Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:55 pm on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Planning), Department for Communities and Local Government 11:55 pm, 15th July 2008

My Lords, it my duty to start to bring the debate to an end on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I declare an interest as a member of a planning authority. I am actively involved in planning; indeed, I have just worked out that I have spent a third of my life as a member of a planning committee of one sort or another. I do not know what that says, but it is true.

I do not agree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who, like all sensible Members of the House, has already gone home at this late hour. He thought that this was the worst Second Reading that he had ever attended. The arrangements for holding it have not been satisfactory for whatever reason; everybody accepts that. However, our debate has been quite outstanding in quality and has revealed a range of expertise and knowledge around the House that promises a fascinating, valuable and, in terms of the planning system, not very streamlined Committee stage. If everyone who has put forward points this evening brings them back in Committee, it may take some time. I hope that they will, because a great deal of the Bill needs to be gone over in detail.

I support the contribution with which my noble friend Lady Hamwee opened the Liberal Democrat contributions today and those of my other colleagues, most of which I agreed with. I agreed in particular with the contributions of my noble friends Lady Miller on the environmental issues and Lord Goodhart on CIL, which must clearly be bottomed out in a more satisfactory way in Committee. I agreed with what my noble friend Lord Livsey said about Wales, which, again, must be bottomed out.

Many other contributions from around the House provided me with a great deal of interest and intellectual stimulation—perhaps that is because noble Lords know more about these things than I do. I am thinking particularly of the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for his local government experience, and the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, who is still with us at this late hour, made a series of extremely interesting contributions, most—not all—of which I agreed with. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham made an interesting contribution about charities and local churches; that issue, too, among many others, must be bottomed out in Committee.

Before he got on to nuclear power, what the noble Lord, Reay, said, about the planning system, was interesting. The planning system in this country has been a huge success over the past 60 years. We should never forget that. Think what the country would now be like without it. That is not to say that it does not need reform. His other important point was that a lot of planning is about the reconciliation of conflicting interests. Some noble Lords seem to think that we need to reform the planning system so that they can get what they want through more quickly. Perhaps that is a legitimate point of view, but the reconciliation of conflicting interests is important. That is why accountability, involvement of people and democracy must be at the heart of the system.

Some themes will recur in Committee. Probably the best exposition of accountability was given by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, who made an extremely interesting speech, particularly about the relationship between the Infrastructure Planning Commission and national policy statements and between Parliament and the rest of the planning system. That will be at the heart of a great deal that we shall discuss.

Related to that issue is the democratic legitimacy that my noble friend Lady Hamwee talked about and the idea that the IPC will consist of independent experts. Some noble Lords think that that is an advantage, but many of us think that it is what is wrong with that body. We have great concerns about it. We shall have to tease out the issues and how this will work.

One noble Lord made the point that, whatever decisions the IPC makes, the Government will not be able to escape their consequences. These decisions are quasi-judicial and highly political. If people do not like them, they will blame the Government, because that is what the Government are for: the Government are there to take the rap for the decisions that they make and to take responsibility for them, whether they are good or bad. There is no way in which that can be avoided.

In her extremely useful and typically thorough introductory speech, the Minister said that this process was quasi-judicial and political and that the two went together. In my own much more modest capacity, I have been involved during the past few weeks with the planning application for a new supermarket. The final decision was closely balanced. We made the decision to grant the application finally, although right until the end we thought that we would not do so. The decision had to be made in a quasi-judicial capacity, with us sitting as a planning committee. However, as a politician I am accountable to all the people in the town, who may be in favour of the application, who may be against it or who may just want to know more about it. You cannot avoid that. These decisions are quasi-judicial and political and the two are totally intertwined. It is no use pretending that that is not the case.

Another major theme is economic development versus environmental sustainability, which my noble friend Lady Miller mentioned. However, it is not necessarily economic development versus environmental sustainability; it is economic development vis-à-vis environmental sustainability. If we get it right, it is a win-win; if we get it wrong, it is a lose-lose. There is a real feeling that the Bill is biased one way but not the other. We shall look at that in Committee.

The relationship between the IPC and national policy statements is crucial. What is the role of the IPC? What will be left for it to decide if, in the Minister's words, planning decisions can appropriately be left to an independent body bound by that policy or, in other words, the national policy statement? The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, summed it up well when he said that the role of the IPC is to assess proposals' conformity with the plans. However, that is not how planning decisions work. If that is what will happen and if that is all that the IPC will do—seeing whether an application for a major infrastructure development is in conformity with the NPS—it will not have a very hard job.

Planning decisions are much more complicated than that. Given the plan-led system that we have, there is a presumption that an application will be approved if it is in conformity with the development plan unless there are other material considerations that people think dictate otherwise. That is where the balance comes in. There are lots of material considerations in addition to the development plan. We are interested in finding out whether that will be the case in relation to national policy statements, or whether, if something is in conformity with the NPS, anything else is a matter of modification, amendment, amelioration and mitigation but not of turning the application down.

That leads on to another major issue: the whole question of general public consent. In a practical sense, if everything that goes to the IPC is passed, because there are national policy statements, and people will put in applications only if they are pretty sure that they conform with those statements, the system will soon fall into substantial disrepute, because people will think that it is just a fix. All the consultation that the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, and others talked about will be meaningless, because people will have their say but to no effect. They will simply be told, "That's what you think, but the national policy statement says this, and that must override everything". This is the kind of issue that we will want to discuss in Committee. The problem is that, if people are dissatisfied with the system and it is in disrepute, they will go to judicial review and the courts and the system will be clogged up. Alternatively, they will take direct action or take political action and remove the people who were responsible for all this.

Is the present planning system fit for purpose? Our view is that, on balance, as far as big infrastructure projects are concerned—not the rest—the answer is no. Does it need reform? I think that everyone accepts that it does. Is the planning system the only problem that we have? No. Is it our main problem? That is arguable, but in some large infrastructure applications it is almost certainly not. The main problem is a lack of political will at whatever level, a lack of funds for investment or the lack of a long-term strategy. Some of us would say that we ought to get on with building high-speed railway lines, for example, but the planning system is not the reason why that is not happening.

Is the IPC the answer to the problem? This is where we start to have doubts. Yes, we will agree with noble Lords who have said that reform is needed, but is this particular reform the right one or, if it is more or less the right one, have we got the details right? Are there other answers? Some of us very much take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, that if we think that there are alternative answers, we have to come up with some. We have the summer to get our heads together.

Finally, some of us remember the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Time and again, when that Bill was going through Parliament, the Government said that its purpose was to make the planning system more streamlined, less bureaucratic, more efficient and more democratic. There is a widespread view that the Act has made the system less streamlined, more bureaucratic, certainly not more efficient, certainly not quicker and certainly not more democratic. There may be differences of opinion about that, but that view is certainly widespread on the ground among people who are trying to carry out the provisions. That is a warning. Just because people say that this legislation will improve things does not mean that it will do so. Just because there is a need for reform does not mean that the reform put forward is the right one. There is a great deal of work to be done in Committee. This is a scrutinising and amending House. I have no doubt at all that we will be scrutinising the Bill in great detail and I hope that we will introduce at least some substantial amendments.