Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:08 am on 15th July 2008.

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Photo of Earl Cathcart Earl Cathcart Conservative 12:08 am, 15th July 2008

My Lords, first, I declare an interest. During the past 10 years, I have been a councillor and a deputy chairman of planning. I am a landowner and a landlord.

I begin by thanking the many noble Lords who have contributed their considerable expertise. This debate truly displays your Lordships' House at its very best. The debate has been wide-ranging and I do not propose to regurgitate all the arguments that we have heard. I wish to concentrate on some of the main issues.

The Bill is designed to speed up the planning process. This principle has the full support of this side of the House. However, as we have heard from many noble Lords, the Bill as it stands is in danger of trampling over another important principle—democracy. I have no doubt that much time will be spent in Committee trying to achieve the right balance between speeding up decisions and democratic accountability. We should strive to achieve both.

I should like to start by referring to the national policy statements. We welcome their introduction, as, I believe, do all sections of this House. On the front page of Monday's FT was an article on the CBI and this Bill. It said:

"National policy statements would be agreed on the main infrastructure sectors after public consultation and parliamentary approval".

If only. As the Bill stands, the draft national policy statement will go out to public consultation and will then be subject to parliamentary consultation but not approval. The final decision is to be taken by the Secretary of State. What would happen if the Secretary of State's decision was contrary to the findings or conclusions of the public and parliamentary consultations? No doubt there would be judicial reviews and lengthy court proceedings. I wonder whether my noble friend Lord Caithness will win his bet with the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, that there will not be any policy statements in place to review in two years' time because of judicial reviews and legal proceedings. It will be interesting; time will tell. However, another issue is whether a review in two years is the right answer. Should one be carried out every two years?

The Government's position seems to be that policy should be made by the Executive—the Secretary of State—and not Parliament. They wish to keep the role of the Executive separate from the legislature. There is an argument, put forward by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, that, once the national policy statement has been approved by the Secretary of State, it should be subject to the approval of both Houses. He argues that this would give it credibility and weight. We agree with him on that. Otherwise, a parliamentary consultation would simply be a get-out clause when things went wrong, with the Government saying, "Oh, but we consulted Parliament". That would just be going through the motions without going through the process.

We should not forget that some policy statements will be site-specific—those relating to nuclear and airport runways—but that seems to skip many of the important steps in the planning process. A policy statement that says where a development will take place is effectively already granting planning permission.

I now turn to the subject of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the IPC. The Bill creates an unelected, undemocratic and unsackable body that will approve developments without any semblance of democratic accountability. That is something that we are seeking to change. My noble friend Lord Reay had reservations about the setting up of an IPC at all, finding it less democratic than the present inspectorate system. My noble friend Lord Lucas also asked what value the IPC was adding to the existing system.

Arguments have been put forward by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith that the current proposals will set up a regime that is undemocratic and perhaps even unlawful in terms of compliance with the UK's European and international obligations under the various directives and conventions. That could well lead to lengthy legal challenges by interested parties as the only way of establishing a right to be heard properly. This, of course, would frustrate the very purpose of the Bill, which is to speed up the planning process, and that would be a pity. We believe that some sort of democratic accountability needs to be present in this decision-making process.

I now turn to the issue of the community infrastructure levy. Many of your Lordships have raised concerns and questions about how the levy will work. I do not propose to go over all the arguments; they were well put by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and expanded on admirably by my noble friends Lord Lucas and Lord Inglewood. Does the Minister propose to repeal the Planning-gain Supplement (Preparations) Act 2007? CIL would make it obsolete. Or, as my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith asked, are the Government planning to use the planning gain supplement at some stage in the future? Will the levy apply to charities and other non-profit-making organisations, such as housing associations? We do not want to rob Peter to pay Paul. Will the levy be retained by the local authorities concerned so that it can be spent to the benefit of the community directly affected by the new infrastructures or will some of it go the regional bodies—unelected and undemocratic bodies which are not popular with the electorate—to be spent on projects remote from the communities directly affected by the new infrastructure? This will cause serious concern across the country, and as my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes pointed out, this subject is already causing concern with London Councils.

I turn to another topic that has already been addressed in today's debate, climate change. In her opening remarks, the Minister mentioned meeting the challenges of climate change, but the Bill creates no obligation on the Secretary of State or the IPC to consider climate change in its decision-making, and we are told that climate change is the single most important issue facing the world. Yet these infrastructure projects are likely to have major impacts on climate change issues. In the Bill there is a requirement to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development but nothing about complying with the aims of the Climate Change Bill. Clause 173 requires local authorities to contribute to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change but, oddly, not the Secretary of State or the IPC. This seems a serious omission.

A number of issues have been brought to the attention of the House by your Lordships which, although important, I will not be able to address adequately at this stage. However, it is important that we do not lose sight of many of the complex implications of the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Roberts has mentioned, Wales is a significant source of various types of energy and the Bill is unclear in some instances on the relationship between the Government and the Welsh Assembly. Scotland seems to be conspicuous by its absence in the Bill.

I could go on, but I will not. This evening's debate has been excellent and I am sure that the many issues raised will be discussed in greater detail in Committee. All sides of the House welcome the main thrust of the Bill, which is to speed up the planning process, but it must not be at the expense of democratic accountability. We will need to find the right balance.