Parliament is gearing up for its next major confrontation with the government this week, with the return to the Commons of the controversial Planning Bill.
Despite a very real need for reform, the Planning Bill was a poor bit of legislation from the start, and in keeping with this government’s belief that passing legislation is the same as governing, concessions have been given to every remotely rebellious Labour MP. Indeed it’s become something of a Christmas tree, and begins its third reading this Wednesday overburdened with unnecessary amendments (some reports claim there have been more than a 100 changes since its last reading). Any positive contribution this bill might have had in clearing up planning law is now probably lost.
But for the Government (and most critics of the Bill) the issue is not planning law as such, but rather the creation of a new Infrastructure Planning Commission. It's this quango which is really stoking opposition to the Bill, and it's in effort to establish this new quango that government is so readily handing out concessions.
The proposed Infrastructure Planning Commission (to sit alongside the existing £48 million Planning Inspectorate) will deal only with planning permission applications for major infrastructure projects; airport expansion, nuclear power stations, highway and rail developments and so forth. Ostensibly this will 'de-politicise' what is currently a painfully slow process, allowing swift, independent decisions to be made. Ministers and local government will be removed from the process of authorising such large-scale projects, freeing decision making from the pressures of special interests.
The cynicism - and grubby power grab - which lie behind this proposal is amazing. By 'only deal with major infrastructure projects' what is really meant is: 'what government decides is a major infrastructure project'. The potential for mission-creep is huge. The term 'de-politicise' is a red herring too: the Commission will actually centralise control of planning in the hands of central government. The only groups that will really be cut of the planning permission process are local government and the public.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will appoint all the members of the Commission, its Chairman and its Chief Executive. It will, in short, be a proxy of Whitehall. And as for freeing decision making from the pressures of special interests, the reality is rather more like freeing decision making from the bother of having to deal with the public. Quangos are enormously susceptible to the lures of actual special interests – developers, retailers, power companies - and the Planning Commission one will be no different.
The need to reform the planning process for major infrastructure projects is real; the current system is costly, slow, often arbitrary and arguably damaging to Britain's long term future. But the Infrastructure Planning Commission is not the solution. It will reduce the public's input and no doubt end up being more expensive. Worst of all though, it will provide government - as all quangos do - with the ability to make decisions without having to take responsibility, shielding ministers from accountability. If established, it will not be long before the Commission gives permission for a project widely opposed. Government ministers will then hold up their hands, shrug their shoulders and point out (loudly and repeatedly) that it was a decision made by an 'independent' and 'expert' Commission.
But of course the Planning Commission will be nothing more than a tool for the government in power, carrying out its agenda under the guise of 'independent, impartial enquiry'. Whatever one's opinion on airport expansion, nuclear power or road building, people must see that a super-quango is not the right body to take decisions which will affect us all.