Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:09 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Labour 9:09 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the Bill and for her careful briefings, as well as for all the other briefings that have enabled us to understand it. I support the Bill because it does what many noble Lords have already said it does: it provides a much more efficient way of dealing with large planning applications. If we are to remain an open economy in a globalised world, we will have to become more efficient in many ways to compete in the race for the top. The alternative is protectionism and who wants that? One of the major achievements of the Government is their constant rejection of protectionism. Nobody doubts that there will have to be a lot of infrastructure developments if we are to compete in the race—the noble Lord, Lord Mogg, just told us all about the energy sector.

I agree with the Minister that, if we separate the argument over need from arguments over planning and if we unify consent, the whole process becomes more efficient and more certain. More certainty helps business and local government to plan; it encourages investment and reduces planning blight. The principle is right, as is the requirement of democratic accountability to the public. The question is how well the process of involving people in communities is managed. It has to be managed well because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, planning is a highly political issue. It is also very emotional. People demonstrate, march and get upset over planning. The process has to be right.

The means of reaching a decision is particularly important. It cannot be a tick-box process; a decision must be reached only after careful consideration and full consultation. With the creation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the Bill proposes a major change to the means of reaching those decisions—a change from an adversarial to an inquisitorial process. Like my noble and learned friend Lord Boyd, I think that the inquisitorial way is fairer, cheaper and easier for communities to participate in.

Those doing the inquiries will need different skills. Instead of adversarial skills, they will need the skill of getting people to consult and listen to views adequately. A sure way of encouraging participation by local communities is to see that their participation is properly funded. Will there be any additional money for planning aid? They will need more money to pay for experts' assistance, as there will be a lot of new technologies for them to understand and deal with.

The noble Lord, Lord Mogg, spoke of gas storage, which will have to be expanded enormously. Carbon sinks will become a planning issue, but we know little about that. Another area where the Government will need specialist assistance will be in sorting out the conflicting claims—some noble Lords listed them—of economic need and sustainability. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, spoke about this.

The conflict between the environment and natural resources and the need for infrastructure will be settled in the policy document in Part 2 of the Bill. We cannot be too dogmatic about it. There is no settled view about the metrics. Neither do we know what new technologies will do for us. The Government will have to be very transparent about this. The national policy statement in Part 2 will involve forecasts, but in many sectors of our infrastructure forecasts change. For example, if we ever find a way of taxing aviation fuel, the effect on the forecast for aviation will be enormous. These policy statements will therefore have to be kept under review and carefully updated.

It will be helpful if, in managing the policy statements, the Minister gets the collaboration of the campaigning NGOs, partly because many parliamentarians agree with them but also because contact with the NGOs provides intelligence. As things change, Governments learn what the new issues are and can deal with them without confrontation.

The Government have promised a review after two years. It is right that there should be a formal review because there are bound to be flaws or mistakes in a new process such as this. Is two years sufficient time for these flaws to become apparent and for the Infrastructure Planning Commission to learn how to rectify them? During the first two years, there will be few applications from which to learn.

The Bill is right in principle and the principles form a good basis for social and economic agreement in an open, liberal economy. Giving the public greater rights to participate in decisions regarding major infrastructure makes for a fairer society. However, we will have to carefully scrutinise how this is managed. The other place has introduced some useful amendments to the management of this process. There may well be more to come from your Lordships' House.