Planning should be both quicker AND democratic
As usual, Labour MPs who criticised a cotroversial government policy have bottled out of actually voting it down.
The government has survived a Labour rebellion over plans to speed up the planning process for big projects such as airports and nuclear power stations. A bid to ensure ministers get the final say on decisions by an independent body was rejected by 303 votes to 260. More than 60 Labour MPs had signed a Commons motion warning that the new planning quango would be undemocratic, but only 17 Labour MPs actually put their votes where their signatures were.
Ministers say the bill will speed up the planning process. Hazel Blears argued that big projects which could boost the economy and Britain's energy security were being "clogged up" in "antiquated" planning processes.
It was "unacceptable" that major projects such as the upgrade of the North Yorkshire power grid had taken just over six years to get through planning, while some wind farm applications had taken, on average, two years, she said.
"Our current system takes too long. It's immensely costly. It's almost impenetrable in very many cases to members of the public. There's a lack of transparency and a lack of clarity," she said.
The government have correctly identified a problem but come up with entirely the wrong solution.
We DO need a faster system for planning infrastructure projects. Where they are wrong is the belief that this cannot be done while retaining an element of democractic accountability.
The reason that major planning inquiries and other aspects of the planning system take years and cost so many millions is NOT because they allow democratic testing of the arguments. Nor is the problem that every interest group with the money and/or enough committed people to do so can put forward their concerns and challenge the proposed scheme.
The problem is that present bureacratic procedures allow everyone to cross-examine everyone else, and require key planning documents to go through stage after stage of pre-consultation, consultation draft, deposit stage or equivalent, etc, etc, etc.
This allows the same points to be raised and debated ad nauseam again and again and again and again and again.
What we need is not the total abolition of democracy in decisions about major infrastucture. What we do need is to allow each group to have their say, and each point debated properly, ONCE - and not dozens of times.