Brown faces new Commons rebellion

It's Mr Brown's second pivotal vote in a fortnight
It's Mr Brown's second pivotal vote in a fortnight

The government faces yet another knife-edge Commons vote tomorrow when the planning bill hits the floor of the House.

Sixty-three Labour MPs oppose the bill and both Tories and Lib Dems will vote against it.

For a subject as seemingly innocuous as planning the bill has provoked a storm of protest from environmentalists, local campaigners and democratisation activists.

If passed, it will hand power over major planning decisions such a nuclear power plants or airport runways to an unelected quango.


"The headline proposals of the bill are flawed and unlikely to work in practise," Paul Miner, senior planning campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England told politics.co.uk.

"The commission would take decisions on all major infrastructure projects. Democratically elected politicians have been responsible for decisions on these projects and it's important they continue to be, because these major infrastructure schemes raise problems of public interests," he continued.

"There are big economic cases advanced for the projects but they often also have very wide-ranging social and environmental consequences across a wide area, not just in the locality in which they take place."

Ministers claim the plans would streamline decision-making, while still ensuring decision retaining democratic legitimacy because the quango's decisions would be based on detailed guidelines laid down by parliament.

But opponents think the government is seeking to deflect blame for controversial planning schemes by pinning everything on another body while riding roughshod over local concerns.

Some concerned Labour MPs have tabled an amendment which would make any decision taken by the committee subject to a judgment by a secretary of state.

Gordon Brown is intent on avoiding a defeat, especially since the controversy over 42-day detention, when he was forced to deny giving nine DUP MPs political offers in order to get the bill through the House. Any defeat now would further erode his authority.

The prime minister has been phoning potential Labour rebels while Hazel Blears, local government secretary and John Healey, planning minister, held talks last night to avert a full-scale rebellion over the issue.

At least one rebel has been won over by the talks. Clive Betts has welcomed a concession which forces the new planning committee to be reviewed after two years, with the possibility of a return to ministerial scrutiny.

It's just the latest in a drip-feed of concessions emerging from Westminster, in a not dissimilar manner to the endless concessions offered to Labour rebels over 42-day detention.

Other concessions include greater oversight of the new commission by Commons select committees and a rule forcing the commission to take account of a local authority report before making planning decisions.

Mr Bett's conversion to the government's side still leaves Mr Brown in a perilous state. Only 34 Labour MPs need to vote against the bill for it to fail - assuming all opposition parties vote against it - and there are currently just over sixty potential rebels.

Currently, major projects such as railways, dams, waste facilities or airports are subject to lengthy public enquiries in which ministers balance the recommendations of government appointed inspectors with the interests of pressure groups and planners.

If the bill is approved, an independent infrastructure planning commission would decide the applications.

Consultations would still take place, with all interested parties being able to communicate their argument to the commission.

But Liberal Democrat local government spokesperson Dan Rogerson sais the safeguards do not go far enough.

"The government is hell bent on ramming yet another unpopular, unnecessary measure through the House of Commons," he said.

"Many Labour MPs and even Cabinet ministers know that Hazel Blears is bulldozing local democracy. And by voting down amendments to make the new commission take our environment seriously, the government has laid waste to its green credentials."

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