Posted on 07 Jul 2007
The White Paper proposes greater clarity and streamlining in the decision process on major infrastructure projects, introducing a new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) of planners, lawyers, environmentalists and community experts, which will work in the light of national policy statements of strategic objectives for transportation, water, energy and waste. These national statements would be debated in Parliament. At project level the IPC would gather evidence in writing and by ‘open floor’ sessions, ie hearings, on individual projects. Their decisions, to be made within 9 months of the application, would be final, subject only to judicial review.
In the light of experience in expensive and time-consuming hearings on major projects over the past few years such at London Airport Terminal Five, and, more locally, the Dibden Bay Container Port proposal, there is at first sight much to the good in the procedures suggested in the Paper. Very fully described, they aim to simplify an extremely complicated system, and they set out opportunities for public consultation and participation at all the main stages ie national policy formulation, project initiation by promoters, and investigation by the IPC.
In practice, the success or otherwise of the scheme, particularly its arrangements for consultation and participation, will depend very much on how it is operated by Government and the IPC. At this stage, however, we need to express our serious misgivings about the acceptability of one aspect in principle, and we also question how the process might work in the hearings conducted by the IPC. These are:
- The elected politicians (i.e. Ministers) are excluded from responsibility for decision making on projects. That this will be entirely in the hands of the IPC seems to us to derogate from the ability of electors to challenge decisions of major consequences. We think there will be much objection to such a step, including from Parliament.
- It is proposed that consideration of adverse consequences to a project be limited to incompatibility with relevant EC and domestic law. Would this exclude aspects of effects on amenity likely to be raised by local objectors? We fear that this may be so.
- There is a possibility that the hearings will be over-simplified. They will be ‘inquisitional’ (i.e. response to questions by the IPC), rather than ‘advocational’ (through witness statements and cross-examination) as in traditional public inquiries. The experience of one of our members as Independent Chairman of major Structure Plan Examinations in Public suggests that an inquisitional approach works well for matters of broad strategy, but may need special, very disciplined, treatment for issues of great local or technical complexity such as arose at various stages, early and later, over wildlife and environmental aspects of the Dibden Bay inquiry. The problem is not insuperable, but all infrastructure proposals are likely to be highly controversial and it would require great skill and judgement on the part of the IPC to get the optimum balance between informality and structure in the hearing process.
- Assuming that the membership of the IPC has to be sufficient in numbers, varied in professional expertise, deeply committed, and more or less full-time on the job, will there be enough really good and experienced applicants to select from?
Professor A.D.G. Smart, CBE
Note:- The progress of the government Planning White Paper 2007 will be carefully monitored and the SPS Council will be reviewing it again in September.