13. 07. 2007

Planning White Paper

Let battle be joined! Earlier this week, a coalition of some of the UK’s most influential environmental NGOs decided to go to war with Gordon Brown and his government on the new Planning White Paper.

This White Paper is all about accelerating planning decisions on major infrastructure projects – based on the theory (which, it has to be said, is mostly unsubstantiated) that current planning processes get bogged down in wholly unnecessary delay. So there will be a new, independent Commission to decide on key infrastructure issues – such as airports, power stations, waste disposal facilities, ports, roads, etc. And the work of the Commission will be guided by a sequence of new National Policy Statements in all of these different areas.

So here’s the issue: if these National Policy Statements have sustainable development absolutely at their heart; and if the new Commission has sustainable development as its overarching statutory remit; and if government meant what it said about consultation, community empowerment, localism and so on, then the Planning White Paper could be seen as a positive development for delivering more sustainable outcomes through the planning process.

However, the NGOs have come to the conclusion that all those big IFs just won’t be delivered on by government – hence the new coalition firing off a tactical warning barrage putting Gordon Brown “on notice” that this could become the first big test of his own application of the principles and practice of sustainable development.

The Sustainable Development Commission is currently advising government on all this, and we suspect that NGO-angst may be just a little premature. But the Government is not helping itself by letting it be known that the current Air Transport White Paper provides a useful “template” for all future National Policy Statements. Excuse me!! As the Commission made clear at the time, the Air Transport White Paper falls so far short of anything even vaguely resembling a proper sd-proofed process as to leave one gob-smacked at the nerve/bravado/ foolhardiness/insanity of anyone in government proposing that this is what the future holds in terms of embedding sustainable development at the heart of future National Policy Statements.

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18. 07. 2007

Ah, so it's to be 'National Policy Statements' that's the 'planning' system's flavour of the month for a day or two after the ink's dry, is it now?

Wake up Jonathon, CPRE, and the rest: when have any of these hugely expensive, time wasting, franticly fought over by barristers, planners and 'consultees', documents ever been worth the tiniest fragment of a piece of the paper they are printed on?

All of these 'plans' by definition have to be 'flexible' and always have been. That, essentially, means Local Authorities, Inspectors and the like, can always find a reason for doing whatever they like, and no local planning committee member needs even to bother to familiarise himself with them. Why indeed should he: he will not even dream of disobeying what his party's whips tell him to do.

The only concerns who can make the system work for them are the wealthiest of developers, who can literally bankrupt the opposition in getting their way. (This, of course, is on the very rare occasions when a LA is not the real irresistible driving force behind the development, and would not dream of allowing any public opposition to get in their way.)

No third party right of appeal – or even community right of appeal – is permitted (nor ever will be: for yea ‘it is written the Party has been ‘elected’ and so can do anything it likes’), so, for the majority, there is nobody to turn to to ensure that a Local Authority follows ‘The Plan’ – that has been very expensively paid for out of the public pocket.

When a decision is made at government level the situation is even worse. Only on very rare occasions is appeal to higher authorities in Europe possible, and, even then, governments often find a way to ignore the findings.

For as long as I can remember the document framework that makes up the backbone of the ‘planning’ system has been ‘under review,’ ‘being consulted on,’ ‘being updated,’ ‘strengthened’, ‘adjusted’, ‘revised’, even though most of the individual documents were designed to last for many years. Every single one of these changes has been in order to rid the planning system of its ‘control’ elements and to turn it into a developing tool rather than a planning one. (And a tool that is for use against the public what’s more!).

A very stark demonstration of how this country’s leadership has sold out to the development lobby over the years, is in the idea of Green Belt. The function of Green Belt is, and was always intended to be, to constrain development – it does not even have to be what we imagine by ‘green’, although it often is. The Green Belt has been very successful, and because of it, we can still enjoy an occasional view of countryside as we race from bottleneck to bottleneck. But from our leaders, do we get proud satisfaction at this success? On the contrary: those old fashioned Green Belts, are now a terrible constraint on development - that panacea for all the world's ills. Ah, let’s here it for the concrete cure all, and to hell with all those silly pastoralist planners who introduced the Planning System in order to protect what made England England!

Because successive governments will not come out simply to say that they do not believe in democracy, they have still tried to include a modicum of accountability in the wording of these ‘plans’ and statements, while always ensuring there are plenty of weakening terms (‘Normally’ etc – even though these, themselves, are superfluous because the ‘flexibility’ principle underlies the whole thing, remember), to give them an easy get out.

Thus the perceived ‘hold ups’ in the system have been the bread and butter of barristers, lawyers, planners, consultants, ad nauseam, for generations, as the ‘normallys’ are fought over in the courts and inquiry halls. I would be very interested to learn just how much the public actually pays to have the privilege of a planning system, that it must fight for ever if it wants to preserve anything of its environment. How much the environment pays – not least in the paper all these worthless documents, and all the supporting statements, drafts, objections etc. consume – is probably incalculable!

Nowhere does it ever strike our leaders, that the public might occasionally be right, or even occasionally, simply have the right to say: ‘No’. When there are thousands of objections to a proposal, this is just a nuisance ‘hold up’: not a democratic wish, from the people who hold the purse strings. And so the system must be ‘refined’, ‘speeded up’, ‘consulted… Till every last vestige of accountability has been removed. Then development can proceed – smooth as a greased turd, on its never ending mission of despoliation.

While we are trapped by the party system of government, where whips enforce the wishes of the cabinet minority, and no electable party would dream of allowing this to change; and all these parties cleave to the doctrine of infinite growth of the ‘economy’, which itself requires infinite growth of the population; no conceivable amount of documentation, evidence, or advice from the likes of SDC is going to make any difference, as the rest of the UK is gobbled up by development at an ever increasing rate, ‘for the sake of the economy’.

Rest assured:

“if these National Policy Statements have sustainable development absolutely at their heart; and if the new Commission has sustainable development as its overarching statutory remit;”

…the government will come down on it like a ton of bricks, and it will be very short lived indeed: it too will be gone before the ink is dry.

Do get real, people.



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