Planning Bill

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Clause 40

Timetable for consultation under section 37
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I beg to move amendment No. 62, in clause 40, page 19, line 35, leave out ‘28’ and insert ‘56’.
This is a fairly straightforward amendment, which does not need much explanation. The timetable for consultation is clearly set out in the clause. Subsection (2) states:
“A deadline notified under subsection (1) must not be earlier than the end of the period of 28 days that begins with the day after the day on which the person receives the consultation documents.”
Knowing local government as I do, 28 days is not exactly a lifetime, and this is very much a probing amendment to get the Minister to reassure the Committee that normally we will be looking at a longer period than that. I know it is difficult for him to speculate on the matter, but my concern is that local government might not be up to speed. Local authorities are often overworked and for all I know the measure may mean a lot of extra work for them. I have suggested 56 days, although it could have been longer or a figure in the middle. I simply want to know what the Minister foresees will be the median time when the notices will be issued.
Mrs. Lait: I support the need to probe the Minister on the matter. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the speed at which local government can move, but I am conscious that there are people for whom a deadline of 28 days could be exceedingly difficult. It is not beyond the wit of man or woman to work out that should it be a busy time on the farm—because so many of these infrastructure projects are likely to be on farming land—farmers will have other things that they need to do rather than responding to an application that would affect them.
An elderly person whose land was affected could, as we know from our constituency work, take a lot longer than the time specified to respond. I have noticed personally that as people get older it takes them a long time to consider a matter and get their heads around its implications before they can take action by obtaining legal or other professional advice. I am generally supportive of an extension on the grounds that we want to ensure that the pre-application process is as effective as possible—a point I have made before—and we are coming to amendments that try to make it more effective. However, if the process is constrained too tightly its effectiveness might be lessened and there might be more cause for complaint, which could be legal or in the form of a complaint at the inquiry. That would lead to an inevitable delay, and the purpose of the Bill is to reduce those delays. If the Minister could reassure us of his intentions on the provision, I should be happy not to press the amendment, as, I am sure, would the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.
Dan Rogerson: I join hon. Members in raising the issue of time constraints. As the hon. Lady has just said, we are dealing with well-resourced and well-funded companies or public bodies that are pursuing development and have recourse to legal and planning advice, and although we might not want to talk in confrontational terms they are up against local people and individuals who do not have such advice. To expect those local people to fall in line with a tight time scale of 28 days is asking a great deal.
Factors such as periods of illness or the pre-consultation stage happening during the height of the holiday season, when people could be away for two or three weeks, could affect someone’s ability to respond. If the whole point of the pre-consultation stage is to ensure fairness, openness and that everyone has a chance to have their say before moving into the formal application, we ought to allow greater time to get it right.
Reflecting on the evidence that we received before we began our clause-by-clause deliberations, hon. Members will remember that the gentlemen who represented National Grid and power transmission said that for them the key was to know when an application would be decided. They need to know the timetable so that they have some sense of hope that the application would be resolved at some point. It does not necessarily have to be done in five or nine months or whatever, so we do not have to focus too much on driving forward the time scale; the important thing is that people are aware that there is a time scale and will work to it. With that in mind, I hope that the Minister will consider this and future amendments that address the time scale and its impact on people who have to live with the development for a long time, and ensure that they can play a full part in the pre-application consultation.
John Healey: Clearly, consultees need sufficient time to respond to a promoter’s consultation, but it is equally important that there should be an expectation and requirement that they give the advice or information that a promoter needs to develop their proposals in a timely manner. It could be that someone preparing an application would be dependent upon a statutory consultee, such as a local authority, for specific information, so the principle of having a specific time period to help concentrate the mind and ensure that happens is important. For those who commented on the White Paper, the belief that a time limit was important was almost universal.
For promoters and many statutory consultees, the formal pre-application consultation is unlikely to be either the start or end of involvement in the process. In most cases, the promoter is likely to have been in touch to consult them beforehand and will continue to do so during the process. After the pre-application consultation period, any statutory consultee is likely to continue to be involved in the process of considering an application.
To be clear, the 28 day period is the statutory minimum, and I think that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy understands that point well. It is obvious to all members of the Committee that big infrastructure projects will be more complex than other projects, and there may be a strong case in such circumstances for a longer pre-application consultation period. In such cases, the promoter may decide that it is appropriate and in their interests as well.
Of course, the commission has the power to give guidance about how to comply with the consultation, and may decide in specific circumstances to advise a longer consultation period if it believes that would be helpful. Obviously, a promoter would want to take that into account, not least because the commission will decide whether an application is fit for consideration, so any advice the commission may give will be telling at that point.
Mr. Llwyd: As always, the Minister has been helpful, and I am sure that what he said has been noted. However, if an individual, for whatever reason, had been absent for a good part of the 28 days, would they be able to apply to the IPC or to someone, to say, “Look, due to extenuating circumstances I have not been able to take advice. I have not been able to look at this properly. Can I, therefore, apply now for an extension of the period within which to respond”?
John Healey: Anyone in such broad potential circumstances might not be in a position to argue, in their single case, for an extension or alteration of what was set out as an appropriate time period for the pre-application consultation. However, they would be able to make a representation, if not to the promoter during the pre-application process, directly to the commission, as part of the process that it will undertake in its consideration of any application, which we will look at shortly.
Mr. Llwyd: The Minister has been helpful. I said that the amendment was of a probing nature. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 41

Duty to notify Commission of proposed application
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mrs. Lait: Given that the Committee has agreed that there should be an infrastructure planning commission, the provision for consultation with the IPC prior to public consultation is to be welcomed, and would seem to be good practice. It will be a big change for many people, because we are probably all aware that many planning departments and local authorities are so overwhelmed that they positively discourage discussions before an application. In principle, pre-consultation discussion between the promoter and the IPC is a good idea.
However, I would like the Minister to reassure us on one or two points. One is the extent of the application. Would an applicant find themselves in difficulty with the commission if it emerged later on that information the applicant may inadvertently not have realised was needed was not forthcoming? To get a positive response, any applicant would obviously want to be as forthcoming as possible but, with the best will in the world, there are times when new information appears. We have already discussed the potential impact of that situation, and I am sure we will refer to it again.
9.30 am
The other aspect is whether, in having these discussions with the commission, an applicant will be able to suggest that it would be helpful if none of the information gets into the public domain while they are still thinking about the application. In any well-managed project, it is crucial that the information is managed properly. Any applicant will have serious experience of how that information should be managed. They could make inquiries of the IPC that are exceedingly sensitive. Such applicants would appreciate indications on the degree of confidentiality there would be for any question that they ask the IPC, however far-fetched and unlikely what they are talking about proves to be.
The applicant could be dealing with an area of new technology. We are not expecting that an application for a nuclear power station will suggest anything other than the tried and trusted technology. However, it is not impossible that somebody might manage to create nuclear fusion. Should there be a planning application for a nuclear fusion plant, it would be revolutionary and there would be implications for it. As I have said before, I am no scientist, but one can imagine that there would be implications for such an application that nobody has got their head around, other than those very bright people who can work out nuclear fusion. If there were such a proposal, an applicant would have to know that it would remain totally confidential at that stage.
I have given an extreme example, but it is not difficult to envisage a situation in which an applicant might wish to try out a new technology that would have implications beyond those that anybody with an interest in the land or any direct interest has thought about. It is that requirement for confidentiality about which I want the Minister to reassure us.
John Healey: The hon. Lady has set her concerns in such general terms that it is quite difficult for me to say that we can legislate to cover them. However, I will make two points in response. First, were someone to invent a nuclear fusion process, I doubt that the first people to hear about it would be members of the IPC in relation to a particular application. Were a new technology developed in the nuclear or the renewable sectors, there would be more of an issue over whether the relevant national policy statement was sufficiently comprehensive and up to date. Therefore, I think that the provisions of parts 1 and 2, in relation to national policy statements, are more relevant to her concerns than the problem of confidentiality.
Secondly, this is a quite narrow clause. It is about the duty of promoters to provide certain information to the commission in relation to the pre-application consultation. It is much more narrowly drawn than the general concern that the hon. Lady raises.
Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to the Minister for those points. I understand the reason for the clause and do not think that we will vote against it because it is necessary. However, the Minister is dismissing my concerns too easily. I accept that if somebody were to come up with workable nuclear fusion, it would be all over the front pages of even the most popular newspapers. My inquiry was about the possible consequences, were a revolutionary new technology to be developed. If there was a nuclear fusion plant, the whole of the grid could be affected. That would have serious implications. If an applicant went to the IPC, he would want that to remain confidential.
John Healey: I think I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns although I do not share them either in general terms or in relation to the adequacy of the Bill. We will shortly debate aspects of clause 45(4), which allows the Secretary of State to make regulations about whether information about a request by a promoter for advice must or may be disclosed. I do not entirely share the hon. Lady’s concern because the developer will have to make public such information as is needed to undertake a proper consultation and to allow the public and others with an interest to understand fully and come to a view of the nature of the application. The IPC will want to ensure that that happens. I understand what she is saying about confidentiality for the developer, but he will have to disclose the range of relevant information so that people can understand what is likely to be proposed. I should have thought that the hon. Lady and the Committee would wish to see us insist on that as we try to do in the Bill.
Mrs. Lait: I am sorry that this is turning into a bit of dialogue. I will try to draw it to a conclusion. A developer would wish to be in control of the information process. He would not wish to be driven by the inadvertent disclosure of information by the IPC before he wanted it to come into the public domain. That is where the confidentiality is. I am assuming that a developer will go to the IPC before he goes to public consultation, so the IPC will have prior information. But it is surely not for the IPC to publish such information. It should remain in the control of the developer. If the IPC is not under a strict regime of confidentiality, that information stream would be affected. That is why I am so concerned to have assurances from the Minister that the IPC would be bound by confidentiality.
John Healey: I have no interest in keeping this dialogue going unnecessarily and if it helps the hon. Lady, I will reflect on what she said. But at the pre-application stage the promoter has responsibility for the materials that are produced. It is his responsibility to ensure that the consultation is thorough and properly conducted. The commission has the role of offering advice on that, which promoters would want to follow. It is not the commission’s responsibility to produce information on the consultation. That is rightly the promoter’s responsibility. I will reflect further on what the hon. Lady said about confidentiality and if there is a serious concern we will return to it later.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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