Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the CPRE



  1.  CPRE has a long history of involvement in the land use planning system from our foundation in 1926. We helped create the movement for change which secured the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 and today we are the largest and most active voluntary contributor to the planning process in England. CPRE regional groups, branches and districts play an active role in the preparation and review of plans, policies and guidance at all levels, encompassing both strategic and detailed local issues (including inquiries into major projects) and, we estimate, scanning at least 100,000 of the half a million planning applications submitted annually in England. In all this activity, we aim to promote the beauty, tranquillity and diversity of rural England through encouraging the more sustainable use of land and other natural resources in town and country.


  2.  CPRE believes that the planning system, for all its faults, is a vital cornerstone of environmental protection, sustainable prosperity and the quality of life for present and future generations. CPRE accepts that there is room for improvement in the existing planning system but we are concerned that the Government's analysis of the problems facing the planning system appears to be based on some questionable assumptions, leading to the promotion of some inappropriate remedies. The greatest risk from an inadequate planning system is further damage to the countryside and historic urban areas, results which would fundamentally undermine the Government's own policies on sustainable development and the delivery of the urban renaissance. We are also concerned that the Government's planning review proposals pay relatively little attention to the issue of resources—financial, human and educational—in planning and among its practitioners and users.


  3.  CPRE has responded jointly with other organisations to the Government consultation on major infrastructure projects; a copy is enclosed. We set out here a summary of our views on the Government's proposals. A copy of our report Major Infrastructure Projects, published last year to look at a possible Parliamentary procedure for major projects, is also enclosed for more detailed information on some of the issues raised here.


  4.  We welcome the Government's proposals for national statements of policy on issues such as ports policy or aviation. We believe that these could significantly reduce the time taken by public inquiries. They should not follow the model already demonstrated with the Government's policy statement on prisons in 1998. They need to be subject to full public consultation and Strategic Environmental Assessment as well as parliamentary debate. They should deal with principles and criteria for development, and should in no circumstances be site-specific.


  5.  CPRE is also pleased to see, and support, the Government's intention to improve public inquiry procedures. We believe that there is considerable scope to make inquiries fairer, quicker and more effective by, for example:

    —  better resourcing and preparation on the part of those involved;

    —  aiming to secure high quality public participation in a less adversarial way;

    —  taking an approach based on hearings and fact-finding discussion, with Inspectors taking a more inquisitorial role;

    —  making greater use of round-table discussions to help resolve issues;

    —  ensuring full access to background information (eg research work) for all interested parties;

    —  setting and enforcing strict deadlines for submission of evidence and information;

    —  adherence to pre-arranged timetables, with penalties for abuse by participants;

    —  eliminating, as far as possible, time-wasting practices such as reading out proofs of evidence (written evidence should hold equal weight to oral);

    —  making greater use of pre-inquiry discussions—focussing on the real contested issues;

    —  using planning advocacy services to their full potential to encourage, inform and co-ordinate input from the public;

    —  holding sessions at different times (including evenings and weekends) to increase access and openness; and

    —  considering funding NGOs and other public interest groups to enable them to participate on equal terms with other parties.


  6.  We are strongly opposed to the Government's proposals for a parliamentary procedure to decide in principle on specific projects on specific sites, and to remove the right to assess the desirability of otherwise of a proposal at the Public Inquiry. We do not believe that Parliament has the expertise, the resources, the time or the sheer physical capacity to give proper consideration to all the issues surrounding major development projects, and we would strongly object to any votes in Parliament being whipped. And we consider the proposal to deprive the public of its entitlement to a hearing before an independent Inspector at a local Public Inquiry on the largest and potentially most environmentally damaging projects of all to be an unjustified attack on the principle of public involvement in planning.

  7.  CPRE has recommended, in its joint response with others to the consultation paper, that the Government press ahead with proposals for national policy statements—with full public consultation and debate—and public inquiry reforms, but abandon the idea of a Parliamentary procedure to decide on specific projects as unnecessary, unworkable and likely to lead to further delays and greater conflict. Instead we recommend a package of measures to streamline public inquiry procedures.

SPECIFIC ISSUES RAISEDIf the proposals are adopted, how can the public be assured that the parliamentary process is independent and unbiased? Will votes be whipped?

  8.  Although decisions on proposals are currently political insofar as they are taken by the Secretary of State, his decision is informed by the recommendation of an independent inspector who has heard evidence from all those who wish to appear at the public inquiry. We believe that one of the issues surrounding the proposals is that the political decisions on major infrastructure projects would be significantly more political if Parliament were to vote on individual projects. The public's assurance of an unbiased and independent hearing for views would be significantly reduced if the parliamentary process failed to allow all those who wished to appear and give evidence.

  9.  Whipping of votes seems a logical corollary of the Government's intention to speed up decision-making, but would minimise the chance of the public feeling assured of the decision's independence. The parallel of local authorities, where whipping on planning votes is expressly disallowed, would appear to raise a serious issue of consistency. Recent statements from Ministers have suggested that the Government is not intent on pursuing this option, however.

  Do the proposals provide a desirable balance between the rights of developers and those of objectors? Do they satisfy the provisions of human rights legislation?

  10.  The natural justice arguments against removing people's existing right to an independent hearing on the proposals which would cause most environmental damage and disturbance are compelling. The proposals as they stand appear to give special dispensation to applicants to submit a case for the economic benefits of a proposal, and to allow a very short period for submission of views by the public. The removal of consideration of the issues from the local area, where a public inquiry usually takes place, to Westminster will also tip the balance further in the direction of developers, by making it harder for interested third parties to attend hearings.

  Is it right that Parliament should be invited to take an irrevocable decision on the location of a project as well as on the principle?

  11.  No. We believe that, aside from the removal of the independent hearing at a local public inquiry, which the proposals imply, a parliamentary procedure is vulnerable to other criticisms. It seems unlikely that already hard-pressed MPs and Peers would be able to spare sufficient time for proper consideration of the issues; and, if they could, they would lack the necessary expertise and information. It is far from clear that the detailed local information required would be forthcoming at this early stage of the project. Where it was, the sheer volume of detail in an Environmental Impact assessment, for example, could prove too much. If, as the Government suggests, only one or two projects were to be considered according to this process every year—each quite possibly very different—then Parliament would presumably have to assemble expert advisors each time on a one-off basis, and find it hard to accumulate experience (in contrast to the Planning Inspectorate). There are also serious questions as to whether Parliament has the physical capacity to carry out the sort of inquiry that would be needed to allow a reasonable degree of public involvement.

  Should the House be able to attach conditions to its approval?

  12.  Logically, if it is to decide on the actual site for a project, this would seem right. However, it is highly questionable whether the information required would be available at this stage to allow conditions to be drawn up. It also calls into question what the role of the Public Inquiry would then be, if even conditions have been decided first.

  How easy will it be to draw the boundary between matters of detail and of principle?

  13.  Very difficult, we believe. If "in principle" is held to mean compliance with a National Policy Statement, and that Statement is not site-specific (as CPRE believes it should be) then it might be possible, however. Parliament could make a decision as to whether a project was in accordance with the criteria and general approach set out in the National Policy Statement, but it would make no decision regarding the site itself. Thus the issues of national need or desirability would not be debated at the subsequent Public Inquiry, but the question of the suitability of the site itself for the proposal would remain open. (See our enclosed report for a more detailed exploration of this approach).

How realistic are the Government's timings? How can Parliament access the necessary specialist and technical advice?

  14.  We believe it will be difficult, if not impossible, for consideration of the detailed evidence and views involved to be made within the sort of times suggested. It would be particularly difficult, in our view, for local people and other interested parties to gather data and present evidence to the Secretary of State within the deadline proposed. Parliament's likely difficulties in obtaining and retaining the necessary advice are addressed in paragraph 13 above.

What should be the respective involvements of the two Houses? If a committee system of scrutiny is adopted, what form of committee would be suitable? How will its members be selected?

  15.  We believe that a committee of the sort suggested by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in its recent report Environmental Planning would be an approach worth investigating. However, this might be better suited, as the report implies, to the drafting of National Policy Statements than the consideration of specific projects. CPRE has long argued that the Planning Inquiry Commission model, provision for which already exists in statute, provides a model which could address the Government's concerns without resorting to a Parliamentary procedure.

Should the nature of any committee's recommendations determine the level of subsequent scrutiny by the House? How often is the new procedure likely to be used?

  16.  Whilst we do not accept the principle, desirability or practicality of a parliamentary procedure, we believe that, if it were adopted, the answer to this question would depend on the nature of the committee and its proceedings. If, for instance, the committee allowed very wide access to interested parties for giving evidence, sat at times which allowed wider public engagement and in various places, eg sometimes on location on or near the site itself, then there might be a case for limiting subsequent scrutiny.

March 2002


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