My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, following the close of the public inquiry on 11 May 2007 into the related appeals and orders for the Caythorpe gas storage proposal, the Government are actively considering the inspector’s report and inquiry evidence. Although this planning case is not one with a set statutory timetable, we are acutely aware of the need to ensure that the decisions are taken as soon as possible.
My Lords, that is all very well, but is the noble Baroness aware that in May 2006, her colleague, Alistair Darling, then Secretary of State at the DTI, made a Statement about the imperative need to provide new onshore gas storage in the UK in which he said that former gas fields,
“provide ‘ready made’ storage structures with seals that have been proven to be secure for millions of years”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/5/06; col. 51WS.]
That exactly describes the Caythorpe project. Mr Darling also called for swifter planning decisions. Is the noble Baroness aware that, although planning consent was refused by the local authority as long ago as July 2006, the promoters are still waiting for planning Ministers to reach decisions on their appeal? Does that not make a mockery of Mr Darling’s ambitions?
No, my Lords, that is why we are introducing the Planning Reform Bill, to which I know the noble Lord is looking forward, to streamline the planning and consent regime for major infrastructure projects. The Caythorpe appeals procedure is very complex, as he knows. There have been three separate appeals and three different consent regimes. The date of the appeal was set for April because that was the first time that all the people involved could meet. I assure him that we are serious about increasing gas storage and streamlining the whole process.
My Lords, the planning process nowadays has become immensely complex. It is obliged to consider almost every relevant and sometimes irrelevant issue that can possibly be assigned to a planning application. The process is gone through thoroughly during the original consideration of the application by the relevant planning authorities. It is then gone through thoroughly and in even more detail a second time during a planning inquiry. In those circumstances, is there not a case for suggesting that there should be a limit on the time that the Secretary of State has to consider the issue, given that all of the relevant facts are already known?
My Lords, the planning process has been under tremendous strain in recent years because of the increased numbers of planning cases and appeals. A few years ago, only 20 per cent of local authorities were meeting their statutory deadlines of 13 weeks. Now it is 80 per cent. As for putting a time limit on Ministers, every part of this process is scrupulously dealt with. I am sure that the noble Lord would not want to reduce accountability in any way. I assure all noble Lords that we will attempt to expedite the Caythorpe decision as swiftly as possible.
My Lords, given that local authorities have now achieved the Government’s objective of speeding up their side of the planning process, will the Minister explain why it takes the Planning Inspectorate an average of nine months to determine minor local inquiries and what the Government intend to do about that?
My Lords, we are looking at all parts of the appeals process and the consultative document that we have brought forward looks at how we can improve all the processes. We have the most efficient and scrupulous team of planning inspectors. The fact that they are able to cope with increased volumes of work is a great tribute to them.
My Lords, I am no expert in this matter. I have read the basic document on gas storage, which is interesting, but I do not have the answer to that question. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, this planning appeal is extremely complex even though it is using what is already in place. It is not a fresh installation, but it is still complex because of the consent regimes and because of the stakeholders involved.
My Lords, France has 14 days of gas storage in an emergency, Germany has 11 and practically every country in Europe has considerably more than the UK, which has only three days, having relied on the North Sea. Given the urgency of this matter and the fact that storage under the sea is much more successful and does not involve planning problems of this type, could it be that we are looking in the wrong place?
No, my Lords: £10 billion of investment has been put in place and 10 outstanding new facilities are for gas storage. By 2010 we will have those facilities, which are at various stages of pre-planning and post-planning. We expect to double gas storage capacity from 2005 by the early years of the next decade. The investment in gas storage, which we need because gas imports are increasing, is very much in hand and goes along with increasing our import strategy, as discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Jones, on Monday.