Infrastructure Bill [Lords]
Nick's speech in the Second Reading Debate
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
Unlike the last speaker and the official Opposition, I welcome the Bill and its focus on the importance of speeding up infrastructure delivery. I would like to speak to three aspects of the Bill: part 1 on highways, part 4 on planning and part 5 on the proposals for fracking. I shall also identify one other aspect of infrastructure provision that I think is missing from the proposals and needs to be addressed.
On highways, it has been a huge step forward that the Government announced a roads investment programme for our strategic roads network. The time period for the programme is defined and the Government are providing the resources for it. I disagree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) who implied that the local roads network was somehow more important than this and was being neglected. In fact, in my constituency in West Sussex, it is the strategic road network that has been in need of significant investment, and the failure to provide it over past decades has put great pressure on our local roads network as traffic is forced up through the rural network, including through beautiful parts of my constituency in the South Downs national park. That causes environmental damage.
Up until now, proposals to deal with this problem, particularly relating to the A27, which is a major coastal route, have either not been developed, have been developed piecemeal or have been cancelled when they were initially taken forward. That is what happened in respect of the Arundel bypass, which was cancelled by the last Labour Government. I thus strongly welcome the Government’s major investment in roads, including a £350 million investment in the A27 and an Arundel bypass. It is precisely this kind of long-term vision for national infrastructure that will help to generate the necessary prosperity. If the creation of Highways England will assist in delivering that long-term vision and some accountability to ensure that these roads are built to time, it is welcome.
I agree with what the roads Minister said about the importance of aesthetics. I have already mentioned the fact that my constituency of Arundel and South Downs is a very beautiful one. The proposed Arundel bypass would run at the bottom of the national park across the Arun valley and through a very small piece of the national park if it is to take the preferred route, which achieved a great deal of local consensus when last proposed. I believe there is a powerful environmental argument for this bypass, but the design of this road and of a bridge across the River Arun would do a great deal to mitigate any concerns about the impact of the road on the aesthetics and beauty of the local area.
The French have done this very well in the past in the provision of some of its national infrastructure. We could think of notoriously stunning bridges that have been built in France such as the Millau viaduct over the River Tarn. That is a stunning piece of work by a British architect, and many would argue that it adds to the beauty of the area and does not detract from it. We should seek to achieve the same thing in the design of our roads infrastructure in the same way as the Victorians impressed us with their design of rail infrastructure—Brunel’s bridges, for example. In doing so, we would win much more public support for our roads proposals.
My second topic relates to planning. I agree about the importance of speeding up the provision of nationally needed infrastructure, but as a Government we also promised that we would deliver localism to communities. In fact, local communities are very concerned when planning permissions are given that local infrastructure should be sufficient to meet the needs of the new development. Too often in my constituency, the development of houses has not been matched with sufficient provision for schools, local roads or even basic things such as sewerage provision. This has resulted in placing great pressure on local infrastructure, and it undermines support for local developments.
The Government announced new guidance last year—I was grateful for it—that emphasised the importance of planning authorities ensuring suitable infrastructure provision before housing is delivered. It is important to enforce that guidance if we are to continue to build houses on a sustainable basis. In that respect, the provision of localism through the Localism Act 2011 was important in giving communities control through local plans and neighbourhood planning. Where that has worked well, with the early adoption of neighbourhood plans in my constituency, for example, it has commanded strong local support and even built support for development that would otherwise have been absent.
That process, however, can be undermined when speculative planning applications are granted by local authorities or overturned on appeal by the national planning inspectorate. The consequence is that development that would not have been permitted in the emerging neighbourhood plans or the local plans can be insisted on by that inspectorate, which I think can gravely undermine the localism we promised.
Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con)
My constituents are very excited about the idea of localism—local decisions made by democratically elected councils—but does my right hon. Friend agree that there is not much localism in action when a distant planning inspector is allowed to ride roughshod over local decision making?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I share his concern. While all four of the district councils in my constituency are preparing responsible plans for the delivery of substantial numbers of houses, speculative applications are being made by developers who are circling villages like hawks. They want to get in quickly and secure planning permission that would otherwise not be given under the local plans but is being allowed in this instance because the planning inspector is taking a view of the provisions for five-year land supply that is excessive and unrealisable.
The inspectorate has just examined Horsham district council’s plan. It makes substantial provision for housing in the area to meet local need, but the five-year land supply provision presumes that building could take place at a rate that has never been achieved by the local authority and never could be, because it does not take account of the fact that developers did not build using the existing permissions that were given by the local authority in the years of the economic downturn. The five-year land supply provision is resulting in the allowing of developments in villages in my constituency that will damage the villages and erode green space between them that should be maintained, and runs against what local people seek in their neighbourhood and local plans.
If we are to deliver the localism that we promised, it is important for top-down intervention by the planning inspector to be prevented. After all, in our Conservative party manifesto we made this pledge:
“To give communities greater control over planning, we will…abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans”.
If we believe in localism—if we want to put power and responsibility in the hands of localities through neighbourhood and local plans, which is already proving very successful, and which does not produce fewer houses but produces them by consent in the places where people want them—we should not allow a body that is based in Bristol to come in and effectively rewrite those plans, because that undermines the localism that we promised.
Rebecca Harris (Castle Point) (Con)
Does my right hon. Friend suspect that the planning inspectors are overriding local plans because they want to chase councils to make them hurry up and complete their plans? Could that be a deliberate policy?
I suspect that there is something in what my hon. Friend says, and that the purpose of pursuing a tough approach is to ensure that local authorities produce their plans as swiftly as possible. The four district councils in my constituency are proceeding as fast as they can, making very difficult and sometimes controversial decisions about where development should take place. Villages in the constituency are beginning to write neighbourhood plans which require a great deal of local effort from volunteers, which are complex, and which take time. It is unfair to penalise bodies that are making responsible decisions by allowing speculative applications that harm the process of building consent.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the Secretary of State and the Government changed the system when they issued national planning guidelines last year? As a result, 95% of local plans have not been adopted by the planning inspector, who works on behalf of the Secretary of State. What the right hon. Gentleman is moaning about is Government policy which is intended to force through more housing more quickly.
Opposition Members are calling for much more local housing as well. What we are discussing is the right way to deliver that. I am arguing that localism, if properly delivered, will empower local communities to make responsible decisions, and will produce the housing that is necessary. I do not believe that the planning inspector’s intervention will help to bring about consensus, or will produce the houses that are needed. I urge the Government to keep faith with the localism that they promised, to continue to back the development of local plans, and not to allow the inspectorate to make heavy-handed decisions that can undermine it.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. Will he be opposing localism this evening by voting in favour of a Bill that limits the rights of local people in respect of shale gas exploration, and takes away their rights to the expression and acceptance of their views?
I shall deal with precisely that issue in a second. Let me say first, however, that if the Bill is given a Second Reading, I shall table amendments to restrict the power of the planning inspectorate to rewrite local plans, as we pledged to do, and, indeed, to abolish the inspectorate so that we can have a proper discussion about how localism should be delivered.
Mike Thornton (Eastleigh) (LD)
I, too, thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity. Are councillors in his constituency starting to feel that developers see no need to obtain local permission for any new development because they know that the planning inspector will overrule any decision made by the councillors?
Local authorities are clearly nervous. They fear that if they do not give planning permission in response to a speculative application—although their plans are in the process of being developed—if that is overturned by the planning inspector, costs will be awarded against them. They feel that there is no equality in the process.
I do not resile from the importance of providing a great deal more housing, because it is clearly needed. The issue is how that can best be provided. I think that the early adoption of neighbourhood plans by consent shows that, given power and responsibility, communities provide the necessary housing, while top-down intervention of the kind that Government Members have always criticised can undermine that provision.
The third issue that I want to raise relates to the proposals in part 5 of the Bill to provide access to subterranean land for the purpose of fracking. This is a live issue in my constituency. An application to drill in an area of beautiful countryside that is very close to a national park was turned down by West Sussex county council, but is the subject of an appeal by the company involved.
Two sets of issues related to fracking concern local communities, and I think that we should try to separate them. First, there are the environmental concerns about the impact of the activity that takes place below ground. As many Members on both sides of the House have said, those concerns need to be addressed by means of proper regulation and controls, and we should discuss the importance of ensuring that they are adequate.
Secondly, there are the issues that relate to what happens on the surface, and the choice of sites for drilling. In my constituency, the choice of sites has been crucial. Opposition to the drilling does not just come from communities who are concerned about the environmental impact below the ground. Rural communities fear that they will experience significant lorry movements through their villages—which they would not otherwise have experienced —over an extended period. Wise site location which minimises disruption to communities on the surface is a second way in which the industry could address much of the concern about these proposals.
We now have a specific proposal in this legislation on trespass, which seeks to deal with the land ownership issues. That comes against the background of great concern about the activity. It is true that members of the public have largely misheard the proposals so far. In my constituency, I fear that many people believe that the proposals will license invasion on the surface of their land by those who wish to drill, without them giving permission and without any of the regulatory controls which exist. The Government must continue to reassure local people that in fact these proposals relate to deep subterranean activity and do not change any of the requirements for permission to be given by a landowner as to whether they want drilling on their land, nor any of the regulatory requirements.
Dr Whitehead rose—
Nick Herbert: I will give way in a moment
On the specific proposal for subterranean drilling, there is a question mark over the way in which compensation is to be given to landowners via some kind of community fund, and one of the issues that needs to be explored is whether the compensation should go directly to the landowners who are affected. I think that might be a better way to ensure there is confidence in this procedure. It has been proposed not only by the Country Land and Business Association but by one oil company, INEOS. I hope the Government will consider that proposal carefully as a means to ensure that communities and individuals are properly compensated for these activities.
Several hon. Members rose—
I have been generous in giving way to a number of hon. Members.
There is one aspect of infrastructure provision that I do not believe is covered in this Bill but which I believe merits serious consideration, and that is broadband infrastructure. This is essential if we are to ensure continuing economic growth and is equally essential in rural areas. There will need to be further discussion of how we can close the digital divide that is in danger of opening up in rural areas that do not have access to superfast broadband. There are encouraging plans by the Government in co-operation with local authorities to deliver superfast broadband by 2017, but they still leave a gap. It sounds small, as it is intended that only about 5% of the population will have broadband access but not superfast, but in rural areas it becomes quite a big gap. This is a question for another day, but there must be a plan to close that gap and ensure that all parts of the country have access to superfast broadband in future.
You can read the Hansard of the full debate here.