Does the Transport & Works Act (TWA) process, by which most transport schemes are approved, take too long? Have all the TWA related delays been justified or is it an anachronistic process that needs reform? This week we ask:
Has the Transport & Works Act process been good for major project developments?
The Transport & Works Act (TWA) guide to procedure states there are no mandatory deadlines by which the secretary of state for transport must make or refuse an order.
The government is under increasing pressure to replace the TWA process with a streamlined hybrid bill for schemes such as bypasses and light rail projects set out in the 10 year transport plan.
We in Hampshire have had experience of both the Parliamentary Private Bill procedure and its replacement, the TWA process.
It is clear to me that it is a change for the better for both the promoters of schemes and for those who wish to participate in scheme development, or of course those who wish to object.
This is why I have come to this view: The TWA process is clear and easy to understand. The guide to procedures is written in a straightforward way and the TWA processing unit at the Department for the Environment Transport and the Regions is helpful and professional. The conduct of the local public inquiry is one that many will be familiar with, as it is very similar to a planning or road inquiry and is not subject to the vagaries of the former parliamentary procedure.
The process is fair to local people who wish to make their views known about a major scheme. They can make their representations in person to an independently appointed inspector at a local venue, rather than always travelling to London.
Although there are those who may argue that the requirements are too detailed, onerous and therefore costly, our experience is that good team work across a range of disciplines, together with sound advice from an enthusiastic parliamentary agent, pays dividends.
So how can the TWA process be anything other than good, when it is clear and easy to understand, locally based and fair to both sides?
The Consortium's experience of the TWA process is that it may be better suited to smaller scale or more geographically contained projects than proposals like Thameslink 2000 which affect a wide area and involve consultation with a diverse range of organisations.
Much of the inspector's time at the public inquiry dealt with objections on specific planning issues at a local level. This is understandable and I believe an inquiry can be a useful device, both for testing whether mitigation measures are well thought through and for the inspector to report back to the secretary of state on the impact of proposals on local communities. However, the inquiry into Thameslink 2000 spent some time considering a completely different proposal (the so called 'Herne Hill alternative') put forward by one group of objectors to avoid the impact of Railtrack's proposals on their local area. If their alternative were to be accepted, the whole process would probably then have to go back to the drawing board. At a new inquiry in, say, three years time, a whole new set of objectors might materialise to argue in favour of the original proposal. Clearly this is madness and no way to achieve a railway renaissance in this country.
The huge benefits of the proposal to the region as a whole have rarely been at the focus of the debate. Indeed, the evidence put forward by the Consortium in setting out these benefits was not contested by any of the participants at the inquiry. So what is needed is a two stage process: the first to decide on the strategic costs and benefits of the proposal and to ensure that alternative options have been given appropriate consideration; the second concentrating only on the promoted scheme to examine mitigation proposals and effects on local communities. A delay of almost six months in the public inquiry process for Thameslink 2000 has already put back the anticipated date of the secretary of state's decision by more than a year. This places considerable demands on the promoter of the scheme, Railtrack, in terms of being able to award contracts and to progress the preliminary civil engineering and construction work required to meet realistic delivery deadlines.
Clearly, some TWA applications may be too complicated or may not answer the criticisms of legitimate objectors adequately.
Nonetheless, there should also be a better mechanism for dealing with objections which allow the focus of the public inquiry to shift from the practical to the hypothetical or which deal with issues of a relatively superficial nature in the wider context of the application.
This could be addressed if the secretary of state constrained the inquiry's terms of reference. However, it is much easier for ministers to allow unfettered discussion at an inquiry than to give and stand by a direction that may be unpopular locally.
Last week's debate question was: Should we allow nature to take its course and wash Britain's coastline away? A readers' poll on NCE's website said that 59% were in favour, 36% against and 5% didn't know. If you want to take part in this week's debate go to www. nceplus. co. uk