Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government 7:45 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, the Government Chief Whip apologised to the House for the dilemma in which we find ourselves. However, she will understand why I register what I hope will be the only protest tonight that we have to start the Second Reading of such a major Bill at such an hour, particularly in the light of current practice in this House. That is no way to manage our business.

I declare my interest. For better or worse, I am a landowner in the county of Essex. Things tend to happen to land in that county and some of it gets developed. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her full exposition of the Bill. She made a very good case for it at such a rapid-fire rate of progress that I cannot hope to match her style. I am sure there is no dissension anywhere on the need to reform the planning system. I have observed, and for a time participated in, that system for many years. When I began my involvement in the mid-1960s, the planning process was still a facilitator for development; it was not part of the problem, as it is today. Public consultation was introduced in 1968 because of the controversial nature of so many decisions. Even small decisions which have a local effect can none the less be controversial. We need to recognise that that difficulty will continue. This Bill seeks to tackle only a very narrow spectrum of development. The public and the construction industry will continue to experience general problems with the planning process for many years to come unless it becomes necessary to look further at the whole system, as I suspect will be the case.

Systemic delay, cost and administrative complexity have driven some developments abroad. For example, in the climate change field a wave electricity generating company was driven to Portugal because it took more than five years to get an approval here whereas it could be given in Portugal in 24 months. That is not satisfactory. We have to add to that 10 years of prevarication by this Government on the whole question of electricity generation and how the problem should be handled. Suddenly, this Bill is before us, driven by a need to secure our energy supplies in the short-term future. "Short term" to me in this context means 10 years. That is no way to manage a ship.

Of course, other factors are also in play. Climate change is now a well defined problem, and the Climate Change Bill passed through this House earlier this year. We should think about that for a moment. That Bill targeted this country's carbon dioxide reduction at 60 per cent by 2050. But developing scientific knowledge might suggest that there should now be an 80 per cent reduction. The consequences of that decision will have serious planning implications across the whole spectrum of development. The population is still rising rapidly and economic growth will continue. Both are factors that will increase energy demand at a time when people seem to think that we can work with less energy. We need to think carefully about an economy with 80 per cent of its carbon dioxide removed. You could say that carbon dioxide is a proxy for energy and that energy supply is a proxy for the use of fossil fuels. If 80 per cent of our carbon dioxide emissions are removed, by 2050 the only things that use carbon dioxide will be either where the carbon dioxide can be captured and stored or where there is no other alternative for the industry. There are industries in that classification. Everything else across the spectrum will have to change.

There is a parallel thought to this, if we are in the business of electricity generation. We need to make use of the huge amount of energy that pours out of our power stations in the form of waste heat. It more than equals the electricity that the industry supplies. That could have the most profound implications for the way we site power stations.

I turn to the Bill. I have a note from the chair of the UK Environmental Law Association's working party on planning and sustainable development, which expresses concern that the details in Part 1 of the Bill for handling nationally significant infrastructure projects and which set up the IPC as the ultimate decision maker will deliver a regime that is undemocratic and unlawful in terms of compliance with the UK's European and international obligations under the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, the habitats directives and the Aarhus Convention. I do not know whether those views have arrived on the noble Baroness's desk—I am assured that they will do so in due course—and nor do I have the expertise to test those grounds for concern. However, I have sufficient knowledge to be worried that such views can be expressed by such a body. It may be unrealistic to expect the noble Baroness to reply in detail to that concern tonight. I would be the first to recognise that that will require a full and detailed answer, but I hope that she may touch on the matter in her response to the debate and perhaps promise a full reply in due course.

This is not the Bill that we would have introduced if we were in the Government's position. We would have preferred a more evolutionary approach to the Government's revolutionary one. We would have worked at developing the idea of consultation at the pre-planning application stage and developing ideas made available by that change to evolve the format of planning inquiries. We would have developed mechanisms to prevent duplication in the presentation of evidence to inquiries, and so on. We may well need to consider these different approaches to the process at later stages of the Bill.

There is a fundamental principle behind those suggestions, which is that the present planning system ensures, despite what the noble Baroness said, that decisions are taken by politicians. Most of the decisions are, of course, taken by local politicians and the system is all the better for that local control. Even decisions made by planning officers are the responsibility of members, because they make the powers of delegation. Major projects are dealt with by the Secretary of State, either as the result of appeals or call-in, but major decisions, as the Minister said, will become the subject of this Bill, because they will be determined by the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will be a commission of appointees.

The public accept the results of planning decisions—I have a lot of experience—because a decision is taken by a politician. Although there may be arguments about the nature of the responsibility of Ministers through Parliament, all Ministers and all Governments—we may have to remember this in the near future—are subject to political control, because, if push becomes shove, there can always be a vote of no confidence in a Government. The argument that politics has no influence in the decisions of Ministers is erroneous. It may not be a consideration which they have formally to take into account, but if they do not have some regard as to what is going on behind their backs, they may finish up in trouble.

That democratic final point of decision has long been the factor that has meant that the public have accepted often uncomfortable decisions, and we need to bear that in mind and keep it very much as part of any system. That means that there are severe questions about the way in which the Government are determined to bring in their Infrastructure Planning Commission.

I turn to the community infrastructure levy. Another long-standing principle of the planning system has been that the community that gives rise to and is affected by development and its consequences should share a portion of the enhanced value that is otherwise enjoyed by a small number of people. This is simply to ensure that the infrastructure that a major development generates is provided for the benefit of the community. That is achieved, as the noble Baroness said, under Section 106 agreements. The levy is paid when development commences after the granting of planning permission. The great virtue of this system is that the benefit is retained locally, but the process can be time-consuming and uncertain.

The Bill contains the Government's second attempt to deal with this issue. The noble Baroness said that the Government had considered the planning gain supplement for which paving legislation was passed only a little more than a year ago. It must be right—although it is not in the Bill—that that legislation is repealed if we are to pass the successor system that the Government wish to put in its place. If we do not repeal it, there will always be uncertainty as to what the Government's real intentions are. I have already heard one rumour that the Government's real intentions are that the CIL should fail and that there will be a return to the PGS. I would not wish to have to accept that rumour, but that is the nature of the way that the human mind works. That is certainly one area on which we need to improve.

It is also somewhat odd that, as the Bill is drafted, we have no details for this infrastructure levy. Under the Bill, a small extension on a house could pay the levy, as, curiously enough, could Railtrack producing a new railway line, which is development. The fact that it is producing infrastructure is neither here nor there; technically, from the way in which the Bill is worded, that appears to be the case.

Thirdly and finally—and, sadly, worst of all—there is no exemption from CIL for charities. Charities have always been exempt from tax and from any of these development questions. I suggest that the costs that might be imposed on them will be completely unreasonable and unacceptable across the whole of society. Of course, there is a way out for the Government on this. This is paving legislation, as the noble Baroness again pointed out, and if we have the draft regulations before we reach the Committee stage so that we know how the infrastructure levy is to work, that may save a great deal of time.

All these various considerations indicate a long and detailed Committee stage. It is unfortunate that that will have to happen in the spillover period of a Session, as I cannot think that it is wise to have to consider such an important Bill with our backs to the wall. However, that is the Government's choice. I hope that they do not live to regret it.