Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:33 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Woolmer of Leeds Lord Woolmer of Leeds Labour 11:33 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, I rise to support the clauses of the Bill that deal with the issue of national policies and the role of the IPC, and to make perhaps less supportive remarks on certain other aspects of the Bill. I declare an interest: I am a partner in a consultancy that works with major developers on involving stakeholders and so on in big developments. It is that part of the Bill—as you would imagine, with my experience—that I support. The very best large developers do that already, but with regard to major schemes it is essential. I shall come back to that.

With regard to national policies, providing clear national policy statements after thorough and effective public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny will be a substantial step forward. On the question of decisions on applications and the role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, a clear and statutory requirement for pre-application consultation with local community interests is extremely important. Cynical remarks have been made about whether "developers" can be trusted to do this. These are huge investments and huge decisions; such remarks are not worthy of Members of this House. Businesses are looking at investing hundreds of millions of pounds on some occasions. They have no interest in misleading people or in not doing things thoroughly. The last thing these businesses want is to fall at the hurdle of having their application considered because they have not done things thoroughly.

The planning commission has a duty to do a number of things; it must meet all interested parties at the start, to agree on the processes, and ask local authorities for impact assessments. These things are very helpful. It also has a single consenting regime, which is very important. I say to Members on the Conservative Benches, having had the Barker and Eddington reports and the White Paper, that for a party that aspires to power to come before the House with no constructive view on how to improve matters made me despair.

There was talk of a lack of democracy. I have set out the various statutory elements that will be required for consultation, yet, at the end of the day, the Conservatives want the Secretary of State to take the final decision. That will add months to the process. Will the Secretary of State second-guess the lengthy process undertaken by the Infrastructure Planning Commission? If so, on what information? Is the Secretary of State going to act, as at present, in a quasi-judicial role? If so, there is no change—that is not a new process.

Extraordinary phrases have been used tonight, such as destroying democracy. The suggestion that the present planning inspectorate system could cope with the change required is extraordinary. How would it deal with that? We should be told in Committee how that will work. Will the planning inspectorate have the power to deal with all the consents on all the issues? That is not the case—at present, there are different forms of inquiry under different bodies. It does not add up.

On the Climate Change Bill, the Conservatives actually pressed for the Committee on Climate Change to have executive powers and for decisions not to be taken by Ministers. Yet on this Bill they have the cheek to say quite the opposite; they want Ministers to take decisions, whereas on the Climate Change Bill they want the Committee on Climate Change to take decisions—not merely make recommendations—about issues that will influence whole swathes of industry and of life. Yet they say that the planning commission cannot be trusted and that Ministers should intervene. That is very disappointing.

I was delighted to hear my noble friend say that the Government intend to table amendments to withdraw the proposal for appeal to local councils. At present the Bill removes the right of appeal to independent inspectors in a range of matters. I should be grateful if my noble friend could confirm that the Government will be withdrawing applications for certificates of lawful use and development and for listed building consent, which are all covered.

I draw the Minister's attention to the power to make non-material changes. There is a widespread understanding that this problem is a result of the House of Lords ruling and that we need to regularise matters. In subsections (5) and (8) of new Clause 96A in Clause 184, the Bill appears to set out a framework that could become a bureaucratic nightmare far worse than the present position. Great unease about that is felt among developers.

I turn finally to the community infrastructure levy. Like the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I am appalled by the lack of detail and reliance on regulations across a whole range of issues. It has the makings of a shambles. The idea is understandable, but innumerable issues—its relationship to Section 106, how it will work in practice, who will be covered, the costing of plans, how to cope with inflation, what if those plans change, what if development does not occur and how will infrastructure that has to be put in place before development, as much of it has to be, be funded—are simply not clear. As things stand—I very rarely say this in this House—I would find it exceptionally difficult to support that area of the Bill in the government Lobby. The intention is admirable, but the problems are great. The levy can be described in no other way than as a discretionary tax at a local level. Mrs Thatcher used the expression "community charge" to avoid the name "poll tax". This is a local discretionary tax and taxes at the margin deter some decisions. Very great care is required with regard to Section 106. I ask the Government to think again on that.