I beg to move, That this House
disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
We have considerable sympathy with the principles behind the amendment, but we do not think that either part of the amendment is necessary or sets out the best way to achieve the objectives. I shall deal with each part of the amendment in turn.
The first part refers to economic impact assessments. We would expect the promoter of major infrastructure projects to engage with all parties at the earliest possible stage in the development of such projects. Indeed, we expect promoters to do full economic analyses of their project. It would be surprising if any developer or private or public funding body were prepared to sign up to major infrastructure projects without appropriate economic analysis being done. We must recognise that it is only at the stage that the application is made that the Secretary of State will be able declare that he thinks that the application is of national or regional importance and should therefore be called in, rather than left to the local planning authority. Only after that decision was made would the major infrastructure project rules come into play. It is the Government's view that to require an economic impact report to be completed at that stage is too late in the process.
As I said, we would expect some form of economic impact assessment or analysis to have been completed at a much earlier stage. Assuming that the application is called in, the inspector will consider the economic effects, along with all the other aspects of the application as part of the inquiry. Those would also include environmental and any other impacts, and local people would have a further opportunity to raise their concerns, including any concerns on economic aspects, at the inquiry. If the economic impact is disputed, concerns can be raised about that, too. However, to require an economic impact assessment based on a particular format at this late stage therefore seems unnecessary. It also raises questions about why an economic impact report alone should be a statutory requirement for a major infrastructure project inquiry, bearing in mind the fact that there will be other considerations—about the impact on local communities, local amenities and other services, for example—none of which would be specified in the Bill. The Government do not want to predetermine through the legislation which issues the inspector should consider or focus on at an inquiry. The inspector will need to be able to consider what the particular issues to be resolved are, and what to devote inquiry time to, in each particular case.
The second subsection of the Lords amendment would require that
"Any planning application for a major infrastructure project based on a site-specific proposal in a . . . White Paper shall be considered by an inspector who shall be able to question" whether the development is needed. Again, we do not think that that requirement is necessary. Throughout the progress of the Bill, the Government have said that where there is a national policy statement White Paper, it should help to reduce the argument at a planning inquiry about the need for a specific development at a particular site—but that of course, the inspector is likely to have to consider the balance between need and other factors.
Those who oppose a specific development will be able to present their arguments against it, and it is right that they should have the opportunity to do so. It has never been the Government's intention to rule out the possibility of the inspector spending some time considering need, but that will be done in the context of what is said about need in the national policy statement. The inspector must ensure that all relevant impacts of a specific development are considered during an inquiry, and that means all material considerations, together with relevant impacts such as the economic or environmental impact.
The aim of this part of the Bill is to speed up the inquiry process for granting planning permission for major infrastructure projects. We are sympathetic to the intentions behind the amendment, but we think that legislative provision to enable an inspector to consider the issue of need is unnecessary. The Lords proposals in both aspects of the amendment are unnecessary, so we ask hon. Members to reject it.
In my experience, major infrastructure projects are often justified on the basis of economic benefit—or alleged economic benefit. Projects are frequently justified by claims about regeneration, job creation or trading opportunities. I am sure that other hon. Members will share my experience that in those circumstances, hapless communities are accused of being hostile to those advantages when they understandably seek to defend their communities from ugly or environmentally damaging schemes. Aesthetic arguments are regarded as obtuse or fanciful, and are too frequently disregarded.
Yet there are those of us—I hope that they are represented in the Chamber tonight—who believe that the pursuit of truth and beauty is the most noble purpose of politics. In assessing economic advantage, it is important that other costs should also be measured and weighed, and the Lords, through their amendment, seek to rebalance the scales in favour of local communities.
Lords amendment No. 41 is designed to test empirically the economic regeneration benefits that major projects promise. I recognise that with major strategic infrastructural developments, there will often be broader benefits that do not necessarily accrue in the first instance to the community in which the development takes place. However, where local people's quality of life will be directly, and sometimes dramatically, affected by such proposals, those people should have a key role in the decision-making process.
The Lords' relatively modest suggestion that such factors should be measured independently and that the regeneration possibilities should be tested seems to me balanced and reasonable. I agree with my noble Friend Lord Hanningfield, who said in the other place that
"a robust appraisal of whether demonstrable economic benefits will accrue must take place."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 25 March 2004; Vol. 659, c.904.]
I know that you will forgive me for mentioning a local example, Mr. Deputy Speaker; in my constituency I am currently fighting a proposal to erect a massive number of wind turbines 100m or 120m tall—monstrous in a fenland landscape, as you will know. All kinds of claims are being made about the benefits of those turbines, but few of them are tested or subjected to the sort of independent analysis that is necessary if the significant costs in environmental damage are to be measured against those advantages.
Inexact and uncosted claims are often made for such local planning applications, just as they are for major infrastructure projects of the sort that we are debating under the amendments. I shall return to that matter in both a local and a national context later, on behalf of my constituents and in defence of my local landscape.
Lack of clarity about the assumptions that underpin development proposals often make the decisions on such projects all the more difficult. Independent analysis would discourage purely spurious claims, while allowing genuine benefits to be measured and weighed against costs, as I have described. It would restore public confidence in the system and assist with good decision making.
Where people are facing a major project that will disrupt their community, they feel that they have little influence, and little opportunity to make their case. If they have to do so on the basis of what they perceive to be inexact information, or there is a lack of clear factual support for the project, that feeling of disempowerment is all the greater.
The Government have accepted that principle elsewhere. As the Lords mentioned when they debated these matters, the Department for Transport is taking forward the recommendation of the Standing Advisory Committee for Trunk Road Assessment that economic impact reports should be produced before decisions on new transport infrastructure are taken.
In that instance, the Government have recognised that such impact assessments can assist proper planning and decision making. Yet in this Bill, at this time, in this detail they are not doing so.
Governments, when they run into difficulties, become increasingly suspicious of the people they govern. No one loves the man he fears, as Aristotle said. I suspect that the Government are becoming increasingly suspicious of the people and are beginning to disregard arguments that people should have the opportunity to have their say and to have their voice listened to.
The arguments that have been asserted successfully and convincingly in the Lords would result not only in what I described earlier, but would allow for better and earlier public scrutiny of proposals. If we trust people and believe that they have a right and competence to be involved in a process, we need to provide them with information. We need to provide them with the facts so that they can become involved up front when the decision is taken, not later on appeal as has been suggested as a rather weak alternative. Truly believing in power exercised by people means supporting the kind of proposals embodied in the amendment.
My hon. Friend will be aware that in spite of the Government's timetabling of the Bill and two whole sets of Committee sittings, this matter was not discussed at all in Committee. I say that merely in passing.
Clause 44(4) provides that if the Secretary of State gives a direction under the section, the application must be referred to him. That lies behind the thrust of my hon. Friend's argument. Would it not be a better procedure if the local planning authority considered each major infrastructure project as if it were a normal planning application, and then, and only then, once the local authority had heard the views of local people and made its own decision, the Secretary of State could call it in, as he has the right to do with any planning application at present before a determination is made by a local authority? If he did that, the local democratic process could operate.
My hon. Friend describes with typical assiduity and insight a different balance in central and local relations. He is speaking about a situation in which a local authority would assess the merits of a scheme in the first instance, on the basis, I hope, of the kind of empirical information that I have described. The Secretary of State could subsequently take a view, as my hon. Friend rightly says he can now, about the local authority's decision, the basis on which it was made and the wider public interest. That would rebalance the relationship, and it would change local perceptions of schemes.
Half the problem is that the further we move decisions from local people and the more obtuse we make the reasoning behind them, the more likely we are to fuel irrational views about such schemes. If there is honest, open, up-front local discussion, based on good independent information, many of the concerns that can properly be satisfied by examination of the facts can, frankly, be dealt with. The more distant and esoteric the matter becomes, the more likely it is that there will be local concerns. My hon. Friend makes a helpful and interesting suggestion. The Minister has heard it, and I think that she will have been impressed by it. She may well wish to rise in a moment or two to say that she has thought again as a result of what he suggests.
May I suggest that when such matters are called in by the Secretary of State and go to an inspector for a major infrastructure inquiry, the inspector would be able to deal with such an inquiry much more judiciously if he had the benefits of the local democratic process and of hearing local views? That would give him a much more comprehensive base on which to make his decision.
That is what happens with a typical planning application of the normal kind when it goes to appeal. The inspector studies what has happened before the stage at which he becomes involved and listens to local opinion during the course of the appeal. My hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown is right to say that what he proposes would be much closer to normal good practice than the system that will result from what the Government propose. The Lords go some way to improving that proposal, although not quite as far as my hon. Friend, by introducing a degree of empiricism. My hon. Friend hits on an important point, however, when he talks about the balance between central Government and the locality in these sensitive matters. Major infrastructure projects and planning proposals of that kind are almost always highly contentious, and no one in the House would pretend that they will ever be plain sailing for any Government who seek to introduce major changes of this kind. There will always be different views locally, and there will always be good arguments on both sides of the case. However, the introduction—as the Lords propose—of a greater degree of upfront analysis into the process would improve the Bill rather than limit or damage it.
The second amendment in the group deals with site-specific proposals in Government White Papers. In effect, that unhappy trend bypasses the planning process altogether. I make no apology for quoting Lord Hanningfield again, because he is a great authority on such matters and the distinguished leader of Essex county council. He said, in a debate on this subject:
"Major infrastructure projects rarely enjoy all-round support"— as I said a few moments ago—
"but they must have public legitimacy."
It is an erosion of democratic decision-making if a White Paper pre-empts the question of whether a specific development is needed. As Lord Hanningfield points out:
"A White Paper consultation does not adhere to the same checks and balances as a planning application."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 25 March 2004; Vol. 659, c. 905.]
The Lords amendment would allow an inspector to examine the justification for a site-specific proposal in a White Paper, at an early stage and in a well-understood fashion, thus allowing public scrutiny, proper local debate and well-informed decision making.
Too often, the need for a development is taken as read and the argument revolves around the strength or otherwise of objections. That might be said of the planning process generally. There is a presumption in favour of development, but it is important that the a priori case is examined, as well as the reservations and objections. That is all the more valid if the a priori case is embodied in a Government White Paper. Some people claim that the White Paper process is implicitly consultative and I suppose that that is true, but as Lord Hanningfield implies, it cannot be compared with the rigorous process that the planning system, at its best, can deliver. The need for a development should be tested. White Papers are not adequate in that respect and the Lords once again highlight an important weakness in the Bill.
In both the cases that I have made, the Lords amendments would strengthen and improve the Bill. As the Minister said earlier, and I should have perhaps acknowledged, the Government have listened to the Lords on a wide variety of matters in relation to the Bill. The Government have accepted several of the suggestions made by the other place and the Minister was generous in his assessment of the quality of debate there. Given the strength of the arguments made in the other place on these amendments, which have been reaffirmed tonight, I hope that the Government will think again on these issues. The amendments are not unhelpful or damaging: they are designed to make the Bill better law.
More politically, the Lords have once again championed the interests of the people against arbitrary power and insensitive Government. These very sensitive Ministers should listen to the Lords' case, accept the amendment and show that they are part of a listening team.
The hon. Gentleman's remarks were more of a major infrastructure speech than a speech on a major infrastructure project.
The Minister attempted to dismiss the amendment on two grounds. Effectively, she said that the first part is unnecessary because economic impact reports will be compiled anyway. Her argument on the second part was that it is also unnecessary because the inspector will be able to question the need for specific development. According to her, the amendment is completely unnecessary because it all happens anyway, but if that is the case, there is no harm in its being in the Bill because it strengthens the case.
I have a series of questions relating to each part of the amendment to flesh out what the Minister said. The first part of the amendment states:
"Any planning application that the Secretary of State declares is of national or regional importance, as designated through subsection (1), must be subject to an economic impact report", but it does not say when. It could be before the major infrastructure project is declared of national or regional importance. People could claim that the economic impact report has been done, as specified in the Bill, even though it was completed before the declaration of national or regional importance, and it would not need extra work.
It may, however, be the case that one of the projects does not, for whatever reason, have an economic impact report before the Secretary of State declares, at the point of planning application, that it is a major infrastructure project. In those circumstances, it would be reasonable and, indeed, desirable, especially as the Government rightly set great store by economic impact reports, that a report is produced. In that rare case when one has not been produced, the Bill would ensure that it is.
I fail to understand the Minister's argument that the first part of the amendment is unnecessary because there will be an economic impact report in most cases. The amendment would not force people to compile another report. It would not slow the process down. If it contained the words "must be subject to a new economic impact report or one after the Minister's has made the call," I would have sympathy with the argument that it would slow the process down, but it does not say that. The report could be produced beforehand. The hon. Lady needs to flesh out her argument if she is to continue to oppose it on those grounds.
On the second part of the amendment, the Minister said that we do not need to stipulate that the inspector
"shall be able to question the need for a specific development" because any inspector can question that need, balanced against the other considerations, but that assumes that all applications will end up with the inspector, who will always produce a report. If the Minister can assure me that there will always be an inspector's report on major infrastructure projects and it will always be within the bounds of the inspector to consider the need for the development, perhaps the second part is not necessary, although its inclusion would do no harm. I suspect, however, that there may be cases when the Government want to speed up the process and do not envisage the inspector producing a report. Will the Minister confirm that some major infrastructure developments will not have an inspector's report? If that is the case, we might understand the Government's concern about the second part because it binds them to a report, which might not exist.
The Minister looks confused. Perhaps my request was not clear enough. Most of us would envisage that most things that are described as major infrastructure projects would end up with an inspector's report. In those circumstances, she said that the inspector will question the need for the project because that is part of what he can do. However, are there any circumstances in which a major infrastructure project would not end up with an inspector's report? Is the Minister arguing that the problem is that an inspector's report would have to be produced because that is in the Bill? If so, she needs to make that clear. She seems to be arguing that the amendment is not necessary because what it proposes happens anyway, but I am concerned that, on both counts, that is not the case. We need the hon. Lady to be more open and, in light of her response, we may be in a better position to consider whether the matter needs to be pressed to a vote. At the moment, however, her explanations, which are similar to those given by Lord Bassam in the House of Lords, do not provide us with a good reason not to press the proposal to a vote. I am inclined to continue to press for a vote—and I hope that the Conservatives are—unless the Minister offers an explanation as to why the amendment is not necessary or, indeed, helpful. At the moment, she has not even said that it is not helpful.
I am sorry to repeat myself, but the purpose of the Bill is to introduce a faster but fairer system. The more jaundiced among us may say that we cannot have both—a faster planning or development control system will not be as fair as the existing one. I do not share that view, but I am sure that the Ministers agree that there is a delicate balance between preserving fairness and increasing the pace at which we consider major national or regional planning applications. In fairness to the Government, anybody who has lived through or even partly studied the Sizewell B planning inquiry or the fifth Heathrow terminal inquiry will know that the planning system has gone awry. I do not doubt that procedures can be speeded up, but I add the rider that the inquiry on Sizewell B and the public inquiry on terminal 5 took so long because of political considerations. For all I know, Ministers had a report months if not years before, but decided that it would be prudent to wait until after a general election before giving their verdict on the inquiry. If that is the case—and I believe it is—it is as much a criticism of the last Conservative Government as it is of the present Labour Government.
I therefore accept that we need to look at ways in which we can speed up procedures in massive planning inquiries and applications of regional and national significance.
As ever my hon. Friend is making a compelling case. The key issue is that slowness owing to undercapacity in the planning system or ineffectiveness and inefficiency must be dealt with. However, the system may slow down because of the proper involvement of members of the public and local communities who wish to have their say. Is not my hon. Friend making the point that the process should not be so fast that that involvement is overridden or disregarded?
In those mega public inquiries, there is obviously not a shortage of funds, as costs are substantial with the involvement of leading silks and so on. I do not want to go down that track, but I accept that there is a case for speeding up the system. The Minister said that the proposals may be unnecessary, but I agree with my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ludlow that they are needed to cover the eventuality where the Government or the Secretary of State suddenly wants to throw certain options into the ring when deciding—this is old hat—whether we should have a fifth Heathrow terminal, a second runway at Stansted or a fourth London airport. Perhaps that should be a sixth airport, because Luton and Stansted are now considered London airports. The amendment would provide a mechanism for guaranteeing that the Government or the Secretary of State of the day prepared an economic impact report, and would ensure that, at the appropriate time, an inspector could examine the need for the development.
I share the view of the hon. Member for Ludlow that, far from being unnecessary, the amendment would give immense assurance to many people at a time when, rightly or wrongly, the new proposals make them feel that the planning system will become more remote, and that they will be alienated from it as a result of the regional spatial strategy initiatives. I very much hope that the Government will on second thoughts accept Lords amendment No. 41.
Clause 44 relating to major infrastructure projects was not discussed in either of the Bill's Committee stages. Those who remember the genesis and history of the Bill will recall that we had one whole series of Committee sittings and then, without precedent, the Bill was recommitted to Standing Committee. I do not believe that has ever happened to any other Bill. Such was the Government's ineptitude in getting the Bill right in the first place that they had to recommit it to Standing Committee.
Even so, such was the Government's ineptitude in timetabling their business that we never discussed clause 44 and major infrastructure projects—one of the most important aspects of the planning system—in either Committee stage. Had we done so, I have no doubt that we would have been able to debate some of the issues in Standing Committee and the Government might have benefited, as we might have proposed amendments to improve the clause.
Now a sensible amendment has been proposed in another place and the Government are bitterly resisting it. Let me try to explain to the House in a very timid fashion why I think their lordships are right. Let me explain what clause 44 does. I have already quoted from it in an intervention on my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes, who introduced the topic admirably. I totally agree with him. Clause 44 (2) of the amended Bill, HL Bill 10, states:
"The Secretary of State may direct that the application must be referred to him instead of being dealt with by the local planning authority."
That is another example of the supreme centralisation of powers to the Secretary of State. In a rather otiose way, subsection (3) repeats that the application must be referred to him instead of being dealt with by the local planning authority.
As I suggested to my hon. Friend, it would have been far more democratic and far more acceptable if the local planning authority had heard the application in the first place and heard all the local arguments in a democratic fashion, and the inspector had then made his decision. Such a decision would be much more acceptable to local people. After all, we are speaking of major infrastructure projects—the biggest and most controversial planning applications in the land—for example, for an extra runway at Heathrow, a new power station or a major new port facility. All such projects affect local people's lives.
Clause 44 goes on to say:
"The decision of the Secretary of State on any application referred to him under this section is final", so not only does he have huge centralising powers, but there is no right of appeal. Once he has called the application in for him to deal with, there is no right of appeal by the local planning authority or anyone else against that decision. Bizarrely, under subsection (10), the clause does not apply to Wales. Whereas the Secretary of State has huge centralising powers in relation to England, he does not have the same power in respect of Wales.
The Secretary of State having called in the application, he appoints a lead inspector who—if the Under-Secretary would do me the courtesy of listening to what I have to say rather than chatting to her colleague, she might learn something—who does not have the power in his own house to decide how he will carry out the inquiry because he is considerably fettered by the Bill. Proposed new section 76B(2) states:
"The Secretary of State may direct the lead inspector . . . to consider such matters relating to the application as are prescribed . . . to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on those matters."
In other words, the lead inspector cannot decide matters himself. Subsection (3) states:
"After considering any recommendations of the lead inspector the Secretary of State may . . . appoint such number of additional inspectors", subsection (8) allows him to remove them, and subsection (9) allows him to appoint others. In other words, if the Secretary of State does not like what the subsidiary inspectors are doing he can simply get rid of them and appoint others. Subsection (6) states:
"If the Secretary of State does not act under subsection (3) he must direct the lead inspector to consider the application on his own."
So if he does not like the other inspectors he can get rid of all of them because the lead inspector has to consider the matter.
This is a huge centralising clause, giving the Secretary of State power to meddle and tinker in any way that he likes in these major infrastructure inquiries. This is very centralising and very undemocratic.
By requiring that a major infrastructure project should have an economic impact report, their lordships are proposing a comparatively mild addition to the clause to try to make it slightly less centralising and dictatorial. I cannot see how an inspector could possibly do his job properly without such a report.
The second paragraph of amendment No. 41 states:
"Any planning application for a major infrastructure project based on a site-specific proposal in a national policy statement White Paper shall be considered by an inspector who shall be able to question the need for a specific development."
I should have thought that that was pretty well par for the course. Again, I cannot see how an inspector could carry out a proper inquiry into one of the most major, most controversial, largest applications in the land without questioning the need for that development.
If the Government resist this mild amendment from the Lords tonight they will be being particularly bloody- minded, and I hope that they will not do so because it makes a degree of good sense.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the debate.
First, the inspector will still need to consider the balance between a project's economic impact and other benefits, and will still be able to consider the rigour of different analyses and assessments that are put forward, as is the case at the moment. We in no way dispute the importance of rigorous economic assessment and its role in any analysis of a major infrastructure project and in the debates that are necessary at the planning level. Material considerations that are disputed, whether economic, environmental, social, even aesthetic, will obviously be the territory of the inquiry.
Interestingly, the concern of Mr. Hayes seemed to be that economic considerations outweighed aesthetic, community or other considerations. Some might argue that by putting economic impact assessments over other kinds of impact assessments, we were increasing the likelihood of economic considerations taking precedence.
My argument was that by examining the economic benefits of a proposal one would be best able to weigh them against other considerations. The problem is that the grand claims that are made for such schemes often do not ultimately bear fruit—at least, not for local people. The point is not to prioritise the economic aspects, but to be able to balance them against the others more accurately than is possible without such assessments taking place.
The planning inquiry system is already able to deal with cases in which considerations are disputed. It can take evidence from those who are in favour, those who are against and those who present different analyses, then weigh it in the balance to determine whether particular material considerations or analyses to back them up are adequate or appropriate. That will continue to be so under the Bill.
Matthew Green said that the amendment need not be an extra burden because it could refer to an impact assessment that had taken place at an earlier stage. I have some sympathy with that, but the Government continue to take the view that it is unnecessary to make such specification in the Bill because the inspector will still be able to consider contrary evidence from earlier economic impact assessments or analyses.
If the Minister is to satisfy me on this point, will she state categorically that she cannot foresee any circumstances in which a major infrastructure development would not have an economic impact report attached to it? If she does not accept the amendment, she is leaving open the possibility of getting away with not doing one. If she can assure us that it will happen 100 per cent. of the time anyway, the amendment may be unnecessary.
It is not necessary to include it in the Bill because appropriate economic analysis will already need to be provided. Personally, I think that that should often happen at a much earlier stage to justify the funding for infrastructure projects. Where there is any dispute or debate about the level of economic analysis that has been provided, the public inquiry process is already able to deal with the situation by considering the competing views that have been put forward. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is unnecessary to include in the Bill specifications that add complexity and are not required for other kinds of impact assessment.
I want to be absolutely clear about what the Minister is saying. Is she saying that she can see no circumstances in which an economic impact assessment would not be produced, or that she can see circumstances where it would not be necessary? It is no good saying that the developer will come up with a series of suggestions and stories about what might happen, which could be tested by debate and discussion at a later stage. We are looking for empiricism, precision and independence: will those be guaranteed?
We should be clear about what the amendment would and would not do. It does not specify that an independent economic assessment needs to be done by an independent body that is outside the process, but that an economic impact assessment should be done as part of the process. We would expect economic impact assessments, analyses or reports—however one chooses to describe them—not for all infrastructure projects, but at an early stage in the project development process. It is open for the inquiry process to test and debate those assessments and to determine the different kinds of analysis that might have been put forward should the inspector consider that that is a material consideration, or should it be disputed. Perhaps a specific analysis would not be disputed as part of the inquiry process or the infrastructure project process. We do not therefore need to specify that in the Bill.
In all sorts of legislation, we do not specify that impact assessments are necessary when we expect an inquiry to consider whether something, for example, the impact on the local community, amenities, health infrastructure in the area, housing and so on, is material. We do not specify that things must be assessed, reports compiled or an inquiry conducted in a particular way. We are simply trying to allow the inquiry process to be appropriately flexible and take all such factors into account, bearing in mind that we support the principle that rigorous economic analysis is likely to be an important part of any discussion about infrastructure projects.
The Under-Secretary is regarded as bright and one of the Government's rising stars. It will therefore be interesting to note whether she refers to proposed new section 76B(2), which I have already cited. If she were in the Secretary of State's shoes, she would have to direct the lead inspector
"to consider such matters relating to the application as are prescribed".
Can she envisage circumstances during a major, controversial infrastructure project inquiry, such as the terminal 5 and Sizewell B inquiries, in which she would not direct a lead inspector to include an economic assessment and consider whether there was a need for the specific development? If she can give us the assurance that she would always include such an assessment, we might be satisfied.
It would be inappropriate to try to specify the actions of a future Secretary of State under a particular provision in an inquiry that we cannot anticipate. The Government have often said, here and in the other place, that we expect appropriate and rigorous economic analysis to be conducted at an early stage of major infrastructure projects.
The Under-Secretary is on a slightly sticky wicket when she says that she does not want to include such a provision on the face of the Bill or to specify what other forms of impact assessment are needed. Another sort of impact assessment is included in legislation: the environmental impact assessment for major projects. That is part of an EU directive, which has rightly been implemented. There is precedent and the Under-Secretary cannot fall back on the defence that the Government do not specify other impact assessments. I hope that she will not rely on that.
The hon. Gentleman is right and I shall spend some time considering that because there is an issue about environmental impact assessment. Having trained as an economist, I have a strong prejudice in favour of as much rigorous economic analysis as possible, even though rigorous economists often do not agree about their conclusions. We must acknowledge that, if we are to have a planning system that works efficiently and effectively in every case and is appropriately flexible, we do not want to get into the detail of specifying in primary legislation every aspect that must be considered.
We have environmental impact assessments. We recognise that some issues will be a priority and must be considered but we must also get the balance right to ensure that inspectors make appropriate decisions about what the priorities are and concentrate on the material considerations in the individual project inquiries.
I thank the Under-Secretary for being generous in giving way, but she must be more precise. On the one hand, she says that we need to be flexible and on the other, that she cannot envisage circumstances in which there would not be such an assessment. As my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown said, the Bill gives her the power to ask for such an economic impact assessment, yet she will not give a commitment to do that, despite repeated questions from the official Opposition and the minor parties—I pause for effect—or an assurance that, if she became Secretary of State, she would insist on such assessments. If she would give that assurance, the whole House would be satisfied. Why is she shilly-shallying around? Why is she dancing on the head of a pin over this?
I think that we are starting to get a bit bogged down. I have set out the Government's position, which is that we strongly feel that economic analysis will form an important part of any major infrastructure project assessment. There is scope for an inquiry to consider whatever the most important issues are, and to specify at a late stage that this kind of assessment is necessary seems an unnecessary addition, given that these kinds of issues will need to be considered.
The hon. Member for Ludlow raised some specific issues, and I shall respond to them briefly. He asked whether it would be possible for there not to be an inquiry if a major infrastructure project were at stake. I can assure him that it is inconceivable that there would not be an inquiry and an inspector's report into a major infrastructure project, because the whole purpose of this part of the Bill is to deal with projects that are called in for inquiry by the inspector but are so big and in danger of lasting so long that they need additional support and additional arrangements for, for example, several inspectors to get on with the business. I would draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to proposed new section 76B(7), which states:
"In every case the lead inspector must report to the Secretary of State on—
(a) his consideration of the application;
(b) the consideration of the additional inspectors".
The reason for arguing that the second part is not needed therefore has nothing to do with any desire to avoid an inquiry; there will always be an inquiry when a major infrastructure project is designated under this part of the Bill.
Finally, I should like to respond to the points raised by Mr. Clifton-Brown. I suspect that he has not yet had a chance to have his dinner, because his tetchy tone rather suggested a drop in his blood sugar level. Perhaps he should take advantage of our coming to the conclusion of this group of amendments to grab a Kit-Kat, as I gather my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has done.
The hon. Gentleman's concern about the time allowed for the debate was a little churlish, given that the debate that we had in Committee when the Bill was recommitted took place according to the timetable of the Opposition. Had they been so concerned about major infrastructure projects that they wanted to prioritise the issue, they could certainly have raised the matter at any stage, either in the debate on the timing of the Bill or at any other time—but they did not.
The hon. Gentleman raised some other issues. He is concerned not about the specific measures in the Bill, but about the proposals for call-in. He will be aware that those proposals have been in place for a long time. The part of the Bill that deals with major infrastructure projects allows the process to be speeded up by having different aspects looked at by different inspectors in a proper, co-ordinated way so that we do not get stuck with the huge delays that have plagued these projects for a long time.
The Bill provides an opportunity to improve and speed up the way in which major infrastructure projects are dealt with, and the amendments are unnecessary, although we recognise and welcome the spirit behind them and behind the points that have been raised. With that, I urge the House to disagree with the Lords in their amendments.