My Lords, I support the Bill. I too must declare an interest. For most of my working professional life, before I was captured by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, I was involved in promoting or objecting to schemes of development. In so doing, I have learnt many things: the shy breeding habits of the Siberian tiger and the lowland gorilla and the fertility cycle of the household fly. I have discovered those things by spending many happy weeks, months and years at the laborious process called a planning inquiry and I have concluded that decisions on major infrastructure can and should be achieved quicker and at much less cost. In my time I have attended a huge number of public inquiries up and down the country and, as a result, I have been in the courts more times than I care to recall.
I have a great admiration for the planning Bar and its skills of advocacy and cross-examination, but the model of a planning system based on court procedure must be overhauled for large-scale infrastructure projects. It is too cumbersome. Not only does an inquiry take time, but an inspector's report and the ministerial decision take even longer. I had clients who, as a result, decided not to engage with the inquiry system at all.
Since the end of the 19th century, the public local inquiry has been the instrument of British administrative procedure. The hallmarks of the inquiry are fairness, openness and impartiality. Over the years, large-scale infrastructure proposals have placed a huge and unacceptable strain on the inquiry system. Forward planning guidance, whether in the form of the development plan—often outdated—White Papers, ministerial statements or policy guidance, has often been very general and has given no real help to questions of where new infrastructure is to be located. Inquiries have become caught up in debates about policy-making and have raised issues far beyond local significance. Alternative locations, alternative developments and, ultimately, the need for any development at all have become the order of the day.
By my day, inquiries had become massive debating fora with armies of expensive experts and counsel ranged against each other, many parties with unequal firepower. There is no doubt that cross-examination can be valuable when conflicting assumptions have to be examined and challenged, but its value can be overestimated. It is a costly and time-consuming process only really suited to a two-party dispute with equal representation.
The proposals in this Bill are the first in a generation to seek to resolve the problems of the past. They separate a policy process from a site-specific inquiry process. In both cases, they involve new forms of consultation with local authorities, the public and Parliament. They occur at three stages: the policy stage, the applications stage and the independent commission hearing stage. As the text and principles of the Bill are thoroughly assessed in this House, I am sure that the Government will be listening carefully.
Attention will obviously focus on the process of consultation and public engagement as well as ministerial accountability. Do the new processes pass the tests of openness, fairness and impartiality and do they pass the accountability test? I think they provide a sensible framework capable of doing so.
As far as policy is concerned, the new process proposed is a great improvement. Policy will be published for consultation involving local, regional and informal bodies likely to have an interest. Parliament is consulted via a Select Committee, which could lead to a full House debate. There is an opportunity for legal challenge, and the Government acknowledge that to give clarity and certainty they must look forward for up to 25 years to examine demand, capacity and need. They must keep policy under review. Of course, it is only when the first statement appears that we can judge its quality but the principles seem correct and are much to be preferred to the current position of overlapping policy documents, many of which, as I have indicated, lack clarity and are out of date.
As far as the process before the new independent planning commission is concerned, much will depend upon the quality of the experience and expertise of the independent commissioners, who will clearly need training in the conduct of commission hearings. They will need forensic skills as well as expertise. The existing Planning Inspectorate is of high quality and experience, and some of its employees may well transfer to the commission. I hope so, but the independence of the commission is a strength, not a weakness. Ministers are still accountable for the overall performance of the commission. Appointments and performance are to be scrutinised by Parliament, and its committees can call Ministers and the chairman to account.
In law, a fair hearing does not automatically entitle anyone to an opportunity to be heard orally or to cross-examine, but a key question will be when the IPC is asked to allow oral submissions and cross-examination. The commission must be flexible, but the new process is clearly even-handed between the applicant and the objector, unlike the present system.
The Bill is to be welcomed as a sensible attempt to reform the planning system and cut cost and delay, but at the same time to maintain consultation and the involvement at all stages in the process of those who have a legitimate claim to be carefully considered. There is the promise of a review in two years time, but the basic structure is sound, and I support it. I trust the Government will will the substantial resources needed to make it work.