Yesterday the government was busily destroying democracy again. They decided to take their bullying, hectoring stance into the realm of planning, setting up a super-quango to make the decisions about big projects, and introducing yet another tax by the back door of secondary legislation under a general permissive power in the Planning legislation.
The Bill had already been through Committee, where none of the Opposition amendments had been accepted, despite strong support for them from local government and professional opinion. The Bill was represented to us with almost 100 pages of print on the Order paper full of government amendments and New Clauses, as they effectively sought to rewrite the Bill at the last moment during its Commons stages. Colleagues asked why they had bothered to sit on the Committee, when their views had been outvoted, only to discover the government wished to make big changes at a later date.
The government, as always, introduced a timetable or guillotine motion. These are now accepted, partly because there are so many newer MPs in the House who do not realise how much less democratic this system is than the old system where the House had as much time as it needed to deal with each clause and issue. Only if the Committee considering a bill took, say, 50 hours on the first clause, and showed no signs of wanting to make progress, did a government Minister then come to the main Chamber and ask for a timetable to be imposed. Even then, it was more likely to be an overall limit on time, than the present detailed timetable telling us how much time we could spend on each group of proposed changes. Yesterday the issues most likely to attract Labour rebels were given limited time, often at inconvenient times of the session.
The guillotine was imposed on a Bill which takes away powers from elected local and national government and gives to a quango, and takes away powers from people and Councils and gives to central government. Under it the Secretary of State can decide on national planning policy statements which require development of a certain type and scale in a specified location whatever local people and their Councillors may think. The Infrastructure Planning Commission has wide-ranging powers to make decisions regardless of local opinion and its democratic expression.
Why do the government think we need this centralising bullying measure? Mainly because they have failed to come up with the plans, permits and projects necessary for this countryâ€™s energy and transport requirements over the last eleven years and are now in panic mode that they have run out of time to put through large schemes in the normal way. They must be dreading that the lights could go out for want of power, or the country grinding to a final halt in massive gridlock.
I agree that some planning decisions for large projects in the UK have taken too long in the past, and would like to see some of them determined in a shorter time. This does not mean we need a new super-quango to do so; nor need it mean ignoring all local opinion and proper consideration of the issues. The best way to expedite decisions about necessary but unwanted big projects is to allow or require proper compensation to anyone whose amenity and home value is damaged by the development. Where there does need to be a national decision about growing or creating a new national asset – like London airport â€“ Ministers should lead the debate, listen to the options, and ensure that their final decision includes proper treatment of those who will be adversely affected. That surely is what Ministers are for.
Hidden away at the end of the Bill are the proposals for a so-called â€œCommunity Infrastructure Levyâ€. There are few details in the legislation. The full force of this measure will only become clear when the government publishes the regulations which will tell us who can charge what. The Bill does show that this could be a new national as well as a local tax, as the Secretary of State ranks alongside councils, the London Mayor and Welsh Ministers as someone who is a â€œCharging authorityâ€.
This is no way to introduce yet another Labour tax. Such a tax is worthy of its own Bill and proper examination. Parliament should know how much and how often the tax will be charged before it has to decide the principle of whether we want it. Yesterday was another bad day for democracy. It all goes to show that Mr Brownâ€™s pledge to restore power to Parliament was so much spin and bluster.
If Labour still thinks we need more taxes and more quangos they still do not get it. We have been force-fed on quangos and higher taxes for eleven years, and have had enough of both.
For the speech on the Planning Bill made by John in the House yesterday, go to the Debates section of this website.