Memorandum submitted to the Government by Rt Hon Sir Iain Glidewell
PROCEDURE FOR CONSIDERING MAJOR INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS
1. To state the obvious, it is inevitable that a decision whether to approve or disapprove a major project is bound to be unpopular with many people, particularly those who live near the site or line of the proposed development. Since Government is charged with making the decision, it is necessary to ensure that the proposal and all proper objections to it have been examined in depth before the decision is reached, so that those who will be disappointed by it can at least be assured that their objections and views have been properly taken into account. Moreover it has over the years come to be accepted that this examination should take place in public, and so the present procedure by Public Inquiry has been adopted. Whether it always achieves the object of giving the project, when approved, the desired certificate of proper pre-decision consideration is open to doubt; this was a subject which was much canvassed at Heathrow T5, as Roy Vandermeer's Report makes clear.
2. The Public Inquiry procedure has the great disadvantage that it consumes ever increasing time, and thus delays the decision-making process. Government is entirely justified in being concerned about this; it is a major problem, to put it mildly, in our public administration. The proposed amendments to the Inquiries Procedure Rules will have some effect, but how much remains to be seen. Moreover, it is by no means clear that the Public Inquiry is the most effective mechanism for advising the Minister about, and setting out the arguments on, the first part of the decision-making process, ie, is the project necessary in the public interest, and does that necessity outweigh the disadvantages to those affected by it? This first question often then leads to the second, namely if the project is necessary, is there no preferable (because less damaging) site or line on which it could take place?
3. If the decision whether a particular project were desirable in principle, and that it could properly take place on the site or line proposed, were removed from the Public Inquiry process and transferred to Parliament, this could give the eventual decision greater authenticity and weight, and should add to its acceptability by members of the public. I would therefore not be opposed to the proposed change, but only subject to one vital caveat, namely, that before the issue were put before Parliament for a decision, it had been thoroughly examined by some body with the necessary time and expertise, which had considered and where necessary heard evidence in support of the arguments both for and against the, or each, project.
4. The White Paper recognises this, but does not, in my view, grapple with the problem sufficiently. I do not think it is good enough to say that "The precise way in which Parliament scrutinises proposals would be for each House to decide". No doubt a Parliamentary Committee could do the task, if its members had the time to devote to it. Even then, how would such a Committee deal with a situation in which there were under consideration a series of possible sites for a major project? ie my second question above.
5. In France, as I understand it, both these questions would be considered, in depth, by a Committee of the Conseil d'Etat, a body for which I have considerable admiration. Of course we cannot import anything equivalent here. Nevertheless we should, I believe, attempt to achieve something of the same efficiency in decision-making, which is of course Government's main objective in putting forward these present proposals.
6. What follows is no more than a tentative suggestion as to a procedure which might fit the bill. Suppose that the legislation which the White Paper envisages contained a power for the Secretary of State to set up a Commission to consider the questions of principle relating to the proposed major project. The nature of the Commission would be laid down in the legislation, with its membership chosen by the Secretary of State. I have in mind something equivalent to the Roskill Commission on the Third Airport for London, which did a good job, although neither the views of the majority nor of the minority proved politically acceptable in the event, so in the end the Commission's work was largely wasted. I envisage that the Order setting up a particular Commission would itself be subject to Parliamentary approval, though this would probably often be a fomality and not take long to obtain. The Commission would report to Parliament, which would then have proper material before it on which to decide the questions of principle. I have no clear view as to who should determine the Commission's procedure, but it would be vital that it should give the opportunity for all views to be canvassed; this might involve objectors who held similar views coming together to present a single case. I envisage that on some, but probably limited, issues cross-examination would be necessary. It would also be vital that the proceedings of the Commission should be focussed and as speedy as was compatible with achieving a fair result. This might well involve a pre-determined timetable for the Commission's work and for its report.
7. Unless this idea, or something like it, has already been considered and rejected, I should be happy to discuss it.