Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:07 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan Labour 11:07 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh. I often agree with him on many things, but I do not want to go down quite the route that he is going down this evening.

Before I get under way, I should express an interest. I am the chairman of the Nuclear Industries Association and have links with several energy-related activities. However, it is fair to say that I am not here banging the nuclear drum this evening, because the infrastructural requirements of a balanced energy policy require us to have a variety of sources of generating capability. All of those sources will require planning permission and agreement over time. Therefore, the process to which the Government will be committed in the Bill affords us the opportunity of, in the first instance, getting a clear idea of what they want to do in relation to a variety of infrastructural activities. It is welcome that, in the case of aviation and nuclear developments, the permissions and understandings will be obtained on a site-by-site basis. I think that that is the correct way to do that.

It is also fair to say—a point made by a number of people—that if we in this country are to realise our ambitions for meeting climate change targets and getting the necessary foreign investment to accompany the indigenous investment, to that end, we must be able to signal to those investors that the planning procedure will not be overextended and not, at the end of the day, so sicken the people who wish to invest that they decide to walk away. The assumption in the United Kingdom that we can fund all these project is naive and unrealistic at this time. It is also fair to say that the existing procedure can be summed up in the name of the fictitious Edinburgh law firm Delay, Muddle & Expense. In the first instance, the Government must clearly express their policy. In the second instance, the IPC must examine the detailed proposals. We must also involve, almost at the pre-planning stage, the communities and interest groups that will be affected, so that some of their concerns can be taken on board before we move to the next phase—the IPC.

I do not want to take up too much of the House's time, because I realise that we all want to finish. I will just make the point, which I do not think has been made already this evening, that in the recent past we have changed the nature of political accountability. For many years, the Treasury had the power to change the bank rate—the bank rate could be changed at the whim of the Chancellor. It could be changed for political reasons as well as economic ones. Anyone who suggests that under the present system of political accountability, as exercised by Ministers of all stripes, this power has been dealt with in a quasi-judicial, non-party fashion is, frankly, kidding themselves.

We have abused projects in exactly the same way in which we abused our economy through our arbitrary exercise of the ability to change interest rates. How many significant projects are decided in a Conservative constituency in the run-up to a general election when the Tories want to get back into power? Equally, how many difficult decisions will be addressed by a Labour Government as we move towards a general election in the next 18 to 20 months? Let us have none of this stuff about political accountability and how we raise it to some level at which Ministers decide on the best possible advice and everything is done. We are kidding ourselves.

Equally, we know that anything goes in minor planning decisions in Tory wards with Labour councils. While they are not whipped, cannot be whipped and do not have group meetings, there are nods and winks and understandings are arrived at. This happens across the political board. Let us have none of this hand-on-heart stuff about political purity and accountability, because it is sheer hypocrisy. It certainly flies in the face of the harsh realities of elections. Even if there was some political involvement in this House or the other place, it would by and large be the job of the Whips to get the bodies through the Lobbies to support line A or line B.

Let us see whether there is a better way of doing this. I have suggested that there is a parallel with the MPC. At the end of the day, Parliament can change the law. At the end of the two years, Parliament will have the opportunity to review the procedures and see how they can be dealt with. If we are to give to Parliament certain powers over the appointments and consideration of the national policy statements, we must also recognise that the Select Committee system as presently constituted is not capable of handling it. As someone who chaired a Select Committee for 10 years, I know that in some areas of the work of Select Committees—I have just finished chairing one in this House—the capabilities and forensic skills of their members could well be helped by the kind of legal counsel that is available to comparable committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Equally, there must be some sensitivity in scrutiny before appointment. We have all seen the rather brutal way in which some members of the MPC have been treated by the Treasury Select Committee, when self-indulgent Members of the other place have been quite unnecessarily rude and abusive to them. If folk have to go through that kind of experience, it might deter some of them from going into it. We have to recognise that, as a Parliament, we will have to share responsibility for certain duties.

On balance, the proposals on offer from the Government are, as has been said, perhaps not the best, but the best should not be the enemy of the good. We have here an opportunity to correct some of the obvious defects of our discredited system, which no one in this House has been able this evening to defend with any conviction or authority. I find the nitpicking of those opposite disturbing and disheartening. If, as a Government, they had to make these decisions, I cannot see them coming to very different conclusions from those that we as a Labour Government have advanced this evening. I am happy to support the Bill on that basis. It is not perfect. We have a wee bit more work to do. But it is a damned site better than what we have had in the past. What is more, if it is good and it delivers, it will enjoy a credibility in the public eye that the present planning system does not have and, frankly, does not deserve.