My Lords, I support the objectives of the Bill. As has been said, our planning system for major projects seems to be designed to promote delay and uncertainty and to put off for years the making of firm decisions. Currently, the investigation or inquiry into each major project dwells not so much on the planning issues affecting the location but on the national policy issue of whether the project should be proceeding at all. The Terminal 5 inquiry may have been good business for the Heathrow hotel where the proceedings were held and for the lawyers involved, but the delay of many years before a decision could be made one way or the other was of no benefit to the nation or to our credibility with other countries.
Under the current system, major energy projects involving gas storage, wind farms, power stations and transmission line upgrades have also been subject to delays running into years. Obviously, major infrastructure projects can be controversial. The Bill should not be a device for forcing through proposals that do not stand up to close scrutiny. It is just as important that a decision not to proceed with major infrastructure proposals should be made without inordinate delay as it is that decisions should be made without excessive delay to proceed with major projects that stack up and are in the national interest but may not be welcomed by everybody.
No planning system will ever be universally regarded as perfect, since the perfect system gives the answer that you want. However, we can provide for a procedure that is open and easily understood, provides accountability, allows all relevant voices to be heard, distinguishes between the setting of the policy and the making of the decision on the planning application and allows the planning decision to be made in a reasonable time by independent experts in a more inquisitorial, rather than adversarial, setting. We do not have that now. I also suspect that those who think that an independent planning commission would rubber-stamp any major project put in front of it are in for a surprise. As it is, many seem to feel that the current quasi-judicial decisions of Ministers—accountable to the courts, not Parliament, in this field—on major projects have an air of inevitability.
We are faced with a need to make decisions on a number of major energy infrastructure projects in the near-to-medium future to address the impact of climate change and changes in the cost and availability of existing sources of energy. The present situation in the housing market does not alter the fact that a significant number of new homes are needed to meet demand, not least for first-time buyers wanting affordable homes. We need a planning system capable of generating sensible and balanced decisions on major projects to meet that demand, without undue delay, within the framework of national policy, while paying proper regard to environmental considerations. Major infrastructure investment will be needed in transport, air, sea and rail. Our railway system is operating at or near capacity on many key routes, affecting the ability to cater for further growth in both passenger and freight transport. Consideration must be given to new high-speed rail lines, underground and light rail links in our major conurbations, as well as to further increasing capacity on existing lines.
We need a planning system that enables decisions on projects that may prove controversial, at least for those adjacent to them, to be made within a reasonable time. The inquiry must relate to local impacts and not end up with a reopening of the debate on the national issue of whether we should be expanding our railway network. That debate will have taken place in the discussion and consultation on the national policy statement, which will also have been subject to an appraisal of its sustainability, with individual projects also having to be subject to an environmental assessment.
Delay in making decisions on major infrastructure schemes—whether to proceed or not with a particular project—costs money, prolongs uncertainty and simply puts off decisions that cannot be ducked for ever to a later date, to the detriment of the national interest. The Bill seeks to address the defects in the present system and, in so doing, to provide a clearer and more prominent role for Ministers and Parliament in setting policy on the national need for infrastructure. It provides a duty on promoters and developers to consult the community as they work up potential applications, including an environmental assessment. It provides for decisions on individual project applications within the framework of the national policy to be made by independent experts within clear deadlines in a less adversarial setting than at present, with those who register an interest having a right to be heard.
"Our planning system can at times be slow, too expensive and too bureaucratic. We must never see a repeat of the painful process of approval for terminal 5 at Heathrow".—[Hansard, Commons, 8/11/07; col. 276.]
He is right on that point. We need to change the system. I support the Bill.