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Planning for growth


The government's proposals this week to reform planning legislation are good news for everyone involved in the creation of new infrastructure. At last an end to the ludicrous spectacle of public consultation lasting decades.

Ludicrous because while the current process does allow a full range of opinion to be heard, in reality it does little to alter the path of policy and little to really inuence decision making.

Ludicrous because, while the process often roots out many important issues, a disproportionate amount of time and money is often spent resolving philosophical rather than practical objections.

Ludicrous because, as we saw most recently at Heathrow Terminal Five and Dibden Bay, huge amounts of time and resource has to be committed to a process which ultimately is determined - or over-ruled - by higher government policy.

Many will argue that handing the decision making process to an independent panel and removing the individual's right to fully debate every planning proposal is undemocratic. They may well be right.

After all, the UK has a long history of public participation in the planning process. In comparison to our European neighbours we have come to expect a much greater say in local and central government infrastructure planning.

Speci ally we have come to expect to be able to say 'no' to a proposal for virtually any reason and to have our voice heard on every issue - as we saw recently when 1.8M people signed a petition on the Prime Minister's website, objecting to national road user charging.

But while this ability to have your voice heard is certainly good for the individual it can be disastrous for society as a whole. Government's role is to help and protect the many from the interests of the few and too often we have seen the views of a vocal minority outweigh those of the silent majority.

Life is also becoming more complex. As the wealth and expectations of society grow, we expect to travel, we expect to use more electricity and gas, we expect fresh water piped to our homes and we even expect to have a mobile phone signal at all times.

Creating modern infrastructure drives and underpins this wealth and expectation. Doing nothing is not an option - a balance has to be found between protecting what we value and creating what we need.

The independent panel which the government wants to determine planning applications in future must ensure that the public feels connected to and able to participate in the new planning process. The right communication with the right communities at the right time is vital if we are to avoid a return to the days of Swampy and other direct action groups.

The first test is not far off, of course. The long awaited energy White Paper, which was due for publication yesterday, will bring a new generation of nuclear power stations closer and underline the challenge faced by society. Our current lifestyles come at a cost and the planning, design and construction of new infrastructure will always be contentious.

The solution is to get the long term strategy right, agreed and stuck to and engineering professionals will have a key role in ensuring that government makes the right choices.

We then have to get on with delivering this vital infrastructure. And a policy of benign dictatorship the most effective way of getting things done and also the most acceptable.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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