutiny by Parliament, which should not take long in this Committee. I accept the assurances that the Minister gave, but think that it is so important, both inside and outside the House, that proper arrangements are made for parliamentary scrutiny and that they are accepted and understood that I would like to get our views on the record. Therefore, if the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe is minded not to press amendment No. 280 to a vote, I would like to do so myself.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. Just before we adjourned, the Minister was explaining why my amendment, new clause 6 and the other amendments in the group were not necessary. They all related to public participation, accountability and parliamentary scrutiny. In these current days when everything before Parliament is guillotined and timetabled and when perhaps 100 amendments will go untouched and undiscussed when Bills are on Report, I am really not happy that we will not put something on the face of the Bill. I do not want to be stubborn, but think that it is one of the most important issues in the Bill. I would like to press the amendment to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 11.
Division No. 5 ]
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Curry, rh Mr. David
Jones, Mr. David
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Neill, Robert
Rogerson, Dan
Betts, Mr. Clive
Clark, Paul
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Ennis, Jeff
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Healey, John
Michael, rh Alun
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Sheridan, Jim
Watts, Mr. Dave
Question accordingly negatived.
The Chairman: Does the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe wish to press amendment No. 280 to a Division?
Mr. Betts: In the light of the assurances given by the Minister on this issue, I will not press the amendment at this stage.
Amendment proposed: 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.’.—[ Mrs Lait. ]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 11.
Division No. 6 ]
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Curry, rh Mr. David
Jones, Mr. David
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Neill, Robert
Rogerson, Dan
Betts, Mr. Clive
Clark, Paul
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Ennis, Jeff
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Healey, John
Michael, rh Alun
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Sheridan, Jim
Watts, Mr. Dave
Question accordingly negatived.
Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 229, in clause 5, page 3, line 2, at end insert—
‘(2A) Before designating a statement as a national policy statement for the purposes of this Act the Secretary of State must publish a process and timetable for the production of that national policy statement.’.
The amendment would put a clear process and timetable for the designation of national policy statements in the Bill. It refers particularly to statements that are likely to be passported through. It is important that we have a discussion about and hear the Minister’s views on the timing of this process. The more that we receive information from a wide variety of sources, the more conscious I am that seeking final approval for a national policy statement could be a lengthy process. I tabled the amendment in the hope that the Minister will give us some assurances and that we can tease out our concerns about the length of time that it will take for national policy statements to go through the system. It is probably very difficult to do that for any new policy statements, but let us concentrate for a while on the air transport statement and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs waste statement. This morning the Minister set out how he expected the current aviation policy statement to become a national policy statement because of the review that is already promised between 2009 and, I think he said 2014—
John Healey: 2011.
Mrs. Lait: I appreciate that advice.
Currently, work is going on on Heathrow’s third runway, which is pretty controversial itself. Far be it from me to give my learned friends any help, but I would have thought that, if the Government hope to make the air transport policy into the national policy statement on air transport, progress on runway 3 will be exceedingly slow, because everyone will be waiting for the finalised national policy statement. And that is only one aspect of aviation.
Would the Minister also tell us how he expects DEFRA to process its waste statement, or even whether that, which is regarded as a national statement, will become a national policy statement? What impact will that have, when everyone is currently concentrating hard on replacing landfill and all its associated difficulties with a variety of interesting new technologies, some of which are completely unpronounceable but may well be infinitely more effective?
Where existing policy statements arise, we would be most grateful if the Minister could give us some idea of the time scale that he envisages for those becoming national policy statements. Given that he was saying earlier today that one Select Committee will be looking at those, how does he expect that Committee to deal with more than one policy statement at the same time without giving us all parliamentary constipation? If we could have some idea of the practicalities of that, I would be most grateful. This is a probing amendment to try and get that information.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I shall be brief, given that we have a great deal to accomplish over the next few sittings.
The key question is the Government’s justification of a clear distinction between the way in which existing policy has been framed, and especially consulted on, and that which will apply to a national policy statement. It is fair to say that people around the country, interest groups, campaign groups and industry bodies would perhaps approach Government policy set as an intention in a White Paper—but perhaps tested in some specifics at planning inquiries under the current state of affairs—slightly differently once the Bill is in effect and there is a national policy statement. Once the policy is set, any other means of people commenting on it with regard to individual applications will be circumvented, and, obviously, that policy will inform the IPC’s decision.
It is therefore important that we hear from the Government how something that moves from existing policy to becoming an NPS will meet a higher level of scrutiny, and, as the hon. Member for Beckenham said in introducing her amendment, just what the timetable and processes for that would be.
1.15 pm
John Healey: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Beckenham for making it clear that she is treating this as a probing amendment. The hon. Lady said that her principal concern was with the “passporting”, as she put it—not a term I would use—of existing policy statements into a designated category as national policy statements. The hon. Lady seems to be concerned that that process might take too long, and that underpins her remarks on the amendment.
As the hon. Lady was kind enough to acknowledge, I went into detail on the stages in the process and their likely timing in view of the aviation White Paper having the potential to become a national policy statement. I hope that that was helpful as a background to the amendment.
In practice, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to set out a timetable for new policy statements, as well as for pre-existing ones, and as the hon. Lady acknowledged, that would be quite difficult. It is not clear how far-reaching the
“process and timetable for the production”—
that is the amendment’s terminology—would be.
The principle at the heart of the proposal is the importance of national policy statements being produced in a timely, efficient and open manner. We will follow that principle in designating existing statements and in drawing up new ones. The national policy statements will vary considerably in complexity depending on the type of infrastructure that they deal with. It is therefore right to leave judgments about the timing and consultation periods—the process necessary to reach the point of legitimate designation—to the Secretary of State.
On the matter of waste strategy, if the Committee follows my logic, it is not a matter for me but for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to decide and explain whether, and particularly how and when, an existing strategy or policy statement on waste may become a national policy statement
I have explained the stages and the standards that we would require of any policy statement being designated as a national policy statement for the purposes of this Bill. We would not expect to designate a strategy for waste before 2010. I hope that that is helpful to the Committee and to the hon. Lady and that she will withdraw the amendment on that basis.
Mrs. Lait: As I said, this is a probing amendment but I am not entirely reassured by the Minister’s reply because there is such concern outside this place about the potential for “passporting”—I stick with that word—the aviation policy without meeting the high standards that the Minister, and the Committee, wish to see in a national policy statement.
The Minister said that I was trying to work out whether the consultation was too long, but the fear is whether it will be skimped. I therefore hope that he can reassure the Committee and those outside this House that the existing policy statements will meet all the requirements of every other national policy statement in respect of consultation, sustainability and the various directives that are meant to govern them. I should be grateful to have the Minister’s explicit assurance on that matter before I withdraw the amendment.
John Healey: I am happy to give it, as I have done several times already. I made it clear that the architecture of the Bill would require any policy statement that a Secretary of State wanted designated as a national policy statement to meet the standards and criteria set out in the Bill, particularly those on consultation and sustainability, regardless of whether it was precisely the same as or largely based on an existing strategy or policy statement or produced afresh. Such a statement would also have to have gone through the process that we propose for Parliament to exercise proper scrutiny. That would have to take place and those standards would have to be met before the designation could be given.
Mrs. Lait: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 224, in clause 5, page 3, line 5, at end insert ‘, which must include flood risk.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 225, in clause 5, page 3, line 22, at end insert—
‘(g) set out the flood risk of identified locations.’.
Mrs. Lait: This issue was highlighted by the Environment Agency and many other people have expressed their concern about flood risk. Mark Southgate said:
“The Government policy on flood risk is very clear; it is in PPS 25 on planning, development and flood risk, which says that you should look to the lowest flood-risk areas first and to the highest ones only when no suitable alternatives are available. That is a very sound policy, which we would expect to be incorporated within the national policy statements.”——[Official Report, Planning Public Bill Committee, 10 January 2008; c. 102.]
That encapsulates our point exactly.
We are all very concerned about sustainability and climate change. One of the suspected consequences of current climate change is the flooding we saw last summer and a number of Members are suffering from floods in their constituencies as we sit here now. I have an interest here, if not a registrable one, because I have a home very close to Dungeness power station. Many of the potential new sites and the current sites of nuclear power stations are on the coast. I must say that I never expected to see a nuclear power station even proposed for Dungeness again. However, we could have the problem of rising sea levels and continual flooding.
The Government tell us regularly that they have no intention of building their 3 million new homes on flood plains. Given the system that they are trying to put in place, however, I do not know whether they can even get close to that figure, and put houses anywhere anyone would wish to live, if they do not put them on flood plains.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I do not think that the Government have said anything of the sort. If they want 3 million houses, it is said that those would have to be protected, but I am not aware of any pledge that no houses will be built on a flood plain.
Mrs. Lait: Indeed. My right hon. Friend is quite right. Perhaps my use of irony did not come over quite as effectively as I hoped. I absolutely accept what my right hon. Friend says. Even with safeguards, we are expecting a lot of houses to be built on flood plains. We therefore want assurances that the sustainability policy within the NPS includes a very clear statement on flooding so that all of us—house builders, the Environment Agency, the water companies, the county councils who have to deal with flooding, the Highways Agency—can be reassured that flooding issues will be taken very firmly into account in the development of national policy statements.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): In supporting these amendments it is important to look at what we are trying to achieve. Some might argue that an appraisal of the sustainability of any aspect of a national policy statement would not meet the definition of such an entity if it did not include an assessment of flooding risk. It is important to many organisations to put the measure in the Bill, including the Environment Agency, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said. It would create a discipline for those who draw up the statements to look at the important matter of flooding.
Hon. Members will recall the floods last July and the scene of the electricity transfer station near Tewkesbury being saved by a major operation. Had the operation not been successful, vast areas would have been without electricity for a long period. If we imagine that situation occurring to a larger, more strategic power generation plant, we can imagine the problems that we could be building up.
Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): May I add my support for the amendment? Indeed, the issue of flooding was envisaged in the White Paper, which states:
“National policy statements would also need to reflect the physical impacts of climate change on nationally significant projects and the need for resilience throughout their lifespan to factors such as increased risk of flood, subsidence or coastal realignment.”
In an era of climate change, it would clearly be sensible to reflect that vital aspect in national policy statements.
I fully accept that the issue of sustainability must be reflected in policy statements. The difficulty is that an expression that would define that is not in the Bill. It is essential to underline, as amendment No. 224 would, the issue of flooding and its overriding importance.
1.30 pm
John Healey: The hon. Member for Newbury was absolutely right about the importance of the sub-station that was affected by the July floods in Gloucestershire. I visited it in the days immediately following the floods and saw for myself the heroic efforts of the emergency services and the armed forces to protect the power station. That is one of the reasons that Pitt drew the lesson that he did in his interim report, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made it clear that the Government have fully accepted all 15 urgent recommendations, including those from Pitt, that we take steps to ensure that such critical utility infrastructure is properly and better protected in future. That is different, however, from specifying a particular feature, such as flood risk, in the Bill, and singling out its consideration as a requirement in the production of national policy statements.
I should explain why the appraisal of sustainability, which the Committee has already discussed, and which will be required of every Secretary of State who produces a national policy statement, deals with the matter. Appraisals of sustainability are central to our consideration of future infrastructure needs and to our sustainable development objectives. The Bill contains the necessary provisions to ensure that national policy statements take into account environmental and sustainability considerations, including relevant documents such as PPS25 on the risk of flooding. We have also made it clear that national policy statements must integrate all the environmental, social and economic aspects of policy. Ministers will have to take all those issues into account when drawing up the statements, and that will include flood risk.
It might also interest the Committee that under clause 5(6), Ministers must
“give reasons for the policy set out in the statement.”
We can expect an explanation of the factors, which in some instances will include flooding, to be drawn out at that point. Finally, national policy statements will be subject to public consultation and scrutiny in this House. I am sure that the scrutiny in this House will ensure that all relevant aspects, including the risk of flooding, will be properly taken into account in the final versions of the national policy statements.
I do not accept that it is right to single out a specific feature in this way. We have given a clear commitment that the Secretary of State will have a duty to consider the issue of sustainability when producing a national policy statement. Therefore, I do not believe that the amendment advocated by the hon. Member for Beckenham is necessary to achieve the ends that she has in mind.
Mrs. Lait: I add our thanks to those people who worked so hard to ensure that that sub-station was not flooded last July. When I was the Member of Parliament for Hastings and Rye I spent the whole of one Christmas and new year on tenterhooks as to whether Rye was going to flood because we had some very heavy rain. I know exactly how nail-biting it can be to watch the waters rise. That is why I take such a personal interest in this issue.
I am grateful to the Minister for laying out his argument so clearly. I hope that it has been heard beyond this room. If there are any further questions, we might come back to the issue. However, on the basis of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 181, in clause 5, page 3, line 8, at end insert—
‘(4A) The policy set out in a national policy statement may not—
(a) identify any location or site as suitable (or potentially suitable) or unsuitable for a specified description of development;
(b) identify any individual statutory undertaker or undertakers as appropriate persons to carry out a specified description of development.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 182, in clause 5, page 3, line 16, leave out paragraph (d).
Amendment No. 183, in clause 5, page 3, line 18, leave out paragraph (e).
New clause 3—Geographically-specified national policy statements—
‘(1) This section sets out the requirements for national policy statements which make particular reference to specific geographical areas under section 5(5)(d).
(2) Where a proposal for a national policy statement is made by the Secretary of State with implications for a specific geographical area, the Secretary of State shall commission and fund an assessment by the relevant local planning authority, or authorities, of—
(a) whether the proposal is consonant with the principles enumerated in the authority’s local development documents as defined in section 17 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004,
(b) the likely impact of the proposal on communities within the local authority area,
(c) whether the proposal meets with the approval of persons residing in the relevant local authority area, and
(d) any other matter which the relevant planning authority considers appropriate.
(3) A local authority area is within subsection (2) if any of the locations concerned is in the authority’s area, or a neighbouring authority’s area.
(4) A “proposal” in subsection (2) shall be defined as in section 7(3).’.
Mrs. Lait: We are motoring through quite nicely. The reason for this group of amendments is to tease out the confusion between national policy statements that are site-specific and those that are not. What will be the consequences of national policy statements that are site-specific? The Minister will be aware that in the statement on energy policy and nuclear power last week, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said:
“The NPS will need to be as site specific as it possibly can be in relation to possible future nuclear sites.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 529.]
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made precisely that point on nuclear power stations. Most of us could indicate where in England and Wales the nuclear power stations will go and where they should go in Scotland. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon pointed out, the problem is that having a national policy statement that is site-specific is tantamount to giving planning permission. There are also provisions within the clause that, while not site-specific, could produce information that identifies sites or gives otherwise clear indications of where the Secretary of State expects development to be.
While we recognise that it is difficult not to be site-specific, we would prefer policy statements that are not site-specific because of the difficulty of implicit planning permission. I am intrigued that the Minister is so interested in that particular Secretary of State and hope that he will become Secretary of State some day. However, a national policy statement should be a statement of policy, not a statement of detail, in which the Minister and the Secretary of State specify where those sites will be. I am not entirely convinced that that is the best way forward as a principle.
John Healey: The hon. Lady is right that I am interested. With regard to her example of nuclear power stations, is she saying that the Government should not identify sites that might be either suitable or unsuitable?
Mrs. Lait: While I understand that it will be exceedingly difficult to do so, particularly in relation to nuclear development—my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon might also have views on that—our view is that the national policy statement should be a statement of policy rather than specifics. I am not writing these things, but one could argue that nuclear power stations should be sited close to the sea without saying that that should be at Dungeness or Sizewell.
John Healey: Will the hon. Lady explain how a policy statement for nuclear power stations or ports, for instance, without any specific reference to the location would assist either the process of assessing a major investment infrastructure application or the provision of the greater certainty and clarity for investment decisions, some of which will be very big, that is needed for the future support of such infrastructure in this country?
Mrs. Lait: It is interesting that we suddenly appear to be writing the Bill, but this is the Minister’s legislation.
John Healey: You are trying to rewrite it.
Mrs. Lait: We are indeed, because most of the time we are trying to find out what the Minister means and what the thinking is. For instance, I would suggest that when a national policy statement is site-specific, that is in effect tantamount to giving planning permission. There are consequences that flow from that. I am trying to get the Minister to be forthcoming on whether he thinks it is correct that a national policy statement will, in effect, give planning permission for various developments, or whether a better way forward would be to lay out the terms and conditions for such developments and allow the contractors to come forward with their own site-specific proposals.
Most of the contractors are in the private sector, even though it is regulated. Highways, of course, are not. I suggest that it is entirely up to them to know where they want to develop. There could well be arguments about where a new port should go.
Mr. Curry: Next to the sea, I think.
Mrs. Lait: If I may correct my right hon. Friend, one or two significant ports are slightly up river. It is possible that a nuclear power station could be built not next to the sea—[ Interruption. ]
Mr. Llwyd: Such as Trawsfynydd.
Mrs. Lait: Indeed, that has already happened.
John Healey: Does the hon. Lady have anywhere in mind?
Mrs. Lait: Given that I am a supporter of nuclear power, do not tempt me down that route, but what about the Minister’s constituency? That would be true proof that he believes in nuclear power, and how clean and safe it is.
Mr. Curry: We could have an incinerator as a compromise.
Mrs. Lait: I would even advocate an incinerator, because these days, with the right technology, they can be as clean and green, and as sensible a solution to a number of our waste problems. But let us not get diverted. I am grateful to the Chairman for allowing us to go down this route for a bit.
One can see, without the degree of hilarity that we just arrived at, that there are questions about how site-specific a national policy statement should be. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to the amendments so that we may gather whether he foresees difficulties if a policy statement is site-specific in its implied planning permission.
Dan Rogerson: I wish to speak to new clause 3 in particular.
I think we all agree that there is a big problem. The hon. Lady tried valiantly to defend the idea that it might be possible to have a national policy statement for some sectors without getting into the business of site-specifics. However, I suspect that, were the Government to consult on the new generation of nuclear power stations, for example, and talked about the coast in general, a legitimate question from the public might be, “Are the Government considering prioritising existing sites over new ones?” As soon as that question is answered, we are into site-specifics.
Mr. Curry: It might be possible for the Government to put forward a non-site-specific proposal in their statement, but I wonder how it could get through parliamentary scrutiny without becoming much more specific. Members of Parliament represent constituencies, and the one thing that they will want to know is whether it will be in their neck of the woods.
Dan Rogerson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We are obviously musing on the same matters, in particular with regard to amendment No. 181, which he has also tabled.
New clause 3 recognises that there may well be site-specific aspects to NPSs, but that those would be of huge concern to local people. I say “local people” because the Minister has talked about the consultation that will be undertaken at a national level on the NPS.
Once the site is identified, that will call into question the effect that it will have on a particular local community. I want to make extra provision for consultation through local authorities in the area, so that we have the best local debate possible on how a proposal might proceed. Therefore, when it comes to national consideration and detailed scrutiny of the NPS, all the information will be there for this House and anybody else who is examining it. Important local factors that could affect the introduction and operation of an NPS might come to light only if the views of local communities were considered in consultation.
We would all own up to the fact that even the best local authority reaches only some people when consulting on its local development framework—those who are very active in the community and who are aware that it is coming up. The best local authorities, which hold excellent roadshows and produce clear literature for people to respond to, still do not get to everybody.
When there is potential for a nationally significant scheme to come to an area, it will receive coverage. There could be huge anxiety in that area, and there ought to be a process in the Bill that allows the local authority, as the leading democratic organisation, to bring together that opinion and knowledge and ensure that it is fed into the process of compiling the NPS. Contingent on that is the need for resources to come with that for those local authorities that suddenly find themselves the beneficiary of being considered for a nationally important scheme through an NPS.
1.45 pm
Mr. Llwyd: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s reasoning and he is on to a good thing. However, there could be a slight problem because we were advised in the evidence sessions that county councils will be expected to assist potential objectors. There could be a conflict in assisting in the implementation and development of a national policy statement, on the one hand, and being duty bound to assist objectors to a development, on the other.
Dan Rogerson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting what might at first appear to be a potential conflict. New clause 3 seeks to establish a process to enable local authorities to bring opinion together, not to co-ordinate systematic objection, but to ensure that, along with national consultation and scrutiny, a local element is fed into the process. I hope that the Committee will be sympathetic to the new clause, which I think would improve matters when NPSs have site-specific allocations.
Mr. Curry: I am beginning to think that the chairman of the IPC had better be a theologian because how many angels can get through the eye of a needle is likely to be one of the more pressing questions to come before him in the early stages.
I would have preferred national policy statements which end with a conclusion that certain infrastructure of national importance should be built at a certain place. I would not bother with the IPC at all because the key document in all of this will be the planning statement. However, we have decided to have an IPC. The issue now is where the interface lies between the planning statement and the practical decision to give planning permission. The problem is that the issues that will be subject to planning statements, by definition, are so big and are of such national importance that it becomes very difficult in practice to draw a distinction between a framework and a specific application for a particular site. The Government will have to try to tread that line. The Minister said that the framework document will be submitted to scrutiny outside and, particularly, inside Parliament. However, the only question that people will be interested in asking in the course of that scrutiny is, “Where?” It will be difficult for a Minister to appear before a Select Committee, whatever shape it takes—and he or she will appear before it—but the question will be, “Where do you have in mind?”
Nobody will be working from a clean sheet, because we all know that, in practice, there is a shortlist. We will know of only a handful of sites that are relevant to the siting of a new nuclear power station. Frankly, there is probably only one site relevant to the storage of nuclear waste, which would be such a controversial issue and subject to such detailed work that it would be almost impossible to see anything other than a site-specific conclusion at the end of any process. If it is going to be buried, it would be buried in Sellafield—that would almost certainly be the outcome.
I recognise that the issue is difficult. The Minister wishes to use the IPC to deal with issues of national importance, and I am extremely sympathetic to what he is seeking to achieve, but trying to maintain a distinction does not work. My hon. Friend is striving nobly to an end that is difficult to attain—it is like finding a manager who will make Newcastle United a decent football team once more. Equally, the Minister is drawing a distinction that is difficult in practice to sustain because the overlap is so enormous. As soon as we move away from the abstract to talk about specific sectors, we will almost immediately start to talk about places. Frankly, that is rightly part of the scrutiny process. In a sense, both the Minister and my hon. Friend are struggling to deliver something that is undeliverable because of the lack of distinctions.
John Healey: The hon. Lady has dug something of a hole for herself. I would certainly be prepared to help her out if she wants to withdraw the amendment and I urge my hon. Friends to resist it.
Given that national policy statements are intended to provide the primary reference point for the IPC’s work, it is important that they provide a sufficient framework. The statements will also provide the framework for major investment decisions. Again, the greater the degree of clarity and certainty that we can properly include in national policy statements, the more helpful they will be and the more likely it is that that essential investment will be considered. I honestly cannot see how a national policy statement that serves the function we will require of it for the IPC, given the role that it will play in encouraging greater investment, can work for transport, rail and road networks, for which the location is intrinsic to the infrastructure. Such situations are different from those involving certain forms of electricity and power generation such as renewables, where location specificity simply is not as intrinsic to the policy statement and framework as seems sensible and natural to produce.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I understand what the Minister is saying about certain types of operation where the national policy statement would, in effect, be location-specific or very close thereto, but will he deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend at the beginning? If a national policy statement states that we need x power stations of a certain kind and there are three possible locations, and three is what we need, to all intents and purposes, that is the planning permission. Once the national policy statement has said that and has identified a small number of sites, which by the nature of the operation cannot go anywhere else, planning permission is effectively being given. If that is the case, how does the Minister justify not giving those affected by the proposals exactly the same rights to consultation and participation as they would have had a separate application been made? I understand his logic and I am asking him to follow it through.
John Healey: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and his support for the hon. Lady.
Mrs. Lait: We are a team.
John Healey: Precisely so, and a good team. I am going to come on to that.
I am dealing with the contention that somehow we can have national policy statements that prescribe specific locations. I simply do not understand how that can make sense. For example, if a national policy statement on aviation determined, through the process of preparing and designating it, that a third runway was required at Heathrow, it is difficult to see how one could set out the policy statement without specifying that that third runway was needed at Heathrow. Similarly, it is difficult to see how a national policy statement that determined that it is important to expand the road capacity from A to B could be set out if it did not actually say that. At the heart of the hon. Lady’s argument is a real problem for the concept of a national policy statement, which she says she strongly supports. She says it would be a good innovation.
Let me try to deal with the question of whether any site-specific or locational references would be tantamount to giving planning permission or pre-empting the consideration of permission of an application. The same sort of territory concerned the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. As I have tried to explain, it is not tantamount to planning permission; it is not pre-empting the proper consideration of any application. A site-specific national policy statement would provide the framework for examination by the IPC, but it would not prejudge the decisions that the IPC would be required to make. By identifying particularly suitable or likely suitable sites or, indeed, unsuitable sites, it will reduce the debate about suitability and those associated issues at a local level as part of the application process. In many ways it will help to achieve what we have set out to do, which is to ensure that those big debates about need, policy and other such considerations are not repeated whenever an application is considered in the planning process. Again, that is broadly welcomed as a feature of what we are trying to do.
Mr. Jones: The Minister says that the national policy statement would reduce the debate about suitability. Would it not eliminate the debate about suitability? Therefore, the inquiry that would be conducted by the IPC would be nothing more than going through the motions; it would be a ritual dance that had only one conclusion.
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John Healey: No. The IPC would still need to examine the details of an application. It could—I am sure that it will—in some cases reject an application on a particular site or it could set conditions on an application to mitigate the effects on a site.
John Healey: The short answer is yes. The IPC could turn down, or set conditions, on any application; that is central to the scope of its remit and the role that we wish it to play.
Robert Neill: The Minister has been very helpful. I accept that I was wrong to say that what is proposed would be tantamount to planning permission in certain circumstances. To take the Heathrow analogy, a specific application for a third runway could be turned down despite the fact that the NPS says that there should be a third runway. There would thus be one of two situations. First, the unelected IPC might overturn the NPS, which has been the subject of democratic parliamentary scrutiny. Most people would regard that as unconscionable and most of those who think that it speeds up the planning system would see it as self-defeating. Secondly, the application might be turned down because detail or design conditions are attached. In that event, perhaps I should have said that a site-specific national policy statement is tantamount to outline planning permission. It would surely be that at the very least.
John Healey: I thought that what I had said was pretty clear and unsurprising. Of course, the IPC could turn down an application if it had grounds to do so.
Mr. Curry: In the Minister’s first remarks on this group of amendments, he said that the NPS was the “primary reference point” for the IPC. If it is a primary reference point for the commission, I do not see how the commission can turn down an application based on a named project in the NPS. But if it is a primary reference point for people putting in applications that is certainly a different matter.
John Healey: I am surprised that the Committee seems to be making rather a meal of this proposal. Of course the commission could turn down an application for a development on a site, despite it being deemed a suitable site for a particular development. The application itself may be deemed unsuitable and the IPC could perfectly well turn down that application—or set conditions on it—if it felt it had the grounds to do so.
Mr. Llwyd: On that point, given that the national policy statement would have been through all kinds of scrutiny, including flood risk assessment, what possible grounds could there be for the IPC to turn it down?
John Healey: The IPC could turn the application down if it felt that it was not a suitable application or development for that site or if the national benefits set out in the national policy statement were outweighed by some of the local disbenefits or problems with particular applications. In all honesty, I think that hon. Members recognise that there are limits to how specific I can be when asked to suggest how an IPC that we have not yet set up might hypothetically consider, in general terms, applications that have not yet been submitted, within a policy framework that we are still discussing how to produce and that is not yet in place.
Several hon. Members rose—
John Healey: I should give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland.
Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I am grateful for the clarity that the Minister has brought to the role of the IPC and to the powers that it will have. The hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned the democratic deficit with regard to the IPC and national policy statements. Notwithstanding the fact that I appreciate the scrutiny that the Committee is trying to apply to that, could the Minister explain for the benefit of the Committee what the substantive difference would be between the IPC taking the decision under these new proposals and a judge taking a decision at a public inquiry now?
John Healey: My hon. Friend has made a good point and draws me on to the areas of concern that the hon. Member for North Cornwall raised on democracy and consultation. His general argument is right: it is critical that those in any location who might be affected by a potential development should be properly consulted. He is right that they need to be properly informed and to understand the possible implications of any national policy statements that include specific locations within their draft terms. It is important that they also have the chance to give their views. That is why we have clause 7(5) in particular and why clause 8 requires the Secretary of State to consult with local authorities when any aspect of a national policy statement draft includes specific locations.
Mr. Jones: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being extremely generous. Does he agree that if the IPC were conducting an inquiry with reference to an NPS that referred to a specific location, it would be virtually impossible for the IPC to turn down the application on the grounds of locational suitability? It would be a golden thread running through the inquiry. Whatever anyone else might say about the merits of the application, the question of its location would be a touchstone and could not be challenged.
John Healey: An important part of the process proposed in the Bill is that there should be the scope within national policy statements to identify locations that the Government, after consultation, parliamentary scrutiny, the production and finalising of the national policy statement and everything that should be taken into account in that assessment, judge to be suitable for a particular type of development. Locations might also be found to be unsuitable. That will inevitably be, and is designed to be, an important framework and starting point for the IPC in considering applications.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, West makes a reasonable point, which is similar, but in slightly longer terms, to the one I made earlier. The IPC’s consideration of the suitability or unsuitability of a site is likely to be shorter if that matter is already part of a national policy statement. However, that is not equivalent to there being an automatic green light for any application that may come forward for such a site, nor is it tantamount to saying that the IPC cannot turn down an application for a site that has been deemed suitable in a national policy statement.
To return to the concern over consultation, there will be an opportunity to consider issues specific to an application at the local stage in relation to site layout, siting, access and the environmental impact. Again, a central feature of the proposals is that in certain national policy statements, the Secretary of State will have the discretion to identify particular locations as likely to be suitable or unsuitable for the infrastructure that they have in mind, taking into account consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.
Mr. Curry: I am intrigued by the designation of unsuitability. No doubt 99.9 per cent. of the UK is unsuitable for the development of nuclear power stations and, by definition, ports. Is it not sufficient to designate what is suitable, given the purpose of a policy statement? Areas that are unsuitable will take up pages and pages with entirely superfluous information.
John Healey: What we are discussing is not a requirement to identify suitable or unsuitable locations, but the scope to do so when it is appropriate in a national policy statement. It may or may not be appropriate to identify unsuitable locations. I can imagine, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman can, that there would be a strong interest during consultation and parliamentary scrutiny in a confirmation that certain locations are unsuitable for developments in some national policy statements. All we propose in the Bill is that the Secretary of State should have the scope to identify locations that are likely to be suitable and, on the other hand, to decide that it seems sensible to identify locations that would be unsuitable.
Amendments Nos. 181 to 183 would prevent the identification of a statutory undertaker as being appropriate to carry out work. Under clause 5(5)(e), the Secretary of State can identify one or more organisations, as appropriate, to carry out a specific type of development. In certain cases only certain developers such as the Highways Agency or Network Rail will be in a position to provide the sort of infrastructure that a national policy statement covers. We are simply allowing organisations in such circumstances to be identified, where appropriate.
I have dealt with new clause 3 to the extent that there are duties on the Secretary of State to consult when there is a location-specific element in a national policy statement. Quite honestly, we already expect local authorities to represent their communities and, by and large, even Liberal Democrat councils do so pretty effectively. I do not think that this provision is needed to force them to do so. It is certainly not needed to set out how they should do it. The hon. Member for North Cornwall has not really made his case for the new clause. I hope that he will not press it to a Division, because I would have to ask my hon. Friends to resist it.
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Dan Rogerson: I listened with interest as the Minister set out where he feels there are already provisions in the Bill that would allow local communities to have a thorough opportunity to give their view when an NPS was being constructed with site-specific locations contained therein. He pointed in the direction of clause 7(5), which talks about the Secretary of State ensuring that appropriate steps are taken to publicise the proposal. That comes back to the point that I was trying to make in my earlier remarks about a bit of publicity that will reach perhaps one group of people who are quite often engaged with these sorts of things.
We could be talking about a very significant development that will affect an area for many years to come. If it is a facility that has a lifespan to it, once it is established we may well find that in 50 years’ time when it comes to be replaced there will already be a brownfield site. We could be talking about sites that will have some form of facility on them virtually in perpetuity. To say that the Secretary of State will publicise this, is not good enough.
John Healey: Before the hon. Gentleman continues any further, could I urge him to look at clause 7(5) and clause 8(1)? I mentioned both and if he looks at the interplay between the two, his understandable concerns will be met.
Dan Rogerson: I have looked at those subsections because the Minister mentioned them. I can see how he might feel that they would be sufficient, but I am keen to see something in the Bill that says that there will be significant local consultation in any such area that has been identified, and that the resources to carry that out would come from the centre and would not fall as a burden on local authorities.
Going back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said when the White Paper was introduced, the key question when our party was considering the IPC was whether it would be able to say no. Notwithstanding the Minister’s statement that in certain circumstances it might well say no, there is no great confidence across the country that once something is in an NPS and set in tablets of stone, and has gone through scrutiny in this place and elsewhere, the IPC will be able to overturn it on a few technicalities. The most important part of the process for such a locality will be at the NPS-setting stage. It is therefore my intention to press the new clause to a vote. I thank the Minister for his comments, but I am not convinced that what is in the Bill at the moment is good enough.
Mrs. Lait: I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Member for North Cornwall has said. In a sense it is all part of this consultation issue, on which the Government have made some progress since the White Paper but not enough to ensure that people have the right to be heard.
John Healey: You are going to support him?
Mrs. Lait: Let us wait and see. I have a great deal of sympathy and it is highly possible that he will have a great deal of sympathy with our three amendments and we could come to an arrangement. Because we were conscious of the difficulties that could arise from site specificity and the implication that a site-specific national planning policy would give to sites, we tabled what I thought were three fairly innocuous-looking amendments to tease out a worthwhile and necessary debate. I certainly did not expect the complications and implications that have emerged in our discussions.
I am grateful to the Minister for being so clear, open and candid, but I am even more confused than when we started. Apart from anything else, and while wishing to stay in order, we have a wonderful view of the IPC being able to refuse or to make very difficult a planning application for something in the national policy statement that has been agreed by the House and through general consultation. Those on the IPC would not only then be taking on Parliament, but the Secretary of State and the Department to which they are responsible for both their employment and their pay and rations. It would be a brave commissioner who would do so, particularly as, under paragraph 4(2)(c) of schedule 1:
“The Secretary of State may remove a person from office as the chair, or as a deputy or other Commissioner, if the Secretary of State is satisfied that...the person is otherwise unfit to perform the duties of the office.”
I would imagine that many Secretaries of State might throw a real wobbly and decide that a commissioner was unfit for office. That does not reflect terribly well on the Secretary of State.
John Healey: When we debate schedule 2 at a later stage, the hon. Lady might want to make those rather unworthy points again, but she should understand clearly that the power in that schedule could not possibly be exercised in those circumstances by any Secretary of State.
Mrs. Lait: I am sure that those people who will volunteer to be commissioners will bear that comment in mind when they are approaching employment, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Because of the information that the Minister has given us, under some fairly close questioning, I will invite my hon. Friends to press the amendment to a vote.
The Chairman: For the benefit of the Committee, a vote on new clause 3 will come later in the proceedings, when we come to the new clauses. The current question relates to amendment No. 181.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 11.
Division No. 7 ]
Benyon, Mr. Richard
Curry, rh Mr. David
Jones, Mr. David
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Neill, Robert
Betts, Mr. Clive
Clark, Paul
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Ennis, Jeff
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Healey, John
Michael, rh Alun
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Sheridan, Jim
Watts, Mr. Dave
Question accordingly negatived.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mrs. Lait: We have had a good discussion on the clause, but one thing that always concerns me, as someone who was scarred by the experience of the Child Support Agency, is that the minute a policy is agreed on in the House, one looks immediately for the difficulties that will emerge. We have gone through a number of those that we have foreseen, but I still think that the clause, although it is acceptable in principle, has some problems that we will need to tease out still further.
We have tried by amendment to clarify and tighten up a number of the issues involved in the production of these statements, because we have grave concerns about the detail and practice, which we will undoubtedly come back to in debates about subsequent clauses.
I remain concerned about the sheer number of these national policy statements that we could be faced with. It is not just we in Parliament who could be faced with them but, of course, the British public, because, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall made clear, we should not just consult the usual suspects about these national policy statements. We must ensure that we engage with a much wider public. It is highly possible, indeed likely, that, because Parliament will be involved in the scrutiny in whatever form that takes, there will be a greater interest than there would normally be when the Department consults. Certainly, if there are site-specific policy statements, I would expect a huge level of interest, particularly if people feel that their peace of mind and their environment are going to be disturbed.
Therefore, we could face a situation, as I have already said, of parliamentary constipation as we try to get these national policy statements through the House so that everybody knows the direction in which they are going, including the developers and the communities in which these developments will be sited.
Will the Minister give us some idea of the number of policy statements that he expects? For instance, yesterday I heard that we were going to have one on fossil fuels, one on nuclear energy and one on renewables; that is three statements from just one Department on one subject. We could go on for ever with these statements. How many will we have on transport? Will there be statements on ports and ancillary roads, roads, rail and air? We could go on for ever. If the Minister can give me a total, I will be happy.
John Healey: I do not want to detain the Committee or repeat myself too often. I have said at least twice during the course of these proceedings, including once already today, that, as the hon. Lady will see if she looks at the schedule published with the statements on 27 November, we expect about a dozen national policy statements in total.
Mrs. Lait: A dozen at the moment—that is my reaction to that statement, I am afraid. Every time, we seem to get another angle that implies another national policy statement. I am sure that the Minister wishes and hopes that he will only have to deal with a dozen. Even if there are only a dozen national policy statements, getting the British public and Parliament to deal with them will cause huge congestion in the consultation system, however it is developed. That is before we get into any other areas of continuous review.
However, let us accept that we only have a dozen and let us hope that the fears that we have raised about this clause do not come into play. I still wish that the Government would accept and take on board our points to try to make these national policy statements a much more effective mechanism than I currently believe that they will be under the Bill. Although I support the clause and shall not vote against it, I hope that the Minister will accept that the mechanism is not yet perfect and that there is a way to go.
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Dan Rogerson: We have heard several times how much consensus there is in this place and out in the real world on the idea that national policy statements are a sensible way forward. Given how supportive we are of the concept, I was hoping that the Minister would be a little more generous about getting it right. He should listen to what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee said about scrutiny—we had a long debate about that—and the question of site specificity, as he called it. I am disappointed, therefore, that he has not said that he will change things much in the direction that the rest of the Committee would like to see.
Having said that, my support for national policy statements as a concept is on record, so I shall not oppose the clause. However, I would hope that, as the Bill progresses, the Minister and his team will consider and take on board some of the measures proposed in the other groups of amendments that we have debated.
John Healey: Hon. Members are right: we have had a thorough debate on some important issues, not only on this clause, but on previous, linked measures. Clause 5 is an important part of the Bill. It sets out the definition of a national policy statement and what is required of Governments when they produce the statements. NPSs are central to the proposed new system. They will set the strategic policy framework within which the IPC will consider applications for major investments and major infrastructure. National policy statements do, indeed, have broad support from a range of interests. I am glad that they have all-party support.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Mrs. Lait: I beg to move amendment No. 185, in clause 6, page 3, line 31, at beginning insert—
‘(A1) The Secretary of State shall consider continuously whether each national policy statement should be reviewed.
(A2) The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament and publish each year a report on the national policy statements which have been designated and whether a review is being carried out or will be carried out.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 7, in clause 6, page 3, line 31, after ‘must’, insert ‘continuously’.
No. 73, in clause 6, page 3, line 31, leave out from ‘statement’ to end of line 32 and insert ‘annually and publish a report’.
No. 8, in clause 6, page 3, line 31, leave out from ‘statement’ to end of line 32.
No. 74, in clause 10, page 5, line 24, at end add—
‘(4) The Secretary of State must report on the progress of the review at 28 day intervals.’.
Mrs. Lait: We are moving on to some of the more arcane detail of bringing national policy statements into being. The clause deals with the review of the statements. The amendments would ensure that once a national policy statement is in place, it is fit for purpose whenever a new planning application emerges. Subsection 6(1) bothers me because it states:
“The Secretary of State must review each national policy statement whenever the Secretary of State thinks it appropriate to do so.”
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about this. The problem is that
“whenever...appropriate to do so”
could be, and is likely to be, a reaction to a planning application. Any review process will, of necessity, take time. A continuous review and an annual report, which we are proposing, would allow the NPS to be always up to date.
Having said that, I should not like the Minister to think that we expect legions of civil servants to sit and read national policy statements and all the technical papers and advice involved in major infrastructure projects on a daily basis, but there ought to be a mechanism whereby technical literature and developments are under continuous review. That way, as soon as there is a new development that could have a bearing on an NPS, it would be flagged up to the Secretary of State and the review could begin at that stage rather than later.
Mr. Llwyd: I am listening to the hon. Lady and agree about the wording of the clause. I must say that the drafting is rather strange—I have not seen anything quite as strange as this for some time. [Interruption.] I read Private Eye and various other things.
The clause states:
“The Secretary of State must review each national policy statement whenever the Secretary of State thinks it appropriate to do so.”
We are always being told about words that are otiose. Surely the clause should state that the Secretary of State must review each NPS “periodically or from time to time”.
Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that and I have some sympathy with him. I gave up reading Private Eye some years ago. Perhaps I should read it more often.
The problem with including a reference to a time scale as opposed to the process being continuous is that we never know when a technological development may emerge. If “from time to time” is defined as, say, once a year, given the technological fervour in areas such as waste disposal, that review may come after the technological development and the desire for an infrastructure contractor to build a new facility.
For example—it may not be entirely appropriate, but because it is current it comes immediately to mind—E.ON has made a planning application for a carbon capture, coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth as a response to a Treasury competition to design carbon capture facilities. Good on the Treasury for encouraging that research; I do not have any problem with it as long as it does not cost us any money—I put that in before I am accused of committing us to vast expenditure.
It is highly possible that a company would wish to make a planning application for a carbon capture power station but the NPS is not sufficiently up to date to allow the IPC to give it planning permission. That is why I have a problem with specifying a time scale and why I think that these matters should be kept under continuous review.
As I said, I do not suggest that we have a whole section, either in the Department for Communities and Local Government or anywhere else, reviewing the literature; it is not that difficult these days, especially with the internet. We all want clean technologies, sustainable development and better infrastructure, but in order to get innovative new ideas tried, tested and out into the public domain, it is better to keep things under continuous review. That is preferable to the Secretary of State suddenly waking up one Tuesday morning before coming in for questions and saying, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to look at the NPS for waste?” That is not a sufficiently robust system, but it is what will pertain under clause 6(1) as drafted. Heaven knows, in a couple of years we will have a new Secretary of State. With the best will in the world, reviewing NPS will not be at the forefront of any Secretary of State’s mind as he or she tries to deal with the mess that is left by this Government. [Interruption.] We are worrying about it and believe me, we need to worry.
If there is somebody in the Department whose remit it is to keep an eye on technological and other developments in these sectors, they can be flagged up continuously and that will allow the market to develop for the infrastructure projects that we want.
Dan Rogerson: I, too, was somewhat alarmed by the concept of
“whenever the Secretary of State thinks it appropriate to do so.”
I understand why that would not be a cause for concern within the Department, but it might be a concern in the House. However, I will not go over the hon. Lady’s argument as we seem to be making progress.
I have a concern about NPSs being reviewed continuously. If an NPS is to mean something to people, they have to know that it is in place for a certain period. Amendment No. 73 suggests that they should be reviewed annually. That might be too short a period. However, if they are continuously being reviewed, that could call into question the whole purpose of having them because it could affect people’s confidence that they can submit an application in line with an NPS.
Mrs. Lait: I am trying to make the NPS the servant of technology rather than technology the servant of the NPS.
Dan Rogerson: I thank the hon. Lady for that point of clarification. My feeling was that we should put a time limit on the NPS and my suggestion was to review it annually. Amendment No. 73 is a probing amendment.
Amendment No. 74 is on the related issue of an NPS being suspended. If something comes to light, as is set out in clause 10, which leads the Secretary of State to feel that an NPS should be suspended, it is not a trifling matter. There might be applications in the pipeline on which a great deal of expense and community anticipation are hanging. As the rest of the Bill seems to be quite fond of a period of 28 days for everybody else to conform to, I thought that the Secretary of State should have to answer after 28 days as to why a suspension remains in place. It might be slightly mischievous of me, but I felt that it would be useful for the Minister to clarify in what circumstances he envisages an NPS being suspended, how rare that might be and how soon it would be back in place or an amended NPS brought to the House for consideration. This issue is important because crucial applications could be before the IPC in that time.
Mr. Jones: I support amendment No. 185. I also want to echo the point made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. We learned our law within 25 miles of each other and I share his bemusement at the expression
“whenever the Secretary of State thinks it appropriate to do so.”
I think that what is intended in the clause is probably very similar to what my hon. Friend intends in the amendment—in other words, the NPS should not be regarded as being cast in tablets of stone, but as being capable of development. The point is that things move forwards, especially technology. I am concerned that if statements are not kept under review, an application for development could be rejected because of a national policy statement that was developed on the basis of an old technology and does not accommodate the new technology.
It was not so long ago that the Government regarded nuclear power as an unattractive and unpalatable option. Now it is regarded as the solution to all our electricity generation problems. If the statement that it is an unpalatable option had been in the form of an NPS, it would not have been possible for a new developer to come forward with an application for a new nuclear power station, notwithstanding the fact that nuclear technology and nuclear waste disposal technology have moved on apace in recent years.
What the Government are seeking to achieve is very similar to what my hon. Friend is seeking to achieve. However, she puts it rather better, so I suggest that the Minister accepts the amendment.
2.45 pm
Mr. Betts: On amendments Nos. 93, 94 and 95, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be relieved to know that I do not intend to address each in turn at great length—
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman refers to amendments that we are not considering. We are on amendments Nos. 185, 7, 73, 8 and 74. His amendments are to the next clause.
John Healey: I sense a mood in the Committee to make progress.
The Chairman: I wish I did.
John Healey: I sense a mood, but do not see the evidence, Mr. Illsley, so I shall be brief.
I am not sure that the hon. Lady’s proposition is practical, but am sure that it is not sensible. The central question is why review when a review is not necessary. Surely, the time to review a national policy statement is when the relevant circumstances have changed, rather than to be required somehow to do so continually or when circumstances have not changed. As she rightly pointed out in her example, one circumstance that might allow for a review would be a significant development of technology.
Dan Rogerson: Will the Minister give way?
John Healey: I think I shall finish my sentence and point first.
A development of science might be another example. For instance, if better science and analysis demonstrated that the environmental effects of a particular type of renewable technology were not as good as had been thought, that might change the substance and circumstances of an element of the national policy statement and suggest the need for review. To simply review for review’s sake or when there has been no significant change in circumstances is not a practical or sensible proposition.
Dan Rogerson: At the risk of getting into Sir Humphrey territory of reviewing reviews and announcing the review of the review, how will we know that a review is necessary unless a review has taken place? The Minister said that we will not conduct a review unless circumstances have changed. How will the Secretary of State be aware when significant circumstances have changed without having some sort of eye on what is happening in the sector and with applications?
John Healey: The Secretary of State will have to consider from time to time whether a review is necessary. It is not only the Secretary of State, however, who is in a position to make a judgment on whether circumstances have changed to the extent that a review is necessary. Clause 12 gives any interested party the specific right to challenge the Secretary of State if they believe that those circumstances have changed and a review is necessary but the Secretary of State is not going to have one.
Mrs. Lait rose—
John Healey: The Bill, therefore, provides the framework for dealing with precisely the sort of concerns that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Clwyd, West are right to anticipate. However, her amendments are not the answer to their concerns.
Mr. Jones: Is not the problem with the subsection as drafted, however, that it is a strange mix of the mandatory and the discretionary? There is a positive duty on the Secretary of State to review national policy, but only when he feels that his state of digestion impels him to think about it. Frankly, ought not it to be mandatory all the way through? Currently, we have this strange compulsion, but only when the Secretary of State feels it necessary. Surely, it should be a question of periodic review. There need not necessarily be continuous reviews, but there certainly should be something that an aggrieved person can latch on to so that they can say, “Well, you should have reviewed it at that particular point but did not.”
John Healey: Clause 12 is there precisely for an aggrieved person to, in the hon. Gentleman’s words, latch on to, but why review periodically when there is nothing to review? In the end, someone will have to make a judgment about initiating that review process. The national policy statements are produced as the responsibility of the Secretary of State, and it is appropriate that that responsibility and initiative lies with the Secretary of State. It is also appropriate for this House to take a view if the Secretary of State seems reluctant to have a review when there appears to be a change of circumstances that would warrant it. Any interested party could latch on, to use the hon. Gentleman’s words again, through the rights under clause 12 to impel or challenge precisely that process.
Several hon. Members rose
John Healey: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Beckenham because she tried to intervene before. Then, if necessary, I will give way to others.
Mrs. Lait: I hope that I am about to offer the Minister a solution to the problem.
English is a glorious and flexible language, and I do not have any problem with it becoming the international language. However, it is because of its very flexibility that I suspect we are using the word “review” in two distinct senses. I am using the word in the sense of keeping up to date—keeping a review of the technological and scientific literature. I suspect, if I may put words into the Minister’s mouth, that he is using the word in the more formal sense of setting out on a review of the NPS, with all the consultation that is required.
If we are agreed that we are using the word in slightly different senses, I am sure that we can come up with a wording that will both answer the Opposition’s concerns and deal with the Minister’s concern about the formal side of the review process.
John Healey: I think that the hon. Lady is being half-helpful. Let me start with the good news. On the positive side, having spent five years in the Treasury, we did, indeed, use the word “review” often in the sense that she is suggesting. We, as a Government, keep all taxation policy constantly under review, which I think is the meaning that she intends. Clearly, in the context of the Bill and of potential revisions to national policy statements that have gone through the sort of formal process that we discussed under the previous clause, “review” has a different import.
Given that distinction, the hon. Lady must accept that it does not make sense to have a continual, or even a periodic, process of review. It makes sense to have a review when the circumstances that would suggest that it is necessary have changed. I do not think that it is necessary to try somehow to write into primary legislation an expectation or obligation that a Secretary of State would keep a close eye on all developments relevant to his or her policy area, including on national policy statements. It is part and parcel of the job that we do as Ministers, but, ultimately, as I have said, if a Secretary of State is failing to do that and is failing, therefore, to have the sort of formal review—let us call it that, although it is not the technical term used here—that either an interested party or Parliament might think the Secretary of State should have, there is scope to challenge that, and it would be appropriate to do so.
The Bill gets the balance right between a framework that can provide a degree of certainty for potential investors looking at major infrastructure options, and a degree of certainty about the framework within which the IPC works, against an expectation that they will be reviewed and revised when appropriate and when circumstances change.
I hope, given the mood in the Committee, that we can move on fairly swiftly, because there are substantial items still to discuss.
Mr. Llwyd: I do not agree with the Minister that the words “from time to time” would necessarily trigger a wasteful review. It would simply mean that the Minister would from time to time have to review. It does not mean that suddenly the doors would be opened to a review if it was not necessary. Quite the reverse.
I now understand why the wording,
“whenever the Secretary of State thinks it is appropriate to do so”,
has been included in clause 6—it is to open up the possibility of a legal challenge under clause 12. If the Secretary of State takes a conscious decision whether it is appropriate or not to undertake a review, that is challengeable under clause 12. I think that that is the reason for the rather extravagant wording.
John Healey: I am not sure whether the wording is extravagant. However, the purpose of clause 12—let us say linked to clause 6, just to remain in order here—is to give an explicit right and scope for people to challenge the Secretary of State in conducting or discharging his or her duties under this Bill, whether that is to do with the production of a national policy statement, or a review, or a failure to review when circumstances warrant it.
I hope that that statement is helpful to the Committee and I hope that we can move on.
Mrs. Lait: Given that the Minister and Conservative Members have been half-helpful to one another, I intend to withdraw the amendment—albeit on the grounds that we may well return to the issue—because the Minister has probably given us the answer that we need, which is the difference between review and revision. However, we may well come back to this in subsequent proceedings.
Dan Rogerson: I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. However, I would still be grateful if he can provide any clarification on reporting back in the period when an NPS is suspended, so that people have an indication of what is likely to happen. That would be important to applications that are going on, and so on. I do not know whether he has anything to say on that.
John Healey: I will try to be brief and helpful at the same time. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might want to return to this issue in more detail when we debate clause 98.
Dan Rogerson: On that basis, I am happy not press my amendments to a Division.
Mrs. Lait: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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