HC Deb 06 November 1991 vol 198 cc432-3
2. Mr. Favell

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the role of the European Commission in the planning process.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

A number of Community measures affect the planning process, including in particular the directive on environmental assessment. The Commission has the duty to ensure that member states properly apply Community law and it is in this connection that they have recently initiated infraction proceedings against the United Kingdom on the environmental assessment directive. We will provide a full response to its complaint, but are confident that our implementation of the directive is fundamentally sound.

Mr. Favell

The A6, which runs through the middle of Stockport, causes untold misery to my constituents, who have been waiting for a bypass for many years. They are now told that the bypass is likely to be delayed by the Commission. Does my hon. Friend agree that, like the channel tunnel rail link, this is a nook and cranny into which the Commission should not poke?

Mr. Yeo

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern. The Commission's role is clearly confined to ensuring that environmental procedures are properly followed. Decisions about the merits of any individual case remain a matter for the appropriate United Kingdom authority—and that is how we intend to keep it. I sympathise with my hon. Friend because the bypass to which he refers was first proposed in the 1970s. In my view, the lengthy delay reflects how careful we are in this country properly to examine any major planning scheme.

Mr. Simon Hughes

May we have less humbug from the Government about environmental impact assessment directives? Was not the project commended to a Committee by the present Secretary of State for Health, when he was a Minister of State in the Department of the Environment? Did not the European Commission alert the Government in January and then write to the Government on 24 March? Therefore, when the Prime Minister said in Harare, "We had no prior knowledge of it and the facts were not discussed with us," was not it simply untrue?

Mr. Yeo

When it comes to humbug, we cannot compete with the hon. Gentleman and his party. No notice was given by the Commissioner of his strenuous efforts to obtain extensive publicity for his letter on 16 October. No warning was given at all. The fact that such strenuous efforts to obtain publicity were made by Commissioner Ripa di Meana suggests that he was more concerned with publicity and propaganda than with protecting the environment.

Mr. Dykes

Did not the Commissioner behave irresponsibly in releasing his press release himself, rather than through the Commission's normal channels, after receiving the approval of the presidency and other Commissioners? Does not that situation illustrate the advantages of majority voting? There was a unanimous vote for the directive, including by the British Government, whereas if there had been proper majority voting, we could have organised a lobby of all member states to outvote it.

Mr. Yeo

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the manner in which Commissioner Ripa di Meana issued his press release. That was the subject of a letter from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Mr. Delors, who acknowledged in his reply the sensitivity of the issue. The British Government's record on the directive is outstandingly good. We were the third-fastest country to implement it and we have the fourth-best record of compliance with European legislation in the entire Community.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

With regard to the notice given by the Commission of its action, has the Minister read Hansard for 12 July, when I and my hon. Friends raised the question with the Minister for the Environment and Countryside? We recognise and appreciate the Under-Secretary of State's comment that the Commissioner's powers are confined to ensuring that procedures are followed. Will he therefore dissociate himself from the Foreign Secretary's remark that the Commissioner is trying to dictate through which field a road should run?

Mr. Yeo

The House knows full well that the Labour party has totally reversed its attitude to the Community on no fewer than five occasions over the past 30 years. On past form, we are due for another U-turn in the early 1990s. The hon. Lady's frantic attempts to suck up to Brussels on all occasions, regardless of how far the British people are pushed around, are unlikely to cut any ice with the Commission, but will certainly be noticed by the people who believe that British authorities should determine the merits of individual planning applications in this country.

Mr. Jessel

Is not it intolerable that foreign officials should decide either on the procedure to be followed with or the merits of British planning applications?

Mr. Yeo

It is no part of the British Government's policy to allow any foreign officials to decide the merits of planning cases in this country.

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