Planning for a defeat?

24 June 2008

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.

Advertisements

28 days… later

12 June 2008

I should admit I have, probably purposely, not followed the debate over 42 days very closely. I think that the phrase ‘civil liverties’ is used too much and its use in this context made me want to keep away from the debate. There’s a fine line when using that phrase which is often ignored (I’m not necessarily saying crossed). I’ve particularly kept out because of the complexities around when such a measure will apply or not and I didn’t believe I understood the issue enough to form an opinion.

However, having heard yesterday that the government won in the House of Commons I was most interested today, not to read opinion pieces or articles (no matter whether I agree with them or not), but to read a speech made by Diane Abbott, for whom I have a good deal of respect. She raises some very valid points.

I came into politics because of my concern about the relationship of the state to communities that are marginalised and suspected. It is easy to stand up for the civil liberties of our friends or of people in our trade union, but it is not easy to stand up for the civil liberties of people who are unpopular, suspected and look suspicious—people the tabloids print a horror story about every day.

However, it is a test of parliament that we are willing to stand up for the civil liberties of the marginalised, the suspect and the unpopular.

I came into politics about those issues, and I believe that if there is any content at all in ministers’ constant speeches about community cohesion we must offer every part of our community not just the appearance but the reality of justice and equality before the law.

She finished her speech talking about the popularity of the 42 day clause and how that affects parliament, saying “But if we as a parliament cannot stand up on this issue, and if people from our different ethnic communities cannot come here and genuinely reflect their fears and concerns, what is parliament for?”. This reminds me of a debate which I recall, but cannot find the speech for, in respect of equalising the age of consent where it was said that it’s not the job or parliament to do what is popular, it’s the job of parliament to do what is right…

So, no matter what I may or may not think about 42 days detention, Diane Abbott is absolutely right – parliament is about doing what’s right, understanding the concerns and issues, not letting a popular argument, which she believes has not been evidentially and robustly justified, to simply pass through.

In less exciting news I am tucked up in bed with a summer cold, which is really no fun at all.


%d bloggers like this: