Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:01 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Oxburgh Lord Oxburgh Crossbench 11:01 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, I do not believe that many people are satisfied with the present arrangements for managing planning applications for large-scale infrastructure projects in this country. They are cumbersome, slow and expensive. Several noble Lords have already drawn attention to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Terminal 5. Whether one approves of that project or not, it cannot be right that it had to submit more than 30 separate applications. More importantly, our present procedures are probably incapable of supporting the scale and speed of infrastructural change that is needed if we are to have power, water and communications systems that are appropriate for sustainable living in the changing climate of the 21st century.

At this stage, I declare interests as a director of Falck Renewables and Blue-ng.

Much of the problem is that at present we have no effective way of identifying national needs and taking them into account when planning decisions are made, essentially at a local level. This Bill is a welcome attempt to tackle this problem through its two main high-level features: national policy statements and the Infrastructure Planning Commission. These two major elements are supported by a host of ancillary proposals, and I have no doubt that we shall wish to return to them and scrutinise them in considerable detail at a later stage. It is encouraging that sustainability is to be given a high priority.

Today I wish to concentrate only on the national policy statements that will be prepared for various elements of national infrastructure. Once they are agreed, they should go a long way towards setting a framework within which a range of other decisions can be made in a rational and consistent way. These statements will not be easy to write. I hope that, whatever public consultation goes on at a later stage, the departments responsible will, early in the process, consult the relevant professional bodies whose members will face the practicalities of implementing them.

The Bill gives an indication of the kind of work that will go into the preparation of the statements and the general areas of activity that they will cover, but it is difficult to comment in more detail without getting a feel for the content in a way that will be possible after seeing the first one or two. It seems to me, however, that whatever the content of a national policy statement and however much consultation there has been in its preparation, it is very important that it should carry moral as well as legal authority.

I am not convinced that, in its present form, the Bill goes far enough in that direction. The provision for consultation is certainly generous, but we must face the fact that many people have become cynical about the value of government consultation and believe that consultation is a ritual dance performed by departments before doing what they intended to do all along. That view of consultation may be quite unfair, but in these matters, perceptions are at least as important as reality.

In my view, that difficulty could be resolved by clearer parliamentary involvement—as a number of noble Lords have suggested—in the approval of the national policy statements. One way of doing that would be through some kind of affirmative parliamentary procedure that gives opportunity for debate in both Houses.

Governments may feel that that is a luxury for which it would be hard to find parliamentary time. However, there are and will continue to be strong and divergent views on infrastructure development. Achieving parliamentary endorsement would be time well spent and would give the national policy statements a moral legitimacy that they would otherwise lack. It would make them much more difficult to challenge by special interest groups, and even those who opposed the plan would know that it was not simply a bureaucratic diktat, but had been examined and approved by Parliament—if not as the best option, at any rate as the least bad.

If the plans themselves have parliamentary approval, there should be less concern about the role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which would then have a quasi-judicial function, as various noble Lords have pointed out, in assessing the proposals for conformity with the plans. A clear statement about a greater role for Parliament in the approval of policy statements might also meet some of the concerns expressed about the commission in the other place.

Renewing and replacing our infrastructure is urgent, especially with respect to energy, but in other ways as well. The Bill is essential to facilitate that process but, equally important, along with the Energy Bill and the Climate Change Bill, it forms the third member of a troika of Bills that will allow the Government to implement their climate change strategy. I congratulate the Government on this initiative.