HL Deb 19 June 1997 vol 580 cc1400-20

7 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the rules of public planning inquiries should be reviewed to balance the democratic rights of objectors against the inordinate length of certain inquiries, lasting in certain cases over two years.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in raising this subject today on the rules of procedure at public planning inquiries, particularly where major infrastructure is involved, I am mindful that there is a bonus for short debates that attract only eight speakers: we have a little more time—not too much time but more than the 14 speakers that joined in merrily with my noble friend Lord Bradford's sparkling debate yesterday.

I should like to thank in advance all those who intend to take part in the debate and who, I know, will bring both quality and experience to what I believe is a very important subject. I particularly look forward of course to hearing the reply by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and I congratulate her on her recent appointment.

First, I should declare that I am a working surveyor, compared with the phenomenon of a working Peer. There do not seem to be many working Peers around this evening. Perhaps my noble friend who is very versatile is a working Peer. I should add that I am not involved in any current major inquiry. My brush with planning goes back quite a few years. It has made me respect the system that has evolved ever since the first planning Act of 1932. Today the planning system runs at approximately 480,000 applications a year, mostly on minor issues. Out of those come about 14,500 appeals, all of which are handled by the planning inspectorate, which, I believe, provides a very good service, often handling very contentious issues with firmness, fairness and professionalism. However, even with that excellent service, the planning system needs overhauling from time to time and it is generally agreed that that time is now.

The encouraging note is that there seems to be no political divide on that objective. How that objective is achieved may be another matter. The House will recall that last January my noble friend Lord Ferrers, when he was Minister of State for the department, announced that he was issuing consultation papers on improving the system, in particular with local development plans. Local development plans are of course of great interest to all property owners and developers. I understand that over 90 plans are due to be publicly examined during the course of this year, taking up a great deal of the inspectorate's resources. I am not sure what happened to the consultation papers, but soon afterwards the manifesto of the noble Baroness's party published very similar reforms. I hope that tonight the noble Baroness will enlighten us about the Government's plans for improving the system.

But the debate tonight is a little narrower than the general improvement of the system. It concentrates on the major planning inquiries that take a very long time to complete. The House will recall that most of them in the past have concerned such difficult subjects as nuclear power stations, opencast coal, motorways and ring roads around cities, with the most popular—or unpopular—subject being airports. The Channel Tunnel escaped such scrutiny as it progressed through parliamentary procedure which must be open to the question of how it compares with the public scrutiny of a full inquiry. There certainly was a difference in time.

Up to now, the blue riband for the longest public inquiry goes to Stansted Airport, some years ago, followed by the Sizewell inquiry, which I believe took two years. That dubious honour will undoubtedly be surpassed by the Terminal 5 inquiry when it is finally completed at the latter end of next year. I do not for one moment criticise the very great care and scrutiny exercised by that inquiry. I simply say that a three-year inquiry, followed by at least six months for the inspector's report, followed by scrutiny within the department, followed by the decision of the Secretary of State add up, in my view, to some four and a half to five years. However difficult a planning issue may be, it is surely a grotesque timescale for any inquiry to take over three years to complete its hearing.

Such inquiries represent only a very small part of the system. Yet, as they are very high profile there is a danger of dragging down public confidence in the whole system. The minuses of such a lengthy procedure must include blight on property, damaging uncertainty on the area generally and the despair of those taking part. Such a lengthy procedure also offers the real, practical possibility of the inspector or inspectors falling ill and the whole inquiry starting again. All those arguments are well known to the noble Baroness and her department and I shall not labour them.

In the hope of not being criticised for being critical but of being considered proactive, I have sought to see whether there are any procedures which might help to streamline the present system. The first point that has been put to me is an absolute must of any major inquiry—that the government policy on whatever is pertinent to that inquiry must be up to date. That must reduce the danger of a good deal of lengthy policy arguments.

My second point is that there seems to be a great deal of support for giving inspectors wider authority to establish the key issues of the inquiry and curtail a host of repetitive objections. Thirdly, there is the need to establish agreement on technical data between the parties before an inquiry sets sail. I am sure that would reduce the cost. Fourthly, there is surely the need for a timetable from when the department has received the inspector's report to when the final scrutiny report reaches the Secretary of State's desk. I see no reason why the Secretary of State himself or herself should not be subject to some similar discipline of time to announce his or her decision.

Lastly, on a general issue, I hope very much that the value of the cross-examination at the local plan inquiries will not be lost. I believe that there is a very great deal of value both for participants and the local authority to attain this discipline. Examination in public procedure in cases of structure plans does not have such cross-examination.

It is a truism to say that we are the trustees of planning for the next generation. Effective and efficient planning is a very important goal for which to strive. We have a very good system and I am sure that we can improve on it. Whatever happens on the broad issue of change of the system, I hope that we shall be able to say that the days of the giant public planning inquiry are over and we have learnt a better route without damaging the sensitive interests of all concerned.

7.7 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for introducing the debate. He is an excellent person to do so, as he has practical experience as a surveyor and I am sure has participated in a good many inquiries. This is not a huge subject but to me at any rate it is a very interesting one.

The fact is, as the noble Earl said, that most public inquiries are concerned with relatively limited proposals and are short. Proposals which are of significant size, whether by private companies, by government or by public bodies, are the inquiries which by their nature are time consuming. There are three reasons for that. First, the issues may be technical and complex—for instance, about noise or hydrogeology—inviting differences of expert opinion. Second, plans and policy documents have become over-lengthy, too numerous and excessively detailed, and they have to be discussed.

Third, there is the endless repetition of similar arguments by third parties, usually the public, but including at times local authorities and pressure groups.

Civil servants usually blame counsel, solicitors or professional agents for the length of inquiries. As in all areas, they vary from the competent to the long-winded. But that is not the main reason for the length of time taken, certainly since the recent procedural reforms as a result of Circular 15/96.

There are only two effective ways of reducing the time taken at inquiries. First, one can reduce the scope and extensive character of the development plans of the policy documents themselves. They have grown since the 1960s from 10 to 20-page land use details to documents covering 120 to 130 pages dealing with economics, the provision of bicycle paths and anything politically correct that local authorities can think of. That has been encouraged by government, which issue endless, often ambiguous, planning policy guidance and discussion papers, and by the courts, which have, by subjecting the administration process to legalisation, made it sclerotic. The procedures have, through statutory instruments and the courts, become too formal and bureaucratic. Secondly, time at inquiries could be reduced by controlling rigidly the rights of third parties to participate.

Prior to the Skeffington report in 1968, inquiries did not have the public element and were short. The first review of the LCC development plan took a mere five weeks. Members of the public usually repeat themselves endlessly and raise many irrelevant issues. Inspectors try to control it but have no real authority to prevent the persistent from taking time. In any event, the political interventions of MPs in the planning field make it effectively impossible to deny objectors their day in court.

The department produced Circular 15/96, which introduced a number of improvements. Can the Minister tell us whether appeals have become shorter as a result or is it too early to tell? Two consultation papers came out in January this year, one on planning appeals. One suggestion there is that more appeals could be handled by hearing or written method, the Secretary of State to decide on the method. Primary legislation would be needed to bring that about.

Mediation between the parties is a novel idea. I am a supporter of mediation in a number of areas. I confess to being a little sceptical about it in the planning arena, but I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments. The promptness of delivery of statements is important, and the document comments on that and the possible cost penalties for late delivery. The second consultation paper is on speeding up the delivery of local plans and unitary development plans. I mentioned reducing the scope and the extensive character of development plans and hope we may hear about that. I was kindly sent all those reports and papers by the department, but they are from the time of the last government. I am sure that we would all like to hear from the Minister what, in the light of the manifesto commitments, the present Government plan to do. I am glad that privatisation of the inspectorate at any rate does not seem to be on the agenda.

To return to the matter we are debating, the length and number of inquiries seem to be in the public interest overall in a parliamentary democracy such as ours. Their character can be said to reflect a long tradition of participating government which goes back to Anglo-Saxon times. It is important in a true democracy for people to sense that they can influence affairs and participate in government in matters affecting their environment and their property. It induces better administration and decision-making because the decisions are subject to external testing. The length of time of inquiries is a price that may have to be paid for that.

The alternative—a Napoleonic European approach—is to issue directives in relation to large schemes without a public right to object (the French nuclear power stations are an example) or with only limited rights. That line of approach seems to me to be politically unacceptable. The plan-led systems here have probably reduced the number of appeals but have led to longer development planning inquiries, which is dealt with in one of the consultation papers. That still does not eliminate the need for appeals on planning decisions and I guess that they will go on.

7.13 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for introducing the debate and hope that it will not be considered unsuitable if I concentrate my remarks—which I hope will be as brief as the two preceding speakers—on the inquiry T5 to which the noble Earl referred.

The T5 inquiry began in May 1995. Whenever I inquired of people how long they thought it would continue, the reply was always, "About another year". So it has dragged on and the noble Earl informed us that it is now suggested that it is due to stop officially in June of next year—informed opinion suggests that July or August may be more likely. The threshold for the end of this specific part of the inquiry process is therefore still moving away from us. After that, of course, there follows the consideration by the inspector and so forth.

Much as I support the democratic right to make lay objections to planning applications—T5 is a major planning application—the whole process has great costs attached to it. I want to address the costs to the British Airports Authority in putting forward this application. It is said that before the process began around £30 million had been set aside by British Airports Authority for the prosecution of the application. It is possible that over the intervening three years that sum has increased. For example, there is anecdotal evidence of the delight among consulting engineers at the fees that they have received; in the 1995–96 annual report the company put the cost of the inquiry and design costs at £144 million. Of course, the major part of that will relate to design but it is a large sum of money.

The major opposers in that inquiry consist of a group of local authorities—10 in all—known as LA T5. That group has so far spent around £3.6 million, of which £1 million has been subscribed by Surrey County Council, the lead authority in that group of objectors. Even for an authority as large as a county that is a considerable sum and resulted in growing doubt among councillors, understandably, as to whether the decision taken by the full council in that case can continue to be justified—because of the expense—in terms of the other demands on their budgets. I do not know what the situation is within the other nine authorities, but it is a justifiable doubt on the part of responsible members of a local authority.

There are therefore problems even for major authorities. If the length and cost of such an inquiry is a deterrent for a local authority, how much more of a deterrent is it to individual objectors or small special interest groups who feel their position to be threatened? They often have to attend the inquiries themselves. Someone commented to me the other day, "If even you, with all your background knowledge of the affair, were to turn up to the inquiry for a single day, you would find it difficult to understand what is happening". That is due to the judicial type of procedure adopted by a public inquiry. So individual or small groups of objectors are faced not only with costs, which means that they themselves have to act as legal representatives for their cause, but also with the difficulty of conducting that representation imposed by the process.

The application for T5 is perfectly legitimate; I do not say that it is not and I am not discussing the rights or wrongs of the case. It is justified by British Airports Authority in terms of the need to supply a growing market for air travel and to do so in this country rather than elsewhere in the European Union. As against that, the objectors also have legitimate objections. For example, there is a planning objection; that is to say, the over-concentration of a large amount of economic activity in one specific small area of south-west London/north-west Surrey on the edge of the conurbation—contrary to planning policy guidance to reflect a point raised by the noble Baroness.

The question of ground access must be considered. Heathrow Airport is now the largest single generator of traffic in the whole of the United Kingdom. It has 50,000 employees and once T5 is completed will have 80 million passenger per year going in and out of the airport. Of course, the 50,000 employees go in and out on a daily basis. Finally, to name but three of the objections, there is the problem of noise.

The system with which people are faced is that one is obliged to oppose an application in order to obtain mitigation of the circumstances which will arise if that application is granted. In other words, in order to gain concessions from the applicant one must oppose.

As an example, I refer to the question of noise. Before this already two year-long inquiry started, the British Airports Authority was simply not interested in making any kind of promise to cap the noise level at Heathrow, but, as a result of the inquiry so far, as I understand it, it is now willing to undertake a legally binding way to cap noise levels at Heathrow to their 1994 level. That may not be sufficient or exactly what is decided, but nevertheless a concession has been made. No doubt, as the process continues, other concessions will be made, but it is a very expensive way of putting forward mitigating circumstances when a major application is being made.

So what can be done to make the process more sensible? I believe that the noble Earl touched on one of the factors which make this kind of infrastructure inquiry so difficult. In the case of Terminal 5 there is no government policy on airport provision. So, when an application is made, the applicant has to justify the application in terms of need, the effect on employment, housing and so forth. One has to concentrate on all that before one can get to the effort to mitigate the ill effects of major applications of large economic growth on the surrounding area.

It is not like that in every other country in Europe. As I understand it, the Dutch have a totally different approach. Schiphol Airport is a planned airport for long-term investment. It is not subject to incremental growth at the will of the company which runs it as Heathrow has been. There is a great deal of discussion about the mitigating circumstances which should be engineered into the airport in order not to make its effect on the neighbours of the airport too bad. Now, a fifth runway is being constructed at Schiphol, not because it is going to have more than 80 million passengers, but because of a 40 million passenger threshold. The burden of noise from aircraft movement will be spread over the widest possible geographical area and therefore no one group of people will have the whole burden.

If we had a proper airports policy, then discussion about an application could go almost immediately to the relationship between that development and the local environment in the broadest sense of that word. I believe that we would then wish to see matters such as noise and how to mitigate it and ground access and how to improve it discussed between the parties in a sensible way, only bringing to a public inquiry those matters on which it is impossible to agree in an ordinary discussion as between equals. That is the way; namely, a basic policy and then the rational discussion of mitigating measures leading to an inquiry only when one cannot reach a sensible agreement. That seems to me to be the right way to go forward.

7.24 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Earl for raising the question of planning inquiries. My own interest is that for many years I have been involved in the work of the National Trust. From 1991 to 1996 I was its chairman. The Trust is endlessly involved in planning inquiries, some of which are large and some are small, but collectively they account for considerable staff time and cost. Some of the inquiries we are involved in are very costly indeed. In the past couple of years at least two have cost us over £100,000 each and several more cost over five figures.

The inquiries are predominantly to do with road and similar schemes. They are my principal concerns this afternoon. The costs that we have to meet in these big inquiries are not just for legal representation, but the need for experts—traffic engineers, perhaps. There is not much point in attacking a road scheme, assuming the need is evident—and that is not always self-evident—unless you have a realistic worked-up alternative to put before the inspectors. That is very costly.

I also have the honour to be an honorary vice-president of both the Council for National Parks and the Friends of the Lake District. In relation to their size they probably spend even more time and effort on planning cases than does the Trust. Each of them has a huge amount of experience. I have consulted their staff widely and also the CPRE and barristers. In all this there is a common thread of interest: the environment. In that sense they are third parties—an important point which I shall come back to. I should add at this stage that I am not a planning expert, nor am I a lawyer. For better or for worse, my only interest, as it were, is as a user of the process.

It is important at the outset to record that whatever criticisms we have of the inquiry process, we at least have a process. I am not sure whether it was the noble Lord or the noble Baroness who said that we are not Napoleonic yet. It is a well worked out process and one that I believe we can be proud of. What I wish to do is to draw attention to a few points where the organisations I have referred to believe the process can be improved, whether it be in matters of fairness, efficiency or effectiveness.

As regards cases covered by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, we have the DoE circular Planning Appeal Procedures. I have read that. It is an admirable document full of sound common sense. The question is then the extent to which these procedures and this common sense is reflected in practice in what actually happens, in particular for schemes that are not covered by the Act and, therefore, presumably not covered by that guidance.

I will start with one example. It is perhaps the commonest criticism that has been made to me. It is that fuller use could and should be made of pre-inquiry meetings to agree, for example, facts; to establish other common ground; to identify critical issues, and so forth. All that is admirably covered in the guidance note; but I believe I am right in saying that these rules do not apply to road or similar big infrastructure schemes which have been mentioned. As I say, it is perhaps the most common criticism that has been made to me.

There are several related points which have to do with planning meetings. First, if pre-inquiry meetings are to be effective, they should include all the interested parties. They should not be limited to the two main parties as apparently sometimes happens. Secondly, it is important at this stage—the scoping stage, if you will—to bring in the environmental dimension. A strategic environmental assessment at this stage can often identify options or courses of action on which there can be a degree of consensus or at least approaching a consensus. Thirdly, there is the need to get ordinary local people involved. They often have real sense and unique local knowledge to contribute. There are several ways of achieving that such as evening meetings, local conferences, and so on. If one is to obtain the local feeling, the local people should be informed. The way not to succeed is to allow them into the formal process of being intimidated by aggressive barristers. One notes as an aside that some inspectors often show undue deference to barristers, especially in what I would call the "heavyweight team". I dread to think what is happening at the Terminal 5 inquiry.

A good example of an early public consultation which included environmental organisations was the proposal by Northern Electric to upgrade the power line to Whitby, across the open moorlands of the North York Moors National Park. The developer was able to measure the level of public concern being generated by the proposal and settled for a lower key development instead, thus possibly saving himself the cost of a fullscale public inquiry.

I could go on, but shall simply conclude on this point by noting that properly organised pre-inquiry sessions can be enormously effective in, for example, saving experts' time in preparing evidence, attending the inquiry and giving evidence. Indeed, in some cases, as in the case of the North York Moors, it may even obviate the need for a fullscale inquiry.

I should like to make two points on appeals: first, third parties—those with a legitimate interest—should have the right to seek to secure the calling in of applications where the planning decision is clearly contrary to planning policy. I am sure that we all know of examples where consent has been, in a sense, "improperly" given. This is especially relevant to local plans. Secondly, the developer should not have an automatic right of appeal. Could not the planning inspectorate be empowered to decide whether an appeal should go ahead?

Once a lengthy public inquiry has been called, there are many problems for voluntary sector organisations. Earlier exchange of proofs of evidence—for example, six weeks rather than three—before the inquiry starts would enable organisations with small staff resources to muster an effective case. Extending the period of notification of the inquiry date from 28 days to 42 days would also be beneficial. Late submission of evidence by the developer should be discouraged. If proofs are submitted late, there should be grounds for an adjournment.

Numerous other points have been made to me about the process during the inquiry, many of which have already been mentioned this evening: for example, excessive time being spent on cross-examination; frequent repetition and duplication of evidence; and apparently occasionally, even today, the reading out of evidence. We must also guard against the tendency of the big heavyweight legal teams to go for overkill, giving rise, needless to say, to the impression that they are spinning things out and squeezing the little man.

Voluntary sector groupings should also be involved in the discussions that take place outside the inquiry on matters such as undertakings or conditions. This relates to mitigation. The inspector calls for such discussions to take place in order to speed up the formal process; but by leaving some groups outside the process, it is likely that the process will take longer. This may possibly lead to hardened attitudes and even to downright opposition if the development goes ahead.

I have given just a selection of a great number of practical and useful points that have been made to me. I do not suppose that any of them are novel. They will be familiar to many, whether or not they agree with them. The conclusions that I draw are therefore, first, that probably the great majority of appeals (whether by hearings or inquiries) are conducted expeditiously and satisfactorily, but that there are problems with the big inquiries, particularly with those schemes not covered by the 1990 Act; secondly, not enough attention is given to the environmental dimension, and to the important role of the environmental NGOs; thirdly, the policy guidance note is probably not working as effectively as it should; but, much more importantly, schemes that are not covered by the DoE rules should be covered by equivalent rules.

Just on a year ago the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, produced his report Access to Justice. It was full of practical suggestions, so I conclude by suggesting that there is a case for a similar report to see whether we can make the planning inquiry system (in the widest sense of the phrase) work rather better. It is an important part of our justice system; it is important to the economy and it is important to our quality of life.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I intend to speak briefly. I begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for tabling this Unstarred Question on an important, if narrow, issue. The noble Baroness, Lady David, spoke most trenchantly in answering the specific point that our planning inquiries are of an inordinate length and that those times need to be reduced. I should like to speak in slightly wider terms than those of the Unstarred Question to say why there needs to be a general review of the planning process and to comment on the way in which I hope that some of the proposals in my party's manifesto should help to achieve that end.

Some years ago I was a councillor in the London Borough of Wandsworth and served on the planning committee for a couple of years. That certainly does not make me an expert—I make no claims at all in that regard—but I do know the importance of proper planning procedures, especially to local communities.

I also played a minor part—I was in opposition—in drawing up my local borough's unitary development plan. I was continually frustrated through not having any remit beyond the scope of the borough. There was no strategic guidance. Although some of the local boroughs got together to try to co-ordinate the unitary development plan, the whole process was frustrated by a lack of any sort of strategic guidance.

I do not think that I am being too parochial in talking about Wandsworth because we had to deal with some very typical planning issues. Perhaps two of the more famous—if I may use that word—related to large and prominent derelict sites in the borough. I am thinking particularly of the Battersea Power Station site and of the Gargoyle Wharf site which may be better known to your Lordships as the Guinness site where "The Land is Ours" protesters camped for a number of months before being removed by the police. Whatever one thinks of such protests, it is certainly a failure of the planning process in the most general terms that those sites have been derelict for so many years. I hope that guidance and strategic leadership from the Government will do something to get those sites developed. I know that many of the local residents' groups which try to work with my local authority are constantly frustrated by the lack of encouragement that they receive from the local council.

Of course, there needs to be a balance between the legitimate needs and financial requirements of the developers, the views of local residents and the general strategic aims for the regions of our country. It is difficult to achieve that balance, but three things could be done to help in that process. The first is to speed up decision-making, which is, I believe, the purpose of this debate. I know from my own experience in business that a quick decision is much more important than a wrong decision—if I may put it like that. It is better to know that the answer is "no" than to hang around for ages when you should be getting on with the other aspects of running your business. Speed of decision-making is very important.

I refer secondly to clarity of purpose. I hope that my party's manifesto commitment to a strategic authority for London will lead to greater clarity of purpose with regard to planning in my area of London. That is most important.

The third factor, which is perhaps more controversial, is the increase in the value of sites, particularly those in inner cities. There has been a great deal of pressure on greenfield sites around cities. I believe that there is a general consensus as to the need to build on greenfield sites. I am very much against it. My experience in London is that many infill sites, or brownfield sites, can and should be used for development. If the Government make crystal clear in whatever guidelines they like to set out that greenfield sites will not be developed under any circumstances, the value of brownfield sites will go up. That will help the developers to come up with schemes that they believe meet their financial requirements.

I have strayed wide of the Question but I believe that there are a number of planning issues that the Government now have the opportunity to look at. There are huge needs within our inner cities and opportunities which, if the planning process can be made right, mean that these sites can be developed.

7.41 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for raising this interesting topic. Many points have been made that one would like to pursue but perhaps they lead down alleys that should not be followed given the narrow area that is being discussed. I declare an interest as chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association, although I am not sure that that affects the comments that I shall make.

I was interested in the way in which the noble Earl formulated the issue. He spoke of balancing the democratic rights of objectors against the inordinate length of inquiries. It is not only applicants who are prejudiced by the length of inquiries. One thinks of the resources of local authorities and those representing objectors, interest groups and communities, even when working in a consortium. That difficulty was raised by almost everyone to whom I spoke on this issue before the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, referred to heavyweight legal teams spinning out inquiries. They do. However, I believe that that is part of a much wider issue. I immediately thought that if anyone suggested that counsel could cut it down a bit he might think, "I must not expose myself to a claim for negligence for shortening the case". There may be formal or informal points to be made on this matter to those who have been involved in the McDonald's libel trial. I agree with the noble Lord that many analogies can be drawn between the planning inquiry system and the general court system, and there are lessons to be learned from the Woolf Report and how that is put into practice, possibly without having to begin a similar exercise to deal just with planning inquiries.

Objectors do not have many rights. They have no right of appeal. It is suggested in many quarters that one improvement to the system would be to allow objectors to have limited rights, for example if the application in question were a significant departure from the development plan. Appeals are in themselves something of a democratic safeguard. I am concerned that we do not subordinate fairness to efficiency in what is after all a disputes procedure, not necessarily between individuals and certainly not in the case of the inquiries we are considering, that attempts to reconcile societal conflict. I do not believe that the inquiry system can be a conveyor belt.

There is no doubt scope for adjusting the management of an inquiry. The previous government consulted on the subject. I understand that there were over 200 responses to the consultation paper on inquiries. The message I received was that the responses had been mixed in nature. I am not sure what that indicates. Like other noble Lords, I shall be interested to know how the Government intend to take forward that work.

Changes such as mediation, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady David, do not address major inquiries, although I believe that there is scope for trying to bring people together at not such inordinate expense. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, referred to particular sites being of such importance that public interest probably demanded wide and deep public discussion of their future, as in the case of certain major developments. I believe that there is scope even for community groups to receive funding to support their participation in that process, at the same time co-ordinating their comments in the hope that the process may be speeded up.

I smiled when I heard the points made about the abilities or otherwise of the legal profession as compared with the view that perhaps members of the public are often inept in presenting their case. Having chaired a planning committee in a borough next door to that of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, which introduced a procedure that allowed public representation at a development control committee, I discovered that invariably those who were worst at presenting their case were the banisters, principally because they said, "The way I would put it to you is this", and used up the time with such language. However, I agree that the local knowledge of individuals and community groups is valuable and must not be lost as a result of any change to the inquiry process.

As my noble friend said, for the big developments the issue is: how is the policy made and where is the policy? I observed that the Minister nodded vigorously when my noble friend referred to the policy vacuum with regard to airports. If there is a policy vacuum, something must fill it, and it must be the inquiry. I do not believe that the inquiry should itself be the policy-making exercise. In referring to Terminal 5 I should declare an interest as a member of Richmond-upon-Thames Council that is part of the consortium LA T5, referred to by my noble friend. I have considerable personal interests in the outcome of the inquiry.

The Secretary of State said in 1993 (before he achieved that position) that the Government's aviation policy such as it exists was absurd. That is the point—such as it exists. We are in an odd situation. Policy has been made previously by an inquiry. Previous inquiries are now being disregarded in the current inquiry. In reporting on Terminal 4 the inspector said that it should be the last major expansion of Heathrow. Indeed, he approved Terminal 4 on the basis that in part there was a limit on flight numbers. That limit has been abandoned.

I am unable to resist the opportunity provided by today's debate to ask a question of the Minister, of which I have given her notice, in connection with the Terminal 5 inquiry. On 8th June The Observer carried a report which indicated that a senior government source had stated that Terminal 5 was to be approved. I shall be grateful if the Minister can refute that report on the record and confirm to your Lordships that the Government will not make up their mind until the inspector has reported and that they will have full regard to that report.

Planning is essentially a holistic exercise. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that development plans should assist and reflect the co-ordination of transport, housing, leisure, employment and so forth. There is real concern about the development plan process itself taking too long. I am told that the previous government's consultation paper on that issue attracted 350 responses—again, mixed.

I return to the issue of democracy. Local authorities have the main responsibility and are accountable. They are the bodies which create local plans. That process, too, causes problems for interested parties. Public local inquiries and indeed examinations in public in the case of structure plans impose their own strains. I have become aware of the real dangers of the outcome of those inquiries being skewed by the resources that large landowners and prospective developers can bring to the system as against local people who have valid points to make. There is scope for such inquiries to be much less adversarial.

We need to see the policy context set properly at each level, not in a Napoleonic way, as described by the noble Baroness. I am very much an enthusiast for involving local communities in the plan-making process. I am also aware of the tendency on the part of planners to want to impose plans neatly in a hierarchy at every level, rather ignoring the fact that life is not like that, and we are not starting from here. Nevertheless we have not yet achieved the setting of a policy context for what should be plan-led development. We still have an uneasy alliance with a presumption in favour of development because the plans are not adequate, and, in particular, take so long to make that they are often out of date by the time they come to be applied.

Having listened to the comments made this evening, it occurs to me that there must be scope, not necessarily for an enormous reorganisation of the system but for piloting some new procedures and good ideas which have arisen as a result of the discussion provoked by the latest consultation paper, and even more by people's frustration.

I wonder whether it might be possible to take some of those ideas forward in a minimalist way to see how they run rather than switch the whole system and then find that the new procedures do not work that well either. Let us not forget that the length of inquiries may be the result of the strength of opposition to an application. We should not agree to a new process which does not allow opposition to be expressed. Let us also remember the cardinal principles of openness, fairness, and impartiality.

7.53 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I, too, am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Kinnoull for introducing the debate, which has produced an extraordinary succession of excellent speeches, full of thoughts and suggestions for our new government, to which I hope they will pay close attention. I hope that the Minister will be able to address at least a few of them, although I am sure that many will not be fitted in during the allocated time. I hope that she will not take up all the spare time that she now has, and will write to us all giving a more detailed reply to some of the suggestions that have been made.

I shall not take up a great deal of time. I must be the most ignorant person here when it comes to planning procedures. It is a key and complicated area of our democracy. It is one which will repay a good deal of study before any revisions are made to them. I am greatly attracted to the idea of piloting, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It is an idea which has worked well in other areas when difficult matters are being dealt with. I hope that it is something that the Minister will take into consideration.

I find myself, albeit I hope briefly, in a policy-free zone. So all that I shall attempt is to offer a few personal thoughts. One of the matters of which I am most proud during the 18 years in which we were in power was the way in which we were able to encourage people to take more responsibility for what was happening to them as a result of actions taken by the various arms of the bureaucracy. We may have run rather behind in reflecting them in our planning system. I should like to see much more active local involvement in producing local and regional plans.

What the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said about Schiphol was interesting in that regard. Consent to the development of Schiphol had, as it were, been agreed through whatever processes they have in Holland. They did not wait for each successive development to produce a new plan and a new controversy: it had been agreed how life should go; and then discussions could proceed to decide how to deal with the consequences of it. That is a much better way to involve people. If you can get their consent to local and regional plans, then many of the matters that people might wish to raise at a planning inquiry on a particular application would have been taken to have been dealt with already in consultation on the regional or local plan. That of course comes back to the problems raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about how long it takes to get the plans approved.

We could perhaps consider also the use of referendums in some circumstances. It strikes me that there are some planning inquiries where the democratic structures are already committed. Manchester City Airport is a project which is so strongly supported by the local authorities that local people may not have the access to the representation by their representatives that they should have. A consultative referendum again would be a way of producing a picture of the local attitude to the development which might shorten the inquiry, because it would be a substitute for a great many of the individual objections made by individual objectors and it would have much more power because it would be an expression of the will of the entire community and could not be dismissed as the will of just a few cranks.

Lastly, I support those who have emphasised the importance of cross-examination. It is key that individuals, organisations and others should have the right to cross-examine. No one, however august or important, should be able to get away with giving evidence that is not questioned. On some occasions that may lead to long inquiries. It might perhaps be said that T5 is running inordinately late. I agree. T4.30 has always been what I thought was right.

7.58 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has given us the opportunity for a short but trenchant—if I may use the word that has been used before—debate on the planning inquiry system in this country. He asked a straightforward question: Whether the rules of public planning inquiries should be reviewed to balance the democratic rights of objectors against the inordinate length of certain inquiries". I am tempted to give a trenchant answer and reply simply, "Yes", to the noble Earl. But such a brief reply would be more than even the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was looking for from me. It would not give me the opportunity to respond to some of the important issues that have been raised this evening. I shall try to deal with the main themes, and write to noble Lords who have taken part in the debate on specific issues if I am unable to cover them.

It is very much an issue of getting the balance right, as the noble Earl points out in his Question. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, said that we were not Napoleonic yet. I endorse the view that we should not be Napoleonic in the future either. There are serious democratic issues about the rights of objectors to be heard properly and fairly and we should not be willing to sacrifice those rights.

I turn, first, to a recurring theme of tonight's debate; that of major infrastructure projects and how we deal with them through the planning process. The Heathrow Terminal 5 public inquiry is an obvious and controversial current example. It might be helpful if at this point I respond to the specific issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—I am grateful to her for giving me advance notice of it—about the press reports on the Government's attitude to the inquiry. For the record, I can assure the noble Baroness that the Government have reached no conclusions on the outcome of this application. We will not take a decision on whether planning permission should be granted until the inspector's report has been received and carefully considered. Clearly, it is impossible for me to say at this stage what the outcome will be. That was made clear in another place in an Answer given by my noble friend the Minister for Transport in London.

A major issue connected with infrastructure projects causes great concern throughout the House and elsewhere. It relates to the concern which arises from the delays associated with coming to conclusions about the projects. That concern was reflected in our manifesto commitment to take urgent action to look at the issue. It must be tackled in the context that has emerged from tonight's debate; that of getting the policy structure right. Speeding up the delivery of major infrastructure projects—for instance, road schemes, rail links, airport developments, reservoirs and large waste incinerators—is a priority for this Government. Such projects are often of national significance and can have major effects in terms of regeneration and regional developments. It is therefore clear that one of the first requirements is to have in place an explicit strategic policy framework against which to assess the need for such projects. At present, we have discussion at inquiries and, as was pointed out, sometimes sequential discussion of the same issue at sequential inquiries. When such issues are of national policy and principle, that is an inevitable recipe for delay.

We hope to bring forward later this year proposals for improvements in both the practice and procedures in this area for consultation and to be innovative in the measures that we are prepared to examine for speeding up the system overall. I would not like to prejudge the content of the proposals that we would bring forward, but it is interesting that next week we will have a debate in this House under the Transport and Works Act 1990 setting out the policy framework around the order for the station at Stratford for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. After a general decision is taken about the strategic policy issue through both Houses of Parliament, it will be possible to have an appropriate local planning inquiry at which the rights of objectors are safeguarded, but where we have put clearly on the record the national policy in this area. It will be interesting to see whether we can build on such examples.

As noble Lords have made clear tonight, the occasional notorious, long inquiry must be seen in perspective. In each of the past five years, between 89 per cent. and 94 per cent. of inquiry appeals were dealt with by inquiries lasting no more than a week and in many cases only one day. However, although those are numerically few, the major infrastructure projects frequently have a wide significance and potential impact. Furthermore, in such inquiries, as regards the issue of costs, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, it can be difficult for the individual voice to be heard as a result of the structure, the legal representation and resources that are available. There is no doubt that we consider it essential to find a better way of dealing with such projects.

As regards the call-in powers of the Secretary of State, it is the Government's policy to interfere as little as possible in the day-to-day running of the planning system by local authorities. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister intends to be very selective about calling in applications for his determination and will in general take that step only when planning issues of more than local importance are involved. As with previous governments, we will use the power only rarely, but it exists for situations when it is appropriate that it should be invoked, as the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, will recognise.

The major infrastructure projects that have been mentioned tonight need a national policy framework, which can be established only at that level. However, the Government believe that there is greater scope for decentralising the consideration of planning policy to the regional level and for applying the same kind of principles. We have indicated our intention to set up regional chambers, building on the arrangements already established by local authorities, as a better means of co-ordinating land use, transport and other planning issues at the regional level. I say to my noble friend Lord Ponsonby that in the consultation process on the Greater London Authority we shall examine how we can provide a London framework for policy making into which local authorities can feed their plans and from which they can take a policy direction. I hope that that will be a helpful development.

The noble Baronesses, Lady David and Lady Hamwee, were interested in what action the Government propose to take following the department's publication of consultation papers on proposals to speed up the planning appeal system and the process for adopting development plans. Development plans are prepared by local authorities and are important because they can provide the basis for planning applications which are coming forward. If we can get those district-wide development plans in place there will be more certainty as regards policy, speedier decisions and, it is hoped, fewer appeals. Unfortunately, it has taken a long time to get those plans in place. Only marginally over 40 per cent. were adopted by the end of last year, which is five years after the present arrangements were introduced.

A review was undertaken last year to identify the reasons for delay and the scope for amending the procedures. A report of the review and a consultation paper were published in January, alongside that on the planning appeal system. The report indicated that, while there were some exceptions, the inquiry stage of the local planning process and the time taken by the inspector in reporting were not the main causes of delay. A number of options for change were put forward, including the possibility of statutory time limits for all or part of the development plan process; changes to procedure to encourage the resolution of objections through negotiation ahead of the inquiry, an issue that was raised tonight; the adoption of procedural rules for inquiries to give inspectors additional powers to control proceedings, which was another area of concern; and simplifying adoption procedures following the inquiry. All those matters were raised today and it is interesting to look at the possibility of some pilot schemes in some of these processes to see whether they will be effective.

Most of the proposals have received substantial support, but, as regards balance, two of the proposals—those of restricting the right of objectors to be heard at a public inquiry and making the report of an inspector binding on a local authority—were widely opposed on the grounds of natural justice and democratic accountability.

The noble Earl who introduced the debate was very anxious to safeguard those rights of democratic accountability. That is a very clear illustration of the sort of balance that he was calling for and that has been widely recognised as necessary. The planning system will work only if local people have ownership of that plan and confidence in it as a framework for decisions which actually affect their lives. We propose to publish draft revisions to guidance and regulations on those matters in the autumn.

On planning appeals, the consultation paper contains a number of suggestions designed to improve and to speed up the handling and determination of planning appeals. Those include changes to the way in which the procedural method is chosen; reducing the scope for extended exchanges of statements in written representation cases; the introduction of a non-statutory mediation service to resolve disputes and changes to the costs regime.

The issue of mediation was raised by my noble friend Lady David and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. There was general support for the notion in the responses to the consultation. Alternative dispute resolution is a field which is growing in its application in a variety of areas and we should look to see whether it has an application within the planning framework.

Two changes have been suggested to reduce the length and scope of inquiries. The first applies to called-in planning applications and will enable the Secretary of State to call in a proposal in order to examine not the whole proposal but a particular aspect of the development. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to that. In such situations, the local planning authority and developer would prepare an agreed joint statement of case on those aspects of the proposed development not in contention, thus leaving the inquiry to deal only with the contentious issues.

The second proposal is to extend the existing requirement in called-in cases for the Secretary of State to specify those matters which concern him particularly to planning appeals which are recovered for ministerial decision. That should encourage the parties to focus more closely on the essential issues.

The public reaction to all these proposals has been extremely positive, although some reservations have been expressed. A number of the proposals are capable of being implemented either administratively or through secondary legislation but, where necessary, we do not rule out the possibility of primary legislation if and when the opportunity arises.

As well as speeding up the appeals process, we believe that it is important to simplify the various procedures. That was an area referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. The department has already issued detailed guidance in Circular 15/96 on how that can be achieved without compromising the quality of decision or the ability of parties to have a fair hearing. It includes the more widespread use of informal hearings, which I believe will be welcomed by the House this evening, and, where practical, to have tighter control over cross-examination.

The implications of delay caused by lengthy inquiries—and indeed, by the planning system as a whole—are extremely far reaching as many noble Lords have said this evening. There are the economic costs, which are substantial, the resource costs for those involved, and environmental considerations. There is also the human element: the uncertainty caused by delays can be as worrying for third party objectors as it can be for developers. We take very seriously the need to speed up our planning system while protecting people's legitimate rights to be heard.

There is no doubt that some improvements have been made over the years but that has been achieved largely through amendments to the procedural rules and through guidance. But I fear that we have failed to address the fundamental problems about the policy context in which those decisions are taken. That has led to the problems caused by long inquiries for large-scale, controversial development proposals which really should be determined in a different forum.

The Government believe that more can and must be done. We want to ensure the delivery of sound planning decisions much more swiftly than hitherto. At the same time, we must protect the ability of interested parties to put their views fully and fairly. We are determined to make the planning system as efficient and effective as possible. We recognise the problems—delay, uncertainty, blight and costs. Therefore, we are looking at the operation of the planning system at every level; at how national policy is formulated; at regional and local level as well. It was mentioned this evening that there is a need for a holistic approach. I hope that it is possible to have a more integrated consideration of the environmental and transport issues. We believe that the creation of the new department of which I am a member and which brings together the regional interests of regeneration, the environmental interests which it is so important that we take on board, and the transport issues, will help us to consider those issues in the round rather than sequentially.

As I have said, we are examining closely how to improve the way in which major infrastructure projects of national importance are considered and implemented. We must achieve the right balance so that we can deliver on developments; we can ensure that the environmental considerations—responsibility for the next generation—play a central part in policy-making; and that the democratic rights of citizens are taken fully into account.

We believe that, by setting out strategies and policies which are firm and unequivocal, we can set the scene for swifter and more focused inquiries. I believe that that would be widely welcomed throughout the House.