Government U-Turn over big planning decisions

Grant Prior 14 years ago

The Government has had a rethink on its election pledge to abolish planning rules designed to speed-up major infrastructure schemes like nuclear power stations.

The Conservatives abolished Labour’s Infrastructure Planning Commission which was popular with the industry because it meant quicker decisions and no costly planning enquiries.

But now ministers will regain the final say over major planning projects such as airports giving them the powers of the defunct IPC in all but name.

The IPC was set up last year to streamline decisions on projects deemed important to the national infrastructure.

It was created after the longest planning inquiry in British history, into Heathrow’s Terminal Five, which took four years and cost an estimated £80m.

It was another two years before consent was granted and the terminal finally opened in 2008 – 15 years after the planning application was submitted.

But the IPC had many opponents and the Conservatives had pledged to scrap it, arguing that removing the final decision from ministers was undemocratic.

It started work in October 2009 and although it has 42 proposals at a “pre-application stage” – carrying out consultations and environmental impact assessments – none has yet been formally submitted.

The government said it would be replaced with a new Major Infrastructure Planning Unit in the Planning Inspectorate, which would continue to fast-track projects.

Minister Greg Clark said new infrastructure was ” critical to the country’s return to economic growth” and major projects had to be fast-tracked, but in an “accountable” way.

He said: “The previous system lacked any democratic legitimacy by giving decision-making power away to a distant quango on issues critical to every community in the country.”

But the former Labour minister John Healey told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme: “I think they are overhyping the change. I’m glad to see they are keeping much of the new single system that we put in place 18 months ago.

“What they are doing is moving the IPC, which they call a quango, into another quango – the planning inspectorate. It’s moving the same experts into a different place and calling them something different.”

The changes will need to go through Parliament and the IPC will continue to work in the meantime.

One contractor told the Enquirer: “Scrapping the IPC made no sense and it looks like they have realised that.

“The industry will be pleased and the Government has saved a bit of face so both sides are happy.”

ICE Director General Tom Foulkes, said: “The scale of infrastructure investment required over the next decade – in the realm of £500bn – demands Government provide investors with certainty through the provision of an efficient and democratic planning system.

“We are the pleased therefore that the IPC’s function in fast-tracking nationally significant projects will be retained in the new system and hope that having elected ministers take final decisions will deliver accountability for decision making and greater public acceptance of those decisions.

“However, it is imperative that these reforms do not derail any progress we have already made. With a looming energy generation shortfall and pressing environmental targets we simply don’t have time to go back to square one with vital energy, transport, water and waste projects.”

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