24 April 2008

Committee Debate: Planning Application Processes (Menie Estate)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 24 April 2008

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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Planning Application Processes (Menie Estate)
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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): The Scottish Government never accepted the need for an inquiry into the call-in of the Menie estate planning application, for we were clear all along that ministers and officials had at all times acted properly, objectively and in full accordance with planning legislation, the Scottish ministerial code and all other requirements. Nevertheless, an inquiry by the Local Government and Communities Committee was initiated and, of course, we co-operated with it willingly, comprehensively and constructively.

Duncan McNeil: I am glad that you have clarified the situation. The First Minister welcomed the inquiry, as did all the members of the committee. To suggest that ministers and officials appeared before the committee willingly is simply not true, and the evidence bears that out.

Stewart Stevenson: The Government supplied extensive evidence about our actions in relation to the planning application. Indeed, for the very first time, a First Minister appeared before a parliamentary committee. He enjoyed it so much that he went back the following week.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth gave evidence, as did the Government's chief planner and the head of planning decisions. Evidence was also provided by Aberdeenshire Council, the Royal Town Planning Institute in Scotland and the Trump Organization.

The Government was open and forthcoming on an unprecedented scale. We answered almost 200 parliamentary questions on the issue and replied to dozens of FOI requests, a process that occupied planning officials for hundreds of hours at substantial cost to the public purse.

Whereas we have been open and clear about our actions, by contrast the Local Government and Communities Committee's report is an exercise in confusion, contradiction, speculation and innuendo. It is a report that is lacking in hard facts and meaningful, evidence-based conclusions.

In his speech, the convener of the committee suggested that the Government acted outwith its powers.

Members: No.

Stewart Stevenson: He did—I wrote it down.

That said, the report contains one robust and concrete finding. At paragraph 182, the report says that ministers and officials

"acted in accordance with planning laws when issuing the decision to call in the application."

I have been asked about a minority report. The minority report is contained entirely in paragraph 182. It is a shame that with 138 paragraphs of agreement, as Duncan McNeil, the committee convener, drew to our attention, we find ourselves with a difference of interpretation.

Johann Lamont (Glasgow Pollok) (Lab): One question that you did not answer in the whole inquiry process is why you discovered a conflict of interest only in November and not in May when you were elected. The issue that you must address is the fact that the members who opposed the recommendations did not come to any conclusion at all—they simply said that they did not agree with the rest of us. They have given no alternative explanation.

Stewart Stevenson: I note the use of the word "you", Presiding Officer, and I will respond in the appropriate terms. I do not make the planning decision, because of the rules that govern such decisions. There is therefore no conflict of interest for the "you" to whom the member referred.

I repeat: the report says that ministers and officials

"acted in accordance with planning laws when issuing the decision to call in the application."

There was no disagreement from any member of the committee on that key issue. The committee may have split along party lines on many questions, but—as paragraph 182 makes clear—there was unanimity on that fundamental point. No one is challenging the legitimacy and correctness of the call-in.

Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD): Will the minister take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: No. I have dealt with the point.

The result of this lengthy and drawn-out inquiry process is confirmation that the Government did absolutely nothing wrong. We did our job—we did what we were there to do. We acted properly and decisively and wholly in line with planning legislation and all—all—other requirements.

That is not to say that the report does not contain any criticisms. It was inevitable that it would, given that the inquiry was partisan and politically motivated; yet the criticisms in the report are without foundation. They are based on innuendo and accusation and contain inaccuracies that betray a misunderstanding of the planning process and an inability to comprehend and utilise the evidence that was supplied.

Cathie Craigie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (Lab): Will the minister give way?

Stewart Stevenson: One more paragraph and I will come to you.

We are not alone in thinking that. The Royal Town Planning Institute in Scotland wrote to the committee to clarify comments in the report that seriously misrepresent the evidence that it provided.

Cathie Craigie: It is shocking to hear a Government minister accuse a committee of the Parliament of being unable to scrutinise the evidence and draw conclusions. I have one simple question, which the Government has failed to answer throughout all of this. We are all agreed that the project is a major one for the whole of Scotland. Why did the Government not use planning legislation to call in the application before Aberdeenshire Council took its decision? Why?

Stewart Stevenson: The Government used planning legislation to call in the application at an appropriate point. [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order.

Stewart Stevenson: I congratulate the committee on moving forward with an inquiry into child poverty, which I understand that it is to undertake. I am sure that it will deliver a very good result; one that will be of rather greater value than the report that is the subject of the debate.

The cabinet secretary wrote to the committee to put the record straight on some of the major shortcomings in the report. Sadly, on the basis of what the chamber has heard thus far, the message does not seem to have got through.

David McLetchie (Edinburgh Pentlands) (Con): In his response, the cabinet secretary accused the committee of failing to understand the planning regime or, indeed, the appropriate terminology. The cabinet secretary has a cheek. The person who confused the terminology first was the cabinet secretary in his evidence to the committee. If he were to read the report thoroughly, he would find a careful analysis of all the terms that are used in the planning legislation—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Your question is a bit long, Mr McLetchie.

David McLetchie: He will find them in paragraphs 36 to 42 of the report, which this minister, ill informed though he is—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Mr McLetchie.

David McLetchie: The minister would be well advised to read those paragraphs before he says anything else.

Stewart Stevenson: I assure members that, as the 11th planning minister since the resumption of the Scottish Parliament, I take my responsibilities in that regard very seriously and I am fully informed on the relevant matters.

The Deputy Presiding Officer: You have one minute remaining.

Stewart Stevenson: The report is simply a diatribe that is not grounded in evidence. For example, paragraph 181 totally misrepresents the evidence that was given by the chief planner—

David McLetchie rose—

Stewart Stevenson: I have no time—sorry.

It confuses the point about definitions. If members do not believe me, they should ask the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, which agreed. There cannot be a national development at Menie estate, because the term "national development" will not be used until the national planning framework is finalised and approved. Further, the chief planner did not say that the Menie estate application deserved one-in-a-million treatment. He explained that he had never witnessed a situation in which a local authority resolved to refuse planning permission but several councillors who had been excluded from the decision-making process demanded that the decision be reversed—that was the one-in-a-million occurrence.

In those circumstances, we proceeded in the way—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I am sorry, minister, but we must move on.


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