Planning: Power struggles
A quango that the Tories have pledged to scrap is set to fast-track controversial projects, from wind farms to runways, in the run-up to the election
England is facing a raft of applications for major projects – from nuclear power stations to wind farms and, maybe, expanded airports and sea ports – in the run-up to next year’s general election. In the biggest shake-up of the planning system for more than 60 years, energy companies and developers are fine-tuning proposals that will test the government’s resolve to fast-track schemes considered vital for the national interest.
This week, Gordon Brown maintained that the new regime would “speed up decisions … for the national infrastructure” in advance of a statement today from energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband, pushing the case for more wind farms.
But sensing a populist cause, the Conservative opposition, alongside countryside campaigners and environmental groups, is preparing for a long, drawn-out battle opposing the new planning system.
At the centre of this battle stands an emerging quango known as the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), which begins work this autumn. It has been created ostensibly to take decisions on specific large-scale projects out of politicians’ hands and, crucially, slash the time it takes to get planning approval by consigning the lengthy public inquiry process to history in key areas.
Society Guardian has learnt that developers are preparing to submit more than 50 schemes to the IPC in its first year, with large energy projects topping the list – including scores of wind farms.
Underlining the challenge of power supplies, with some experts pointing to an “energy crunch”, the man charged with chairing the IPC, Sir Michael Pitt, told Society Guardian: “There is undoubtedly a sense of urgency about energy. There’s a feeling we’ve become over-reliant on imports, and there’s a real imperative around climate change and carbon emissions. All of that is changing the shape of energy generation. Added to that, there’s a need for a significant degree of modernisation of the national grid.”
Aside from other applications, the IPC has already calculated that plans for around 60 large wind farms, many of them offshore, will be submitted in its first two years of operation alone. So the IPC will have its work cut out. Based in Bristol, it will have a 10-strong board and employ 35 commissioners, who will examine plans in detail and undertake public hearings.
But it could be relatively short-lived, as the Conservatives have pledged to abolish what could emerge as the most powerful quango so far created. Abolition, however, could take some time and require legislation. Privately, some Tories think the new commission might relieve them of responsibility for determining the sites for power stations and wind farms – not to mention contentious plans for airport and seaport expansion – and would enable them to dodge the political flak that might erode David Cameron’s “green” credentials.
The IPC is enshrined in the 2008 Planning Act, which passed relatively unnoticed through parliament, in spite of its wide ranging implications and significance; it is, after all, the most far-reaching legislation of its kind since the groundbreaking 1947 Town and Country Planning Act created a sense of order and discipline in what had become a “you want it, you build it” free-for-all in England. The term “planning permission” soon became common currency as the 1947 act became a model for many other countries.
Pitt – urbane, measured and well acquainted with the planning system as an engineer and transport planner in a previous life – barely raises an eyebrow when asked if he is concerned about the Conservatives’ plans to scrap the IPC if they win the next general election. He has long experience of working with senior Tories during his eight years as chief executive of Kent county council, a flagship Tory-run local authority. “I am well aware of what members of the Conservative party are saying,” he replies calmly. “My priority is implementing the 2008 act and ensuring that the IPC is up and running in accordance with a demanding timetable, and that we can get as much good work under our belts as possible to demonstrate the value of having a commission.”
So, by the time of the next election, will plans for some key projects be set in stone, regardless of which party the voters choose? Pitt replies: “My best estimate is that we will be dealing with a significant number of applications by late spring , and that a substantial amount of groundwork will have been done by both the applicants and other organisations.”
The need for a new planning regime was first mooted by the Treasury when Gordon Brown was chancellor and, effectively, in charge of domestic policy. He took on board complaints from business that delays in the planning system – a seven-year public inquiry into Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was cited as a prime example – placed England at a disadvantage compared with overseas competitors. “Fast-track planning” became the order of the day, embedded in the IPC.
While much of the present planning system will remain in place, the new regime will remove decisions on big, strategic infrastructure projects – airport runways, major road schemes and new rail lines, as well as power stations, wind farms, waste disposal schemes and new water projects – from local councils and hand them to the non-elected IPC.
This alarms Conservatives, as well as environmental groups, who see the IPC as anti-democratic and an arm of the state, created to minimise dissent and ride roughshod over public opinion. But Pitt, stressing the IPC’s independence from politicians, insists that democracy would be enhanced by the new system. “One of the big advantages of the IPC is that all interests, objectors, local authorities will get a better deal,” he says. “It will be much easier for them to make their case for and against an application, and for that to be heard by commissioners at open hearings, bearing in mind that the very formal, expensive and time-consuming arrangements for public inquiries in the past were very limited.”
The new system, which begins this autumn, has several stages. First, an applicant seeking planning permission – an energy company or an airport operator, for instance – will have a statutory duty to consult widely as the issue is passed to the IPC, which will appoint a commissioner to undertake an initial assessment. This will be followed by a six-month examination period, which will include public hearings. The IPC then has three months to make a decision. If the application remains contentious, as many probably will, the new act allows a six-week window for a legal challenge from objectors. This will invariably mean an appeal to the high court for a judicial review.
Pitt, who was appointed by the government to head an inquiry into the 2007 floods that devastated swaths of England, insists: “We are moving from an adversarial to an inquisitorial system, and that means that the commissioner or commissioners holding a public hearing will ask the questions predominantly. All of the paperwork will have been done in advance. The commissioners will familiarise themselves with the arguments, they will come to a view about which of them are crucial and which are immaterial, and then they will question the witnesses in order to get to the essence of the case.”
He smiles broadly at the suggestion that his new appointment seems a bed of nails. “Well, I think it’s a great job,” he admits. “By October, we’ll be giving advice to all sectors, interested members of the public, local authorities … and, of course, applicants. And then, subject to ministerial timing, we’ll be ready to receive applications in the spring of next year.”
And ministerial timing is all important. Much of the IPC’s work is dependent on receiving national policy statements from three Whitehall departments. According to the communities and local government department, which is in charge of the planning system, these statements – 12 in all will be produced, with the first on energy and sea ports likely this autumn – will “integrate environmental, social and economic objectives”.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change alone is charged with producing six policy statements – one overarching strategy, the others covering renewables, fossil fuels, oil and gas, nuclear and national networks. The Department for Transport has to produce three on sea ports, airports and “national networks” (road and rail) – although, curiously, no overarching strategy. Finally, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has to address water supply, waste water and the disposal of hazardous waste.
“The 12 national policy statements are in various states of drafting,” Pitt says. “They are, in some ways, the most important part because what they require government to do is set out clearly their national plans for the various sectors, and that’s what the job of government is – looking to the future, beyond electoral cycles.”
But the IPC’s overriding mission is to balance the national interest with the local impact of specific applications. While the government sets out a national strategy, it rules on the suitability of sites, usually chosen by companies and developers. “So it is possible for the commissioners to overrule a national policy statement if, in their judgment, the damage to the local environment exceeds the benefit to the nation as a whole,” Pitt insists.
In short, the IPC may require the judgment of Solomon, and yet sometimes, please no one. Not even the government.