Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: The next government faces public revolt over land-use planning

Published in the ENDS Report (Issue 422, p42), in March 2010.

All elections create uncertainty about the future of public policy – this one more than most. The unpopular leader of a tired party is facing the smooth, sometimes slick and yet to be tested charm of a young pretender. The calamitous conjunction of the financial crisis and the expenses scandal has understandably undermined public confidence in the whole political process.

Neither of the two main parties seem to make a compelling case to the electorate. The prospect of a hung parliament is already unsettling markets. There has been a surge in support for the minor parties – Greens, BNP and others – which are now consistently polling above 10%. This randomises the translation of national polling numbers into seats, which adds further uncertainty.

It is quite possible that the new government will have neither the authority nor the legitimacy to govern effectively. This is not good for the environment. It promises to be a particularly difficult time for those in the public authorities and business sector, where the actual management of the environment rests.

Environmental stresses are becoming more acute as population and affluence rise. Climate change has so dominated the agenda for the past two years that it is easy to overlook other environmental issues. Intensive agriculture continues to abuse wildlife, disrupt the nitrogen cycle and accelerate soil loss. Britain’s recycling rates have improved but are still well below those of most of our peers in the EU. The sub-acute effects of persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals remain a growing cause for concern.

But in the UK, the environmental issue most likely to dominate the headlines in the coming decade will be land use. The UK is among the most heavily populated nations on earth. About 80% of Britain’s 62 million people live in England and Wales. The battles over land use will command more of our attention as we struggle to restore vitality to the economy, absorb a further eight million people and deal with on-rushing resource crunches.

If the International Energy Agency projections of future energy demand are right – and some think they are too conservative – then the world could be between one and two Saudi Arabias short of oil by 2030. Protecting our economy from the consequences of such an eventuality will mean re-basing our economy from molecules to electrons. This means massive investment in lowcarbon electricity and transport infrastructure.

This will be good for the climate. But the wrong choice of pathways could make it bad for the environment. It will fall to the new government to make some of the most important of those choices. Whoever is elected will have to make increasingly difficult decisions that will be disruptive to established interests of many kinds. A new government will only be able to do this successfully if there is sufficient public confidence that such decisions are well-founded.

This problem is compounded by the excesses of ‘Climategate’ – not the excesses of climate scientists but those of journalists. ‘Climategate’ is the product of a growing coarsening of public discourse by media that have less and less inclination or capability of providing informed perspectives on complex issues.

Discovering that climate scientists are human in their opinions of their peers and inclined to express those opinions in terms that are less than generous is hardly momentous. Finding a couple of minor errors in a vast volume of findings tells you that scientists can also be careless, not that they are wrong.

Nevertheless, for all its vacuity, the recent media coverage of climate science has undermined the public confidence in the rationale for government action on a much wider range of issues. This predicament is compounded in Britain by the creation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), which started taking applications on 1 March. This has aggravated the problem of authority by undermining the legitimacy of the planning process.

In the new planning regime major infrastructure projects will be determined by the IPC. It will have the limited task of determining whether or not the proposed development is consistent with a national policy statement (NPS). It will decide for itself whether or not to hold public hearings on controversial issues.

The previous planning regime allowed objectors to crossexamine developers on the rationale for their proposal. Under the new system, if the NPS states that an infrastructure project is needed there will be no opportunity for rigorous examination of its rationale. The only test of whether the government’s policy statement is soundly based will be a debate in Parliament.

Even before the expenses scandal this would have been a weak check on the inadequacies of the executive. To suppose that the outcome of such a debate in a discredited Parliament, whose result will be pre-ordained by the whips, will carry any authority with the public is to believe in fairies.

If Labour is re-elected we know what to expect. It will drive ahead on its current course. This will take opposition to its policies out of the polite confines of meeting rooms and into the rather less polite streets. It is less clear what the Tories will do should they form a government. But they will at least have the chance to think again about the value of this triumph of expediency over democracy.

The underlying problem with deploying big infrastructure pro jects in the UK has little to do with the planning system. It is due to under-investment in the skills and capacity of government and business to manage the political complexities of inserting big projects into the entanglements of a small crowded country.

As Britain’s extractive industries have learned the hard way abroad, gaining community support for major projects is peopleintensive and time-intensive. Short-cuts are always paid for later. If this is difficult in sparsely populated countries and disempowered communities, why would you think it easier in densely populated countries with empowered communities rich in capability and relevant experience?