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.
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