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Let me deal with the community infrastructure levy, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Brentwood and Ongar and for Beckenham, the right hon. Members for Skipton and Ripon and for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the hon. Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), for Poole (Mr. Syms), for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), my right hon. Friends the Members for Greenwich and Woolwich and for Streatham and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods). It is clear, and supported by hon. Members of all parties, that this is not the planning gain supplement. The levy will be used to fund the infrastructure needed to support an areas development. The charges will be set at a level that reflects local councils priorities for infrastructure and growth and the likely land values. It is not a blank cheque but a charge specifically to meet the costs of infrastructure that are identified through the development plan. It is conceivable that the necessary infrastructure may be outside a local planning authoritys administrative boundary
or that it may be provided by a public body other than the local authority. So the community infrastructure levy may therefore be passed from the local planning authority to other bodies.
John Healey: The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but what I have described is the answer to his question about roads to the nuclear power station in his area. It is common practice under the current regime of planning obligations and is already widely accepted.
Mr. Pickles: Is the Minister saying that the levythis new taxwill be related just to the project and to such areas relating directly to the project that lie beyond the immediate area, and that there will be no skim-off for regional and sub-regional areas?
John Healey: I have explained that the purpose of the levy is to help fund the infrastructure that is widely recognised as needed to support developments that we all wish to see. That is the purpose of the levy. It will be accompanied by a negotiated agreementthe section 106 agreementwhich will continue to cover affordable housing on specific sites. The levy will sit alongside section 106 agreements. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham is right that local authorities should be doing more. By the sounds of it, her authority should be doing more to secure more affordable housing and strike better section 106 deals.
Mr. Gummer: Will the Minister confirm that the money raised by the levyor taxwill be applied specifically to the infrastructure necessary to that project and not to any other infrastructure of a more general kind?
John Healey: If the right hon. Gentleman reads the Hansard record, he will see that I explained a moment ago that the levy will be for infrastructure that is set out in the development plan. [Hon. Members: Ah!] Moving on, I heard a large number of points from a large number of contributors to this debate. We shall have ample opportunity to return to matters relating to the community infrastructure levy throughout the proceedings on the Bill. I look forward to that.
The basis of the infrastructure planning commissions consideration and the centrepiece of the proposals are the national policy statements, which have been welcomed throughout the House. We have made it clear that there will be strong parliamentary scrutiny of such statements. That will strengthen their status and their scope to act as an authoritative basis for determining major infrastructure project applications. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and others that we have recommended scrutiny of the national policy statements by a new Select Committee. It will hold an inquiry and report in
parallel with public consultation. The Government will consider the Committees report and revise national policy statements where appropriate. We have also undertaken, within the rules of the House, to provide time for a debate where the Committee recommends that there are issues that merit it.
John Healey: Before I give way, may I say that we have received the letter, which I welcome, from the hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and from the Chairmen of the Select Committees on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and on Transport? We recognise that the four Committees concerned, including the Communities and Local Government Committee, contain much of the expertise necessary to conduct such scrutiny. We would welcome an early opportunity to discuss the issue with the Committees, as they are asking us to do, and I can confirm that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of House is ready and willing to discuss the issue with the four Chairmen involved.
Peter Luff: Does that mean that the Minister does not assume that all such statements will necessarily be considered by a brand new Committee and that other mechanisms might be available, in consultation with the Chairmen of those four other Committees, to ensure that the Governments legitimate expectations of increased parliamentary scrutiny are met, or are there no assumptions about the structure of scrutiny?
John Healey: Our principal aim is to ensure that national policy statements have sufficient scrutiny in this House to give them the authority to play the role that they need to play. We would welcome discussions on the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
John McDonnell: Will the commitment that the Government have made on scrutiny and debate enable Members to table amendments to any statement and to vote in this Chamber on those amendments or on the principle of the statement itself? Will we be allowed to reject a statement on a vote in this Chamber?
John Healey: I do not think that I could have been clearer when I said that if, following the scrutiny of the special Committees that the House sets up to exercise that scrutiny, they judged that sufficient time should be made available for debate in this Chamber, we would make that time available where there were merits. That would be subject to the normal terms of this House, and it is quite feasible to see votes on such debates.
I have a lot of ground to cover, so I shall turn now to the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham. Unlike the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, he is clear about the welcome that he gives to the Bill. He rightly describes it as ludicrous and unacceptable that local planning inquiries have become the forum for national needs debates. Even the hon. Member for Carshalton
and Wallington conceded that point. However, my right hon. Friend expressed the concern, which was shared by 12 other Members during the debate, that it would be the IPC, rather than Ministers, that would make certain decisions. Let me try to deal with that point, because it is clearly important to a number of Members.
The national policy statements will provide the single permission regime within which the IPC will consider applications. I should like to clear up any misunderstanding about the present ministerial role in planning applications. Ministers in a planning role act in a quasi-judicial capacity at present, answerable more to the courts than to this House, and challengeable by judges rather than by Members of Parliament. I was asked why we shall not simply build on the present system. Major infrastructure projects give rise to unique issues that cannot, in our view, be solved by changes to the existing system.
Whereas the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, covers major infrastructure applications under the town and country planning regime, the Bill before us will cover applications under another seven regimes. In other words, it will provide a single, better, more predictable and more accountable system to replace the patchwork that we have at the moment. At present, projects are examined by a planning inspector but decided by a Minister, so two people have to go over the same information sequentially. It is right and proper that Ministers should set policy, but it is not clear that they are the best placed people to make the often very technical decisions about individual project applications.
Above all, under the present system, Ministers are responsible for setting national objectives for infrastructure development. In some cases, such as highways, they are also the promoters of individual projects. They also take decisions on whether to approve planning applications. Under the new system, decisions on actual applications will be taken by an independent body of experts. That means that there will be a clear separation between policy making and project promotion on the one hand, and decision taking on the other, to ensure that decisions are taken in the most clear-cut way possible. That will clear, rather than blur, the lines of accountability.
Mr. Betts: Will my hon. Friend at least concede that public perception is important in this regard? Ministers will take the final decision following a public hearing on a relatively small matter such as an extension to the green belt or to a school, or the planning permission for a football ground. However, it will be a commission that takes the decision on the location of a nuclear power station, for example. A Minister will not ultimately be responsible in such a case.
John Healey: My hon. Friend made exactly that point in the debate. As the White Paper said, we are looking at whether certain decisions currently taken by Ministers could properly be devolved to local planning authoritiesthat is, looking at whether we could move in the other direction. Also, having listened to the responses to our consultation, our new proposal allows for a limited set of circumstances in which the right people to take certain decisions will be Ministers.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich was quite right in his observations about the role and importance of good planning. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked three specific questions, so let me provide the answers. The first was about the role of local authoritiesa worry shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). Let me make it clear that local authorities will have a central role in the new regime. They will be statutory consultees on national planning statements that identify particular locations for development. Developers will be obliged to consult them on their project proposals and they will also be statutory consultees in the inquiry system. The Bill thus protects and enhances rather than reduces the role of local authorities.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked whether the infrastructure planning commission could reject applications and the short answer, in view of the limited time available, is yes. We can discuss the basis of that in more detail later. Thirdly, he asked whether we gave more weight to some consultation responses than to others. Let me be clear that equal weight was given to responses to the consultation, regardless of who gave them. Let me also say that where there is clear evidence that individuals have considered the matters personally, that can often be of greater assistance to us than pro-forma letters. More information is revealed and many of the pro-forma letters did not address the questions that we had set out in the consultation.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal raised a series of points. He was principally concerned about the public voice at the local level. May I tell him, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) that the public voice will be clear, as I will explain? Promoters will be required to consult local communities before submitting an application to the commission. They will also consult the relevant local authority and other bodies such as the Environment Agency, English Heritage and others, depending on the impact of a particular project. Local people will be able to submit evidence in writing, allowing some to participate without taking long periods off work to attend inquiries. People who have registered will also have the right to give evidence at an oral session organised by the commission. In other words, the public will be able to put across their own points of view without the need to hire expensive barristers. That is also my answer to the hon. Member for Beckenham who spoke about the right to be heard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) has certainly been closely involved in supporting local communities over local applications, and I hope that what I have just said will help him to some extent. It is true that people sometimes lack confidence, but they should not lack opportunitythe Bill will ensure that they do notand they should not lack support. Our increased support for planning aid will help to ensure that they do not.
The hon. Member for Poole seemed to welcome national planning policy statements and the community infrastructure levy, which he recognised would be more transparent and simpler. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) spoke very strongly on renewable energy; he has a long track record on such matters. He will recognise this afternoons important announcement by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on offshore wind power. He will also recognise the need for a planning system and reform of it, as he did in his speech, in order to secure the big boost to offshore renewable wind energy that this country is uniquely placed to deliver.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) wanted to know what assurance I could give that the Bill would not curtail or limit the Welsh Assemblys planning powers. Let me tell him that we have no intention of undoing the devolution settlement; we will ensure that the Bill does not change the Welsh Assemblys planning powers in any way.
Mr. Roger Williams: Under the current arrangements, any planning application for a power station in Wales over 50 MW is dealt with by a Minister here. It has been a long-standing ambition of the Welsh Assembly Government for that power to be taken up in Wales. Tripartite talks between the Wales Office, the Welsh Assembly and the Department of Trade and Industry as was were moving in that direction. Have those talks informed the Bill and is there any likelihood of those powers being devolved to the Assembly?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington conceded that there was a problem with the terminal 5 applications, partly because the developer was time-wasting and partly because objectors in the community were unfunded. The Bill and our arrangements will help with both. He gave a fair and important warning about trust in the system. Our aim is to strengthen that with the national planning policy statements before the House and the planning process in the Bill.
I say to the hon. Member for North Cornwall that class orders are about land use and not well suited for local social issues. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham and a number of hon. Members talked about the Bills environmental importance.
To be clearthis is in response to the consultationthe Bill proposes a duty on the Government to ensure that national policy statements contribute to sustainable development. There will have to be an appraisal of the sustainability of the policy in each statement, and in respect of town and country planning there will be a new duty to ensure that councils put the fight against climate change at the heart of local plans. That is why the Sustainable Development Commission said today:
The SDC is encouraged by the governments recognition of the central role of sustainable development in the Planning Reform Bill, as shown by the requirement for the Secretary of
State to develop National Policy Statements with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development.
I say to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford that the Bill does not affect the tests that will be used for town centres. He sees potential problems of conflict of interest where none in reality exists. He and the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East asked why flood defences are not included. May I make this point clear, particularly as I am Minister responsible for floods recovery? Some flood defences will be includedfor instance, dams and barrages that generate electricity or ensure adequate drinking waterbut the impact and issues around sea walls remain primarily of interest to the region and the surrounding local area. Local and regional authorities remain the best decision makers.
The Bill will remove unnecessary sources of delay that have plagued major infrastructure projects in the past, a lack of clear Government policy, multiple overlapping consent regimes, inadequately prepared applications and complex multi-stage processes. It will reform the planning system to make Britain better able to cope with the 21st century. It will speed up decisions and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Therefore, I urge Conservative Members not to press the amendment.
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