Category Archives: Planning & development

Is fracking the new poll tax?

Just as Thatcher ploughed ahead with her ideological totem, the poll tax, in the face of clear evidence that it was deeply unpopular, so her modern-day acolytes around Cameron seem determined to do exactly the same thing over fracking, with very likely the same results.   Despite the intense resistance demonstrated against Cuadrilla’s plans to set up drilling at Balcombe in the Sussex Weald, the government pressed ahead with their determination to allow fracking beneath people’s homes which, given Tories’ obsession with the sacred rights of property, is an extraordinary revelation that for them commercial interests now trump everything.   As required under Whitehall rules, the government then undertook a consultation about their plans.   It turned out that there were 40,647 responses, of whom 99% were opposed.   The government then, with the typical arrogance of the Westminster establishment which proved so toxic in the Scottish referendum, decided nevertheless to go ahead regardless.   In a breathtaking illustration of their contempt for public opinion they put out the following statement: “Having carefully considered the consultation responses, we believe that the proposed policy remains the right approach to underground access and that no issues have been identified that would mean that our overall policy approach is not the best available solution”!
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HS2 still in the air

Despite what might seem like a crushing Commons majority of 450-50 in the Commons last night in favour of HS2, the whole project is very far from settled.   There are good reasons for this.   One is that the Commons, like a local planning authority, is faced with a single choice – take it or leave it – rather than being presented with alternative choices designed to meet the same objective, and then being allowed after appropriate detailed examination to make a choice between them.   Another is that this is the fifth attempt by the government to launch this project, the first four having faded (based on higher speed and faster journey times, or regeneration of the north of England, among others) through failure to convince, and this fifth attempt emphasising the need to improve capacity is still seen by many as unconvincing.   The third is that £50.1bn, the estimated cost of the project (and these things have an unfailing knack to soar higher once approval has been granted), is a colossal sum of money, equal to half the current budget deficit which is currently crippling the UK economy; given the opportunity cost of capital, is there really no other better way of spending such an enormous sum equal to 3% of our entire GDP?
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Heathrow expansion is wrong on all counts

The commission headed by Sir Howard Davies, an ex-President of the CBI, has turned out a predictable waste of money.   Governments usually set up Commissions of Inquiry, not to solicit seeds of wisdom, but to try to resolve a political impasse.   The Davies Commission was one such, it has failed in its purpose, and said almost nothing we didn’t know already.   Its main conclusions are that the choice lies between Heathrow and Gatwick, and Boris Island in the Thames Estuary is a non-starter because of its excessive cost (£50bn+ which puts it at par with another white elephant, HS2).   But the biggest complaint against the Davies inquiry is that it never asked the right question in the first place: do we need a huge expansion of airports in the south-east at all?
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The planning laws are being reformed in the wrong direction

Pickles’ statement in the House today aimed to embed in the planning system a presumption in favour of development, combined with proposals to speed up the planning approval process for major infrastructure projects.   But that misses the point about the real flaws in the planning framework.   The real problem is that it is already massively tilted in favour of corporate power and against democracy.   It is already the case that the developer almost always and inevitably gets his way whilst even the most resolute and determined objectors are virtually always forced to concede.   The odds are already stacked so unevenly, yet the government ignores it.
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Amid Osborne’s austerity, the Cameron/Greening folly

With public debt still stuck at £126bn, the government gives the go-ahead for a £33bn high-speed rail project which will achieve the benefit for rich businessmen of cutting the journey time from London to Birmingham by 23 minutes.   That is a cost of £1.4bn per minute saved.   It will not help to stop unemployment hitting 3 million because construction won’t start till 2017 at the earliest.   It will price many standard rail travellers out of the market because fares will have to rise by some 27% to make the project viable.   The benefit/cost ratio has sunk from 3.24 to 1.6 which is so marginal that colossal expenditure of this kind can’t be justified.   It is not, as the Tories originally promised, an alternative to the third runway at Heathrow, since HS2 goes nowhere near the airport.   It is not going to provide the revitalised national rail network linking Scotland, the north of England, Wales and the Channel since it’s confined to the 108 mile stretch from Euston to Birmingham.   So why is it going ahead?
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Miliband man versus Tesco monster

Britain is a sleepy nation until a riot wakes it up.   The hated poll tax trundled on until mass riots triggered its demise, taking Thatcher with it.   Tax dodging on a colossal scale continued unimpeded until UK Uncut shut down Vodaphone and Top Shop in Oxford Street and made Philip Green’s £2bn tax-free dividend to his wife in Monaco a national scandal.   Now a riot last weekend in Bristol against a planned Tesco score has put the overweening dominance of Tesco under the searchlight.   Do we let Tesco (and other superstores) maraud the retail markets of Britain without check?   If not, how do we hold them to account?
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Planning deregulation: another sop for business

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The Planning Bill, up for second reading in Parliament today, gives business exactly what it wants – de-regulation of the current planning system in order to prioritise economic growth over environmental, social and democratic objectives.
The Bill sets out that new National Planning Statements will be drawn up for an array of major developments – nuclear power and nuclear waste facilities, coal-fired power stations, airport expansions, major road schemes, and large waste incinerators. These Statements will pre-determine such issues as the need for, the safety of, and even the location of some projects, and will have more weight than any other statement of national, regional or local policy.
Then a new body, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, will decide on major project proposals in accordance with the National Policy Statements. The decisions of this new quango will be final, with Ministers no longer able to take decisions in this area. In other words, it removes all direct democratic accountability.
The public will also lose the right to be heard and to cross-examine witnesses in public inquiries. Instead, the Commission will decide whether individuals can give evidence, and in what way. But no questions can be asked about whether the project is really needed, or whether it’s safe, or where it’s located. Most people would describe this process as a complete bureaucratic stitch-up.
Even more extraordinarily, it is proposed in the case of major infrastructure projects that the community consultation will be carried out by the developer himself! As though the promoter of the development will seriously examine alternative development options!
The removal of the needs test will hugely favour supermarkets like Tesco and Wall Mart in getting more out-of-town supermarkets. If we didn’t already pick up the Government’s biases over the planning system, the Planning White Paper says that it aims to “promote competition and consumer choice, and not unduly or disproportionately constrain the market”.
The Government justifies all this by saying it is necessary to make it easier to get these major infrastructure projects through in order to tackle climate change. But the opposite is true, because these are precisely the projects that increase carbon emissions and increase pollution in the first place. The real way to tackle climate change is a massive increase in renewables and decentralised low/no carbon energy systems while phasing out fossil fuels.
These ‘reforms’ are fundamentally anti-democratic because they remove the need for the developer to consult and to gain consent. The public will not even have a right to be heard when far-reaching policy is being drawn up in the National Policy Statements, let alone when decisions are made on the ground. There will be no trust in this new process if people’s involvement is at the discretion of unaccountable bodies with (appropriately) ugly titles like the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
Ominously, this introduction of faceless grey bureaucratic quangos is paralleled by a similar device in the Government’s recent Housing Bill – OFTENANT, who will replace elected local Councils in setting criteria for allocating tenancies, determining rents, deciding how far housing need will be met and in what way, dealing with tenants’ complaints, and even regulating anti-social behaviour on housing estates.
Doing deals behind-the-scenes with the vested interests involved in big infrastructure projects is yet another example of this Government giving priority to corporate power over the public interest. That’s what we would expect of the Tories, not of Labour.