Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:03 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Spokesperson in the Lords, Welsh Affairs 10:03 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her courtesy in opening this Second Reading debate on the Planning Bill. It concentrates on large infrastructure projects and is an England and Wales Bill. I want to point that out because I am a spokesperson on Welsh affairs.

Obviously, there is a need to expedite some projects within defined time limits. Projects such as TGV-type rail electrification schemes are likely to be more acceptable than nuclear power stations—that stands out by a mile—but huge questions of accountability arise from the Bill, especially in relation to areas directly affected by infrastructure projects.

I have carried out research on the Infrastructure Planning Commission. First, I was told that there would be eight commissioners and only one from Wales; then I discovered that, on the planning consideration of infrastructure projects, there would be between three and five and that they would be accountable to Ministers and Parliament and report to the Secretary of State. However, it is indicated on page 31 of the Planning Bill impact assessment that there will be 35 IPC commissioners and 75 people in the secretariat. The sums are given, and it will cost quite a bit of money. The IPC will be a quango and will need democratic control big time.

On page 7 of the Bill, Part 3 indicates the fields of nationally significant infrastructure projects in which it will operate. These include energy, transport, water, waste water and waste. It then gives categories of significant infrastructures such as electricity generation, electric lines, liquid natural gas, airports, harbours, railways, reservoirs and hazardous waste.

Let us consider the national planning statements from a Welsh perspective. The main point in a briefing by the Welsh Assembly Government is that the Planning Bill is devolution-neutral, but there is, first, a Wales spatial plan, a national plan for Wales, to which local planning authorities—22 unitary authorities—and three national parks must have regard; secondly, there are local development plans, LDPs, for single-tier local government; and, thirdly, there are development plans for unitary authorities. These are all in place. The LDPs, for example, contain a community involvement scheme and timetable for its preparation, adoption and consultation.

There is a statement in the Welsh Assembly Government briefing—I do not have time to read it out—which spells out the process for reform of these matters over a number of years. The question is whether, to misuse the title, the Infrastructure Planning "Comintern" is going to run roughshod over this process. I do not know—it may well do so—but the Welsh Assembly will surely need transition time to change many of the principles of planning that it has worked out over the past 10 years. It will take some time. In the House of Commons, an amendment was tabled to give the Welsh Assembly transition time. It was disposed of in two minutes.

The Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly policy is to maximise electricity production from renewable resources. What will happen in Wales if the Infrastructure Planning Commission wants to impose new reservoirs—a big political issue in Wales—nuclear power stations, a Severn barrage, massive new on-land wind farm sites, which are already in the pipeline, when Wales could be self-sufficient—it nearly is in electricity already—from renewable sources? It would be an interesting situation if nuclear power and new reservoirs were opposed in the Assembly because the Bill prohibits energy power electricity units of more than 50 megawatts being constructed in Wales without IPC approval. Is this a recipe for conflict? It may be.

I declare an interest as a trustee of the CPRW, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales. We in that organisation want to ensure a democratic and fair process that delivers sustainable development. The Planning Bill fails to acknowledge the speed of its processes on what it professes to espouse: environmental protection, climate change and quality of life. It tends to be short-termist and focused on immediate economic considerations and thus may threaten to undermine commitments for sustainable development. How can the Government justify that? The transfer of decision-making powers to the IPC from directly elected representatives in the devolved Assembly and the local authorities is a dangerous principle. Perhaps the Minister would care to comment on that.

If I had more time, I could comment on the impact of the Planning Bill on agriculture and land, but much has been said already on community infrastructure levies. I know that the farming unions in particular are concerned about that. There is also no reference to the importance of good design on infrastructure projects in the Bill, and the RIBA is concerned.

The conclusion that I come to is that the Bill threatens to undermine democratic accountability by, in some parts, overriding the power of the Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly Government and their Ministers. The principle of expediting large, and few, infrastructure projects is a good one, but is the IPC the best vehicle to progress that objective? It is top-down and authoritarian, and that needs to be looked at in some detail. Will the Bill ensure sustainable development? Probably only in parts and without sufficient checks and balances. If we are to ensure accountability and environmental sustainability while achieving some constructive objectives, the Bill will have to be further amended.