I beg to move amendment 24, in schedule 1, page 33, line 16, after ‘may’ insert
‘with the agreement of the designated local planning authority and the applicant’.
Schedule 1, particularly proposed new section 76D(2) to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, hands the Secretary of State the extraordinary power to dismiss a person appointed to decide an application under clause 1, and appoint another person, at any time before the decision is made. The schedule does not outline the circumstances in which that would happen, and there are concerns that it could be both detrimental to the process and prejudicial to the decision. Amendment 24 would ensure that any decision taken under the schedule is done with the agreement of the parties affected by the decision, which is clearly in the interests of everyone involved.
As currently drafted, the schedule suggests that not only is the Secretary of State uncomfortable with local people taking local decisions, but that he does not believe that qualified planners would necessarily be any more capable of taking decisions properly either. That raises the question of whether stripping local authorities of their powers will actually do anything to speed up the planning process. If an appointee is dismissed, presumably because he or she is doing the job badly—at least in the eyes of the Secretary of State, although that is not actually clear, given that we have no circumstances to look at that explain why somebody would be dismissed—will the new appointee be subject to the same time limits using the same potentially flawed evidence, or will they begin from scratch? We may find that they get to 13 weeks, and, on some ground that we do not know, the Secretary of State decides to get rid of somebody and appoint another person. Do they then start all over again in another 13-week period? Even if they do not, how is somebody who is appointed halfway or at week 12 and a half supposed to take on board all the different bits of evidence that relate to an application and make the decision by week 13? Is this really a system that is better than one of local determination?
Is that complication the reason why the impact assessment states that the Planning Inspectorate will decide 80% of planning applications referred to it in under 13 weeks, and will the remaining 20% take longer because the Secretary of State will keep sacking and appointing until it seems he is going to get the answer he wants? I can see some smiles on the faces of Government Members, but at this point in time we have absolutely no idea why it is possible for the Secretary of State to revoke the person’s appointment and appoint somebody else to determine the application instead. It is an extraordinary thing to do with to begin with; we might find it reasonable if we understood the circumstances the Secretary of State had in mind, but he has not bothered to tell us. Amendment 24 would mean that, if he is going to do something so extraordinary, he should at least have to consult other people and get their agreement. In that way, even though Opposition Members do not like it, in a sense the process will be seen as legitimate and stand a degree of public scrutiny. As currently drafted, the schedule certainly does not.
The one thing I have learned today is that it cannot be dull being the hon. Lady, such is the fertility of her imagination and the wild dreams that grip her every waking moment. I really do apologise for this, but I am afraid that the reality is just a lot duller. The way it works is that, when taking a planning decision, the Secretary of State has to appoint an individual. That is the way the law works. If, in a local authority, a planning officer is assigned to a particular case, and that planning officer is ill or suddenly it is discovered that they are conflicted because of some other interest—family or personal—and cannot determine the case, a local authority can move the case to another planning officer, because it is the authority that has the responsibility to determine the application. In the law, however, when the Secretary of State takes over an application, he has to appoint an individual, an inspector, who is then responsible. Although the inspector is one of many inspectors employed by the Planning Inspectorate, when that inspector—unfortunately and in rare circumstances—falls ill or is discovered to have some conflicting interest to do with the application, we need the Secretary of State to have the ability to appoint another planning inspector to take over the task because of the unfortunate circumstance. I am sorry to bring the hon. Lady back down to earth with a bump, but that is the reality. I hope, therefore, that she will withdraw the amendment.
I assure the Minister that I am well grounded and definitely have my feet firmly on the carpet beneath me, because I am reading what is in front of me—what this particular bit of schedule 1 says, as opposed to what the Minister has just told us he believes it says, which are two very different things.
One of the things that I have learned today is that the Minister has a lot more trust in the Secretary of State than I do—or in any future Secretaries of State. I would like the Minister to go away and think about the issue and to bring something back that gives clarity to what is meant.
The Minister described a set of circumstances in which, for example, the planning inspector attached to determine the application was ill or something had happened that meant that he or she could not continue to determine the application. That is not, however, what the schedule says. The proposed new subsection states that the Secretary of State, presumably on a whim because no criteria are applied, can “revoke the person’s appointment” or “appoint another person”. It does not even limit the number of times that he can do that. Based on what is in the Bill, he could carry on appointing a person until he gets the right answer. I will happily withdraw the amendment if I can get some indication from the Minister that we will at some stage get a reassurance about the circumstances in which the provision is likely to be used and come into operation.
I thank the hon. Lady for offering that invitation. I am sure that there will be all sorts of elaboration of the processes that the Planning Inspectorate will be expected to go through. I do not know what form those elaborations will take—I shall not make the mistake that I made previously, of saying that there will be regulations, but I am sure that there will be such elaborations and I trust that they will provide her with the reassurance that she seeks.
I hope very much that the Committee will agree, at one minute to 5 pm, that schedule 1 should be the First schedule to the Bill.