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Democracy is the victim of planning law

Reforms of planning law are good for developers but bad for local democracy, says Stephen Turnbull

The publication of the Government's Planning Reform Bill, which aims to shake up the planning system, may have come at a good time for the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport.

Under the Bill, the Government is proposing to set up a new independent Infrastructure Planning Commission with the power to take decisions on nationally significant transport, water, waste and energy infrastructure.

The Government will issue statements that set out its policy on matters such as air and road transport.

A final decision on particular schemes will be taken by the members of the IPC, who will be appointed rather than elected.

These new powers are tailor-made for new runway proposals. In stark contrast to the current system, whereby decisions are taken either by elected local authorities or by the secretary of state for transport, ultimate power will sit with an unelected national quango.

The majority of evidence will be considered by the commissioners in writing and it will be expected they will take an active role in advising applicants on how to achieve a favourable decision.

The IPC will organise pre-meetings and invite detailed submissions from relevant parties (including objectors), who, in the case of Heathrow at least, might be expected to include environmental campaigners and local community action groups.

There is, however, one vital difference. Whereas under the current system representations are heard by elected local officials or by an appointed inspector, under the new system they will be heard by members of the IPC who are neither elected nor locally accountable.

The IPC will also deal with any applications for projects "specially identified as being of national significance" or which the minister will direct should be so treated. This means the Government can extend the range of projects within the jurisdiction of the IPC.

Good for developers

This amounts to a significant shift of power to the centre in planning matters.

There may be some beneficiaries of such a new system, not least developers and construction firms.
For developers, it is expected the whole process, from the application to the issuing of relevant consent, will take nine months. The existing system can take years. Construction firms, too, will gain greater certainty over timing and budgeting.

The big loser would appear to be the democratic nature of the existing planning system, which is being curtailed in the interests of speed.

Opponents to Heathrow and other similar schemes will have significantly less involvement and will not have the comfort of knowing that the decision will be taken by somebody who is at least answerable to the electorate.

On current indications, the IPC is unlikely to be in place before April 2009. But it looks like it may already have one of its first 'customers' - BAA with its request to construct a new runway.

Stephen Turnbull is planning partner at law firm LG