Clause 21 - Bringing business and commercial projects within Planning Act 2008 regime

Growth and Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am ar 4 Rhagfyr 2012.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment moved (this day): 101, in clause 21, page 25, line 23, after ‘may’, insert ‘subject to regulations excluding sites of special environmental or historic importance,’.—(Roberta Blackman-Woods.)

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley 2:00, 4 Rhagfyr 2012

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 103, in clause 21, page 25, line 33, at end insert—

‘(aa) the development does not involve surface mineral extraction or quarrying.’.

Amendment 109, in clause 21, page 25, leave out line 33.

Amendment 110, in clause 21, page 25, leave out line 43.

Amendment 111, in clause 21, page 26, line 10, leave out from ‘project)’ to end of line 11.

Amendment 112, in clause 21, page 26, leave out lines 12 and 13 and insert—

‘(5) In this section, “business or commercial project” means a project which consists of any of the following—

(a) offices and research and development facilities;

(b) manufacturing and processing proposals;

(c) warehousing, storage and distribution facilities;

(d) conference and exhibition centres;

(e) leisure, tourism and sports and recreation facilities;

(f) extractive industries (mining and quarrying); and

(g) mixed-use developments, including one or more of the above uses but not retail where it is the main or predominant use or housing except where it is incidental.

(6) The Secretary of State may by order, subject to consultation—

(a) amend subsection (5) to add a new type of project or vary or remove an existing type of project;

(b) make further provision, or amend or repeal existing provision, about the types of project which are, and are not, within subsection (5).

(7) An order under subsection (6)(b) may amend this Act.’.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

As I was saying, the three amendments would remove references in the Bill to business and commercial projects of a description prescribed by the Secretary of State. The intention is to allow the definition of such projects to be included in the Bill under amendment 112.

Amendment 112 is a probing amendment, which would put things to be included within business and commercial projects in the Bill, by using categories set out in the Government’s impact assessment and consultation document, but the size thresholds in the impact assessment and consultation have not been included in the amendment.

The reason why I say that amendment 112 is probing is that we wish not to include more schemes into the definition, but to require a clear and stringent definition from the Government of “nationally significant”, which is currently entirely lacking from the Bill, to remove the risk of conflating national significance with size rather than economic contribution.

The fact that the size thresholds have not been properly considered is borne out by the fact that the numbers in the impact assessment are hugely different from the ones in the consultation. The former states that applications for offices larger than 10,000 square metres should be considered, but the latter says that that figure should be 40,000 square metres. Will the Minister enlighten us as to what led to the change of heart and the huge change in definition?

The National Infrastructure Planning Association said in its evidence that

“it is important to leave a degree of flexibility so that when developers approach Government and say, ‘We have this particular scheme,’ it is caught by the prescribing regulations. The Government can then say, ‘We consider it to be of national significance. Would you please designate it so we can go down the Planning Act route?’ The way in which the designation process works needs more attention in terms of how the Bill is drafted.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 108, Q252.]

What NIPA was outlining in that quote was that the circumstances were all a bit too vague. It is not clear at the moment exactly what will be covered, what the prescription of the Secretary of State to make a definition will be in practice and how the definition might be changed from time to time.

Clearly, the Bill should not define significance through size alone. I think that the Minister would be hard pressed to find anyone who thought that a leisure centre, even if it was over 100 hectares, would be nationally significant. Similarly, a conference hall of 40,000 square metres might be significant locally, but is it likely to be nationally significant?

As the Minister intends to introduce a whole raft of new planning applications into the major infrastructure regime, he needs to be clear about what nationally significant means, rather than rely on size thresholds that appear to have been plucked from thin air, especially as, as I have made clear, what is in the consultation document differs so widely from what is in the impact assessment.

The problem is in line with the evidence given to the Committee. No one was able to pick a specific size. Instead, the witnesses spoke of characteristics of specific developments. For instance, Liz Peace from the British Property Federation said:

“I do not have a particular view in numerical terms, but, as an example, a development of the scale of something like King’s Cross would have been a sensible one to take through a major infrastructure projects regime.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Bill Public Bill Committee, 13 November 2012; c. 42, Q6.]

Along with a number of people who gave evidence to the Committee, we think that the Government are taking entirely the wrong approach.

We should be clear about what “nationally significant” means, and we should use that definition to do the majority of work in determining which applications come under this regime. That would be much easier if the Minister would commit to writing national policy statements for the types of development to be included. At the very least, a definition of “national significance” could take into account certain projects.

I hope that Ministers are taking this matter on board, because it would help people to make sense of where the Government are trying to go with the clause. For example, the number of jobs expected to result from a development could be considered, as could the value of the project and its expected impact on the local and national economy. Furthermore, a clear definition of “national significance” would have huge benefits for encouraging certainty in and investment by developers.

Surely, if the Minister is, as he says, committed to using the Bill to foster growth, the focus should be on speeding up and offering certainty to all nationally significant projects, rather than to those that happen to be above a certain size. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister in his response whether the Government have any projects in mind for inclusion under the clause and, indeed, whether they have thought of any potentially nationally significant projects that would not be covered by the clause and its extension of the Planning Act 2008 route to more projects.

Finally, amendment 112 also covers another omission from the clause, which is the exemption of any project containing housing. That is entirely nonsensical and shows a lack of understanding of the nature of such developments. That was illustrated in the oral evidence given by Liz Peace of the British Property Federation, who said:

“There is also one particular, rather strange bit in the clause, which explicitly excludes projects that include ‘the construction of one or more dwellings.’”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 13 November 2012; c. 42, Q6.]

Similarly, Robbie Owen of the National Infrastructure Planning Association said:

“I entirely support the point that there is the rather odd exclusion of dwelling houses, as the Bill makes clear, which would rule out any mixed-use schemes from the scope of the Bill. We do not understand the logic of that.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 108, Q252.]

Labour Members are by no means advocating that housing development should be included in this regime, but we suggest that the Minister should at least allow for incidental housing—for example, a house for a caretaker or a security guard, or a similar type of home—that might need to be included on the site just to make it function properly. Failure to do that effectively renders the clause useless, as there are very few schemes of the size and nature that the Minister proposes that do not come with at least one house.

I would be interested in hearing from the Minister. As I have said, amendment 112 is largely a probing amendment, by which we seek to achieve better understanding of what is meant by “national significance” and to ask  whether it is wise, given the nature of the developments that might be included, not to include developments that have at least one house.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

As this is our first opportunity to debate clause 21, it might be to the Committee’s benefit if I set out briefly the aims of the clause, before discussing the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for City of Durham.

The purpose of the clause is to extend the existing powers under the Planning Act 2008 that enable the Secretary of State to direct certain forms of infrastructure schemes into the Planning Act regime to new forms of business and commercial development. Our intention is not to bring new developments into the regime automatically, but to provide an alternative planning route for applicants where proposed development is of national significance. That is important, because a thread that runs through many clauses is that we are trying to create opportunities, so that applicants and developers have an alternative route when they encounter obstacles, delay or unreasonable behaviour.

The hon. Lady asks whether we can be certain that this route will be faster than the alternative, and the answer is no, but the point is that a local authority will often be the fastest route. The ability to have a pre-application consultation will be valuable to the applicant. The last thing that we want is to force anyone down this route, but it will be more predictable because it will be timetabled. Individual applicants and promoters of infrastructure schemes will be able to make a choice between taking an application through the existing local route or this new national route.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Llafur, Greenwich and Woolwich

The Minister stresses the fact that the new route will be more reliable because it will be timetabled. To my knowledge, two schemes have been approved under the existing 2008 Act procedures, and they have taken 14 and 16 months respectively, rather than the 12 months that is the Government’s stated objective. Is he confident that the proposed scheme extension will have a different outcome?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I have already shared with the right hon. Gentleman the power of embarrassment on Planning Inspectorate performance, but he makes a serious point. The figures that he outlines show that a scheme’s promoter would have to be seriously concerned about the prospects of the scheme being handled properly through the local authority route to want to go down the Planning Inspectorate route. We are making arrangements with the Planning Inspectorate—I have had discussions with its staff in Bristol—about how they will be able to deal with such applications, which we expect to be few. We are talking only a few handfuls, not hundreds and hundreds.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Llafur, Greenwich and Woolwich

The Minister says that he expects only a small number of such applications—we have heard that before—but his Department’s press statement of 6 September states:

“Thousands of big commercial and residential applications to be directed to a major infrastructure fast track”.

When did the policy change?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I was not aware of that press statement, which certainly does not reflect the policy either as it was conceived or as it was announced in the House, so that picture is perhaps not entirely accurate. Press statements can sometimes be a little giddy in their excitement about a measure. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that it has always been clear that there will be a relatively small number of applications only.

With the explanation that the new route is an opportunity and not a route that must be taken, I turn to the first amendment in the group tabled by the hon. Member for City of Durham. Amendment 101 seeks to exclude from the regime projects in sites of special environmental or historic importance. The difficulty is that it seems to imply that there is inadequate protection within the national planning policy framework for such considerations. The whole point of that framework, which will be the policy basis for the decisions on such applications, is that it makes it clear that pursuing

“sustainable development involves seeking positive improvements in the quality of the built, natural and historic environment, as well as in people’s quality of life, including (but not limited to)…widening the choice of high quality homes.”

There are plenty of places in policy, which will be the basis for decisions, to take those factors into account. It is important to remember that a scheme’s going down that route does not mean that it is any more likely to be given consent. If it falls foul of one of the many considerations in national planning policy, it will probably not get consent, unless other overwhelming material considerations deriving from that national policy are relevant. To exclude schemes on the basis of something that is already a consideration of national policy seems unnecessary and slightly to miss the point.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:15, 4 Rhagfyr 2012

The Minister has been helpful in spelling things out. As I listen, I become more convinced that all the alternatives being provided may end up in greater confusion and dither, opposite to the intention.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The truth is that the hon. Gentleman is a gloomy fellow for whom the glass is often half empty, whereas we on the Government Benches always believe that more choice and alternatives are better. We are trying to offer businesses and promoters of infrastructure schemes alternative ways to achieve goals that are important for the whole country. Again, as was true of many other clauses, nothing would be better for all of us than if no promoter of an infrastructure scheme decided that this route was attractive, because they were getting such a fantastic service from a local authority. If that were the case for every significant national infrastructure scheme, I would be delighted, but it is right to create the opportunity, because that may not always be so.

The hon. Member for City of Durham passionately discussed amendment 103 on minerals and quarries. She obviously has a great deal of personal and constituency experience and familiarity with the subject. There appeared initially to be a slight conflict with amendment 112, which specifically mentions extraction industries, but she explained that that was a probing amendment. Therefore I assume that amendment 103 represents her true view of minerals and quarries.

I should like to be clear in saying that we have published a consultation document on exactly which sorts of schemes should fall under the clause. The reason for doing the consultation is to take into account different views about the types of project that might be included. It is important for the country that we have a good, steady supply of vital minerals. The national planning policy framework makes it clear that:

“Minerals are essential to support sustainable economic growth and our quality of life. It is therefore important that there is a sufficient supply of material to provide the infrastructure, buildings, energy and goods that the country needs. However, since minerals are a finite natural resource, and can only be worked where they are found, it is important to make best use of them to secure their long-term conservation.”

The NPPF recognises the effect of such developments on people who live nearby. If minerals are to be included—we are open on this issue and are consulting genuinely on it—the Secretary of State, acting in his or her capacity as decision maker, will take into account all the hon. Lady’s concerns and will have a process of consultation with local people, meaning that people will be able to make their representations. The local authority, as in the provision for existing major projects, will be required to produce a local impact report that can take into account all sorts of local concerns, such as the ones that the hon. Lady outlined.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I find the Minister’s comments helpful, but does he agree with the Town and Country Planning Association, which says that there is no evidence to show that we are running short of minerals or that it is not possible to quarry minerals? The lack of evidence about that is also upsetting people.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Again, that is probably based on a mistaken premise, which is that, as soon as a project has entered this route, all local feeling will be overridden and the chances of its being turned down suddenly become vanishingly small. That is simply not the case. The decision maker—the Secretary of State—will have to take into account all the national policy on sustainability, environmental concerns, the effect on neighbours, noise and all the other things that are proper planning considerations. There is no reason to believe that it is more likely to gain approval through that route than under a local authority route.

We are genuinely consulting on such matters. We have heard and understood that there is a level of concern about the particular sub-category that is perhaps more acute than the concern about the other sub-categories. We shall not be deaf to that, but we are going through a consultation, and I do not want to pre-judge the balance of responses to it or our final decisions on it.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I welcome the Minister’s clear commitment to take the concerns forward, such as those in the memorandum submitted by the Loose Anti-Opencast Network. It is thorough in expressing its worries about the measure. The fact that the hon. Gentleman has made such a statement is helpful and positive.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising and understanding clearly what I was saying.

I have also underlined why it would be a mistake to follow what is set out in amendments 109 to 112, which would be to define the types of scheme under the Bill.  The fact is that, until we have been through the consultation, we will not know where public sensitivities lie—where people understand and agree that it is appropriate to consider something nationally significant.

The hon. Lady put forward an elegant case about how size thresholds themselves will probably not be consistent indicators. That is why, while we should publish a set of criteria that will be used by the Secretary of State, even once those criteria have been finally adopted, the Secretary of State will still have discretion to say, “Yes, okay, this ticks those seven boxes, but even so, I don’t consider this to be nationally significant.” It is important that there is a qualitative judgment, and not simply a tick-box exercise, in establishing what are nationally significant schemes. That is why we shall resist the hon. Lady’s amendments suggesting that we should write such criteria into the Bill. We want to keep them as subsidiary matters that can therefore be changed slightly more easily than might be the case, not least because there might be an evolving view of what is nationally significant.

A project might pop up that is not captured by the criteria as originally adopted, and which demonstrates that clearly they should be adjusted. I am saying to the hon. Lady that, under the Act put in place by the Government who she supported, which defined which applications the Mayor of London can call in for his or—some day, I hope—her decision, there is no definition on the face of the Act. The definition is in secondary legislation because we need to retain some flexibility. I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Lady will see fit to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am reasonably happy with the Minister’s comments. It is certainly a step forward for our amendments to be taken seriously.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

To underline how seriously I am taking the hon. Lady’s amendments, I want to make sure that I do not leave a certain matter unaddressed. She referred to ancillary housing. It may be apparent to members of the Committee that few people are keener on further house building than I, to the extent that, at times, I have come under some attack for taking such a position. Nevertheless, I am very clear, as are the Government, that the right way for housing to be determined is through a local plan with the decision maker being, in the first instance, the local authority. It is important not to move away from that principle; otherwise, what on earth is the point of requiring local authorities to go through the local planning process in the first place? [ Interruption. ] Oh, it is not a speech? I do apologise, Mr Chairman. I think I have made the point.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

Order. I am grateful that the Minister was so sensitive to my body language, but the strictures that apply to the Opposition spokesman apply equally to Ministers.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Thank you, Mr Howarth. Actually, I was very much enjoying the Minister’s comments, but obviously we cannot go against the Chair’s order.

I was pleased that the Minister said that the Government will take note of the consultation that relates to the clause and the amendments; and that he will perhaps  come back, once the consultation process has finished, with a clearer set of criteria; and that he will listen to the comments that have been made by several organisations, particularly around mining and quarrying, because there is a lot of concern out there. With that in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I beg to move amendment 102, in clause 21, page 25, line 26, at end insert—

‘(1B) The Secretary of State must publish his reasons for giving a direction under this subsection.’.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 104, in clause 21, page 25, line 36, leave out ‘thinks’ and insert

‘considers that, subject to published criteria,’.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

However, having said that, and being reasonably happy with what the Minister has said so far on the amendments in the previous debate, the Opposition would like more information about what is going to underpin the Secretary of State’s decision on whether an application is nationally significant.

Amendment 102 puts a requirement upon the Secretary of State to publish his reasons for determining that a development is to be treated as a development for which development consent is required. It does so by adding the requirement to publish reasons at the end of the first paragraph of new section 35. We would not think that was a particularly onerous requirement unless the Secretary of State is indeed going to decide the matter on a whim and he does not wish that whim to be in the public domain. Otherwise he will have gone through a thought process, considered different criteria and what might be nationally significant, and will therefore be able to tell us and to publish the reasons as to why he has decided something is nationally significant. So, the amendment would require him to set out exactly why a development was deemed to be in the national interest. Without the amendment, local communities might struggle to see why their elected representatives are to be denied the right to decide an application.

Unlike the Minister, and indeed the Prime Minister, I do not hold nimbys responsible for the recession or the housing crisis. They might be a contributing factor, but I do not think that they are the primary reason for the slow-down in house building that we have in this country. I am sure the Minister and I can trade reasons for that on other occasions.

The majority of people in my constituency, and I am sure in many others, want to see development. They know that development means more jobs, houses and opportunities. They just want to ensure that the development will be in the overall interests of their area and their specific community. The impact assessment states:

“Applicants will be able to decide on a case-by-case basis whether they would prefer to use the infrastructure planning regime and so where they see a...benefit.”

Local residents will want to be sure that the decision to take this route—if developers decide to take the infrastructure planning route—is not just to the benefit of the developer, but that it works in their interests too. The Government have some way to go in reassuring  local communities that if a developer decides to go straight to the Planning Inspectorate, local residents maintain a right to have a say in the process and it will not be made unduly difficult for them to make their views heard.

In particular, residents will be keen to know that the net benefit to a developer is not the ability to bypass local concerns. A statement from the Secretary of State setting out why the major infrastructure regime is to apply would therefore be enormously desirable. If my constituents were shown clearly why a development was in the national interest, along with the investment and jobs it could bring to the area, they would be much more likely to support it and the company responsible for it. Conversely, stripping away the power of their elected representatives without an explanation would have the opposite effect. It would undermine trust in the planning system and engender public disapproval, which can only be bad for the developer and the Government.

It is particularly important that there is clarity about why projects are to be considered under this separate regime, given the testimonies that the Committee heard from witnesses who feel that there is little evidence to suggest that broadening the major infrastructure regime would actually speed up the process. Indeed, we heard from the Minister that the Government do not expect that broadening the regime will speed up the planning process. I was rather surprised to hear the Minister say that. I have said that he is full of surprises, but he surprised me yet again. We have the clause, the consultation that underpins it, the outcome of the consultation and the new regime. I would have thought that at the heart of all that would be the idea of speeding up the process of national infrastructure projects to deliver growth sooner rather than later. Perhaps I am wrong. Will the Minister correct me if I have the Government’s logic wrong?

In his evidence, Malcolm Sharp of the Planning Officers Society said that the regime is necessary for big pieces of infrastructure kit such as airports but the need had not been demonstrated for other schemes. He said:

“There is no evidence that it”— the 2008 regime—

“will be quicker to deal with complex schemes. I take your point about kit. That is where planning really got into trouble in terms of the big schemes like Heathrow. Terminal 5 gave planning a bad name. Generally, in my view, the normal development of an industrial estate or a mixed-use community is something we can handle properly under the existing system.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 106 Q250.]

The Secretary of State must be able to clearly show that each application to be decided by him is in the public interest, that the development is demonstrably a nationally significant project and that he will be able to decide more quickly and more effectively than the local authority. If he cannot, I say to the Minister that I do not think any of us understand the point of the clause.

Amendment 104 seeks to ensure that the definition of “nationally significant” is set out in published criteria. It does so by inserting a stipulation that in order to qualify under subsection (1) the Secretary of State,

“considers that, subject to published criteria,” a project is of national significance. The Government are moving some way towards that with the consultation, but we want to make sure that the outcome of the consultation is reflected in the regulations that underpin the clause.

As it stands, the clause could muddy the waters and slow down the planning process much more than it could speed it up. We discussed the lack of clarity about what is to be included in business and commercial. The next test for the planning application will be to prove that it is of national significance. The National Infrastructure Planning Association said:

“The first stage is the statutory instrument and the second is the judgment by the relevant Secretary of State as to whether your scheme is of national significance.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 114, Q265.]

Making such a judgment consistently and transparently without any criteria may be difficult for the Secretary of State. To show that we on the Opposition Benches are being fair, that applies to any Secretary of State. We are not making a particular point about this Secretary of State, although we could.

A lack of clarity may dissuade developers from using that route, as they will not be able to ascertain, prior to application, whether their project is likely to be accepted under the regime. Conversely, setting out the type of investment that Government consider to be nationally significant and worthy of fast-tracking could provide a much-needed boost for inward investment.

As I said earlier, criteria for national significance could relate to the value of the development—the size of investment from the company linked to the project; contribution to a key industry, such as green technology; the number and type of jobs to be created and whether those are for young people or particular sectors of the population that are facing underemployment. I hope the Minister accepts that all the issues that I have mentioned, which should be dealt with in a plan for growth, are desirable, and that the Government want to encourage those. If so, criteria for national significance are essential.

I should also like to draw the Minister’s attention to oral evidence sessions in which we were told that a national policy statement is the best way of ensuring that we have clear criteria on what constitutes “nationally significant”. We will debate the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich in a moment, but it is important that we consider a national planning policy in this regard. Trudi Elliot, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said:

“If this provision is going to work, there would need to be a national policy statement that gives some clarity around it.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 106, Q250.]

We agree. I hope that the Minister seriously considers taking the amendments on board.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 2:30, 4 Rhagfyr 2012

The hon. Lady is concerned about the possibility of the Secretary of State’s acting on a whim. I reassure her that I have never met a less whimsical Minister than the Secretary of State. He is a man of firm purpose, clearly advertised in advance and pursued thoroughly and without deviation. There is no risk of whimsicality, certainly not while the current Secretary of State is the decision maker on such matters.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

Of course this is not about any particular Secretary of State; it is about Secretaries of State, per se, and about having insurance for the future.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Gentleman is right. Thinking of the noble Lord Prescott, there was a man who was seized by whims regularly, leading to such great successes as the regional fire centres and other great products of ministerial whimsicality.

The hon. Member for City of Durham appeared to lack understanding of the point of offering an opportunity, but not a compulsion, for certain projects to go down this route. Government Members fundamentally believe that the way to improve the performance of almost anything is by injecting a certain amount of choice and competition into the process. That applies just as much to Government and bureaucratic processes as to things elsewhere in society.

As the hon. Lady said, this route will not necessarily be quicker than the local authority route. We believe, however, that it is the absolute best way to ensure that local authorities handle things responsibly and efficiently, while properly taking into account local opinion and properly going through all the required processes. The best way to ensure that is to make sure that local authorities understand that an alternative is available to the promoters of major projects and that they therefore need to demonstrate, through pre-application discussions and everything else, a constructive and pragmatic approach that the developer will want to continue to go down. It is because of competition that we can expect performance, timeliness and efficiency to improve.

The hon. Lady has developed a pronounced concern for the right of local people to have their opinions heard, and my hon. Friends and I share that concern. Indeed, we might even claim to have got there first, because the proposal builds on the previous Government’s proposals for the Infrastructure Planning Commission, but with one key difference: we have got rid of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, while keeping the process and making it democratically accountable, by making the decision maker the Secretary of State, who is a Member of Parliament and accountable to it.

The Secretary of State can be hauled across the coals in Parliament for those decisions. That democratic backstop was not in the original legislation that the Labour party brought into law—we have introduced it—and it will make the process fundamentally more acceptable. We have a requirement at the start for consultation on anything that goes down this route and there is a decision maker at the end who is an elected politician, accountable to the House.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the Minister recognise that from a business’s point of view that very change has increased uncertainty and undermined confidence in the system?

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I make no apology to any business for making decisions in a democratically accountable way. If businesses cannot cope with that, frankly, they should move to China, where things are not democratically accountable. We believe in doing things, whether nationally or locally, through democratically accountable decision makers.

I will move on to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for City of Durham. I reassure her that we genuinely believe that the amendment is unnecessary. First, under clause 21, the Secretary of State will be required to give reasons for making a direction under proposed new section 35ZA(10) of the Planning Act 2008. We are happy to give what she wants, but the amendment is not required for that.

Secondly, on publishing the criteria, I point the hon. Lady to the fact that call-in criteria are published. Call-in has been used much more frequently by successive Secretaries of State than this measure is ever likely to be used. The call-in criteria are published in written ministerial statements. Indeed, we just altered the call-in criteria in a small way, which led to a further written ministerial statement on the subject.

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady: we are consulting on criteria up front because that is a good idea. It would be a bit bizarre, having consulted on them, not to say what conclusions we had drawn. Although I resist the proposal in her amendment, I offer the reassurance that publishing the call-in criteria is a strongly positive thing, which I would hope to emulate in any similar process, such as this one. On that basis, I hope that she will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Right, well, we are having a very positive afternoon, because I am reassured once again. It appears that we will know on what basis the Secretary of State makes his decision and that regulations will set out what is of national significance. However, I will say one thing before withdrawing the amendment. I did not comment on whether, if this route had been devised, everything falling into set criteria would be compulsorily referred to it. I did not suggest that; I was merely stumbling around trying to find a reason why the clause should exist if not to speed up applications. I remain none the wiser about that, but I am sure that we will return to it at a later date. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Llafur, Greenwich and Woolwich 2:45, 4 Rhagfyr 2012

I beg to move amendment 91, in clause 21, page 26, line 13, at end insert—

‘(6) The Secretary of State must prepare and lay before Parliament a proposal for a national policy statement, setting out national policy in relation to this section.’.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 113, in clause 21, page 27, line 37, at end insert—

‘(3A) In section 105 (decisions in cases where no national policy statement has effect) after subsection (2)(c) insert—

‘and in the case of a business or commercial development project shall make the decision in accordance with the relevant local plan’.’

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Llafur, Greenwich and Woolwich

As well as speaking to amendment 91, I will say a few words about amendment 113, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, and she may well be able to add to that.

I must tell the Minister that amendment 91 is a probing amendment, but it is prompted by concerns over some of the inconsistencies and peculiarities in  how clause 21 has come into existence. I have already highlighted a discrepancy between the stated public intention to embrace thousands of schemes, which was announced by the Department for Communities and Local Government in September, and the Minister’s minimalist interpretation that these measures are just a spur to efficiency and will only apply in a small number of cases. Would that that were the only inconsistency and area of doubt.

Let us start, however, with a degree of consensus. The 2008 Act framework is now accepted on both sides of the House. When in opposition, the Government were very iffy about the 2008 legislation, but I am glad that, having tweaked it a little bit and therefore feeling able to claim some ownership of it, they are now happy to agree that it is a good way forward to deal with major infrastructure. The principle of the 2008 Act was that policy should be determined nationally to avoid lengthy local inquiries in which measures to mitigate or respond to local impacts were often lost in arguments that were essentially about the principles of the scheme. The Act said quite rightly that, with major infrastructure, the national Government should determine matters of national importance and that that should override the arguments often advanced in public inquiries to try to stop schemes of national importance through a local inquiry network.

There was a great deal of logic in the Act. It short-circuited the process, but it did not remove democratic accountability. I must say that I differ with the Minister on how that democratic accountability was guaranteed. It was guaranteed not simply by being vested in the Secretary of State’s hands, however benign they may have been, but by having a national policy statement endorsed by Parliament.

There was no longer local democratic accountability, because the scheme was taken out of the local framework, but it was subject to explicit parliamentary approval, because of the presence of a national policy statement. That is very much emphasised in the Government’s consultation document on this measure. I will quote from paragraph 39, because I think it is germane:

“National Policy Statements provide the policy and decision-making framework for nationally significant infrastructure. They give certainty to developers by making clear the Government’s policy on the different forms of infrastructure, help speed up the examination phase (for example by addressing the question of ‘need’), and guide the decision-maker on the approach that should be taken on the main issues. They are given democratic legitimacy by Parliamentary scrutiny and approval.”

So there we have the framework.

Without a national policy statement, the proposed process would allow developments to be considered without being subject to local democratic consent, as they are currently, and without national democratic consent, other than the Secretary of State’s say-so, which may or may not be adequate. It is certainly not as adequate as parliamentary scrutiny of the national policy statement.

We know of the Local Government Association’s deep reservation about clause 21—it is very strongly opposed to it. This morning, the Minister of State waxed on at great length about how Government amendment 52 to clause 13 had the LGA’s wholehearted  support. I am sorry that he is not here now, because I could remind him of its wholehearted disapproval of the clause, which has no local support at all.

Many reservations have been expressed by planners familiar with the processes. In his evidence, which has already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, Dr Hugh Ellis from the Town and Country Planning Association said:

“I think the real risk is about consent and trust in the planning system. Those are the real principles that we should address. Whether or not the Government mean it—I am sure they do not—this measure, and particularly clause 21, sends a message to communities that they are no longer critically involved in determining decisions that affect them. That is where the real risk lies in clause 21—the perception about whether the planning system is accountable to local people or not.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 100-01, Q240.]

We therefore have real worries about accountability. Not only will local democratic scrutiny be cut out, but without a national policy statement, parliamentary scrutiny is also ruled out. The TCPA has commented on that, and Hugh Ellis’s evidence is again clear:

“We entirely support the idea that you must have a national policy statement… We support it for two reasons. First, the entire lesson of terminal 5 was that if you want an inquiry to move quickly, you must establish Government policy at the national level. Without an NPS, the 2008 Act would have to allow debate on all issues of policy at the examination, which would be a challenge for it. It is not how the 2008 Act is meant to work. Also, without an NPS, Parliament has no opportunity to comment on the purpose of the development.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 106, Q250.]

Those are important messages about accountability.

Why are the Government apparently opposed to national policy statements? I suspect that that is an entirely pragmatic decision relating to the difficulty of defining all potential types of development that might be subject to such statements. In his evidence, Robbie Owen from the National Infrastructure Planning Association gave a pretty clear hint that it would be hard to come up with a definition. He said:

“At one extreme, we are looking at a broad category of commercial mis-development”— there is an error in Hansard, because I think that he meant mixed development; I hope that he did not mean mis-development—

“and it is hard to contemplate how the Government could sensibly produce a national policy statement on that wide variety of schemes, whereas, for example, if it were more focused on research and development, big business parks or mineral extraction, it would be easier to contemplate a national policy statement that dealt with those issues.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 115, Q266.]

That is probably the nub of the problem.

The response is a pragmatic one from a Government who do not see how they can define a national policy statement to cover all the issues, but that of course suggests that the impact of the clause will be to take the 2008 Act procedures into territory that is not particularly appropriate. On that, we have to return to an important observation by Dr Ellis, who said:

“Our concern is that the 2008 Act was not intended to deal with complex social and economic development embedded in communities. It was designed for hard kit under the four categories that the 2008 system sets out.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 106, Q250.]

That gets us to the real essence, which is that using the 2008 Act procedures, taking them into territory that they are not well equipped to deal with and compromising the principle of the 2008 Act—and the democratic accountability that underpinned it—is to shoehorn in several other types of development that are inappropriate.

We then see the Government’s embarrassment over issues such as retail developments and housing. We have had pretty clear steer from them that they do not consider it appropriate to deal with housing or retail development under the arrangement. However, let us we think back to the evidence from the experts. As my hon. Friend the shadow Minister said earlier, when Liz Peace was asked what major project would be appropriate, she came up with King’s Cross. Of course, that would be ruled out immediately because it has an element of retail and an element of housing. We now know that the Government have come up with such a proposal and are wrestling with definitional problems because they would not feel terribly comfortable with the implications if it were to extend to thousands of projects, as they envisaged originally.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, if an industrial estate were being built, there must be a small element of other provision such as cafés and retail, otherwise people would be encouraged to drive off site? Such provision is not the purpose of the development but the supporting service potentially for the workers on that site.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Llafur, Greenwich and Woolwich

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. She has made a case against her own Government because it is precisely in the nature of mixed developments that there is an element of other things, either retail or housing, but the Government are saying emphatically that that will rule out the use of the procedure in such cases and that even a single house could not be considered under the procedure. That is nonsense because large developments such as King’s Cross might qualify. We might agree that the scale of development, the fact that it crosses borough boundaries and thus involves more than one local authority might make it appropriate for that to be considered under this procedure rather than the normal, local procedure, but that is ruled out by the Government’s decisions. I am highlighting the confusion on their part about precisely what schemes will fall within the remit of the procedure.

The Government are in trouble, which is why we should help them to solve the problem by tabling a simple amendment that proposes a national policy statement. I have already said why they might find that technically difficult, but my hon. Friend has proposed an alternative, which is to say, “In that case, localism prevails and the decision must be taken in conformity with the local plan.”

I put it to the Minister that he cannot have it both ways. If he wants to be regarded as a localist, he must accept that proper democratic accountability must be exercised through Parliament with a national policy statement to ensure that decisions are not made outside the democratic process. If he cannot produce a national policy statement—for reasons I fully understand because of the complexity involved—he must insist that matters are taken in conformity with the local plan. That, at least to some extent, will assuage the LGA’s anxieties.  Having stressed that my proposal is a probing amendment, I hope that the Minister will understand the logic of accepting amendment 113, under which, in such circumstances, the decision must be taken in conformity with the local plan.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My right hon. Friend has made an excellent case in support of amendment 91, about which I shall say something in a moment, but I am sure that the Committee will want to know that I am preparing myself for a rejection yet again by having tabled amendment 113. Given what we have heard this afternoon, in the perhaps more unlikely set of circumstances that the Government will reject amendment 91, I offer them an alternative way out in the spirit of being helpful that seems to be descending on members of the Committee, rather late in the day but welcome all the same.

We know from the witnesses that there is a lot of concern about the fact that the clause leads to a deviation in the process for assessing applications under the Planning Act 2008, because it required a national policy statement to be in place. Trudi Elliott of RTPI said she thought it was important to have a national policy statement that gives clarity around a decision. Dr Ellis of TCPA said:

“Without an NPS, the 2008 Act would have to allow debate on all issues of policy at the examination, which would be a challenge for it. It is not how the 2008 Act is meant to work. Also, without an NPS, Parliament has no opportunity to comment on the purpose of the development.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 106, Q250.]

That is clearly a part of the democratic scrutiny that the Minister has not yet taken into consideration.

Robbie Owen said that

“the Planning Act anticipates that there might be cases when decisions come to be made under the process and when there is no national policy statement in effect. In that situation, the legislation obliges the Secretary of State, as the decision maker on the individual scheme, to have regard to a list of other things, particularly any other matters that the Secretary of States thinks are...important and relevant to the decision.”––[Official Report, Growth and Infrastructure Public Bill Committee, 20 November 2012; c. 115, Q266.]

That is precisely where the local plan comes into consideration. It is what amendment 113 is about, because it is saying that where there is not a national policy statement in place, the decision on what should go straight to the Planning Inspectorate or to the Secretary of State to be determined should take the local plan into consideration.

Given the prominence that the national planning policy framework gave to the local plan, it might be useful to remind the Committee of what the NPPF said not only about the local plan, but what local authorities should be doing to promote growth. Both are relevant to the amendment. Paragraph 12 states:

“This National Planning Policy Framework does not change the statutory status of the development plan as the starting point for decision making. Proposed development that accords with an up-to-date Local Plan should be approved, and proposed development that conflicts should be refused unless other material considerations indicate otherwise. It is highly desirable that local planning authorities should have an up-to-date plan in place.”

That makes it very clear to me that the Government are expecting that the local plan will be at the centre of decision making for what happens and what is determined for local areas. I cannot foresee a set of circumstances in which the Government would not want the local plan to be taken into consideration in determining an application, and therefore I have no idea why they would reject the amendment.

The NPPF is interesting in another regard: the way in which it suggests to local authorities that they should be promoting economic growth already. Again, it gets back to the position we were in with the previous group of amendments, struggling to find a rationale for the clause. Paragraph 20 of the NPPF states:

“To...achieve economic growth, local planning authorities should plan proactively to meet the development needs of business and support an economy fit for the 21st century.”

Paragraph 21 continues:

“Investment in business should not be over-burdened by the combined requirements of planning policy expectations. Planning policies should recognise and seek to address potential barriers to investment”.

The NPPF should

“set out a clear economic vision and strategy for their area which...proactively encourages sustainable economic growth”.

It would

“set criteria, or identify strategic sites, for local and inward investment”.

It would

“support existing business sectors, taking account of whether they are expanding or contracting”.

It would

“positively plan for the location, promotion and expansion of clusters or networks of knowledge driven, creative or high technology industries”.

It would

“identify priority areas for economic regeneration”— and, critically, in the context of the amendment—

“infrastructure provision and environmental enhancements”.

Finally, it would

“facilitate new working practices”.

On the basis of that exhortation, which was given to local authorities in the NPPF, it is not entirely clear to me why the clause is necessary at all, as the previous Minister stated about the NPPF when the Localism Act 2011 was going through Parliament.

The Committee might like to note that in the 50 pages of the NPPF, the local plan is mentioned 195 times. That might lead us to believe that the Government are serious in considering local plans and putting them at the heart of decision making. If that is the case, I cannot see why they will not accept the amendment. That is especially the case if, as I strongly suspect, they are not going to create national policy statements for the various criteria, sets of circumstances and the applications that fall into them that will be produced in due course.

It might help the Committee if I bring along one of the national policy statements, on renewable energy infrastructure, of which this is just a part. It is enormously helpful in detailing what is meant by renewable energy infrastructure, where it might go and what considerations need to be taken into account. Again, it is not clear to me why the Minister would reject creating national  policy statements for business and commercial developments, or why he would not want a decision to be made in line with the local plan.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 3:00, 4 Rhagfyr 2012

Being offered help by the right hon. Gentleman is a bit like being offered a lift across a river by an alligator. The smile is broad, but the teeth are sharp. However, it is impossible to reject the hon. Lady’s advances, particularly when they are so tenderly offered. I hope that everybody in the Committee will understand that the differences between us on this issue are relatively slight. I hope therefore to be able to persuade the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady that their amendments should be withdrawn.

Our commitment to the provisions created in the Planning Act 2008 and the national policy statements is absolutely undiminished. Indeed, eight national policy statements that were started under the previous Government have been completed and implemented by the current Administration. There is a key difference between those categories and what has been proposed in the clause, which is that all infrastructural developments must go through this route. It is mandatory for any infrastructure developments that fall under the categories relating to the national policy statements to go through this route. It is therefore essential that there is, as the right hon. Gentleman said, a policy that has been debated in Parliament and agreed by Parliament to decide those particular applications, because there is nowhere else for them to go.

That is not the case with what we are proposing for business and commercial developments of major significance, because they will always be able to go through the local route. As I made clear, it is more as a backstop for those who fear that the local authority in question will not be able to deal with it in an expeditious way. They will be able to come through this route. There is not a mandatory route for those developments. That leads me on to something that I hope will reassure the right hon. Gentleman, the hon. Lady and all Committee members.

Of course, in making decisions on business and commercial projects of major national significance, the local plan is one of the first things that the Secretary of State will take into account because, as the hon. Lady said, national planning policy, set out in the national planning policy framework, makes it clear that the local plan is most important—it mentions that more than anything else. The point of the national planning policy framework was to put the local plan in the driving seat.

We are not willing to accept the amendment, because that would imply that the local plan was the only thing in the national planning policy framework that could be considered in making decisions about such schemes going through the route. If the amendment were accepted, no other policies in the national planning policy framework could be taken into account. That would be a mistake, because the whole point of such schemes is that they have more than local significance.

The fact that the NPPF will be the prime source of policy guidance for decisions about such projects will suggest clearly to everybody that the local plan has an important weight in the consideration. Therefore it is not necessary or helpful to produce that result with the amendment. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and  the hon. Lady accept my assurance that the local plan would be a key element taken into account by the Secretary of State in assessing such points.

We have not absolutely ruled out a national policy statement in these areas, but the right hon. Gentleman is right about the problem. Our current position and instinct is that this is not a mandatory route for such developments and we would not want to introduce policy statements that undermined the local plan. We want the Secretary of State, as decision maker, to give a great deal of attention to the local plans. We are not persuaded that national policy statements for all business and commercial developments that could fall under such a provision would be workable or wise. However, we are consulting on that and open to arguments to the contrary.

On that basis, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Lady are reassured and that the right hon. Gentleman asks leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Llafur, Greenwich and Woolwich

I have made it clear that this is a probing amendment, so the Minister will be pleased that I intend to ask leave to withdraw it. However, I should like to press him a little bit further. I hear his assurances and think that my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham and I would be content if there were rather more definitive confirmation that the local plan would be an important point of reference as part of the process. I take his point that it cannot be the only point of reference—there must be consideration of other NPPF issues—but it would help to have a positive steer on how the Secretary of State, who will not be subject to the same democratic accountability as a national policy statement, will, when reaching his decision, be guided by the local plan as well as the national planning policy framework.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I do not know what form that reassurance should take—whether some guidance, or whatever. However, I am sure that we are happy to give the right hon. Gentleman—whether in a letter or whatever form is appropriate—some kind of explanation about the primary role of the local plan in the NPPF, saying that its use as the key guide will imply great weight to the local plan. I am happy to make that assurance on the record.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Llafur, Greenwich and Woolwich

I seek your guidance, Mr Howarth, because I am happy to beg leave to withdraw my amendment, but my hon. Friend’s amendment is joined with it and she should have the opportunity to express a view.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

The hon. Lady will be given that opportunity.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 3:15, 4 Rhagfyr 2012

I intend to take the opportunity. Clearly, we are on a roll this afternoon. It is a pity that we cannot bring back clause 1 into the discussion because we might get somewhere. I heard what the Minister had to say both about the national policy statement and about taking the local plan into account, and I am somewhat reassured. On that basis, I will not press amendment 113 further.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 7—Planning Act 2008 pre-application procedure—

‘(1) The Planning Act 2008 is amended as follows:

(2) After section 54 insert—