My Lords, I should first declare an interest as a farmer, landowner, businessman, and chair of the Charities' Property Association. Secondly, I am supportive of the main purposes of the Bill. It does, however, still have some weaknesses.
The desire to speed up major infrastructure projects can only be beneficial. Everyone will have their own favourite example of poor past performances, but the one which has always struck me is the Channel Tunnel rail link because we have a direct comparison with France. The tunnel was opened for service in 1994 and France had its high-speed link ready a few months later. We, on the other hand, took a further 13 years to open ours. The world now moves incredibly fast and apart from keeping up commercially we also have to provide the solutions to problems faster. If we have to wait 13 years or more to deal with every aspect of climate change, we will always be one step behind and the world will overheat before we have even got going. However, we must ensure that, wherever possible, we balance our desire to get things done with the right checks so that the interests of communities and individuals are not trampled on.
The proposed national policy statements are the crux. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, they are more important than the IPC. We are talking about national projects, so it is right that Parliament should decide on the overall policy, but this is a new concept and these are going to be hugely influential statements. Whatever the processes gone through for previous documents—PPGs and even White Papers—they were not examined by Parliament or the public in the knowledge that they were going to rule the decisions of the IPC on a range of essentially bad-neighbour projects. Thus, all NPSs must start from scratch after the Bill is passed. It would be underhand for it to be otherwise.
Similarly, NPSs must be approved and confirmed by both Houses of Parliament. They are important documents that will affect so many lives for good and bad. Thus, any NPS must not only be democratic, but must be seen to be democratic; only full parliamentary scrutiny will do. Apart from anything else, it would seem a waste if the expertise available in this House was not used effectively. I suggest that a national policy statement scrutiny committee is set up in this House with powers to co-opt the necessary expertise as and when required.
I would also prefer that these NPS are tested for sustainability, and all that that involves, by the Sustainable Development Commission rather than the Minister, as currently proposed. In all of this, noble Lords will detect an underlying concern that these very important documents, which will affect so many lives and will override the local democratic planning process, must be seen to be consistently tested by outside bodies. It is important that they cannot be driven by an Executive with an agenda unchecked by democratic processes. After the scant regard to proper scrutiny that this Bill suffered in the other place, there is a degree of mistrust about all this, and so we need to be particularly careful about the procedures involved here.
Concerning the IPC and its process, there are just two issues I would like to touch on. The first concerns the pre-application consultation process. Much is made of this, but I am not sure that consultation carried out by an applicant and then reported on by that same applicant is worth very much. It could so easily be a sham, and if it is not a sham would the public have confidence in it? "They would say that anyway" is the phrase that comes to mind.
What incentive is there to resolve the issues? Clause 48 is not yet strong enough. Applicants should have to spell out not only all the replies they got, but also what they did in every case to resolve the issues, what means of mediation were utilised or ultimately why they were unable to resolve the problem. It would be better still if the consultation was carried out by an independent, publicly accountable body practised in open and transparent processes, but we will come to that in Committee.
The second issue concerning the IPC is whether the ultimate decision on a project should be taken by the IPC or a Minister. Many who raise the subject favour a Minister, but I am not so sure. At least the IPC decision-making process will be done in public, with all representations, written or oral, open to public scrutiny and comment—at least, we are assured they will be. I am not sure that that applies to ministerial decisions. They have a reputation for being taken behind closed doors with the suspicion that the Minister might have been got at, that he had already made up his mind, or even that he might be looking for a big project to implement on his watch in order to boost his own standing. There is certainly a strong suspicion that decisions on these bad-neighbour projects are strongly politically motivated and depend on how the Government of the day are viewed in a particular constituency. For instance, is a bad neighbour project more or less likely to end up in a marginal constituency? Whatever the rights or wrongs of these suspicions, I do not believe that the planning system should be seen to be politically motivated. At least the IPC decisions will be taken firmly on the basis of the soon to be fully democratically scrutinised national policy statements. This underlines my previous point about these statements actually being properly scrutinised and voted on in both Houses.
I know that the beginning and end of the Bill has attracted most attention, and tonight is no exception, but it is probably the middle bits that will affect, and perhaps even damage, the existing planning system the most. To be brief: I have no objection to more decisions being taken by officers, but local member review boards are not a fair way of dealing with appeals. Members from the same council will be prejudiced to support their officers or their fellow council members. It is always hard for individuals and groups to admit that they were wrong. The real reason for these clauses appears to be to take pressure off the Planning Inspectorate, rather than to get the right results, and I do not believe that that is the proper way to take our planning system forward.
In any case, the IPC is already taking pressure off the planning inspectorate, so I do not think that that change is either good or necessary. Also in Part 9, I do not believe that RDAs are the right bodies to take over or even to lead the strategic regional planning system. They are unelected; they are focused on the economy, rather than the social or environmental aspects of the area; furthermore, from conversations that I have had, I am not sure that they want that dubious honour. That one needs to be banged on the head sooner rather than later.
Turning to the community infrastructure levy, many answers are yet to be provided. Cynics might say that it was guillotined in the other place because the Government do not have any answers yet. My great worry here is that the £500 million per annum that the levy is supposed to raise will thus not be available to put into housing and commercial development. I am, of course, especially concerned with affordable rural housing and rural commercial development, which is so desperately needed in some areas and, at the same time, so marginal in return on investment. I hope that the levy will not push such investment over the edge.
Having said that, here are a few—I stress, only a few—of the questions that have been going through my mind. What obligation is there on the local authority to spend the money on infrastructure; and is there a time limit by which it has to be spent? What if the match funding does not appear from the LEA, the health trust or the Environment Agency? Is the money returned? Will the levy apply to developments built under permitted development rights—for example, a farm building which, in 99 per cent of cases puts no extra strain on the infrastructure? Will it apply if the development is required by new regulations or law—again, taking a farming example, a larger slurry store because the farmer finds himself in a nitrate-vulnerable zone? Will the levy apply in cases of replacement buildings—is renewal and regeneration now to be taxed?
If the development itself is contributing to the infrastructure—a key worker's house, a community building or a development for charitable purposes—does it still get charged? As others have said, all charities should be exempt from the levy in the same way that they are exempt from other taxes. I should say now that I shall be tabling an amendment to that effect in Committee.
Another question: how will the levy work in tandem with the Section 106 agreements to ensure adequate provision of affordable housing? Another cynical question is: what is to stop the Treasury deducting money from the rate support grant elsewhere in the local authority's budget in a sly form of mission creep?
Those are just some of my questions; I assure all your Lordships that my first draft had many more. I do not see how we can properly debate the levy until we get the answers. I hope that we will have some before we reach Committee in the autumn and that we can put the answers into the Bill. I look forward to getting to grips with the detail of this otherwise most necessary Bill.