The UK’s largest infrastructure projects of coming decades have been wrapped in controversy: the HS2 high-speed rail line linking London to the north is mired in political wrangling and disputed facts; Hinkley Point C nuclear power station slipped relatively quietly through the planning system in March, but roused criticism for the massive long-term subsidies agreed by the government in October. And plenty of other decisions lurk at the sidelines, from wind farms and road schemes to reservoirs and airport expansions.
How decisions on infrastructure projects that are seen as of national importance should be taken has been frequently questioned – at least since the lengthy inquiries of the 1980s prompted by nuclear power stations such as Sizewell B (which lasted for four years). The Labour government introduced a new planning regime for major infrastructure projects with the Planning Act 2008 which, with revisions, survived the change of government and looks set to remain. But it may yet have introduced more trouble than it has removed.
Planning power steadily centralised
The British approach to planning compared to those abroad has recently been extensively studied, from an engineering perspective, and by Treasury-funded research. So last year’s Labour party-commissioned infrastructure review by Sir John Armitt had more evidence and considered opinions to examine than the Barker and Eddington reviews that informed the drawing up of the 2008 Planning Act.
But such research does not necessarily resolve the knotty issues involved in decision making. Armitt’s report proposed a National Infrastructure Assessment to be drawn up by a permanent independent body once a decade and fed into Sectoral Plans prepared by the relevant government department (for transport, energy, water and so on). Assuming such long-term forward-looking planning instruments came into being, how far should they determine projects? To approach this, we need to look first at how the present big project system works, and then see how critical cases like HS2 or Hinkley Point relate to this – or don’t.
Large infrastructure projects are decided on the basis of National Policy Statements. Hinkley Point was almost certain to be approved by the Planning Inspectorate because the relevant NPS had already approved eight sites for new nuclear stations. In other cases, the link to the NPS is not so direct, but generally the NPS will give a strong steer as to whether the proposed infrastructure is seen required (the answer normally being yes).
The 2008 system created a clear top down system. It has so far only been used for decisions on 12 projects, as investors are not falling over themselves to invest in infrastructure in the current financial climate. However, a localist system it is not; phrases like “controlling the commanding heights of the economy” (from the 1945 Labour manifesto) come to mind.
Hybrid Bills bring different dangers
But HS2 is odd. In part this is because the relevant National Networks NPS, called National Networks, has never been completed, so all transport decision making takes place in a strategic vacuum. This is one very strong reason why the debate around HS2 has been so scrappy and inconsequential. There is no overall geographical or temporal shape to ideas about what Britain’s transport system should look like in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time. Instead the government has taken decisions individually -– a massive road investment programme here, a London airports review or a bit of high-speed rail there. Incoherence is built in: it is politically easier, albeit societally irresponsible and potentially a very expensive way to decide such big investments.
The other odd aspect around HS2 is that it will not be decided by the 2008 Act at all, but by an HS2 Hybrid Bill in Parliament, as used for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (re-christened HS1) and Crossrail. For projects that have built a degree of consensus over many years this makes sense. But HS2, without cross-party support, risks being stranded in Parliament where opponents in both Houses will have the opportunity to obstruct the passage of the Bill, and therefore hold up the project.
Deploying a well-prepared NPS under the 2008 system would have been a more intelligent approach –- but the resulting discussion might have exposed the weaknesses in the arguments for HS2. The government may have feared that the opportunities for protesters even within the very carefully managed 2008 procedures could have derailed the scheme.
An international planning perspective
So, what would be a better way? France offers two attractive mechanisms which could be adopted here. One is to subject big national projects to public debate: the Grenelle debates set the path for environmental measures during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, while the current energy transition debate proposed by Francois Hollande is intended to find consensus on the country’s energy future. Both emerged from campaign promises. Why shouldn’t British parties open up energy, transport and other pressing issues of the future to the widest possible national debates, forming a base for genuine, long-term legitimacy?
The second approach is to deal with major projects very early on in their development through the procedures of the independent Commission nationale du débat publique, or CNDP. These public debates do not decide final details, but instead generate “breathing space” for ideas to circulate early on in the project’s life. Afterwards, sometimes developers drop schemes or make major revisions -– what remains is passed through normal public inquiry processes.
The French system is far less top-down, less determined by national directives than in the UK. Such deliberative democracy could add to the opportunities provided by one-off national debates and create a continuing interplay between decisions on overall strategies and on specific projects. That is to say, sometimes local debates may quite legitimately re-open questions about national approaches, while sometimes national directives may hold the legitimacy to overrule local objections.
This seems the right way for a mature democracy to approach such issues. Little of what currently occurs in Britain suggests there is capacity for such maturity, however. Tangles over HS2, London airport expansion, wind farms and much more are likely to continue to plague the poorly-structured UK approach over the coming years.