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.
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