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An unattractive development

This newspaper yields to no one in its enthusiasm for renewable energy. It also has sympathy with the argument by the Confederation of British Industry and others that the existing planning system is protracted and cumbersome when it comes to reaching decisions on important new pieces of infrastructure.

But opposition parties and rebel Labour backbenchers have been right to oppose the particular moves to speed up planning which the Government has been proposing. For their measures will undermine the systems by which the public can hold politicians and business leaders accountable for what they are planning. There is something deeply unattractive about the idea of an unelected quango making final decisions on the biggest planning applications, such as airports and by-passes.

At present, major planning decisions can take far too long. The public inquiry into Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport became the longest in British history. It took seven years, had 700 people giving evidence, cost £80m and then came up with the decision that everyone expected in the first place. But there are other ways to prevent a few vociferous campaigners from abusing the planning system to delay economic development that can bring jobs and prosperity to thousands.

The truth is that the Government’s present proposals are a device to push through its favoured grands projets. Ministers have argued that the new system will give them, and Parliament, a big job to do at the outset, laying down the strategic guidelines for the new independent planning commission. They have even said that it will give local people a stronger chance to influence decisions.

But the proposed open-floor session, where objectors can speak, will not allow them to cross-examine witnesses. That seriously limits proper accountability. The voices of residents, pressure groups and elected councillors will be constrained. The concessions the Government offered Labour rebels yesterday do not adequately address this.

In the end, decisions on massive infrastructure projects must be made by an elected politician answerable to Parliament and the electorate. For it is politicians who need to make it clear to voters that the era of cheap fuel is over.

It is they who must confront citizens with the inconsistency of supporting renewable energy and then objecting to a wind farm on hills behind their homes. At present, many voters seem to be in a state of denial about such matters.

But hard decisions can be made only when those who are to be affected by them have a say in making them.

26 June 2008