What will the coalition Government do about planning law?

architectural blueprint
Planning - a dull subject that has a direct impact on some of the most important areas of our lives. One proposal to speed up planning has just been scrapped by the new Government. What will replace it, asks Bibi Van Der Zee

So the IPC is dead before it even got going. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel a little sympathy for the folk at the Infrastructure Planning Committee, the quango designed to fast-track tricky planning decisions, who have spent the last year getting all their eggs in order, who finally began calling for applications to come in just two months ago, and who have been sitting, ever since, twiddling their thumbs and waiting to find out who is coming into power and whether they’re going to get the axe.

The coalition Government included the announcement of its abolition in its agreement last week. But even as many cheer at the fall of what was seen as an undemocratic quango, they will also be waiting, with some trepidation, to see what will arise in its place. The IPC was, after all, the result of a seven year overhaul of our complicated and flawed planning system, the method that had been chosen by the government to unplug our clogged up, expensive and incredibly slow planning courts. How will this new coalition Government do that now?

Before the IPC the Government had depended heavily on the secretary of state’s veto. Planning applications for smaller constructions would go through the local council, with some particularly heavily contested projects (supermarkets for example) going to appeal at the regional level. Planning applications for larger structures like power stations - apart from the very largest such as railways which require an act of parliament - would go to the secretary of state and through a public inquiry (incredibly expensive, and time consuming, particularly for the unpaid campaign group who might be opposing them).

Even if the public inquiry turned down the application, the Government could overturn the whole process. As environmental lawyer Charlie Hopkins told me a couple of years ago, 'the frustrating thing about this job and something I’m seeing more and more is that we’ll win the public inquiry and then the decision will be overturned by the Government. As one QC put it to me; "Sometimes I really don’t know why we effing bother".'

What next?

It was, in short, a deeply imperfect system. Although it appeared democratic, decisions could be overturned at will. And the appearance of democracy also meant that it was agonisingly, impossibly slow. Labour was correct that it had to be reformed. But was the IPC the right answer? And will the Con-Dems be able to come up with something better?

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, says: 'the whole idea of [David Cameron's proposed] "Big Society" suggests that the politicians are going to radically reform the planning system. And that includes getting rid of the regional tier, which has always been very problematic in terms of legitimacy and democratic accountability.'

Both the liberal and tory manifestos laid heavy stress on returning power to local hands, and their final coalition agreement promises a 'fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people', committing to promoting 'decentralisation and democratic engagement', and ending 'the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals'. All that, and they promise to 'radically reform the planning system to give neighbourhoods far more ability to determine the shape of the places in which their inhabitants live'.

Local power

They have, moreover, committed themselves to implementing the Sustainable Communities Act, a private bill that went through under the last Government and which has huge implications for the abilities of local communities to make decisions about the shape of their area. Under the bill citizens are able to form committees and come up with ideas that they think will improve their borough. The local council, if it agrees, will then put those ideas before the Local Government Association, who will shortlist the ideas they like most and put the requests to the secretary of state, who must, by law, consider and try to reach agreement on them. That last part, it has been hammered home to me by the man behind the bill, Ron Bailey, and also by its national co-ordinator Steve Shaw, is the really radical bit; the Secretary of State cannot simply ignore the requests but must try to enact them, or come up with a very good reason why not.

The first shortlist of requests went in last December, and campaigners are now waiting for the answers: among two hundred requests Islington asked to be able to take over empty shops for community use, in order to stop them becoming local eyesores; Birmingham wants to be able to introduce financial incentives to promote local renewable energy generation; and many councils are asking for greater powers to be able to decide which shops can open where, so that they can cut down on chain outlets and boost independents. If the Conservatives – who have backed the bill from very early on – carry out their promises, this bill could play a huge part in a massive transfer of power from Westminster back to local authorities.

But the big infrastructure knot which Labour tried to untie is still there. Doug Parr of Greenpeace says: 'There was a real issue of democracy and accountability with the IPC but this is one of those issues where you do feel torn. I’m not comfortable with reducing people’s say in national issues, but equally you can’t have stasis. We need to build infrastructure, and the planning system had reached the stage where we weren’t building. Something needed to be done.'

Fast... or democractic?

The Con-dems have promised to replace the IPC with 'an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects'. Such a thing, unfortunately, is just not possible; you cannot be both democratic and fast. But if the democracy is abandoned, then the great difficulty is how we control what is built; who gets to decide what is wrong and what is right?

This will be the big struggle for the next two or three years, and it will trace the line of a deep divide in the country. For some, coal-fired and nuclear power stations are absolutely out of the question, while acknowledging that there is an urgent need to fast-track the many windfarms currently stuck in the planning bottleneck. For others the reverse will be true. Some want high-speed rail, others want roads. If the stand-off is to be resolved the decisions will inevitably, in the end, be taken out of our hands. Many ask whether we can trust Government with this power.

Gemma Grimes of RenewableUK (formerly the British Wind Energy Association) saw the IPC as a positive step forward, taking planning issues out of the political arena, but hopes that some of the key reforms that came with it will be retained. She said: 'RenewableUK have been very supportive of the planning reforms brought about following the Planning Act 2008. Provided that key safeguards are retained, including the retention of clear National Policy Statements for the development of nationally significant infrastructure projects, and a defined one year timeframe for the determination of applications, we are content for the final decisions on applications to be moved from the IPC and taken by the secretary of state, as was previously the case'.

Ticking clocks

The big players are less equivocal: as far as power company E.on is concerned, the most important thing of all is that someone starts making decisions. 'We certainly want to see a streamlining of the planning system,' says spokesperson Jonathan Smith. 'At the moment with wind farms for example, we have a situation where local councils are still having a discussion about whether we need them or not, but that is a question which Government has already answered. Local councils should be dealing with the question of whether the wind farm is appropriate for the area; anything which can streamline these kind of debates would be welcome. I would say that we usually get the right decision in the end, but it just takes far too long to get there. Sizewell B for example took ten years to get through, and then five years to build.'

In a statement that illustrates just what a double-edged sword planning law is to environmentalists, Smith adds: 'Kingsnorth [coal-fired power station] is another case in point; we’re now coming up to the fourth birthday of the planning application.'

For energy companies, as for other companies responsible for large infrastructure, the vital thing is to get going. 'At the moment we’ve had a bit of breather because the recession has reduced our energy demands,' says Smith. 'But several of our power stations will be closing soon and we face the possibility of an energy crunch after that. As far as E.on is concerned, we believe that you don’t want all your eggs in one basket, you want a mixture of wind, wave and tidal (in the longterm), gas, clean coal and nuclear, if you don’t want to risk the lights going out. We’ve been treading water for sometime, but decisions are going to have to be made.'

Bibi van der Zee is a freelance journalist and author of The Protestor's Handbook, published by Guardian Books (£7.99)

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