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Infrastructure Planning Commission

Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 16 February 2011

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Gale. The Infrastructure Planning Commission is examining an application from an American waste company by the name of Covanta to build an incinerator masquerading as an energy-from-waste plant in my constituency. Each year, it will burn 585,000 tonnes of waste, which will be sourced from Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and, frankly, anywhere in the country that will feed the incinerator. On the basis that what goes up must come down, it will do so on my constituents. We do not buy the argument that the fly ash and the emissions from the incinerator’s chimneys will be completely harmless, because the particles are too small to measure in the atmosphere. As it is too difficult to capture and measure the particles, it is not possible to say that what will be emitted from the incinerator will be harmless.

Not surprisingly, the proposal has met with furious opposition in my constituency. Constituents, campaign groups, local authorities and 24 town and parish councils—I can assure people that it is no mean feat for 24 town and parish councils to work together on one issue—are all burning the midnight oil preparing written submissions urging the IPC to reject this diabolical application for an incinerator.

The examination will run until 15 July and the IPC should reach its decision by 15 October. Before the IPC process existed, there would normally have been public examination, with cross-examination of witnesses. My constituents would have had the opportunity to express and make known their views, probably via a public inquiry. The Secretary of State used to take the final decision after having all the information in front of them and did not have to accept the recommendations made by the planning inquiry or the inspector, provided that they gave good reason. However, the previous Government’s Stalinist approach to that democratic process was the Planning Act 2008, which transferred the final decision to a new independent body—the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

Evidence is considered by the IPC primarily in writing, unless it chooses to hold an oral evidence session. Note the word “chooses”. The IPC chooses, not local people. Legally, the Secretary of State has no opportunity whatever to overturn the IPC’s decision. The IPC makes its decisions mainly on the basis of the relevant national policy statement. These statements are open to public consultation and to consideration by Select Committees before approval by the Secretary of State.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that wider issues are at stake? Not only on incinerators but on a number of different planning applications, it is vital that local people feel engaged and have had their say. Whatever the outcome might be, at least they have had their say and put their case. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is vital?

Absolutely. I will go into more detail about how undemocratic the IPC process is and how local people are completely excluded from the decision- making process for major infrastructure, whether that involves hospitals or whatever else being built in their area.

The national policy statements are open to public consultation. While still in draft form and before the relevant national policy statement has been designated by the Secretary of State, the IPC can still consider the evidence, but the Secretary of State will make the final decision. To date, the national policy statement remains in draft form. The Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, of which I am a former member, has published its report on the six revised national policy statements. It has made 18 recommendations, the more important of which is about the timing of the statements. The Committee calls for the national policy statements not to be designated until the Localism Bill has been enacted, the abolition of the IPC has occurred and the national planning policy framework and national infrastructure plan are operational and harmonised with the electricity market reform process.

The IPC has published the following statements:

“If the NPSs which apply to a proposal are adopted before the point of decision making on a project, the IPC will make the decision.

If the relevant NPSs have not been adopted at the point of decision making on a project, the IPC will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State”.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that this is a fundamental question. Given that the IPC hopes to conclude its own consultation by July and make a decision in October, will he please inform us on which date the national policy statements will be designated?

To date, my constituents have been forced into Kafkaesque engagement with a body that is to be abolished, with no certainty about whether the national policy statement guiding the IPC examination will be altered once the deadline for written submissions has passed. If the national policy statements are altered and designated after the existing public consultation period has passed, will the Minister agree that my constituents, after having digested a 7,400-page document, will have provided their submissions on the basis of documents that are no longer relevant and therefore the IPC process relating to the Covanta incinerator in my constituency must be abolished—scrapped—and begun again on the basis of the relevant designated documents? How can a process of public consultation exist if the information constituents are given is no longer relevant by the time the IPC makes its decision? My constituents will have been providing consultation responses based on one set of rules and the IPC will be making its decision based on another, which will enable the IPC to disregard completely the public consultation as it will no longer be relevant when the IPC makes its decision.

The consultation process as run by the IPC has been woeful and undemocratic. Either the Government are wide-eyed localist or they are not. The IPC is not and is at odds with present Government policy. On Monday 17 January, at 10 o’clock on a cold morning in Bedford, the IPC held a public hearing—nowhere near the community where the facility is to be placed. Guidance was given to my constituents not to instruct lawyers and not to take legal advice. However, when my constituents arrived at the public hearing, they found that both the local authorities and the IPC had brought their team of lawyers along with them. The atmosphere was, to say the least, intimidating as lawyers played legal ping-pong with one another. Only the bravest of my constituents felt able to stand up and contribute. They had been told before the hearing took place the issues they were not allowed to discuss. One of those was noise, which is actually one of the biggest considerations for my constituents.

The hon. Lady’s party and I opposed this whole process under the last Government. It is being played out exactly as we predicted—undemocratically; not taking into account local people’s views. Does she agree that whatever system is put in place, and whatever the policy statements or framework, it must take into account local views but must also be accountable to and amendable by Parliament?

I completely agree. I hope that when the IPC is abolished—the present Government have committed to abolishing it and bringing the functions in-house—the fact that the Secretary of State will have the final decision and that, hopefully, we will go back to the previous system of public engagement and inquiries means there will at least be a more democratic process. Of course, that will need to be discussed in Parliament, and I hope we will take a vote on it.

To return to that cold Monday morning in Bedford, only the bravest of my constituents, as I said, stood up to speak at the meeting. All left it feeling that they had not really had an opportunity to express their concerns about the proposal.

The application document my constituents had to plough through to submit objections was 7,400 pages long and was available online, so those who were not computer literate and did not have access to a computer were disadvantaged. There were a limited number of hard copies, but people had to pay hundreds of pounds for them and they were available only at certain locations. How is that democratic? The people who wanted to respond to the documents could not even get hold of them. Furthermore, constituents’ initial representations were limited to 500 words, but the document they were responding to was 7,400 pages long. Why is that? How can that be democratic?

Only a limited number of hard-copy registration forms were available to those who did not have access to a computer. People had to complete those forms to inform the IPC that they were going to object to or, indeed, support the proposals, although I imagine that most people wanted to object. Given the limited number of forms, however, those who wanted to let the IPC know that they were going to object could not even do that.

Those who made a submission online met a barrage of problems. For example, the registration process had a cut-off date. Once that date had passed, some people received e-mails telling them that they had not ticked a particular box on the very detailed form and that they had to resubmit the form, but the submission date had passed. It seemed that lots of tricks were employed to minimise the number of objections so that the IPC and Covanta could say that there was not that much public opposition.

The IPC timetable is very inflexible, short and tight. That is why people missed the registration point. If the timetable had not been so tight and inflexible, there might have been room for adjustments and amendments where people had, for example, made errors with e-mails, but there was absolutely none—everything was played according to the IPC’s rules, with absolutely no consideration given to the difficulties local people might have in engaging with this complicated and bureaucratic process.

An unelected official in the IPC or the Department for Communities and Local Government should not take a decision to impose a major infrastructure project on a local community when almost every man, woman and child is against it. The only representation those people have is via their elected representatives.

If, despite the objections of local people, the Government believe that it is vital in the national interest for an application to be approved, that judgment should be the responsibility of the Secretary of State in the relevant Department, and it should be reached only after a thorough examination of local people’s wishes. There should be a thorough examination of the application, and people should have the opportunity to attend meetings and make their feelings known. Of course, people in my constituency may absolutely support the current project, but I do not think that that is the case. The Secretary of State should halt the IPC process using the powers in the Planning Act, so that all participants can contribute to the process and so that a clear decision can be made.

The process of finalising the national policy statements, on which the IPC would base a decision, will prejudice the application if it is carried out at the same time as the application is being considered. A legal process cannot be deemed reasonable and fair if the goalposts are moved while it is being carried out. If the national policy statements are designated during the IPC examination process, any changes in the final versions will not be reflected in the process that has taken place up to that time.

At present, I and the residents of Mid Bedfordshire have no idea who will take the final decision or on what basis they will do so. If the national policy statements are not finalised before the Secretary of state makes a decision, any other matters taken into account in reaching the decision will not have been subject to examination. Any recommendation made by the IPC on the basis of the national policy statements should be disregarded because they lack democratic legitimacy. Furthermore, the IPC process relies on a limited number of rounds of written submissions, which does not allow detailed examination of the key issues that matter to local people.

Is the Minister aware that Mid Bedfordshire is largely flat? In fact, Bedfordshire is known for being flat until one reaches the Dunstable downs. The incinerator is to be in the centre of Marston vale, so it can be viewed from almost every vantage point in the constituency and will absolutely blight the view from all of them—it can be seen from every raised point from Ampthill park to the Millennium park.

Is the Minister also aware that the constituency proudly recycles more that 50% of its waste? Central Bedfordshire council has worked hard to educate and inform people about the importance of recycling. If the incinerator is granted planning permission, all that recycling, education and work will go to waste because everything will be fed into this monstrous machine.

As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, the Conservative party predicted this problem with the IPC. However, I am running out of time, so I would like to have a clear answer from the Minister on a number of points. When will the national policy statements be designated? If they are designated during the process taking place in my constituency, and after my constituents have made their submissions, does the Minister agree that the process should be stopped? My constituents will have made their submissions on the basis of information that is no longer relevant and considerations into which they will have had no input.

Will the Minister please understand that we are not talking about a group of nimbys in Mid Bedfordshire complaining about something that will affect just a few people? The geographical lay-out of my constituency means that everyone there is angry about this issue. Everybody is incensed about how dreadful this application is and about what a disaster it will be for Mid Bedfordshire if it goes through.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gale. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing the debate. She spoke with her characteristic passion in representing her constituents. They are fortunate to be represented by one of the most tenacious campaigners in the House. There is no cause that my hon. Friend takes up that she does not take up with verve, passion and the greatest tenacity. In recent months, she has worked hard to raise the profile of this issue in the House. She has organised rallies in Mid Bedfordshire; she has written to me; we have spoken in person; and she has raised her concerns at Prime Minister’s questions—she has taken the matter right to the top. Everyone should reflect on the vigour with which she pursues these matters.

I was pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in the Chamber. That shows that the process that the IPC was set up to operate under is a matter of cross-party concern. I hope that the Government will have the support of the whole House when it comes to abolishing the IPC in the Localism Bill, which is currently in Committee, but which will return to the Floor of the House on Report and Third Reading in a few weeks’ time. It is useful to know that the issue goes beyond my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend. For the reasons she set out, she will appreciate that it is not possible for me to comment on the merits of the incinerator. If the national policy statements are not designated before the decision is made, it would fall to the Secretary of State—that is shorthand for the ministerial team at the Department for Communities and Local Government—to determine the application. Given that today’s proceedings have a bearing on that process, it is important that I do not prejudice my view of the application. However, I have heard what my hon. Friend has said, and I will comment on each of her points. Let me take in turn the three general points that she made.

My hon. Friend argued that the decision on where a piece of infrastructure of national significance should be located should not be determined by an unelected body in defiance of local people’s wishes; I entirely agree. Projects such as major roads, reservoirs and power plants are essential to our health and well-being and to the nation’s economic future. They have a major influence on society’s impact on the environment, helping us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and cut our carbon footprint. They form the legacy that we leave the next generation. It is right to have a regime to consider those major applications, which recognises their larger-than-local aspect.

It is worth observing that all the existing municipal incinerators in England contribute less in annual emissions than bonfire night—a single night. It is worth putting the matter in perspective. However, I believe that when the relevant decisions are made there should be—as there are not with the decisions of the IPC—elected Members who are accountable. Unfortunately, we have inherited from the previous Government a system in which, ludicrously, the final decisions about when and where major developments should take place are made by the IPC, an unelected quango that is unaccountable to the public. I mean no disrespect to the people who work there, who have been given a remit in legislation. They discharge that remit, I am sure, to the best of their ability, but they have been caught in a situation that is fundamentally undemocratic. That is an astonishing deficit of democracy, and the arrangement must go.

The point about bonfire night has been raised several times, almost as a smokescreen—if hon. Members will excuse the pun. The emissions from an incinerator are constant and daily—they continue day and night. The incinerator will burn for 24 hours a day. Bonfire night is one night of the year. We took evidence from Professor Paul Connett from America, the world’s leading authority on energy from waste. The emissions from the incineration are constant. Companies such as Covanta frequently breach their licences—the company is in court in the States at the moment. They frequently release toxic emissions into the air. I grant the Minister that if they kept to their licences and operated as they are supposed to, there might be merit in the bonfire night argument, but history shows that such incinerators do not operate as they are supposed to, because they break the law almost daily and release into the atmosphere emissions that they should not. The comparison with bonfire night cannot be made.

It is important that any facility that is or will be licensed, wherever it is, should stick to any terms and conditions of the licence. I am sure that Department of Energy and Climate Change Ministers, who are in charge, along with our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of supervising those issues, will reflect on what my hon. Friend has said and try to ensure that there is the greatest possible confidence in the adherence to those conditions.

We are determined to introduce reforms in the Localism Bill. I look forward, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, to the day when it is passed. However, provided that the national policy statements on energy are designated as we expect, we anticipate that the application in question will be decided by the IPC alone, without the possibility of ministerial intervention. That is the system that we have been bequeathed. An observer might ask, as my hon. Friend does, why, if Ministers believe that there should be democratic accountability, they do not scrap the IPC and the regime under which the planning application was submitted. However strong the temptation may be, Ministers must obey the law.

The law is at odds with Government policy, but we live in a parliamentary democracy and cannot rule by decree. There have been recent examples relevant to that. I think my hon. Friend is familiar with the case of CALA Homes, concerning the revocation of the regional spatial strategies, in which the courts determined that however clear the Government’s intention to abolish those strategies, we need to go through the parliamentary process to abolish them, rather than anticipate that abolition. The courts were clear on that. The fact that we took the decision that resulted in the court case shows the Government’s desire to do as much as possible to implement our policy as quickly as possible, which is important. However, for good reasons we are required to go through the House to pass legislation. When it comes to abolishing not only the IPC but the current procedures for considering major infrastructure applications, that is what we must do. We are constrained in that way.

My hon. Friend raised concerns that the process of pre-consultation has been defective. I have listened to her carefully and will immediately take up with the IPC all the points that she made. It is crucial that consultation should be fair and open, so that people can give their views even in a system that we both agree is flawed. It should facilitate the meaningful involvement of all those who want to be involved in the process. It is important that local people should be able to be heard in person and demand an open hearing. The onus is also on any organisation that carries out a consultation to ensure that its electronic procedures are widely accessible and compatible with the systems that users are likely to have. Organisations should not have an inaccessible system, which they should design with users in mind. I shall immediately get in touch with the IPC on the points that my hon. Friend raised.

The Planning Act 2008 specifies, as my hon. Friend knows, a narrow range of conditions in which Ministers can take decisions out of the IPC’s hands, which is our difficulty. Those conditions include questions of national security and defence. Even if we wanted to stop the process, I do not believe the law would allow us to do so.

My hon. Friend raised an important point about the role of national policy statements and the likely timing of their designation. She knows, having served on the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, the reasons why it is crucial, when we face a prospective crisis in generating capacity, to get investment in that capacity. The nuclear programme is important to that. We have always said that we want to bring national planning policy statements to the House as quickly as possible.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has not yet responded to the Select Committee, and it is for him to respond to its concerns about process, but it is the Government’s view that we should get on as soon as possible and allow Parliament the chance to ratify those statements in the interest of energy security and, indeed, investment in that important area of national life. However, there is clearly a possibility that the statements might not be designated, and then the decision in question would come to the Secretary of State. I do not want to raise my hon. Friend’s hopes and create an expectation that that will happen, because the opposite is to be expected. My right hon. Friend will respond to the Committee in due course.

We are in an unfortunate position. I commend my hon. Friend for the vigour with which she is pursuing the matter. She is right to make sure that her constituents’ voices are heard. Of course, even under the existing flawed system, the IPC has a duty to consider local people’s voices, and I shall, as I have said, pass on to it her comments about the process to date. It is worth pointing out that the IPC has not yet made a decision. I hope that the debate is an opportunity to explain to my hon. Friend’s constituents what I think she knows, being expert in the matter, about the constraints, and the requirements on the IPC for consultation and to share our frustration—we would rather not be in this world. I hope that the next time we discuss the issues, it will be after the passage of the Localism Bill, and that the IPC will be dead and buried and replaced by a system that my hon. Friend and I—and, I think, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington—want. That is a system in which major decisions of national importance are taken through a fast-track, streamlined procedure, with a Minister ultimately responsible to the House and, through the Government, to the nation, in charge of making the decisions.

Sitting suspended.