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.
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