My Lords, I draw the House's attention to my declaration of interests. I and my law firm are involved in planning matters up and down the country. I am also a landowner in Devon.
It is worth making one or two general observations on planning at the outset. These observations link into some of the changes proposed in the Bill. As with much in life, the public's attitude towards and perception of planning are sometimes inconsistent. At its simplest, the public recognise the importance of bringing forward housing development or a new power station. They know that people need housing, heat and light. Nevertheless, sometimes there is a reluctance to achieve those laudable objectives by conceding and agreeing the means to achieve them; in other words, designating and granting planning permission for housing development or a power station.
In my years of involvement in planning I have frequently heard conflicting views being debated at public inquiries. They function well on the whole and the Planning Inspectorates rightly goes to great lengths to ensure that communities and community groups have their say. The inspectorate is independent, its personnel are experts and it invariably acts swiftly, objectively and consistently.
I would add a note of caution in respect of the proposed community infrastructure levy. There is a desire by some councils to seek to extract unreasonably high planning gain obligations and payments under the existing Section 106 provisions. I am aware that a number of major schemes are stalled because they are completely unaffordable in the light of the planning gain demands. It would be interesting to hear in due course from the Minister what advice would be given in respect of these matters, as they impinge on the community levy.
Noble Lords have welcomed other important aspects of the Bill, particularly the proposals to draw up national policy statements for major infrastructure projects. I was a member of the Procedure Select Committee in the other place and dealt with the previous government proposal in respect of major infrastructure projects, which was flawed and was dropped. There is a lot of good sense in the propose system of national policy statements with site identification. Nevertheless, these statements should have full parliamentary scrutiny, including through Select Committees, and they should be amendable on the Floors of both Houses.
Often and, in my opinion, very unfairly, the length of time taken by the Terminal 5 inquiry is cited as one of the reasons for the necessity for change. The Terminal 5 inquiry was conducted by a most distinguished planning barrister, Mr Roy Vandermeer QC. I put on record that I know, admire and have worked with him. He gave up an extremely successful career to give public service and his decision on a most complex matter was hardly challenged. He faced an inquiry with a completely out-of-date local plan which had to be constructed during the inquiry, and with no government traffic study, which also had to be worked out and calculated during the inquiry. Such matters take a considerable time.
I would hope that national policy statements will be properly scrutinised by both Houses. If this work is done properly, it will not be necessary for the vast additional work that often bedevils these major public inquiries when national and local government have, for one reason or another, not provided the decision makers with the appropriate information. I hope that they will be forced to do so by the provisions of the Bill. It is the laggardliness of national government and, sometimes, local government that causes the problem.
The current public inquiry system, adapted with those planning statements, will work well and experts can be drawn into the inspectorate to conduct these major infrastructure project inquiries. I am not convinced that the argument for an Infrastructure Planning Commission has been made. The existing system, with the appropriate work having been carried out, with national policy statements adopted through Parliament, is perfectly capable of delivering a swift, considered and democratic conclusion with considerable public participation. Inquiries are inevitably held locally—that is very important—which gives local individuals and organisations every opportunity to speak, to cross-examine and to have their say. Planning has to be consistent, but it has to be democratically accountable.
Ministers should and must take the final decision with the statements and the inspectors' reports in front of them. As that great judge, Lord Nolan, said in the Alconbury case in 2001,
"To substitute for the Secretary of State an independent and impartial body with no central electoral accountability would not only be a recipe for chaos: it would be profoundly undemocratic".
Ministers should not be seeking to pass the buck. The buck should stop with them.