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May I start by drawing attention to my interests, as declared in the register?
I agreed with Nick Herbert on one point only, which was his opening remark about the lack of time for this debate. I am afraid that I will not have time to explain in detail why he is totally wrong about the Planning Inspectorate, because I want to address two other issues. However, I have to say that over many years the Planning Inspectorate has delivered a highly professional service in assessing developments and giving impartial advice to Ministers, and it would be an absurdity to do away with such a body.
The first issue that I want to cover is the importance of a national infrastructure commission. I am disappointed by the Government’s rejection of that proposal, which was made in a cogent, well-presented and well-received report by Sir John Armitt. In case Members are not familiar with him, Sir John is widely recognised as one of our country’s leading experts in the field and was the chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, which demonstrated remarkably well how to deliver a major infrastructure project in the most exemplary way, so we should pay attention to his recommendations. Those recommendations were not, as some opponents of them have claimed, about taking decision making away from Ministers or Parliament. On the contrary, Sir John’s report was clear that there should be a detailed and thorough appraisal, carried out by experts and then presented to Ministers, who in turn would have a responsibility to report to Parliament on their decisions in response to the infrastructure commission’s recommendations. That would be wholly democratic and ensure that proposals were properly considered by experts before being presented to Ministers, who would then come to Parliament with final decisions.
The second argument that the Minister made against the Armitt report was that the recommended procedure would be too cumbersome and bureaucratic. He conjured up the image of a recommendation being rejected by Parliament, and asked what would then happen. That is pretty rich coming from a Government who have just reduced by one third the total size of the Bill that came back from Committee. That was a fairly enormous decision to reverse a proposal that they had made a little while before, but we have not heard any suggestion that it is somehow a mistake. On the contrary, it is an example of Parliament working well in stopping Ministers doing something ill-considered. The basis of the Minister’s argument is unsound, but in any case, if Parliament is to take decisions, it must be right that it has the discretion to say no occasionally. That seems an entirely admirable principle.
I wish to conclude with a few words about zero-carbon outcomes. The Government are resiling from the commitments that were put in place under the previous Government to achieve those outcomes by 2016. There have been four backtracks. The first was the Government’s abandonment of code level 6, which was the original definition of zero carbon. The second was no longer saying that zero carbon is equivalent to code level 5 and must be delivered in all cases. They now say that the objective is code level 5, but it will be possible not to deliver it under two circumstances. The first is where allowable solutions include off-site contributions, rather than doing it on site—and even there, the Government are not adhering to the principle the Minister enunciated on Second reading, which was that this should apply only where it is not reasonably practicable to deliver on site. The second relates to the small site exemptions, which are badly drafted and a loophole that could easily be exploited, not by small builders, but by any builders, to fail to deliver on small sites. There has been some serious backtracking by the Government, and if we are to achieve the zero-carbon objective and an effective response to climate change, we will need to revisit these issues in the next Parliament.