Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill will reform the planning system to make it fairer, more efficient and ready to equip Britain for the challenges of the 21st century. It will speed up decisions on major projects that are vital to our economic future. Together with the Climate Change Bill and energy Bill, it will accelerate our transition to a low-carbon economy. At every stage it will reinforce the democratic principle that everyone should have a fair say on the future of their neighbourhood.
Sixty years ago, a Labour Government passed the landmark Town and Country Planning Act 1947. I have read the Hansard of the Second Reading, and I can tell the House that the then Minister for town and country planning took two hours to introduce the Bill. I am happy to reassure Members on both sides of the House that I do not intend to emulate that example today. I am sure that that will come as a great relief. It was a Labour Government who introduced that landmark legislation.
I apologise for intervening so early on, but it is probably an appropriate moment. One of the difficulties that I, and many of the individuals whom I know in local government, have with the Bill is that it is very short on detail. We are used to skeletal Bills, but this one has osteoporosis. Will the right hon. Lady please expand on one or two key points? For example, will she give a definition, at the lower level, of what she would call a nationally significant infrastructure project?
I will gladly do that. The hon. Gentleman will see that in the clauses we set out the range of nationally significant infrastructure projects. They include ports and harbours, and projects to do with aviation, energy, water, waste water, and waste disposal. Many of the limits determining when a project will be a major project are set out in the Bill. An example would be energy projects over 50 MW. There is detail in the clauses about the ambit of the legislation, and where it is designed to bite on specific projects.
No. The hon. Gentleman will know that our proposal for eco-towns, which are currently the subject of a great deal of interest locally, is to try to make sure that our homes are zero-carbon. We want to ensure that not only our homes, but the whole way in which the community is designed, minimise carbon emissions. The hon. Gentleman highlights an interesting case involving conflict; the legislation is designed to integrate our environmental and economic objectives, and not to have them pulling against each other, as may well be the case in the illustration that he gave us.
My hon. Friend is right that aviation is a matter of concern to the public. He will know that our air transport White Paper, to which I will refer later, deals with how aviation might become the subject of a designated national policy statement under the Bill and the process that we will need to go through before we get to that point.
My right hon. Friend did not include motorways in her list. Three years ago, the then Transport Secretary, who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, dropped a bombshell in the Chamber by setting out his preference for a tolled expressway to run parallel with the existing M6 through to Staffordshire and Cheshire. That plan was dropped after a huge public outcry. How will the Bill, specifically the rather Napoleonic arm’s length infrastructure planning commission, affect the ability of local people not only to have their say but to have real leverage over the outcome with the assistance of their Members of Parliament?
I hope to be able to reassure my hon. Friend and all Members that under the Bill there will be more accountability and a better place for the public to have a good, substantial debate about the national need for infrastructure, not only for roads but for a whole range of issues, including energy, harbours, aviation and transport.
May I, as another Labour Member, say that some people would like to see a little more of the Napoleonic approach to planning? Not everyone is critical of the Government’s aim of speeding up the planning process. In Merseyside, Peel Holdings, which owns the dock and harbour company, wishes to create on the Birkenhead side of the river a development that, when complete, will lead to some 27,000 new jobs and 15,000 new homes. That will transform our whole area, particularly the job opportunities for some of my poorer constituents. I hope that the Minister will not be weighed down by those who fear that she will act too quickly, but will accept that some of us are worried that she will not act quickly enough.
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I have seen for myself the tremendous proposals for Birkenhead that he mentions. Under these proposals, we should be able to cut in half the average time that it takes for a major proposal to receive consent. At the moment, the average time is two years; if we can get that down to a year we will do a service to all our constituents.
Given that the Secretary of State rightly spoke about the importance of Labour planning policy as a way of delivering social change, does she understand the concern of many of us that the infrastructure planning commission will be removed from democratic control? Do we not need to focus on that during the passage of the Bill?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. He has a proud record in this House of ensuring that local people, in particular, have a proper say and that there is accountability. I hope to be able to convince him and other Members that there will be accountability under the Bill. There will be democratic input into the national policy statement, parliamentary scrutiny and a big national debate, and then the independent commission will take its decisions with that national policy statement, which will be its primary consideration, as the place where there is proper political accountability. That combination will be a very robust form of accountability.
To return to the excellent point made by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who will be in charge? For example, if there were a proposal to build an eco-town in Salford, the Homes and Communities Agency established by the Government might say, “This is a very good idea”, but the IPC might say, “No, this is a poor idea.” Given how the Bill is drafted, is not the truth of the matter that in the end the Minister will be pulling the strings from behind the scenes?
The hon. Gentleman is under a fundamental misapprehension and raises an issue that should not be of concern to him. Matters such as eco-towns and large housing developments will continue to be decided by local authorities under the town and country planning system and by reference to the local development plans that have been selected. The Bill is primarily about major infrastructure projects in roads, aviation, energy and so on. We expect that there will be about 45 major infrastructure projects per annum.
I need to press on with my speech. I have only just got to 1947, and I need to make a little bit more progress. The Labour Government of that time were committed to positive steps for managing a period of great change, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) raised the importance of that point. At that time, the Government were rebuilding blitzed cities, building new towns and reconciling the growth of great new industrial activity with making the country a desirable and convenient place to live. The Act they designed then set out the principles of a planning system that has endured for 60 years. We have managed to secure growth and jobs while protecting green spaces. Today, again, a Labour Government are ready to make those tough decisions that are in the long-term interests of the country.
Planning should help us to meet and to master the unprecedented challenges of the 21st century: climate change, the economic pressures of globalisation, and the urgent need for new housing and secure, clean energy supplies. The current system really struggles to do that. Nationally significant infrastructure projects, such as transport links or renewable energy, that are vital to our competitiveness and our quality of life face unacceptable delays. It took six years to get approval for a vital upgrade to the north Yorkshire power line; three and a half years to turn down the proposed container port at Dibden bay; and nearly three years for a decision on Little Cheyne Court wind farm in Kent, which had the potential to provide over 50 MW of green energy. No one benefits from such delays: not business, local people, the economy or wider society.
Does the right hon. Lady accept that part of the rural economy revolves around people visiting areas such as the north Yorkshire moors, the Yorkshire dales, the Scottish borders and beautiful, remote and isolated parts of the United Kingdom? Does she accept that when a line of pylons is to be built that will be needed for the new wind farms announced by the Government today, people should have the right and the time to have their views considered before such decisions are taken?
Indeed. In fact, under the Bill, people will have three opportunities to have a say. At the moment they have only one chance, at the inquiry. Under the Bill, they will have an opportunity when the national policy statement is being drawn up; a second opportunity because the developer has to consult the community when he or she introduces a proposal; and a third opportunity when we get to the inquiry itself. Far from reducing the public’s voice, the Bill will provide a stronger voice, so that they can have their say.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear me say that the best armlock that the public could ask for is third-party right of appeal. All Oppositions sign up to that idea, but find it difficult to adhere to when they get into government. I am prepared to consider various ways in which that could be introduced, but will my right hon. Friend look seriously at a way in which the public could genuinely participate in the process? They would be able to stop something that had been agreed to by the formal planning authorities if they had a proper way of intervening in that process.
I know that my hon. Friend has been pursuing this issue assiduously for a considerable time. Under the Bill, there is provision for consultation before an application is brought forward, and I hope that in many cases the public will be more engaged than they are now. At the moment, I have a sense that developers with a lot of money get a say, as do organised pressure groups or lobby groups. The people who do not get a say are often the individuals who need to be brought into the process, and we shall put an extra £1.5 million into the Planning Aid organisation, which goes out to seek the views of those who do not normally get a say. I hope that the process will be more robust.
In the light of what the Minister has said about the prospective 45 schemes per year, does she agree that it sounds remarkably as if those sorts of schemes would have been dealt with under private legislation before a Committee of this House? They would have been decided on by Members on behalf of their constituents on the Floor of the House.
Secondly, where major projects with huge resources behind them are concerned—where those driving them can afford to pay—does the right hon. Lady agree that it would be a good idea if there were some means whereby residents associations or amenity societies could call on public funds in order to fight their cause at a local level?
Some of them would have been hybrid Bills because they impinged on private rights. The new system, I think, is a much better way to deal with complex overlapping consent regimes, which are often based on a range of legislation, some of which is pretty ancient. The new system will be better. In relation to the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that we would fund substantial extra resources for Planning Aid. It will go out and help the residents groups to have their say in the inquiry process. I hope that that will reassure the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).
As I said, the system is complex and we have lots of different bits of legislation. For example, Heathrow terminal 5 apparently required 37 different applications under seven pieces of legislation. That complexity makes it harder for people who are poor in time, resources and expertise to get involved. We are proposing some fundamental changes. The Bill will introduce a new, single system, which will run alongside the town and country planning system, to handle big infrastructure projects such as ports, power stations, major roads and reservoirs.
The Bill contains three stages. First, the Government will set out the case for the infrastructure that the nation needs in national policy statements. That is the heart of the Bill. The national policy statements will be subject to debate across the country and in Parliament. I want to ensure that there is good parliamentary scrutiny. Secondly, for the first time, whenever a developer puts together a proposal for a major project, they will be required to consult local communities before they submit the planning application, as well as carrying out the environmental assessment that is usually required under European law. The third stage is the establishment of the new independent infrastructure planning commission. It will consist of leading experts from a range of fields—including community engagement, to ensure that the processes work, as well as planning, local government and the environment. Those experts will work within the legal duties set by Parliament and the policy set by Government and they will make the decisions on individual projects.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Planning Bill and the new Climate Change Bill will mesh together properly to ensure that we cut carbon emissions? Will she therefore ensure that the independent committee on climate change is a statutory consultee in the development of national policy statements? Will she also ensure that individual—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know that she takes a significant interest in these issues. This Bill, the Climate Change Bill and the energy Bill are part of an integrated package to ensure that we can meet our challenging targets on climate change. If we can speed up some of the applications in the system for renewable energy sources, particularly wind farms, that will help us significantly. We will be drawing up a list of statutory consultees, and I am sure that a range of bodies that deal with climate change will need to be included. I shall confirm that to her at a later date.
It is not a matter for me as a member of the Government to dictate to Parliament how it should scrutinise the national policy statements. However, it is important that a new Select Committee should perhaps be drawn up to consider the range of policy statements. Parliament may decide to include people with experience from the existing Select Committees in that Committee, because they will have the expertise to probe and ask questions. If that Committee were to decide that the issues were of such importance that there needed to be a debate in both Houses of Parliament, we should make time for that debate to happen. If Parliament were to want a vote on those issues, that will be the right and proper course to take. I mean to ensure that there is proper parliamentary scrutiny of the national policy statements. It is so important that we get them right, because they are where the accountability in the new framework lies. I am determined that not only Parliament but the public should take part in a national debate about what infrastructure the country needs.
The Secretary of State will understand that many hon. Members have great sympathy with the Government’s objectives. However, we are concerned about the lack of democratic accountability and transparency. The right hon. Lady reckoned that some 45 cases a year would be major infrastructural projects. Is she seriously suggesting that we will have long debates in the House on each of those cases?
No. I know that a range of hon. Members of all parties want the system to work better, be quicker and provide more certainty. The debate will be on the national policy statement, which could be about aviation or energy. If it was about energy, it could deal with nuclear, coal and gas. Once the debate has happened and the framework has been set, the inquiry stage for the independent planning commission should be quicker and less contentious because the national policy statement will be the primary consideration for the commission. The debate on need, which is often repeated time and again at every inquiry, will happen when formulating the policy statement. The decision making will be better because every single inquiry will not go over the same old ground of the national need for the infrastructure.
An application is likely to be made for a nuclear power station in my constituency. I would be in favour of that. When the previous application was presented, the same argument was made again and again, and the Secretary of State is right that such matters can be decided centrally. However, people in my constituency wanted to know how the goods would be brought; how the lorries would get there, and where the roads would be. Those matters were debated in front of a judge, and the people believed that the judge was independent—the inquiry was independent of any Minister—and would therefore make an independent decision. Instead, they will now get a quango, appointed by the Secretary of State, to make the decisions. They will not put up with it. The Secretary of State will not get what she wants quicker, but very much slower, because Swampy will rule.
I was happy to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. I stress that the decision-making process will be independent. The infrastructure planning commission will be independent and robust and include experts who are renowned in their fields. That will reassure people that the decisions are being made properly.
It is interesting to note that as many people say that Ministers should make the decisions as those who say that they should not. Some people claim that the planning commission will be too independent rather than not independent enough, so I look forward to that clash of ideas in the House. Some people claim that ministerial decisions—the way in which matters are tackled now—are somehow more accountable. However, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, Ministers make quasi-judicial decisions in a legal framework that can be challenged only in the courts, not by Parliament. I therefore believe that the process for the national policy statements will give us more, not less accountability.
There is a significant distinction between a debate on a national policy statement, which, by definition, is about a principle, and that about the positioning of a power station or a runway. If 45 decisions a year are to be made, will the entire membership of the commission hear the whole submission in every case, or will a handful of members perhaps chair sub-committees—instead of the entire commission, according to the Secretary of State’s written statement of a couple of weeks ago, receiving representations from every member of the public who wishes to be heard?
As I expected, the right hon. Gentleman made a genuine and practical point. When he has a chance to examine the Bill in detail, he will realise that it includes provisions that set out exactly how the panel will operate.
In some circumstances there will be a panel of three to five commissioners who will consider applications, because some of those 45 applications will relate to energy, some to aviation and some to ports and harbours. We will want people on that commission with a degree of expertise and knowledge that is specific to an application. We anticipate that probably only 30 of the 45 applications will be major applications and that the other 15 will be ancillary to those applications, so some could be considered by a single commissioner reporting back to the council of the commission. That is all in the Bill, however, if the right hon. Gentleman has a chance to look at it.
I am going to make a little more progress, because I am conscious of the time and other hon. Members will want to get in. I want to say a little about town and country planning, because the Bill has a bit about that in it. I think that we are up to about 1970—I feel a bit like Gene Hunt in “Life on Mars”—but I promise that we will get there. [Interruption.] It is one of my favourite shows.
The changes to town and country planning seek to make it fairer, more proportionate and greener. They will also devolve more power to the local level, which is something close to my heart. The changes are part of the widespread continuing improvement to the planning system. First, we propose the community infrastructure levy in part 10, which will increase investment in the vital infrastructure that is needed for many new communities, which hon. Members have already mentioned. The levy has the potential to raise hundreds of millions of pounds of additional investment, on top of current Government funding and the section 106 negotiated agreements. It is for local authorities to decide what community infrastructure is needed, which could relate to transport, new schools, parks or health centres. It is absolutely right that local developers contribute to the cost of that infrastructure and that local communities benefit from the increase in land value when permission is granted.
Some 13,000 houses are expected to be built in my constituency over the next 20 years. That will generate huge demand for infrastructure, with a significant amount from the levy. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that money raised in Fareham will be spent there and that priorities will be determined locally, not nationally or regionally?
Yes, I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman that the levy will be determined by the local authority. The levy is there to fund the necessary infrastructure for that community. Some of that infrastructure—a road, for example—might go beyond the boundary of the local authority. It might therefore be necessary for some of the moneys raised from the levy to contribute to some wider infrastructure, and the Bill makes provision for that. The levy is very much a devolutionary measure, in that it is for local authorities to determine, in order to get infrastructure in the right place. I was pleased by the letter issued today by the British Property Federation, which indicated the widespread positive consensus for the levy across a range of bodies, including the Local Government Association.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will accept that there is general support for the approach of the levy, but so far we have only 10 clauses in the Bill that merely sketch the outline of the complicated system that will ultimately be introduced. Will the Government table more detailed amendments during the Bill’s passage through Parliament to flesh the system out, or is all that likely to be left for secondary legislation? If so, can we in the House and those outside be assured of full consultation on the important details needed to ensure that the levy works properly?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. What we have in the Bill is the architecture for the scheme. We have committed to issuing regulations that will fill out the detail. I assure him that we shall provide more detail as the Bill goes through, too, because it is important that the system, which will beneficial for communities, can work properly, and is practical and feasible. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to pursue that as the Bill goes through.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. May I take her back a sentence or two, when she said that the funding would go back to the community? In a sitting of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, there seemed to be some vagueness about whether, as I understood it, the funding would go into a central pot and then be reallocated back. Is that correct or does the funding stay immediately local, without being taken into a central pot?
The hon. Lady may be aware that there were proposals for a planning gain supplement, which is different from the community infrastructure levy, so things have moved on since then. I want to be clear to the House that the assurance that I gave the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) was that the levy is there to fund the infrastructure in local communities, but that some of that infrastructure could well have wider implications, making it necessary for something wider than a particular community, and I would not want the House to be under any other impression. It is for local authorities to make determinations in that way.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Further to the excellent intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), she pointed out that some of the money might be top-sliced. Will she confirm that, if a levy were to be raised in Norfolk, that money would stay within the county of Norfolk, if not in the specific district involved, and not go outside the area?
All hon. Members will want to see something for the money that has been raised. I am trying to give them the assurance that this money is there for the much-needed infrastructure in such areas, although it might go a little wider than that. We shall certainly set out further details as we develop the Bill, but the intention is very much to ensure that the health centres, parks and other facilities that make life worth living in a community can be properly funded.
The Secretary of State is being extremely generous in giving way, but these points are of immense importance and her answering them might save a lot of time later on. It is clear from the Local Government Association briefing on the community infrastructure levy that an element of the levy would be assigned to regional and sub-regional projects. Is she saying that she has now retreated from that view?
No. If the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to read the record of this debate, he will see that I have tried to give the House reassurance and to be straightforward about this matter. The levy is intended to fund the requirements of developing communities, but some of it might well go wider than the particular area involved. As we develop the proposals for the levy, we will make that as clear as we possibly can, so that people are under no misconceptions. The purpose of the fund will primarily be to ensure that we fund the infrastructure for which Opposition Members have been calling for a considerable period. I hope that they will therefore welcome the levy, as most other people have done.
May I help my right hon. Friend with a practical example from Milton Keynes? Junction 13 of the M1 is hugely important for supporting infrastructure and for the growth of housing in Milton Keynes, but it is not in Milton Keynes. Indeed, it is not even in Buckinghamshire; it is in Bedfordshire. It is, however, an infrastructure scheme that could have huge benefits for Milton Keynes, and it would be perverse if such a scheme could not be funded by such an infrastructure levy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that Milton Keynes has been one of the forerunners in developing effective section 106 agreements to ensure that infrastructure can be funded. I am sure that we have a great deal to learn from my hon. Friend and from her constituents.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. She has spoken about the potential for a greener approach through the reforms. Part of the legislation relates to tree protection. Is she aware of the fact that some of the finest trees in the country still have no protection? Is she planning to widen the protection through the reforms, or simply to devolve the present inadequate protections to local authorities?
My hon. Friend will know that the Bill contains a number of provisions on tree preservation orders. He will probably agree that the whole system of tree preservation orders is at present unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic, and very difficult to understand. There will certainly be no less protection for trees under the proposed system. As the Bill goes through, perhaps he will be able to bring his considerable tree expertise to these problems, so that we can make some progress on the matter.
I want to make a little more progress, as I know that many hon. Members want to speak in the debate and I do not want to squeeze them out.
On town and country planning, I want to mention a couple of areas in which we are going to make changes. They are minor issues in the context of the Bill, but they are actually very important. We are going to make it easier for families to extend their homes. Planning permission under permitted development will be there in certain fairly constrained circumstances. We are trying to minimise the impact of extensions on other people’s enjoyment of their own property. Planning permission will not be required for small-scale extensions and conservatories. At the moment, 80,000 applications go through without any objection each year, and we want to free up the planning system to concentrate on applications that will cause a problem, rather than on the 80,000 that do not. Through secondary legislation, we will allow householders to install small-scale renewable technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines without planning permission, where it is clear there will be little or no impact on neighbours. I hope that that will be broadly welcomed across the House.
The final aspect here—something that I know my hon. Friends hold very dear—is that there will be a requirement for local councils to take action on climate change when preparing their local development plans. Some people have portrayed the Bill as being anti-environment, but a whole range of measures in it seek to enhance our attitude towards climate change and ensure that local government and local planning authorities put it at the centre of their concerns.
My right hon. Friend mentions the question of local authority permissions for renewable devices on roofs. As the Bill makes its way through the House, will she ensure that that permission is genuinely widely based and is not constrained by various considerations such as the nature of the protection of the particular zone that a house is in or the way in which the house relates to other properties in the area? Will she ensure that there is a genuinely clear definition that enables renewable devices to be placed on houses without hindrance by local authorities on a variable basis across the country?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As the Bill proceeds, we want to ensure that we enable people, wherever possible, to install not just solar panels and wind turbines, but a range of fairly small-scale technologies that can contribute to this agenda. It is very important indeed that we do that. We have to be aware of noise and its impact on neighbours, but by using accredited products, ensuring that we get those that are recognised to be the best and introducing a new helpline for householders to get the right products, I believe that we can make significant progress. In fact, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has estimated that about 250,000 households will want to take up such technology in the years to come. I hope that we see an expansion of such use.
I want to get through more of my speech, if hon. Gentlemen do not mind.
It is important to realise that we consulted on all these proposals in the summer and had 32,000 responses. In fact, we have changed our policy in three areas as a result. We sometimes hear complaints that the Government ride roughshod over consultees, but I can tell my hon. Friends that I took the decision to change the policy in advance of the Bill rather than waiting for concessions to be dragged out of us. That is absolutely the right thing to do. As I say, we have changed the Bill in three areas and, I think, very much for the better.
First, on participation, we have changed the original policy so that people will have more than one chance to get involved. They will now have three chances in the new system and there will be a transparent debate in public—and in Parliament, which is crucial to the House. We have also listened to the consultation and taken steps to ensure that every party has a right to be heard orally, both at the examination stage of the inquiry and where the commission decides to probe a specific issue. Provided that people have registered the fact that they want to give their information and evidence, they will be entitled to do so.
Secondly, on sustainable development, many consultees said that they were worried that the Bill might emphasise economic objectives at the expense of the environment. Now, however, the Bill provides for a duty to ensure that national policy statements contribute to sustainable development. I hope that that will reassure people who are concerned about the environment that we are very serious about sustainability. As I say, the Bill will ensure that many of our new technologies to enable sustainability can get through the planning system quicker than they can now. Presently, many applications are being held up—literally for years—before they come through the system.
Thirdly, the Bill will now, in my view, deliver proper accountability. I know that many of my hon. Friends, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), have been particularly concerned about accountability. I hope that as the Bill progresses, I will be able to persuade him and others whose opinions I genuinely respect that there will now be stronger accountability under the Bill than in the previous system. I look forward to having that debate.
My right hon. Friend was talking about planning permission. Where there is more than one type of equipment that may need to go through the planning system, will exactly the same piece of equipment require a different planning permission to be granted in each area or will one planning permission for that device suffice for every area in the country?
The Bill provides that planning permission for things such as wind turbines and solar panels will not be required, provided that we get the system right and it does not impact on neighbours. It will enable people to embrace this method of tackling climate change in a big way and not require planning permission.
My right hon. Friend has hit on one area that I was talking about. The other was nuclear power. If it came about that a company was going to build two or three nuclear power stations, would it need planning permission for each type or would one planning permission be needed for the whole range?
I am clearer about my hon. Friend’s question. In the national policy statement phase, there would be a debate on what was the nation’s need for nuclear power. Some of that debate might be specific to locations and it might say that it would be likely that certain places were suitable for nuclear power, but every application would then need to go to the commission to be considered. The commission would weigh the local impact against the national interest and have the opportunity to involve the public so that they could have their say. I can give my hon. Friend what is, I hope, the assurance he is looking for: those things will be inquired into in great depth and great detail.
The Secretary of State is being generous in giving way. Following that exchange, can she confirm that, in terms of nuclear power and the specifics on renewables technologies, what she has said will not apply to Scotland? Indeed, the Bill’s only application to Scotland is the construction of cross-country oil and gas pipelines. In relation to clause 187(3), does that extension require a consent to legislate motion from the Scottish Parliament?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, planning decisions in Scotland are devolved, and there is no intention to change the devolution settlement through the Bill. However, he is also aware that some matters, such as aviation and energy, are reserved. We cannot have designated national policy statements because Scotland will not have the planning commission, but there will be national policy statements around those reserved areas. Clearly, when individual decisions are being made in Scotland on those big issues, some national policy statements might be considered as material considerations in those decisions. The hon. Gentleman can be reassured that this is not an attempt to change the devolution settlement in those terms. I understand that cross-border pipelines would not require a legislative motion, but no doubt we will continue to discuss those issues as the Bill goes through Parliament. I hope that that gives him reassurance.
I have spoken for far too long, but I should say a word about accountability, which I know has greatly exercised my hon. Friends. Ministers will take the political decisions when we do the national policy statement and the commission will take the individual decisions, but it will have to do so on the basis of the political decisions reached by Parliament and, indeed, by the Government.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to say that the Bill is also about efficiency. We think that it will enable us to save a considerable amount of money. Instead of every local inquiry rehearsing all the arguments, that debate will take place at the national policy statement stage. We think that the Bill could deliver benefits of nearly £5 billion by 2030, as well as getting the proper long-term decisions in the interests of the country. That is why we think it is a good Bill.
Our planning regime needs to be fit for the 21st century. Going back to the 1947 Bill, Hugh Dalton closed the debate on Second Reading by saying:
“We could do great things with this land of ours, if we chose. I believe the Bill gives us the instrument with which we can do these great things.”—[Official Report, 30 January 1947; Vol. 432, c. 1232-33.]
We have listened to the people who responded to our consultation, and today’s Bill will provide for a fairer and faster planning system—one that delivers for the economy and the environment, and that gives everyone a fair chance to have their say. Those are indeed great things, and I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from “That” to the end of the Question, and add instead thereof:
that this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Planning Bill because, whilst there is a need to speed up the planning system and undo the extra bureaucracy introduced in the 2004 Act, the Bill creates a new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) which is fundamentally undemocratic and unaccountable to both local and national elected representatives, deprives Parliament of the ability to approve, amend or reject National Planning Statements and fails to guarantee that all revenues from the Community Infrastructure Levy will be fully retained by local authorities; and because the combination of the IPC, the Homes and Communities Agency and more powerful regional development agencies represents the systematic dismantling of local democracy to the detriment of the local environment and local accountability.
As always, it is a pleasure to follow the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I was a little concerned about her well-being throughout the process. It might have been a bit provocative to suggest that the opening speech in 1947 went on for two hours. I feared that Labour Members were going to keep her here answering questions for that long. I noted the references to Napoleon. I hope that the Bill is not her Waterloo. If that is the case, perhaps a statement on the extension of the runway at St. Helena would mean that it is ready in time for her eventual exile there.
The right hon. Lady speaks with great expertise on the subject. She had a distinguished record as a local authority solicitor dealing in the planning process, among other things. Her practical experience of planning is welcome. Time spent with Salford city council, Rossendale borough council and Wigan metropolitan borough council will have given her valuable experience of the many failings of the current system, not to mention her intimate knowledge of the many additional flaws introduced by the Government in recent years. It is therefore all the more puzzling that her journey from Wigan pier has transmogrified into a canter down the yellow brick road. How did we go from a noble intention to improve the delivery of essential infrastructure for this country to a Bill that strips local communities of a voice on planning, and fails to address the burdens and the obstacles in the planning system created by her Government?
It is only three years since the last planning Bill. In the words of the then Minister, the aims of that Bill were:
“We want to make the system fairer, faster and more predictable and to bring to planning clarity, certainty and more strategic direction.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 731.]
That could well have been taken from the right hon. Lady’s speech today. However, just a few months on from those words, and without the measures being fully implemented, we are off again. She knows the planning system and must know in her heart that this Bill is not the answer to the problem.
In a press release, the right hon. Lady said that the Bill is
“to deliver a faster and more efficient planning”
process. She went on to say that the Bill is
“to deliver high quality decisions with greater community involvement.”
The only way in which she can achieve greater community involvement through the Bill is to arrange for representatives of the public collectively to wave goodbye to local accountability and their ancient right of a hearing while they watch a more powerful and unsackable quango take the lot. The Bill gives communities the same amount of involvement in planning as there is openness in a cheque from one of Mr. Abrahams’ patsies.
With the right hon. Lady’s expertise, she must surely question the Bill when the coalition of environmental groups that oppose it says:
“The current planning system allows people to be part of the decision making process. They can have their say on proposals for major developments such as new roads or nuclear power stations. But…Planning decisions will also be taken out of the hands of accountable politicians and handed over to an unelected, unaccountable new body”.
I agree with that and thought about using the quote in my speech. I obviously agree with my hon. Friend in quoting it.
The reason why we do not oppose the Bill outright but propose a reasoned amendment is because we want to take the best out of the Bill and build on the strengths of the existing and familiar system. We want to work constructively with the right hon. Lady to develop a system that will meet the needs of the country and help the economy to grow.
Let me start with what we agree with. We support the idea of national policy statements. We feel strongly that Parliament must have responsibility for devising and testing those vital statements. Matters of vital national importance, such as airports, nuclear power stations, other types of power stations, the disposal of waste plants and major transport links, should be decided by the House.
In making such decisions, we must recognise that we are removing some of the public’s right of argument and delay. The public may take that removal better if Parliament oversees the process, rather than the Government or an agency on their behalf. Some will say “What is the difference? A Government with a good majority can get just about anything they want”, but I think that there is an important difference. In my experience of this place—admittedly it is only 16 years or so—when we are given a real scrutiny role we take it seriously, and in Committee we will table amendments to strengthen parliamentary scrutiny.
That is how a reasoned amendment is worded. I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman would like further instruction, the Table Office will be able to take him through the basic procedures. There is also a very good paperback called “How Parliament Works”. Christmas is coming, and I dare say other Members will want to play Santa and offer it to the hon. Gentleman.
If I did patronise the hon. Lady, I should be amazed if she noticed. However, I thank her for her intervention.
Much of the debate is overshadowed by the public inquiry on terminal 5. There have been attempts to contrast that project with major infrastructure projects in other lands which, it is said, can be built and developed many times faster, but we are in danger of taking the wrong messages from the terminal 5 inquiry. It is not the system itself that is at fault, but a lack of precision that allows inquiries to wander off on matters beyond location and planning rules.
An interesting “compare and contrast” exercise can be applied to the terminal 5 inquiry, conducted under the old rules, and the Stansted inquiry, conducted under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Whatever the merits of the case, there can be no doubt that Stansted has made better progress, and that the new rules are an improvement. Given an effective and trusted framework of national policy statements and sensible pre-inquiry hearings to decide the major points at issue, the number of witnesses and the timetable, there is no reason why a reformed system should not resolve matters quickly.
My hon. Friend will have observed that the Secretary of State referred to consultation and the like. Does it worry him that although clauses 7 and 8 provide for consultation, it will be only
“as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate in relation to the proposal”?
Given the legal context and the fact that that is challengeable only by judicial review, will it not be extremely difficult to set up a case for such a review if the Secretary of State is allowed to make up her own mind on exactly what its parameters should be?
As my hon. Friend is a man of considerable expertise, I hesitate to disagree with him. I therefore agree with everything that he has said. Indeed, the problem goes deeper. Clauses 82 to 85 are rather at variance with what the Secretary of State said about the right to be heard—a point that I will develop later in my speech.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for indulging me. I ask this question because, over Christmas or at any other time, I will not be able to find the answer in the paperback guide to Parliament that he mentioned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) asked whether there would be a vote tonight. Was the hon. Gentleman’s answer yes or no?
The answer is the same as the answer to the question of what the hon. Gentleman will get for Christmas: wait and see.
We will seek to persuade the Government, even at this late stage, to rethink their method of delivering planning policy. Planning must always include a strong element of public accountability. The Secretary of State intends to establish an infrastructure planning commission, a new Government quango that will strip local authorities of their say on planning applications for airports, power stations, motorways, ports, gas and hazardous waste storage facilities, incinerators and sewage treatment plants.
One might imagine local communities having a view upon all such things.
The new planning quango will be effectively unsackable and unaccountable. Its functions will include the ability to purchase land compulsorily and
“powers to amend, apply or disapply local and public legislation governing infrastructure.”
To give such wide-ranging powers without making those involved equally accountable is dangerous.
I wonder if I might tweak the hon. Gentleman’s memory and take him back to the Planning Act 1990, introduced by his own party, which allowed the Secretary of State to call in any planning application. The Secretary of State had sole discretion to decide what would happen. Does he agree that what my right hon. Friend is proposing is slightly better than leaving it to one person to make that decision?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was paying attention when I said that the national policy statements will go a long way towards dealing with the problem, which is why we support that good innovation.
In his first few days, the Prime Minister made much of his desire to strengthen democracy, yet this proposal, which is a centralising move that takes decision making and the right to oppose a project away from local people, is a move in the opposite direction. The Prime Minister also made clear his commitment to the green belt. Over the summer he was keen to say:
“I assure the House that we will continue robustly to protect the land designated as green belt.” —[Official Report, 11 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1450.]
At a Lobby briefing, the Prime Minister’s spokesman clarified what was meant by that, saying:
“Green belt land will stay as green belt land. Yes, we can give you that assurance that we will not build on green belt land. We are not proposing any changes to our very robust protection of the green belt.”
Yet the Bill gives the IPC powers to reclassify green belt land; so much for a firm commitment. This one did not even make it to yuletide.
My hon. Friend makes a reasoned point. Building on green belt is often less expensive than building on a brownfield site.
The power now goes to the IPC. The Government’s response to any planning problem is to exclude people and hand the job over to a quango. In truth, the proposals will introduce an unnecessary, unfair and less effective extra raft into the planning system. The quality of decision making will be markedly worse and those parts of the community most affected by the proposals will be deliberately marginalised and minimised.
The existing system could be built upon and improved. The planning inspectorate is capable of reform. Why cannot it carry out the job instead of the commission, rather than establishing a new body? On the surface, they look very familiar.
The hon. Gentleman keeps repeating the assertion that the public are to be excluded from the process altogether. Does he not accept what the Secretary of State has said; that where the public object, they will have a right to be heard at the inquiry and have their views taken into account? I am sure he has read the Bill and will have seen that chapter 2 has a pre-application procedure that will impose a duty on the applicant to consult, including with the local community before the decision even reaches the inquiry stage?
It is my understanding that the Planning Bill will institute a single permission regime—I think that the hon. Gentleman is in favour of that—and there will be a single marine permission arrangement under the marine Bill when it is introduced; the two will be joined together. Given that, will he speculate on what the outcome would have been for the London Array project had the new Planning Bill been in place, where a single Conservative local authority held up for almost two years a renewable energy scheme able to power the whole of Kent as a result of a very particular objection that did not relate to the scheme as a whole?
I am so sorry that the hon. Gentleman seeks to make this matter partisan. I confess that I have perhaps made the odd jibe at the Prime Minister and generally across the Floor of the House, but our intention is genuinely to arrive at consensus and to work together. We are supportive of the national statements, and we shall seek in Committee to arrive at agreement on some of the points on which there is broad cross-party consensus. The hon. Gentleman should be encouraging me in that, not trying to set traps for me.
Under the Secretary of State’s plans, responsibility for regional planning will be transferred from the unelected—and universally detested—regional assemblies to the also unelected regional development agencies. The Secretary of State surely must be able to see that this latest game of musical chairs—of passing functions from one regional quango to another—will do nothing to give local communities a greater say or to speed up the planning system. If she wants to make a difference, the first step should be to scrap the whole tier of regional planning which, on top of local and national planning policies, has created a quagmire of red tape and complexity. Responsibility should be given back to counties and the co-operating metropolitan authorities. It is clear that they are the only bodies that know what they are doing and that they are the building blocks of the system.
The Bill shifts the balance in the planning system against individuals and in favour of the state. Under the Bill, an individual householder, business man, farmer or local resident will be prevented by law from presenting a case in objection to a scheme relating to the compulsory acquisition of their land, or from being represented by a person of his or her choice. By law, all representations will have to be in writing—thereby preventing oral representations in person—however badly affected a landowner, resident or business may be. This will work against the little guy—the ordinary person in the street. By law, no questioning or testing of the promoter’s scheme by any person, body or individual is to be permitted. Common law has recognised since the middle ages that land should not be taken from an individual without due process, including the right to be heard. Of course, it would be speedier if the powerless were ignored, but this House is built on the protection of the property rights of the individual from the state, be it a Stuart monarch or an ambitious Minister.
The Bill is also careless in invoking the criminal law. Clause 130 makes it a criminal offence to commence development without a consent order. That appears very heavy handed in the context of clause 127, which states that development commences with “any material operation”, including digging a trench or even putting in pegs to lay out a road. As I am about to have to cough, I shall give way.
I was a little concerned that the Secretary of State talked about more freedoms but did not mention conservation areas. There is great concern in my area—it is particularly held by those who live in conservation areas—about some of the new freedoms. Will my hon. Friend comment on where we stand on the protection of conservation areas, which are so dear to our constituents’ hearts?
Clearly, conservation areas must be protected. I thank my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to clear my throat. I am recovering from a very bad cold, but it is a pleasure to be here. [Interruption.] Thank you. [Interruption.] I feel the love coming across from the Labour Benches.
If we were to end up with a situation where merely the pegging out of some ropes could create a criminal offence, that would be a clunking fist too far in terms of our legal system.
Clauses 47 and 133 entrench the powers of the state to enter private property without warrant. Does that not pre-empt and make a mockery of the reviews of powers of entry introduced by the Prime Minister in his October speech on liberty? As a legacy of the past Governments of all colours, 266 laws already allow state officials to enter people’s houses. Is it not time that we started to rein back on those powers rather than gold-plate them?
We are pleased that the Government have dropped their discredited plans for a planning gain supplement. The Secretary of State has our support in wanting to reform the section 106 system on planning gain. If used correctly, it would help to energise and regenerate towns and cities throughout the country, but it will not have the support and confidence of local people and local businesses if the money generated is sucked away to a regional pot and is used to the benefit of people hundreds of miles away. Will she make a commitment that all revenue from the community infrastructure levy will be retained by local councils so that local people can receive the benefits of new building? It should not just be a slush fund to feed Government friends across the country. It must be about community improvements delivered locally, not a stealth tax.
That brings me to two constitutional issues on which I seek clarification. Clause 164 will allow both the unelected regional development agencies and the unelected infrastructure planning commission to become charging authorities and to levy this new planning tax. This is the first time that a quango has been given tax-raising powers. Clause 169 makes it a criminal offence, not a civil one, if one cannot or will not pay. Is this not the modern equivalent of ship money: additional taxation imposed by an unelected body on pain of criminal punishment? A cursory glance at the murals on the walls between this Chamber and the other place would testify why our forebears were willing to lay down their lives to defend their principles. The provision in the Bill corrodes the cast-iron constitutional principle in the Bill of Rights of freedom from taxation by royal prerogative. As ship money goes, this is a modest flotilla, but it is a worrying trend. It is a further step down the road of local management of services, rather than the democratic delivery of services.
My hon. Friend is very excitable, God bless him.
We were concerned about these constitutional changes, so we sought advice from leading counsel who are experts on planning law. I must say to the Secretary of State that I was heartened by what she said about Scotland, but the construction of the clauses does not deliver what she told us at the Dispatch Box. Obviously, we shall be very co-operative in trying to amend it.
The Bill appears to hand the decision-making process entirely to the Scottish Parliament and Executive, even though the Bill at first sight purports to apply to the whole of the UK. That might be a very reasonable thing to do, but why is it happening so quietly? There are clear implications for nuclear power. Will England have to build additional power stations to compensate for the eventual non-replacement of the Scottish ones? Will national infrastructure projects end at the Scottish border? We must know whether the Scottish Parliament and Executive could set wholly different time scales and limits—or none at all—in relation to these matters.
There might be a slightly more worrying problem than the one that the hon. Gentleman has identified of the Scottish Government having responsibility for these matters. On the commission’s role in relation to oil and gas pipelines, part 5 would apply under clause 187(2), and in certain circumstances, that unelected commission might be able to make decisions on oil and gas pipelines in Scotland, usurping the original, existing planning authorities in Scotland and the Scottish Government. I read that as a more worrying concern than the one that he has identified.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to clause 187(1)(b), which states that only clauses 13 and 17 will apply to Scotland. We just wanted some clarification, and in terms of national infrastructure it makes a lot of sense for the Government and the Scottish Executive to work together sensibly. We would not want the Bill to hamper that process rather than aid it.
Some people would describe the current situation as failing, cumbersome, outdated, bureaucratic and desperately in need of change. But in this season of goodwill, it seems a tad uncharitable to describe our beloved Prime Minister that way. Our planning system needs modernisation and reform, not destroying.
Whatever else one might say about the Bill, no one can challenge its scope and ambition. It ranges, in its potential application, from airport terminals to conservatories, from nuclear power stations and wind farms to microgenerators. To that extent, it reflects the scope of the White Paper on which it is based, which ranged even more explicitly from global issues of climate change to the minutiae of permitted development—referred to glancingly in clause 155, which I mention now to justify dwelling on it at some length later in my remarks.
Before I reach that point, I wish to say a few words about the bigger issues in the Bill, including the proposals for an infrastructure planning commission and national policy statements. First and foremost, I welcome the Bill, and there is far more to welcome than to regret. I welcome the NPS and the new single planning regime for major infrastructure projects. It is sensible to unify the legislation affecting such projects so that once they have the go-ahead under development consent arrangement, they will not need further consents or approvals under other legislation. That is a straightforward rationalisation and modernisation.
I also welcome the proposals for timetabling the decision-making process in major infrastructure projects and the proposals for improving the quality of applications by developers. As the statistics show, flawed applications are a powerful cause of delay in such projects. I also admire the new and apparently tough enforcement regime for major projects. I hope that it will provide a model and inspiration for local enforcement, which is, as we all know, the Cinderella of the local planning system.
On the subject of local planning, I welcome the community infrastructure levy, which is making a somewhat surprise appearance in the Bill. It is not a million miles from the concept of planning contributions in section 46 of that seminal measure, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004—I shall leave hon. Members to guess which Planning Minister took it through the House. It just goes to show that you cannot keep a good idea down. It is a good idea that the local community should benefit from planning gain. That community bears the brunt of the development, so it makes sense that it should be the primary beneficiaries. Section 106 has served its purpose, but it did not apply across the board to all developments, its operation was often arbitrary and ad hoc, and its mysteries—for obvious reasons—were better understood by developers than by local authorities, which were often taken to the cleaners as a consequence. By contrast, the community infrastructure levy will strengthen the position of local authorities, because it will be a standard, transparent and across-the-board charge that applies also to minor developments. From the developer’s viewpoint, it will have the advantage of conferring certainty about costs as they approach development opportunities.
While I am still on the subject of the local scene, let me finally welcome the proposal for local member review bodies and the proposed article 4 changes, about which I will say a little more in due course. Local member review bodies seem an excellent idea. There is no doubt but that the present local appeals system imposes an unreasonable burden on the inspectorate. At the same time, the proposal responds to a real public concern about the accountability of local planning officers under the delegated powers system. We must make sure that works.
After so many welcomes, there is almost bound to be a “but”—and there is. But first, I am certainly not alone in welcoming the proposal for national policy statements. I was pleased to hear that welcome expressed on the other side of the House. The welcome has been general, and rightly so, for two reasons. First, the element of parliamentary scrutiny in the drawing up of the national policy statements, however that is managed, will serve to democratise the planning process on big national projects. Secondly, because Parliament will have expressed its will on behalf of the people, the national policy statements system must have the effect of speeding up inquiries on those projects.
It is ludicrous and unacceptable that a number of local inspectors’ inquiries should have become forums for debate about national policy. It is ludicrous and unacceptable that those inquiries have been protracted for months, if not years, by endless representations on the desirability or otherwise of proposed developments in principle. In future, under the national policy statements system, Parliament will decide whether we are going to have new nuclear reactors, and more airports, roads and railways. If the usual suspects disagree, instead of abusing the planning process, they can fight a general election on their policies. They can put up or shut up: that is the democratic way.
But—I said that there was a “but”—it has also been our democratic way to have democratically elected politicians, in the form of Ministers, make the final decision on the biggest and most contentious planning issues. I wonder how we have got to the independent infrastructure planning commission. I have looked at Kate Barker’s final report on land-use planning. Her third most important reason for advocating such an independent body is the slowness of Ministers in making planning decisions.
Members will be aware that the House approves a statutory timetable within which Ministers and officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government must issue their decision on planning appeals and called-in planning applications. The latest statistics, for 2006-07, published in the planning inspectorate’s annual report, show that Parliament’s target was narrowly missed—at 99.5 per cent—due to not meeting the deadline in one case out of 100. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench deserve the warm congratulations of the House on that splendid record.
That reinforces the rather unsubstantial basis for the recommendation for an independent commission. Nevertheless, we are where we are and some will argue that there is a kind of democratic deficit. I do not want to overstate this point, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was absolutely right when she argued that Planning Ministers, in their quasi-judicial capacity, have been accountable to the courts, rather than Parliament, in making their decisions. However, the truth is that, within the law, all decisions involve a balance of judgments. I believe that it is better that that balance of judgment be exercised by those who are accountable to the public. If that is right, it has implications for the balance of the relationship between the national policy statements and the infrastructure planning commission. I was somewhat reassured by my right hon. Friend’s remarks. The national policy statements must be as comprehensive and as well grounded in consultation as possible. It is absolutely essential that Parliament, via its scrutiny function, forms the judgment in the national policy statements on the balance among considerations of sustainability, climate change and economics in major infrastructure projects. In particular, national policy statements submitted to Parliament must identify the location of developments as specifically as possible. It would be quite unacceptable for the IPC unilaterally to make such critical decisions. The Government and Parliament must shoulder that responsibility.
Part of a national policy statement must be formed on the basis of thorough consultation with local communities, and clause 5(5) allows that to be done. In the relationship between NPSs and the IPC, the purpose should be to maximise what is democratically accountable and to minimise what is not—to maximise the national policy statement and minimise the IPC.
I turn rapidly from the national to the local, and from the general to the very particular. Clause 155 provides for the removal of the right to compensation when notice has been given of the withdrawal of planning permission. In line with the Government’s response to the consultation on permitted development rights for householders, which was published at the same time as the Bill, the clause paves the way for a new power for local authorities to restrict, when necessary, permitted development rights through the use of article 4 directions, without recourse to the Secretary of State. I congratulate Ministers on the subtlety with which they have dealt with permitted development. In principle, the Government are surely right to wish to reduce both the bureaucracy faced by householders making minor extensions to their homes, and the burden of casework on hard-pressed local planners. The proposed dimensions and limits for extensions look sensible. People in my constituency in Lambeth, south London, will especially welcome the new rules on setting back loft extensions from the eaves, and the ban on raised terraces, verandas and balconies.
More importantly, the Government have recognised that the question of permitted development poses itself very differently in different locations. In most parts of the country, householder permitted development might well be just what it says: householders legitimately creating more space in homes that will continue to be used as single dwelling houses. However, in my borough of Lambeth—and extensively throughout London as a whole—much of that type of development is carried out not by householders, but by commercial developers, who are abusing permitted development as a platform for the over-intensive subdivision of family houses into flats.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s points. In my part of the country, we have the problem that student landlords are converting houses with permitted development rights to cram in lots of students, thus completely altering the area’s nature. If we remove the need for planning permission in more circumstances, more student landlords will convert houses into student accommodation and create houses in multiple occupation by the back door.
I certainly recognise the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies. Indeed, I dealt with it extensively when I was Planning Minister. We established a joint working party between Universities UK and the Local Government Association two or three years ago precisely to examine the way in which the issue could be managed. It is managed successfully in some university towns, but less so in others. However, if the hon. Gentleman’s authority uses the article 4 directions for which the Bill allows, it will be able to take a sensible and balanced approach towards studentification, which is a serious issue in many university cities.
Let me return to flat conversions, which often take place in quite small properties, yet on a large scale. I have heard estimates that there are as many as 20,000 such conversions each year in London. Sometimes, in my locality, it feels as though there is an epidemic of flat-conversions. Of course I accept in principle that the conversion of single dwelling houses to flats can make a legitimate contribution to meeting housing need, but all too often in my borough we find that modest three or four-bedroom properties are being subdivided into three or even four flats, which raises major questions about the quality of the flats, in terms of size and lighting. Such developments can have major impacts on adjacent households, and they can wholly change the nature of communities. In my constituency, I have seen the balance tip in certain streets, which have gone from communities primarily made up of family households to majority flatted communities; residents rightly see that as a deterioration in their local community and quality of life. Other streets in my area are at risk of that happening, too.
Where does the abuse of permitted development come in? Let me explain it in this way: if a developer were to make an application for planning permission to subdivide a property, the answer might be, “No, the property’s too small,” or it might be yes to two flats, but no to three or more. The developer would then lose money. Very often—typically, in my observation—the developer will first build out to the maximum tolerances for permitted development, with a new loft or rear extension. Then, when the property is far larger, the developer will apply for planning permission for a far more substantial conversion than would initially have been allowed. Nine times out of 10, the local authority will be obliged to grant the permission. That is a phenomenon universally recognised by planners, not to mention the residents who suffer from it. That is why the new proposed powers relating to article 4 directions are so important for some local authorities, and why I very much welcome them.
To conclude, let me put two or thee questions to my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government about the use of article 4 directions. If he is not in a position to answer them in the winding-up speech, I am perfectly happy to have them answered in writing. First, unless there is a cleverer way of dealing with the issue than I have thought of, it may be desirable in some areas to withdraw permitted development rights in their entirety, in order to force developers to make initial applications. Is that allowable? Secondly, although the Government’s response seems to envisage the restriction of permitted development rights only in specific neighbourhoods, will it be allowable for a whole local authority area? Thirdly, it is completely reasonable to expect local authorities to justify the imposition of an article 4 direction, but what would be the status of that explanation, and will it be challengeable? I look forward to his responses. Notwithstanding one or two demurs, I regard the Bill as an important and useful measure that will help us to put our major energy and transport infrastructure needs in place more efficiently, and to create more sustainable—
I start by thanking the Secretary of State, who is no longer in her place, for briefing me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) on the Bill a week or so ago. Her charm offensive was successful to the extent that it better informed us of the Government’s views on the Bill, but it was not entirely successful, as we have not chosen to join her in her big tent.
When I considered the Bill, my starting point was to find out what it should achieve. In its briefing, the Wildlife Trust sets out fairly succinctly what the Bill should do. First, it should
“facilitate public confidence in decisions by allowing stakeholders and the public, including local communities, to have their say and views reflected.”
The Bill should ensure that we “value the natural environment” and that there are “rigorous environmental assessments” of the proposals. One could perhaps add to that a suggestion made by the Royal Institute of British Architects: the need for the Bill to ensure that we effectively entrench good design standards. We should not finish our consideration without making sure that the Bill provides an efficient mechanism for delivering critical national infrastructure.
A Bill’s strength often lies in its ability to command wide-ranging support from a cross-section of organisations, and I am afraid that this Bill fails that test. Liberal Democrats recognise the need to improve the way in which large planning applications are dealt with, as the current system is not working as effectively as it could. However, the key applications are often delayed by ministerial decisions rather than by those taken in any other quarter. We are worried that the Bill will stop local communities and local authorities challenging major projects and raising legitimate concerns. The way in which the Government have treated what they call campaign responses—responses to the consultation from individuals associated with campaign groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which responded to the White Paper—and the way in which those so-called campaign responses have been, to some extent, discounted, or at least set aside from the other responses, is a worrying indicator of how the infrastructure planning commission might deal with local communities’ concerns. What decision was taken about the weighting to be given to different responses to the consultation?
Those are not just our concerns—they have been expressed by several organisations. For instance, the Local Government Association is worried that the new arrangements for projects of national significance will undermine local democracy. Equally, the Royal Town Planning Institute has highlighted the fact that public service agreement 21, which covers building cohesive and empowered active communities, will be endangered by the proposals as they relate to the IPC.
Did the Government consider not going for this “big bang” approach to planning and instead reconsidering the changes proposed and adopted in 2005? Does the Minister think that the changes have had the necessary time to embed, and might not they be a better way of tackling the problem than making a completely new proposal in the shape of the IPC? Liberal Democrats will seek to table amendments if, in our view, the IPC is not suitably accountable and legitimate—and, perhaps most critically, if there is no evidence that it will be able to reject applications. That will be a key determinant of whether it is worth the money that the Government are to invest in it.
Another matter that we will want to consider carefully is the amount of money that the Government are giving to Planning Aid, which, under the new arrangements, will play a significant role in ensuring that communities can have their views heard and be effectively represented. The Secretary of State confirmed that £1.5 million has been allocated to Planning Aid, and we will shortly meet its representatives to discuss whether that is a suitable sum for the job that may be allocated to it. In the Government’s view, some £300 million per annum will be saved as a result of the Bill. That is welcome, but what percentage of that will relate to the private sector? It is interesting to see how much the Government expect the private sector to benefit from this and, on the other hand, how much they are willing to invest in Planning Aid to ensure that local communities have their views effectively represented. I hope that the Minister accepts that there are sincerely held concerns about the infrastructure planning commission.
The IPC is the first major proposal of the Bill; the second is that of national policy statements. There is more consensus about the need for the latter, and the principle behind them—that we should not repeat arguments about national policy in relation to a local application—is sound. It would be much more effective if agreement were reached following detailed consultation and parliamentary involvement instead of arguments being repeated at each inquiry.
There are, however, many questions about what will be in the national policy statements. For instance, National Grid has some very clear ideas about the role of the market in meeting UK energy requirements, the importance of securing energy supply and the Government’s view on electromagnetic fields. I hope that the Minister will give more detail about the content of the national policy statements.
Business supports the national policy statements. Certainly, the CBI has welcomed them, but, inevitably, the welcomes are not unanimous. The briefing hon. Members have received from the National Farmers Union raises a critical point, which others have made. There is some concern about, and a need for clarification on, how the national policy statements relate to existing planning policy. Will they overrule in their entirety planning policies on the green belt, or on playing fields, for example, or will they have to be taken into account in an appropriate fashion? I hope that the Minister will be able to provide more clarity on that point.
I hope that the Minister will clarify how parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements will work, although I understand the Government’s position. They may want to be discreet in the expression of their views about how Parliament should consider the process, as that is a matter for Parliament alone, even if the Government have a private view about it. If the Government are unable to tell us how they think parliamentary scrutiny should be performed, I hope that the Minister will tell us what discussions have been held with the Procedure Committee. When a proposal along these lines was last proposed, the Committee insisted that it could not proceed within the time scales sought. I hope that the Minister will explain whether those discussions have borne fruit, and whether parliamentary scrutiny could be subject to the same challenges.
Assuming the Bill becomes an Act, the time scales the Government have in mind for implementing the national policy statements are unclear. When would the Minister expect the statements to be in place? There is an indication that some of the existing statements—those relating to aviation, for example—may be adopted as national policy statements. I hope that the Minister will explain how that will happen. Clearly, the process used for national policy statements will be different from that adopted for the aviation paper. Simply adopting that process would not be acceptable to this House or, indeed, to anyone outside it. We require some clarity on that point.
The third major proposal in the Bill is the community infrastructure levy, whereby the Government propose to ensure that developers and others contribute a significant sum to the cost of local services and that it is not simply borne by local authorities. I am sure that hon. Members regularly receive representations from their local authorities or local residents worried about the scale of development and the relatively small contributions that are made, if any are made at all, towards local schools, GP practices and other facilities.
The proposal is sound, but it is not universally supported. The business community is split on the subject. Although the British Property Federation believes that the proposal commands the support of the business community, the property industry and local government, it does not command the support of the British Chambers of Commerce. Housing associations believe that section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 has been critical in ensuring that affordable housing is provided. If the community infrastructure levy is to replace section 106, I hope that the Minister will confirm how he can be certain that affordable housing will continue to be provided in certain developments. We will need reassurance. There is a broad agreement in all parties about the need to provide affordable housing, but if one of the key ways of delivering it is to be removed by the Bill, the Minister will need to justify it.
In my opening remarks, I said that the strength of many Bills is their ability to command overwhelming support. The Bill fails that test. Another test is whether a Bill answers more questions than it poses, but this Bill raises a large number of questions about its main proposals. So far, at least, there is no evidence that the Government will square the circle and speed up planning applications for infrastructure in the way that all hon. Members want while allowing local communities and local authorities to have their say. The infrastructure planning commission risks becoming the “in place of consultation” commission. We will fight the Government’s centralising tendencies and will fight for local communities’ right to have their views heard. We will vote against Second Reading today.
At the outset, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Interests. I also want to refer to the fact that I am honoured to be an honorary fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute and vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association.
I welcome the Bill, which contains a number of important provisions that will improve the planning process. Planning is often a highly controversial issue, and those who are involved try to reconcile conflicting interests—social, environmental or economic—and to find appropriate and sustainable solutions to the development needs of our society without prejudicing other interests. That is not always easy, but it is vital as part of a democratic society that seeks appropriate solutions.
Some people find it difficult to avoid condemning planning, the planning system and planners at every opportunity as slow, cumbersome and expensive. Although I am sure that we can all point out individual examples of unduly protracted or bureaucratic processes from our constituency experience—indeed, one of the key purposes of the Bill is to address precisely that problem—I do not subscribe to the view that planning is an inherently negative process. On the contrary, good planning has played a vital role in enhancing the quality of our cities and their economic success and protecting our environment, including the countryside, from inappropriate and damaging development. We owe a great deal to the effectiveness of the planning system, which has operated broadly in its current form for the past 60 years.
Having said that, I am aware that there are areas where the system has not worked as well as it should have. That is certainly true of major infrastructure projects. I have no doubt that all hon. Members can cite, as the Secretary of State did in her opening remarks, examples of necessary projects of national significance that have been subject to extraordinary delays. To give a slightly more local perspective, my experience of the process with the Thames Gateway bridge is deeply depressing. The project dates back to Abercrombie more than 60 years ago, when the need for a crossing over that part of the Thames was identified. The current planning process has been going on for approximately three years. I spoke about it to my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), when he was still a Minister, and the scheme is currently completely parked. It has been subject to one inquiry, which reported, and a further inquiry has been instituted. Even assuming a fair wind, it is expected to take a further two to three years to reach a decision.
When I say that we are considering a bridge across the Thames in a stretch of 13 miles where there is no fixed crossing between Blackwall and Dartford, which is the focus of one of this country’s, if not Europe’s, biggest regeneration schemes—the Thames Gateway—it becomes immediately clear that it is preposterous that we find securing such necessary infrastructure so hard and so slow.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will be alarmed because he knows that the Bill does not remedy the problem. As I read it, the definition would not include the Thames Gateway bridge, so the Bill would not expedite it. I personally support the measure, but the Government will have to consider matters slightly more carefully to ascertain what more can be done to expedite the process when regionally significant issues, such as the Thames Gateway bridge, are outside the definition. My hon. Friends will understand that I shall not press for restrictions on the infrastructure that the Bill’s definitions cover and I should like the Government to give further thought to widening them in specific cases.
While we are considering definition, I would welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s views on railway schemes, which hybrid Bills have traditionally tackled. I have some experience of such Bills, having served on the Select and Standing Committees that considered the Channel Tunnel Bill in 1986-87, and taken a close interest in the recent Crossrail Bill, which has just completed its Public Bill Committee stage. My experience of such Bills is generally positive. They have allowed an opportunity for aggrieved or interested parties to seek amendments—we were delighted that the amendment to the Crossrail Bill on Woolwich station was accepted—and they deliver major infrastructure schemes in a much shorter time scale than is likely under traditional planning inquiries. I am therefore a little apprehensive that the Bill, if I interpret it correctly, ends the use of the hybrid Bill procedure for such railway projects. I will miss it if it goes.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his example is crucial, because a local concern about how a railway station might serve the community was given voice in a forum that local people recognised would listen? The problem with the Bill is the lack of a recognisable, formal process, whereby a judge or a Committee of the House can listen to our constituents.
I agree. The impact of schemes of regional or national significance on localities, and methods of feeding the concerns of local people into the system in an influential way that can achieve changes, are especially important. I gave an example to illustrate the benefits of the hybrid Bill system as it has worked. I therefore regret its apparent demise. However, it is not impossible, if specific changes are made, to ensure that local concerns can be taken into account. I shall deal with that shortly.
Having expressed reservations about the loss of the hybrid Bill procedure, I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce the new procedures, especially the two key elements—the national policy statements, which are prepared by the Secretary of State and subject to parliamentary scrutiny and approval, and the infrastructure planning commission. Some people have attacked the commission as an unrepresentative quango. That critique appears misconceived because the commission will fulfil the same role as the planning inspectorate. Under the existing system, the planning inspectorate, which comprises people who are appointed, considers issues and reports on them. A decision is then taken by the Minister on the basis of the planning inspector’s recommendations. Under the new system, the Minister will prepare the policy statement in advance and the infrastructure planning commission will reach a decision taking account of that policy statement. That does not seem to me to be very different.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not concerned by some of the unprecedented powers of the commission, including powers to “apply, modify or exclude” provisions in primary legislation and to amend, repeal or revoke local Acts? The reason given in clause 105 is that that should happen when it is “expedient”. Does he not worry about that lack of democratic accountability?
If the hon. Gentleman had borne with me for a moment, he would have heard me make observations about points of detail. I was expressing a general view in principle, which is what we should do in debates on Second Reading, about the merit of the infrastructure planning commission and about how it was not, in effect, the unrepresentative quango that it has been represented as.
I have no problem with the main architecture of the proposals; I do, however, have a number of concerns about specific procedural issues and about some of the framing of the legislation. My first concern is about how consultation will be handled and about the way in which the public will be able to have their say, particularly on the development of national policy statements that will have a local or regional impact—the very point that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) raised. Unless we are careful, the framework could mean that national policy decisions are taken without the people who are likely to be affected by the implementation of the proposals at a local level having a full opportunity to understand and feed into the debate on national planning policy. I would like more reassurance that we have understood the importance of enabling people to feed in at the local level at that early stage.
Secondly, I am a bit concerned about the decision-making procedures set out in the Bill. Clause 94 rightly insists that the panel “must have regard” to any relevant national policy statement, but it does not require the panel to consider other relevant planning policy statements. That seems a curious and unsatisfactory omission, which I hope will be rectified. The omission is even more surprising when one sees how dangerously open-ended the phrasing is in clause 94(2)(c), which requires the panel to consider
“any other matters which the Panel or Council thinks are…important and relevant”.
I can see all sorts of trouble inherent in that. It would be an obvious ploy for an aggrieved party who had not secured the outcome that they wanted from the panel’s consideration to seek judicial review on the grounds that it did not have regard to matters that it felt to be “important and relevant”. That is a rather worrying provision, so I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider it further.
The second main innovation in the Bill is the introduction of a community infrastructure levy. I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on abandoning the previous proposal, for a planning gain supplement, and instead opting for the tariff-based approach that appears to lie behind the community infrastructure levy. I say “appears”, because the Bill seems to be ambiguous, but in principle I welcome the move. Although the thinking behind a planning gain supplement was sound—it sought to ensure that a proportion of the gain derived from development should be captured to fund necessary infrastructure and social provision, and to mitigate adverse impacts—the mechanism chosen was suspect from the start.
There is no need to go over the ground again. Those of us who opposed PGS from the outset spelt out the risks and the disadvantages on numerous occasions, and I am grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends for listening and responding. Whereas PGS was widely criticised by those with detailed experience of the development process, whether developers or those dealing with development applications, the tariff approach commands much wider support. It is much more likely to give developers certainty on the scale of the contribution that they may have to make, and it retains the direct connection between the locality in which the development is taking place and the contribution. Provided that the level of the levy is set sensibly, the tariff approach should not inhibit development on more marginal sites, while also ensuring a much wider level of contribution than has been secured to date under the section 106 procedures, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham rightly pointed out.
In my view, one of the benefits of the community infrastructure levy should be that it has wide application. In general, it should apply with the smallest possible number of exceptions. I am afraid that some of the representations that Members have received from lobbyists are rather self-serving, and the danger of making large-scale exemptions is that it would be difficult to sustain the levy in other cases where parallels could be drawn. I do not want to be definitive in my response at this stage, but I am a little cautious about some of the arguments for widespread exemptions from the levy.
The scheme was developed only in the past couple of months, because the Government committed themselves to establishing a community infrastructure levy only as recently as that, and I suspect that that has not allowed much time for the details to be explored as fully as they need to be. That might account for the fact that I find the Bill somewhat confusing. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will be able to clarify the arrangements over the next few weeks, if not tonight.
My first concern is with clause 163(2), the drafting of which seems to imply not a tariff but a tax on the uplift in value. The subsection states that
“the overall purpose of CIL is to ensure that costs incurred in providing infrastructure to support the development of an area can be funded (wholly or partly) by owners of land the value of which increases due to permission for development.”
That seems to have a direct relationship to the increase in value attributable to the granting of planning permission, which was the core principle behind PGS, rather than providing for a levy designed to reflect the nature or type of the development.
My confusion is compounded when I turn to clause 166(4), which contains powers to introduce regulations. Those powers will allow regulations to
“permit or require calculation by reference to descriptions or purposes of development”.
That seems to be a tariff. The power in clause 166(4)(b) will allow regulations to
“permit or require calculation by reference to increase in value arising from permission for development”,
which seems to refer to a tax, not a levy.
No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am time-limited.
My confusion becomes even greater when I discover, in clause 165(4), that:
“The regulations may require CIL to be paid in respect of land developed in reliance on planning permission whether or not its value has increased as a result of the grant of the permission.”
That is entirely compatible with a levy, but it does not seem to be compatible with the outstanding objective set out in clause 163, which seems to provide the basis for a tax. I am confused, and I look for guidance.
I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that there is a question about the relationship of the new levy with section 106, particularly in respect of affordable housing. My understanding is that section 106 will continue, and will provide the framework within which the levy is operated. I also understand that there will be an opportunity for a contribution to affordable housing under section 106, as well as for separate provision within the levy. That could be confusing, however, if the arrangement is not clarified, and I would welcome the view of my right hon. and hon. Friends on that.
I am also concerned about the potential for duplication arising from the list of charging authorities in clause 164. They include the local planning authority, which obviously makes sense, and, in the case of London, the Mayor of London. More generally, they also include
“any other authority with responsibility for town and country planning.”
That could include development corporations such as those that have been established in the Thames Gateway. Unless the relationship between the three different bodies is established, there is, in principle, the possibility of double or treble charging, so I urge the Minister to look carefully into that and ensure that a clear hierarchy avoids the risk either of duplication or of double or treble charging, while minimising the risk of disputes between the different tiers of government about their role in the system.
Those are, however, points of detail, not points of principle. As I have already said, I very much welcome the decision to bring forward the community infrastructure levy rather than the previously proposed PGS. Provided that those details, and others that have been raised, can be resolved, we will have the makings of a system that can ensure the objective that I certainly want—and, I believe, most Members want—which is a means of raising funds from the profits of development to fund necessary infrastructure and social provision.
In conclusion, the Bill is a generally good one that will improve the working of the planning system, speed up some unnecessarily delayed projects, give greater certainty and, provided that the detail can be got right, should not deny local people the opportunity to have a proper input into the decision-making process. I am happy to support Second Reading tonight.
I refer the House to the Register of Members’ Interests and to the fact that I am vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association and an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
I hope that the Government will not mind if I deal with practicalities. There is no doubt that the Bill is in itself a declaration of failure; only two and a half years ago, we were told that the planning Bill coming before the House would solve most of the problems that this Bill is designed to solve. It is also true that even the Bill’s most robust supporter would have to admit that the Government are better at the rhetoric than the delivery, and that joined-down government is not a quality that they have managed to discover in their 10 years so far. One thus has to look into these things in great detail in respect of their practicality, not least from this particular Department. In the not too distant past, it managed to tell Ipswich that it was going to be a unitary authority, but then told it, immediately after it had spent £1 million in preparing for it, that it was not going to be a unitary authority after all. The same Ministers took a totally different decision. That being the case, this Department needs to be looked at extremely carefully when it comes to the practical results of the legislation that it puts forward.
Let me take the precise example of nuclear power. I have two nuclear power stations in my constituency: one is in the process of being closed down and decommissioned, and the other is perhaps the most successful in the United Kingdom. If there were to be a new nuclear power programme, I know that my constituency would be a prime target for it—and I happen myself to be a supporter of a new nuclear power station at Sizewell.
One can perfectly well take the generality of the decision in Parliament that we accept nuclear power. It is right that a particular part of the Bill should provide for that and the quality of life commission, which I chaired, was one of the earliest advocates of doing so. There is something in common here and I shall point out the several other things that the Government have taken from that earlier vision. They are very interesting, and perhaps more importantly they illustrate the bits that they have not taken from it. Having agreed the general principle, though, someone has to apply it to Sizewell. It is at that point that local support must be gathered.
After all, what is the planning system other than a means of reconciling a whole range of different interests—the national interest, the local interest, the particular interest? Reconciling those is crucial. Very often, people want to do different things on the same site and the planning system enables society to make that decision. It is always a second best, of course, because although the law of property should be that one can do what one likes with one’s own land, we decide that that is not acceptable because there are community interests that have to be reconciled with the particular interests—so we reconcile them.
The trouble with the Bill is that, although it deals more sensibly with the idea of taking the general decisions, it makes much worse the problem of how we deal with the local community. When we had the Sizewell B inquiry, I was able to present the interests of my constituents in front of a judge. The judge was not there as an expert. Indeed, I dislike this concept of planning experts—people who are supposed to be experts in energy, experts in this, experts in that, experts in the other. That is not what my constituents want.
My constituents want somebody whom they believe to be an expert in judgment who will listen to the points that they raise and decide whether, in addition to having a nuclear power station, which is decided here in Parliament, they must have a new road or whether, as in the last case, there has to be an insistence on 80 per cent. of the heavy goods coming in by sea. It makes a lot of difference to people if they do not have 10,000 lorries passing in front of their houses.
Those are the issues that my constituents will want to present, but they will not want to present them to some Government placeman who happens to be an expert in this, that and the other. They want to feel that they can appear in front of a judge who can make the decision himself. That is also true in relation to planning inspectors. At least a planning inspectorate is a professional body of people.
We want professionals, not placemen. That is the difference, and that is why we believe it necessary to have the first part of the proposals but then to accept that there should be a local inquiry on the particularities of the local impact of a national decision. Of course we would not have to discuss the issue of nuclear power again—in Suffolk as in Somerset, or in Bedfordshire as in Devon. That would be decided by the House from the planning guidance produced by the Government, but what happens locally is crucial to every local community. Those communities must feel that the process is proper.
I submit to the House that a quango wandering around the country—no doubt chaired by Dame Deirdre Hutton, or another person of that kind who chairs everything around here—would be a set of placepeople, if I am to be politically correct. That is what they would be and that is what the public would see them as.
When the right hon. Gentleman reflects on his period as Secretary of State, does he feel that his strictures about placemen, and about having experts rather than others, would apply to the Local Government Commission under Sir John Banham, which the right hon. Gentleman appointed to reflect on the structure and shape of local government in England?
Happily, I did not appoint it and I did fire him, so that situation does not really arise. [Interruption.] Well, perhaps I ought to say that he resigned. The situation is not as the right hon. Gentleman puts it.
I am looking for sensible decisions that are taken centrally, whereby we, as Members of Parliament, take the decision in the House. I am a great believer in our taking decisions on all subjects and not going out to other people through referendums and the like. That is what we should do here. We should make decisions on the big issues, and people should know how we voted. We should stand up and say, “We are in favour of nuclear power,” or that we favour a new railway or whatever it is. That is what parliamentary democracy really means.
When the political decision is made, however, it must then be subject to the views and attitudes of the locality. Unless we do that, we shall find that the public will not have it. That is what I meant when I mentioned Swampy. If people feel that there is no local ability to make the comments that they want to make to someone who is not appointed by the Government, but who is a professional person—whether it be an inspector or a judge—we will find that more and more attempts are made to try to hold up decisions because there has not been proper local consideration. We have to change that aspect, and do so to speed it up. That is my first point.
Secondly, I am also not entirely opposed to the idea that the Government have now come up with as a variant on section 106. Although I take much the same view as the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), I say to him that we must have clarity about where the money is to be applied.
The negotiation has been Treasury driven, and we all know that the original proposition was a means of nationalising section 106 money. The idea was to get the section 106 money, add it up and take it off the Government grant. That is what was going to be done, and it could have been done without legislation being passed by the House. I am therefore very suspicious, and the Minister must accept that most of us are very suspicious, following the history of Treasury meddling.
My worry is, if the proposal is to apply on a region-wide basis, what will that mean for Suffolk? We could have agreement on a nuclear power station in Leiston, but the money could go to Luton. Most people in Leiston have not been to Luton, do not want to go to Luton and are not interested in Luton. The fact that it is in the eastern region is nothing to do with them because they do not understand, nor are they interested in, the regional government that this Government have produced. They want to think that if money is for a development in their area, it will have an effect in that area. I was surprised that the Secretary of State was not prepared even to say that it would go to their county, which is at least something that they understand. I suspect that the change is much more dangerous than anything that she is prepared to say.
Thirdly, we have the issue of hybrid Bills and the like. I agree with the concerns of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich about those Bills. A huge amount has been achieved by them. There is proper public discussion of big infrastructure projects, and people feel that they have a way of reaching those who make the decisions. Even if we do not continue with that system, it reminds us of the dangers of the particular system that is proposed.
Fourthly, I am concerned about some of the significant gaps in the Bill. This is the most autocratic Government since Cromwell. There is no doubt about that. They are centralising and like to do by secondary legislation what they do not dare debate on the Floor of the House for primary legislation. This Bill is a good example of that. We cannot debate it properly because the details on which those debates should take place are not known. Indeed, they are so obviously not known that when the Secretary of State was with us for that short period of time she admitted that we would get to know more about them as the Bill goes through its stages. Frankly, the Minister must understand that that is entirely unacceptable as a parliamentary system. Bills should come to this House with sufficient information for us to debate them. We should not be told that we might get other bits and pieces as we go through the Bill if it is convenient to the Government and if we press them so hard that they cannot fail to tell us, which is really what they are threatening us with on this matter. We cannot argue about a whole range of things that are seriously deficient in the Bill because we do not know the answers.
That leads me to the fifth point. Some of the issues that we are going to cover are important. How on earth can we talk about aviation if the proposals in the aviation White Paper—that appalling White Paper, recently produced by the Government—are to be transferred lock, stock and barrel into what will, in fact, be the direction for this new independent commission? I consider that document to be very, very empty of an understanding of the environment. It is appalling when it comes to carbon and climate change, and it is ignorant when it comes to discussing most of those issues. Yet we are not going to have much discussion of such matters because, under this proposal, they will be part of the general guidance that will be brought before the House. We need to know a lot more about what the national policy statements are and about how they will integrate with other statements and policies, none of which we have been told about so far.
Lastly, we have to recognise the advances that have been made by suggesting that permitted development should be extended. That was part of what the quality of life commission proposed. Soon after that, however, the Government made their announcement; it was the usual technique. However, as is often the case, they got it wrong. The Government have decided not to permit as much development in proper circumstances as they could have done. Our proposal was that people could develop as they wished on estates built since 1945. They would have to give notice to the local authority and the contiguous neighbours. If they objected, an arbitrator would decide whether the neighbours’ interests were greater. That is a reasonable proposition. Much more development would have been possible, and many of the difficulties rightly identified by the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) would have been avoided. If the process were removed from the planning department it would become a neighbourhood issue, and a decision would be made on the spot.
The problem is that the Government have not only failed to adopt that proposal, but failed to do the other half of what should be done. They have made it possible to build, for example, a conservatory willy-nilly, with no requirement for it to meet the highest energy efficiency standards. However much such a development may accord with planning desires, constructing it with no regard for carbon emissions or climate change is an example of the ways in which we are increasing energy consumption to a significant extent. It will be too hot in summer and too cold in winter, which means more central heating and more air conditioning. But the Government seem to consider such developments perfectly reasonable.
Again, I challenge the Minister. I want to know his precise estimate of the increase in global warming gases that will result from the Bill. The Government do not know the figures relating to the 2,500 post offices that they have closed or the effect of the heating provided for people to smoke outside pubs following the smoking ban. They do not bother to find those things out. It is all words, with no practical figures relating to the increase in emissions that results from their actions.
These are my objections to the Bill. First, it ought to be unnecessary. The Government promised us that the last planning Bill was all we would need, and we should therefore suspect that this Bill will be as ineffective as they now claim the last one to have been. Secondly, it is not “joined up”, in that they have not worked out how it will be implemented, and we will not have that information. Thirdly, it is destructive of local democracy. Fourthly, the Secretary of State can say as loudly as she likes that it extends democracy, but we should always be suspicious of Ministers who say that. What it means is that they know perfectly well that the opposite is the case, and if they say it several times, we know that we should be suspicious.
The Secretary of State knows perfectly well that this is a centralising Bill, an autocratic Bill, and a Bill that is typical of a Government who have done more to reduce the rights and freedoms of the individual than any previous Government since Oliver Cromwell.
A number of Members throughout the House have already commented on the challenge posed by the planning process. There is an increasing polarisation between engaging the community, maintaining sustainable communities and tackling major challenges such as climate change on the one hand, and the promotion of enterprise, employment and wealth on the other. I believe that the Bill gets the balance substantially wrong.
I appreciate, and would not seek to minimise, the difficult balancing act that Ministers must perform in the face of lobbying from business and the one-sided findings of the Barker review of land use planning. Like many Members, I am closely involved in supporting the communities in my constituency in expressing their view on local planning applications and their impact on the quality of their lives, and trying to ensure that developments are sustainable and address issues of climate change. My main starting point is the extent to which the Bill deals with community participation. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was performing her piece at the Dispatch Box, I was taken back a few years to a similar debate on public involvement relating to the abolition of community health councils and their replacement with patients forums, which are themselves to be superseded.
In the context of public involvement, I recognise that the Bill will have no great impact on the overwhelming proportion of local planning applications decided under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. If I have any criticism in that respect, it is that the Bill provides no means of promoting and enhancing community participation in respect of local planning applications. In the past, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I have advocated a qualified third-party right of appeal to give communities an opportunity to challenge significant local planning decisions made by councils on applications requiring an environmental impact statement.
The Bill relates principally to major infrastructure proposals, or MIPs. I have therefore tried to view it from the perspective of how it might operate in respect of MIPs with a potential impact on the communities that I represent. For example, Conservative and Liberal Democrat-controlled Leeds city council is considering options for major waste disposal facilities that may include the building of a huge incinerator. We also have on our doorstep Leeds Bradford airport, recently privatised by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. Those were the very people who condemned the passenger projections in the aviation White Paper, but then sold it off—and with it, absolute control over its future development—so that they could, in their own words, secure private investment to promote its growth. Only time will tell whether that particular development will lead to a planning application that will amount to an MIP, but it is a possibility.
I ask myself how, if planning applications for an incinerator or airport are submitted, the process proposed in the Bill will enable local people and communities, environmental groups and elected representatives such as councillors and Members of Parliament to express their views. That includes their ability to make representations on national policy statements that would set the framework for individual decisions, as well as individual inquiries on specific applications.
I have great sympathy with those who regard the Bill’s proposals as an unnecessary dilution of existing procedures for engaging the public. We are told that the present inquiry process is unfairly protracted, but little empirical evidence appears to have been provided by Ministers to demonstrate the extent to which the present opportunities for public involvement and engagement are responsible for that. In some cases that are cited as examples of the protracted process, the way in which applicants have presented their case and the delay between the end of an inquiry and the announcement of a decision by Ministers have been the main culprits. I dare say that, if he manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) may even cite the oft-quoted example of Heathrow’s terminal 5. In that instance, the process was prolonged by the applicant’s lack of preparation and subsequent changes in the application, and by the time that it took for a decision to be made once the inquiry was over.
We have been told that the present inquiry process is a barrister’s beanfeast. Barristers are always good whipping boys in any discussion of this type. It is asserted that many citizens lack the confidence to contribute to a process in which they may be cross-examined by those intimidating successors to Torquemada. I find that argument somewhat tendentious, if not patriarchal and patronising. In any case, whatever the process, many people—irrespective of their background—lack the confidence to contribute at any public meeting. It is not unusual for them to defer to others to provide representation, whether those people are members of their own community or organised pressure groups—“green” groups, for example.
There is also a mindset, which I consider particularly unhealthy—I do not accuse my hon. Friend the Minister of holding this view—that sees objectors to planning applications as nimbys, and the present procedures as a nimby’s charter. As Churchill once observed, the trouble with democracy is that it is the worst form of government apart from all the rest. The Government’s wish to truncate the process in the way that the Bill suggests is another aspect of the desire to remove some essential, but sometimes slightly awkward, democratic elements. It seems that Ministers are exaggerating the murkiness of the bathwater to justify throwing out the baby.
Perhaps I am guilty of a touching naivety, but I do not think it beyond the wit of Ministers or their civil servants, particularly in the context of the proposed national policy statements, to analyse the lessons of previous protracted processes and to inject a greater discipline that does not require removal of the right to appear and to cross-examine.
I believe that the Bill transmits the wrong message: support for business at the expense of the community. Councils such as Leeds are constantly spinning the political line that over-intensive development on brownfield sites, including gardens, is being forced on them by the Government. Of course, they do not reveal that the guidance on brownfield development of gardens was introduced by the last Government. They do not reveal that they have powers under the 2004 Act to draw up plans to provide action plans and a local framework to address local issues of over-development. Nor do they admit that PPS3 on housing allows them to examine planning applications in the light of local housing needs, particularly for families. Far from helping to explode some of these political myths, the Bill simply helps to reinforce them.
NPSs are key documents in determining applications and obviously can be site-specific. Yet despite their power and influence over people’s lives, there does not appear—I may be wrong—to be any clearly specified right to be heard in the preparation process. Paradoxically, this right does exist for local planning documents under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, but it is essential that NPSs are likewise subject to robust and guaranteed public consultation. The consultation provisions contained in the Bill seem a little vague and subject to a very broad exercise of discretion by the Secretary of State.
The Bill needs to be strengthened to ensure that a clear and unambiguous commitment to publicity and consultation exists in respect of NPSs and, for the process to be effective, it should include policy options so that people can look at what has been considered. If the Bill is not to represent a retrograde step in terms of public involvement, it should build on the 2005 rules for major infrastructure project inquiries and contain an effective right to be heard in person at all stages of the inquiry process with qualified rights to cross-examine and to test evidence.
It is essential that the Secretary of State and the IPC issue specific guidance on community involvement and, as we have heard, it is essential that we have adequate resourcing of groups such as Planning Aid to allow people to participate effectively in the process.
Most, if not all, of us will have had experience of pre-application consultations conducted by developers. Often they are merely a lip-service exercise. Often they make little or no difference to the eventual application that is submitted. I believe that applicants must be guided in much greater detail as to their responsibilities in consulting local people. If the process is to mean anything, the applicant must be required to consider the reasonable mitigation of the proposals that they submit, perhaps in the form of a statement of the impact of the development that is considered by the IPC.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem with applicants undertaking a great deal of consultation, which can be subjective and lead to a decision that they want in the first place, and then presenting it to a public body as though the development had the support of the entire community? Should not the consultation be supervised by an independent public body rather than by the applicant?
Sorry. It sounds as if my hon. Friend has had a number of constituency experiences that exactly reflect the sort of point I was trying to make.
I cannot help but feel that the IPC cuts fiercely against the grain of what a democratically accountable and responsive planning process should be. Anybody wielding the immense powers that are to be allocated to the IPC must be democratically accountable and allow proper public engagement by allowing for robust testing of evidence. The Bill does not appear to make any real provision for this.
I would have no objection—I am echoing the points made by a number of Members—to an expert body having a major independent advisory role, but not a decision-making role. It has been suggested that this role might be allocated to the Planning Inspectorate rather than creating the IPC. I can understand the attraction to Ministers of insulating themselves against the pressures of taking decisions on what are often highly charged political issues. It is a little like the process that the Conservative party is considering to distance itself from unpopular local decisions in the NHS, if it ever manages to get into government. I doubt whether that will work and I am not sure that the IPC will work as a similar barrier.
Finally on democracy and public engagement, may I express my objection to what could be viewed as retrospective policy formulation, a point made effectively by Opposition Members? I am concerned that clause 11 allows the Secretary of State to designate existing policy documents as national policy statements. Obviously some of these documents pre-date the more robust sustainability assessments that have come into force more recently. Previous policy documents were not designed to take into account recent statutory targets, such as the carbon emission reductions that we will look at in due course. The best example has already been quoted—the “Future of Air Transport” White Paper 2003, which was obviously published before there was a requirement to comply with either the strategic environmental assessment directive or the habitats directive.
The Department for Transport has already indicated that the air transport White Paper will form the basis of an NPS on airport developments—something I do not feel I could possibly support. This approach also negates the principle that any consultation exercise must be clear on the effects of the proposals being consulted upon. Designating an existing policy document as a national policy statement would afford it a far greater status in the planning system than the public could reasonably have assumed at the time of the original consultation, when the idea of national policy statements was not even a twinkle in the Secretary of State’s eye.
Finally, I wish to outline some of my concerns about how the Bill relates to climate change. Ministers have said that one justification for the Bill is that it will create a structure that speeds up the shift to renewable and lower-carbon energy and supports development of low and zero-carbon building. The fear I have is that it could equally create a structure that allows other applications that are far less positive in these terms to go ahead.
I am certain that Members on both sides of the House share my view that every relevant policy and Bill must have climate change printed through it, like a stick of rock. It feels as if it is simply scribbled on the surface of this Bill. I welcome the proposal that a sustainable development duty be placed on Ministers in preparing national policy statements, but that needs to be strengthened in order to be convincing and fully effective. The IPC should also have a sustainable development duty that would require it to operate in line with the UK’s climate change objectives. The Bill should also provide for the monitoring and reporting of that duty by Ministers and by the IPC. I also support the proposal that the independent committee on climate change that features in the Climate Change Bill should be a statutory consultee in the NPS process and in specific applications considered by the IPC.
My time has run out, so I end by saying that I really look forward to the Minister for Local Government, assuring me that the Bill is not the retrograde step I fear. As it stands at the moment, I would have great difficulty in supporting it in its entirety.
It is somewhat surprising to range in a planning debate from Oliver Cromwell to Napoleon Bonaparte, but given the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), I think I had better come down on the side of Napoleon, which might well have been my preference in any case.
When one represents the Pennine dales of North Yorkshire, it is easy to look with a certain detachment upon arguments about terminal 5 at Heathrow, for example. It is a long way from terminal 5 to the Long Preston bypass; most of my constituents would be much more concerned about the bypass, although they will be eager users of terminal 5. That brings us to one of the key points in the debate: planning is not like many other policies or areas of debate. The culture of our political system is to crystallise a difference in view and then to make a choice. Planning is perhaps unique in that it has a role for mediation. It is trying to set a framework in which opinions are collected and weighed and an attempt is made to draw a balance. There are conflicts of interest, and conflicts between individuals and between the community and the nation. The planning guidance and the regional and local plans are all designed to provide some sort of parameter around those conflicts. The result is, of course, a near universal discontent. Businesses complain about the slow process and the anti-development culture within local authorities. Individuals complain about their local concerns being ridden roughshod over and about the absence of an appeal against the granting of planning permission. If we are honest, most Members will agree that when constituents come to our surgeries to talk about planning, it is almost always to ask us to get something stopped rather than to get something done.
We must therefore adopt a hard-headed realism in approaching this debate, because in planning terms the national interest is not the sum of local or individual interests, although the national interest does require the submission of a local or community interest. We need to provide prisons, asylum-processing centres, power plants, new runways and nuclear waste repositories, and we must decide as a nation how we provide them.
International competitiveness, to which the Secretary of State referred as a key reason for the Bill, means that Governments have far less power now than in the past. The choices that they can make are much more restricted, because if we wish to survive as a nation in the global economy we must deliver the conditions that maintain our competitiveness. That means that we do not have the same degree of discretion that we had in the past. Another consequence is that the Government have less power over individuals than previously, because modern technology and the internet have empowered individuals in a way that was not possible even when I first entered the House, when my constituents were perhaps willing to say that I was in a position to make decisions that they were not able to make because I had access to information that they did not have access to. Such information is now accessible to all of them.
On the provisions relating to major infrastructure projects, I am concerned that the Bill might be setting itself an impossible task. It is setting itself to speed up very sharply the process of decision making while simultaneously providing for a complex panoply of consultation, and also ultimately running through it are what I see as blurred lines of accountability. It will be difficult to bring those measures together in a working mechanism. The procedures are top-down because we will have the national strategy statements, but they are bottom-up because of the pre-application consultation procedures, and there is an intermediate bit in the middle, which is the stage of parliamentary scrutiny and the proposals for Select Committee scrutiny. I am unsure how reconcilable those objectives will turn out to be in practice.
It is easy enough to agree on the national challenges that demand a more ruthless approach to planning—I use the word “ruthless” advisedly, and not necessarily pejoratively—including economic interests, which I have mentioned, and the need to respond to the challenges of climate change. They are very new challenges, which are linked. Although the procedures by which the Government intend to address them are clear in their architecture, however, they are much less so in their content; this is a building without any furniture in it—and I am also not quite sure where the directions flow within that building.
How detailed will the national policy statements be? If a statement effectively determines the policy on nuclear power, will the commission have a discretion other than to decide where the plants will be built? Frankly, we all know where any future new nuclear power plants are likely to be built. That is not a closely guarded secret; there are not, as the French would say, trente-six solutions. There are a handful of places, all of which we know of, where they might be built.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there are issues to do with such locations even if we know where they will be? My constituents would not want a new nuclear power plant unless there was a proper road on which to bring the materials to it. They should be able to have their say on such issues.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is precisely such nuts-and-bolts issues that concern our constituents. How many heavy lorries will pass by? Will they be tarpaulined if they are carrying infill for sites, for example? What will the access be like? Such questions are crucial to people’s standard of living.
I apologise for not having been present for some of the debate; I had Standing Committee business. My right hon. Friend is rightly talking about a gap in the national policy statements. How can one develop a national policy on airports, for example, if the location is not included in the discussion? That is what the Secretary of State seemed to imply at the beginning of the debate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is peculiar for the Government to suggest that the House should discuss the national policy on airports without discussing where they should be?
I entirely agree. Any national policy on airports is in fact solely about Heathrow and Stansted. Any significant expansion has been ruled out for Gatwick, but there is currently a huge argument about Stansted. I should, perhaps, point out that I live 12 miles from Stansted’s central terminal; that is where my family home is. Plans to expand Luton have been abandoned, and the discussion is now about Heathrow. Once again, one does not have to be a prophet to know about such matters. The national policy statement is so close to the planning decision that it is difficult to see a real distinction between the two.
On consultations by the developer, I am always suspicious of anything that talks about stakeholders. North Yorkshire’s bid for unitary authority status was based on detailed consultation with the stakeholders who all said that it was a very good idea, but the public did not think it was a good idea at all. The public are not the same as the stakeholder. The public are the public as individuals, not the public constructed into representative bodies. We must be careful that such consultations are real.
What about the decision makers themselves? There might be 45 cases a year—one for every working week, setting aside the inevitable gap over the summer holidays. If the commission has added expert panels—there might be an energy, aviation or water panel—in practice we will ask perhaps three or four people to deal with the cases. They will take a huge degree of responsibility, and they are appointed people. They will not have the quasi-judicial status of the inspectorate even if the Government wish to endow them with that quality. How will they be chosen? Will that be like the process for selecting members of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England? Will they be nominated for a certain period? Will they be subject to parliamentary confirmation hearings? If Parliament is to be given a new role, it seems a good idea for them to have to submit themselves to parliamentary hearings. Is the expertise required a planning or policy expertise, or is it more important for there to be submissions of a representative nature, following on from the remarks on community engagement? I sometimes think that it is a pity that Sir Michael Lyons is now otherwise engaged, as he served so many useful purposes for the Government when they were in a bind. What is clear is that the commission will not sit on any matter as a college, but it will endorse panel decisions. It is difficult to see it not endorsing them. To whom will it at the end of the day be accountable?
One element of the proposals requires particular explanation. The Secretary of State told us in a written statement of 27 November that
“the Bill will make it clear that any person who registers an interest can give oral evidence at relevant stages of the inquiry.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 13WS.]
Yet at the same time we are to have a statutory timetable on inquiries and decisions of perhaps nine or 12 months. How are those two needs reconcilable? We all know that if our constituents come to us and say, “We object to this development, it has been rejected by the council and there will be an appeal,” we say, “Don’t agree to a written exchange. Make sure you go for a public inquiry, because you will get your voice, that will push the whole procedure back and the developer might walk away at the end of the day.” So what happens if the objectors are sufficiently organised to make sure that 10,000 people register their interest? How do the Government intend that their promise that those people’s voice will be heard will be compatible with the speed of the decision making which we have been promised?
I do not think the Select Committee will necessarily be of huge assistance in practice. First, there is beginning to be a huge overload of work and commitments, especially if we are to have regional Select Committees as well; the Government have gone rather quiet on that idea, however, so I am not sure where we are on it. They might regard dealing with such matters as their role; if there is to be a major development at Heathrow or Stansted, for example, the relevant regional Select Committee might think that that is much more its business than that of an inter-group, as it were, whose membership is drawn from other Select Committees. How will those involved avoid being swamped by the demand to be heard? What distinct marketing niche can be offered?
We need to know what is envisaged on the reservation to the Secretary of State of decisions on exceptional projects. In a sense, the whole structure exists to deal with exceptional projects. I find it difficult to see at what stage something becomes so extra exceptionally exceptional that is goes to the Secretary of State for a decision. What is the factor X that sends something back to Whitehall?
On the community infrastructure levy, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) explained that on aspects of the Bill he was confused about whether we were talking about a levy or a tax. I share that confusion, but I shall not draw my confusion to the attention of the House, because his confusion will serve for us both. I hope that both our confusions will be simultaneously enlightened.
Of course, we welcome the abandonment of a planning gain supplement, but it is important to know how the roof tax, as I suppose we will end up calling it, will work in practice and what the relationship will be between the infrastructure levy and the site-specific levy. I understand that they will both be wrapped up in the much-maligned, but extremely useful, section 106 agreements. It is important that social housing, more of which has been built as a result of section 106 agreement planning gain than of any other mechanism, should be maintained. How widely will the infrastructure needs be assessed? Will that be done on a local, area or regional basis?
The regional development agencies are to have competence in this regard. Let us remember that a few months ago the Government were explaining their views on the role of regional bodies and regional agencies, but they are removing accountability to regional assemblies. We do not yet know how RDAs will be made accountable, given the huge new planning competence with which they are being endowed by the Government.
There is an argument for some sort of cross-border use of funding. It applies particularly in places bordering metropolitan areas—travel-to-work areas where people go from rural areas into the metropolitan ones. I do not take an ideologically hostile view of such proposals, but there is a good explanation of why it matters to local people if that is to be how the money is used.
We must ensure that the new needs are being met. The emphasis is that they must be new infrastructure needs; this is not about all the old deficiencies. It is sometimes not easy to make a distinction between a long-time aspiration and a specific infrastructure need that flows directly from the development taking place. How will the scheme work on brownfield sites that have been assembled by compulsory purchase orders, which are themselves governed by a statutory provision, where developers might turn out to be the occupiers?
How confident are we that local authorities have the capacity to manage the rather more complex system? All of us have encountered severe problems in the manning of planning departments. An army of itinerant antipodeans seems to park for periods in planning departments as part of a world tour. I hope that some sort of guidance will be available—the industry is talking about having some sort of body to help with this—because if local authorities are to have discretion on what levies they raise, it will be important to have some lubrication of the process to ensure that it works smoothly.
Finally, may I make a small plea? Nothing discredits the planning system more than people who deliberately bend the rules by getting planning permission for A and then doing A and a bit more, such as developing the site a little more densely, making the roof lines higher than suspected or doing something thinking that they can always obtain planning permission later. Local authorities are extraordinarily reluctant to take such matters up, because they think that doing so will be expensive or a barren sort of passage. People rightly get extremely upset when they see that someone has deliberately decided to play fast and loose with the system—we all know that some businesses seem to specialise in doing that—and that there is no, or infrequent, redress.
We want the system to have credibility and legitimacy, but there are huge questions about the legitimacy of the mechanism that is going to be erected. An enormous amount will depend on the people involved, the manner in which they take decisions and the decisions that they take in the early period. If the final decision-making power is to be removed, despite all the apparatus of consultation, the citizen must feel that when a decision is taken it sticks. Decisions that remain more local must be much more rigorously enforced, so that a decision taken is what finally appears. That is a niggly point, but credibility and legitimacy are essential to a system that seeks to mediate between interests that are often difficult to reconcile and that on some occasions may not be reconcilable. Those cultures are hugely important in making the system work well.
I welcome the two major proposals that the Government are introducing: the different ways to deal with major infrastructure projects and the community infrastructure levy to try to ensure a general benefit to a community from developments that take place in its area. I agree with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) that one of the interesting aspects of the planning process is that, by and large, one is dealing with projects that are bitterly opposed by those most closely affected by them, although it is essential that such projects go ahead for wider area, regional or national benefit. That is one of the difficulties that we face throughout.
Delays to inquiries into major projects cause genuine concerns. The Government rightly focus on that, and recognise that such projects are important in the wider national interest. It is equally important that we do not introduce a process that is seen to exclude, in any way, the community’s involvement in the determination of such matters. We must make it clear that most inquiries into major projects are not decided by elected representatives; effectively, they are decided by a planning inspector. The decision may be referred to the Secretary of State, but the planning inspector who hears the matter on appeal makes the decision, outside the formal democratic process.
The Government’s proposal that we set up an infrastructure planning commission is only an enhancement of the current planning inspectorate. I am unsure why they have found it necessary to opt for a completely new and separate commission, because people who would be involved as planning inspectors plus a few experts in particular matters are being called a new commission. Why is it necessary to have a new commission? Should we not just expand the planning inspectorate by adding a specialist wing, which could deal with these matters in the way in which we would expect planning inspectors to deal with inquiries?
On the democratic argument, we should robustly say, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) said, that the current system is not democratic in another respect. It is not democratic to have national policy matters—statements of national policy—determined by an individual planning inquiry. That happens at present, because we make up policy at a planning inquiry on an individual application. I welcome the approach of introducing national policy statements, which should then set out the framework that follows an application for a major infrastructure project, to which the infrastructure planning commission would be bound to have regard.
I accept the relationship identified by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, and we must work through it in Committee. They noted the fact that when one determines national policy statements on some issues, one almost determines where particular infrastructure projects will be located and, to some extent, one prejudges the decision of an inquiry into a particular project. How do we arrange those two things to ensure that local people feel that they have had a chance to have their voice heard, rather than that a national policy statement has been drawn up, an inquiry has been determined by it and a major project will be sited in their area irrespective of what they say? We need to address an issue about public involvement. We must tease out and work through the relationship between the national policy statements and the process that the infrastructure planning commission will go through.
Concerns have been raised with hon. Members on both sides of the House by coalitions of various interest groups—the Campaign to Protect Rural England has come to talk to me and Friends of the Earth has expressed concerns—about the democratic process and involvement of communities in such matters. We need discussion on the detail of the Bill to give reassurance that there will be room for public involvement and democratic input. I welcome the fact that, at the pre-application stage, before applications for major infrastructure projects are put in, the applicant will be required to consult. That is an important way to enable the local community to make its views heard even before the application is lodged. Even bodies such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, which has generally been more supportive of the Government’s proposals than some other bodies, say that we need to get the process right in terms of consultation and democratic involvement.
Ministers need to reflect on two other issues. The Local Government Association has expressed some concerns about the process, but it has generally welcomed it. It said that it wants to see how the role for elected bodies—the local councils—can be entrenched in the process. Perhaps they could be given a special role so that their voice can be heard as elected representatives of local communities.
The Association of National Park Authorities has also raised concerns about the special status of national parks in our planning legislation to ensure that it is enhanced, and not cut across, by anything in the Bill. I received an assurance to that effect when I raised the issue at the Select Committee inquiry on the Government’s proposals some weeks ago. I would like Ministers to give further assurances that the role of the national parks authorities, and their special status, will not be undermined by anything in the Bill.
I am confused by one of the major infrastructure project proposals and I do not understand the Government’s logic. Despite the proposed establishment of the infrastructure planning commission, with experts, planning inspectors, hearings, consultation and representations from the community, in the end a decision on something as important as a nuclear power station will not be made by the Secretary of State, but by one, two or three inspectors or experts sitting together on behalf of the planning commission. The explanation that I have been given so far is that there is no reason for political involvement because the national policy statements will be the political input and the commission will be expected to operate in accordance with them. However, there are many other matters that are initially determined by local councils and then referred on appeal to planning inspectors and in the end to the Secretary of State for approval. It does not seem right that decisions about where to put a local football ground or to encroach on the green belt marginally to accommodate an extension to a local school, as has happened in my constituency, will ultimately be determined by the Secretary of State, but the decision on a nuclear power station will not. That apparent lack of democratic accountability undermines the rest of what the Government are trying to achieve through this process. I hope that Ministers will reflect on that.
On the community infrastructure levy, I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the real problems with the planning gain supplement, as proposed. The Select Committee considered it and we had concerns about some technicalities. We accepted the principle that increases in value from developments should provide some benefit for the public purse, but the proposals had real technical difficulties, especially in respect of the valuation procedure. The Lib Dems said that British Chambers of Commerce was opposed to the proposals, but that ignores the overwhelming support for them from the CBI, the Home Builders Federation, the British Property Federation, the Major Developers Group and the LGA. It is right in principle that if an act of public policy enhances the value of a private asset, the owners of that asset should make a contribution to the public purse over and above any direct cost of the development itself. We are trying to capture the planning gain for the public purse and the public good.
In the past, section 106 has been expanded to try to incorporate some of those arrangements, although there are some doubts about whether all such arrangements have been legal. They have usually been made after consultation with, and with the consent of, the developers concerned.
On the question of section 106 payments, does my hon. Friend share my concern that they are often negotiated and the money is sometimes paid in lieu of housing development by housing developers in big cities, which does nothing for social housing? On other occasions, it is paid to the local authority to enhance the community with sports facilities or something, but that does not happen and the money sits in local authority accounts for year after year with no benefit to the community. It is unclear what happens to the interest payments on that money, let alone what it is eventually spent on. Should not there be a tougher process to ensure that the community gets a more foreseeable and immediate benefit?
My hon. Friend’s comments have a ring of truth, and I am sure that many hon. Members and people outside share that view. Ultimately, section 106 agreements are a matter for local authorities, and central Government cannot be too prescriptive. In the past, I have regularly encouraged Ministers to issue firm guidance on section 106, and there could be some naming and shaming of authorities that do not use 106 agreements for the intended purposes.
It is unclear how section 106 will relate to the new community infrastructure levy. Presumably section 106 will still be used for affordable housing, parks and community centres. However, if a road is needed to connect a new development to a main road, is that infrastructure that has to be funded out of the community infrastructure levy or can it still be funded out of 106 funding? If 106 funding is agreed for particular items, will it reduce the tariff payable, or will the tariff be fixed in respect of the 106 contributions? In Committee, we will have to examine the 106 funding arrangements and their relation to the community infrastructure levy. Does an increase in one mean a reduction in the other?
In general, the CIL will be better than the PGS, because the former will be part of the planning system, variable at local level and determined by local councils as part of the local development framework, and it will therefore relate more to local circumstances in which it is collected and spent. However, we need to examine precisely how it will operate and its relationship with other provisions, such as section 106.
Opposition Members have raised the issue of whether the levy might be required, or possibly allowed, to fund sub-regional and regional infrastructure projects. We have to be clear about whether there will be a requirement by the Government for local authorities to make contributions from their levies to such projects, or will authorities be permitted to contribute if they want to do so? I think that that is what the Secretary of State said earlier, but we will need greater clarity on that point.
The levy will not be a simple tariff, such as that in Milton Keynes, where the developer pays a certain amount for each individual house that it has built. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, the levy can vary by type of development, purpose of development or description of development, although not by location. There is an omission from the legislation. Presumably, if a development takes place in an inner-city area, as opposed to a suburb, we would want a power for the local authority to vary the levy according to location. Ministers should consider whether the current variability of the levy is sufficient.
I support the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. I do not understand why the word “value” is included in the Bill in relation to the potential regulations. If we are not going to have a planning gain supplement or reference to a complicated method of trying to identify how much the value of a site has been increased by planning permission, why does the Bill need to give a local authority the right to vary its tariffs according to the increase in value of a site because of planning permission? Ministers will get themselves in an awful mess if we leave the valuation process in the Bill. Presumably the whole intent of the levy is to get away from that and to have a system that is determined by planners, in discussion with developers, on a much simpler and more certain basis. At the same, there should be some flexibility in the levy, so that it can be varied according to the type of development, and hopefully its location. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between flexibility and certainty, but Ministers should reflect on the whole issue of including valuation, as otherwise we are going to get into some real difficulties when it comes down to practical examples of calculating the value of the levy.
There is one issue that has not been mentioned very much in the discussions about how far we are enabling an increase, or causing a reduction, in democratic input into the planning process. Local member review boards are to be set up to ensure that more decisions on planning matters, particularly smaller ones, are not referred outside the democratic process, to the Planning Inspectorate, but are dealt with inside the democratic arena, with reference to another board of members. We should welcome that. The Local Government Association has certainly welcomed it. The Government should be congratulated on giving more responsibility back to local councils, and putting more trust in them, in a way that most of us would welcome.
In general terms, I welcome the proposed legislation. The Government are right to highlight the problems with major infrastructure projects and to bring forward a system of dealing with those projects in a particular way. There are concerns and questions about community and democratic involvement, which we need to tease out as the Bill progresses. It is right to bring in the community infrastructure levy to ensure that the public purse benefits from the gain to private developers when planning permission is given. There are lots of questions about how that will operate in practice. It is also right to set up the local member review boards, as a commitment to the local democratic process, which I know that fundamentally the Government support.
First, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, so that they are clear that I have an interest in a family business.
Planning causes more anger and concern among my constituents than virtually any other issue. In my constituency surgery, I probably see more people about planning than any other issue. Any Government who seek to change and reform the system are very brave because planning is an issue that angers and moves people. It is rising up the political scale—a situation that is likely to get worse. We are a nation of owner-occupiers and people relate almost everything that goes on in their neighbourhood to the value of their home. Even when something might put up the value of their home, they always presume that it is going to reduce it. That tends to make people very anxious about what goes on.
As a nation, one of our problems is that occasionally we have been too parsimonious in the compensation that we have paid people who live in the vicinity of very large infrastructure projects. Sometimes people feel that they are going to lose out, whereas if there were a far more generous scheme, we could speed up the planning process and allow people to be bought out. I have always thought that we ought to be a little more French when it comes to our large infrastructure projects. Clearly, there has been something wrong, over years, when it has taken a long time to produce something that is of overwhelming national interest. In the case of terminal 5, Schiphol and de Gaulle airports have added various runways in the time that it has taken us to get one more terminal at Heathrow. Our European competitors sometimes benefit from a much more streamlined system.
Nevertheless, I am concerned about what the Government are suggesting in terms of the national policy statements. Clearly, one can set what might have to be a national target for the number of people who want to use airports or for the amount of energy that should be produced, but I am not sure whether one should discriminate between one form of energy or another in a national policy statement. Many of these things are market driven, and markets move. If politicians set a particular objective in a planning statement, in a short space of time the economics of their proposal may well change. I wonder how specific the policy statements are going to be. Will they specify X nuclear power stations, or will they specify what might be needed, on the one hand or the other, to meet a balanced energy policy?
Rather like other Members who have contributed to the debate, I am a little concerned that the national policy statements will be too specific on a particular objective and that, as a result, they may do a lot of the work of the infrastructure planning commission by pre-determining what may be in the national interest without paying regard to the various options and alternatives and to what is happening in terms of the world economy. I am concerned about how those things will interact.
I also have a concern—this point was raised ably by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts)—about the infrastructure planning commission. The Secretary of State may well be able to determine smaller applications, but that body may well determine some substantial decisions, such as those on nuclear power stations. In the same way as the perception is that the Foreign Office represents foreigners, we may well get a situation in which the infrastructure planning commission will represent the large infrastructure planning projects and be seen by most of my constituents and many people in this country to lead in those areas. Like many other contributors to the debate, I have a concern with the experts, rather than people who are neutral, who will make a judgment on some of these things.
We need to speed up the planning process, but I am not sure that this proposal will do that, or do it in a way that does not cause great concern. At the most extreme, we have seen examples of civil protest. We have only to consider the Newbury relief road, and the cost that was added to that project by security, to understand that although we may on occasion be trying to save money on planning in the Bill, there may be other costs because of the civil disobedience that might occur if people do not feel that the system is fair.
I welcome what the Government are doing with the community infrastructure levy. The original proposals were flawed and the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) set out that the Bill is not entirely clear about how the levy will develop. However, a low tariff that captures some value from all developments, including one-home or two-home developments, is a much better way of doing things in the long term. Clearly, a lot of questions need to be asked.
The Secretary of State said that there might have to be a regional or a county levy. Any source of money that is raised via a form of taxation will always be prone to Treasury interference. In the case of the grant settlement for police authorities, there is a formula to share the money. In the case of council housing rent, there is a national fund. Money is taken from some housing authorities and given to others. I cannot believe that a situation in which there will be hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds, and some authorities will get considerably larger sums of money than others, will not become a key item in relation to which the Government will need to build in some kind of transfer of resources.
The Treasury may well lose capital gains tax on some projects as a result of the measure and therefore will be tempted to interfere. The amount of money raised will be substantial, so we need to know a lot more. What will happen to the interest on such moneys? Will there be pressure to spend the moneys within a particular time? Will authorities be allowed to passport money to other authorities if they perceive that there is some benefit to them?
Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) joked about his constituents not wanting to pay for Luton, there might be an interest in a Luton airport expansion that provided some money for the region. That might be legitimate, but such a scenario might also be legitimate in relation to the extension of a motorway or a spur road that may not be within a particular council area, but may have an impact on businesses or vehicles going to that area. In East Anglia, for example, there are some quite isolated communities. Improving roads 20 or 30 miles away might have a benefit. We need to know how money can be moved around, so we need much more detail. I hope that the Public Bill Committee will be given that when it considers this important proposal.
I raised conservation areas earlier. If more freedoms are introduced for people involved in the planning control system, will the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda)—if he is winding up the debate—tell us how that will impact on conservation areas? Clearly, there will be concerns that if people are allowed to do various things in Georgian areas, even if they are environmentally friendly, that might have an impact. We need a clear statement on where we stand.
We need a little more information about what can be done about development control, which most of my constituents consider a serious issue. There are a lot of people in Poole who use the planning system to get what they want—plus a bit. They create valuable developments by breaking the spirit of the system, and sometimes by deliberately breaking the law. We can all be blasé about the millions of pounds that are made through planning applications, and there have been a lot of major developments, especially infill developments, in Poole. The system does not give local authorities’ development control people enough clout to deal with those who wilfully try to ride roughshod over the system. The fines need to be substantially higher, and the process and timetable to deal with such transgressions need to be faster. As the Bill goes through the House, especially in Committee, I hope that Ministers will look carefully at the real value that people get. Many development control officers are at a great disadvantage when dealing with people who break rules and regulations and ride roughshod over the system. The Bill might be an opportunity to deal with that problem.
We have heard the Bill described as a house with no furniture. Although I welcome some aspects of it, we will need a lot of detail before we will know whether its architecture will work well. The Government must be careful about national planning statements, and the infrastructure planning commission is probably a move in the wrong direction. Like many hon. Members who have spoken, I think that it would have been better to have gone down the route of the Planning Inspectorate. The community infrastructure levy—if it is a levy— represents a much better way of raising money, given its transparency and the fact that it should be simpler. More importantly, while complicated section 106 agreements employ lawyers for ever—some cases take two years—the measure should cut a lot of lawyers’ bills and the effort that they have to put into the planning system. If the proposal speeds up the system and allows people to do their calculations, it will be welcomed by both industry and those in government.
Opportunities have been missed, however, so I hope that the Minister will at least look at whether we can increase fines and the powers of local authorities so that they can deal with people who transgress. Problems are being caused by the great shortage of decent planning officers because the private sector has taken good planning officers from the public sector to become private consultants. Nevertheless, we need to strengthen our local authorities’ ability to deal with those who transgress.
We have heard a lot about respect for local democracy and communities’ input into planning decisions. That is to be devoutly welcomed, because we have probably all been involved in that process at some point in our careers. However, we must ask ourselves whether a planning system that is built on that premise is fit for purpose in the modern age. Unfortunately, given that addressing climate change is probably the most compelling political driver of national policy, and that one of the most powerful ways of addressing climate change is to decarbonise our energy economy by deploying renewable electricity generation as rapidly as possible, we are not doing terribly well.
If we pursue a position of “business as usual” in all circumstances that either help or make life difficult for renewable energy developers, the renewable energy generation target of 10 per cent. by 2010 will be quite unattainable, while the target of 20 per cent. by 2020 also looks more than a little sick. We have a country with some of the richest raw renewable energy sources in the world, yet we are failing to make progress. That is a bizarre and unacceptable fact, and we cannot go on that way, which is one compelling reason why we must address the planning system.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that we have enormous renewable energy resources. We certainly have more wind resources than Germany, a country that has developed much more renewable energy than us, but which has achieved that mostly through feed-in tariffs that give a guaranteed price for renewable energy. Would not such a measure make a more significant difference than anything in the Bill?
I am aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. He is quite right about the fiscal measures, but we have a multi-factorial situation. Fiscal measures are one factor, while the planning system is an equally important factor in determining progress on renewables in the UK. We need to get all the factors right, and we are addressing the planning system today.
At present, we face the problem that planning and environmental consenting procedures incur enormous delays, both on land and at sea. While onshore wind farms attract most controversy, it is a sad fact that the environmental consenting procedure for a major offshore wind farm in this country takes twice as long—more than three years—as in Denmark or Germany. That lead time creates a deterrent to investors and means that we do not get carbon-free energy as quickly as we might.
A further problem is that even when such projects receive consent, nothing can be done, because they cannot access the national grid due to its inadequacy. The strengthening of the grid is affected by the planning system because, under the present system, it can take 10 years to agree a grid line. In part, that is because such a line would inevitably pass through several planning authorities, all of which must give consent at every stage. There is clearly a lot of logic behind the infrastructure planning commission, which, in the context of climate change, will be essential.
The UK is breaking new ground with the Climate Change Bill. As far as I understand, the principle behind that Bill is universally accepted throughout the House. No one will stand up in the Chamber to say, “We shouldn’t be cutting our carbon emissions.” However, whether that Bill is ambitious enough or not, it will be quite useless unless we put in place the nuts and bolts in other legislation that will actually deliver carbon savings. The planning system happens to be one of those nuts and bolts.
There are 200 wind farm applications stuck in the planning system. That represents 8,000 GW of capacity that is desperately needed if we are to meet our renewables targets. Streamlining the process is therefore vital. I will not argue about whether the IPC is the right mechanism. Tonight, I have heard interesting arguments for and against it, but I do not know how different, in practice, it will be from the existing system of planning inquiries. However, it is important to note that infrastructure projects will be referred to it. An infrastructure project is not necessarily local. A grid line cannot be regarded as local; it can run for hundreds of miles. The sources of renewable energy are not located conveniently in the areas where we want to use electricity, or where we live. They may be off the north-west coast of Scotland or elsewhere, so the issue is very much national, and it is increasingly supranational. We must have a mechanism that can transcend the essentially local nature of our planning system. The IPC will at least do that.
Of course, we have another problem: the process stops at the border with Scotland. I shall be interested to hear from Ministers on how they envisage our future relationship with the Scottish Parliament on planning, when it comes to dealing with infrastructure issues that affect both countries. Those issues probably affect us more than Scotland, because Scotland has more of the renewable resources that we want to access, but it has the legislative power to enable the exploitation of those resources. I have not heard that issue mentioned so far in this debate; it needs to be seriously addressed if we are to succeed. Not all of devolution was easy, and the issue that we are discussing is one of its more difficult aspects.
There is another interesting point about the commission. I have spent the last two hours of the debate reading the clauses on the operation of hearings. To take once again the example of a grid line, if it goes through four or five counties, will they all be represented at the hearing? What mechanism is there for trying to select the people who will present their case at the hearings? If, for example, a six-month timetable was set, and a great many people wanted and demanded to be heard in the public hearings, it could become impossible to work the system. That is a practical issue on the conduct of hearings that the Government will need to think about carefully.
The Government need to think a little more about the definitions on renewable energy projects that have been set for the reference of the commission. The 50 MW limit for onshore projects is probably reasonable. That leaves a lot of the probably more controversial local projects to be decided on under the current local planning system, and I do not argue with that. However, the 100 MW offshore limit will create, or rather will fail to resolve, problems for marine technologies.
It is one thing for a 100 MW-plus wind farm to carry the significant costs of the environmental impact assessment that has to be done, and that will presumably continue to have to be done. Such assessments are among the things that take up the most time. The same exacting requirements are placed on much smaller projects involving new marine technologies, such as wave and tidal stream power. Those projects are inevitably smaller, because the technologies are only just emerging into the commercial world, but such projects still have to undertake an environmental impact assessment of the same rigorousness. It takes just the same time, and costs just as much, whatever the size of the project. Let us say that a person who is putting in place the first 1.2 MW commercial demonstrator machine has to pay £2 million for an environmental impact assessment. It would cost the same amount if they were developing a 100 MW wind farm, but if we think of the amount as a percentage of the project costs, it starts to become very burdensome for smaller projects.
I agree with the British Wind Energy Association’s suggestion that, for marine projects, we should amend the Secretary of State’s reference limits to a level much lower than 100 MW. In practice, although newer technologies are developing, initially they will produce only 10 or 20 MW at a time. Inevitably, it will take them years to get up to the 100 MW level. One cannot entirely eliminate the development phase; it is crucial if we are later to get the very large yields of power that such technologies can deliver, and if they are to contribute to our carbon-saving ambitions. I strongly suggest that Ministers consider reducing that 100 MW level for all offshore marine projects, possibly to 10 MW or even lower. Perhaps they should do so specifically for non-wind projects. Certainly, non-wind projects need that help.
There is potential for considerable improvement to the IPC. However, irrespective of its form and the details of its operation, the single most important thing about it is the strict time scales in which it will operate, which mean that we can potentially save years in the planning part of the development cycle. We will reap the dividends in the form of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide that will not be emitted and vital new green industries that will be set up in this country.
That does not alter the problem of all those projects that are still stuck in the planning system, because the new system will not be operational until 2009. My plea on behalf of the developers of such projects is for Ministers to do all that they can to take a stick to local authorities to make them produce quicker decisions. They should also take a stick to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, because it takes an enormous amount of time to deliver consents under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. Interestingly, most of those consents are for Scotland. We have a curate’s egg of a situation: in some respects, we have all sorts of powers over things that happen in Scotland, yet in other respects we do not.
The existing great mix of responsibilities with respect to planning and consents needs to be resolved. The Bill represents an important step on the road towards achieving that, but there are a few important details that need to be considered carefully.
I shall concentrate my remarks on clause 5, on national policy statements, and clause 9, on sustainable development. I rise to speak because I am interested in the subject, but my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) would be here in my stead had he not been called to another engagement. I am not seeking a place on the Committee, but I am sure that he would pleased to be invited to serve on it.
I speak as a Welsh MP, and I should first refer to the use of the word “national” by the Secretary of State, throughout her remarks, and by other hon. Members. There are concerns about the accountability of the infrastructure planning commission. In Wales, we have the National Assembly, which is democratic and accountable and takes decisions on planning matters in Wales. I would like the Minister at least to give the House an assurance that the Bill will not in any way limit or curtail the National Assembly Government’s current planning responsibilities.
I want to deal with three main matters of specifically Welsh importance. The first of those is the infrastructure planning commission—yet another body that will operate on an “England and Wales” basis despite our having the National Assembly for Wales. Some aspects of its work will be concerned with England only, but the national context is unclear and can be contested in some respects. In clause 15(1), it is sometimes “wholly in England”, sometimes “wholly in Wales”, sometimes
“partly in England and partly in Wales”,
“partly in England and partly in Scotland, subject to subsection (2).”
When the definition of “national” is so unclear, what can be the basis of decisions in national policy statements? Clause 13(1) lists nationally significant projects—that is, “national” as defined by those projects that are national. This is a self-referring source of definition—an operational definition, perhaps, which is sometimes useful. In effect, however, “national” is defined in the context of what are nationally significant projects. Under clause 13(3), the Secretary of State may amend the list of nationally significant projects by order for England, but not for Wales. In some ways, “national”, as far as England is concerned, is what the Secretary of State says it is. It is very confusing.
In terms of the national Welsh interest, I could cite examples such as the gas pipeline running from west Wales to the Welsh border with England. If one defines “national” as relating to Britain or to England and Wales, that is certainly a project of national importance with great benefits for end-users, but one would question its benefits for Wales. The route of the pipeline has caused huge controversy, with sit-ins and demonstrations throughout south Wales, and the environmental degradation that has occurred in many constituencies has been a matter of hot dispute. We have had bitter experience in the past of projects that are apparently of national importance but have a deleterious effect in Wales. In 1936, a school was established in my constituency, for national reasons, to teach aerial bombardment. I will not go into that piece of history, but there was a great deal of opposition locally. In the neighbouring constituency of Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, in the valley near Bala, the Tryweryn river was dammed, and people were ejected from their homes. There were huge national demonstrations, and every MP from Wales bar one voted against it in this place. The idea of the national interest is not clear in the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will be able to address that in Committee.
The question for me, as a Welsh MP, is: why not devolve these planning matters, including building regulations, to the National Assembly Government—the democratically elected and accountable body that covers Wales and already considers such matters? The Assembly Government could establish a body similar to the IPC, which would want to work closely with the IPC in England. A prime example of the issues that it might consider, and a matter of immediate concern for us in Wales, would be the Severn barrage. We consume more electricity than we produce, despite the fact that we sit on huge reserves of coal and have huge potential alternative sources of energy. The Severn barrage could power a regeneration in manufacturing industry in south Wales. That is a national Welsh question that could be addressed by a similar body in Wales. Throughout Wales, we have the potential for all kinds of power generation from wind, wave current, hydroelectric and even pump storage schemes, many of them over 50 MW. Hon. Members might want to refer to the report on energy by the Welsh Affairs Committee, which explored those matters in great detail; it is not as if I am springing a surprise on anyone. The difficulty that the Government might face, or want to point to, is the nuclear question. I am prepared to say that reserving that to the UK Parliament might be one potential solution, although I would not happy with it. Will the Minister at least assure me that there will be no diminution of or interference in the powers of the National Assembly?
My second point is the appointment of commissioners. Will they be appointed on the basis of expertise in their subject or, as the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) suggested, expertise in judging matters and coming to decisions irrespective of technical expertise? Will they reflect particular sectors of the economy or regional interests? Under the Bill, the National Assembly will be able to nominate a commissioner for Wales. At some point, that commissioner might sit as a single decision maker instead of decisions being made by 60 directly elected and accountable Members of the National Assembly. That is the second-best option, to say the least. Clause 62 says that when there are exclusively Welsh matters to be considered, the Welsh commissioner will be appointed to the panel “if reasonably practicable”. That means that the commissioners might be deciding on land use in Wales with a Welsh commissioner only if it is reasonably practicable; presumably, it might not be, and the other commissioners will have no connection with Wales. As an aside, I refer hon. Members to the Welsh Language Act 1993, which says that English and Welsh are to be treated on the basis of equality when it is
“appropriate in the circumstances and reasonably practicable”.
That little phrase has been the subject of a huge amount of controversy in Wales, and rightly so. We are about to have a commissioner appointed to consider matters in Wales “if reasonably practicable”. In what sense, therefore, will the commission be accountable to the people of Wales or to the National Assembly for Wales?
Schedule 1 deals with the infrastructure planning commission. When appointing commissioners, it is reasonable to expect them to have some knowledge or ability to perform functions in accordance with the pursuit of sustainable development. That is another imperative we might bear in mind when appointing commissioners.
Will there be an IPC office in Wales? Will the IPC act in accordance with the Welsh Language Act 1993? Compliance among similar bodies has been something of an afterthought—usually when someone such as me complains. In contrast, when the office of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales was established, it was bilingual from day one. It has a bilingual site, and people are able to present information in Welsh and English. These are not minor matters as far as Wales is concerned, and I would like the Minister to assure us that the Government will take a proactive stance in discussing them with the Welsh Language Board, which has the statutory responsibility in this field, rather than wait until someone such as me gets up to complain.
I turn to broader issues relating to sustainable development. Clause 9 is weak because it applies only to the drawing up and reviewing of national policy statements, not to the work of the infrastructure planning commission, and it provides no definition of sustainable development. I compare that to the Government of Wales Act 2006, in which the National Assembly for Wales is charged with the duty of acting in a manner consistent with sustainable development. Clause 9 contains two short sentences, but section 79 of the 2006 Act says that Welsh Ministers must
“make a scheme…to promote sustainable development”.
Clause 9, on the other hand, says
“with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.”
We are talking about two different things—promoting and contributing. From time to time, the Welsh Assembly Government have had to revise their scheme. Before doing so, they must consult and publish the revisions, and at the end of every financial year, Welsh Ministers must publish a report on how the proposals set out in the sustainable development scheme were implemented in that financial year. Such sustainable development provisions would be very welcome and would strengthen the Bill immeasurably; I commend them to the Government. They were passed by this Government, after all, in the 2006 Act.
Under clause 9 there are several matters that the Secretary of State should consider in carrying out the duty of contributing to sustainable development. They include international obligations, for example, under the habitats directive. One thinks of the Severn barrage and the intertidal zone that might be lost there. There are several international implications.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, and I am particularly interested in his comments on sustainable development. The Government have laid out their criteria for sustainable development, but they do not underpin this policy and there will not be a duty on the commission. Does he think that the Government would be open to judicial review on the grounds that their policy could easily be contradicted directly by the commission in practice?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. That might very well be the case, and other hon. Members have remarked on the lack of joined-up thinking, or joined-down thinking in the case of this Bill, with respect to the Government’s other policies.
The other matters that should be considered under clause 9 are the carbon implications—targets set up for carbon emissions established under the Climate Change Bill—and the biodiversity duty in section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which deals with constraints on various resources such as water and land. We may also need to consider possible alternative policies to respond to increases in demand, such as taxation or expenditure on rail as an alternative to runways. A huge number of points could be considered.
Expanding the range of national policy statements referred to in clause 5(1) could include nature conservation or different options to manage demand and to manage the pressure for infrastructure development. There are several ways to go about that. We could add to clause 5 requirements to include in national policy statements an account of the conclusions arrived at under the sustainable development provisions in clause 9, so that one would inform the other. In clause 94, we could include a requirement for the IPC to consider sustainable development when dealing with applications for infrastructure development, rather than just having the Secretary of State consider such matters when drawing up policy statements. The IPC could consider them as well.
Lastly, there is the question of consultation and the right to be heard. The point about airports is not a matter for Wales—it is restricted to England for very good reasons—but there is a strong argument for listening to the views of people who will be affected by aircraft noise, not just people in the immediate environment of the runway. Those considerations are very serious and have persuaded me, and my hon. Friends in the Scottish National party, to oppose the Bill at this stage.
This is an important Bill. I would not extend its importance as far back as Cromwell, as the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) did, but from the Secretary of State’s point of view it does go back as far as Dalton in 1947. It will set out the planning processes for the forthcoming generation.
The Bill is also important for my constituents because the first major infrastructure project likely to be considered under the new process will be the third runway and the sixth terminal at Heathrow, which could lead to 10,000 of my constituents losing their homes and the demolition of three of their primary schools. It would mean the largest forcible removal of people from their communities since the Scottish clearances. I have looked at the latest consultation document and the new flight paths, and we now know—as we predicted—that BAA has made a proposal for an extended runway, not a short-take off one, which will impact on St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s mediaeval church in my constituency, and St. Mary’s in Harmondsworth—a church with a 1,000-year history. We think that they will be rendered unusable, and we will be back where we were three years ago, with proposals to disinter our dead because of this plan. The Bill is important for me, my constituents and my communities.
Much has been made of the experience of terminal 5, and I agree that the genesis of the Bill does come partly from the experience of terminal 5. However, it also comes from a lobby by BAA and the aviation industry over a long period, in their planning for the third runway and the sixth terminal and, I say to this House, in their planning for a fourth runway and a seventh terminal in due course, as admitted by former BAA policy planners. The Prime Minister, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, appointed not just one, but two experts to develop the Barker report and the Eddington report on transport and planning. To the shock, horror and amazement of all Members, I am sure, the appointment of the former chief executive of British Airways resulted in proposals to expand airports.
Of course, Sir Rod Eddington came to it with a balanced view gained from his aviation background, and ignored all other representations made by any other sector of industry in this country.
I have experience, too. I was at the terminal 4 inquiry. I gave evidence to the terminal 5 inquiry. I have been involved in every major planning issue to do with Heathrow for more than 30 years.
There is a sense of irony that BAA and even the Government are arguing that delays in the terminal 5 process have contributed to the introduction of the Bill. I was at the terminal 5 inquiry and the delays that I witnessed were caused by BAA—the developers. It continuously changed the proposals it was advocating, it changed its position almost weekly and it used banks of lawyers and experts who swamped the timetable of considerations at the inquiry. That is understandable—it was difficult for BAA. It was trying to prove an unsustainable argument: that the airport could be virtually doubled at terminal 5 without any impact on noise, air pollution or local communities. It used expert after expert, year after year, to try to press that argument.
Others, including the London borough of Hillingdon, the anti-noise group HACAN ClearSkies, the residents associations and Friends of the Earth were more limited. I congratulate them on the expeditious presentation of their arguments. They wanted to arrive at a decision. They were poorly resourced, but they intervened well at the inquiry.
My hon. Friend speaks persuasively about Heathrow, the largest passenger airport in the country. The largest numbers of freight aircraft use East Midlands airport, and it is not entirely a flight of fancy to envisage that the Government, in their fourth term, or perhaps another Government, might desire a second runway at that airport and ram it through using the infrastructure planning commission. That would mean a total lack of accountability against all the environmental, community and economic considerations. That is an open invitation for a judicial review, is it not?
Unless the Bill is amended significantly, I warn those hon. Members who may have a major potential development in their area—an airport, or any other hazardous development, such as a nuclear power facility—that their constituents’ voices will not be heard. I warn those hon. Members that the process will enable Governments, developers and those who want to make profit out of the degradation of our local environments to ride roughshod over local views.
The issues that were thrown up by the terminal 5 inquiry included the management of the process, the number of applications, the changes in applications during the process and the timetabling, but from my point of view they also included time wasting and the fact that no sanctions were applied against the developer who was wasting that time.
Delays were obvious throughout that inquiry, and I believe that inspectors have commented on them. There was also a lack of resources for the objectors. However, the decision making was consistent and balanced. I did not agree with the decision of the inspector at the terminal 5 inquiry, Mr. Vandermeer, but I understood it. My constituents did not agree, but they understood. It was balanced: terminal 5 would be allowed, but there would be no further impact on noise, pollution or local communities.
Even BAA agreed with the decision. Why did it agree? It agreed because its representatives stood up at the inquiry and promised that if it got terminal 5 there would be no representations for a third runway or sixth terminal. BAA wrote to me and my constituents and informed us accordingly. Its representatives stood by my side at a public meeting to assure my constituents that if BAA got terminal 5 it would not press for a third runway or future expansion at Heathrow. That was accepted by the Government.
The then Secretary of State for Transport stood up in this Chamber, accepted the inspector’s decision and capped air traffic movements at Heathrow, and said that there would be no further expansion of Heathrow on the basis of the inquiry. A consistent decision was made at the inquiry based on the evidence, and the Government adopted due process. That proved to be a deceit by BAA. We now know that while it was writing to me and my constituents and standing on platforms with me, it had started the lobby for the third runway and the sixth terminal. It was lobbying within months. Within 24 months, the Government had started the process of the development of the third runway and sixth terminal. The failure in the system was not the inquiry or the planning process, per se, but decision making at ministerial level, unduly influenced by the aviation industry.
The aviation White Paper enabled the Government to dress up the decision to go forward and fed into the process of developing the Bill; it took no account of the climate change considerations at the heart of Government. We now know that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer was developing the various discussions on the impact of climate change while the aviation White Paper was being developed. The White Paper largely ignored the Government’s integrated transport policies and the views of the Mayor of London, local authorities and the local people who would be affected by the major expansion of airports, not only at Heathrow but at airports all over the country.
So, what is the situation now? We are now operating in a hybrid system. It is the worst of all worlds. The aviation White Paper was drafted and dominated by the aviation industry lobbying the former Chancellor. The consultation paper that will be out for the next few months was drafted and virtually dictated by BAA, with the evidence modelled by BAA—that is the information that we have received under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The consultation is degenerating into farce. There will not even be an exhibition held in the village—Sipson—that will be wiped out by the sixth terminal, as the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) pointed out during questions last week.
We are told that we need to await a planning application. To be frank, following statements made by the Prime Minister in his speech to the City of London, by the Secretary of State for Transport and throughout the media, what inquiry into the extension of Heathrow can be held in a free and fair atmosphere?
I am worried that the new system takes the worst of the current system and removes the best. A pre-application consultation is promised. Those who have experienced pre-application consultations by developers will assure hon. Members that they are not independent. Who drafts the reports? The developer. Will they be open to challenge? They never are. Will they be open to amendment in the light of the challenges put forward by those on whom any development will have an impact? No, they will not. Are they consensual? No. They provide no protection. At inquiries under the new system, will there be a right to be heard? No. There will be the potential of open-floor sessions. That is not the same as the right to be heard; it is a privilege to turn up only. Will objectors be able, as a right, to interrogate witnesses? No. The inquiry process from the objectors’ point of view will be gutted by the proposals, as far as I can see.
I welcome the additional resources in the Bill, including the additional £1.5 million for Planning Aid, which might help objectors. However, if there are to be 45 major infrastructure developments a year, as we have been told by the Secretary of State, the £1.5 million allocated to Planning Aid to assist local objectors, residents and environmental groups is trivial. It will in no way enable those groups to have an effective voice in the process.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument. Does he agree that the central question, when all the inquiry business is finished, is whether the inquirers—the commission—will be able to say “no” to the projects? Will it have that independence of thought and ability? Is not that the crucial question?
That is a valid point. Will the individual members of the commission be independent? A lot will depend on their appointment and the processes of that appointment. What worries me even more is that the commission, as the decision maker, will not be politically accountable. Whatever we think about the process at the moment, a Secretary of State—accountable to the House and, ultimately, to the electorate—signs off the final decision on major infrastructure projects. That is democracy. I believe that the commission’s insertion between the electorate—those who will endure the planning decisions—and the House means that overall accountability breaks down. I accept the point of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and I, too, am concerned about commission members’ independence, but independence sometimes derives from accountability when people feel that they can be held to account throughout the due processes.
I asked the Secretary of State about the status of the policy statements and whether they would be amendable in the House. Her response was that there would be scrutiny, but that is not the same as being capable of amendment. Policy statements will therefore be similar to the aviation White Paper, and limited in their consultation—the Bill contains no details of the methods of consultation. They will not be capable of amendment by the House and will therefore pre-empt local decisions because they are not simply general policy statements but can relate to specific geographical areas and projects.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I am short of time.
Any attempt to incorporate the aviation White Paper into a policy statement would be an abuse of power because it has not gone through the exhaustive process of consultation, dialogue and discussion that any policy statement would be expected to undergo, especially in my community.
There is a genuine problem with the Bill, which could undermine confidence in the planning system. Yes, there is need for reform, but not this one. The measure is a retrograde step. We need a progressive reform based on openness, transparency, equality of opportunity and of resourcing, firm rights and independent and consistent decision making. We want democratic reform. I warn the Government that, if trust in the process breaks down, people will look to other means to express their views.
The climate camp came to my constituency in the summer and I welcomed it. I had the best political discussion about climate change that I have had anywhere. Those who came to the camp operated effectively. Two thousand people turned up overnight, set up a camp, operated peacefully, made their protest and pushed the issue up the media’s agenda and that of us all. There is no guarantee in future that, if the Government undermine confidence and trust in the political process, similar direct action will not spill over into other forms of action, which the Government and all of us would regret. The impact of the Bill could be that important.
I urge the Government to think again and consider how the Bill can be used to ensure proper and democratic involvement at every level so that people are properly resourced and have equal access to the decision-making process. I will table amendments to try to make that happen. I will not support the Bill tonight and I will support it in future only if it is significantly amended.
It is a pleasure and a challenge to follow the contribution of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who highlighted the concerns of many that the Bill might hand a bulldozer to some developers.
I want to focus on issues that worry my constituents and others throughout the country. When talk began about introducing a planning Bill so soon after the previous planning measure, those who were somewhat bruised by their experiences with the planning system hoped that they would find changes to create a fairer, more open and more democratic system. Doubtless, all hon. Members have been approached by constituents who felt that the planning system had let them down, in the hope that the local Member of Parliament could somehow overturn the decision. The Bill will do nothing to help them.
We are living at a time of rapid change in patterns of settlement, ways of life and forms of employment. Industry is growing in some areas and shrinking in others. The planning system needs to provide a built environment that can deliver a good standard of living and deal with employment opportunities. It must be able to keep up with change.
Planning should also inspire people. It should encourage communities to come together to discuss the future of their place, which is special to them and to which they all contribute. There is no sense out there that the planning system currently does that. Planning has become a dirty word. Planning departments are known as development control departments and committees are often known as development control committees. That is a shame because it undermines the profession of planners and the role that people can play in shaping their communities’ future. The measure is entitled the Planning Bill but it fails to fulfil people’s aspirations.
The hon. Gentleman is right that, rather than acting as a catalyst for popular involvement, the Bill presents an obstacle to the planning system’s becoming more democratically accountable. However, it is worse than that. Does not the measure also transfer power away from the House—indeed, from the Executive, which is ironic? The Bill is fundamentally undemocratic and therefore virtually indefensible.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that other hon. Members raised during the debate, and he is right.
My constituents would say that they want a planning system that takes account of their opinions and needs. They may have a local authority, which has done a good job in the local development process of trying to involve people through the means available. However, we should ask ourselves how many people in our constituencies know that that process is going on, how many respond and how many feel that their comments will be considered. I would like the Bill, and the things that may be added to it as it progresses, to provide for giving a greater variety of tools to local communities through their local authorities to listen to opinions and reflect needs.
Cornwall is deemed to be part of the south-west. The regional spatial strategy process is even more remote from people, yet in many ways more crucial because the local development framework has to match the priorities set by it. We therefore have a process whereby an unelected regional assembly—I support elected regional government; I happen to believe that Cornwall by itself is an elected region, but that debate is for another day—makes important decisions. From visiting parish councils and talking to people at all sorts of forums in my constituency, I found that they were unaware of the importance of the regional spatial strategy and of what role they should play in trying to influence it. The Bill’s provisions to grant new powers to local authority members through appeals panels are a more welcome development, and I should like them to be explored further.
An alternative vision is perhaps that of the parish plan process, which I have witnessed at first hand in my constituency. It is all about local communities coming together and setting priorities for the future. It works effectively in a rural area, and I accept that other hon. Members may have a view about how well it works in more urban areas. However, the process encourages me to believe that we need not fear the spectre of nimbyism. In a place such as North Cornwall, where people might be expected to fear housing development, many rural communities have found the evidence, through the parish plan process, that they need extra housing. They have thus reached a view that they would like more housing, especially affordable housing, in their community. We have the rather odd position whereby the local authority must, as part of the regional spatial strategy process, argue for more housing. Perhaps people in the south-east would find that odd.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the flaws in the unelected regional assembly process of regional spatial strategies. My constituency is almost as close to Scotland as it is to his, yet we are in the same south-west region, which imposes too much housing on relatively prosperous towns such as mine but does not give Cornwall the housing that it wants and needs.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend and I have discussed at length the odd situation in which we find ourselves, with one community wanting more housing and the other having housing that it does not want thrust upon it. However, that does not reflect on those in the regional assembly and its partners, who have taken the process forward; rather, they have been given an impossible job to do.
The concept of a third-party appeal has been raised, including by the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who made a good contribution to the debate. He paid tribute to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who was in the Chamber earlier, and they both made the point that, as my party has maintained for a number of years, there must be a form of redress where a community can show that a decision adversely affects it. All the cards are currently in the hands of the developer. If the developer loses, a further application can be submitted, albeit in slightly changed circumstances, that may win approval, or the decision can go to appeal. The same cannot be said for those in a community who have to live with the results of a bad decision.
I spoke earlier about this time of change. I can give some examples of how changing patterns are affecting my constituency and of how the planning system is not providing the local authority with the tools that it needs to address them. The issue of studentification has been raised, and might also be mentioned by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), if she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Studentification happens where a group of people is encouraged into an area in a perhaps unsustainable way, because the market is allowing developers who wish to provide student housing in that way, but where the local authority has no tools to prevent that from happening.
The example in my constituency is second homes. We have coastal communities that are ghost towns in the winter, and shops, businesses, pubs and schools that are under threat because rural communities have become dominated by second homes and holiday homes. Fiscal measures will not be enough to tackle those issues. In Rock, for instance, where semi-detached houses change hands for millions of pounds, a small increase in council tax or something of that nature will not deter those sorts of purchases. What is required is the ability of a local authority to distinguish types of residential accommodation through use class orders. I am aware that that does not require primary legislation, but I would like something in the Bill explicitly setting out a route for a local authority to interact with the Secretary of State in order to ask for different use class orders that are appropriate to that local situation and which the Secretary of State could consider and respond to.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, St. Minver near Rock has an excellent community land trust, and I say that as a born and bred Cornishman. Does he agree that the tools relating to definitions of types of housing that are available to local authorities—in his case North Cornwall district council—are indeed helpful, but that related laws, such as the charities laws, often hold land trusts back? Cornwall has an excellent reputation in developing such trusts. Does he agree that it is often the failure to understand the holistic bounds or, as it were, restrictions of the law that holds trusts back?
The hon. Gentleman refers to community land trusts and the provision of more affordable housing. He is right that Cornwall has led the way on that. Indeed, there are some exciting schemes coming forward in my constituency. However, we would perhaps not need so many community land trusts if the houses that are already there were not being used as second homes. If that housing was available to be occupied by local people—people who are often on low incomes, but who have strong connections in the area—we would not need further development. However, of course community land trusts are welcome, and I share the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for them.
In all those ways, local communities and local people are suffering the ill effects of the market not delivering in a way that meets the needs of that community. Local authorities do not have the tools to stand against the market and intervene so as to secure a future that their communities would like. Some process for discussing the use of use class orders would therefore be useful.
A further example is Newquay in my constituency, where family hotels have become bunkhouses, which are used for events such as stag dos and end-of-term parties by people seeking cheap accommodation. The owners rip out the kitchens from the hotels so that they can put in more bunk beds. What was a hotel that was part of the community changes hugely, with late-night disturbances occurring. My constituents find that a problem. Again, however, there is no distinction between types of hotel in planning law. I would like a change in that respect.
The Bill does not seem to be driven by that local desire to strengthen and enrich communities, but by a top-down commitment to dictate where houses can and cannot be sited and where, for example, nuclear waste dumps can be located. We have talked about communities with nuclear generating facilities in them. Those communities are used to the issues and can see what is coming, but we as a country still do not have a solution to the waste problem. People will look carefully at the Bill and at what it means for those debates.
I would prefer a planning system to emerge from the Bill that gave greater opportunity to people at the local level and that encouraged them to participate in the planning process, in order to be part of shaping communities that are fit for purpose and sustainable. I am delighted to welcome the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who is in his place, for pushing it through. That Act will of course contribute to the process. I would like a Bill that reclaimed the word “planning” from the list of dirty words and made it synonymous with “community engagement”. As it stands, the Bill does not do that. I hope that it will be improved as it moves through the House, although at the moment I remain to be convinced that it should continue in that process.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). I agree with a number of his points about the lack of balance in some of our communities. However, I start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who is not in his place now, in one respect, namely on the importance of planning to our communities. I represent a beautiful historic city, and I definitely receive more queries and hear more concerns about planning than any other issue.
I welcome most of the Bill. Perhaps quite unusually, I want to address my comments to parts 9 and 10. Before doing so, however, I want to comment on the climate change issues. It is obvious that more needs to be done through the planning system to tackle climate change. I am pleased that the Bill puts a duty on councils in preparing their local plans to take action on climate change, which is very much missing currently. Also, the proposals to allow householders to install small-scale renewable technology such as solar panels and wind turbines without planning permission but subject to safeguards and standards is to be welcomed, albeit with one major proviso, namely that the process must not contravene conservation area policies. I should like the Minister to give some reassurances in that respect.
The environmental impact of large-scale infrastructure projects will also need to be adequately evaluated against climate change criteria. Although the Bill goes some way towards improving the responsiveness of the planning system to the climate change agenda, unless the Government are careful, major infrastructure projects could work in the opposite direction. I hope that the legislation will make it clear that any large-scale infrastructure projects will need to contribute to our efforts to tackle climate change, rather than exacerbating it.
The voice of local people will need to be adequately represented to the infrastructure planning commission. The Minister will know that the need for a local community voice to be heard, and for adequate parliamentary scrutiny of national policy statements, is extremely important. Indeed, that issue formed a large part of the correspondence received about the Bill. Members from all parties have stressed the need for it to be made clear how the voice of the local community is to be heard by the infrastructure planning commission, and for that voice to be seriously taken on board.
I want to address most of my comments to parts 9 and 10. Part 9 seeks to amend the present system in regard to delegated powers for assessing planning permissions, and the appeals process that flows from that system. I appreciate that it is necessary to speed up and de-bureaucratise straightforward applications, especially when they are not contested. Nevertheless, I have concerns about this part of the Bill on which I would like the Minister to reassure me. First, will he assure me that delegated powers will be used only when a planning application is minor and when it faces no objections? It will be essential to establish that an authority has adequately informed all those who would be affected, and that proper processes are in place for doing so. It is not clear what would happen if objections were not received because the authority had not sent out accurate notices to all concerned. In addition, councils will need to be sure that incremental changes do not take place, and that, for example, policies to protect conservation areas remain intact. Certain incremental changes could perhaps go relatively unnoticed by a local authority.
I have grave concerns that appeals in such cases are to be referred to a local member review body, especially as things stand at the moment. The experience of the operation of the Licensing Act 2003 at local level shows that not all authorities are able to rise to the task of judging local licence applications. If the Government are to give a greater role to local councillors in judging planning applications, they will have to ensure that adequate training is put in place to enable them to undertake that role effectively. In particular, they must be able to gain access to external expertise if necessary; otherwise, we shall be placing a role on local authorities that they simply will not have the capacity to deliver.
I am also deeply concerned that the Government have made no effort to introduce third-party rights of appeal, even in a limited way. I understand that they are very nervous about that, and that the idea is horrendous to the civil servants involved. The Bill provides an opportunity, however, to implement very limited third-party rights of appeal and to test their significance on the whole planning system. We could then determine whether they would result in the horror that is sometimes anticipated. Surely it would be possible to allow them in clearly defined circumstances, to root out frivolous claims. Importantly, this would allow people to feel that they had a greater say in a system that at present often appears developer-led.
The Library briefing paper on the Bill notes that the response to the proposal for local member review boards was largely negative, mainly because of concerns about political bias. I understand that the Government have overturned that argument by saying that the boards could strengthen local accountability. On balance, I agree with that, but with the caveats, which I mentioned earlier, about the increased need for training and the need for absolute transparency in the process. I am not sure how that would be achieved, as Opposition-run councils often blame the Government of the day for their decisions anyway. I am not sure that the Government have worked out how to ensure that local authorities are made responsible for the decisions that they make.
My biggest problem with the Bill is the lack of any proposals to monitor the quality of decision making by local planning authorities. That is a huge missed opportunity. Current methods of assessment have a number of ways of evaluating local planning authorities, but they are largely target-driven. The decisions made by planning departments are really important, but I believe that we understate the importance of planning in general. The nature and form of the built environment affect us all. Decisions that are made in the planning process affect not only ourselves but future generations, because of the long-term nature of building. It has social justice, heritage and economic dimensions, as well as aesthetic and cultural factors, but little attention is paid to what is delivered or to whether it meets not only the objectives of the local plan but—more importantly—the expectations of the local community.
At present, there are few powers to intervene when something appears to be going wrong in the planning process. I do not see why the planning system cannot have something similar to the local involvement networks—LINks—system that has been set up for health. In such a system, local people, as part of a citizens’ panel with local experts, could scrutinise the actions of the local authority and produce a report once a year that had to be debated in the council. There would have to be a response to any recommendations that were made. It is important that such a panel should not consist of local councillors.
I want the Secretary of State and the Minister to give serious consideration to this proposal. It would not be expensive to implement, and it would do much to highlight and embed good planning practice across the country. In specific areas, it could also address some of the imbalance relating to pro-development policy, and deliver much-needed accountability into the planning system at local level. As with LINks, local councils could be charged with putting such a scrutiny panel together, under Government guidance.
Part 10 of the Bill introduces the community infrastructure levy. That seems a good idea, but like other Members I am not clear about how it will interact with section 106 agreements. I realise that clause 172 of the Bill relates to this issue, but I believe that further clarification is needed. It is a pity that the Bill does not insist that section 106 agreements be delivered by local authorities. I am sorry to have to criticise the Liberal Democrats, but they have said much about affordable housing in the debate. My area is faced with a Liberal Democrat council that took three years to adopt the affordable housing section of the local plan. Furthermore, since it did so in April this year, it has not put through one planning permission that has attracted affordable housing. The point that I want to make to the Minister is that it is good that we have section 106 agreements, but they need to be applied by local authorities. We also need to be clear about how they will relate to the community infrastructure levy.
I also welcome support for Planning Aid, but I would argue that it is not yet fit for the purpose outlined for it in the Bill. It has too much professional capture and in my opinion does not adequately address community issues or adequately support local community groups. If the Government are going to give greater support to Planning Aid, I hope that they will look very seriously at how that organisation is equipped to support community organisations as they seek to make their voice heard in the planning system.
I want to raise the issue of trees. A recent report from the London School of Economics states that, apart from Ireland, we are the most deforested country in Europe. It is a pity that the Bill did not take a greater opportunity to ensure that our trees are adequately protected. There are many examples from my own authority where tree preservation orders are simply disregarded in the planning system. I would really like to see a strengthening of legislation to protect trees.
One point about the community infrastructure levy that, as other Members have argued, is not clear at the moment is whether it is a betterment tax or a levy on the value of the whole development. Will the Minister say something more about that?
Lastly, I come to the issue of the need for sustainable and balanced communities. As mentioned earlier, we need an amendment to use class orders, whereby communities that have gone out of balance, as with some student areas or others, can be brought back in. Local authorities need additional tools to be able to tackle areas that have gone out of balance. I would like the Minister to make some proposals on how that issue can be addressed.
I begin by mentioning my entry on the Register of Members’ Interests as a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. If I may, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would also like to offer my apologies to you and indeed the House for being absent for 90 minutes; it was due to my making a contribution in a Committee upstairs. I am particularly sorry to have missed the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). He mentioned Swampy in a question, but I gather that his later contribution to the debate was a little more historical; I believe he gave us a gentle canter through history with reference to Oliver Cromwell, so I look forward to reading the record tomorrow.
As we have heard in a number of contributions, planning is one of those peculiar subjects that excites little interest in the abstract—indeed, we can see that on the Government Benches—but real passion and debate in practice. To be fair, I thought that the contribution of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was exemplary. He was a doughty fighter, who showed what he can do in standing up for his constituents, and I applaud him for that. The reason for the contradiction between the abstract and the practical is that planning shapes the world in which we both live and work. It determines what is built in our communities, and indeed where it is built. As we all know to our cost, bad planning decisions leave a permanent scare with which, frankly, many of have to live on a permanent and daily basis. That is why it is so important that we get the balance between efficiency and accountability right.
Over the past 10 years, the current Government have been in a muddle about how to manage the planning and development system. Instead of focusing on making development control function better, Ministers have commissioned an endless tide of studies and reviews. They have held consultations and briefings, but in the end have often ignored the findings of the whole process. They have wasted millions of pounds. Somewhere, there are acres of files of all those studies and reviews; in all that time, they have achieved almost nothing towards their proposed purpose.
Meanwhile, the Government have restructured the responsible Department no fewer than five times since 1997. That has cost a fortune, demoralised the staff and undermined effective policy development and implementation. As we have learned from recent biographies and so on, much of that upheaval, as Tony Blair has suggested, has simply been to accommodate the ego of his former deputy, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott).
My right hon. Friend shows his expertise in the subject and as a former Secretary of State, and he is right to say that we cannot somehow divorce those two subjects as if they have no relation. They are related and they should be dealt with in that way; he is quite right to make those points.
The Bill is the Government’s latest attempt to reform the current system, so let me start by welcoming its principal stated aim—to simplify how essential infrastructural projects secure planning permission. That is a worthy aim. For too long, projects of national importance have been treated in largely the same way as domestic planning applications. Thus we have seen the peculiarity of treating the installation of a major waterworks in much the same way as we would treat our neighbours’ extensions or loft conversions. There is no sense in that. Planning for our national infrastructure needs to be long term, holistic and proactive, and any development control or planning system must reflect that point.
Having made that broad general sweeping point, I would like in my remaining time to touch on three areas. The first is the infrastructure planning commission. Although I support the need to reform how we plan our national infrastructure, I have to tell the Minister that I have yet to hear an intelligent argument for setting up another democratically unaccountable quango—[Interruption.] I have heard arguments for it, but I am not sure that they have been intelligent.
The proposed commission would be responsible to the Secretary of State, but would not be directly accountable to this House or those whom we represent. I think that that is wrong in principle, and it will be viewed by the public with the greatest degree of scepticism. In my constituency, we are fighting the nonsensical plans for a second runway at Stansted airport and, I might add, speculative development on 1,500 acres of green-belt land. The idea that an unelected quango, which reports to Ministers and is appointed by them, should decide our fate would be seen by my constituents as both undemocratic and unacceptable.
On a practical note, the commission’s role seems frequently to overlap with those of a variety of other Government-inspired quangos, not least the new Homes and Communities Agency and the Government’s beloved regional quangos, the regional development agencies. I posed this question to the Secretary of State, but perhaps the Minister can provide a better answer. If the Homes and Communities Agency proposes a new eco-town settlement in one location, but the new commission envisaged by the Bill determines that the utilities, including power and water, and the road system should require a different location, who will arbitrate? What will actually happen? Who will be in charge? Will it be the Minister, and will there be an endless row and legal complaints? It will be interesting to see whether the Minister can respond. The Secretary of State tried to say that housing was nothing to do with the new commission. Indeed, but we cannot have a new town without roads, and we cannot have new houses without the water and electricity that go with them, so the idea that we can separate infrastructure from housing and assume that there will be no conflict is a mistake. I hope that the Minister will address that point.
It is true that there could be an argument for an independent body that sets a long-term framework for our national infrastructural needs. Such a body could be advisory, but it must be clearly independent of ministerial interference; indeed, it might work much as the chief scientific adviser works within the Whitehall machinery today. Several professional bodies, including the Institution of Civil Engineers as well as my own professional body, have made a powerful case for such a framework, but it would be more than is envisaged in the Bill, not least because it would provide an holistic approach rather than trying to detach utilities from roads, for example, or airports from the former. I would be grateful if the Minister expressed his views on that.
On a more detailed point, I notice that there seems to be no inclusion of flood defences in the list of nationally significant infrastructure projects. Given the various references in the debate to climate change and events earlier this year, perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that is deliberate or just an oversight.
I would like to deal briefly with the question of how the planning system will affect the development of our town centres, as the Bill contains some relevant powers. I am concerned that the future of our high streets is in peril—not just from the coming consumer slowdown, but more fundamentally because independent shops in traditional high streets face a wide range of issues that restrict them from competing. In the context of the Bill, I am particularly concerned about how the tests used in planning are being undermined by Ministers and their advisers. As the “Save Our Small Shops” campaign in the Evening Standard has shown, people value their local shops, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for those enterprises to remain in business.
In particular, and following reports from Kate Barker and the notorious Rod Eddington, I am concerned that the needs test may be removed by Ministers. The danger is that that could allow more out-of-town supermarkets at the expense of our town centres and local high streets. Competition between supermarkets is not the only issue. The planning system must have regard to the socio-economic and environmental importance of town centres and high streets. After all, a city whose centre is struggling is a community that is losing its heart. If we neglect that centre by permitting badly placed out-of-town developments, the result will be felt throughout the community. I say to Ministers, “Be very careful to whom you listen.” Thousands of independent firms need town centres that can compete, as indeed do many of our long-established businesses, such as the John Lewis Partnership. If Ministers loosen the planning system, they could undermine not just the independents, but the long-term town centre investment that we all want.
Part 10 deals with the community infrastructure levy. I welcome the Government’s second thoughts on their proposals for a planning gain supplement—a wise decision taken somewhat in elongated fashion, but they sort of got to the right decision in the end. The planning gain supplement was ill conceived and prematurely presented. Quite why it has not been repealed I do not know, but I hope—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the Government do not still have some bizarre hope of bringing it back in a different form. If they do, it will make the home information packs fiasco look like a glorious triumph.
Of course, there is no doubt that the way in which planning gain is captured financially needs to be reformed. I fully accept that. Section 106 agreements were fine when they began, but they have become a serious delay in planning decisions. The principles of that reform need to be based on a clear link between the proposed development and its local impact. Various Members have referred to that point. It means that any Treasury attempt to claw back moneys into its coffers or to do a little top-slicing for the regional quangos would be a serious mistake. Ministers have given a hazy response on the question of top-slicing.
Part 10, which introduces the levy, is nothing more than a blank cheque that Ministers expect us to approve, without any idea of what will be changed or indeed charged. For example, it provides for a levy, but does not say what will be levied. It provides for empowering authorities to charge a levy, but does not state exactly which authorities they will be. When it comes to the amount charged, and its collection and enforcement, we are asked to agree to the Government’s deciding all that later on, but without a full debate here in the Chamber.
I have to say to the Minister that that is an appalling way to legislate. When he was at the Treasury, the stamp duty land tax was introduced in the same haphazard way. The general message from the then Chief Secretary was, “We’ll correct it along the path.” We are being asked to agree to a tax on something yet to be defined by authorities yet to be named for an amount yet to be decided. Would it not have been wiser to introduce the measure in a few months, perhaps in its own Bill, after detailed discussions with the industry? For example, what exactly does the Bill mean by “community infrastructure”? I have seen various reports that the Minister for Housing has said that that could be negotiated locally. Although I understand the need for agreements to reflect specific and local circumstances, it would help everyone if some simple parameters were set to avoid protracted negotiations in each and every planning authority.
The need to reform and improve the planning system has been accepted on all sides, not least regarding our national infrastructure needs. Although there are some good measures here, I am extremely concerned that they have been undermined by Ministers failing to strike the balance between democratic accountability and administrative efficiency. If the Bill is given a Second Reading, I hope that Ministers will listen carefully to the debates on amendments tabled in Committee, even if they would change substantial parts of the Bill. We cannot have another planning Bill in a couple of years because we got it wrong again this time.
In the end, the effect of getting this legislation wrong will be not just an administrative problem, but something that we have to live with in every town, city and constituency, and that is visible to this and future generations. If the Prime Minister is looking for a legacy, I would advise him carefully to ensure that the Bill does not form part of it.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate. I want to focus on a specific issue. Although I will illustrate it with examples from my constituency, I am sure that many hon. Members know of similar examples from theirs.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned in her opening speech the issue of statutory consultees. I ask her to ensure that water companies become statutory consultees. That is important for the development of nationally significant infrastructure and for far more modest local developments such as housing. Although local planning authorities often consult local water companies, there is no obligation to do so. Clearly, submissions from water companies would carry much more weight if those companies were statutory consultees, as other utilities are.
Developments, whether large or small, produce additional sewage and surface water. Even if a new development provides for separate foul water and surface water systems on the development site or its immediate vicinity, all too often, further down the line, the foul water and the surface water enter existing systems. That puts increased pressure on existing and ageing structures, which causes particular problems when, as in my constituency of Llanelli, the original sewerage system has only one pipeline for sewage and surface water.
Two specific issues arise from the overloading of existing systems—pollution and foul water flooding. Water companies seek consents from the Environment Agency to discharge spills into the sea. In Llanelli, overloading the system has resulted in significantly more spills into the Burry inlet than the number Welsh Water is permitted. In today’s edition of The Western Mail, under the headline “Sewage overspills ‘turning nature sites into cesspit’”, we read that Welsh Water is permitted no more than 10 “storm” spills per year, but that in the year to December 2007, at two sewage treatment works that open into the Burry inlet, and at the Northumberland Avenue pumping station, there have been 111, 115 and 118 spills respectively. That is absolutely disgraceful and of major concern in respect of the quality of bathing water in an area that is trying to develop tourism.
In summer 2005, for example, Carmarthenshire county council’s environmental health department warned against bathing at Llanelli beach, but not only bathing is affected. This is a unique area for cockles, and pollution is of particular concern to me because of how it affects the local shellfish industry. Local cocklers have explained to me that the amount of sewage pollution—the faecal count, to be precise—is critical to how cockle beds are graded. The cocklers also explained that the concentration of sewage is considered to be responsible for the dreadful cockle mortality in 2005, which devastated the cockle beds and badly affected the livelihood of the cocklers.
The other effect of overloading sewerage systems is the increased risk of foul water flooding. Such flooding has occurred more than once in Nelson terrace, Llanelli. It was an absolutely disgusting event, which sadly was experienced by numerous families across Britain this summer. Although I welcome the new pumping system promised by Welsh Water for Cambrian place—I sincerely hope it will provide relief for the residents of Nelson terrace—it is an example of treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Of course Welsh Water should be doing everything possible to stop the spillages and reduce foul water flooding, but in the water company’s defence it has to be said that one of the major causes is undoubtedly the mushrooming of development. The sewage and surface water that result from such development ends up putting pressure on existing systems.
Water companies are also concerned because they are increasingly having to take over sewerage systems that developers have provided for developments here, there and everywhere. Apart from the water rates paid by the new occupants, which are revenue funding to provide water and sewerage, the companies do not get any capital moneys to cover the costs of adopting new sewerage systems or upgrading structures to cope with the effects of additional load further down the line.
For those reasons, I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that water companies are made statutory consultees. If that happens, they will have a duty to use their powers to the full. They would have to use their expertise to point out the full consequences of any proposed development on the whole sewerage system of an area. They must be listened to if we are to avoid polluting our beaches and seas and putting an increasing number of homes at risk from foul water flooding.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), with whom I share a rather bizarre niche interest in the form of both sewage and cockles, also for constituency reasons. Sewage is a problem in the north of my constituency, and cockles are enjoyed along the Thames. I was interested to hear about her constituency.
I was concerned when I looked at the Bill and only came to understand it when I saw it through the prism of potential case studies. I found the speech by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) incredibly powerful in relation to Heathrow. Prior to the debate, I jotted down one or two issues and inquiries that I could foresee. I thought that Heathrow, Stansted or the lower Thames crossing would be an acid test of whether the legislation can work, and, quite simply, it has failed the test.
There is a broad consensus that there is a problem with planning, but equally there is a broad consensus, demonstrated in the points raised, that the Bill creates as many problems, issues and confusions as it solves. In excellent and well-researched speeches, many hon. Members said that they have been confused about aspects of the Bill, that they need greater clarity and that it is not clear what is proposed. To push things beyond Second Reading and into secondary legislation is not good enough. That may be acceptable for the few people who have the privilege of serving on the Committee, but it is not acceptable for other hon. Members who want to debate such matters on the Floor of the House on Second Reading.
The disturbing thread running through the speeches is that having more planning and more development, and doing it faster, is a good thing. The Bill will mean more development faster, but it will not necessarily be the right development—the development that our constituents want.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made an excellent speech covering Swampy, Napoleon and Cromwell. I am not going to delve further back in history, but the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said that the Bill offers a generational opportunity. I suspect that if we look through Hansard we will see that someone said that in 2004. My right hon. Friend described this Bill as a declaration of failure in the 2004 Bill. Although I agree that it was a failure, I do not think that this Bill will be remembered in that way; it is more likely to be remembered by the problems that it incorporates in the future.
I want to touch on five key points: the national policy statement, the IPC, climate change, the democratic deficit and the community infrastructure levy, which is perhaps one of the most concerning parts of the Bill. I am not inclined to support the Bill and expect substantial changes in Committee to make it reasonable. The right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) talked about maximising the NPS and minimising the IPC. I think that that is the right direction to take. The concept of national policy statements is superficially alluring. It would allow us to remove some of the broader strategic and technical debates from a local level so that we do not discuss the merits of nuclear against other renewables, or other big issues that are not site specific, at every public inquiry. However, a number of planning issues focus on the interaction between different policy statements. For example, the interaction between airport and road policy is surely what is meant by integrated transport. Seeing such things in silos does not make any sense.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington talked about the reasons for introducing the Bill in terms of the problems of Heathrow. It would have been better to deal with that issue head on rather than simply having a Bill that may or may not cover such problems in the future. Coming from the Thames Gateway area in Southend, I was concerned that the lower Thames crossing would not be covered. I suspect that a Thames crossing between Shoeburyness in my constituency across to Kent would not be covered either.
I am concerned about the IPC’s structure and the costs involved. The Department’s impact assessment makes it look like a well staffed operation. The chief executive will be paid £140,000, the chairman will be paid £150,000, the three deputy chairmen will each be paid £130,000—I do not know why such an organisation needs three deputy chairmen—and there will be 30 commissioners. From the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), I learned that one of the commissioners will be appointed by the Welsh Assembly. It will be interesting to know whether any of the remaining appointments will be as significant or whether the commissioners will simply be selected.
The documentation makes cursory mention of a register of members’ interests. It is incredibly important to consider the problems caused by conflict of interest that have been created in quangos in my area. More detail on the register should be in the Bill. We should also talk about people’s experience before they serve on the commission. That needs to be registered and fully understood.
I am sorry to stop my hon. Friend’s flow, but he raises an important point. The experts that the Government require on the commission will need to have been involved in many of the strategic projects. There will inevitably be a potential conflict of interest because they will have an interest and expertise. Does he agree that it is one thing that Ministers have failed to notice?
There has indeed been a complete failure to recognise that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal made the point in a slightly different way when he said that we did not need experts in subject areas, and that in many ways that could even be destructive. Other Members said that we wanted the process to involve local representation rather than construction. What we want are experts in judgment, rather than technical experts. Technical experts are not always right in their own expertise. We see fashions and fads based on recent research—good research, but research that turns out to be wrong in the longer term. I am particularly worried about circumstances in which a single commissioner acts on behalf of the IPC.
Let me return to the question of costs, about which there seems to have been little discussion, especially in the private sector. In contrast, the impact assessment even discusses the number of work stations that the IPC will have—eight to serve 10 staff—and identifies the cost very precisely as £10,180 per work station. A few paragraphs later, having referred to tens of thousands of pounds for work stations, it states, almost by the way,
“Costs to promoters vary…between sectors”.
Under the heading “Scheme type”, it tells us that the cost of an application for an aviation scheme is £75 million. It seems to me that too much attention may have been paid to the cost of an individual work station, and not enough paid to the bigger costs involved in the private sector. I shall say more about costs in connection with the community infrastructure levy, which has been dealt with in an equally inadequate fashion.
On climate change and flooding, the Association of British Insurers has called on the Government to engage much more with the Environment Agency through the Bill, and I agree with what it has said. In the Thames Gateway we have problems with flooding, and with pressure to build housing on floodplains. There is a lack of joined-up government, which may be partly due to the fact that the Department has undergone five major changes since the Government came to office. I do not blame officials; I put the blame fairly and squarely in the Government’s court.
In the context of flooding, I have grave concerns about infrastructure. In a very good “Dispatches” programme, the head of the Environment Agency failed to answer basic questions about the number of power stations built in a floodplain area. I should be interested to know whether Ministers are thinking again about whether that information could be provided, because we need to plan for contingencies. As well as existing power stations, future infrastructure projects should be considered in connection with climate change and flooding, be they power stations, sewage treatment plants or motorways.
I was no great fan of the Barker report, but climate change was at its centre. I think it was the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) who, no doubt noting my presence, appealed to my constituency interest in rock. He suggested that the words “climate change” should run throughout every Bill like the words on a stick of rock, but they certainly do not run throughout this Bill. Climate change seems to be somewhat of an afterthought, or footnote.
Let me say something about the democratic deficit. In Southend, we have a veritable and indigestible feast of alphabetti spaghetti in the form of acronyms for quango after quango and cost after cost. The IPC seems to be just another example of an undemocratic quango that further distances the electorate from the Government. That does not do the Government justice, it does not do the House justice and it does not do politicians justice. When we knock on doors, we are often told that politicians—all politicians—do not represent the views of the electorate. We need to get closer to the electorate, not further away, handing more power to more quangos.
I understand that the CIL—the community infrastructure levy—replaces the previous acronym for the planning gain supplement. Let us be honest: this is just a tax under another name. Rather worryingly, the tax-raising power has been given to a quango rather than to the Treasury, and the Bill does not make clear how much tax can be raised and how. There seems to be little indication of the transitional relationship with section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Like other Members, I recognise that section 106 is flawed, but it is not made plain how the Bill will improve on it. The levy is simply a tax.
The British Property Federation has said in a briefing:
“CIL is essentially a tariff system, or ‘roof tax’, and there are currently some good examples of this system already working in England. Milton Keynes is perhaps the best known example.”
The last thing we need is yet another tax. If we are going to get it, let us be clear and transparent about what it is.
There has been some encouragement for the levy in the industry, which wants clarity. In business, one needs certainty and the levy provides a greater degree of that. But where will the money go? If the Treasury had made its section 106 grab and said that it would take all the money centrally, it would have been a disaster for areas such as Southend. I could accept planning gain money going outside Southend, but not far outside; perhaps to the A13 to improve the infrastructure or to the A127 heading through Essex. But giving that money to Cambridge would make no sense. Some have said that the local area may have an interest in the money going that far afield, but, if so, that should be stated and approved by the local district or county council. We cannot and should not say that a fixed percentage will go every time to a given region. One size does not fit all. Heaven forbid, there may be examples where the local community wants more money to go outside the area, but that should be driven locally, not from Whitehall or by regulations.
I am disappointed that there is not more detail in the Bill. I hope that plenty of time will be afforded in Committee to go through every amendment in detail. I also hope that the Government amendments will be focused and deal with some of the detailed concerns, confusion and lack of clarity to which other hon. Members have referred.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and to learn of his interest in cockles, which he shares with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). After her graphic speech, I do not think I will be eating cockles again for a while.
Reform of the planning system is an admirable objective. The current system appears sometimes to be cumbersome, expensive and, at times, virtually incomprehensible. It could certainly do with some simplification and refinement. If anything, we need to strengthen, not weaken, the voice of local communities. In Leckhampton on the edge of my constituency, there were recently 700 objections to a planning proposal, which was duly defeated. Almost identical planning proposals have now been submitted and those 700 objections now count for nothing.
In Charlton Kings on the edge of my constituency, we now face a concerted assault on the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty, which most of us would have assumed was sacrosanct. However, the signals coming from Government are so mixed that developers are now eyeing up the AONB. Back gardens across Cheltenham are now being treated as brownfield sites and tilting the scales too far in favour of overdevelopment. I still find it odd that simple values such as ugliness and beauty still count for nothing in our planning process.
The system needs reform and refinement but, in its way, it works. Local communities do come together to oppose unpopular developments. They trust the system enough to spend enormous time and effort on planning inquiries. My father Don Horwood spent the last years of his life fighting many planning inquiries on behalf of the Leckhampton greenland action group, which carries on that proud tradition of using the current system to represent community interests effectively.
Such community action is sometimes inconvenient for Governments, and even more inconvenient sometimes for commercial interests. But that is democracy. If democracy does not sometimes make life inconvenient for those who have wealth and power in our society, it is not working. My worry about the Bill is that it makes life far too convenient for both Governments and unelected authorities as well as commercial interests.
First, let us look at the powers of the Secretary of State. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is no longer in his place, mentioned aviation and the ability of the Secretary of State to incorporate wholesale existing policies such as the Government’s aviation policy into the structure of national policy statements. On my reading of the Bill, this seems to be possible without going through the consultation process set out in the Bill, which will apply only to new national policy statements. So a decision to promote growth in aviation could be used to promote critical decisions such as Heathrow’s third runway.
Would not it be useful to be able to cross-examine the evidence for that runway? In a debate last week, I cited Friends of the Earth’s insight that the cost of carbon in relation to the decision was three times lower than that recommended by the Stern report. It looked on the surface as though the Government were fiddling the cost of carbon to give a green light to a project that actually will help to defeat their own objectives on climate change. I raised that question in the debate. The Minister on that occasion chose not to answer the question, but instead to read out excerpts from Gillian Shephard’s memoirs. That demonstrates the limits of parliamentary cross-examination, but at least the current planning process does offer cross-examination rights, which can be very useful in exposing the weaknesses—especially the environmental weaknesses—in major projects. In that system, people would not get away with reading excerpts from others’ memoirs by way of an answer. Under the process described in the Bill, however, cross-examination can disappear altogether, in favour largely of a process of written submissions—and also, perhaps, of open-floor contributions, which sounds to me like a sop, in which people are entitled to stand up and say their piece but are then patted on the head, shown the door and never heard from again.
Under the Bill, the Secretary of State has other unprecedented powers, for example, the ability to designate new areas of nationally significant infrastructure without resorting to further primary legislation. The planning White Paper addressed such new areas and chapter 2 related to nationally significant infrastructure, which included:
“Building new water, waste disposal and recycling facilities, and constructing new housing developments”.
If even recycling and housing are to come within the remit of what is nationally significant infrastructure, it might be quicker to list the things that are left out. There is also a clear temptation for the Government: where they fear political controversy, they can simply declare the issue a matter of national significance and close down key opportunities for debate and challenge.
At least the Secretary of State is elected, however. The scariest part of the Bill, which has rightly been condemned by Members of all parties—I have been encouraged by the number of Labour Members who have criticised this—is the unelected and unaccountable infrastructure planning commission. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, its powers are extensive. It can pick and choose how to apply, modify or exclude provisions in other primary legislation. The list of that primary legislation is long: it includes the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938, the Coast Protection Act 1949, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, the Harbours Act 1964, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990—indeed, the list of legislation within the reach of this essentially unaccountable body goes on and on. It can also repeal or revoke local Acts that are also, in their own way, primary legislation.
Let us consider the basis on which that drastic power can be exercised. Clause 105(6)(b) makes that clear—it is when it appears
“to the decision-maker to be necessary or expedient”.
That is not a very high test. It is also unclear whether the infrastructure planning commission will actually be accountable at all to Parliament, or even to a Minister, on individual decisions. I entirely support the earlier remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) who was concerned about the ultimate unaccountability of the body. That is an alarming prospect, and the commission should be either removed from the Bill altogether or reduced to the status of an advisory body to the Secretary of State.
As many Members have said, the Bill is something of an invitation to non-violent direct action, as people might feel so excluded from the process that they consider the only ethical option open to them to be to protest and have their objections heard, especially as in environmental terms the Bill also offers many grounds for concern. The Bill could lay the foundations for a hugely damaging set of policies that deserve to be thoroughly challenged, from transport strategies that could foster increasing car and plane use to a new generation of nuclear power stations that could leave a poisonous legacy to our descendents.
Organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England have pointed out further weaknesses in the detail of the Bill. The sustainability appraisals required for each national policy statement are unspecific in their quality and depth. The CPRE suggests that they should be in accordance with the EU strategic environmental assessment directive, but there is no evidence of such rigour in the Bill at present.
If all that were not concerning enough, the Bill may not even achieve the Government’s more worthy objectives. They want to speed up the planning process, but as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) eloquently said in relation to terminal 5, delays on major projects are often due to delays at ministerial level, poor developer applications or even funding issues.
The Secretary of State’s opening remarks made reference to the cost savings that the Bill is designed to achieve, but most of those are not in government. The cost savings that she identified seem to derive from shorter time scales putting a smaller burden on the private sector. Such savings do not derive from the changes in the Bill and could be achieved, for instance, by providing the Planning Inspectorate with much better resources to speed up the current process. The savings to Government will be largely offset by the costs of setting up and running the infrastructure planning commission. The Government’s impact assessment estimates those to be £5 million to set it up and £9 million a year to run it.
The Bill looks expensive, ineffective and, above all, undemocratic. Perhaps the Minister will be able to answer its final mystery. What exactly is it about the Town and Country Planning (Major Infrastructure Project Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2005 that is so inadequate? Only two years ago, the Government produced those procedures, which were supposed to strike a fair balance between a full exploration of the various issues involved and providing the necessary speed for major infrastructure projects. They allowed for cross-examination, and for it to be limited in some cases, so they went some way towards allaying the Government’s fears about the process running out of control. If the Government are to insist on forcing through this Bill, which is proving unpopular on both sides of the House, they must explain why only two years ago they got their proposals so badly wrong.
I am delighted to discuss this Bill, even at this late hour. I would have spoken earlier, but the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is still labouring on the issue of bovine TB, which is another matter that takes my interest. I hope not to go over exactly the same ground as earlier speakers.
I wish to speak about three pertinent points that are worthy of further amplification. I hope that the Minister will respond in due course and that they will be examined in Committee. I congratulate the Government on introducing a planning Bill at this stage. I know that planning Bills are not unusual, but the planning legislation needs updating. I start from the perspective of feeling that far too often the planning system is not just and not equitable. Too often, I find that constituents who do not have an effective voice are not listened to and that the developer has the whip hand, so I welcome the fact that the Bill aims to increase participation. I have some questions to ask. It was good to listen to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), my neighbour, because I share a number of his misgivings. We must widen participation and ensure that the participatory process will stand the test of time.
I want to examine participation and to say a few things about the natural environment, which is important when dealing with any planning Bill and larger infrastructure projects. Any such Bill will have implications for the natural environment. Finally, I shall briefly say some things about the impact of energy efficiency changes and renewables on households and, in particular, on listed buildings.
As I said when I intervened during the Secretary of State’s introductory remarks, I have always been convinced of the need for a process of third party rights of appeal—I make no apology for saying that. We could overcome the democratic deficit in the planning system. At the moment, people feel disempowered when planning applications are dealt with—I do not mean planning applications for loft conversions, but those that would lead to major change in an area. Too often, people are given no voice. They either join an action group, which may or may not represent their views, or they go to appeal in an attempt to mitigate the application’s worst effects, and too often they are squashed. I have been to many planning appeals, and the public are squeezed into a short time and given little help to put their case. If they are cross-examined by a barrister who is an expert in planning law, it is not a pleasant experience, because the inadequacy of their legal knowledge is easily exposed, even though the rightness of their case is clear for all to see.
I hope that we can have a proper debate and that the two Opposition parties will continue to support third-party rights of appeal. I accept that the details need to be worked out, but when it comes to large infrastructure projects it is even more important that people’s voices are heard. Such projects can result in major changes in people’s lifestyles and have a huge impact on their environment.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham also mentioned the independent infrastructure planning commission. I cannot understand why the Government are so averse to the idea that Parliament should eventually arbitrate on issues of national importance. No one expects all the 30 to 40 major projects a year to require parliamentary arbitration, but there will be some issues that deserve and should have parliamentary scrutiny. For a long time, we have scrutinised private Bills, and I like to think that Members can approach such issues independently. Clearly, some would have to declare an interest and could not sit on the Committee, but other parliamentarians have a role to play in considering planning applications of national importance. We are elected to fulfil that responsibility, and I find it galling that we try to find ways to give it to the great and the good. We are expected to believe that they can be objective and deliberative, but it would be even better if Parliament had the responsibility. We should be careful, because we could be bogged down by some of the larger projects, but it is an abdication of our responsibility if we do not even consider fulfilling that function.
I ask the Minister to consider whether, even at this late stage, we should have a different form of accountability than an independent commission. We have a range of them—the Monetary Policy Committee, the committee on climate change and now this one—and we will run out of experts to put on them at this rate.
I do not want to labour my second point, because I am sure that colleagues raised it earlier. In order to balance the system, under which larger projects are given permission, we should look at whether we need a national policy statement on the natural environment. Wildlife trusts have long advocated that. Areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks are already formally designated, but my wildlife trust in Gloucestershire believes that we need an appropriate set of rules to protect the landscape and to set out what development is allowed.
I have never been in favour of treating AONBs as completely sacrosanct, because that is unreasonable and leads to rural decline. Villages have always been situated in such places and people have wanted to live there to maintain the vitality of those areas. However, there must be rules so that we can make sure that the planning process is sympathetic to the natural environment and that we do not see open-cast mining or inappropriate development and so that we protect the landscape in perpetuity for all our benefits. I hope that, in so doing, we develop the idea of a national spatial framework for land use, so that we decide where, what, and to a certain extent how we are going to develop. In the areas that need to be protected, we need to be clear about the measures we can put in place to make sure that that happens.
I declare an interest in relation to my third point, because I am looking to put up solar panels. When one applies for permission, there is a lack of clarity, at least, in how local authorities interpret the planning system. Two different local authorities apparently interpret the rules in two different ways. We can overcome that and I hope that the Bill will allow us to be much more forthright in encouraging energy efficiency measures and the use of renewables to reduce the impact of climate change. It would be even better if we had the feed-in tariff system, but we will not go there at the moment.
There is one problem that continually arises in my constituency. An article a week ago last Saturday in The Guardian highlighted one of my constituent’s problems. I am talking about people who have the good fortune, I would like to think, to live in a listed property. Listed properties, by their very nature, tend to be older and more difficult to heat. They are in need of some up-rating when it comes to all the different ways in which their energy efficiency mechanisms can be improved.
The problem with a listed building is that there is in effect a conflict. People might seek permission under t