Town Planning is rarely seen as exciting. But, hot on the heels of the 42 days debate, tomorrow’s vote in parliament on the new planning bill will be a key moment for the Government. Over 60 Labour MPs have signalled their concerns about the bill. Not only is this ‘yet another’ change to a relatively new planning system which local authorities are well-behind on delivering, these changes raise much bigger issues of how decisions are made.
Today’s Independent sums up the controversial change nicely:
At present, major projects such as power stations, ports, airports, roads, railways, dams, water plants, hazardous waste facilities and critical gas and electricity works are subject to public inquiries, where lawyers for residents, pressure groups and developers do battle – sometimes for years – before government-appointed inspectors recommend whether the schemes should go ahead. Ministers then take the final decision.
Under the Bill, an independent infrastructure planning commission would decide whether to approve such projects. Environmental groups and MPs from all parties have condemned the proposals as an affront to democracy. They say the final say on such developments should not be handed to an unelected quango but should be retained by ministers accountable to the public.
This raises major concerns over the democratic accountability of decision-making for major infrastructure which will affect peoples’ lives for more than just 42 days
A comment piece on the Guardian website added:
It rejected calls for the impact on climate change to be part of the commission’s remit. It wants the new system to speed through projects that have been stuck for years in the slow (but democratic) planning system.
A further irony is that, at least upon my last reading of the bill documentation (yes I have read it) the Government proposed not to include railway infrastructure because there was no forseen requirement for major infrastructure on the rail network (the multiple planning applications to each local authority on the West Coast Mainline for upgrading undoubtedly contributed to the project delays).
There is a need to speed up the planning process for major infrastructure. There’s a need to make sure decisions on new wind farms and power stations are made in the near future and nobody wants the Terminal 5 planning debacle again. The inquiry cost £80m, heard 700 witnesses, and took eight years from first application to government approval.
The Guardian comment sums up the political debates nicely:
The fantasy politics comes from the almost mythic status that monetary independence for the Bank of England has assumed in the Brown story. It was his most successful single act, so he wants to repeat it. Planning is about balancing different needs. It isn’t about expertise or arcane knowledge. A body told to keep inflation low will get on with it. A body told to get things built, will get things built. Remit is all. But deciding if a wind farm is more useful because of the power it generates than it is damaging because of its impact on a landscape – that’s about balancing interests. There is no obvious “right” answer. It is for politics, and argument, not for closed meetings and phoney experts.
The proposed means of decision making is simply wrong, regardless of any concessions that may be offered. It takes democracy away from decision-making. A different approach is needed which allows both speed and democracy, allows people to make their case but takes into account the much wider benefit of infrastructure. The democratic deficit can work the other way around too (where small-scale decisions are made by elected councilors who are voted by residents but may affect more people than those living in the area).
Coming so soon after other concerns about democratic rights the government is once again setting itself on a collision course with its own party and those who vote for it.