Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:31 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Boyd of Duncansby Lord Boyd of Duncansby Labour 8:31 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, I declare an interest as a legal associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute and as a solicitor with Dundas & Wilson, having advised clients mostly in Scotland but also in England. For many years, I also earned a happy living as a member of a small but, I assure noble Lords, highly select band of the planning Bar in Scotland, going to planning inquiries and representing developers, local authorities and others in court.

I warmly welcome the Bill, and I shall address consents for major infrastructure projects. Not long ago, this House debated the Climate Change Bill, and there was support on all sides for its principle. There was, however, a strong realisation that swift action is necessary if we are to reduce emissions and slow global warming. To achieve these objectives, we have set ourselves challenging targets on various aspects of energy, particularly the development of renewable energy, and the Government have committed themselves to the construction of new nuclear power stations.

If we are to attempt to achieve these objectives, we must have an improved planning regime. Some sceptics have said that the Government's holding up of the terminal 5 application is atypical of the delays that are inherent in the planning system. Sadly, that is not the case. Kate Barker's interim report on land use planning gives some case studies. I do not wish to go through them all, but I remind noble Lords that the Heathrow terminal 5 inquiry took 46 months, and the M6 toll road process took 65 months from beginning to end—85 months if you include delays occasioned by a court challenge. The Dibden Bay port application, which apparently cost the applicants £45 million to make, took 14 months from application to inquiry, 13 months in inquiry, nine months from close of inquiry to the report, and seven months thereafter for a decision—a total of 43 months. I have never been on a case that lasted 13 months; even the Lockerbie trial lasted substantially less than that.

The reasons for the delays are manifest; the Minister touched on them in her opening remarks. Applications often do not take account of all the consultation responses. One benefit of the Bill is the requirement on applicants to consult before the application goes in and to take account of the consultation responses. It is perfectly plain that there is a lack of clear government policy, which was a substantial cause of the delay in the T5 and the Sizewell B inquiries. National policy statements will address that. The inquiry time is long and the double decision-making process whereby the person who listens to the inquiry is not the ultimate decision-maker—the Minister is—involves an added process.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the note by the chair of the United Kingdom Environmental Law Association, of which I have seen a draft. In Committee, we will no doubt debate many of the association's concerns. My first reaction was to ask whether the association had read the planning White Paper, which clearly addresses strategic environmental assessments, environmental impact assessments and the habitats directive. It is clear, for example, that the national policy statement will have to be subject to a strategic environmental assessment. It is a very significant step forward for those of us who take the view that the national policy statement should be the foundation of our decision-making process.

I shall briefly address two issues. The first is the idea—which my noble friend Lord Hart, touched on—that the adversarial process is nowadays a way of properly testing the evidence. A good cross-examination can sometimes expose overblown claims and the weaknesses in a case, but my experience is that the issues are usually clear from the beginning and that the cross-examination can often be of a variable quality; it is often tedious and hair-splitting. The perception that an individual who objects will be subject to a kind of Crown Court cross-examination is daunting to many people and will put them off. That is the very antithesis of development. If we expect objectors to sit through 46 months of an inquiry, for example, we are very far from the idea of involving the community in the process.

The second issue is the thorny matter of accountability, to which we will no doubt return in Committee and at further stages of the Bill. I question the value of parliamentary accountability in this process. When did the Secretary of State last personally account to Parliament for a particular decision? In reality, the accountability now for decision-making processes is through the courts. That is where the IPC will be held accountable for its actions. I support the Government on this and wish them well with the Bill.