Planning is political. It is a democratic process that mediates between different interests – local and national, social, economic and environmental, short-term and long-term, including the interests of future generations. It deals with complicated and controversial questions – whether a new road should be built or an airport expanded; where to put power stations, or incinerators, or wind farms.
Sometimes, no doubt, the system comes up with the wrong answers, or produces answers too slowly. Frequently it gives answers that are unsatisfactory to particular interests. But the complex questions with which planning deals cannot be made simple by changing the system.
And contention will not disappear if one elevates a particular interest (let us say, for the sake of argument, economic interests) over others (say communities or local environments). Much better to view planning, as it has been viewed since the modern system was created by Clement Attlee’s government in 1947, as a means of advancing the public interest, rather than any sectional interests.
Because planning is political, planning decisions need the fullest possible debate before they are reached. In the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s pamphlet, 20:26 Vision: What Future for the Countryside?, Cambridge geographer Susan Owens says planning helps us as a society to decide between different desirable ends. She argues:
The processes of planning, particularly plan-making and public inquiries, have offered crucial institutional space for debates about … what we want our future to look like. They have also, to the discomfiture of ministers and developers, often questioned the conventional wisdoms in key policy sectors.
Everyone can agree that necessary planning decisions should be taken more quickly than they sometimes are. But you don’t have to look far to find developments that might have benefited from more consideration than they received.
Today the House of Commons will be voting on proposals that seek to take the politics out of planning decisions. The proposals seek to neuter public inquiries and set up a new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC). This unaccountable quango, rather than elected politicians, will take the final decision on major developments.
As Jackie Ashley said in Monday’s Guardian, the implications of the vote on the IPC “could hardly be greater. It is about democracy, climate change and daily life.” It is about the prime minister’s delusion that politics can be reduced to technocratic problem-solving.
Finally it is about the government’s reluctance to listen to advice and criticism. In 2001 Lord Nolan stated that “to substitute for the secretary of state an independent and impartial body with no central electoral accountability would not only be a recipe for chaos: it would be profoundly undemocratic”. Since then, many have predicted that far from speeding up planning decisions, the proposed changes will lead to a series of lengthy court cases. Planning specialists have also pointed out that the last lot of planning changes are only now coming into effect, and are already reducing unnecessary delay.
Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition to the IPC of the may be relatively predictable, though it has angered the CBI. The government may also dismiss the views of the environmental movement – though the size and breadth of the coalition against the proposed changes, and the fact that the main environmental groups are united in saying that a party’s approach to planning is a key test of its environmental credentials might have given it pause for thought.
Less easy to ignore are the 60+ Labour MPs who have expressed public opposition to the IPC. The commons vote has been twice delayed while attempts are made to bring potential rebels into line. Absurdly, the IPC has become the new 42 days. Labour MPs will be under huge pressure to ignore their consciences and back the government.
I hope they stick to their guns. But if the government does win today, I hope it will reflect on the scale of opposition to its proposals, listen to its critics and think again.
25 June 2008
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