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Debate Infrastructure approval

Last week the government dropped plans for parliament to approve major infrastructure projects in principle leaving planning inquiries to deal with scheme details.

This week we ask: Should parliament approve major infrastructure projects in principle?

Yes

Robert Shaw, policy officer, Town & Country Planning Association

The government's decision to abandon its proposal to allow decisions on major infrastructure projects to be taken by parliament is welcome news to most people interested in quality decision making.

For one thing, if people thought public inquiries were difficult to understand and influence, becoming involved in parliamentary procedures was likely to have been the final straw.

For reasons of lack of time, inclination and training, MPs are not in a position to make informed decisions, and the idea of making votes whipped would have been plain undemocratic.

Even on the government's own terms - speed and efficiency - the proposals fell down, since parliamentary procedures are notoriously slow.

No one can blame the government for wanting to speed up the decision making process and, although the Terminal 5 inquiry was exceptional in its length, there is no justification for allowing such decisions to take so long.

Similarly, the conclusion that public inquiry procedures were to blame for this was an easy one to reach. The reality, however, was that much of the delay was caused by a lack of national policy on airports, which meant a great deal of time was wasted debating something that should have been decided prior to the inquiry.

MPs do, however, have an important role to play. They are ideally placed to set the policy framework, on issues such as airports policy, through development of national policy statements, rather than becoming involved in what are essentially development control issues.

Clear national policies of this kind would help to stimulate active and lively debate in parliament and the nation as a whole. If parliament was to contribute to such policy development then this could help reduce the amount of time spent at public inquiries, since the policy framework would already have been debated at national level.

No

Jim Turner, chief economist, Civil Engineering Contractors Association.

This seems to me a double-edged question. Should parliament be empowered to take decisions in principle on major infrastructure projects? And also, is parliament capable of taking such decisions?

I would answer 'yes' on both counts. If one wishes to establish whether or not a proposed course of action is in the national interest, where better to start the debate than in parliament?

As for the second question, all that would be looked for is a decision whether a particular scheme would help take forward the government's stated policy.

This surely does not require any more detailed knowledge on the part of MPs than is needed for the myriad decisions they already take on other issues.

Now, however, under pressure from two committees of MPs, the idea has been dropped as 'too difficult'. We are not quite back to square one, as we are still promised clearer statements of national policy on the need for infrastructure investment, and some streamlining of public inquiry procedures. But what would have been the principal innovation, and the one that seemed most likely to gee up the infrastructure planning process, has gone to the wall.

At the beginning of last week we were handed the results of Spending Review 2002, which also were something of a disappointment for contractors, with no 'new money' for transport.

However, the White Paper did emphasise, in its chapter on 'Raising productivity', how important a part investment in transport infrastructure has to play in improving economic performance and living standards. It went on to say that the rising level of public investment in transport would be 'matched by reform to ensure more strategic transport planning'.

With the government going back on its proposals for parliamentary procedures for processing major infrastructure projects, I do not see how it can keep that promise. It remains to be seen whether failure to reform this convoluted and opaque process will jeopardise delivery of the objectives of the 10 year transport plan.

The facts

The government proposes to shake up the planning process under a White Paper which is expected to be published next year.

Last week Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott published the government's response to its planning consultation paper. He revealed that original plans for parliament to approve major infrastructure schemes in principle would be abandoned.

Instead government will make clear policy statements and speed up planning inquiries.

www. odpm. gov. uk

Then Transport Secretary Stephen Byers gave the go ahead for Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 last November (NCE 22 November 2001) after a public inquiry that lasted three years.

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