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Public inquiries

DEBATE: Projects of 'national importance' will not need to go through a public inquiry but will be approved in Parliament, according to new government proposals. This week we ask: Should large infrastructure projects be allowed to bypass the public inquir


Keith Jowett Chief executive, Airport Operators Association

Yes, this is certainly the direction in which we should be moving.

The current public inquiry system is not an effective way of arriving at decisions on developments in the national interest, such as those relating to airports. The current approach is costly and immensely time consuming.

Consider the recent public inquiry into the proposed Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. The official inquiry opened in May 1995 and concluded in March 1999, after nearly four years. The entire process has so far taken over eight years and, even if the development is approved, the terminal will take another six years to build. The cost of the inquiry has been put at £80M - a huge waste of resources, both public and private.

There is a better way. One that provides a more streamlined national process where decisions are reached in principle on major infrastructure development projects. Such an approach could provide clear and unambiguous guidance on the parameters of acceptable development for major projects. In our view, the changes at national level should be complemented by a robust local consultation process to consider the detailed effects of the proposed development.

There is no reason why this should be adversarial in nature - indeed, it is perfectly possible to foster a consensual approach.

Gatwick Airport has entered into a legal agreement with local authorities enabling it to grow while controlling noise, pollution and promoting public transport. Arguably, the legal restrictions placed on Gatwick's development are little different to those which would have emerged from a lengthy and costly public inquiry. Manchester Airport secured planning approval for Runway 2 through extensive consultation and a strong emphasis on sustainable development.

The time has come to modernise our planning system and stop holding back projects that advance the UK's national interest. Provided local consultation on details is built into the process, then the government proposals should be supported.


Tony Burton Deputy director, Council for the Protection of Rural England

No 50 year old system is perfect but the government's plans to deny local communities a say over major development projects will backfire spectacularly.

Providing the nation's infrastructure will not come from bypassing local people. Parliamentary debate is no substitute for an evidence based inquiry and no modern democracy can really operate on the basis that local communities are given no choice or say in the principle of development. This is a petulant and patronising response to the issue of long running and expensive public inquiries which gives no credit to the contribution which local communities and voluntary groups can make to the debates over the kind of infrastructure we need and the alternatives. It will end in tears.

The government appears not to have learnt the lessons from the road building programme.

After decades of conflict over local roads inquiries - in which the fact the road had to be taken as a 'given' denied any legitimacy to the decisions - it needed direct action to help bring about a change in approach. We have now moved towards more consensus-based decisions at a regional level where the new Regional Transport Strategies and multi-modal studies are beginning to emerge.

Instead of fast-tracking decisions towards ever more heated controversy we should be providing a clearer lead in national policy, reducing the impact of procedures on inquiries and providing the planning system with the resources and skills it needs.

For the very few truly major developments which come forward there is already provision on the statute book for a Planning Inquiry Commission, which would be infinitely preferable to parliamentary debate. It would provide a two stage process in which strategic and local decisions could be considered and, crucially, evidence of soundly based local concerns could reopen the strategic debate over the need for and alternatives to any proposed development.

These are decisions with which we will have to live with for generations. They deserve to be properly made.

The facts

Government announced last month that it was considering replacing planning inquiries for infrastructure projects of national importance with a parliamentary debate (NCE 21 June).

Schemes of 'national importance' include new airports, waste disposal sites, power stations, ports, roads and rail lines.

Schemes approved in principle in Parliament will go through a limited public inquiry phase before final design and construction.

Planning inquiries are taking longer and costing more and more. The Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry is the longest so far at 46 months.

The average length of time for a getting a road through planning and built is 8 to 10 years. The Highways Agency is looking to reduce this to five years.

Parliamentary approval of major infrastructure schemes is already common. Hybrid Bills paved the way for construction of the Jubilee Line Extension and Channel Tunnel Rail Link with planning issues resolved in select committee.

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