Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Spokesperson in the Lords (Regional and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government 8:01 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister, who will probably be only too aware that everyone's backs will be to the wall. I also thank, through the medium of Hansard, all the organisations which have briefed or lobbied noble Lords so fully right up to the very start of this debate. It is not possible at Second Reading to do justice to all that we have heard.

Of course, those briefings are not uniform; they divide very sharply into two groups. The first is "business", if I can characterise it as that using the term in a very wide sense. This group supports the proposals. It would be unfair to say that it supports development at any price but it comes with a considerable presumption in favour of development. The second group comprises those whose concerns are about environmental issues and mechanisms, and they have not been quieted by the proceedings so far. It is sad that the Government have not been able to bring the two sides together. I read what either side—I characterise them as "sides"—says as being not intransigent but, rather, thoughtful.

However, there is intransigence in the air. It is intransigence by the Government or an inability to see some fundamental points in the same way as others of us do. The Bill is about planning—or about achieving development, because the whole point is to build—but underlying that is the basic constitutional matter of democratic accountability both in the role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the production of national policy statements and in several other issues with a slightly less high profile.

How can the Government be so resistant on aspects of their proposals? I believe—I say this with sadness but not lightly—that it is because the Executive now has so little regard for Parliament. That is a mindset which I do not think our Minister shares but it is becoming very apparent across government.

The Government dismiss calls for decisions on major projects to be those of the Secretary of State on the basis that what she has now is a quasi-judicial role and so nothing will be lost. However—here I would make points very similar to those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith—whether or not one shares that view, and I have to say that I am persuaded otherwise, it fails to recognise the reality that the public see these things as political. Planning is a political process. It is about balancing objectives and it is multifaceted—and multi-fascinating, too. As the RSPB says in one of the many briefings, it is too important to be left to the planners.

We do not know from the Bill what qualifications the members of the new commission will have. From time to time, people call it the "Independent Planning Commission"—I think I have done so myself—and certainly the commissioners are described as independent experts, but independent of whom and expert in what? The Government say that there will be clear benefits in that there will be independent, objective and comprehensive investigation. I thought that that was what the planning inspectors did now. What procedures will there be that, if they are beneficial, cannot be used by the inspectorate with a few changes in the rules?

Just how much will we see in two years? According to the Prime Minister, we will see eight nuclear power stations, but this concession—so called—of review after two years seems to me to have been the flimsiest possible. What experience can we draw on in so short a time?

Indeed, how quickly should we expect to see the national policy statements? According to the briefing pack, the Government say that they will provide a national debate on the infrastructure that the country needs to deliver established policies. I have to say that the logic of sorting out the policy first appeals to me very much, but what troubles me is what the practice will be. Will the NPSs cover all the right issues in the right way? The Minister referred to sustainability, but I am sure that sustainability and biodiversity will be a thread that runs through our debates as regards the IPC, the NPSs and the RSSs—and, I dare say, other acronyms too.

To take one intriguing question, because of their very status, could the national policy statements be claimed to be of overriding public interest and so override the EU habitats directive? Will their application to individual projects be clear? How long will it take to produce them? This is important because, as we have heard from the Minister tonight, the new system will not kick in until the relevant national policy statement is in place, and some of us may argue that more than one statement may be relevant to a particular project. What happens if they are out of kilter with the policies of a new Government? What is their status as regards decisions taken locally? Are they more material than other material considerations? Indeed, what is the comparative status for the IPC? Furthermore, what role, and what real input, will Parliament have? That, too, will be something that we discuss—the role of Parliament and of both Houses. It is right that the Government should be seen to take certain policy decisions, but should they do so by way of unamendable policy?

I suspect that in our discussions, if we become too caught up in the projects, we—perhaps I should apply this only to myself—will have quite a difficulty in focusing on the procedure and distinguishing it from the policies and projects. Some will be very desirable to some noble Lords and some will be very undesirable, and it will then be quite hard to follow through the logic. Therefore, I hope to be able to maintain that distinction.

I have not yet read the White Paper, which the noble Baroness's department published last week, but I read the Secretary of State's Statement when it was published. She said: "People are perfectly rational"—actually, what she said according to the printout was that they are "perfectly rationale" but I do not suppose that she really said that. She continued:

"They will get involved if they can see the change they make. If they do not, they will soon fall away. People are not apathetic: almost 70 per cent of people say that they want a say in how the country is run. People want to be involved, but the structures and cultures of politics alienate them".—[Hansard, Commons; 9/7/08; col. 1412.]

Quite so.

We are supposed to produce garlic and call in the exorcists when we refer to T5, but, at the time of that inquiry and the run-up to it, I remember thinking how difficult the process was for objectors. Then I listened to Dermot Cox who was leading the principal protest coalition and how vividly he explained the importance of the status of objectors and the mechanisms available to them, agonising as it must have been for all of those who attended.

To think that a developer-led consultation could be adequate is, at least, disingenuous. A developer should consult, but should not be in a position to say, "X thousand people will be affected, but only Y turned up; QED there is no widespread objection". The default position at hearings—written representations, reading out your essay as I am doing now—is a world away from engagement and involvement. This is one of many points in the Bill where matters are left to the Secretary of State: a relevant representation must contain material of a "prescribed description"—I suppose prescribed by the Secretary of State. There is a place for prescription, for regulation and for orders. That may be a relatively modest example.

My noble friend Lord Goodhart will speak as chair of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I have already commented to him privately that I think his committee's report is exceptionally polite. It is very much in Lords-speak, but then we all speak the language and we all know that the stiletto can be more effective than the cudgel. The committee's report deals with the community infrastructure levy. How can the Government justify retaining those clauses at all without detail? That is the part of the Bill that the Government should drop. The rumour I have heard—I have not heard the one about planning gain supplement, but it has a ring about it—is that no one has been available to draft the flesh for the skeleton. Even if it is done by October, I do not think that that will fully answer the point because the Bill will still allow for change. The Minister has described that as allowing flexibility over time, which I suppose is the other side of that coin.

The Local Government Association delicately expressed its dismay at the lack of time to debate CIL in the Commons. And there is much to debate. How it will relate to Section 106? what effects there will be on what is now the subject of Section 106 agreements, particularly affordable housing, which seems to be given second class status by the Bill, although the Minister has trailed some changes? There is also the impact on charities which will be subject to it and much more. The pity is that so much is unclear. We on these Benches support the principle that local communities should share the benefits of planning gain. One of the advantages of Section 106 is that a community that feels that it is having a development foisted on it can, at least, see the benefit.

There is so much to say about the Bill—issues of accountability, mechanisms and workability—and many noble Lords wish to speak. Several of my noble friends will cover different topics so we will keep much for later stages. The Minister will have gathered that we on these Benches are not enthusiasts for the whole Bill—and that, too, is Lords-speak.