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20 May 2009 : Column 1557

I had written down the fact that the process that my hon. Friend is recommending is a democratic backstop; he got there first in using that phrase, but I reiterate it. If our constituents, wherever they live, feel individually or collectively that they have been stripped of a right that currently exists, they will look to us, as their elected representatives, to perform that role of backstop, which is why the amendment is so crucial.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) was right to say that the whole process has opened itself up to judicial review, which will clearly flow from one or more of the documents and applications that come before us. All the arguments have been made in that respect. I think that we will get not only judicial review but more direct action, because the idea that legitimacy is being stripped out of the process will aggravate people to such a great extent.

I do not intend to reiterate the arguments that have been made; I wanted only briefly to reinforce what has been said by so many Members, but particularly by my hon. Friend. I hope that even at this late stage, we will be able to register the view of this House that we ultimately need a substantive vote to legitimise the process, having taken so much legitimacy out of it.

3.36 pm

John Howell (Henley) (Con): Like everyone else, I must begin my remarks by thanking the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for introducing his amendment, which I hope that he will press to a vote.

Anyone looking in on this debate and reading today’s Order Paper could not avoid seeing the complexity of the motion that is before us. They would probably think that common sense had gone out of the window, because although the motion is complex, it entirely misses the point that what the planning system lacks is real democratic accountability. The Government have underestimated the extent of public anger and suspicion about the planning process and the public’s lack of trust in the planning process and in those who take planning decisions. In all the years that I have been involved in planning matters, I cannot recall a time when the planning system has been so characterised by confrontation and all-pervading conspiracy theories because of the lack of transparency that occurs in relation to almost any major decision. It would be easy to characterise that as nimbyism, and many do, but that is so insulting to the people and communities who have genuine concerns to raise about large projects. The attitude of the public owes a lot to the lack of democratic accountability in the system at all levels.

The Minister referred to the need for consultation during the process. I have to say to him that, in my experience, the Government’s track record on consultation is shot to pieces. People do not trust the consultation process, and I would like to hear whether he has any more ideas about how he is going to put trust back into it. Is it to be based around the sort of consultation that we have seen for some of the regional spatial strategies? In my area, the south-east plan did not go out of its way to involve ordinary people. It involved the great and the good—even some of the great and the good in the county councils and district councils—but it failed to have any resonance at all with ordinary people on the
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ground. That is why they are so angry. When those plans were published, they contained the very things that they had fought against. In many cases they raised their own money to do that, and not on nimby grounds but for good reasons.

I am a great admirer of Select Committees. I know that I have not been here as long as many Members who are present in the Chamber, but I am on a Select Committee and enjoy its work very much. I particularly enjoy the opportunity that it provides to delve into matters in detail and question Ministers, officials and other experts at great length. However, that misses the point that what people want is the scrutiny and decision making in this House that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said, allows a constituent to come and ask us, “How did you vote on this particular issue?”

The Floor of the House is a perfectly proper place for discussions on documents such as national policy statements, because they are not purely planning documents. The description of them in the White Paper, “Planning for a Sustainable Future,” states that they will

There is a planning element in there, absolutely, but there is much more about economic development and the overall picture of development. It is perfectly proper that that should be debated on the Floor of the House and, in fact, I would feel upset if I did not have the opportunity to influence a decision on such a wide issue.

For the reasons that have already been stated, I do not like the Infrastructure Planning Commission. It is one of the most spineless inventions that we have seen in the planning system. As I said in my earlier intervention, over the past few years the planning system has been deliberately moved towards being the delivery arm of Government policy. That is the right direction, because planning does not exist in an isolated world of its own. It is there to deliver whatever the policies of the Government are, and I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with the inconsistency that follows, which means that when it comes to contentious national projects, the Government want to hide behind a whole new structure that takes them out of the picture.

The planning system that we have at the moment is one of the most highly fragmented that I have come across. Bits of planning decisions are taken here, bits there and bits in other places. There is little interaction in the system between national policy statements and the planning policy statements and guidance. I join my hon. Friends in welcoming some form of national policy statement for infrastructure projects, but the debate has moved on. There must now be a big argument about whether it is right for national policy statements to be stand-alone documents or whether they should be included in something much broader that establishes an overall policy framework for the country, priorities within that and the tools and means of delivering it. If the Minister wishes to have an example of how that might work, let me point out that whenever I talk to planning consultants, they start to go weepy-eyed and enthusiastic about what
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the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are doing to turn their planning systems around and to provide a structure in which things can be seen in the context of what those Governments want to achieve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) was absolutely right to highlight the risk of judicial review. The Campaign to Protect Rural England website has already listed the main reasons why one would be able to take something to a judicial review. Although the CPRE qualifies that with a statement that

it might have added “expensive”—I submit that it would not put four detailed reasons on its website if it were not encouraging people to use them. So we already have a good example of how that would work.

There is a good argument for accountability and debate in Parliament generally, rather than in a Select Committee alone, as the Government propose. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that, although the amendment does not go as far as we would like, it is a good step in the right direction, which I would be pleased to support.

3.45 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) is right that there could not be a better time for the House to debate the amendment to the proposals for national policy statements. There is a call for a root-and-branch rethink of what Parliament is about—not only how we manage our expenses, but how we accept responsibility for the big issues that affect people’s lives and the country’s future, and how we hold ourselves accountable in that process. It is also true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) said, that we lost the right in the Planning Act 2008 for the public to hold people to account for big decisions through planning inquiries. There remains the role of the House in holding people to account for the big decisions of state.

Although it is important to build consultation and scrutiny into decision making, and both are necessary conditions of a democratic process, they are not sufficient to define its existence. The third element, which completes the process, is accountability. A great difficulty—and a source of frustration to me during my time in Parliament—is the way in which Parliament has been stripped out of the democratic process because we have farmed out accountability for decision-making responsibilities.

I am sure that the Minister has read the novel, “Catch-22”. I invite him to reflect on one of the characters: Major Major. He did not want to be in the army but ended up there because it was a family tradition, and became a major. However, he hated the responsibility for making decisions, so he found a way of surviving by introducing a rule whereby every member of the armed forces was free to consult him and put requests to him at any time, as long he was not there. Only when he was in his office were the doors closed. That was an effective way of not making any difficult decisions. My worry is that Parliament has been reduced to that position.
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Whenever there were big decisions to be made, we were not there. That would persist under the proposed framework.

Of course, we can have scrutiny and consultations, but when a matter comes before the House, we may, at best, be able to vote on a motion. As every Member knows, that often amounts to voting on no more than whether to adjourn. I am sure that most Members have experienced the great difficulty of explaining to their constituents their monumental and heroic stance in deciding whether to vote to adjourn the debate.

Do we continue with a procedure that will take us nowhere, or abandon it? Such a procedure does not help with credibility; it does not cut much ice when we try to address the issue of the House accepting the responsibilities that go with our standing for election to make decisions about the major issues that affect people’s lives. The amendment before us today would restore the House’s right to cast a substantive vote. That does not seem a particularly radical proposal: it just says that the House takes itself seriously and that we recognise that there is often an important distinction to be drawn between the interests of the Government and the interests of Parliament. It is Parliament’s role to hold the Government to account. The ways in which we do so include the right to have a vote on a substantive motion.

I understand that the quasi-judicial interpretation of planning responsibilities is often wheeled out in an attempt to discourage politicians from interfering in decision-making processes. So too is the argument that, often, an issue will be of such enormous importance that it just has to be decided upon without undue delay. Our proposal would not cause any undue delay at all, but it does accept that the House can, and frequently does, bring to the scrutiny process something that can counteract the inequalities built into the consultation process, however open it may be.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the fact that huge inequalities of power, resources and influence are built into the planning processes. Those same inequalities are built into the ability to make representations to our Select Committee hearings. One countervailing power that is frequently demonstrated in the House is the ability of hon. Members from all parties to come here remarkably well informed and remarkably unafraid to put the arguments that many of their constituents are unable to muster either the confidence or the resources to put themselves.

Our proposal would be an enhancement of the democratic process. It would give the House the right to define a position that may not suit what the Government want to do. Ultimately, if this House considers itself to be the guardian of democratic processes and part of the arm lock, which requires democratic accountability to be exercised in this Chamber, it is right that we should reserve the right to say no and to tell the Government of the day, whatever Government they may be, that we do not agree with their policy.

A substantive right to a vote on such statements would restore that to the House. It would indicate, at this hugely important point in restoring our democratic credentials for the future, that we are unafraid to put down a marker and exercise the one duty that every member of our electorate assumes that we have when we are elected, which is to come to the House and cast a vote that has a meaning. If we cannot do that, we will
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be throwing the towel in on our democratic credibility, and at a time when that credibility could barely be lower. I hope that the House has the courage to reclaim this platform, from which we now have to rebuild our democratic credentials, and will support the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington.

3.54 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I do not intend to detain the House long, although I imagine that my comments will probably make me no friends whatever in any part of the House.

As I intimated in an intervention, my difficulty in approaching the motion relates to the status of a national planning policy statement, which will clearly be a hybrid. It will be based partly on what regularly happens at the Dispatch Box when a Minister makes a statement on Government policy, takes questions and sits down, with no vote being taken. Such statements can be prayed in aid, one way or another, in a planning inquiry, even though they are not specifically related to it.

On the other hand, the national planning policy statements that are envisaged will go substantially beyond the point at which they could be regarded simply as a Government statement—they will be much more substantial. In some ways, they will more closely resemble planning policy guidance statements, which also are not subject to a vote on the Floor of the House before they are completed, but which nevertheless go before planning inquiries and play a substantial part in determining the framework of the inquiry. Indeed, people on both sides of the inquiry will refer to parts of the guidance statement to support their case.

I thoroughly support the scrutiny that now takes place. A good job was done in ensuring that, by the time the Planning Bill became an Act, procedures had been incorporated to enable such scrutiny. The motion reflects the follow-on from what emerged in the Planning Act 2008.

There is a choice between the scrutiny being undertaken by either a Select Committee or a Committee set up by the Liaison Committee specifically for the purpose, but I feel that a preference should be expressed. One might say that a Select Committee would normally be asked to scrutinise a proposed document and that, exceptionally, a Committee might be set up for the purpose. At the moment, there seems to be an either/or that is neutral on which option is preferred. Perhaps we should suggest a preference.

Should a Select Committee discuss a planning statement? Because it is a statement, it is extremely unlikely that the Committee would simply say, “No, we don’t like the apparent policy behind the statement, so we will not endorse it in any way, shape or form”, in order to bring it back to the House. Instead, it would discuss the detail, as in a Bill Committee, and report its conclusions. It might suggest a number of changes to the detail, but it is extremely unlikely—to the point of its not happening—that a Select Committee would fundamentally disagree with the concept behind it.

I therefore have some difficulty with the amendment, which appears to suggest that a member of a Committee could come before the House and say, “No, we don’t like the whole idea of the policy,” and we would have to debate that and vote.

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The question whether a policy is liked seems to go one stage further back. I would value the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on what is meant by the relevant provision in the 2008 Act. Sections 9(4) and (5) state that if

However, if either House of Parliament passed a policy resolution on the proposal, it would not be logical for the Secretary of State simply to lay a statement responding to the resolution, because the resolution would essentially override what the Secretary of State might say about the policy principle behind the planning document being considered by the Select Committee.

Let me provide an example. I support in principle the National Planning Commission dealing with large infrastructure projects and nationally significant planning proposals. I do so partly because I would like a number of issues relating to the development of renewable and sustainable energy to be dealt with speedily and effectively—with proper consultation and discussion, but without the immense delays that we sometimes encounter. I also accept, however, that the same process could speed up development of nuclear power, which I think is a bad idea for this country’s energy policy.

We should not forget that the purpose of national policy statements is to inform the considerations of the National Planning Commission. If, before the proposals in either of the two examples I have given had reached the point of being scrutinised by a Select Committee or gone through the Infrastructure Planning Commission’s planning inquiry process, the House considered a motion stating that either nuclear power or large-scale offshore wind was a bad idea, that would presumably trump or prevent Select Committee discussion of any statement. Indeed, that consideration is more important than requiring the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a statement setting out his response to the resolution or recommendations.

The Secretary of State may lay before Parliament a statement on the recommendations of a Select Committee, but if he was laying a response to a resolution that overrode the policy behind the statement, it would be insufficient and inappropriate simply to respond by laying a statement before Parliament. That underlines the hybrid nature of national planning statements. On the one hand, they are a statement of Government policy, but on the other, they are a planning policy guideline—and even if they are a statement of Government policy, they are a statement in the context of a wider palette of policies that can properly be the subject of a resolution before the House to define whether that policy is appropriate. That is an important element in these proceedings. I would be grateful for the Minister’s clarification of whether my understanding of the process is accurate.

Notwithstanding all that, the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) underlines an important point about what happens at the end of a Select Committee’s scrutiny. When the Planning Bill was introduced, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government stated:

That was a clear commitment, and I should be grateful for, at the very least, a reinstatement of it today. However, I am not sure whether it is sufficient to guarantee debate on the Floor of the House.

The motion should provide for such debate if a Select Committee reports that an issue requires it, rather than someone perhaps providing time for it. I have complete confidence in the bona fides of my hon. Friend the Minister and, indeed, those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I am not necessarily confident that, for all time, everyone will be in exactly the same position. The motion should be amended to ensure that the process of bringing documentation to the Floor of the House for guaranteed debate is followed through.

I have concerns about how a substantive vote at the end of that process is to be interpreted, bearing in mind what I said about a resolution. However, today’s debate has drawn attention to a lacuna in how the process might reach its logical conclusion. If we can get that right, we shall have a process that deals with how statements are presented to the House and how they interact with the planning process, and that ensures that proper scrutiny and the voice of the House are taken fully into account.

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