Power plays

11 Jun 09
A simpler and more open system — or a way for ministers to bulldoze through favoured projects? The Planning Act, and particularly the creation of a new quango as final arbiter, has provoked uproar
By Peter Hetherington

20 March 2009

A simpler and more open system — or a way for ministers to bulldoze through favoured projects? The Planning Act, and particularly the creation of a new quango as final arbiter, has provoked uproar

Later this year, as recession edges further towards depression, ministers will face another multibillion pound funding dilemma: the challenge of renewing England’s ageing power generation and electricity distribution networks.

But that’s just the start. Details of other, equally expensive projects under the all-embracing ‘infrastructure’ label – improved roads and railways, expanded ports and airports, for instance – will soon be published by Whitehall. In the most extensive exercise of its kind, government departments are preparing a stream of officially titled ‘national policy statements’ for England – on energy and much else besides – as part of the biggest legislative shake-up in the planning system for more than 60 years.

Hand in glove with this process is a parallel, more controversial exercise, central to the reforms and embodied in the 2008 Planning Act. This is the creation, potentially, of the most powerful quango since the acronym for ‘quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation’ was coined in the 1970s. The Infrastructure Planning Commission, now emerging in shadow form and certain to come into effect next year, will become the final arbiter of how these policy statements are put into practice: the siting of power stations, wind farms and new runways, for instance.

Into this legal minefield – for High Court challenges are likely in a number of areas – steps Sir Michael Pitt, who has emerged as the government’s preferred candidate to chair the IPC. Pitt, a former chief executive of Kent and Cheshire county councils, is an engineer by training who has held a number of senior technical posts in local government. Since his critical report on the disastrous 2007 floods in England, he has also assumed the mantle of government troubleshooter

The IPC will be based in Bristol, conveniently not too far from Pitt’s home near Malmesbury, Wiltshire. But he will have his work cut out. Unsurprisingly, the IPC concept has provoked uproar among environmental groups. They warn of the potential for endless judicial reviews and civil disobedience. Indeed, the green custard hurled recently at Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, in protest at plans for a third runway at Heathrow, could be just the start.

Now the shadow Cabinet has jumped on the bandwagon. In a recent speech extolling the virtues of ‘localism’, Conservative leader David Cameron said a future Tory government would retain the relatively uncontroversial national policy statement process. But he promised that he would scrap the IPC, whose independence has been compared to that enjoyed by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, which sets interest rates.

Cameron also promised that other ‘anti-democratic’ aspects of the government’s planning and development apparatus would go – notably national house building targets, an emerging regional planning system that dilutes the powers of town halls, and nine regional development agencies, which would oversee part of the process. Instead, Cameron said, local councils would be given more planning powers.

The growing row between Opposition and government seems a far cry from one of Labour’s greatest achievements: the ground-breaking 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and associated legislation, which created green belts, national parks and new towns, with land nationalisation the eventual aim.

Changed times, indeed. Far from proposing anything quite so radical, the new legislation was born at the opposite end of the political spectrum: namely how to tilt the system more towards big business. It was based on a review, largely commissioned by the Treasury, from the economist Kate Barker – significantly, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee. Her report gave the former chancellor, Gordon Brown, what he wanted: a more market-friendly planning system, which offered the prospect of fast-tracking big infrastructure projects deemed vital to the national economy.

That meant keeping business sweet in pre-credit crunch times, by curbing the use of the time-consuming public inquiry process. Ministers had bitter memories of the lengthy inquiry into Heathrow’s Terminal Five, and wanted a faster system to deal, particularly, with airport expansion.

But local government minister John Healey, who steered the legislation through the Commons, insists the new Planning Act has been misunderstood. ‘It’s not just about fast-tracking,’ he tells Public Finance. ‘It’s about a system that’s fairer, clearer and less complex. The problem with Heathrow was that it required 39 separate applications and seven separate bits of legislation. What the Planning Act has done is pull it all together so you’ll get a single regime, a single process, which is more open and, we would argue, fairer, because it builds in a requirement for the promoters of a project to consult widely even before they put in an application. To say that we don’t need to reform the planning system, particularly for these big projects, is not a credible argument.’

With arguments for and against the Act largely confined to planning professionals and environmental and countryside groups, it’s hard to gauge public opinion. But as the workings of the new regime become more widely known, stirrings of dissent are becoming louder – not so much over the principle behind the legislation as over its implementation.

On one side stands the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for planning. It says that aside from the Terminal Five saga there are more mundane but arguably more important issues. For instance, it asks why the country should have been subjected to a six-year planning delay, through public inquiry and legal challenges, in upgrading high-voltage power lines in North Yorkshire, ‘an essential backbone of the UK’s transmission system’. It’s a fair question.

But when it comes to the narrow focus of the forthcoming policy statements, and the make-up of the IPC itself, former supporters of the legislation voice concerns – and that’s before the broader opposition of environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, are taken into account. In all, 12 policy statements are planned – five alone covering energy (fossil fuels, electricity networks, nuclear power, renewable energy, and oil and gas infrastructure, such as storage and pipelines). Four of these are likely to be published this summer, with nuclear power out by next spring. Then an overarching energy strategy is likely to be prepared, with clear implications for state aid, directly or covertly.

But Sir Peter Hall, president of the Town and Country Planning Association, and a long-standing government adviser, is not alone in asking why one single energy strategy is not being published in the first place, pulling together all aspects of generation and distribution from all sources.

Matters are more complex on the transport front, where four separate policy statements are being produced on ‘national networks’ – that means rail lines, strategic highways, ports and aviation. The latter will simply be a rehash of an earlier white paper which, Hall suspects, will take no account of the sharp fall in air traffic since the financial crisis – an issue, he says, that should call into question a third runway at Heathrow, one of the first issues likely to come before the IPC.

Hall’s argument is that rail, road, airport and port policy statements should be merged into one seamless transport strategy on the grounds that, say, a much-improved rail system has clear implications for domestic air travel and road use. Ditto port expansion. Nowhere in all this is a ‘spatial’ vision of England – ‘everything is separated and nothing is related’, he complains. ‘It’s an appalling failure by the Department for Transport – insane – to separate different bits of transport and not put them all together.’ And for transport, read energy.

But Hall has wider concerns. He fears that the IPC itself is being constrained by the Whitehall machine, and given a very narrow legal remit. ‘It looks like being boxed in from day one,’ he maintains.

Some of Hall’s concerns are shared by those close to the action. While Kate Barker called for an infrastructure commission in her 2007 report, she has since said she preferred a wider role for it, embracing the more rounded policy statements favoured by Hall and others. But she was told it was off limits, policy-wise.

Nevertheless, John Healey says progress in creating the new planning apparatus is well on schedule, with the commission up and running later in the year. An interim chief executive, a career civil servant, has already been appointed.

‘By the autumn we aim for the commission to be in business to offer some of the advice on the guidance and regulations that are going to be required, and [provide] advice also to potential major developers. By early 2010, it will be fully open for business… for dealing with any applications once national policy statements have been made,’ Healey adds.

Asked to defend the new regime against accusations that it is undermining local democracy, Healey maintains that the legislation had been framed to take on board all points of view. ‘Local voices, local councils, and the public will have a say before applications get to the IPC – in fact, there are more stages for the public to have a say than under the old system.’

But others are less impressed. While acknowledging that the present system is far from perfect, Friends of the Earth says its cornerstone has always been a public inquiry as a last resort, giving people the right to give evidence and cross-examine witnesses in front of a professional planning inspector.

The new Act, however, would remove these rights, and safeguards, giving the IPC powers to make decisions ‘The new regime will force moderate environmental opinion to choose between legal challenges and direct action – and the Act will generate both on an unprecedented scale,’ the FoE’s planning adviser, Hugh Ellis, warns.

In truth, however, many are looking at the cherished 1947 Act through rose-tinted spectacles. It was certainly open to political abuse. Public inquiries, after all, could make recommendations after long hearings – but they were often rejected by ministers, the final arbiters. That’s how a rash of out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets sprouted in the 1980s: a free-market Tory environment secretary (the late Sir Nicholas Ridley) decided to plough on regardless of the planning system. And, like ministers before and after, he got his way – although, perhaps, not for much longer.

Pitt is a smooth operator, well versed in the ways of Whitehall as well as town and county halls and, significantly, acceptable to both main parties. And he will certainly have a lot of movers and shakers to keep sweet.

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