ePolitix.com reports on the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee hearing on the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
Sir Michael Pitt, chair-designate of the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
Sir Michael Pitt, independent chairman of the ‘Lessons Learned Review’, which examined how to reduce the risk and impact of floods, and the emergency response to the floods in June and July, answered questions from the communities and local government committee on his appointment as chairman of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC).
Pitt is currently chair of NHS South West, a strategic health authority and chairs the General Medical Council's Programme Board overseeing the introduction of revalidation for practicing Doctors throughout the UK.
The IPC was the independent body set up under the 2008 Planning Act to speed up the process of planning applications for national infrastructure projects.
Speaking on the role of the chair of the IPC, Pitt said it was vital to create a fit-for-purpose IPC and to get the IPC up and running as soon as possible.
He also said that he would expect to act as coach and mentor to commissioners and supporting them on different decisions, maintaining corporate governance, ensure board effectiveness and engage with stakeholders.
He added, it was less important for the chair to take on individual decisions.
For the larger and more complicated planning applications, the chair can create a panel of three to five commissioners ensuring a wide spread of expertise to deal with applications, Pitt said.
Smaller applications would only require one commissioner who would take evidence on individual applications and would have to report to a council of the IPC. The chair of the IPC would head the councils, who would decide if an application should be approved.
Pitt stated that the council would override individual commissioners, but added that he hoped it would not come to this.
Clive Betts (Lab, Sheffield Attercliffe) asked whether the IPC was taking the flack for decisions MPs did not want to take.
Pitt argued that this may be the case but added it came with the job.
He added that existing arrangements were unsatisfactory and placed ministers in a difficult position.
Pitt went on to outline the arrangement of the new system. He said in a council decisions would be made by a group of councillors. He commented that the IPC structure would strive to separate members dealing with the application side and the decision aspects.
He added that the new system would create more flexibility than the current system allowed for the secretary of state was acting in three different capacities.
Pitt stated that the commission could only function if it was widely regarded as independent. If thrown into doubt the commission would be in jeapordary, Pitt said.
Betts asked how the IPC would speed up the planning process and be considered as independent on this basis.
Pitt argued that the secretary of state would still carry out preparation of national policy statements (NPS) and would still have control of national policy.
He stated that once policy was established, the IPC’s decision would be based on highly complex evidence.
There are provisions in the Act for annual reporting by the IPC at end of financial year which would be laid before parliament, Pitt said. This would allow the IPC to be held to account.
Pitt argued that the IPC’s processes and procedures should be open to scrutiny arguing that if these were wrong it was likely that decisions made by the commission could lead to judicial review.
Pitt was asked whether there were any conflicting interests with his current capacity as chair of the GMC’s programme board.
He stated that there would be a code on conduct that would decide how commissioners conducted their behavior and would govern their decisions on applications.
Pitt added further that his role at the GMC was so far removed from his work as chair of IPC, should he be selected that it would not cause conflict
Chair of the committee, Phyllis Starkey (Lab, Milton Keynes South West) asked what interest Pitt had in the role at the IPC.
Pitt stated that his career had been involved in planning and infrastructure issues. He stated that his interest in the role came from recognition that there needed to be significant improvements with regard to infrastructure.
He said that the Planning Act was “exciting” and in the public’s interest. He argued that the Act was a chance to make real improvements and provide better quality of life for people.
Starkey asked whether the description of the role as non-executive was appropriate.
Pitt argued that in the early stages the IPC would be required to be ‘hands-on’ He said that the commission should establish itself as independent from day one and should be fit for purpose.
In his capacity as chair, Pitt said he would be focused on the role particularly budgeting and hitting targets. He also said that being involved in quality assurance was a significant priority for the IPC chair.
Pitt commented that 10 to 20 years of his early career was involved specifically in highway design and planning of major infrastructure.
More recently, Pitt commented that his role as former chief executive of Kent and Cheshire County Councils, which is a planning, minerals and waste authority, and incorporated project planning prepared by the council, which required getting involved in planning matters as it was a highways authority.
Sir Paul Beresford (Con, Mole Valley) commented that the IPC role was different from the strategic approach of a council. He raised issues about Pitt’s experience and gaps in his technological knowledge.
Pitt commented that there would always be gaps. He said that he had a big enough variety of experience without feeling there were huge gaps.
It is vital to have a good understanding of issues such as wind farms, Pitt said.
To fill any gaps, Pitt said when recruiting 35 commissioners, he anticipated that he would be involved in the recruitment process.
Pitt stated that commissioners should have a wide range of knowledge of sectors but also a good understanding of planning law and who could understand environmental issues and the social impact.
Pitt stated that he was almost certain to be involved in the appointment of the deputy chair of the IPC, chief executive and three commissioners.
Emily Thornberry (Lab, Islington South and Finsbury) asked for justification of the IPC chair’s wage which is to be nearly £250,000 a year.
Pitt clarified that he would be working four days a week and the salary would be reduced proportionately. He also argued that level of salary was decided before he accepted the position and assumed the salary had been benchmarked against similar roles. He said it was the right salary for a job of that scale.
Starkey asked whether the commissioners should all possess technical expertise.
Pitt commented that he would look at a range of professionals and hand pick commissioners according to the appropriate tasks.
Starkey asked Pitt what experience he had in promoting sustainable development.
Pitt argued that it was important to not be “prejudiced against future generations” and their quality of life.
He referred to the floods review which sought solutions to flooding. In his 92 recommendations, Pitt addressed a variety of sustainability issues such as what sustainable development is, where should sustainable development take place, and drainage and sewerage.
Pitt was asked about the ability of opposers and the public to express objections to planning decisions which the Planning Act sought to address.
With regards to handling particular applications, Pitt said there was a clear duty on local government to participate in engagement with opposers and the public.
During pre-planning application stages local authorities were required to produce a report of the consultation process, Pitt argued.
He stated that the application evaluation stage was an opportunity for members to make written representations and speak at an open hearing.
Pitt described the current planning regime as “complex, obscure, expensive” and dominated by legal profession. He argued that the IPC intended to simplify the planning process.
He described the IPC as a “creature of statute”. Pitt said that there must be powerful legal advice within the secretariat of the IPC. He argued that it was impossible to prevent risk of judicial review but acknowledged that they could minimise risk.
Asked whether giving advice would compromise independence, Pitt argued that he would like to see commissioners coming into action when applications were made.
He said that the commission would be primarily involved in planning at the post-application stage and that pre-application advice should be undertaken by secretariat staff.
Pitt said that there should be a firewall between those who are dealing with pre-application advice and those assisting commissioners.
Pitt said that the running cost of the IPC was £9.3m and that the initial setting up fee was £5m. He referred to the impact assessment carried out on the Planning Act which set out the likely number of applications the IPC would receive a year, the adequate number of resources required and the number of staff.
Pitt also argued that there was nothing written down about the nature of the board of the IPC.
On the question as to how closely involved he would be with the NPSs, Pitt said that the policy statements were up to individual departments and secretaries of state.
Pitt commented that all of the work of the IPC should be in the public domain and on the website.