Examination of Witnesses (Questions 940-959)
LORD FALCONER OF THOROTON QC, BRIAN HACKLAND, MIKE ASH AND JEFF CHANNING
WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002
940. How do you see the sequencing; do you see the local action plans being developed and then guiding a Local Development Framework, or the other way round?
(Lord Falconer) The other way round.
941. How will that then work, if the immediate importance is to develop some certainty on the local action plans, green belt, for example?
(Lord Falconer) I do not see it as being remotely impossible for there to be a Local Development Framework being developed, which, in effect, involves identifying the sorts of things I have said, very major sites, green belt boundaries, where appropriate, housing designation as well, that going on, in parallel with a process where particular parts of the district are developing an action plan, for example, because it is a city centre site, where a major regeneration is required, for example, because it is a village or a parish and has a particular view about its future, I do not see the two as being remotely inconsistent. But the action plan has, plainly, broadly, got to fit in with the broader designation that comes from the Local Development Framework. Precisely what the sequence would be, I think, would depend on place by place, but the principle would be the action plan has got to fit with the basic designations.
942. How will conflicts be resolved?
(Lord Falconer) The conflict will be resolved by a process of community engagement; if they do not resolve the conflict then, ultimately, it will be for the local authority to decide what should be there. That will be subject to a, this is the wrong word, call-in power by the Secretary of State.
(Mr Ash) We do envisage that there should be, as the Minister has said, a core statement of policies, which should deal with a large amount of the development control activity that the authority undertakes. There will then be, within that core, certain proposals, which arguably were too fragmented in the proposals for topic-based action plans, which could be brought together, then there will be the area action plans. What we are looking at, and this relates to a number of the topics the Committee has talked about this morning, is whether there should be a Local Development Framework scheme, in other words, a project plan; that the authority should set out, at the start of the process, what its timetable is for producing the core statement and what the timetable is for producing action plans, what areas will be covered by action plans, so that there will be clarity for the local population, in terms of what the various components are of the Local Development Framework, and what the timetable is when they can expect to be consulted on those.
943. Where there are not detailed plans for parts of an area, will the presumption be in those areas that significant development will not be allowed?
(Lord Falconer) That may be the case, I would not like to say that will always be the case. I suspect it will emerge from the circumstances of the particular place.
944. The problem is, if there is no land use plan, that there is a possibility that significant development might be allowed, then certainty goes out of the window, does it not?
(Lord Falconer) Not if the areas that you focus on in your Local Development Framework are, in reality, the ones where issues will arise. The difficulty at the moment is, a considerable period of time is spent on resolving zoning for sites where, in practical terms, no issue is likely to arise as to what is to happen to them. Because it takes so long to deal with an "across the board" plan, you end up with plans being
945. If an issue does arise, at least you have got the plan to fall back on?
(Lord Falconer) Yes, but very, very frequently, as you know, the plan will not provide an answer.
946. You want Parliament to decide the principle and location of major infrastructure projects; how much time will that save?
(Lord Falconer) It is obviously very difficult to say. Take the example of Terminal Five, the application was made in 1993 for permission to build Terminal Five and it was eventually resolved by the Secretary of State in, I think, November 2001; so it took eight years. Part of that period of time, 1993 to 2000, was spent with a public inquiry going on about it. We would envisage that the parliamentary time taken to address the issue, should there be a Terminal Five, would take a parliamentary session. I believe that that would cut down by years the process it would have taken to deal with Terminal Five. I cannot identify precisely how many years, but it would definitely reduce it by years.
947. But your Department commissioned some work, did they not, to look at specifically this issue; what did that research show?
(Lord Falconer) I am not quite sure what work you are referring to.
948. There was research commissioned, "Consultants: MVA, Adams Hendry, Rees and Freres and CVRL", there were the terms of reference included to identify the scope for significant time savings in the process, while having regard for those affected to have an adequate opportunity to have their say. And this research was commissioned; there was a very short publication time and then it was abruptly withdrawn. I am just wondering why, and what the research actually said?
(Lord Falconer) Obviously, you can tell from my bewildered look that I am not quite sure what you are referring to. Can I look into that?
Chairman: You can certainly let us have a note about it. But it does seem a little odd, if you are so convinced that time can be saved, that your officials did not let you see this useful piece of research.
949. You are saying that you envisage time would be saved, but you are quoting just one example, Terminal Five; and what kind of parliamentary procedure are you envisaging, do you accept it would go to a parliamentary committee, what kind of scope would there be for public representation, what is your assessment based on?
(Lord Falconer) I gave evidence yesterday to the Procedure Committee, down the corridor, and the discussion went on the following lines, it is for Parliament to decide precisely what form of scrutiny they would apply to the issue, it would be more, I suggested, like a select committee than it would be like a private bill committee, so it would not be a committee where, as it were, there was a promoter and objectors, and the promoter and the objector were represented by counsel and could cross-examine witnesses, it would be an inquiry led by the committee itself, who would determine what evidence they needed to hear and what advice they needed to get. It would involve a process whereby the committee would need to be properly resourced, in order to properly inform itself as to the issues; so it would be more like a select committee hearing than a sort of semi-court case that private bills quite frequently become.
950. There is a bit of a problem though, is there not; as far as this Select Committee is concerned, we get a lot of evidence in, and we have to make judgements as to who we call as witnesses, and there are very often people who are pretty aggrieved that they have not been called as witnesses. Now, as far as a Select Committee, in a sense, we are perfectly free to make our own choices, but when we are looking to semi-judicial process, it would be fairly difficult for a select committee of the House to refuse to hear a particular residents action group, would it not?
(Lord Falconer) No; a judgement would have to be made by the committee about who they heard from, just as the public inquiry makes that judgement, but it is perfectly able to identify what a representative body of objectors would consist of. I do not think it is an insuperable obstacle or burden, that.
951. But you are saying that the whole purpose of this is to save time, so how can you make a proper assessment of that without knowing how Parliament would actually proceed, and how issues relating, for example, to the Human Rights Act would be dealt with?
(Lord Falconer) The first issue is how long would the parliamentary process take, and the committee and discussions indicate that a parliamentary session is a reasonable period of time to assume it would take Parliament to assess proposals like Terminal Five. If one knows that then that can form the basis for comparison between how long Terminal Five did take and how long the prospective parliamentary process would take.
952. And how much time do you think then, in a parliamentary session, an individual Member who had to serve on that sort of select committee would have to devote to the process?
(Lord Falconer) I do not know. I think it would vary from individual application to individual application.
953. Let us just take the Terminal Five, supposing that had gone through that process?
(Lord Falconer) I do not know how long it would have taken. I think there would have been periods of time when there would have been quite considerably intensive sittings, where, for example, it might have been necessary for the committee to have gone down to the environs of Heathrow to take evidence from there, and that might have involved some days down there, taking evidence. I think it would be, from time to time, quite intensive.
954. Have you talked to anyone who served on the various Channel Tunnel Bills?
(Lord Falconer) No, I have not, but I have received advice in relation to the Channel Tunnel Rail Bills, and they are quite a good indication that
955. Did they think the Members felt it was a rewarding experience?
(Lord Falconer) I do not know, I have not asked them if it was a rewarding experience. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link is a very good example of Parliament, over a period of time, in effect, approving a major infrastructure project. The process would be different from what we are proposing, because it would only be the principle that Parliament would address on our proposals, rather than the detail, which the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill had to address as well.
956. There are some who would say that the amount of time you are actually allowing to MPs in the proposals is far too short, and we were talking about a maximum 60-day period for MPs to familiarise themselves with a substantial issue; and also during that time for constituents with concerns, or people with concerns, to come to MPs and actually make representation to the MP to get to grips with the issues. So is there not a danger actually of shoehorning too much?
(Lord Falconer) I think you might be right about that. I think the timescales given in the red document, the major infrastructure proposals, might well be too short, and that was the discussion we had yesterday with Mr Winterton's Committee. The impression, from talking to the Committee, and I do not want, in any way, to say this is what they are thinking, a parliamentary session to deal with it did not have the feel of being too short a period both for those engaged in the locality to put their point of view across and Parliament to reach an informed view about the issue, it did not seem too short. But that is one of the purposes of the consultation process. A process that lasted 60 days for consultation and 42 days in parallel for hearings probably was too short.
957. Why did you put it in then?
(Lord Falconer) It was a proposal made so that people could comment on it. People have now commented on it and we have listened and indicated what our view was; but I think it was too short.
958. What about whipping, and, indeed, perhaps not overt whipping but de facto whipping, since there is always the issue in this place of, do you actually go against the wishes of your party, against the wishes of your Ministers, and the like, count against you; now where do you provide the freedom that you directly enjoy within a local authority of whip-free planning committees, how do you make that work here?
(Lord Falconer) I think it is clear, from all that has been said since the document was produced, that it would be inappropriate for there to be whipping. What do you do about, as it were, inexplicit whipping; you refer to the fact that local authorities have planning committees, they do not vote along party lines, even though, in many cases, it will be known that the party in power wishes a particular scheme to go ahead. You will always have the risk of a democratically-elected body, which is not being whipped, being subjected to the allegation, well, even though it is not whipped, it is being done on party lines. As long as we continue with a democratically-based planning system, which we should, that risk is there; but I do not think that it is necessarily
Sir Paul Beresford
959. Let us pick an obvious example. Just suppose that there is a proposal for nuclear power stations around the country, and Sedgefield is one of the ones chosen, a large one in the middle of Sedgefield, and that Sedgefield constituents complained to their MP, I know you have not got a constituency to compare with, but I am sure he will explain it to you, what happens to the whipping, what happens to the committee, will there be pressure applied?
(Lord Falconer) It is like the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, is it not; the Channel Tunnel Link was a decision made by Parliament, without whipping, it was the Government's policy of the day to support the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, it was supported by large majorities, with people other than MPs from the area objecting.