I remind hon. Members that there are approximately 40 minutes of this debate left. Perhaps they would bear that in mind when making their contributions.
From Second Reading onwards, I have spent a lot of time considering various aspects of the Bill. I have made it clear that I support its main intention, which is to provide a more expeditious way of dealing with planning applications for major infrastructure projects. At the same time, I have expressed several concerns about the initial proposals and have sought to try to improve the Bill rather than to oppose it. I have accepted the need for these matters to be dealt with expeditiously and tried to find a way of ensuring that that is done while bringing more accountability and scrutiny into the process. I must say bluntly to Mrs. Lait that I have heard her say that she is in favour of finding a more expeditious method, but I have not heard her propose anything that would deliver it.
It is all right for us in this House to pass resolutions and legislation committing ourselves to dealing with climate change, putting forward appropriate targets and perhaps even seeking to improve them, but the reality is that if we do not have a mechanism for ensuring that applications for nuclear power stations and wind farms get through in a relatively short period, subject to all the proper scrutiny that is needed, we will never meet any of those targets.
I have had discussions with right hon. and hon. Friends about the final say in these matters and whether it should be a recommendation or a confirmation process for the IPC, and I have tabled amendment No. 60 and other consequential amendments. It is a difficult issue. My right hon. and hon. Friends have advanced arguments, which we also had in Committee, about whether this is a judge and jury process and whether it creates too much unpredictability. I do not accept either of those arguments. By their very nature, planning applications are unpredictable; otherwise, there would be no point in going through the process of considering them.
However, I have to accept that there are two areas of concern. First, there will be an additional delay in applications, perhaps of a year or more. I have sat with colleagues and looked at the empirical evidence for that. I would say to hon. Friends who have tabled other amendments—for principled and proper reasons; I respect them for that—that I am not sure that merely stipulating a fixed time in which Ministers would have to reach a conclusion is necessarily a satisfactory way of dealing with this. Ministers might well need more time, and if they are not given it, we could end up with a set of different problems.
I accept that the existence of policy statements constrains, in political terms, the planning decisions made, whoever makes them. Therefore, I welcome what the Minister promised on the first day of Report—that the policy statements will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Secondly, I welcome the location-specific promise given for the policy statements on nuclear power and airports. At that stage, with parliamentary scrutiny, and with Ministers taking decisions, real political decisions will be made, not quasi-judicial decisions on where developments happen. That is quite important.
I welcome the process improvements that have been agreed, particularly the commitment to accept new clause 42 and related amendments, which I will want to put to the vote, on the role of local authorities. The commission will have to have a statutory regard to the report produced by authorities that considers views of constituents and an application's relevance to and relationship with the authority's local development framework. Those measures raise local government to a different level in the consultation, and it is important that the body of elected representatives in an area should have that elevated role. I welcome support for that amendment.
I welcome support for the right of individuals to be heard where compulsory purchase orders affect them, and the acceptance of new clauses 40 and 41, and related amendments.
I will not respond to that in technical terms. My understanding is that there is currently a deficiency that would not allow people to have that right, which is covered by the new clause. I would have thought that such a change was fairly uncontentious. As I understand it, it would give people the same rights as they have to a public hearing on applications that go to the IPC. There has been a lot of misunderstanding on this matter, and I hope that Ministers will be able to make it absolutely clear that any individual who expresses an interest in an application that goes to the IPC will be able to ask for and get a public hearing, and that none of those matters will be dealt with by written representations in those circumstances.
I explored the matter of potential delay with my right hon. Friends, and we come back to the proposals of the hon. Member for Beckenham concerning Ministers' confirmation. I suggested that Ministers could take all the decisions from the IPC and, where there was no contention or they had no concerns, they could fast-track them, but there may be other issues that Ministers might want to take longer to consider. The problem is that if Ministers decided that they had no particular concerns, they would still have to go through a long-winded process of assuring themselves that they did not have concerns. If they did not, a fast-track process might be subject to judicial review, with all the problems that that can bring about.
It might be possible to introduce additional criteria meaning that Ministers could consider particularly contentious applications, but as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained, the Bill lists criteria such as cases where there are concerns of national security, where there is no national policy statement or where a policy statement is out of date, or becomes out of date before the application or during the process of considering it. In all those circumstances, Ministers can intervene. If there are other circumstances in which ministerial intervention might be appropriate, I would like to hear about them, because I am prepared to consider them, but I thought that it might be best to consider what comes out of the practical application of the process. If, during the first two years, there are clear examples of where it would be more appropriate to refer a matter to Ministers, criteria can be developed at the end of the two-year review. This House sometimes has an obligation to be proactive in such matters. My right hon. Friend has said that there will be pre-appointment scrutiny of the chair and vice-chair. Regular reports will be provided to Select Committees, and Select Committees currently request such reports.
There is also a crucial point, which I raised, about accountability. Ministers can be brought to the Chamber to explain decisions about applications and now the chairman of the commission can be brought before any Select Committee. Indeed, the commissioners who make decisions can also be requested to appear before a Committee with the chairman to explain their reasons. If the House is proactive, it will build for itself a body of evidence about how the process is working and whether there are problems, and thus contribute to the two-year review. That is a challenge for us.
In the end, we can learn from the process whether we should change it and the policy statements in any way. The policy statements will form the basis of the decisions. If the commission has made a decision outwith the policy statement, it is automatically judicially reviewable. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will confirm that we should make it clear that decisions must be based on the policy statements. If we would be more comfortable referring some matters to Ministers, that can be fed into the two-year review.
Sir Paul Beresford knows that, even in the current circumstances, when a Secretary of State makes a decision on the recommendation of a planning inspector, although the Secretary of State can be brought to the House to explain the decision, the House cannot change it. The position of the House will therefore be no different from that under current town and country planning legislation.
There is a problem with mission creep, which perhaps my right hon. Friend could examine. We set off thinking that there might be 10 to 20 applications a year to the commission. We have now been told that the figure might be 45. Much of that is due to Highways Agency schemes and a view in the Department for Transport that every such scheme should go to the commission. We should reconsider that. Perhaps some Highways Agency schemes of a more local nature could be referred to local authorities or groups of local authorities. That would reduce the need for the commission to consider them all.
I accept that final decision making is difficult. I have tried to consider it in the context of the need for expeditious decision making and better scrutiny and accountability. I know that some hon. Members of all parties feel that we have not gone far enough, and I hope that we will make some progress. The Secretary of State's proposals will improve the Bill and I am pleased that she has agreed to support some of my amendments. I would like clarification of one or two points, and then I am more than happy not to push amendment No. 60 to a vote and to support the measure, with my right hon. Friend's assurances.
We are discussing the most contentious aspects of the Bill, as the Secretary of State clearly pointed out. I am delighted that she is here to discuss the measure and to present those aspects this afternoon. I pay tribute to her for doing that, because the Minister for Local Government has handled the measure up to now.
There is consensus in three corners of the House about one fundamental point, which was raised on Second Reading, in Committee and this afternoon: reform of the planning system to speed up and ensure that decisions are made effectively on major national infrastructure projects is required. Some aspects of the measure set out to do that. There is also agreement that national policy statements are a step forward and will help in that process and that a single consent process is a step in the right direction. Indeed, there is agreement on many aspects.
However, the Government have failed to provide an answer about who makes the final decision. It is not fair to say that we can have all those other things without a democratically elected person making the final decision. I believe that that flies in the face of the purpose of the Bill and the Government's comments about local determination. Local member review is about strengthening the hand of locally elected representatives to make the final decision after officers have considered it in the first instance. Most hon. Members would support that.
Amendment No. 339, which Mr. Grogan tabled, amendment No. 5, which Conservative Front Benchers tabled, and amendment No. 68, which I tabled, would all do something similar. Although we accept that the planning system needs reform and that the Bill contains many helpful steps, the final decision must rest with someone who is accountable, not an appointed quango. Therefore, in common with Mrs. Lait, I am happy to say that my hon. Friends and I will support Mr. Grogan if he chooses to push his amendment to a vote. Obviously I say that on the basis that he will have the opportunity to do so. Indeed, if he does not press his amendment, let me signal my intention to do so for him, should that prove necessary.
There are a number of other highly significant amendments in the group. I will try to rattle through them as quickly as I can. Essentially, we must get accountability back into the proposals. Our amendment No. 310, which seeks to limit to 40 the number of applications that the IPC can consider, is an attempt to probe the Minister for Local Government. He said in evidence to the Committee that
"we can be pretty confident that, unless the proposals in the Bill for what should qualify as infrastructure projects for the IPC changes significantly, the sort of figure that we are talking about—40 or 45 on average a year—is what the IPC would be expected to deal with." ——[Official Report, Planning Public Bill Committee,
However, in a subsequent parliamentary answer to me, that figure crept up to a firmer 45, plus an unspecified
"larger number of less complex cases".—[ Hansard, 31 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 712W.]
Hon. Members who have been following proceedings on the Bill closely will know that we have returned to the idea of mission creep again and again. To me, that larger number of less complex cases is highly suspicious. Our amendment No. 310 seeks to hold the Government to what we have been told all the way through. I am not convinced that the IPC is the right way to proceed, but if it is, we should at least be able to hold the Government to the assurances that they have given us up to now.
Amendment No. 327 seeks to make the new development consent process contingent on local priorities, although the Secretary of State was keen to point out that a number of the amendments are concerned with existing guidelines and policies. In common with others who have tabled amendments on that basis, I feel that all those processes and duly agreed-upon procedures and policies should be taken into account by the IPC. I therefore disagree with her that such an obligation should not be imposed on the IPC. Any wins that have been had by the local community and by those concerned with environmental considerations or whatever else it might be should not be lost at that point.
Many of my constituents, and I am sure those of other hon. Members, have expressed considerable support for amendment No. 66, which Mr. Truswell has tabled, which would ensure that people have the right to have their voices heard directly. That is an important issue that other hon. Members raised repeatedly in Committee, as we have heard this afternoon.
New clause 7 seemed to cause the Secretary of State some concern. It deals with independent third-party oversight of consultation and does not really need much more explanation than John McDonnell gave in an intervention, when he asked what confidence people would have in a consultation process carried out by the proposer of a scheme. That is a fundamental flaw in the process. We are talking about a consultation aimed at improving an application, so that when it reaches determination and a more formal inquiry process, a lot of the issues will have been dealt with. However, I am still not convinced that a local community can be confident that the proposer of a scheme will undertake that consultation in such a way that it truly reflects the concerns that have been raised, especially where they fundamentally disagree with what the proposer is trying to construct.
Previously on Report, we sadly lost the chance to strengthen and improve the Bill with regard to mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects. Hon. Members have tabled amendments to make those points again about the key wins that we have already had on planning policy. We must hold the Government to that. Our amendments Nos. 69 and 70 focus on those issues.
I am particularly keen that we discuss an issue that the hon. Member for Beckenham raised through her amendment No. 40, which applies to clause 110. The provision will cause much concern to people outside the House, as it will allow the IPC to set aside legislation that has been agreed in the House if it is in some way inconvenient to the determination that it is making. I think that that is fundamentally wrong. If changes to primary legislation are necessary, this House should take the decision on them; it should not be taken by an unelected quango, which is gifted that power under the clause. That is utterly wrong.
There are a number of other flaws worth exploring. I am confident that many of the amendments in the group—sadly, we will not have the opportunity to vote on many of them this afternoon—would greatly improve the Bill. Let me respond to Mr. Betts, for whom I have a great deal of respect. Time and again in Committee, he stood up to make the case for improving the Bill. Sadly, in Committee as now, he decided not to press his amendments to the vote, so I was not surprised when he chose not to do so again this evening. His powers of analysis are on the record, but his negotiating skills may leave a little to be desired in the light of the concessions that the Secretary of State outlined earlier.
Certain schemes such as nuclear sites and airport expansions would be considered under the national policy statement site-specific procedure. We have already heard about that; it has clearly been the Government's intention throughout the proceedings. I am sure that Members with constituencies near Heathrow will be concerned that decisions might be taken even further away from local people, who will not realise how crucial it is for them to get involved in the NPS. They will probably be waiting for a local or specific application, not understanding that they need to make their voices heard over the NPS. I doubt whether retrospectively bringing in the IPC chairman to answer questions from Select Committees, will provide much reassurance to people who have had a scheme imposed on their local community.
I am afraid that I am not convinced by what the Secretary of State said, grateful though I am that she has presented herself to the House this afternoon to try to justify the Bill. As I have already said, my party finds accord with many of the Bill's provisions, but we are certainly opposed on the issue of the IPC taking the final decision on matters of such importance. We shall therefore support the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Selby.
I am grateful for the chance to say a few words in support of amendment No. 339. The Secretary of State, for whom I have great regard, described the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend Mr. Betts, for whom I have equal regard, as being really useful. I cannot pretend that she will necessarily see my amendment in the same light, but I want to address my remarks specifically to her in order to highlight the two specific merits of the amendment. We on the Back Benches like to listen and learn from what is said by those on the Front Benches; never let it be said that we do not try to do that.
First, I have heard the words "business" and "certainty" mentioned all the way through these debates, and I believe that my amendment, unlike the Government's confused amendments and explanations of the Bill, gives business the certainty that it requires in promoting big infrastructure investments. As has been pointed out, the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe will create great uncertainty. In two years' time, a review will be conducted, so perhaps the whole system will change. The Secretary of State listed all the criteria whereby Ministers may take decisions under the proposed system. On "Newsnight" last night, the BBC's political correspondent suggested that decisions on all nuclear power stations, for example, could be considered under the national security criteria. Massive confusion is being created, whereas my amendment, specifying a definite six-month period for Ministers to take decisions, would be welcomed by many businesses. When I rang many business people this morning, I found that they were alarmed by the confusion apparent in the Government's proposals.
Secondly, there is the issue of democracy and ministerial accountability. As my right hon. Friend suggests, tough and controversial decisions are being made. It is all the more important for such decisions to have, and be seen to have, democratic legitimacy if there is not to be a series of protests up and down the country that would slow down the vital national infrastructure projects to which the Government are referring.
I have reviewed the morning newspapers—just for myself; I was not invited to do so on any radio or television programmes, more's the pity—and it is clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no support. Every leader writer in every newspaper, from the Morning Star to the Financial Times, was against her this morning. The Guardian said that the "final call" should be "taken by a Minister". The Financial Times said
"Ministers cannot duck having the final say."
It is interesting to note that some of the bodies that the Secretary of State is calling in aid are beginning to evaporate, or are becoming a bit flaky. John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, said on Radio 5 Live this morning that he thought it might be quite a good idea to have a vote in Parliament on the national policy statements. If only we had known that two weeks ago! I was persuaded to abstain, such is my loyalty to the Government, but had I known that the CBI thought that it was a good idea, I would have changed my mind.
The Town and Country Planning Association has also issued a statement. It is not just the Minister who receives last-minute statements, by the way: they come to Back Benchers as well. The association has told us that it
"believes that the use of land is justifiably a political as well as a technical question and therefore that ultimately accountability must lie with elected Ministers."
That is a very clear statement.
I read all the pamphlets written by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I take them on holiday and analyse them. She is very strong on democracy. She has brought a great many focus groups to the country, along with a great many scrutiny committees and a great deal of consultation. However, she needs to firm up a little on votes, ministerial accountability, the need for people to stand up and be counted, and the need for others to be able to criticise them for vital decisions, whether on nuclear power stations or airports.
The cult of experts has its limits. Everyone mentions the Monetary Policy Committee, but it has a pretty narrow remit—money supply. We could mention the committee that chooses the sites for super-casinos, perhaps a less happy experience for the Government. The Government pray in aid the Competition Commission, which, interestingly, has dispensed with all public interest decisions, rightly confining itself to decisions on technical economic matters relating to competition.
That brings me to the phrase "quasi-judicial". It is said that Ministers merely make quasi-judicial decisions, and are very constrained. As other Members have pointed out, there is a public interest element here. That is why an average of 20 applications a year are turned down: 20 times a year the Government do not approve the recommendations of the Planning Inspectorate. A couple of applications in recent years have been the type that we are discussing today. One was for a gas storage plant, and the other involved a port. On occasion the public interest is weighed up, and Ministers find the experts wanting.
Let us examine what our great judges have said about the matter. I am sure that, as a lawyer, my right hon. Friend will be well aware of the judgment in R (on the application of Alconbury) v. Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (2001 UKHL 23). Lord Nolan said:
"In the relatively small and populous island which we occupy, the decisions made by the Secretary of State will often have acute social, economic and environmental implications. A degree of central control is essential to the orderly use and development of town and country. Parliament has entrusted the requisite degree of control to the Secretary of State, and it is to Parliament which he"
"must account for his exercise of it. To substitute for the Secretary of State an independent and impartial body with no central electoral accountability would not only be a recipe for chaos: it would be profoundly undemocratic."
There are many more statements like that, but I do not have time to quote them now.
When my right hon. Friend delayed tonight's vote for two weeks of intensive discussions—I am very disappointed, incidentally, that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe did not invite me to meet the Prime Minister on Monday evening; I missed out on that—she said that she wanted the decision to be made in the House of Commons. I am sure that it is just happy coincidence that there is a by-election in Henley tomorrow and some Members will not be here to take part in tonight's vote, but I hope that the right decision will be made in another place. It is interesting that Sir Jeremy Beecham, the Labour leader on the Local Government Association—and another man who has written to us at the last minute—says his group profoundly disagrees with some aspects of the IPC, but that it wants to sort it out in the Lords. We in this House should make a clear statement tonight that we are not happy on the grounds of certainty for business and of democracy. I shall ask for permission to press to a vote amendment No. 339, and also amendment No. 66, which I have not had a chance to talk about. This House should stand up and be counted tonight.
We should be grateful to the Secretary of State for coming before the House to argue her case, and she has done so with her usual enthusiasm and consideration. There were times, however, when she reminded me somewhat of Napoleon. Her categorical assertion of the primacy of the national interest, which must override any other consideration, was very powerfully put, and in many ways she is right, in that the issues we face call for bold decision making. The question is how we reconcile the need to take decisions in the national interest with the requirement that ownership should be felt at the level of those people who will pay the price, because in all planning decisions some people pay the bills and others reap the benefits. We must find a way of reconciling that, and find a process that people feel is reasonable.
A lot will depend on how the mechanism the Secretary of State has outlined will work in practice. It will be up to this House and its Committees to get hold of this mechanism by a prominent part of the anatomy and shake it, and to assert from the very beginning that it intends to play a major role and to call to account in practice, and not just theoretically. We talk a great deal about accountability; we sometimes fail in our own duties to assert it, but we have the power to do so.
One of my concerns is that we will have yet another quango. It is a curious fact that in England and Wales more people serve on quangos than serve as elected councillors. The "quangocracy" has taken over from the democracy to a significant extent in our life. The Government have been prolific in creating quangos, and here is yet another very important one.
Planning is an intensely political activity. People sometimes blithely say, "Politicians interfere in the planning process", as if planning were some eternal, infernal or esoteric machine that ought not to be interfered upon by the sort of people who get themselves elected and stoop to that rather dismal task. It is intensely political; it is about mediation—about mediating between individuals. That is what happens when someone wants to build a conservatory or plant a leylandii hedge. It is about mediating between the individual and the community, and between the community and the nation. Planning decisions can overturn people's lives, not merely the value of their properties. The amenities people enjoy shape their lives fundamentally. It is important that their voice is heard, and that they should feel it is heard. It is easy for us to say, "We have provided a lot of consultation", but if people do not feel it is real—if they feel it is a formal mechanism that sweeps them up but that nobody listens—they will be seriously disaffected by the entire process.
Therefore, this is about people, not stakeholders. There must be clear lines of accountability, because at the end of the day the public have to be able to kick somebody, and they have to be able to kick somebody who feels the pain. On the whole, quangos do not feel the pain, so the kicking can be futile. Politicians do feel the pain, however, for the obvious reason that from time to time that pain can have fairly cataclysmic results for us. It is a mistake to talk about a policy of principle as being the same as the acceptance of the conclusions to that in the specific.
We do not yet know much about the commission. During the progress of the Housing and Regeneration Bill the name of the new boss was announced at a very early stage, but its passage was rather more rapid than that of this Bill; this has been the most stuttering Bill I can remember in a long time. There has been a huge gap between when it came out of Committee and the first attempt at the Report stage, and then a huge gap before the second attempt at the Report stage. It almost has the feel of being fatally wounded before it gets anywhere near the completion of its passage. Personally, if we are to have this body, I would rather that it had independent people with analytical skills on it than make an attempt to represent every single interest group. I hope that we will never hear the word "stakeholders" used in reference to the people manning the committee. That would be entirely the wrong approach.
The Secretary of State made two specific concessions. First, she talked about nuclear and airport decisions being locationally specific. However, she talked in terms of having a shortlist of places—areas that might be eligible and areas that would not be. I just want to know how specific the location will be, because that was not clear from her remarks. I cannot conceive, for example, that a decision to build a new runway should not be one for the Cabinet to make. Given its huge implications, such a decision should not be taken any lower than Cabinet level. Secondly, the Secretary of State mentioned the review after two years. I am glad about that, but I wonder just how many cases the commission will have adjudicated on by
We all want more speed in the planning process, but I wonder whether the Bill will improve matters. From the promoters' pre-application consultation process, by the time an application has worked through the system, with all the opportunities for judicial review, I wonder whether we will have done anything more than introduce a system that will take just as long but has had some of the democratic accountability—on which people depend to a significant extent—removed, in an area on which people are pretty disaffected already.
I speak in support of amendment No. 66, which I tabled. On Second Reading, I said that I would subject the Bill to a simple test: if my constituents face a major infrastructure planning application, how far would the process allow them to play a significant role in the decision on it. The process by which the IPC will undertake inquiries is grossly inferior to the current system. The measures proposed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would have been a magnificent addition to what already exists: they are not a substitute for it.
Removing the right of interested parties to test the evidence through cross-examination is a retrograde step. The other proposals in the Bill, such as the open floor session, do not compensate for the removal of the essential right to cross-examine. The open floor session does not include a right to ask questions, to produce witnesses or more formally cross-examine the applicant. It downgrades the right to be heard to little more than a right to sound off. Communities will not be satisfied with the limitations of the measure and the result may be more direct action, as we have seen in the past, or judicial review.
The Bill provides opportunity for pre-application consultation that does not exist in the current system, but my experience—and that of Mrs. Lait—is that such consultation is largely meaningless, because it is organised by the developer, who is not an independent arbiter of such matters. To be credible, consultation should and must be organised by publicly accountable bodies with a transparent process.
Despite all the research that I have done, there is little evidence that the present opportunities for public involvement through oral hearings and cross-examination are responsible for inordinate delays. The terminal 5 inquiry is often mentioned in aid of such arguments, but much of that delay was down to the applicants' lack of preparation, the number of documents submitted, the several regimes under which the application was heard, and the time taken to reach a decision once the inquiry was over. The present system has been caricatured as a barristers' bun fight and we have heard talk of nimbyism and well-resourced non-governmental organisations. However—I think that Mr. Curry nearly touched on this—it all comes down to what Winston Churchill once said about democracy being the worst form of government apart from all the rest. I believe that the measures that the Secretary of State is seeking to introduce to replace the current situation are simply a case of throwing the baby out of the bathwater, and so I shall want to press amendment No. 66 to a vote.
I shall be very brief, because I spoke at length in the earlier part of the day—
It being Five o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Orders [
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
Madam Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.