11 July 2008
A Bill aimed at minimising delays to major planning projects such as Heathrow's third runway has hit turbulence
The middle classes are mobilising. Plans for a string of 'eco-towns' – potentially, a contradiction in terms – have brought hundreds of banner-waving protesters, from Warwickshire to Cambridgeshire and beyond, on to the streets and even to Westminster in recent weeks.
Of course, it is nothing new. Sixty years ago an earlier Labour government, planning the first post-war new towns, encountered similar problems. Militants in rural Hertfordshire blockaded roads and even let down the tyres of the official car carrying the then planning minister Lewis Silkin when he visited the soon-to-expand Stevenage. Their banners renamed it 'Silkingrad'.
But could the current protests, bolstered by critical comments from the architect and former government adviser Lord Rogers, presage a much bigger wave of unrest as the government unleashes a new planning regime that effectively bypasses local councils?
Over the next year, that regime could well deliver the sites for new runways, and expanded airports, as well as the location for large wind farms and, equally controversially, a new wave of nuclear power stations – triggering a backlash supported, in part, by the official Opposition, and dwarfing the current eco-town protests.
Across the political divide, many accept that our (rightly) treasured planning system – enshrined in the ground-breaking 1947 Town and Country Planning Act – needs some reform. Seemingly endless delays in getting approval for big projects deemed crucial to the economy – from high-voltage power lines to wind turbines and a giant shopping mall otherwise known as Heathrow's Terminal Five – have snapped the patience of ministers.
Two weeks ago in the Commons, the Planning Bill crossed its latest hurdle after the government was forced to make a series of concessions to backbench rebels. They were alarmed that the central element of the legislation – creating an independent Infrastructure Planning Commission to determine the site of large-scale projects – would remove major decisions from ministers.
While not disputing the need to reform the current system and thwart vocal minorities, some experts are uneasy. Leading planner and geographer Professor Sir Peter Hall, an adviser to successive governments, worries that the commission could be stuffed with neo-liberals whose free-market views will override rational argument and, crucially, fail to take a wider view of individual projects such as airport expansion.
Under the Bill, principal departments, such as Business and Enterprise (responsible for energy) and Transport, will draw up national policy statements on, say, the case for more nuclear power stations and airport expansion, particularly a third runway at Heathrow and extending Stansted Airport in Essex.
But in the face of backbench pressure, Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised that the government would review the workings of the Infrastructure Planning Commission two years after its formation. It was also promised that any chair of the commission would be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny in the Commons and, crucially, that national policy statements would include the location of airport developments and nuclear power stations.
This is an important concession because, previously, the commission would have determined individual sites – taking decisions out of ministerial hands for the first time.
Reminding critics that the public inquiry for Heathrow's T5 took seven years and plans for a crucial high-voltage power line in North Yorkshire were delayed by six years, Communities and Local Government Secretary Hazel Blears maintained that the role of local councils would be 'significantly greater' under the provisions of the Bill than at present.
This was because they would 'fully appraise the commission of local people's views and the impact on the community'.
Arguing that the current system was too long, costly 'and in many ways impenetrable to the public (with) lack of transparency and clarity', she claimed the new system would herald speed and efficiency 'without sacrificing democracy'.
But many planning professionals, including Sir Peter Hall – and, significantly, a former chief planning inspector for England and Wales – fear that a policy statement on, say, airport expansion will be so narrowly defined that it will exclude argument for a co-ordinated transport strategy. This is crucial because, arguably, faster rail lines linked to airports diminish the case for domestic air travel. This in turn could reduce the need for a third runway at Heathrow, which has been opposed by Conservative leader David Cameron as well as by councils in west London.
In England, however, planning policy is rarely joined up. Critics, including former chief planning inspector Chris Shepley, argue that rather than having a series of statements from individual departments, a single policy statement is needed 'to join things up'.
But Shepley laments: 'Governments have always fought shy of this on the grounds that it is too hard to do… the department at the centre of this (Communities and Local Government) say there is no way it can be done because they cannot get other departments to co-operate.'
Significantly, the economist Kate Barker, whose Treasury-commissioned report on the planning system last year formed the basis for the current Bill, also believes there is a strong case for a national policy statement – which would become a spatial plan for England by any other name.
'It was one of the things we had to think hard about – should we propose one policy statement, or lots?' she said. 'The only reason we did not propose one, to be perfectly honest, is because we would never get one agreed (but) in some ways it would be more logical to have one. I always thought there was an attraction, that it would be the ideal.'
But Barker, a member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee, maintains that single policy statements are a move in the right direction, leading, hopefully, to a national strategy for – say – transport, rather than a single airport statement. But the Department for Transport has knocked this on the head. A spokesman said that the 2003 air transport white paper would, in effect, become its national policy statement on airport expansion, likely to be updated next year.
Other critics on the Conservative benches wonder whether the legislation will succeed in speeding up the planning process. David Curry, a former minister in the old Department of the Environment, recently warned ministers: 'We all want speed in the planning process, but I wonder whether the Bill will improve matters.
'From the promotion to the pre-application process, by the time an application has worked through the system, with all the opportunities for judicial review, I wonder whether we will have done anything more than introduce a system that will take just as long but has some of the democratic accountability removed?'
Will the Bill make things quicker?
Currently, all plans — from house extensions to new estates, airports and nuclear power stations — are submitted to local councils, with the more controversial ones 'called in' by the Department for Communities and Local Government. These inevitably end with public inquiries by an independent planning inspectorate, although ministers can override the recommendations of an inspector.
This process can take some time, seven years in the case of Heathrow's Terminal 5. In an attempt to avoid long delays — significantly, plans for a second runway at Stansted now seem destined for a long public inquiry — the Treasury appointed the economist Kate Barker to undertake a review. She addressed the concerns of business, with a call for an independent Infrastructure Planning Commission, similar to the monetary policy committee, to fast-track big planning applications. Proposals for this commission are now a key feature of the Planning Bill.
But this could also be time-consuming. First, a Whitehall department has to produce a national policy statement on the case for nuclear power stations or airport expansion, for example. Then, the government hoped, the commission would make recommendations about particular sites, removing ministerial involvement. But, in a contentious third phase, proposals could still be subject to judicial review.
Last-minute concessions have complicated matters. The government now says policy statements rather than the commission will have to name proposed sites, though one senior planner feels major applications could be a field day for lawyers contesting sites outlined in policy statements.
Peter Hetherington writes on community affairs and regeneration