Planning Bill

Part of Deferred Division – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 25th June 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Selby 4:30 pm, 25th June 2008

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"

—or she—

"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.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website