Nobody, it seems, has a good word to say for our planning system. Not industry, commerce, developers, public or environmentalists, whether, for example, they are for or against bog brushes in the sky, as wind farms are called.
Based on personal experience, I find the system a disgrace. Indeed, it is little more than a legalised form of extortion. Recently, Calderdale Council, for example, recommended approval of two housing developments in my native Hebden Bridge – provided the developers forked out a total of £122,000 for community projects.
In other words, planning consent is openly, and blatantly, for sale. The system stinks to high heaven. But the current stench will seem as aromatic as Chanel No 5 when the Government has finished “reforming” the system.
By definition, planning is almost bound to be divisive. Those who fail to get their projects approved and those who fail to thwart unwanted developments will be disgruntled. It is therefore crucial to public confidence that, within a democratic system of checks and balances, the system is seen to provide fair hearings, within a clear planning framework that applies equally to all, and right of appeal.
That system has now broken down, not just because developers can get their way by offering a village a scout hut or a new community centre. Local authorities know they face crippling costs if they are taken to appeal by ruthless developers. What is more, they have a pretty fair idea they cannot win if, for example, they fight a renewable energy project because the Government, in its monumental ignorance, says they are a good thing.
But at another level there is a serious problem which environmentalists themselves have done their best to create. They have never hesitated to stretch planning inquiries out interminably – for example, into Sizewell B nuclear power station and developments at Sellafield – by subjecting every issue to the most detailed cross-examination.
In the words of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Government now believes “there is a bias in the current planning system in favour of… environmental protection and that insufficient weight is given to business interests”.
If you can retain a sense of humour about the whole miserable business, it is richly ironic that the Greens, by exploiting and abusing the system, have helped to bring the full weight of a Government that prides itself on its “greenness”, down on them.
Some might say it was also richly deserved if only the Government had not again demonstrated its propensity for making a dog’s breakfast of democracy by its urge to command and control.
Inevitably, Ministers “spin” their reforms as “streamlining”. They would achieve this in the case of major projects – for example, power stations, large wind farms, road schemes, airport expansion, giant incinerators and major reservoirs – by producing a national policy statement explaining the need for them.
Once that need had been certified, the system would be expected to approve them, provided that they had gone through the right process of public consultation and environmental assessment.
Many will see this as a means of building a new generation of nuclear power stations.
This is nonsense. In practice, new nuclear power stations will be built on existing nuclear sites, involving no change of use. Nuclear in this context is a red herring.
But what is not a red herring is the Government’s proposed machinery for approving large projects. It intends to set up an “independent” (of course) Infrastructure Planning Commission with power to take final decisions instead of publicly accountable Ministers.
No doubt, Ministers, in their naivete, think this arm’s-length planning system will protect them from political odium. It will do no such thing. Instead, it will effectively drive the final nail in the coffin of the system’s already decomposing body.
A Government worth its salt would not be proposing further to corrupt it but to restore it, root and branch, with the injection of a strong dose of integrity. It would cut out the rampant bribery of “planning gain” and secure impartial and effective administration of clear local planning frameworks within democratically determined statements of national policy that command respect.
Fanatics would be prevented by rules and time limits from distorting and delaying inquiries. And Ministers would remain ultimately responsible for major decisions instead of some faceless quango.
In other words, a responsible Government would be aiming to restore confidence in the planning system instead of walking all over it with hobnail boots.
You have only nine consultative days left to tell it to stop being so daft.
By Bernard Ingham
8 August 2007
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