The recent Planning White Paper adopted a consultative style. The risk, of course, is that this consultation and the response to it falls foul of the very paralysis in decision-making that the paper seeks to address. Alternatively, those with a legal eye may well question the extent to which the white paper is now already a material consideration in planning decisions and hence we might well see demands for greater clarity on the national policy framework almost immediately.
A lot would appear to hang on the "national policy statements". Precisely what form these take will be a crucial factor in influencing the extent to which we can really move to a situation of being able to take strategic decisions on infrastructure in advance of local inquiries on the detail.
From a transport perspective, to fully achieve the intended aims of revising the planning system, the government – in partnership with industry stakeholders – is going to have to address the following:
• What we mean by "key national transport projects". Some thresholds are suggested in the white paper but very few major infrastructure proposals have a genuinely national impact. Most have a sub-regional or regional impact, or influence across a number of regions. Physical scale is not a good guide to significance.
• Assuming integrated transport and land-use continues, then establishing the need for infrastructure investment to give more capacity in a particular corridor, must take account of the commitment or otherwise to other policies. This is best illustrated in the context of road-user charging (RUC). The need for more road capacity on an inter-urban corridor will vary with and without RUC, but also by the scale, form and geographic coverage of charges. It is hard to see how a policy statement covering new road capacity can be defended without a level of clarity on RUC far beyond that provided by government to date.
• How regional bodies and local planning bodies will be expected to take full account of relevant national policy. It is not fundamental differences in objectives but more the emphases placed on these objectives and how they might best be achieved that leads to tension between the local, regional and national levels of decision-making. Requiring local and regional bodies to take responsibility for the detailed considerations on infrastructure proposals might lead to the outturn scheme and benefits being very different from those envisaged on entry into a national policy statement.
• How we make national policy statements authoritative. If there is a presumption of approval for schemes of national significance where their aims and benefits are consistent with the national policy statement, it is going to be essential that these stand up to scrutiny and that we don’t end up with a spate of judicial reviews. It will be important to make absolutely clear the basis on which benefits are determined. This will require the government to be truly joined up. Consistency between policy statements will be essential.
Finally, care will need to be taken to avoid the proposed changes hindering rather than enhancing the strengthening of political leadership. Tempting as it might seem to some ministers, we need to avoid reaching the point where decisions on infrastructure investment are just too difficult.
If we do, then we are in danger of democratically elected leaders abdicating responsibility to an "independent infrastructure planning commission" and then the devil in the detail being passed to regional and local bodies. Referring again to RUC and the TIF regime, the sceptics might see this as a prime example of: "over to you then local members, to risk your political careers rather than ours".