Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)




  140. May I welcome our witnesses for this afternoon's session? This is part of our inquiry into major infrastructure projects and proposed new parliamentary procedures to deal with major infrastructure projects. I am very delighted that the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Trust, Friends of the Earth and also Transport 2000 have agreed to come and give evidence to us. We are slightly thin on the ground because a number of colleagues have had to go to Northern Ireland and one will be slipping off and coming back again, but we are a quorum and you are going to get some hard questioning from us in order to elucidate where you stand and for us to find out precisely what you think of the government's proposals. In welcoming you, I am going to start the questioning. We are seeking to answer two very basic questions in our inquiry. First, whether the government's proposals for parliamentary consideration of the principle of a major infrastructure project are appropriate and, second, if they are appropriate, what procedures should be followed for their consideration in this House? Can I ask each of you: would you set out for us as briefly as possible whether you feel the government's proposals are appropriate or not?

  (Mr Burton) It is important to emphasise that we do recognise the need for a national perspective on major infrastructure projects of this kind and we welcome other aspects of the government's proposals in terms of strengthening of national policy statements and improving the inquiry process. Where we have far reaching concerns are about the proposals for the parliamentary stage within the government's package. We believe the government is overstating the need for that role in relation to the sheer number of projects for which it would be appropriate. We feel that the government is failing to value the process of inquiry, examination and scrutiny in securing public acceptance for quite significant land use change. We feel it will exclude people from key decisions in that the inquiry process does not generate controversy rather than resolve it and there may be question marks about the existing rights to be heard over major development of that kind. We believe the government's parliamentary process comes too late in the decision making process to consider the key issues of principle and need and too early to address the issues of detail and impact. We fear that the net result will be to duplicate the effort of the decision making process and it will not meet the government's own objectives of speed and efficiency. We believe it will stretch Parliament's capacity and the resources it has available to deliver a quality result and we believe it fails to address the fundamental questions which need to be examined in relation to major infrastructure projects of this kind in terms of need, demand and alternative strategies. That will not be well addressed by that process. In conclusion, we would argue that the proposals as they currently stand are both unworkable and undesirable, which is not to deny that Parliament has an important role, but we believe that that can be delivered in a different, more effective way.
  (Dr Ellis) I think our concern is that these proposals are unnecessary and unfair. To pick out one particular aspect of that, the removal of civil rights in the local inquiry process, which essentially is the withdrawal of the right to discuss principal need and location at a local public inquiry, is a very major, draconian step, in our view. It is likely to increase the public's distance from this process. There is one critical issue which really goes to the heart of this. The government has said that there are increased opportunities for public involvement in this process. Crucially, they have pointed to the parliamentary stage as part of that increased process. Parliamentary scrutiny undeniably creates a level of accountability but what the government is seeking to trade off is democratic accountability against civil rights. The rights in a local planning inquiry are individual, civil rights, well established, long standing, commonly understood. It seems to us that parliamentary accountability and civil rights cannot be traded off against each other but are complementary. So long as the government attempts to punish local objectors for what are administrative reasons for the causes of delay in this process, these proposals are doomed to failure.
  (Mr Sinden) We would agree with the thrust of what my colleagues have already said. We would emphasise however our concern to secure better decisions from any improved processes independent of the extent to which they involve Parliament on issues to do with major infrastructure projects, which remains a question. Whatever improved processes we get we would like to see delivering better quality decisions on major infrastructure projects which reflect more effectively the important environmental considerations that we have to take into account in determining the way forward in relation to a range of projects and, decisions which bring with them a significant degree of public consensus on the direction for change and development.
  (Mr Sullivan) There are two fundamental tests that any process needs to achieve. One is: is it enabling people to have their say. Secondly, is it a proper test of the government's proposals or the promoters' proposals? The proposals that are in the Red Book from the Minister do not achieve that in the way that they have been presented. We think there are better ways in which Parliament could become involved. One is in relation to policy statements of the sort you have had some evidence on. The other we would draw your attention to is the Scottish Parliament is going in a different direction and is introducing a modernised form of private Bill with quite a lot of participation and openness. I have a paper on that from their Bills Unit which may be helpful. If one is to involve Parliament in promotion, the new, modernised form of private Bill that is going to be used in Scotland may be a better road to go down, but that is just one option.

  Chairman: Obviously, if you have any evidence and papers that you would like to present to us, please do so at the end of this particular session. We will be looking at and studying what goes on in other parts of the United Kingdom.

David Wright

  141. Lord Falconer, when he was the Minister before the recent Cabinet reshuffle, appeared before the Committee on 7 May and he seemed to make a number of fairly significant concessions on the government's initial proposals. You may well have seen the evidence. He conceded that consideration of major infrastructure projects in Parliament would be fairly lengthy; that Parliament would have to be sufficiently resourced in order to examine proposals and that votes on proposals would be unwhipped. Do you feel that starts to improve the situation as far as you are concerned? What other fundamental changes would you like to see that could be rapidly applied to the process to make it more accountable?
  (Mr Sinden) We recognise and welcome the apparent concessions that the Minister made in response to the strength of opinion that many groups expressed about the practicality and feasibility of the procedures as set out in the consultation paper. We believe firstly, that they do not address the fundamental concern that we have about these procedures, about taking them away from local communities and the effective input and involvement of local people, and perhaps removing them to a level which is not well equipped to address in sufficient detail and scrutinise sufficiently the various aspects and components of major infrastructure proposals. In summary, we would argue that the concessions, whilst welcome, are very small and unsatisfactory responses to the strength of the concern that our groups seek to represent.


  142. To give you the statistics, the DTLR received 16,000 responses to its overall consultation exercise, of which some 400 dealt with the parliamentary procedures and it is clearly the parliamentary procedures in which we are interested in this inquiry. Does anyone else wish to comment?
  (Dr Ellis) The heart of this is the structural division between the consideration of principle and detail. None of the Minister's concessions deals with that crucial issue of where principle and detail might fall. They did not seek to bridge that gap which is a fundamental concern we have.

David Wright

  143. How long do you think is legitimate for a planning inquiry to take to make a decision? Five years is outrageous, is it not? To be honest, it is damaging to local economies; it is damaging to national economies and it also leaves local people in limbo for an incredibly long period of time.
  (Mr Burton) The statistics are that something like 12 inquiries have lasted longer than three months in the last 20 years. The major inquiries that have taken place that have taken an extended period of time have been virtually making national policy on the hoof and have taken that long because of a vacuum in leadership and direction in the national policy context.

  144. We need some direction, do we not?
  (Mr Burton) Absolutely.

  145. From this process, in terms of principles. We have to make decisions nationally, do we not, about key principles about projects and those cannot be debated purely at a local level, can they?
  (Mr Burton) No, which is why we are strongly behind and would wish the government to go further in developing a clearer, stronger national policy framework within which individual decisions about individual projects can be made and, in addressing that policy context, it is not just saying, "This is the demand. How do we meet it?" It is genuinely looking at what the trends are, what the alternatives are, how that demand can be managed and distinguishing need from demand.

Mr Burnett

  146. You talked about duplication. If you feel like elaborating on that for two seconds, please do. Then you talked about stretching Parliament's capacity and I have a great deal of sympathy for what you have said, having been involved in the planning process a lot myself. You did go on to say, Mr Burton, that Parliament's role can be delivered in a more effective way. Perhaps you would elaborate a bit for us on that.
  (Mr Burton) On the issue of duplication, principle and detail cannot be separated in the black and white way that has been suggested. Therefore, they will both be debated at all stages.

  147. You will have read Sir Iain Glidewell's evidence and Roy Vandermeer's evidence?
  (Mr Burton) Yes. Your second point was?

  148. The second point was stretching Parliament's capacity, although that is a point for us more than you probably but I take the point and I have some sympathy with it. The last point is you talked about Parliament's role can be delivered in a more effective way. Could you elaborate on that?
  (Mr Burton) The value we see of the parliamentary role would be in ensuring that the national policy framework was effective and addressed the issues which Parliament would wish to see addressed.

  149. Timeously, because we know from Roy Vandermeer's evidence that there was no national policy when he started terminal five and the local policy was 12 years out of date. He gave us a tranche of about a year of the delay due to the lack of policy.
  (Mr Burton) Yes. We believe Parliament's strengths align scrutiny and review. We believe that Parliament should be scrutinising the policy process and reviewing its effectiveness. There are already examples of select committees performing that role at the moment. We would wish to see that process strengthened, made more systematic and better resourced.

Rosemary McKenna

  150. Mr Sinden, the CPRE examination of potential parliamentary procedures published before the government's proposals, before they issued detailed proposals, argues for a parliamentary process to approve the principle of MIPs, similar to the process established under the Transport and Works Act 1992. In the light of the detailed proposals, do you still think that that procedure would be preferable?
  (Mr Sinden) What I think we said in that initial report is that, of the existing parliamentary procedures available to us, the TWA Act is perhaps the best of a bad bunch. We feel that it provides for a degree of consistency in the way in which projects are being developed and provides for a degree of local engagement through a local inquiry process in important decisions, including, where justified, issues of principle. While the TWA Act may well in theory reduce the amount of time required to conduct a public inquiry in terms of taking away consideration of the broader context of national policy issues, in terms of the overall length of the decision making process, the evidence suggests that it is not achieving any significance reductions in the time taken to arrive at decisions. If this mechanism were to be extended to embrace a wider range of projects, including major infrastructure projects of national significance, our judgment is that that would not deliver what the government is seeking to achieve in addressing this issue. We feel that we can get an acceptable solution, a better solution to the process we have now, without resorting to parliamentary procedures. We would not argue that the TWA Act is the way to go. We think we can secure improvements in other ways, as we are beginning to see. The national policy statement's proposals do have potential and Parliament has a role in scrutinising those. The improvements to the local inquiry procedures, some of which have been very recently introduced a few weeks ago, and discussed in the other House, also offer potential to improve on the procedures at the inquiry stage. Those two measures combined, provided we have sufficiently clear statements of national policy, would achieve many of the government's objectives in terms of shortening the decision making process for major infrastructure projects.

  151. The proposals would not be more acceptable to you unless it was on the principle of a major infrastructure project passed by Parliament; it was indicative of Parliament's opinion, rather than the government proposing binding the Secretary of State? Would you prefer that Parliament was able to express a general view?
  (Mr Sinden) Not on specific projects. We see the value of Parliament expressing a view on the scope and nature and level of detail of national policy statements but not at the project level.

  152. Are you all saying therefore that you disagree fundamentally with the current proposals?
  (Mr Burton) We are, yes, with the parliamentary procedure element.
  (Mr Sullivan) On the Transport and Works Act, our evidence is that the parliamentary stage, which is an approval only of a very large TWA order in principle at the beginning, has one value which is to sieve out the bad project before it gets to the stage of a long-winded inquiry. Central Railway was sieved out some years ago for that and it may happen again. I do not know. It also means that the Transport and Works Act procedure, when you get into it properly—i.e., excluding the parliamentary stage—is not very satisfactory. It is very long winded and lawyer driven. I was involved with the Thameslink 2000 inquiry and I found it a very frustrating experience. Those who had positive ideas to bring forward about ways of varying the scheme, bringing more stations into Thameslink 2000, were excluded, so I would not support the TWA as a process. If the Scottish Parliament looked at it, they decided no, they would go for the private Bill process instead. I do not think it has proved itself.

  153. I think there is a difference between the Scottish Parliament and what has been proposed here. It is the sheer scale of the issue. It might be simpler if the Scottish Parliament dealt with it in a Bill process, but the scale of the projects nationally in England and Wales would be such that I do not know that that would be the appropriate way to deal with it.
  (Mr Sullivan) There is one other interesting case which you have dealt with over the last few years, which is now under construction, and that is the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which took two years to pass through both Houses. That was preceded by something like seven or eight years of debate about the routes. When the line appeared in a Bill, the principle generally people had become accustomed to but even then it took some two years for all the issues to be resolved and a lot of involvement for the then junior minister, Mr Roger Freeman. At the end, probably the route was satisfactorily achieved and Transport 2000 does not think that you can really achieve a project of that scale in the south of England with the population and environment we have any faster than that. Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are taking much the same time to promote and build new railways.


  154. You do not think that the private Bill procedure which you appear to favour is too lawyer driven? It is a semi-judicial type of process and procedure. Do you think that is the best way to proceed?
  (Mr Sullivan) Not in its traditional form, no. In the Channel Tunnel Bill, where I was a witness for the CPRE in the 1980s, I certainly felt that myself but it does look as though the Scottish system is intending to make it more participative and bring people in. One should not bring forward big projects—leaving aside airports at the moment; but railways and roads and the like—without a lot of earlier participation and debate before any strategy stage is reached. If you reach a position where something has been deposited in Parliament without debate ahead of time, without resolution of the general corridor, you are going to have trouble either in Parliament or at a big inquiry.

  155. You have referred to the CPRE. Could I ask Dr Ellis whether he would share that view? Are you as concerned as Mr Sullivan is about this? Do you believe there should be a longer process before any matter of principle is put to the House by the Minister?
  (Dr Ellis) Yes. From our perspective in Friends of the Earth, we do not believe that the current system is broken. In some sense, this returns to the question that you asked about local economies. Here, we have a reform package for major infrastructure projects based on an analysis of terminal five which was largely faulty. I believe, if the policy was made after the hearing which you have just had with Roy Vandermeer, you would have a very much more sensible approach to major infrastructure projects, an approach based on a proper analysis of what is currently our critical problem, which is managerial, administrative, not structural in terms of the way inquiries play out, administrative and managerial in terms of policy setting and in terms of the way inquiries are run. In some senses, we can be at risk of wandering down the route of reaching a solution to a problem that was not properly defined. Clearly, inquiries can be made to work more effectively and more speedily if that is your objective without compromising any of the local rights we have talked about. From our perspective, Parliament does have a role in scrutiny of policy but fundamentally local public inquiries considering all these issues are a perfectly sound, perfectly reasonable way to proceed and should remain so.

Mr Burnett

  156. I would like to approach the issue of fairness in the present system. Are you satisfied that the present system of planning inquiries is fair, particularly in relation to infrastructure projects. In addition, what key elements do you believe underpin the fairness of the present system? Do you think that the processes leading up to the decisions made on recent major infrastructure projects, particularly terminal five, have been fair? Do you believe that those processes have generally been accepted as fair?
  (Dr Ellis) I am in a peculiar position because, before these proposals were brought forward, I was a great critic of the current system and, having watched its potential abolition, I suddenly decided there were merits in it that I had not perhaps seen.

  157. What were your criticisms before you changed your mind?
  (Dr Ellis) My criticisms of the major inquiry system were very much based on the question of fair to whom. The individual, non-aligned objector has an extremely hard time in the current inquiry process. That is partly to do with the lack of advocacy, lack of resources, lack of explanation of inquiry process. I do believe—some academic research supports this and our own membership supports this—that there is an overwhelming support for the way that inquiries are held in terms of the broad principle of fairness. People believe them to be arenas where they will be heard and listened to.

  158. And they accept their decisions.
  (Dr Ellis) Very largely, they do accept their decisions because they have had a right to say their piece.

  159. To be heard.
  (Dr Ellis) To be heard. The danger of these proposals is that they will withdraw any meaningful right to be heard. There are difficulties, I guess, about the way that these arenas can become judicial, about the way cross-examination can become overbearing for the non-expert, but these things can be resolved, partly through the suggestions government has made about planning advocacy; but they are nonetheless I think the best kind of arena to decide these issues in. We have concerns—and I think Transport 2000 shares these to a degree—about the way the rules have been changed on inquiries over the last three or four years and in terms of the current rules. Some of those changes have been positive; some of them have been profoundly negative, but the inquiry system itself is fundamentally fair.
  (Mr Sinden) From the CPRE's perspective, we are perhaps one of the most active participants in the planning system at all levels. Our local groups and volunteers scrutinise over 100,000 planning applications each year and participate in a significant proportion of public inquiries into controversial schemes. We have had for many years a long shopping list of improvements, including greater access to planning advocacy and possibly, where justified against certain criteria, specific public funding of public interest groups, like the CPRE representatives, so that they can play a full and positive role in public inquiries; issues to do with cutting down on the reading out of proofs of evidence and so on which is a way in which some advocates can string out the length of inquiries, and issues to do with access to information as well.


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