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10.52 pm

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, it is late. I shall try to be brief because it is a case of “nox longa, oratio brevis”.

I have a number of interests in this area. They are recorded in the register and I do not wish to enumerate them now. I should like to confine my remarks to four main points. First, I have a few thoughts about the complication of the existing planning arrangements. Secondly, I wish to make a comment or two about how democracy and accountability relate to the determination of planning applications. Thirdly, I have a few considerations on making the grant of planning permission conditional on extra tax or levies. Finally, I should like to share a few thoughts about the implications, as I see them, arising out of the recently announced proposals for the siting of this country’s repository for long-term nuclear waste.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems to me that in this country the system for authorising changes in land use and development—I include but do not confine my comments to planning permission in this context—are far too complicated. This is bad for the user; it is bad for the administration; and it is bad for all those who are affected. That seems to lead to the breakdown of respect for government, as well as an enormous waste of national resources.

I have some sympathy for the Government’s approach, extending the idea of granting planning permission through secondary legislation—an idea pioneered by my right honourable friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal in the 1990s. Of course, the fact that it is brought forward as an idea is, it seems to me, a very real indictment of our general system of land use control. This is something that I anticipate coming back to in both the context of this Bill and the context of future discussions about heritage, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth.

It seems to me that in this country, in a whole variety of areas, we are creating a system of far too complicated, expensive, fancy legislation which we simply cannot administer. The planning system is an example of that, but perhaps the most obvious example of the malaise is the system which has been introduced in England by Defra to deal with the single farm payment, of which, I regret, I have been a victim. It is a wonderful system. It is intellectually far and above anything else introduced in the other home countries. Unfortunately, it is completely unworkable. In this country we have to turn things round, keep things simple and recognise that the best very often is the enemy of the good.

Turning to some of the democratic and accountability aspects of our planning system, it is very important that we recognise that it is neither right nor feasible to

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conduct plebiscites on everything. After all, developers, landowners and affected parties of all kinds have a right to expect that proposals which are being thought about are considered properly and judiciously. I really do not think that they should be determined by popular whim, rather like TV game shows. I believe that is a parody of democracy. I apologise for sounding as I did in my speech on the European reform treaty.

In my opinion the really important point of public participation in the planning system should be in plan making rather than in development control. I speak as someone who has chaired a planning committee for four years in the Lake District. That process must be essentially non-partisan and the absolute opposite of populist in order to ensure that all those affected have a proper hearing. It is very interesting that for many years, if one ever wanted to develop a pub, one needed to get planning permission from the local authority and a licence from the bench. It may come as a surprise to noble Lords to know that I am a licensee. I remember going in front of the bench and I confess that I felt, in general, confident of a fair hearing.

In a democratic society it is important that, if the system under which we are administered puts decisions out to commission, the politicians who establish or inherit that system fully understand that they are as politically accountable for the decisions that arise from that as if they had they taken them themselves. If my memory is correct, the Minister confirmed that that was so with the Infrastructure Planning Commission and I am sure that this is a very important point which needs to be underscored.

On levies and charges, at the risk of stating the absolutely obvious, development costs money and if charges are added, development becomes more expensive for the developer. Often that discriminates against those who develop for their own purposes as opposed to those who develop for onward sale. In practice, that often means that the small man is harshly treated. It is important that the Government tell us what, if anything, they intend to do to counter that discrimination against the small man. Setting aside arguments about unearned increment, which I believe should be dealt with in the context of general taxation because it applies well beyond land, it seems to me that any levies imposed pursuant to grants of planning permission must be directly linked to consequential infrastructure, which, in turn, must relate directly back to the proposal in question. I also believe that the money should be collected at the point when it is used and applied and not simply be gathered into a big pot.

We all recognise that it is tempting for governments, not least when the money is running out, as it seems to be a little now, to see charges of those kinds as a kind of unhypothecated source of general revenue. The Minister very fairly said to us earlier, if I remember correctly, that the Government have no intention that that should occur and that the detail of the legislation will ensure that whatever arrangements are put in place cannot be transferred in that direction. Again, if that is the case, I urge the Government to underscore that point to put people's minds at rest.

Finally, I shall say a word on the recent announcement about the proposed nuclear waste depository. From an intellectual basis, I was rather startled to hear that the

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Government are proposing to offer sweeteners to the community in the place in the United Kingdom—it is important that all the home countries are involved in this investigation because it is not a devolved matter—where the depository might eventually be sited. In terms of principle, this is a radical change of approach from what we have been used to in this country. How far does this extend? Is it now open to developers to offer all kinds of unconnected sweeteners beyond Section 106 agreements? If communities are to be offered benefits, what about compensation for injurious affection suffered by landowners whose property may in some way be adversely affected by public sector development? I assume it will not be open to developers simply to hand out £10 notes to whoever might want to receive them, but this is an interesting change, and it is important that the Government set down the parameters that they are imposing on themselves in this circumstance and explain to the rest of us how they see this approach developing in future.

I say this with some regret, but there is a real malaise within our planning system in the way it is working. Whether what is on the table is the right way to go will no doubt become much more apparent to us as the Bill takes its course through this House. I look forward to participating.

11.01 pm

Lord Oxburgh: My Lords, I do not believe that many people are satisfied with the present arrangements for managing planning applications for large-scale infrastructure projects in this country. They are cumbersome, slow and expensive. Several noble Lords have already drawn attention to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Terminal 5. Whether one approves of that project or not, it cannot be right that it had to submit more than 30 separate applications. More importantly, our present procedures are probably incapable of supporting the scale and speed of infrastructural change that is needed if we are to have power, water and communications systems that are appropriate for sustainable living in the changing climate of the 21st century.

At this stage, I declare interests as a director of Falck Renewables and Blue-ng.

Much of the problem is that at present we have no effective way of identifying national needs and taking them into account when planning decisions are made, essentially at a local level. This Bill is a welcome attempt to tackle this problem through its two main high-level features: national policy statements and the Infrastructure Planning Commission. These two major elements are supported by a host of ancillary proposals, and I have no doubt that we shall wish to return to them and scrutinise them in considerable detail at a later stage. It is encouraging that sustainability is to be given a high priority.

Today I wish to concentrate only on the national policy statements that will be prepared for various elements of national infrastructure. Once they are agreed, they should go a long way towards setting a framework within which a range of other decisions can be made in a rational and consistent way. These

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statements will not be easy to write. I hope that, whatever public consultation goes on at a later stage, the departments responsible will, early in the process, consult the relevant professional bodies whose members will face the practicalities of implementing them.

The Bill gives an indication of the kind of work that will go into the preparation of the statements and the general areas of activity that they will cover, but it is difficult to comment in more detail without getting a feel for the content in a way that will be possible after seeing the first one or two. It seems to me, however, that whatever the content of a national policy statement and however much consultation there has been in its preparation, it is very important that it should carry moral as well as legal authority.

I am not convinced that, in its present form, the Bill goes far enough in that direction. The provision for consultation is certainly generous, but we must face the fact that many people have become cynical about the value of government consultation and believe that consultation is a ritual dance performed by departments before doing what they intended to do all along. That view of consultation may be quite unfair, but in these matters, perceptions are at least as important as reality.

In my view, that difficulty could be resolved by clearer parliamentary involvement—as a number of noble Lords have suggested—in the approval of the national policy statements. One way of doing that would be through some kind of affirmative parliamentary procedure that gives opportunity for debate in both Houses.

Governments may feel that that is a luxury for which it would be hard to find parliamentary time. However, there are and will continue to be strong and divergent views on infrastructure development. Achieving parliamentary endorsement would be time well spent and would give the national policy statements a moral legitimacy that they would otherwise lack. It would make them much more difficult to challenge by special interest groups, and even those who opposed the plan would know that it was not simply a bureaucratic diktat, but had been examined and approved by Parliament—if not as the best option, at any rate as the least bad.

If the plans themselves have parliamentary approval, there should be less concern about the role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which would then have a quasi-judicial function, as various noble Lords have pointed out, in assessing the proposals for conformity with the plans. A clear statement about a greater role for Parliament in the approval of policy statements might also meet some of the concerns expressed about the commission in the other place.

Renewing and replacing our infrastructure is urgent, especially with respect to energy, but in other ways as well. The Bill is essential to facilitate that process but, equally important, along with the Energy Bill and the Climate Change Bill, it forms the third member of a troika of Bills that will allow the Government to implement their climate change strategy. I congratulate the Government on this initiative.

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11.07 pm

Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. I often agree with him on many things, but I do not want to go down quite the route that he is going down this evening.

Before I get under way, I should express an interest. I am the chairman of the Nuclear Industries Association and have links with several energy-related activities. However, it is fair to say that I am not here banging the nuclear drum this evening, because the infrastructural requirements of a balanced energy policy require us to have a variety of sources of generating capability. All of those sources will require planning permission and agreement over time. Therefore, the process to which the Government will be committed in the Bill affords us the opportunity of, in the first instance, getting a clear idea of what they want to do in relation to a variety of infrastructural activities. It is welcome that, in the case of aviation and nuclear developments, the permissions and understandings will be obtained on a site-by-site basis. I think that that is the correct way to do that.

It is also fair to say—a point made by a number of people—that if we in this country are to realise our ambitions for meeting climate change targets and getting the necessary foreign investment to accompany the indigenous investment, to that end, we must be able to signal to those investors that the planning procedure will not be overextended and not, at the end of the day, so sicken the people who wish to invest that they decide to walk away. The assumption in the United Kingdom that we can fund all these projects is naive and unrealistic at this time. It is also fair to say that the existing procedure can be summed up in the name of the fictitious Edinburgh law firm Delay, Muddle & Expense. In the first instance, the Government must clearly express their policy. In the second instance, the IPC must examine the detailed proposals. We must also involve, almost at the pre-planning stage, the communities and interest groups that will be affected, so that some of their concerns can be taken on board before we move to the next phase—the IPC.

I do not want to take up too much of the House’s time, because I realise that we all want to finish. I will just make the point, which I do not think has been made already this evening, that in the recent past we have changed the nature of political accountability. For many years, the Treasury had the power to change the bank rate—the bank rate could be changed at the whim of the Chancellor. It could be changed for political reasons as well as economic ones. Anyone who suggests that under the present system of political accountability, as exercised by Ministers of all stripes, this power has been dealt with in a quasi-judicial, non-party fashion is, frankly, kidding themselves.

We have abused projects in exactly the same way in which we abused our economy through our arbitrary exercise of the ability to change interest rates. How many significant projects are decided in a Conservative constituency in the run-up to a general election when the Tories want to get back into power? Equally, how many difficult decisions will be addressed by a Labour Government as we move

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towards a general election in the next 18 to 20 months? Let us have none of this stuff about political accountability and how we raise it to some level at which Ministers decide on the best possible advice and everything is done. We are kidding ourselves.

Equally, we know that anything goes in minor planning decisions in Tory wards with Labour councils. While they are not whipped, cannot be whipped and do not have group meetings, there are nods and winks and understandings are arrived at. This happens across the political board. Let us have none of this hand-on-heart stuff about political purity and accountability, because it is sheer hypocrisy. It certainly flies in the face of the harsh realities of elections. Even if there was some political involvement in this House or the other place, it would by and large be the job of the Whips to get the bodies through the Lobbies to support line A or line B.

Let us see whether there is a better way of doing this. I have suggested that there is a parallel with the MPC. At the end of the day, Parliament can change the law. At the end of the two years, Parliament will have the opportunity to review the procedures and see how they can be dealt with. If we are to give to Parliament certain powers over the appointments and consideration of the national policy statements, we must also recognise that the Select Committee system as presently constituted is not capable of handling it. As someone who chaired a Select Committee for 10 years, I know that in some areas of the work of Select Committees—I have just finished chairing one in this House—the capabilities and forensic skills of their members could well be helped by the kind of legal counsel that is available to comparable committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Equally, there must be some sensitivity in scrutiny before appointment. We have all seen the rather brutal way in which some members of the MPC have been treated by the Treasury Select Committee, when self-indulgent Members of the other place have been quite unnecessarily rude and abusive to them. If folk have to go through that kind of experience, it might deter some of them from going into it. We have to recognise that, as a Parliament, we will have to share responsibility for certain duties.

On balance, the proposals on offer from the Government are, as has been said, perhaps not the best, but the best should not be the enemy of the good. We have here an opportunity to correct some of the obvious defects of our discredited system, which no one in this House has been able this evening to defend with any conviction or authority. I find the nitpicking of those opposite disturbing and disheartening. If, as a Government, they had to make these decisions, I cannot see them coming to very different conclusions from those that we as a Labour Government have advanced this evening. I am happy to support the Bill on that basis. It is not perfect. We have a wee bit more work to do. But it is a damned site better than what we have had in the past. What is more, if it is good and it delivers, it will enjoy a credibility in the public eye that the present planning system does not have and, frankly, does not deserve.

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11.16 pm

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I regret to have to say that this is the worst Second Reading of a major Bill that I have ever attended in my 38 years or so in this House. It started badly with the complete shambles of the Government’s programme for the first legislation today. I have to say to the noble Baroness the Captain of the Gentleman-at-Arms that she has done a superb job as Chief Whip, but today she made the wrong call. As soon as she knew that there would be late government amendments to the previous legislation, she should have deferred consideration of this important Bill to another day, so that we could start it at the usual time. After all, what is the hurry? The Government have just wasted two weeks in another place while they bought off rebels in order to secure the progress of the Bill.

Another reason why this is the worst Second Reading that I have attended is the lack of detail in so much of the Bill. We should all read, and read again, the demolition job that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, did of Chapter 11. It is extraordinary that the Minister, for whom I have immense regard, should have allowed a Bill to come before your Lordships’ House where so much approval was needed by another place with no input at all from this House. That has to change. The Minister owes it to this House to produce a great deal more detail so that we can at least have sensible debate in Committee.

I declare an interest as a surveyor. I have been a developer and I have acted for developers in the past. Planning affects us all. It is integral to how we shape the world and this country in which we live and which we love so much. I agree with all noble Lords that there is no doubt that the planning system needs reform. However, let us not blame it just on the planning system. Half the problems with planning come from the prevarication and delay of Ministers who have refused to bite the bullet and take decisions when they should have done.

I thoroughly approve of the principle of the national policy statement. It is a good idea, which I have thought for many years is badly needed. However, in this country’s system of adversarial politics, I am concerned about what happens when we have a change of Government. My mind goes back to 1997. If we had had a national policy statement on transport at that time, undoubtedly one its key elements would have been the improvement of the A40 in west London. The moment the Labour Party came to power, Mr Prescott decided to put an end to that, which was to the huge detriment of UK plc. That is a good example of where, when we get a change of Government, the Opposition will seek to curry votes from a section of the community in a way that will affect a national policy statement. That needs careful attention.

A second example is that of nuclear. It is now all the talk in Parliament, but could you get a Minister even to mention the subject five years ago? No. I seem to remember that when Labour came to power it said that it would not build any more nuclear power stations. We have eight if not 12 coming along; with a little education and time in government, Labour has changed its mind.

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Missing in the areas that should be considered in the national policy statement is flood defence. I ask the Minister why flood defence, which is so important when it comes to climate change and securing our coastlines, is not considered important enough to be included in the national policy statement.

We must not forget that every single national policy statement will be open to judicial review. The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, approves strongly of the review in two years’ time, but I want to have a little bet with him that there will not be a national policy statement in two years’ time—there certainly will not be any planning permission under it, because such statements will all be subject to judicial review. We know that NGOs are looking at this at the moment and I fear that those who have been bought off with the promise of a review two years hence will find that there is nothing to review.

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