Clause 5 — National policy statements

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 24th November 2008.

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Lords amendment: No. 1.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 7, Lords amendment No. 8 and amendment (a) thereto, Lords amendments Nos. 9 to 64, Lords amendment No. 65 and amendments (a) to (c) thereto, Lords amendments Nos. 66 to 100, 164 to 170, 173 to 182, 184, 185, 187, 189, 191 to 212 and 214 to 217.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

This large group of amendments relates to parts 1 to 8 and part 12, which are concerned with the creation of a new single consent regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. At each stage of the Bill in both Houses, that issue has been subject to detailed parliamentary debate and scrutiny. However, even in the months since we first published the Bill, we have seen economic circumstances change dramatically. We have seen the effect of instability in the world energy markets, and it has never been so evident. That has concentrated minds still further on our national need for new investment in energy generation, and in particular on our need to replace one third of our electricity generation within the next 20 years or so.

In the nine months since we first debated the Bill, the world has become even more conscious of the threat of climate change. We have now pledged to move towards a carbon reduction of not 60 per cent. but 80 per cent. in this country by 2050. Doing that will require a tenfold increase in renewable generation over the next 12 years. Finally, the issues of pressure and competitiveness in the world economy, and competition for much needed investment in this country, are now even clearer.

Let us take, for example, Shell Haven port. That new development represents a £1.5 billion investment and will create in Britain the largest new logistics centre in Europe. The promoters estimate that it will generate 12,000 jobs, raise skills and bring huge regeneration benefits to the Thames Gateway. It will also reduce by 40 million km a year the distance travelled by heavy goods vehicles on UK roads. The UK needs such investment, but we must also create the right sort of environment for it, including a better planning system. That means implementing the reforms set out in the Bill.

There have been excellent debates throughout the Commons stages—not least in Committee—on the role of the infrastructure planning commission, its powers and accountability, the role of the national policy statements in providing a clear policy framework for IPC decisions, the type and size of projects that should be captured in the new regime and the accessibility of the new regime to the public. Those debates continued in the other place and the Bill has been much strengthened by amendments, many of them set out in this group.

Many of the amendments to these parts of the Bill are minor and technical. I shall concentrate on the most important amendments, which significantly strengthen the Bill.

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Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

Will my right hon. Friend put on the record the concerns that have been raised about clause 157? I speak as an honorary vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Will he confirm that he will consult that body, and that what is being proposed will not undermine the whole issue in respect of statutory nuisance and the preventive measures that can be taken?

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 7:45 pm, 24th November 2008

My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in these questions and good working links with environmental health officers. I think that I can give her those reassurances, although she would probably find it more useful if I set them out in detail, to respond to her concern in the light of amendments that have been made. I undertake to do so.

I turn to the most significant issues, particularly in respect of the strengthening of the Bill in the other place. I shall start with parliamentary scrutiny. Through parliamentary scrutiny and especially through national policy statements, Ministers will continue to take the big decisions. Those will be visible and at the front of the process rather than at the back end, as is the case under the current system. Once the national policy statement is in place, it will set the principal framework for any IPC decisions on particular applications.

If the national policy statements are to function effectively, they must be authoritative and strong. That is why we are committed to ensuring that they are thoroughly tested through public consultation and through a new system of parliamentary scrutiny that we have developed in discussion with the Chairs of the relevant Select Committees. Lords amendment No. 7 will strengthen the role of the other place in the scrutiny of national policy statements. The amendment extends the requirement that the Secretary of State is required to lay before Parliament a statement setting out her response to a Committee of this House or of either House.

I turn now to climate change, a subject of strong debate throughout this House's scrutiny of the Bill. A number of my hon. Friends have strongly championed a strengthening of the provisions—not least my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who are the principal advocates of an amendment to Lords amendment No. 8. If I explain to my hon. Friends how we have strengthened the Bill through amendments in the Lords, perhaps that will give the proper context and explain some of the problems that I envisage with their amendment (a).

Lords amendment No. 8 looks to alter the current duty in relation to sustainable development which requires the Secretary of State to draw up or review national policy statements with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development. Let me explain what is meant by that. The concept of sustainable development sits at the heart of planning. It catches the range of our economic, social and environment objectives and ensures that we focus on developing our country in a way that is sustainable in the long term and protects the needs of future generations as well as the current one.

Achieving such sustainable development will require Ministers to address climate change. We must also address issues such as landscape, biodiversity and natural resources and integrate them in a sensible and balanced way that allows at the same time consideration of certain social and economic concerns. In that way, the policy will bring those elements together. We have debated the concept of sustainable development a number of times during the passage of the Bill and we believe that it should be the guiding principle for Ministers as they prepare the national policy statements. That is why clause 10 attaches such importance to it.

We recognise, however, that as we have debated the various stages of the Bill, Members of this House and the other place have expressed a strong desire to put something more explicit in the Bill to reflect the importance of climate change. That argument has been strongly led by my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey and for Stroud, as well as by my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping, who is not in his place at the moment. We therefore made amendments to the Bill in the other place. However, we have been conscious of the need not to unbalance the principle of sustainable development by elevating the consideration of climate change and design to such a degree that other considerations would be relatively marginalised—such as jobs and investment, health, a just society and other environmental factors such as the protection of biodiversity or the natural environment.

The formulation that we have set out in Lords amendment No. 8 requires the Secretary of State to have regard in particular to the desirability of adapting to and mitigating climate change. Making it a statutory requirement to have regard to something that is desirable is a recognised concept in planning, and it is an approach that has been the subject of several cases. It clarifies—I hope that this will give my hon. Friends some reassurance—the fact that requiring decision makers to have particular regard to the desirability of an objective works as a way of putting something first and foremost in the decision maker's mind, while not preventing them from considering other important matters. Where a desirable objective is met by a particular proposal, that must be a major point in its favour, but it does not necessarily rule out having regard to other factors.

We now have in the Bill a clear three-stage process. First, Ministers must, as part of drawing up the national policy statements with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development, have particular regard to the desirability of mitigating and adapting to climate change. That is a strengthening of the Bill since this House last debated it. Secondly, Ministers will thoroughly assess what the impact of the policy is on carbon emissions and other factors affecting climate change and, where necessary, adjust the policy in light of this. Thirdly, Ministers must report on what they have done and why, in the context of wider climate change policy, including the Climate Change Bill.

My concerns about my hon. Friends' proposition are twofold. First, particularly as we strengthen the Bill in the ways that I have described, their amendment could in practice elevate climate change and design considerations over all other considerations of sustainable development, and in doing so might pre-empt a decision about what in any particular case amounts to sustainable development. Secondly, the introduction of the phrase "due regard to the need to" raises a problem, because it is untested and it is not exactly clear what it means or what effect it would have in practice. That differs from the approach that we have taken in Lords amendment No. 8.

Let me turn to the issue of design. In the other place, there was a strong mood and move towards making amendments to ensure that the new regime gave sufficient weight to the need for infrastructure to be well designed. Lords amendment No. 1 therefore requires that every national policy statement will set out criteria for design that must be taken into account in the development to which the policy statement relates. That means that in every national policy statement Ministers should set out clear expectations that infrastructure projects would be well designed and provide a framework against which proposals could be assessed.

The third area of major concern, as at each stage of the Bill's passage, was the reviewing of national policy statements. Lords amendment No. 3 provides clear criteria to determine when a national policy statement should be reviewed, requiring that the Secretary of State must consider whether there has been a significant change in any circumstances on which the policy is based since the last time it was reviewed. The Secretary of State must also consider whether the circumstances were already anticipated in the previous review and whether, if the change had been anticipated, any of the policy in the statement would be materially different. Lords amendments Nos. 3, 4, 9,10 and 11 provide that when the Secretary of State wishes to conduct a review of a national policy statement it could be a complete or a partial review. They add a measure of flexibility so that where appropriate the Secretary of State will need only to consider whether circumstances have changed significantly in respect of the part that is to be reviewed rather than for the policy statement as a whole.

Let me turn to statements of policy that pre-date the commencement of these provisions. This aspect is of particular concern to my hon. Friend John McDonnell. Lords amendments Nos. 12, 15, 16 and 17 amend clause 12 to provide that where the Secretary of State wishes to use existing statements of policy or work that was done for the purposes of existing statements of policy, the standards of the Bill will still apply.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I was taking a deep breath to get on to developing that point, but by all means I give way to my hon. Friend.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I apologise for the fact that in four minutes' time I am meant to be chairing a committee, so I will have to leave shortly. I just wanted to get explicitly on the record what the meaning of the clause, as amended, now is. I assume that it means that existing policy statements for example, the aviation White Paper would not stand up as a national policy statement for use by the new planning commission because it has not gone through the procedures set out in the Bill for a national policy statement, which means exhaustive consultation as well as parliamentary approval, and that on that basis an area such as aviation would require a new national policy statement before a major application was considered by the new planning commission.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

Let me try to help my hon. Friend, as I did on Report and Third Reading. To be absolutely clear, the amendments mean that all national policy statements, including those designated under clause 12, must meet the standards for appraisal of sustainability, for public consultation and for the parliamentary scrutiny set out in the Bill. In other words, the Secretary of State will not simply be able to dust off an existing policy and designate it as a national policy statement for the purposes of the Bill without meeting the requirements that the Bill sets out.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I welcome that and wish my hon. Friend well in chairing the committee in two minutes' time. I suggest that he may need to get his skates on or he will be late for that appointment.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

I am not sure whether that is a threat or a promise from my hon. Friend, but if he does return we look forward to seeing him.

On guidance, Mrs. Lait has raised several concerns about amendments Nos. 53, 54 and 56. I look forward to hearing what she says about that, but I do not understand the reason for the Opposition's concern. Essentially, taken together the Lords amendments are part of strengthening the system in a way that allows the IPC and the Secretary of State not only, to issue guidance at specific points in the system as they did before, but to issue guidance covering any aspect of the pre-application requirements. They also strengthen the requirements for any promoter to have regard to that guidance.

Finally, I come to amendment No. 65, which some of my hon. Friends are concerned about. I understand the intentions behind the amendments that they have tabled, which is to ensure that interested parties have access to advice and assistance where appropriate, but I am not sure that the amendment they propose is necessary or the best way to achieve that aim. The provision of legal advice and assistance under Lords amendment No. 65 is for the examining authority, which would include carrying out on behalf of the examining authority—in other words, the IPC—oral questioning of any person making representations at a hearing. That latter potential function raises serious questions about whether that source of legal advice is appropriate as a source of legal advice and assistance to an interested party at a hearing.

Secondly, clause 49 already ensures that the commission can provide advice to interested parties about the application process or on how to make representations. If the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey is that interested parties and local groups might be priced out of being able to secure representation for themselves, he will be aware of our announcements to increase substantially this year, and in following years, provision for the Planning Aid system. That is designed exactly to provide advice to community groups and to ensure that individuals who might not otherwise get it can be represented.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 8:00 pm, 24th November 2008

I recognise and welcome the additional moneys that will be made available through Planning Aid, but just so that I can be clear, will the Minister tell me whether Planning Aid can represent third parties at an examination—the process by which the public can express their opinions? May I have it on the record that Planning Aid can do that and that it does not stop before we get to a formal examination?

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

The purpose of Planning Aid, as my hon. Friend knows, is to provide assistance to community groups so that they can develop their understanding of the planning system, allowing them to communicate and express their views or concerns better. It is also there to help individuals who, without assistance, would be excluded from the planning process. It is not necessarily there to fund legal advice and representation.

Several other significant areas have been previously covered in debate. First, we have something that was urged upon us, and was described as a safety valve for IPC decisions. This area, and a couple of others, relates to the final stage of the new process, which is the consideration of applications. One of the main concerns was that the Bill did not provide for a safety valve if the system was not working. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a commitment on Report, in response to concerns expressed by my hon. Friend Mr. Betts, that we would carry out a review of how the IPC was working two years after its establishment. We agreed to table amendments to the Bill in the other place allowing the grounds on which Ministers can intervene in applications made to the IPC, and take decisions, to be extended if the review reveals problems. Lords amendments Nos. 76, 77 and 174 meet that commitment.

The second concern about the final stage of the new process relates to opportunities for the public to participate. While the Bill enhances the right for the public to have a greater say at all three stages in the process rather than one, some have questioned the way in which it provides for the IPC to probe, test and assess evidence through direct questions rather than cross-examination. Our amendments strengthened the process and reassured people, making it clear to them that cross-examination was not ruled out in the new regime and that it would be allowed where the commission considered it necessary.

I hope that it has been useful to touch on the main points where there has been substantive strengthening of the Bill during its passage in the other place.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

May I ask my right hon. Friend to reflect on one area that he has not mentioned? The Government have clearly given further scope to what should be a nationally significant infrastructure project. We discussed the matter in Committee, and we were concerned that the Department for Transport was extending the number of projects that would end up with the commission because any trunk road, or an alteration to one, would be caught. At the time, I thought that the Government would reflect on the matter and get back to us. The Local Government Association is concerned that fairly small alterations would be caught in the net even if they did not have any national significance.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

My hon. Friend's point is not about the provisions and what constitutes a nationally significant infrastructure project, which would be dealt with under the new regime, but about a Government commitment. This relates to examination by the Department for Transport of planning applications that it deals with which would not necessarily fall within the remit of the IPC, but which could nevertheless be properly and rightly devolved to local authorities as local planning authorities. That work continues, and my colleagues in the Department for Transport will be able to update my hon. Friend and the House when they have concluded their consideration of those questions.

I commend Lords amendment No. 1 to the House, and I ask that we deal with the other amendments in the way that I have indicated.

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Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

This enormous group of amendments covers a wide number of subjects, most of which we have discussed exhaustively in this House. Their lordships have also discussed them exhaustively, and the cumulative effect is that the Government have listened. However, some fundamental issues have not been addressed, and they are the basis of our objections to much of the Bill.

I begin, however, by congratulating the Government on taking into account concerns about climate change and design. That represents a great step forward from the original Bill, which talked about sustainable development. However, on close reading of the Lords amendment, one is slightly suspicious that it could turn into a box-ticking amendment. We are attracted to amendment (a) tabled by the hon. Members for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) because it would toughen up the terms of Lords amendment No. 8 and ensure, one hopes, that it is not a box-ticking exercise. We have had enough of such box ticking in the past 10 years, and we now hope to get some action.

I know that a lot of people want to speak, but may I welcome briefly the Minister's reassurances to John McDonnell on the old policies? Aviation was the classic example that we all cited while trying to get the Minister to understand that the European directives on strategic environmental assessment had to be incorporated in legislation, and that the existing references to aviation in the Bill were not up to that standard.

Lords amendment No. 7 is at the core of our objection to the system that the Government are setting up. At the risk of repeating myself for the nth time, we believe that national policy statements that do not have Parliament's approval through a substantive vote will not speed up the delivery of infrastructure projects, which we all agree are needed. Recent warnings were issued about possible shortfalls in the electricity supply this winter, let alone in 2015. I believe that the first new power stations could be on stream in 2020, so we have a genuine problem just with energy, let alone with the other infrastructure that needs updating. There is therefore no argument about the need for the national policy statements; the argument is about securing a democratic lock on those policy statements, through a substantive vote in Parliament.

I may be interpreting the Lords amendment incorrectly and I am happy to be told that I am wrong. However, under clause 9(4)(a),

"either House of Parliament makes a resolution with regard to the proposal".

That implies a vote. Subsection 4(b) provides that

"a committee of the House of Commons makes recommendations with regard to the proposal."

We believe that either House of Parliament should make those recommendations, and we therefore agree with Lords amendment No. 7. Without a substantive vote in Parliament, the national policy statements will be vulnerable to challenges in the courts, which means that as soon as they go to court, delay is built into the process. That would have the same impact on planning applications as what happened to the lengthy applications for terminal 5, Sizewell and all the examples that we have cited so often.

We recognise and accept that Ministers make decisions on the matter; we are discussing a ministerial recommendation to Parliament. If a Government have a majority, a substantive vote in Parliament should be deliverable. There will be inevitable controversy about national policy statements, but a vote should be deliverable. The statement would therefore go through the same process as any Bill that becomes an Act. Once the statement receives a substantive vote in Parliament, the Government's basic argument for the Infrastructure Planning Commission falls because the national policy statement becomes a parliamentary statement, with Parliament's approval, and the Secretary of State or a Minister can easily make a decision about the detailed planning application at the final stage, thereby providing another democratic lock on the planning system, which the IPC does not deliver.

I want to put it on record again that, should the IPC be set up, we would look to end its existence as fast as possible because we believe that the British people expect democratically accountable Ministers, who are elected by them, not an unaccountable quango, to be responsible for such decisions. If today's announcement is to mean anything, many of those quangos should be abolished.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

Many of us are intrinsically sympathetic to the view that there should be a vote in Parliament on matters such as national policy statements. However, as we discussed at length in Committee, the problem is that the other place would also have a vote and, given that the Parliament Act does not cover such votes, we would hand a veto to the other place over all national policy statements. That does not amount to much democratic accountability.

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Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

The hon. Gentleman is right that we have had endless debates about the matter. However, he does not credit their lordships' House with the sense of responsibility with which I credit it.

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Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

Indeed—I trust their lordships' House. The hon. Gentleman is long enough in the tooth as a Member of Parliament to know that Conservative Governments have as much difficulty as Labour Governments with their lordships' House. It is therefore a big thing for me to say that I would trust their lordships to ensure that national policy statements were treated exactly the same as Bills. Indeed, today we are debating a measure that has been heavily amended in the House of Lords. There is nothing to say that the House of Lords should not be able to recommend amendments to a national policy statement. It would then be up to the Government, with a majority, to assert their will.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe 8:15 pm, 24th November 2008

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. Is she saying that a future Conservative Government would commit themselves to putting national policy statements before both Houses, that they would be amendable, with full time for debating them, and that the Parliament Act should apply so that the will of this House would prevail in the end?

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Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

I am saying that I am sure that their lordships' House would be sufficiently responsible to understand the Government's will, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that.

The amendments clearly show our objections in principle to the measure. I do not want to take up too much more time because we are running short of it and several other hon. Members wish to comment.

We are pleased that the Government have acceded to our request about reviewing statements. The Minister asked me why I was unhappy about amendments Nos. 53 to 56. The original Bill mentioned "community involvement", but the amendments delete that reference. If one factor is key to where our planning system currently goes wrong, it is that the community does not feel involved. The phrase "community involvement" is essentially replaced by, "There will be guidance." The guidance may well include community involvement, but it is not as explicit as it was in the original measure. If the Minister cares to reassure me, even briefly, I will be happy.

We have argued about the right to be heard throughout the Bill's passage. We believe that it is still not strong enough. We welcome the legal advice to the commission to which the Government have agreed, but we would like it to be strengthened so that the right to be heard is guaranteed. I was interested in the answer that the hon. Member for Stroud received about Planning Aid because that was my interpretation—and, indeed, Planning Aid's interpretation—of what it can do. A difficulty remains with people's ability to get legal representation.

I was interested in the Minister's comments on amendment No. 76, which deals with the Secretary of State's ability to call applications in. The Minister said that it covered only the review of the IPC. Again, I am prepared to be corrected—I am not a lawyer—but the amendment states:

"The Secretary of State may by order specify other circumstances in which section 108 is to apply in relation to an application for an order granting development consent."

That suggests that the Secretary of State can call anything in. If that is the case, why establish an IPC? The power is too wide. I cannot believe that the drafting is so loose that my interpretation is correct, but I would be grateful for the Minister's clarification so that we all know where we stand.

With apologies for taking so long, I commend our amendments to the Lords amendments.

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Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

I rise to speak to amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 8, which stands in my name and that of various hon. Members across the House. One of the reasons why my Back-Bench colleagues and I tabled the amendment was to give my right hon. Friend the Minister the opportunity to join the pantheon of our Front-Bench heroes, to which many of his colleagues have recently been elevated. [ Laughter. ] No, no, laugh you not—the roll-call is impressive. It includes our right hon. Friend Ms Winterton, who made significant and welcome changes to the Local Transport Bill; and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, our hon. Friend Joan Ruddock, who accepted amendments to the Climate Change Bill and the Energy Bill. Indeed, I think that our hon. Friend Alan Simpson is still recovering from the shock.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has a reputation for being somewhat austere, which his earlier comments reinforced. He seems to believe that it is his solemn duty to prevent Back Benchers from becoming over-intoxicated by too much of a good thing and that he therefore cannot accede to our amendment (a). However, all the changes to the Bills that I have listed demonstrate a willingness to listen, reflect and then act. All those changes reflect a degree of joined-up thinking in the crusade, as it were, to tackle climate change. The signatories to my amendment (a) believe that it is necessary for the Bill to do exactly the same thing.

It is particularly vital in the context of the 80 per cent. emissions target that we achieve a radical change in new infrastructure, in order to move to a low-carbon economy. In that context, we welcome certain provisions in the Bill, such as the climate change duty associated with local and regional plans. However, the Government have placed no duty on the IPC to consider climate change, because they argue that national policy statements will deal with climate issues. However, that argument is compromised by the fact that the IPC can depart from NPSs in defined circumstances.

Even if we take the argument about national policy statements at face value, however, we still need to place a strong duty on the Secretary of State to consider climate change when drawing up NPSs. However, Lords amendment No. 8 to clause 10, which relates to sustainable development, is so weak as to make little difference to the actions of the Secretary of State when it comes to the crunch. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, Lords amendment No. 8 says that

"the Secretary of State must (in particular) have regard to the desirability of...mitigating, and adapting to, climate change".

Despite my right hon. Friend's protestations, that feels very weak indeed. "Desirability" smacks of the language of aspiration—merely an objective to have in mind, but not necessarily to be achieved. The obligation on the Secretary of State is couched in language that would make it difficult for a court or anyone else to put a strong construction on the provisions.

Even if that were not the case, there is an inherent problem with almost any conceivable clause relating to sustainable development, precisely because the language of sustainable development is imprecise. The phrase is not defined in the Bill—as far as I am aware, it is not defined in any legislation—and even non-statutory definitions are couched in open and vague terms. Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 8 seeks to replace the word "desirability" with a stronger construction, which places a duty on the Secretary of State to have

"due regard to the need to...mitigate and adapt to climate change".

I should add at this juncture that we took the liberty of lifting those words from other Government legislation, so one would hope that that legislation was subject to the sort of scrutiny that—

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Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

Indeed, we have to plead guilty to that charge.

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Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Department for Communities and Local Government

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could enlighten us as to which legislation he lifted that wording from, so that the Minister can go away and double-check that the other legislation is untested.

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Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

That is like the Schleswig-Holstein question. I have forgotten the answer, but I assure the hon. Lady that the wording was indeed lifted and that I will give her that information in due course.

The formulation that we propose strengthens the weak notion of "desirability", replacing it with need or necessity. That would elevate climate change to an unavoidable consideration, even though it would be sufficiently flexible to leave room for argument. Lord Hunt suggested in the other place that the Climate Change Bill, and particularly the 80 per cent. emissions target, would deal with all those issues. He also asserted, if my reading of his words is right, that the Government could not be constrained by a duty to mitigate climate change, because that implied that all national policy statements would achieve that goal, when it was clear that they would not.

However, signing up to an 80 per cent. emissions reduction target has no direct impact on national policy statements, unless we create a direct link between the Climate Change Bill and the Planning Bill. For the reasons that I have just given, I submit that that link is weak to say the least. The Climate Change Bill makes no reference to the Planning Bill; indeed, it appears that we are being asked to take that relationship almost on trust. The reality is that achieving an 80 per cent. emissions reduction target will require radical new signals to industry. Much of that will have a positive economic impact, particularly in the field of renewable energy and other technologies, through research, design and manufacturing.

However, Lord Hunt seems to have suggested that a strong climate change duty might compromise energy policy, and that climate change has to be balanced by other priorities. That simply misunderstands both the opportunity for a low-carbon economy and the scale of the threat of climate change. In any event—I would be the first to admit this—our proposed amendment is not a straitjacket; it is a proposed subsection to an already quite weak clause setting out a sustainable development duty. In that context, our slightly more directive proposed subsection leaves, for better or worse, a considerable margin for discretion on the part of the Secretary of State. However, we believe that we have nudged that obligation in the right direction.

We cannot allow the Planning Bill to act as a massive bypass around the Climate Change Bill or climate change obligations. For that reason, I wish to push amendment (a) to the vote at the appropriate time.

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Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Department for Communities and Local Government

To follow what Mr. Truswell has said, Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 8 concede an important principle, concession on which we struggled to get in this place and had to go to the other end of the Palace for the Government finally to concede.

However, there is still value in pressing for that extra step forward. I, too, was disappointed by just how qualified is the phrase

"have regard to the desirability of".

As Mrs. Lait said, that smacks of a box-ticking exercise just to prove that regard has been given, rather than an effort to make a material impact on any decisions made. I urge the Minister to think again if he wants to send a clear signal, because amendment (a) would make it clear that the duty was categorical and not qualified.

There is also an important point about the need for good-quality design as well as environmental sustainability. Amendment No. 1 builds on that important principle in the Bill. On the environmental theme, it is good that under amendment No. 102 regional development agencies would have such an obligation.

The review of national policy statements is another significant area covered by this group of amendments. We welcome amendments Nos. 3, 9, 10 and 11, which set out more clearly the circumstances in which the statements can be reviewed. The Liberal Democrats hope for a rigorous scrutiny process for the statements, involving both Houses of Parliament. Although the amendments do not build in the level of scrutiny that we think desirable, it will none the less be important that work that has been done is not undermined by an errant Secretary of State reviewing and changing the statements at will. It must be welcome that there will have to be a significant change in circumstances, which was not anticipated at the time of the initial statement, for those changes to take place.

The amendment, along with amendments No. 4 and Nos. 70 to 72, allows for part of a statement to be reviewed, so it would prevent the baby from being thrown out with the bathwater. If a review is needed, only parts of the statement for which the circumstances have manifestly changed should be reviewed. We also welcome amendments Nos. 20 to 24, which make similar changes to the provisions relating to any legal challenges that may be brought against the NPS. In a similar vein, amendment No. 7 would give the House of Lords the right to report on statements in its Select Committees, and to expect a response. That is important, right and proper, but I would have preferred a greater role for both Houses, with voting on the statements themselves.

Amendments Nos. 12 to 19 on retrospection are welcome. They respond to concerns that were raised in another place, not least by our former colleague from North Cornwall, Lord Tyler, that clause 12 could introduce elements of retrospective legislation by allowing previous Government statements of policy to become designated national policy statements without proper scrutiny. The air transport White Paper was of particular concern in that regard. We are particularly pleased that clause 12(4) is to be excised from the Bill to ensure that the "Parliamentary requirements" in clause 9 will have to be met afresh when an old policy statement is to be designated as an NPS.

We also welcome amendment No. 63, which removes the word "exceptionally" from the provision about people being given oral hearings. I was disappointed by the Minister's reluctance to give local people their say, but it is good that there has been some movement. However, amendments (a) to (c) to amendment No. 65 would strengthen the measure further, and it is absolutely right that the same rights should be extended to people who are cross-examined as are given to those making representations to the commission.

I pay tribute to my colleague Baroness Hamwee, who worked hard with the Minister in the Lords to have amendments Nos. 68 and 69 added to the Bill. We consider that to be a quiet, but significant, Liberal Democrat achievement. It is vital for local planning authorities' policies to be considered along with national policy statements when the commission takes decisions. Amendment No. 69 ensures that the panel or council that takes the decision on an application may have regard to conditions for deciding applications that are outwith the NPS. That is certainly welcome.

I also welcome the Minister's clarification of amendments Nos. 76 to 78, because it was not clear to me from reading them that they were the Government's way of saying that the IPC's functions will be reviewed in two years' time. I am glad that that safety valve is there, but that could be made more explicit, as that seems a roundabout way of doing things. Some important issues have been raised, but I shall conclude now, as I want to give Mr. Drew time to speak to his important amendment.

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Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston 8:30 pm, 24th November 2008

I shall speak to amendment No. 215, which deals with section 10 of the Water (Scotland) Act 1980, which hon. Members will know is my bedtime reading. The amendment deals with the responsibility of factoring companies such as Greenbelt.

In the past 15 to 20 years, there has been a big change in the provision of factoring services in planning applications to local communities. That used to be the responsibility of local councils, which adopted common land and land that was provided for local communities, such as land for swing parks. That service was paid for by council tax, or poll tax under the Conservative Administration. However, that changed about 20 years ago as a result of the explosion in private house building throughout the UK. After that, councils no longer adopted such areas because of the work load involved.

Since then, there has been a growth of companies such as Greenbelt. During the planning process, we have seen private companies taking over the responsibility from councils; we have seen lawyers selling the houses and not advising their constituents or clients that they would have to pick up an additional payment of up to £400 a year; and we have seen sales departments failing to mention the additional burden.

Until recently, it was possible to vote out these land maintenance companies, but sadly, companies such as Greenbelt have changed the rules. Now such companies buy the common land in agreement with the contractor and the house purchasers. In practice that means that, regardless of the service provided by such companies, people cannot sack them. Quite frankly, it is a disgraceful situation. People now find themselves responsible not only for cutting grass and the maintenance of swing parks in their areas, but even for their drainage systems. If the drainage systems go wrong, they have to pick up the tab. A company actually has the right to charge people for that.

Let me provide an example. There are 11 estates in my constituency and I recall that an abandoned car was found in one of them. The company charged more than 100 houses 2p a quarter: it had to phone the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and claimed that that cost £2, so it charged each household 2p. As I said, the company charges up to £400 a year and it behaves in a quite unacceptable and bullying manner. Anyone who refuses to pay because of the lack of service very quickly receives a threatening letter from the company, telling them that they will be blacklisted.

When I first mentioned the company in this place, it wrote to Mr. Speaker and told me that I had no right to raise issues about it in this House and that it had every right to do whatever it wanted because it owned the common land and could charge what it wanted. If it did not provide a service, people still basically had to pay. This is Farepak for home owners, yet this company is operating from the highlands to Birmingham, in Wales and in Northern Ireland. Its behaviour is, quite frankly, outrageous.

One of my constituents, Paula Hoogerbrugge, set up a website to highlight the deficiencies of, and threats and intimidation from, the company. It then contacted her employers—she is a senior public relations manager with British Telecom—to tell them that she was mixing with extreme left-wingers, when all she was doing was standing up for the residents.

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Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow, but he is talking about extreme left-wingers and I am wondering who they were. My hon. Friend makes a very good case. Does he agree that companies such as this have to be answerable to somebody—and somebody in this regard should be the elected representative, who can take on constituents' cases? If that is not allowed, we need to look seriously into the law and find out how to bring these people to book.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I hope that when the hon. Member replies, he will remember the amendment that is under discussion at the moment.

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Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston

I will come back to the amendment, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I talk about the other services provided. Amendment No. 215 is relevant. My hon. Friend is right. Companies such as Greenbelt buy up common land and gain ownership of it so that they can provide little or no service. As he says, it is very difficult to get rid of them, so we should be looking into changing the law in order to rectify the problem.

One crucial area of responsibility—amendment No. 215 is relevant, Madam Deputy Speaker—is compensation for damage under section 10 of the Water (Scotland) Act 1980. In the past, it was the responsibility of councils to deal simply and purely with water drainage systems. That is no longer the case. People are now paying £400 a year to this company for the service. It was initially responsible for the management of common land and the swing parks, but it is now taking on the responsibility for water drainage systems. That affects my constituents and many others. Eleven estates in my constituency deal directly with this company.

In the past, under the Land Drainage Act 1991, the council would provide the necessary service. In the event of a flood, for instance, it would provide services to repair the damage caused by inadequate drainage. That duty has now fallen to Greenbelt and similar companies, and the charges are being passed on to my constituents.

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Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris PPS (Rt Hon Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

My hon. Friend is speaking eloquently to Lords amendment No. 215. The amendment relates to schedule 12, which itself relates to Scotland. My hon. Friend has referred to the activities of such rip-off companies in other parts of the country, including my own in the west midlands. Do we need legislation in England, for example, similar to that which he is propounding for Scotland?

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Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston

That is an interesting point. The problem is that some of the responsibility is devolved and some is reserved. I would argue that monopolies legislation is relevant. Why should my constituents, and literally hundreds throughout the United Kingdom, have absolutely no choice? Devolved issues include local government responsibilities, through planning legislation and the Water (Scotland) Act.

I want to raise another important point with my right hon. Friend the Minister. I consider it important that we have set up an all-party group on land maintenance—

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying a little wide of the amendment.

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Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston

I shall conclude my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe that the Lords amendment has major implications for land maintenance companies, and for the planning procedure as a whole. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will agree to meet us to discuss the issue.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government)

This has been a useful debate, in which we have covered a good deal of ground.

I echo the tribute paid by Julia Goldsworthy to Lady Hamwee. Let me add that Lord Dixon-Smith and Lady Andrews—representing the Government—together did a very good job in strengthening the Bill, and that, throughout the process, Lady Andrews and I have been supported very well by excellent officials, to whom I also pay tribute.

The other place—and this, Madam Deputy Speaker, relates to the content of the amendments that I wish the House to accept—has strengthened the Bill in a number of significant areas: the production of national policy statements, parliamentary scrutiny and debate on national policy statements, public consultation—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings , Madam deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

Lords amendment agreed to.

Madam deputy Speaker then proceeded to put the remaining Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to [some with Special Entry].

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Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I said at both the beginning and the end of my speech that I wished to press my amendment to a Division.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman certainly did, but at that point we were dealing with Lords amendment No. 1. Had time allowed it, I would have called the hon. Gentleman to move his amendment formally. Unfortunately, we ran out of time.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments Nos. 115 and 160: Julia Goldsworthy, John Healey, Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Mr. Andrew Love and Mr. Dave Watts to be members of the Committee; John Healey to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.— [Mr. Watts.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.

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