Page last updated at 00:19 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 01:19 UK

Row threatens planning shake-up

By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC environment correspondent

This week MPs vote on the Planning Bill, proposed legislation that ministers say will streamline decision on big projects like airports. But environment campaigners say will strip ordinary people of the right to object to major projects.

Heathrow Terminal 5
The Terminal 5 planning inquiry was the final straw for many

The Planning Bill. The very phrase calls to mind grey suits, airless offices and interminable meetings.

But, as one planning expert put it to me: "People find planning very dull - until it affects them".

And when it does, the protestations can be loud and long.

However, there was one public inquiry in particular that kicked off concerted criticism of the current planning process.

Heathrow's Terminal 5 became the longest public inquiry in the history of the UK.

'Major threat'

It took four years, with 700 people giving evidence at a cost of £80 million to come up with the decision that the vast majority of people expected in the first place.

The press criticism was scathing, and, at the same time as he announced Terminal 5 was going ahead, the then transport secretary, Stephen Byers, announced a review of the planning process, making it clear that the government was determined not to allow these protracted inquiries in future.

For many people, particularly in the business community, the Terminal 5 inquiry was the final straw.

We simply do not develop major projects with the seriousness those projects deserve
John Cridland
CBI

They said a few vociferous campaigners could use the planning system to hold up economic development that could bring jobs and prosperity to thousands.

"The current planning system has been a major threat to Britain's economic future for many years", says John Cridland, deputy director general of the employers' organisation the CBI.

"We simply do not develop major projects with the seriousness those projects deserve.

"At a time we're trying to ensure the lights stay on, next time we have a particularly cold winter, we have got to have a planning system which finds speedy and clear decisions about where infrastructure's going to be built. At present, it's hopeless."

Squeezing democracy

But despite the concerns, reform of the planning system itself has moved at a snail's pace.

Last year, almost six years to the day from the original announcement by Stephen Byers, the Planning Bill was introduced, and it is now heading towards its final stages in the House of Commons.

The bill proposes that the government should set out its vision for a variety of big build projects - airports, power stations, major roads, that sort of thing - in a series of what they are calling national policy statements.

These massive infrastructure projects must be subject, in the end, to a decision by an elected politician
Clive Betts
Labour MP

A coalition of environmental and conservation charities, representing more than five million members, say democracy will be squeezed out of the process.

"The proposed developer will be the one carrying out the consultation - so that seems like a conflict of interest," says Marina Pacheco, from the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

"There's an open floor session where local objectors can speak - but not cross-examine the witnesses - and objectors can put in written evidence. But it really limits the local accountability in the process".

She says that there have been a bewildering number of changes to the planning system recently - so why have more before the current ones have bedded down?

'Democracy deficit'

But while the effect of this new legislation will be felt in the towns and countryside, it is at Westminster where the decisions will be taken - and some MPs are saying that the Planning Bill is becoming as contentious an issue as the 42-day terror legislation.

More than 60 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion calling the proposed powers of the new Infrastructure Planning Commission - an independent body which would take decisions on major infrastructure - "inordinate and unprecedented".

Clive Betts, a member of the communities and local government select committee has real concerns about the commission.

"The government are listening - they must also be listening to my colleagues - the number of people who are totally loyal to the government who have come to me saying 'This is totally wrong'," he says.

"They can't understand where the government is on this - these massive infrastructure projects must be subject, in the end, to a decision by an elected politician. It might lose the vote conceivably, if it doesn't change."

This debate crosses party lines. Conservative MP John Redwood, not usually known for being in alliance with environmental groups or backbench Labour politicians, is also against the "democracy deficit" he says is inherent in the new system.

Ministers say they are listening to these concerns, and backbench Labour MPs and activists say the whips have been shocked by how close some of the votes were as the Bill has progressed through the Commons.

The question is, with the prospect of another very close vote next week, has the government taken enough notice?


SEE ALSO
MPs attack planning law shake-up
02 Jun 08 |  UK Politics
Revolt grows over planning bill
29 May 08 |  UK Politics
Rebels delay planning law debate
05 Jun 08 |  UK Politics

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