Although today's news is all taken up with the autumn statement (to be reported here tomorrow), let us not forget that yesterday, the committee considering the Growth and Infrastructure Bill debated amendments relating to the infrastructure clauses in the Bill.

Background

As a reminder, there are (or were) seven clauses in the bill dealing with infrastructure:

  • Clauses 15 to 18 make amendments to existing consents under the Energy Act 1976, Gas Act 1986 and Electricity Act 1989;
  • Clause 19 prunes the triggers for special parliamentary procedure (SPP) under the Planning Act 2008;
  • Clause 20 makes corresponding amendments to SPP itself; and
  • Clause 21 adds business and commercial projects as a new field that is able to use the Planning Act.

The paper of amendments considered by the committee can be found here.  Any government amendments (those in the name of Nick Boles and Michael Fallon) are the ones likely to be made, and the others are not.  This indeed turned out to be the case, so the bill has been amended to make further amendments to the Planning Act as follows:

  • if SPP has been avoided by means of a certificate, this must be noted in the development consent order;
  • the requirements for separate certificates under sections 127, 131, 132, 137 and 138 are removed; and
  • the restrictions in the Act that governs SPP (the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945) are extended to the other Acts that use SPP.

These and other amendments were debated and it is worth reporting on the points made and replies to them.  There was no debate on clauses 15 to 18.

Special Parliamentary Procedure

Roberta Blackman-Woods, the shadow planning minister, noted that the government had said in the second reading debate that the SPP provisions were a result of 'poor drafting'.  In that context, she asked what the amendment meant when it said SPP could be avoided for land being compulsorily acquired 'for a temporary (although possibly long-lived) purpose'.

She asked for the government's reaction to the National Infrastructure Planning Association's (NIPA's) case that SPP for open space - as opposed to commons, allotments and National Trust land - was unncessary. She then asked how 'strongly in the public interest', one of the criteria for avoiding SPP, would be decided.

On the 'poor drafting' point, planning minister Nick Boles said in reply that the reference was to the mismatch between the Planning Act and the SPP legislation (although I must say that the situation was made worse by the Localism Act).

On the 'long-lived' point he merely said that temporary did not necessarily mean a matter of months, but would not be permanent.  Given that temporary possession of land is a separate power to compulsory acquisition that can be included in an application, I'm not sure how we could get to the situation of temporary possession being considered under compulsory acquisition provisions, but I suppose there's no harm in having the provision there.

Nick Boles said that despite NIPA's view, the bill as drafted struck the right balance between special protection for open space and the public interest in infrastructure projects going ahead.

Finally on 'strongly in the public interest' (although he said 'national interest'), he said it would be left to the discretion of the decision-maker to decide, subject to challenge via judicial review.

On clause 20 Roberta Blackman-Woods asked why the SPP process was not being speeded up while it was being amended.

In reply Nick Boles said that it would be speeded up because it would apply in fewer situations (not technically a speeding up), and was limited to the issue that triggered it rather than the whole application (which would indeed mean speeding up).

Business and commercial projects

On clause 21 (business and commercial projects), Roberta Blackman-Woods moved a series of amendments, as did Nick Raynsford.  One of these was to exclude surface mining and quarrying from the types of business and commercial projects that would come under the Planning Act regime, and she argued that these projects should remain in the conventional planning system.

She noted that on size thresholds, the consultation on this clause used 40,000 square metres, whereas the impact assessment accompanying the bill assumed a figure of 10,000 square metres.  She said that the criteria to be used to decide whether a project was nationally significant were very important and should be on the face of the bill (although had not tabled an amendment to that effect).  She said that it was nonsensical to exclude a large project because it might have a security guard or caretaker's apartment (i.e. because no housing could be involved at all).

Nick Raynsford noted that the two applications to be consented had taken 14 and 16 months respectively (Ipswich and North Doncaster chords) whereas the target was 12 months.  That's not quite right - the target is 12 months from the start of examination, which those two projects achieved.  He asked why Nick Boles' 'Department's press statement' referred to thousands of projects being directed to the regime, and Nick Boles said he wasn't aware of it.  In fact the statement was not issued by his department but by 10 Downing Street.

Nick Boles stressed that going down the Planning Act route did not increase the chance of consent being given to a project.  He said that thresholds should not be written into the bill because there should be a 'qualitative judgement' on whether a project was nationally significant.  He agreed that criteria should, and would, be published, in the same way as for call-in criteria.

He said that one reason for the new category was to create competition with local authorities whose performance might therefore improve. 

On whether to have any national policy statements (NPSs) for the business and commercial category, Nick Boles said that the government had 'not absolutely ruled out' NPSs.  He also said that 'in making decisions on business and commercial projects of major national significance, the local plan is one of the first things that the Secretary of State will take into account', which will reassure some.  He later said that the government was 'very far from persuaded' of the case for NPSs (a) because there would have to be so many of them and (b) because they would undercut the NPPF - but still hadn't ruled them out altogether.

He rejected a probing amendment on being able to obtain a waiver of pre-application requirements, saying that they were almost more important given that the project was not being consented by the local authority.  On the fees-per-day-worked issue, he rejected the amendment but assured those present that he 'will be sure to keep on the case'.

Next steps

There is one more day of committee stage, namely tomorrow.  The bill is expected to have its report stage and third reading in the Commons before Christmas, and then its second reading in the House of Lords on 8 January 2013.