Planning reform

Clay Technology magazine
16 Oct 2009

Peter Newman, Professor of Comparative Urban Planning at the University of Westminister, UK, describes the planning issues affecting new projects across England and Wales.

Arguments about efficiency and delay have dogged UK planning since the 1944 Planning Act and successive Labour and Conservative governments have brought forward ideas for streamlining the system. Environmental challenges and concern about energy security have brought reform back to the top of the agenda.

Faced with the challenges of climate change, the London School of Economics Sociology academic and Labour Peer, Anthony Giddens, argues that we need to think about a ‘return to planning’ and that the state needs to take a strong role in managing risks and intervening in markets. Gidden supports the thinking behind the 2008 Planning Act to make the ‘cumbersome’ planning system better equipped to push through the tidal barrages and wind farms that will be needed for renewable energy. The Government’s position is that planning for large infrastructure projects, including airports, nuclear energy and alternative energy production, is ‘too complex, bureaucratic and inefficient’ and that delays can no longer be afforded.

Out in public

At the centre of the 2008 Planning Reform Act is the public inquiry system. Two longstanding complaints are that inquiries are too legalistic and last too long. Delay is often caused by the need to keep going back to government for policy advice.

The new system aims to tackle this issue. Government will publish definitive National Policy Statements (NPS) on rail, airports, ports and energy. Inquiry procedures will be transformed by setting up an independent Infrastructure Panning Commission (IPC) that will take an expert view of local cases and speed things up by removing rights to cross-examine witnesses.

Objections during consultation on the 2008 Planning Act rehearsed familiar debates about the Government’s desire for quick decisions, and local communities and non-Governmental organisations (NGOs) wanting more debate. This is added to the commentary by NGOs talking about more direct action, such as at Kingsnorth coal fired power station in Kent and the controversy over the policing of the ‘climate camp’ there in 2008.

Commentators and critics were especially concerned about the ‘unprecedented powers’ of the IPC, and the possibility of a new wave of direct action and legal challenges to major infrastructure decisions. Any hope Ministers may have had that the expert IPC might depoliticise decisions on major infrastructure must have been short-lived. The opposition to Heathrow Airport’s third runway shows how quickly decisions can become politicised, and other scales of Government, European or local issues, can refocus controversy. The 2M Group is an alliance of local authorities opposing the expansion of Heathrow Airport. The Group, comprising 22 local governments, is fighting the Government over the third runway, and the Mayor of London is threatening legal challenges.

Establishing the NPS/IPC system is not straightforward. There are questions about the timetable for the policy statements. Government would like these in place as soon as possible, but the programme has already slipped and there are questions about their capacity to bring forward so many policy reviews in a relatively short time.

In the recent past, decisions on demand for major ports, such as the London Gateway, have been left to the market. In relation to energy, Ministers see planning reform as removing unnecessary barriers to providers. They want to build ‘the best market in the world for companies to do business in nuclear power’. The question is, does Government want to dictate policy or leave it to the market?

Money issues

There is increasing global competition for infrastructure finance, the expertise to deliver new power stations, and an increasingly financialised infrastructure investment market may have more influence over the location and timing of projects than individual governments. Under the progress of the Planning Act, the business minister had a stronger influence than the planning minister, and National Policy Statements may express a bias to markets and securing investment. Markets can go down as well as up, and the volumes of infrastructure investment available when the Planning Act was being considered now look less predictable.

The capacity of some investors has declined due to problems of refinancing short-term debt and concern has been expressed about private equity investment in the UK nuclear industry. Revenues have reduced for some services, and, at a time when it would be unpopular to raise user charges to support investment and provide a return on capital, increased taxation and public borrowing are also unattractive as public sector options. All of these issues lead to questions about the strength and clarity of the policy statements.

Political planning

There are also important questions about the capacity of the IPC. It is due to start operations this month and the newly appointed Chairman will immediately face 50 applications for major projects.

The Labour Government is keen to have the system up and running before the next election. While the Conservative Party would abolish Labour’s IPC, their view on the statements is to have explicit parliamentary approval for policy.

A new Government may revoke permission for a third Heathrow runway and issue a new aviation policy. Some areas of national policy may be less immediately politically contentious, but controversy could focus on local decisions placed before the IPC.

Abolishing the IPC would need new thought about the role of local governments, as the Conservatives would also reduce the regional tier of Government, making local governments a clear focus for conflict around large infrastructure projects. After the election new thinking will be required on the tension between national policy objectives and local democratic representation. Some local Governments will support new projects – especially where jobs can be protected or created – but others may represent communities resisting large schemes. National policy may have the authority of parliament but continued and possibly protracted conflict is likely between Government and NGOs, and between national Government and localities that feel disadvantaged by major infrastructure projects.

There is a risk politics will continue to challenge Government whatever planning reforms are in place. The need to renew and replace energy production is pressing. International commitments and NGOs will push the case for alternatives to fossil fuels, and the driver of global economic competition will continue to press the case for new transport projects. The inquiry into the six long years of Sizewell B inquiry is an example of what Government wants to avoid. Presenting a reformed planning system that will deliver faster and more effective decisions that will not discourage investment is vital.

Are current reforms a ‘return to planning’ by the ‘ensuring state’ that Giddens envisages, 
or will the market lead, and large infrastructure projects be stalled by political and legal controversy? The planning system will continue to be asked to manage conflict, and after the next election we should expect planning to be reformed again.

Further information: School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Westminster