Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:38 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Jenkin of Roding Lord Jenkin of Roding Conservative 8:38 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, like others who have spoken, I want to concentrate on the issues surrounding the two main innovations—the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the national policy statements. I do not think that any of us would disagree with the description of the present system given by the Secretary of State as over-complicated, bureaucratic and cumbersome. Like others, I in my past have had to take my part in that.

There is also widespread acceptance that we need a lot of new investment in large infrastructure programmes. There is no doubt of that. The central issue is how to achieve these infrastructure programmes with a swifter, less bureaucratic planning process, while retaining the accountability of those who take the decisions. Let me say straightaway that a number of the Government's proposals are very welcome: the new single consent procedure; the new insistence on thorough pre-application consultation—that is hugely important; and the much tighter statutory timetables. But when one looks at the detail of these two major innovations, they are subject to serious controversy, both in the country and in another place.

Let me take first the national policy statements. Again, let me say that I warmly support this proposal. Anyone who has looked at planning decisions which have incorporated a ministerial recommendation—for instance, on a gas storage project that the noble Baroness may well remember—will see that the ministerial input was reduced to one sentence in a 12-page decision. The new statements, which are to be fewer and more authoritative, on the most significant national infrastructure needs will go a long way to dealing with that. There is a lot about this that I welcome, but the controversy surrounds the procedure whereby they are to be approved. We are told that the government statements will be subject to scrutiny by Parliament. In my view, if that is all it is—and notwithstanding the introduction at a late stage in another place of Clause 9—it will not of itself carry the credibility that is absolutely essential if these policy statements are to form the basis of major infrastructure decisions.

The procedure is not like delegated legislation—you can vote but you cannot amend it; indeed, in most cases it goes through on the nod—but is more like Select Committee reports where detailed evidence can be taken on a wide range of subjects, but all you do is make recommendations. To my mind, if national policy statements are to carry the credibility and weight they will have to have in supporting this whole process, Parliament must have to approve them in a positive vote. I should like to ask one further question: if you are going to shorten the process, would it not make sense for both Houses to operate in a joint capacity in this area rather than consideration first in one Chamber and then the other? However, what is absolutely essential is that the process must have the backing of the credibility and authority of full parliamentary assent. That is not what is proposed, but it is important that it should be.

I turn to the Infrastructure Planning Commission, an independent—there may be some question about that—appointed body of experts, and a decision-making body with the power to approve individual planning applications. It says in the White Paper and has been repeated today that its decisions will be taken,

"within the framework of the relevant national policy statement".

But it is also said that the members of the commission are to be accountable to Ministers and to Parliament. One has to ask: how are they to be accountable? Ministers appoint the members of the commission, and that is spelt out fully in Schedule 1, but the circumstances under which they can be removed are extremely limited, being restricted to being,

"unable or unwilling to perform ... convicted of a criminal offence, or ... otherwise unfit to perform the duties of the office".

How is this commission to be accountable to Ministers? If, once appointed, the members serve for the full term, is the commission not simply an unelected quango? We need more details about that, and about the commission's accountability to Parliament. The chairman or chief executive could be hauled before a Select Committee, and that would give them an uncomfortable time, but Parliament cannot get rid of them. They can be questioned, but Parliament cannot actually get rid of them.

I am impressed by the huge amount of support that has come from a wide range of organisations that are responsible for infrastructure investment. They are in favour of the IPC process. Business, public utilities, the energy industry and the professions are all in favour, and I have a great deal of sympathy for their view. Indeed, I started out as an uncritical supporter of the IPC system. Of course all these bodies think that they are going to get their applications approved by the IPC, and it is not at all clear that that will necessarily be the case.

The noble Baroness said that we have the promise of a two-year review, which is important, and there is also a promise, to which reference has not been made, that the Government will table amendments in your Lordships' House to allow Ministers to,

"extend the grounds on which Ministers can intervene to remove decisions from the IPC and take decisions themselves".—[Hansard, Commons, 25/6/08; col. 349.]

We shall have to wait to see the terms of these amendments.

My central point is that the policy statements and the IPC are not two different processes but two stages in a single process. The more parliamentary credibility that the statements have in the way that I have described, the readier one is to accept the decisions of the IPC. Conversely, if the parliamentary processes are as relatively feeble as they are, then it becomes much more difficult to accept that the final decision should be taken by the IPC.

For the moment I am reserving my position on this. There will have to be more improvements, particularly in the parliamentary handling of the policy statements and, unless we are promised stronger powers, I shall find it quite difficult—despite my predilection for it—to support the proposal for the commission. These two things hang together; accountability must be a key consideration.