Infrastructure Bill [Lords]

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 8th December 2014.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:45 pm, 8th December 2014

I am grateful to the Minister. I am sure we can pursue and discuss the matter in Committee if the Bill gets that far.

My final point—perhaps the Minister has reassuring words on this—is whether the new agency will have adequate accountability, which Mr Redwood mentioned. Passenger Focus will be renamed Transport Focus because it will have a responsibility for roads as well as for rail and bus. Why is there still a silo mentality on the Office of the Rail Regulator, even though it will have a monitoring role? After pressure from the Opposition in the other place to give the new body more powers, it cannot be a regulator of roads. In the Bill, Transport Focus can represent only people who use strategic roads—it will not represent pedestrians or cyclists who use local roads, or motorists who are frustrated with conditions on local roads. I hope we can look at that if the Bill gets as far as Committee. With the recent ruling on the UK’s air quality infraction, should not a watchdog consider the environmental impact of any new company?

What about the Minister’s accountability to Parliament? Will hon. Members be able to table parliamentary questions and have proper debates on roads, whether in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall, or will we get letters from the chief executive of the new body instead? The chief executive of the Highways Agency has said that the reform will enable it to “set its own destiny”. The public depend on roads for daily life, so is that what we want? We will want to look at that closely in Committee if the Bill gets that far, and I hope the Minister reflects on it.

The Opposition support the extension of powers for the British Transport police to obtain driver information and take enforcement action outside the railways. That proposal was tabled by Lord Faulkner in the other place, with the Opposition’s support. It is an absurd situation when trained and effective British Transport police officers have to ask permission to take enforcement action on land outside railway jurisdiction. That makes no sense to the public. I hope the Minister will comment, today or later, on how that relates to the Smith commission recommendation that the British Transport police should be devolved.

The Opposition support a proper control regime for invasive non-native species, but we do not believe the Bill is fit for purpose. After the badger cull chaos, the Government listened to pressure from animal rights campaigners, wildlife groups, the National Farmers Union and Labour, and it is good that they included animal welfare protections in the regime. However, although there are three distinct categories of species in the Bill—native, former native and non-native—the definitions still seem problematic. We expect the Government to look at the EU habitats directive for those definitions, and will seek assurances that specific species such as the beaver will be given legal protection.

The Bill also includes a number of changes to the planning regime, none of which seem to go anywhere near addressing the housing crisis facing Britain today. Effective and efficient planning is vital, and we will support sensible changes to deliver a timely planning system, especially for nationally significant infrastructure projects. We want the Bill to define what the public can expect from garden cities in terms of high-quality design and sustainability for strong and inclusive communities for the future. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham will expand on that point later, say why the Bill fails to ensure that building standards reduce CO2 sufficiently, and explain our position on deemed discharge, land transfers to the Homes and Communities Agency, and the Land Registry. Suffice it to say that a trend seems to be emerging with the Government’s Land Registry reforms, which still seem rather confused, and they appear to have made a U-turn on putting those at arm’s length. Perhaps the most glaring omission on housing and land use is the fact that the Bill contains no acknowledgment of the housing crisis our country faces, of what the Lyons review said, or that Labour is right to call for ambitious reforms and 200,000 extra homes to be built a year. This Bill is a far cry from that.

Part 5 sets out a number of provisions on energy. Getting energy policy right is critical to our economy and vital to enable all infrastructure sectors to function. It is therefore a shame that the Bill contains no ambitious commitment or strategy to ensure that the UK will meet growing demand in a sustainable way. The Bill sets out a new community right for a stake in renewable energy schemes—that is fine, although we do not think it goes far enough—and it is good that it implements Wood review proposals for increasing oil and gas extraction, which have cross-party support. However, the issue that I am sure generates the most interest, both inside and outside the House, is clauses 38 to 43 on underground access to shale and geothermal energy—there have already been questions on that.