Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:46 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Reay Lord Reay Conservative 8:46 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, I declare a land-owning interest in the south-west and, more particularly, in the north-west.

The planning system we have in this country, deriving as it does from the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, is one of the great lasting achievements of the post-war Labour Government. We can all have our criticisms of it—for my part I deplore that it has not produced higher aesthetic standards of architecture and, of course, I am from time to time astonished by what other people have been allowed to get away with in their building—but, on the whole, the system can be said to have worked. There is public confidence in it and there is public confidence in, or at least public acceptance of, the appeals system and the planning inspectorate, which is seen to be a disinterested and professional body. The system has certainly been responsible for the remarkable degree of preservation of our countryside. Its chief defect is that it is cumbersome and slow, but broadly that is the price of winning consent.

Planning is the reconciliation of conflicting interests, and for that process time is required. Certainly there have been some notorious excesses but I would have preferred an attempt to be made to reduce the amount of time taken by inquiries under the existing system. I realise that the Bill makes some proposals in that regard and that further amendments will be put forward from this side, but the basic alternative to our present system would be one which removes or drastically reduces the scope for local opposition and permits Governments or their agents to impose solutions.

I am extremely concerned that the creation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission may be a step too far in that direction. There are great risks in setting up an entirely new system outside the planning inspectorate to consider major planning applications. What will the commission be like? Will it be a collection of interest group representatives? What will be its political bias? Will it be a foregone conclusion which way a panel will decide once the identity of the commissioners or commissioner is known? We simply do not know what its culture will be like.

Nor do I think it right that the quango should necessarily take the final decisions in place of Ministers. The only surviving accountability remaining before Parliament will be when the national policy statement is debated. Even then, as my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding pointed out, parliamentary approval is not required as the Bill stands. The only involvement of this House is where it adopts a resolution on the national policy statement and then the Government must respond to it. The provision for public involvement is far inferior to that which we have at present. In that regard, I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said. To introduce such a system risks losing the trust of the public, with unforeseeable consequences.

I had sympathy with the leadership of my party when they stated unequivocally at Third Reading in another place that they would abolish the commission on coming to power. This is a matter on which what the Opposition say now is of great relevance. The Conservatives are extremely likely to come to power within the next two years. If the provision for the commission remains in the Bill, the Government will barely have time to establish it before the next election. Who will they get to serve on it if it faces almost immediate abolition? I realise that shadow spokesmen in this House may not feel that this is the occasion, or even the place, for that commitment to be confirmed; it is perhaps more important to establish first what the views of this House are on the IPC. Eventually, though, what the Conservative Opposition say on this subject is as important as what the Government say.

At Second Reading in another place, the Secretary of State said that she expected 47 infrastructure projects a year to come before the commission, of which 30 might be principal and 15 ancillary, and the Minister repeated more or less the same figures today. However, it could be a great deal more than that, for there will be an incentive for promoters to scale up their projects in order to qualify for treatment by the commission rather than run the gauntlet of the planning inspector and a full public inquiry. It will be hoped by promoters, and maybe by the Government, that the commission will more or less rubber-stamp any proposal that accords with whatever government policy, as it is expressed at the time in a national policy statement, may say.

That could certainly happen in the case of wind farm applications. The Government face just as big a quandary over their wind energy policy as they do over their nuclear policy. They have committed themselves to a truly massive increase in the amount of energy to be achieved from that source to bring it up to 20 per cent or more of our electricity by 2020, involving an increase from the present approximately 2,000 turbines to some 10,000 turbines. The difference between the two energy sources is that wind-generated electricity is some two and a half times as expensive as nuclear or coal-generated electricity, and no wind farms could or would ever have been built without receiving an enormous subsidy. Indirect subsidies given to wind farm operators through the renewables obligations are currently calculated to add £1 billion a year to consumers' electricity bills. The prospect of receiving those subsidies enables developers to offer almost irresistible sums to landowners and irresistible and highly divisive bribes to selective local interest groups.

This is not the occasion to debate the economic or political case for wind energy, but the fact is that the policy is responsible for introducing industrial machinery, in the form of turbines and the links to the grid that they require, into conspicuous positions in beautiful, unspoilt scenery. For those reasons the policy is extremely unpopular, more or less wherever an attempt is made to introduce them. It is therefore not surprising that Ministers complain that some 200 wind farm applications are currently stuck in the planning system. The Government must be desperate to speed up the rate of installation of wind farms. Although they have not talked much about it, it would be only natural if they came to see the Infrastructure Planning Commission as a means of rescuing them from their dilemma.

In conclusion, the Infrastructure Planning Commission provides a far less democratic system than what we have at present, and I am fearful of some of the uses to which it might be put. Despite yesterday's blast from the CBI, designed to intimidate them, if the Opposition decide to stick to their guns and ensure that the commission has a very brief life, I for one shall not be too unhappy.