Memorandum submitted by Better Planning Reform (PB 07)

 

A briefing on the Planning Bill

2nd Reading, 10th December 2007

 

Good planning is essential for sustainable development and to deliver integrated economic, environmental and social benefits. Society needs to make decisions about the development we need in a timely and efficient manner, but in order to command public confidence the planning system must also ensure that people have meaningful opportunities for their voices to be heard and that decisions are taken after all the relevant factors have been fully considered.

 

The organisations listed here, who are supported by more than 5 million people, have come together out of a deep concern that many of the proposals in the Planning Bill would be a backward step.

 

The Bill takes forward the proposals in the Planning White Paper (May 2007) for major infrastructure projects. The Government received over 32,000 responses to its Planning White Paper consultation during the summer. More than 31,000 of these were in response to our shared concerns that the proposals threaten local democracy, communities and the environment. Despite this huge level of public concern, it appears that the Government is pressing ahead with its original proposals, with only limited concessions seen so far.

 

Our key priorities relating to the Bill are set out below.

 

There is no benefit to setting up a new democratically unaccountable body

 

Any body that has decision making powers over planning must be democratically accountable, allow proper public engagement, allow for the robust testing of evidence, and have environmental expertise. The current Bill does not include such provisions and therefore we believe that the Infrastructure Planning Commission ('the Commission') should not be set up in the first place. The benefits of setting up a new unelected body have not been set out by the Government in any convincing way.

 

Alternatives could include strengthening the expertise in the Planning Inspectorate, allowing the Inspectorate to advise Government on major infrastructure decisions and providing in the Marine Bill for the Marine Management Organisation to cover a similar role for marine infrastructure. These bodies are not democratically accountable in their current form, but increasing bureaucracy and the number of unaccountable bodies is not a convincing way of increasing public engagement in the planning system.

An Infrastructure Planning Commission should not make decisions

 

If a Commission is created (Bill, s.1 and s.66), it could play a role in advising ministers on projects. We do not believe, however, that a new quango should have such unprecedented powers to control examination and public input, and then to make the final decision, on major projects of national significance. The sheer complexity and magnitude of these projects requires directly accountable politicians as decision-makers, not merely a semi-judicial body. The Bill proposes to allow 'adverse impacts' to be taken into account when making a decision. Allowing an unelected body to rule on these issues is an open invitation for judicial review, as the Government's own impact assessment recognises.

 

The decision-maker, whether the Commission or ministers, must take all relevant factors into consideration. They must not reject representations merely because they relate to the merits of a national policy statement, as proposed (Bill, s.79).

 

Sustainable development must be a duty on the Commission, not just ministers

 

Sustainable development is an overarching policy objective for the Government. The 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy, Securing the Future, established the twin goals of living within environmental limits and providing a just society by means of a sustainable economy, good governance and sound science. These are the five guiding principles which should underpin the delivery of infrastructure and which should apply to all public bodies in the exercise of their functions.

 

We welcome the sustainable development duty placed on ministers in preparing national policy statements (Bill, s.9), but to be effective, the duty must also apply to the Commission as it considers proposals for nationally significant infrastructure. It must be robust in its wording, and the Bill should include arrangements for monitoring and reporting on the achievement of the duty, and for scrutiny by an external body such as the Sustainable Development Commission.

 

National policy statements must be robustly assessed and consulted upon

 

Clear national policy is essential to the proper planning of the country's infrastructure needs. Integrated national policy statements could be a first step towards a national spatial framework. However, the Bill fails to ensure that policy statements will be robustly assessed for their environmental impacts or that there will be a consistent and effective approach to public consultation.

 

The preparation of national policy statements must look at a wide range of alternative means of achieving their objectives, and should require the use of Strategic Environmental Assessment of national policy statements, not a watered down 'sustainability appraisal' as proposed (Bill, s.5).

 

The Bill must also set out clear and consistent standards of public consultation, whether or not a particular statement specifies the location of development, and this should conclude with an examination in public which reports to ministers.

 

The proposal that existing policy documents, such as The Future of Air Transport, should be adopted as national policy statements is extremely worrying (Bill, s.11). Such documents have not been prepared with adequate standards of appraisal or consultation. This proposal would seriously undermine the credibility of the new system.

 

Inquiry procedures must provide effective rights for the public

 

The Bill provides a duty for developers of infrastructure to consult affected people and communities before submitting applications, but no meaningful opportunity for communities to have their say on proposals at inquiries. There is a presumption that the Commission will take evidence through written representations, and the decision on whether to have a public hearing is also at the discretion of the Commission. There are opportunities to appear at an 'open floor' session, but no right to cross-examine in order to test important evidence. These measures, along with the lack of accountability of the Commission's final decision, mean that the process will lack public legitimacy. The Bill should seek to develop the 2005 rules for major infrastructure project inquiries procedures, and should contain, as a minimum:

An effective right to be heard in person at all stages of the inquiry process;

Qualified rights to cross-examine and test evidence;

Measures to ensure that evidence is normally tested through public hearings and not solely by written representations;

Measures to support community participation through access to professional expertise.

 

January 2008