Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 6:56 pm on 5th November 2012.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 6:56 pm, 5th November 2012

I do not have all the information that Ministers have to draw a distinction, but the statutory time limits in which decisions must be taken, the planning guarantee and adherence to the mechanism of voluntary local planning agreements would be a starting point in determining performance. I have perfect faith in Ministers to develop sensible and transparent criteria, and that they will assure us on that. Those proportionate and sensible proposals complement existing policy.

The same applies to clause 2 and the question of costs. Some fuss was made about costs, but I hope it was based on a misunderstanding of the proposal. Clause 2 enables the Secretary of State to claim the costs of an appeal proceeding against unreasonable behaviour by any party to the appeal. It does another important thing: at the moment, in the limited circumstances in which costs can be awarded, there is an all-or-nothing situation—a party can get the whole of the costs or none. The position set out in subsections 2(1) to 2(5) is a sensible one. They mean that, where appropriate, a proportion of costs can be awarded, to reflect the fact that more than one party is responsible for delays in the conduct of the appeal. Currently, costs tend to be thrown away only when there is a public inquiry, but clause 2 sensibly says that costs can be awarded, when appropriate, when delays arise from written representations. That system works perfectly normally in virtually every other kind of civil and commercial litigation in this country. To introduce a similar and equally proportionate measure for planning is more than reasonable.

This Government have given local power to local authorities. The previous Government authored the imposed regional strategies and a standards regime that was often regarded as intimidatory by many councillors who spoke out on behalf of their residents, and they gave us 13 years of rate capping, to name but a few of their measures. It is understandable that local authorities felt they had no power in such centralising circumstances. We have returned genuine power in all those matters to local authorities, and it is not unreasonable to say, “With power comes responsibility.” In quasi-judicial matters such as planning, it is not unreasonable for us to say, “You must carry out the decisions entrusted to you in a timely and efficient manner.” In reality, that is what clauses 1 and 2 are about. It is nonsense for the Opposition to suggest otherwise.

I welcome other important measures in the Bill. I was particularly pleased to see the tidying up in clause 6 of loose legislation that this Government inherited from the previous one. The duplication of consents regimes needed to be dealt with.

I also welcome the provisions of clause 8, which deals with minerals planning. The ready supply of minerals and aggregates is important to the economic growth of this country. Generally, the minerals planning industry has shown good social and environmental sense in carrying out what is sometimes sensitive extraction. The extraction can happen only where the minerals exist, so giving more flexibility to local authorities in when they carry out minerals plans reviews is sensible. It is localist, but it also enables investors in minerals planning to have appropriate confidence to make the investment necessary. That is a small but critical step, because minerals and aggregates are critical to the construction industry. It will be worth flagging that up during debates on the Bill.

On business rates, I urge my hon. Friends the Ministers not to be put off by some of the specious arguments from the Opposition. The previous Government have on their track record one of the worst examples of abuse of the business rates system to the detriment of small and medium-sized businesses that I have ever come across. They obdurately refused, in the face of overwhelming evidence, to remove an effectively retrospective tax on businesses in our ports, which put firms out of business and put British workers out of jobs, and caused serious British investors, such as DFDS Seaways and others, to rethink their UK investment plans. The previous Government did nothing about that despite having the clearest evidence in front of them. One of the first legislative acts of this Government reversed that injustice and safeguarded that important British business sector. I therefore hope my hon. Friends the Ministers will take no lectures on that from Labour.

As has been amply demonstrated, there is good evidence to suggest that, because of the interaction of the rental values that are used to calculate business rates and the multiplier, it would be misleading to tell people that revaluation will automatically result in a reduction of the amount of business rate paid. I therefore hope that Ministers will not be put off course on that. It is also worth bearing in mind the other assistance that this Government have given, particularly through small business rate relief, which we extended for an unprecedented period—again, something that Labour did not do. The democratic centralists—[ Interruption ]—or, lest there be any confusion, what I might call the “cradle” democratic centralists—have been long on rhetoric, but rather short on evidence. I hope the House will see through them and support this sensible and constructive Bill.