Town and Country Planning (Major Infrastructure Project Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2002

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time but I am sure will not be the last, Miss Begg.

Hon. Members have said that we are discussing the statutory instrument in the context of the planning Green Paper and the Select Committee report on the Green Paper, but the Government are yet to respond to the Select Committee report or to publish our views on the extensive and successful consultation on the Green Paper. I am surprised and perplexed that hon. Members seem to think that a conspiracy is afoot and are wondering why the statutory instrument is before us today when it was trailed in July 2001 and builds on amendments to the same rules in 2000. Given that it was down in black and white that the rules were coming one year ago and that the prayer was initially introduced in the House of Lords some time ago, it smacks a little of partisan politics to express surprise.

If the statutory instrument is the nightmare scenario of an anti-democratic swathe through our planning laws that Conservative Members suggest, why were the official Opposition not at the prayer debate in the House of Lords? Where is their prayer against it? Nowhere. Were their names added to the prayer of the hon. Member for Bath since 20 May? No. They have had plenty of time to do so. We will take much of their puff and wind with a heavy pinch of salt in that context.

The hon. Member for Bath opened his comments by saying, as the Joint Committee did, that on the whole the adjustments to the rules are relatively benign. If the Joint Committee said that, in the context of what I would freely admit is a fairly critical assessment of the planning Green Paper, I will

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trust what it says, rather than the deeply political and—I think, on balance—unworthy comments of Conservative Committee members.

I am now asked—and I know I am not going to get away with this for too much longer—if I, a humble Under-Secretary barely in post for six weeks, can tell the hon. Member for Cotswold what is in the Queen's Speech. Well, I should not think so, given that my Cabinet colleagues cannot tell him. I am pretty sure that I am not able to tell him—I do not think that I need to check that.

Time will tell whether there is a planning Bill in the next Queen's Speech. I certainly will not. The same applies to any response that we make to the consultations on the Green Paper, which I think people would agree have been extensive. They have been very successful and we are heartened by that. Whether opposing the annulment of the prayer so that it goes through means anything in terms of the major infrastructure proposals that were in the Green Paper, and may be in a subsequent planning Bill, I do not know. I would not tell hon. Members even if I did. I am not telling them what is in the Queen's Speech, whether a planning Bill is included, and I am certainly not telling them the substance of it.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Get on with it.

Mr. McNulty: With respect to the chuntering from the hon. Gentleman, he dealt with profound irrelevancies for the best part of an hour. Now, he is chuntering to tell me to get on with it. I am about to answer the sensible questions from the hon. Member for Bath. If I have time, I shall return to some of the more fatuous questions from the hon. Member for Cotswold and his colleagues.

The hon. Member for Bath asked if I could give an assurance that there would be a constant monitoring of the rules. The answer is yes. If we look back at the history of the rules, they were revised in 1988, 1992, 2000 and now in 2002. Whatever the broader context—a planning Green Paper or anything else—the rules are constantly being reviewed, monitored and referred to, not least for some of the reasons the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Many of the other comments made by Opposition Members sought to take each rule in isolation and did not refer to the helpful cross-references in the rules to previous rules. It is wrong to start at rule 17 and bemoan what will happen if that rule is passed without understanding—or seeking deliberately not to understand—the context of rules 8 and 6, and the whole new context of mediation and pre-inquiry. That context means that by the time we reach a timetable for a major inquiry much of what has prevailed before will not happen because the process has been broadly agreed. One needs to understand the limitations put on that process by the inspector in that context.

Is the Secretary of State likely always to extend or never to extend the timetable? Again, anyone who has participated in such inquiries—I have at length after 11 years on a planning committee—knows that they are organic and dynamic beasts. If there are new issues

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or avenues to explore, I am sure that the Secretary of State will not reflect that they are a result of a less than efficient mediation and pre-inquiry process. However, if matters do come up, and there is substantial evidence to suggest that the inquiry needs further time on them, they will be considered extremely favourably. That will happen if there has been proper mediation and pre-inquiry, which we can only have if these ''most draconian, anti-democratic rules'' are passed. Rather then lessening people's ability to have proper, efficient input at major infrastructure proposal inquiries, the whole purpose of the rules is to streamline the process so that input is more efficient and better serves the public. In that context, the case quoted by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—he seems desperate to rise to his feet—and previously raised by Lord Fowler would not have been covered by this process. With the best will in the world, an industrial park, however significant, would not be a major infrastructure project on this list, the previous list or any subsequent list, so it would not be subject to this process.

However, I shall consider the points made by the hon. Gentleman about inquiries and people's faith, or otherwise, in them. It is important and drives at least some of the comments on this and subsequent changes in the Green Paper. Even if it is not a major infrastructure project, we must look at rule 17 in the context of rules 8 and 6. The restrictions that may or may not be made by the inspector on the timetable concern the context of the pre-inquiry meetings and the mediation. It is a package and it is wrong to pick out, deliberately or otherwise, one rule and wax lyrical about how it is the worse thing since tyranny was invented.

As for who has the right to appear, that will be determined by the inspector.

I believe that it was the hon. Member for Bath who picked up on Lord Rooker's point about hoping to see clarity winging its way on whether the pre-inquiry meetings will be public. It has wung its way. All pre-inquiry meetings will be public. There was clearly a blockage in the other place and Lord Rooker did not have the information.

Other points were raised about the planning Green Paper and the Select Committee report to which I shall respond in due course.

The Liberal Democrats raised an extremely astute Liberal Democratic point about the difference in the number of copies required. In the example quoted concerning rule 7, the difference between two and three copies, which is a difference of only one, is that the latter includes a copy for the local planning authority. That is all. If there is more to it, I shall return to the hon. Member for Bath with the information, which will wing its way—or wung its way—a lot quicker than between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Some of the points raised by hon. Members about the decision-making process at central Government level were well made. It is not appropriate at this stage to discuss the length of a piece of string, given the nature of inquiries at major infrastructure project

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level. We have announced in the planning Green Paper that we in the Department set the target of cutting by half the average time taken from the close of an inquiry to the issue of the decision. We are already working towards that. We are also establishing a planning casework central directorate to speed up planning applications and determinations so that the last process can be implemented.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty: No; the hon. Gentleman has chuntered far too long and I have plenty to say. The hon. Gentleman has only just complained about my not answering questions. I am in the middle of doing so and I have seven minutes left.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: How about a bit of courtesy?

Mr. McNulty: Courtesy went out of the window at about five minutes past 11, with the best will in the world.

Given that the planning Green Paper says that and sought views on whether there should be statutory targets for delivering decisions—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a point of order, Miss Begg. How can Standing Committees do their work if the Minister will not give way to an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman who wants to ask a substantive question? We are here to examine the Government and to hold them properly to account.

The Chairman: I think the hon. Gentleman knows that it is for the Minister to decide whether to give way.

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman should have thought of that at 25 minutes to 11. I am responding to substantive points—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister does not know.

Mr. McNulty: I do know.

Most of the substantive points came from the hon. Member for Bath, whose party led the prayer because it believed that there was something wrong with the rules.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister is getting into more of a temper all the time.

Mr. McNulty: I am not in a temper at all, with the best will in the world.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister looks in a temper.

Mr. McNulty: That is just my look and I cannot do anything about that. I apologise.

The planning Green Paper also sought views on whether there should be statutory targets for delivering decisions and, in that context, any adjustment to the rules on major infrastructure projects will also include the Secretary of State seeking to keep his decision-making process to a minimum at the tail end of the procedure.

The point made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) was entirely fair and I will take it back to my Department. In the wider context of the planning casework central directorate, however, many blockages on decisions from smaller inquiries, rather than MIP inquiries, are caused by the tail end of

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the process in which a government office sends the result of an inquiry up to central Government, who send the matter back down to it for a decision. It is entirely right and appropriate that I consider that issue further. We are trying to halve that delay through the PCCD and our willingness to cut to a minimum the last ministerial intervention.

On the issue of a fixed time for a response, with the best will in the world even though ''as soon as practicable'' sounds like typical legalese we will have to go with it given that the nature of inquiries is that they are entirely discrete.

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Prepared 9 July 2002