Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, said that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. He was right in the following respect: the economic crisis that this Government inherited in 2010 should allow us to be radical in our thinking, radical in our approach to economic growth policy, and radical in our approach to more and better infrastructure, for it is more and better infrastructure that will drive up productivity and total output.
It is two years since the Government announced the national infrastructure plan, and it is fair to say—I say this in a spirit of friendly candour—that it has not been progressed as rapidly and as efficiently as Ministers would have liked. In September this year the Public Accounts Committee looked at the regional growth fund. Of the £1.4 billion allocated, it found that only £470 million had been paid out; £364 million had been parked in intermediary bodies under an endowment programme. Only £60 million out of the £1.4 billion had found its way into front-line projects. It was calculated that that had bought 5,200 jobs. So a lot more remains to be done in driving through and delivering those projects.
There are signs that Ministers in this Government get it. I had the advantage of going to visit the new roads Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond, with my hon. Friend Peter Aldous, who is in his place. When we indicated that the excellent proposal to toll the A14 around Cambridge was one that we wanted to see earlier rather than later, the Minister was able to assure us that he had knocked 12 months off the initial timetable for when concrete would be poured. He also helpfully indicated that that road toll project would not be a compulsory road toll on heavy goods vehicles, and there was a clear sense of urgency on the part of that Minister.
What about the Bill before us? To what extent will it speed up and make more efficient the delivery of the infrastructure that all of us, in all parts of the House, want to see? I agree with my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert, who is not in his place but who made an excellent speech, that we should not get carried away with the idea that more residential housing development will give us a permanent boost to long-term trend growth of the UK economy. If I may say so, we have heard too much in this debate about residential housing development. In my view, the reason that we have less of it is insufficient demand from buyers, insufficient capital being supplied to developers, and the state of their balance sheets. It would therefore be a mistake to bet the farm, so to speak, on housing development getting the UK economy going.
My hon. Friend John Howell offered an explanation for why there is a backlog of planning consents of around 400,000 for residential and other developments and why that is not really as bad as it sounds. In my part of East Anglia, no developers have been beating a path to my door to say that we are not building enough homes because of a lousy council or a sclerotic planning regime. Furthermore, I understand from the Local Government Association that the approval rate for residential and commercial planning applications is now at a decade high; 87% were approved in 2011-12.
I must say that I am not a doctrinaire localist and, therefore, do not view some of the clauses in the Bill with as much trepidation as do some of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches. I am more concerned about having legislation that works and gets the planning system moving. Therefore, on clause 1, I will say only that, although the Secretary of State is taking quite wide powers, it is ridiculous to suggest that they will be unfettered, because subsection (8) makes it perfectly clear, in paragraphs (a) to (d), that guidance will be published setting out what constitutes a poorly performing authority. That is set out in the Bill and will come in time, so I do not think that we should get too excited about it.
However, those wide powers should be concerned with designating local planning authorities that are failing because they are tardy and inefficient in disposing of business. I would not want to see—I am sure Members on both sides of the House agree—a planning authority put into special measures simply because it had not built enough houses in a particular area, according to the lights of the Minister involved. I would find that pretty offensive, and it would certainly not be to the liking of my constituents.
I declare an interest, as I represent one of the United Kingdom’s great and iconic market towns, Bury St Edmunds. There has been a cross-party petition to keep that jewel in the crown of the east of England special. We already have a local planning agreement from the Conservative-led St Edmundsbury borough council, planning for a smaller number of residential homes in the next 20 years than was insisted upon by the previous Administration’s regional strategy. We have been able to use local council power to come up with a compromise that satisfies local housing demand. The last thing I want to see is any ministerial power being used to overturn the decisions of councils simply because they do not appear, in the Minister’s view, to have approved enough residential homes.
Clause 21 has already been mentioned. I am very relaxed about it. If we want to get the big infrastructure projects moving, whether energy reactors, rail electrification or increased aviation capacity, it seems to me to be perfectly legitimate and proper to give Ministers the power to fast-track those kinds of major national projects in the interests of efficiency, given the economic problems we face and the fact that we need to give nationally significant infrastructure projects a shot in the arm.
That brings me to a big national infrastructure project that we have not heard much, if anything, about today: the vexed issue of creating more aviation capacity. I think that it is now viewed as a mistake that my party’s 2010 manifesto ruled out making any decision on a third runway at Heathrow in this Parliament. I think that the noble Lord Heseltine was absolutely correct to say—I summarise colloquially—“Get a move on. Let’s make a decision sooner rather than later.” I also agree with the Mayor of London that we should not just go headlong towards building aviation capacity for the sake of it but should weigh up having a third runway at Heathrow with other options, as some colleagues, such as my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith, have suggested, such as extending Stansted or Gatwick or maybe even having a new airport in the Thames estuary. But we need to get on with it. It seems to me that any discussion of growth and infrastructure in this Chamber demands a grown-up, civilized, intelligent and well-informed debate about how aviation capacity can not only boost short-term growth, but improve long-term trends in GDP growth.
I want to say something about a type of infrastructure that is very dear to the hearts of those of us who are worried about broadband apartheid. I mean the parts of apparently affluent rural Britain—parts of which are in my constituency—where there are concerns that they will be left behind not only on superfast broadband, but on any kind of fibre-optic access at all. There seem to be clauses in the Bill that would allow fast-tracking, whether through compulsory purchase orders, the purchase of land or planning applications, so that we could get those fibre-optic channels dug out. I was lobbied on that question by Battisford parish council only a couple of Fridays ago. There is new housing there and small rural businesses, but they cannot possibly grow and thrive if they are at the tail end of any broadband roll-out. Therefore, to the extent that it will facilitate faster broadband roll-out, I welcome the Bill.
I broadly welcome the Bill, but I also have reservations about the future and about delivery. I am glad to see my right hon. Friend Michael Fallon on the Front Bench. He is, not only as the Tory Minister for growth, but as a man with a track record in the private sector and, in a former incarnation, as an Education Minister, a man who gets on with delivery. I hope that when he winds up the debate tonight he will give us an indication of the Government’s renewed sense of purpose in boosting economic growth and infrastructure in this country.