Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:43 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 10:43 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, the Bill represents a serious attempt to grapple with a very important problem. We urgently need a better planning process for major national infrastructure. The Bill imaginatively seeks to reconcile the requirements of clarity of policy, full analysis of particular proposals, opportunity for all affected to be heard, democratic accountability and good quality decision, and all that in a reasonable timescale.

I should like to consider three issues in connection with the Infrastructure Planning Commission. The first is accountability, with which the House of Commons has already wrestled. The system the Government propose represents an advance in democratic accountability on the system that it will replace. The national policy statements will be subjected to public debate and to parliamentary scrutiny and dialogue between Parliament and the Secretary of State. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, noted that they would be unamendable, and she was concerned about that. However, I understand that the Government intend that national policy statements should be submitted in draft to Parliament, so to that extent we will have the opportunity to influence their eventual form and content.

My noble friend Lady Andrews rehearsed all the many occasions built into the legislation upon which there will be consultation, local authority engagement, parliamentary scrutiny and opportunity for objectors to be heard, but we are still left with the vexed question of who finally should make these decisions. The Government propose that it should be the IPC within the framework of democratically mandated national policy statements, extensive consultation and engagement with local government, and parliamentary oversight.

I remain uncomfortable at the thought that such major planning decisions that affect so many people's lives so importantly should be made by an appointed body. Planning is about reconciling conflicting interests, particularly, as my noble friend mentioned, where it is proposed that the local interest should be subordinated to the national interest. All of that is an intensely political affair. I recognise that the IPC will be the successor to the planning inspector, who is not accountable to Parliament. I recognise that under the present system the Secretary of State, in taking decisions, does not act as a freewheeling politician, but in a quasi-judicial capacity in which she is considerably constrained, and that Parliament cannot reject or amend the decisions that she takes in that capacity.

My noble friend the Minister also drew attention to the important reality that the Government will often be the promoters of development proposals. It does not seem right that the Government, as applicants, should make judgments in their own interests. I note that where no national policy statement is yet designated, the Secretary of State will take the decision, and when the Government take the view that there are security interests or other special considerations about which we are to be told, the Secretary of State can take over from the IPC the responsibility for taking the decision. Therefore, the Government do not see a decisive objection in principle to Ministers taking these decisions. However, it is not obvious that Ministers should take them.

If that is the case, then should Parliament take these decisions? Again, the answer to that is not obvious. Certainly, this House should not do so; our role is to scrutinise and advise, but not to decide. We may well disagree with the House of Commons in our judgment on a proposed NPS, but in the end it is our practice to defer to the elected Chamber. But should the House of Commons decide? We are told that some 45 major infrastructure decisions will be taken each year. I note that that figure has crept sharply upwards from the number adumbrated in the planning White Paper at paragraph 5.57, which anticipated 10 major infrastructure decisions a year and a number of others. The White Paper suggested that in a heavy year, there might be a peak of 25. We need to keep a watch on this process of creep and ensure that only the decisions that really ought to be made through this process are subjected to it.

Whether 10, 25 or, more likely, 45, decisions are to be made each year, they would represent a massive workload for the House of Commons. The parliamentary timetable means that that workload could not be undertaken in any worthwhile depth by the whole House or by a single Select Committee. If these decisions were to be taken by ad hoc committees of the House of Commons, I would suggest that the distinction between government and Parliament is sometimes rather less than it may appear, because the majority of appointments to those committees will be at the Government's disposal. Whatever the cajolery and dragooning of party Whips, MPs are of course free and, doubtless, robust, and parliamentary decisions are democratic.

There is no evident solution to this conundrum and I hope that we shall think hard during the passage of the Bill. If we are unable to come up with a better idea, then maybe when there is a review in a couple of years—I agree with those who have suggested that it should be rather later than that—we can come back to the problem.

My second area of concern about the proposed arrangements for the IPC and this whole process relates to design, about which my noble friend Lady Whitaker spoke so thoughtfully. I remind the House that I am an honorary fellow of the RIBA, which will make proposals to amend the Bill in respect of design. It seems to me essential that high-quality design should be factored into these applications and decisions, and, to the extent that they are, it will assist their acceptability by the public. We are talking of major infrastructure—by definition, conspicuous—and of course it should be well designed, and the Government should favour that, as they do. They say in planning policy statement 1:

"Good design is indivisible from good planning".

However, we cannot take it for granted that there will be good design within this process. There are many conflicting pressures, and we agreed recently in our consideration of the Housing and Regeneration Bill that an explicit additional duty should be laid on the Homes and Communities Agency to contribute to the achievement of good design in England. I am comforted that in her speech to CABE on 25 March the Secretary of State, Hazel Blears, said that it is,

"absolutely vital for our planning system to support high-quality design".

How, then, should it be done? As the Minister suggested, the best opportunity will be to incorporate this requirement within the national policy statements. We should consider laying a duty on the Government, in formulating the national policy statements, to promote good design. There is already a duty on the Government to promote sustainability—that is an aspect of good design—and I do not see why that duty should not be drawn more widely. Similarly, the IPC should have a general duty to promote good design, as we laid on the Homes and Communities Agency. I certainly hope that Ministers will be concerned to appoint as members of the IPC some people who are expert and committed to good design. One way or another, we should reinforce through all means available to government—through targets, guidance, reporting requirements and evaluation procedures—the drive for good design.

Finally, I want to say a word about heritage. The planning White Paper said:

"Planning ... seeks to protect and enhance our natural and historic environment".

It also said:

"A high level of protection should be given to our most valued townscapes and landscapes".

In the Bill, extraordinary powers are accorded to the IPC: to apply, modify or exclude provisions in primary legislation and, if I have not misunderstood, to set aside listed building planning consent, conservation area consent and scheduled monument consent regimes. As the Minister said, the remit in respect of heritage should be set by the national policy statements, and there should be a duty on the Government in preparing national policy statements to have regard to heritage. There should also be a duty on the IPC to respect and seek to conserve heritage. English Heritage and Cadw should be statutory consultees, and perhaps we should have clauses to specify special parliamentary procedures, such as those for National Trust land, common land and rights of way. So, too, there might be special procedures where grade 1 listed buildings and grade 2 star listed buildings are in question, together with the most important monuments and landscapes.