Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560-579)
MR DIGBY JONES, MR MICHAEL ROBERTS AND MR BARNEY STRINGER
WEDNESDAY 24 APRIL 2002
560. Do you really think that Parliament is capable of deciding major infrastructure projects?
(Mr Jones) I certainly do. I am very pleased with the basis that the Queen and Parliament is our sovereign. In that respect I like the fact that democracy is still going to have the say in all of this, at a timeand I hear it from many people in this room todaywhen MPs seem to feel that their say does not count as much as it used to. One of the reasons why democratic connection at the Parliament/Westminster level is so low is that the public does not feel it matters as much as it used to. A) this is a good way of getting some of this democratic connection back and B) I think they can deliver as long as they are resourced to do so. Clearly, to burden them further without additional resource is going to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that it is not working. This has to be resourced with time, money and skill put into it at the Parliamentary level but, given that, I believe that it can deliver.
561. Does Parliament have the skills to be able to assess planning applications and make good decisions as well as fast decisions?
(Mr Jones) Yes so long as it is properly resourced. You need experts in there to advise Parliament, but yes I believe that is possible. That is exactly what an MP should be doingbeing that conduit back to the constituency where it is going to happen and back up to the national and international level.
562. Would a Parliamentary procedure do that? Is that not designed to cut the link between the decision making and the constituency?
(Mr Jones) Business would not see it that way. You might say that is how it happens on the ground, but what we would say is that we would rather have the national projects decided at a national level with a constituency input rather than huge issues being decided upon by small groups of people who rightly, because that is where the system has put them, are blinkered in that approach to the national importance, and so they should be because local authorities have a responsibility at a far lower level. The current planning system, especially with major projects in the United Kingdom, is the best friend that France and Germany have got in this competitive world in which we live. The system is letting the country down. What we have to do is get it up to the national level. I think the Parliamentary procedure can cope with that if it is properly resourced.
563. Do you not think that you are mistaken in linking that with seeing the constituency link as important because there could be situations where a planning applications is not in the interests of an individual constituency but it is seen to be in the national interest? Is this whole procedure not about making Parliament separate from the constituency? Whether that is good or bad is another issue. Is it not the case that your original proposal that this would improve the perception of Parliament from a constituency basis is not so?
(Mr Roberts) If one wanted to be fair on what the Government is proposing for major local projects there are a number of ways in which local communities, however defined, can still play an important role in the decision-making process. There are three elements. One is the process of consultation when determining national policy. Second is the ability to input when Parliament has a role in looking at the issue of need. Third is the ability to participate in a local public inquiry, which remains a key part of the process. I do not exactly see that the Government's proposals to improve the planning for major projects is in any way removing the ability of local communities to contribute to the debate about whether or not something should go ahead.
564. How much courage do you think ministers will have?
(Mr Jones) As much as they normally have.
Chairman: Is that not a bit worrying? Supposing we are looking for an extra runway at an airport in the South East, do you really think the Minister is going to be able to announce that within 12 months of an Election given there might be some marginal seats around that site?
Sir Paul Beresford
565. Or put the other way, perhaps he would be tempted to choose a site where he has no marginal seats because the other party has a hold on it.
(Mr Jones) I am not going to intrude on private grief and comment on your political cynicism.
Mrs Dunwoody: Luckily, we are not thinking of building a runway in Wandsworth.
Sir Paul Beresford
566. No, that was a little while ago. I am thinking that the link has gone away completely. The link will have gone away so completely that my colleagues's comments here are very valid. The local community will have absolutely no say. It will have its say but its voice will not be heard because they will be steam-rollered through Parliament on a minimum of quality of information and discussion and a minimum of understanding of the situation and a maximum of what we have in the political system which is a confrontational political system which works through the whips' system. How we get over that with local authorities is that most planning representations are not made on whips.
(Mr Jones) You get inordinate delay, but you do not get the added problem where it dumbs down to the local level so that it is completely inactive.
567. I am pursuing the delay issue. The Minister is going to prefer to make a decision after an Election rather than before. That is to start off the whole process with a delay. There will be two years in which you can have lots of decisions made by Ministers and then gradually getting decisions is going to get harder and harder.
(Mr Jones) Of course that might be a possibility, that is real politic. At the moment that can happen. At the moment we have got inordinate delay. At the moment business does not have certainty. At the moment job creation does not occur because of the planning system. Yes, it does mean that there are going to be horrible, difficult decisions taken, yes, individuals' interests are going to be suborn to those of the national interest. Of course. Welcome to difficult decisions, but that is what leadership is about.
Sir Paul Beresford
568. Difficult decisions will still be taken but one could look, as many organisations have, at changing the system. You have not; you have washed it out with the bathwater.
(Mr Jones) It has failed a nation.
569. It has failed a nation in one or two huge inquiries.
(Mr Jones) I listen to businesses for a living and I have to tell you that the Terminal Five debacle is not on everybody's lips in the north of England. What is on their lips is the fact that they cannot get clear, speedy understandable, cheap planning permission to develop their small businesses in a place where jobs need to be created. That is what is letting this country down. The Terminal Five decision gets all the headlines but it is not one where this system is harming wealth creation.
570. Surely the big constraint we have in this country, which France and Germany do not have, is space? I remember the publication of the Kinsey Report saying Britain is much less competitive and the reason for that is land use. The reality is in this country we cannot give business unfettered land use, we cannot give complete freedom in the way we might choose to because we do not have the space the French have?
(Mr Roberts) To be clear, we are not asking for unfettered rights of development. We have been absolutely consistent in our responses to various consultations for reforming the planning system that we believe there is a need for a planning system. The problem is that there has been a long history at local as well as national level of poor decision-making and reaching the tough decisions that need to be made and integrating the needs of the economy with the needs of the environment and society as a whole. What we particularly like in the thrust of the reform the Government has proposed is how you can improve the process by which decisions are taken.
Sir Paul Beresford
571. Poor decisions or poor because of length of time, the quality or the delay?
(Mr Roberts) I would suggest the poverty of decision-making operates on a number of levels. It is partly about the time taken to reach decisions.
572. Where have you given us evidence of that?
(Mr Roberts) Of what?
573. Of the poor decision-making.
(Mr Roberts) With regard to the time aspect of poor decision-making, Mr Stringer may be able to help me with the figures. We have been concerned with regard to the number of commercial applications which are not decided upon within the current target which is set by the Department. We are suggesting that
574. You actually say that one reason for that is that there are too few planners and they are not paid enough.
(Mr Jones) Absolutely right.
575. So in fact a change in the system would not change this at all.
(Mr Jones) You need the two. One thing we need certainly is more money. Business should play its part and pay more and the Government should put more in to get better planners and more of them.
576. So you could operate the present system as long as you had better planners and they were better paid?
(Mr Jones) You will never improve and change the culture of the system just by putting in money. I am thinking of last Wednesday!
577. Deary me, we are being prejudiced, Mr Jones.
(Mr Jones) I would not know the meaning of the word!
Mrs Dunwoody: Not effective, but prejudiced.
Chairman: Order, order.
578. Can I ask where the evidence is of these assertions? I am being boring. I am reading what you have said.
(Mr Jones) You were talking about delay and quality.
579. Both of you have mentioned this. Mr Roberts, you said very simply that the system had failed. Mr Jones, you said that there were very clear indications right the way across the nation.
(Mr Jones) Of poor quality?