The coalition government has today confirmed its intention rip up the planning system and axe the Infrastructure Planning Commission, phase construction of a high speed rail network and its “support” for Crossrail.
The detailed plans as set out in the full coalition document provide few surprises, but confirmed the coalition’s plan for wholesale reform of the planning system. The moves, if implemented, would spell the end for regional spatial strategys, regional assemblies and regional development agencies. All planning and policy decisions would be pushed down to local authorities.
The document provides little comfort for those fearing massive cuts in transport spending. It confirms that the new government will put health spending ahead of all other departments, and warns that high speed rail plans will have to be “phased” because of the “financial constraints”. Crossrail is mentioned only as having the coalition government’s “support”. Three words in the 16,012 word document are devoted to the £15.9bn scheme.
The document makes clear that deficit reduction takes precedence over any other spending. “The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement, and the speed of implementation of any measures that have a cost to the public finances will depend on decisions to be made in the comprehensive spending review,” it says. The spending review is expected in the Autumn.
Last night chancellor George Osborne admitted that private finance will play a key role in transport and energy spending. “[Energy secretary] Chris Huhne and [transport secretary] Philip Hammond will ensure we attract the right mix of public and private investment in Britain’s creaking energy and transport infrastructure,” he told the CBI.
Planning reform plays a central role in infrastructure spending.
“We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups,” says the document, adding that this will include a review of local government finance. It also pledges to create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities, subject to confirmatory referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors.
It commits the government to “rapidly” abolishing regional spatial strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils. This is likely to spell the end for regional assemblies. The Government Office for London will be axed immediately, and the coalition will consider the case for abolishing
the remaining Government Offices.
In the longer term, the document commits the government to “radically reform” by introducing an Open Source planning system. Open Source takes its name from a computer concept in which IT companies allow users to develop and modify their software. The coaltion’s plan - a key plank of the Tories’ election manifesto - would aim to replicate this by allowing individuals to have more say in local planning.
The concept was set out by the Conservatives in February and would see the creation of a planning system with a basic national framework of planning priorities and policies but then made bespoke at local level, with local councils in control.
To make it happen, the coalition document commits the government to publishing and presenting to Parliament a “simple and consolidated” national planning
framework covering all forms of development and setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities.
The coalition document also confirms plas to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with system described as “efficient and democratically accountable” but that still provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.
Energy and climate change
The coalition’s energy plans centre around cutting carbon emissions, which it wants to see cut across the European Union by 30% by 2020. It will seek to increase the target for energy from renewable sources, subject to the advice of the Climate Change Committee.
It will introduce a floor price for carbon, and make efforts to persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning of ETS permits, it says.
It will give an annual energy statement to Parliament to set strategic energy policy and guide investment. Central to this will be plans to bring forward the National Planning Statement for ratification by Parliament so that new nuclear construction becomes possible.
The Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. The Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects and also provided that they receive no public subsidy.
The document confirms the previously announced plan to implement a process allowing the Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while permitting the Government to push ahead with plans. This process will involve the Government completing the drafting of a national planning statement and putting it
before Parliament with the specific agreement that a Liberal Democrat spokesperson will speak against the planning statement, but that Liberal Democrat MPs will abstain from any vote.
On other sources of power, the coalition will establish an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to meet the emissions performance standard, and it will continue public sector investment in CCS for four coal-fired power stations.
It will also establish a smart grid and roll out smart meters, and will establish a full system of feed-in tariffs in electricity - as well as maintain banded Renewables Obligation Certificates.
It claims it will introduce measures to promote a “huge” increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion and will deliver an offshore electricity grid in
order to support the development of a new generation of offshore wind power.
Plans for a green investment bank were also confirmed.
Low carbon is also at the heart of transport plans, with the new government pledging to reform the way decisions are made on which transport projects to prioritise,
so that the benefits of low carbon proposals are fully recognised.
Aviation schemes are the immediate casualty, with plans to cancel the third runway at Heathrow airport confimed, along with the intention to refuse permission for additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted.
The construction of a high speed rail network does meet the two coalition parties “joint ambitions” for creating a low carbon economy. The document describes the vision as “a truly national high speed rail network for the whole of Britain”. However it warns that “given financial constraints, we will have to achieve this in phases”.
Transport budgets are certain to be plundered to ensure the coalition government meets its pledge to guarantee that health spending increases in real terms in each year of the Parliament. The document says it “recognises the impact this decision will have on other departments”.
Crossrail gets a brief mention. “We support Crossrail and further electrification of the rail network,” it says.
The coalition will take forward the findings of the Pitt Review to improve flood defences, and prevent unnecessary building in areas of high flood risk.