Previous Section Index Home Page

20 May 2009 : Column 1532

Planning: National Policy Statements

[Relevant Document: The Fourth Special Report from the Liaison Committee , Session 2007-08, on Planning Bill: Parliamentary Scrutiny of National Policy Statements, HC 1109]

2.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I beg to move,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I must tell the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell).

Mr. Wright: The changes in the planning regime that resulted from the Planning Act 2008—in terms of the establishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the role and extent of national policy statements and the ability of the public to make their views known on the proposals—were scrutinised extremely closely during debate on the Bill here and in the other place.

This is neither the place nor the occasion to discuss the merits or otherwise of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, or whether the country should have a new generation of nuclear power stations or an increase in airport capacity. I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would rule us out of order if we strayed into that territory. Instead, we shall be discussing a motion that is concerned with the process by which Parliament will be involved in scrutiny of the new planning framework.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I do not intend to go down the avenue that the Minister just mentioned, but may I point out to him that, in the context of the proposed scrutiny process, there are serious concerns about sustainable development? Can he reassure me that the Sustainable Development Commission will have an input and that corresponding opportunities will be provided for scrutiny by the Environmental Audit Committee, so that we can be certain that whatever the outcome of the establishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, sustainable development has been properly taken into account?

20 May 2009 : Column 1534

Mr. Wright: That is an important question. As was made clear during the passage of the Planning Bill and is made clear in the Act, sustainability must be at the heart of any national policy statement. I shall say more about parliamentary scrutiny shortly. I do not wish to mislead the House, but I seem to recall that the Sustainable Development Commission is one of the statutory consultees and will therefore have the opportunity to play a role in regard to national policy statements.

Joan Walley: The Minister is being very generous in giving way, and I am grateful to him. Can he also reassure me that the commission will have regard to the future price of carbon when making planning infrastructure decisions?

Mr. Wright: As I am sure my hon. Friend will acknowledge, that will depend on the nature of the national policy statement involved. It may well be that the price of carbon is not particularly relevant. When considering this matter, the House has been clear about the need for a flexible approach in that regard.

The Planning Act, particularly section 9, provides for parliamentary scrutiny of a proposed national policy statement before it can be designated. Timing, in the general sense, is very important. The Government envisage that the Infrastructure Planning Commission will be established and able to start giving advice to potential applicants this autumn, and will be ready to begin receiving applications from the first half of 2010. We need to put the right procedures in place now, so that they are ready for the first statements, which are scheduled for publication for consultation and laying before Parliament later this year. It is important for parliamentary scrutiny of proposals for NPSs to be efficient and timely. Any delay, or ineffective arrangements, will pose the risk of disruption to a demanding timetable of planning reform for major infrastructure.

To ensure that the process of parliamentary scrutiny is effective and efficient, the Minister for Local Government and the Leader of the House began discussions with the Chairmen of the relevant Select Committees when the Planning Bill was going through the House. Discussions have been followed by further discussions between the Deputy Leader of the House—who I am pleased to see is present—and the Chairmen of Select Committees in recent weeks. The Liaison Committee also considered this matter in October last year, and I have found its report incisive and illuminating.

I pay tribute to the hard work undertaken by my colleagues and others, which has strengthened the proposed process. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made constructive and positive comments, designed to ensure that Parliament scrutinises national policy statements properly and effectively.

When the Planning Bill was first introduced, the Government suggested the establishment of a specific Select Committee to consider national policy statements, whose members might be drawn from the membership of relevant departmental Committees. However, it was made clear during the passage of the Bill that the wish of the House was that it should be for the House itself to decide what procedures were appropriate for each specific NPS. We recognise that that flexibility is vital.

20 May 2009 : Column 1535

As I said a moment ago, the Liaison Committee also directly considered the matter of parliamentary scrutiny of NPSs, and provided helpful and reasonable suggestions on how the process could operate and be improved. The Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)—who I am pleased to see is also present—feared that the system as then suggested would exclude members of her Committee with responsibility for, and expertise in, matters of planning policy and local government. As one who appeared before the Committee this week to discuss planning policy statements—and I still bear the scars on my back from previous interrogations by it—I can personally vouch for my hon. Friend’s wise words. Moreover, the Chairmen of the departmental Select Committees directly concerned perceived the risk that a system in which ad hoc committees were drawn from existing Select Committees would disrupt those Committees’ work.

Together with the Chairs of the Select Committees, we developed the process that is proposed in the motion. Parliamentary examination of a national policy statement would take place through one of two routes: designation of a relevant departmental Select Committee to undertake the work, or the appointment of a national policy statement Select Committee. The decision on which option to take would be a matter not for the Government but for the Select Committees, via the Liaison Committee. Part A of the motion creates a new Standing Order setting out the governance and administrative arrangements for a new national policy statement Select Committee, including the number of members, what constitutes a quorum, the Committee’s powers to take evidence and its ability to appoint specialist advisers.

It may be helpful if I briefly describe what I expect scrutiny of a national policy statement to entail. As I have implied, the precise details would be a matter for the Liaison Committee and the relevant Select Committee, but we envisage a process along the following lines. The relevant Secretary of State would lay the draft NPS, or draft amendment of an NPS, before Parliament and publish it for public consultation. At the same time, the Secretary of State would specify what is known as the “relevant period” during which consideration of the proposal would take place. We have agreed that this would need to be sufficient to encompass the period of public consultation plus additional time to allow for Committees of either House to report and for debates in this House and the other place to take place if required.

Joan Walley rose—

Mr. Wright: Before I give way to my hon. Friend, let me stress that this is an extremely important point, on which I wish to elaborate.

Joan Walley: I just want to double-check that at that stage in the process the Sustainable Development Commission will be able to give its view, and that that will then be drawn to the attention of the Select Committees or Members looking into the matter.

20 May 2009 : Column 1536

Mr. Wright: If I can move on to describe more of this process, I might be able to answer my hon. Friend’s question.

Chairs of Select Committees and the House in general will wish to be reassured that a Secretary of State will not rush through an NPS via a truncated relevant period, and I will in a moment set out how that will not be allowed to be the case. A draft NPS will be screened by the Chairs of the relevant Select Committees and the Liaison Committee. Under this process, it will be decided which of the two routes for scrutiny to take: a relevant Select Committee or the bespoke national policy statement Select Committee. This body will then meet to agree its call for evidence, which will run in parallel with public consultation. The motion before us makes it clear that the Select Committee may invite individuals and organisations to appear before it to give oral evidence; I think that that point will reassure my hon. Friend that the SDC will, where relevant, be able to give evidence and appear before the relevant Select Committee. I hope I have reassured her on that point.

Joan Walley rose—

Mr. Wright: If I have not reassured her, however, I shall give way again.

Joan Walley: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. The issue is to do with the word “may”. I would like the SDC to have the status of a statutory consultee in respect of the views that are sought by different Committees.

Mr. Wright: I have two points to make in response to that. First, it is my recollection that, in terms of all national policy statements, the SDC is a statutory consultee; I will write to my hon. Friend if that is incorrect. Secondly, I hope I am making it clear that it is not for the Government to decide which witnesses are to be provided in the consideration of any particular NPS. The relevant Select Committee, in conjunction with the Liaison Committee, would decide what evidence needed to be provided. It is, of course, open to the SDC to provide, where relevant, written evidence to a particular Select Committee. Therefore, I think there are checks and balances to allow issues and queries with regard to sustainability to be advanced.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): This process will obviously be kick-started by a significant number and range of national policy statements. Are the Minister and Select Committee Chairs confident that they have the logistical capacity to be able to deal with that initial major amount of work?

Mr. Wright: We anticipate there being about a dozen national policy statements. My hon. Friend raises an important point, and one of our key pledges is that sufficient discussion will take place between the Government, the relevant Secretaries of State, the Liaison Committee and the Select Committees to make sure that they are not inundated with work and the necessary logistics and administrative arrangements are provided. We have pledged that additional support will be given to relevant Select Committees to ensure that they can properly scrutinise the NPS process.

20 May 2009 : Column 1537

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I wish to raise a point of technical detail. Will there be sufficient time for groups who are, perhaps, not professional lobby groups but who are affected by these policy statements to be able to get their evidence together and into not only the public consultation, but the Select Committee, and then for the Select Committee to be able to interview them if there is substantive evidence to take? Will there be a Government guarantee—or will the relevant Select Committee be able to guarantee—that there will be sufficient time for everyone to be able to give clear evidence?

Mr. Wright: I may be wrong, but I seem to recall that the hon. Lady served on the Planning Bill Committee.

Mrs. Lait indicated assent.

Mr. Wright: The hon. Lady indicates that she served on the Committee and she raises the important point that timing is absolutely essential. We have said both throughout the passage of the Bill and now that it has been enacted that we need a national debate on what infrastructure is necessary for this country. Part of that debate is a public consultation, for which there is the statutory 12-week period. Alongside that, it is important that, in parallel, we have rigorous parliamentary scrutiny, and if the hon. Lady will allow me to move on, I will talk about the overhanging period after the public consultation in which the relevant Select Committee can determine the points she raised.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister’s remarks are very interesting. The problem here is that these national policy statements will be overarching and interrelated, and because of the nature of Member involvement they will be interested in a number of different national policy statements at the same time. How will we manage that, unless we allow national policy statement proceedings to last for long periods of time? This point also applies to the various non-governmental organisations that will be interested. They will want to give evidence on a range of national policy statements at the same time. How does the Minister envisage that that will work?

Mr. Wright: I anticipate that the relevant Select Committee would look at the logistics and determine which organisations and individuals to call to give evidence. There should be a coherent strategy to allow that consultation and debate to take place. Let me move on, as what I wish to say next might also help provide clarity on these points.

The Committee may also decide to take evidence in specific locations outside Parliament. It is entirely possible, for example, that a location-specific NPS—the nuclear energy NPS, perhaps, on which I should declare an interest as there is a nuclear power station in my constituency—could identify suitable, or potentially suitable, locations for a piece of infrastructure, and the Select Committee might consider it appropriate to visit some of them.

Next Section Index Home Page