Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: When quiet protest turns to rage and judicial review

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 407, p61), in December 2008.

The scene at Stansted early one morning at the start of this month was depressingly familiar: delayed flights, crowded terminals, angry passengers, harassed staff, frustrated airline executives. Normally BAA accomplishes this all on its own. On this particular morning they were helped by protesters from Plane Stupid.

At 3am, a small group cut their way through the perimeter fence and invaded the runway. They then built their own fenced enclosure and chained themselves inside it. It took the police and the airport authorities three hours to remove them. Ryanair cancelled 52 flights. Michael O’Leary ranted and raved against all and sundry and things returned quite quickly to normal.

At least they did at Stansted. Both government and business, however, would be wise not to underestimate the potent political brew now being mixed. Much about this protest was reminiscent of the anti-road protests of the 1990s.

Then, as now, the unconventional young protesters were effective in large part because they had widespread tacit support among conventional middle class voters. Swampy’s exploits in the tunnels of Newbury and Devon were cheered on by large numbers of Middle Englanders who would no more go down a tunnel than they would walk down the street naked.

Although the roadbuilders won most of the famous battles, they lost the war. A looming election concentrated the mind of a tired and unpopular government and the vast road-building programme was severely scaled back.

The Plane Stupid protester’s target was about more than the government’s decision to permit an increase in passengers at Stansted. Next in their sights is the just-postponed decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. Here the alliance between youthful environmental protesters and mature middle class property owners will be particularly vigorous.

Even by the standards of direct action campaigners the invaders of Stansted were young, predominantly under 25. It would be a mistake to interpret these protests as merely a dispute over transport policy or even as a dramatic way to highlight the policy cannibalism of a government seeking simultaneously to drive carbon emissions down and aircraft traffic up. Something much more fundamental is at stake.

There is a dawning realisation among this generation of protesters that we grown-ups have stolen their future. We have had the cheap energy and the cheap food, the cheap houses and the cheap mortgages with which to buy them. We have had the cheap pensions – which they will pay – and the stable climate without which nothing will ever be cheap again.

This realisation is some way yet from becoming rage, but it could easily become so if the response to events like this month’s protest is to intensify further the already repressive measures for which this government has acquired too keen an appetite. We have learnt the hard way elsewhere in the world that it is not possible to secure modern infrastructure without the consent of the communities within which it is embedded.

If the reflex to suppress dissent trumps the reflex to understand it, then what is currently anger will be driven to rage.

This is not just about runways or even climate change. There are more roads and railways out there waiting to be built and three million houses and power stations and pipelines and an electricity grid to be upgraded. All of which already provide a rich substrate on which to grow protests. Add a government seemingly determined to get its way at all costs, and the potential for dissent to become rage is considerable.

The new Planning Act makes this more likely. The close companion of good intentions on the road to hell is bad judgment. The Act’s intention is to speed up and make more predictable the process for planning what are now to be known as “nationally significant infrastructure projects”. To do this it will establish an Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) which will judge whether development projects conform to the dictates of a national policy statement (NPS) issued by the government.

The new Act has many detailed clauses about how the most radical revision of Britain’s planning system in 60 years is to work. Much is made of the importance of consultation. But stripped to its essence it is pretty straightforward. The government will say what it wants built on a whipped vote through Parliament. Developers will apply to the IPC for permission to do what the government wants. The commissioners, chosen by the government, and deliberating largely in private, will decide if the project conforms to the NPS. If it does they will grant permission to proceed.

Not surprisingly this Act has been welcomed by business lobbies. They may come to regret their enthusiasm. In driving the legislation through Parliament the government ignored much advice, in particular from the UK Environmental Law Association, as to how to make the process conform to modern standards of democratic participation.

The result is that the process embodied in the Act has created a raft of vulnerabilities to judicial review. These are already being eagerly studied by environmental, community and professional groups whose participation rights have been curtailed.

It has been one of the unsung accomplishments of this government to inspire in the public rather more confidence in the judiciary than was traditional in Britain. Shifting the battleground for controversial projects from the planning system – which despite the chatter was in fact always far less responsible for delays on major projects than the government itself – to the courts may lead to greater uncertainty and delay than is currently perceived.

But it will also fuel the fires of protest among those who feel with some justice that much of what the IPC will approve will be at the expense of their future.