Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Professor Robin Grove-White (PGP 59)

MAJOR INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS: COMMENTS ON THE GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSALS FOR NEW PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURES

  1.  I am Professor of Environment and Society at Lancaster University, a member of the Government's Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, and Board Chair and Trustee respectively of Greenpeace UK and Greenpeace International. In the period 1972-1988, I gained extensive hands-on experience of existing UK arrangements for the handling of Large Infrastructure Projects in the UK, whilst Assistant Secretary and Director (1981-1987) of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). Subsequently, as co-founder and Director (1991-2001) of Lancaster University's internationally-recognised social science research centre, the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change (CSEC), and, since 2000, as Professor of Environment and Society at that university, 1 have led relevant ESRC-funded social research programmes and written extensively on such matters.

  2.  It is not hard to sympathise in principle with the Government's wish to reform present arrangements for authorising "major infrastructure projects". Particularly when compared with equivalent processes in other European countries, there have been several recent examples of "delays" to such schemes, with public inquiry processes apparently a contributing factor. However, the reform proposals in the Planning Green paper and accompanying consultation document, "New Parliamentary Procedures for Processing Major Infrastructure Projects", give cause for serious concern—as much for what they do not say, as for what they do.

  3.  I comment below on:

    —  The concept of "major infrastructure project" (paras 4-7);

    —  Factors relevant to the claimed "costly" and "unnecessary" delays to the authorisation of such projects in the recent past, but which remain unacknowledged in the consultation paper and associated Ministerial statements (paras 8-18);

    —  Parliament's present limitations for the role envisaged (paras 19-23); and

    —  Potentials for institutional innovation (paras 24-29).

(a)  The concept of "major infrastructure project"

  4.  As used in the consultation paper, the term "major infrastructure project" is loose and vague. Yet it is envisaged as having potential statutory meaning (para 12). The illustrative list in Annex C offers a range of large developments, including ports, power stations, motorways, chemical plants, quarries, and many others—some public, most private; some national, others regional or sub-regional in significance; some employing largely familiar technologies, others breaking new ground. No attempt is made to distinguish projects which might be judged truly essential to the maintenance of basic life in modern society—particular transport arteries, for example—from those which may be in principle more optional. It is simply asserted that all such projects, as defined by the Secretary of State, are "essential to our economic future and bring benefits through better services" (paragraph 4).

  5.  The corollary is that a new class of projects—infinitely expandable at a later date (if chemical plants, why not electronics factories, supermarkets or major housing developments?)—would be created, to be treated quite differently from all others handled within the existing development control system. What is more, these are projects which of their nature are likely to give rise to an extensive range of issues and concerns—environmental, social, economic, cultural—in which national, regional and local dimensions are inextricably intertwined.

  6.  Others will elaborate more expertly on these difficulties of definition. But it is important for what follows below that the central concept on which the consultation is based is unclear in meaning, and likely to prove contentious when attempts are made to give it precision—not least because of perceptions of the potential commercial advantages for individual corporate promoters of such schemes.

  7.  Nevertheless, there is scope for re-examination of the processes for handling nationally important schemes. Such re-examination, however, should embrace a fuller appreciation of relevant social and political realities than the consultation paper displays.

(b)  Relevant "delay" factors unacknowledged in the consultation paper

  8.  The phenomenon of extended public inquiries into large development proposals has a longer history than is mentioned in the documents. In the 1970s and 1980s, a succession of major projects—individual nuclear power facilities (Thorp at Windscale (now Sellafield), Sizewell B); reservoirs (Broad Oak in Kent); motorways (M42, M40, etc); coal mines (Vale of Belvoir); and the like—became focal points for public discussion, not only of the local environmental and social impacts of particular schemes, but also of key framing assumptions on the basis of which they were being promoted. There being no other politically meaningful or accessible fora in which to engage with such wider dimensions and/or alternatives, particular local authorities, citizens organised as national and local NGOs, and other interests focussed their efforts on the public inquiries triggered by the proposals.

  9.  The more recent lengthy inquiries referred to by the Secretary or State (Annex A)—Stansted Airport, Heathrow Terminal 5, Manchester Airport Second Runway and the East London River Crossing—should be seen as elaborations of these earlier processes.

  10.  In seeking less cumbersome and (arguably) legalistic procedures, both Government and Parliament need to be aware of important positive dimensions of the ways in which the present situation developed.

  11.  In a period of accelerating technological change, underpinned by sometimes questionable assumptions concerning the inevitability and beneficence of the resulting transformations, the ability of citizens to participate in politically meaningful discussion and evaluation of such processes is highly constrained. In the 1970s and 1980s, environmental movements emerged in reaction to some of their more tangible cumulative impacts. In the UK, these movements—reflected politically in expanding public support for environmental NGOs—gravitated towards such openings as appeared available within the law for exploring the resulting trajectories and their implications.

  12.  Conventional parliamentary processes were experienced as ill-adapted to, and the principal political parties as largely unsympathetic towards, such endeavours. By contrast, the public inquiry system—with its statutorily-enforced disposition towards conscientious evaluation of arguments, its procedural fairness and good will towards citizens of all kinds, and its groundedness in specific real developments on the ground—came to exert a strong attraction. Individual schemes became focal points for discussion and argument about broader policy assumptions and commitments of which the schemes were expressions. In this way, important issues unaddressed in other fora inside or outside government came to be explored. One consequence was that inquiries into certain kinds of development—of the type with which the present consultation is concerned—became more protracted than previously.

  13.  However, significant public benefits resulted:

    —  Deep concerns in a growing body of the population concerning trajectories of policy development in environmentally significant domains were debated and clarified in socially disciplined fora, in terms digestible (potentially at least) by government. Subsequent events—for example, the 1990 privatisation of the electricity supply industry, with its associated confirmation of the uneconomic character of civil nuclear power investments, contrary to repeated earlier claims by Ministers; and belated official recognition of the role of motorways in fostering increases in local traffic growth rather than the reverse, as asserted previously by the Department of Transport—vindicated key "policy" critiques advanced at successive large inquiries over the preceding decades.

    —  Associated media discussion interacting with public inquiries in their forensic "theatrical" roles helped animate public education in dimensions of public policy which would otherwise have gone unacknowledged.

    —  Large numbers of citizens participated actively in arguments about socially and technically complex matters relevant to energy policy choices, questionable trajectories of transport policy, trade-offs between economic and environmental factors and the like, in the process engaging with implications of contemporary technological possibilities. This happened over a period when more conventional "representative" mechanisms of national and local government were revealing serious limitations in their capacity or inclination to play such roles.

    —  As a corollary, encouraged by successive Secretaries of State committed to extensions of public participation, more open attitudes and practices vis a vis direct citizen involvement in such matters began to crystallise in Whitehall and the Courts, thus consolidating (irreversibly, I would argue) new normative understandings about wider public entitlement to engagement in emerging environmental trends.

  14.  At a time of mounting concern in Britain about public anomie toward politics and public institutions, these positive dimensions of processes presented in the consultation paper as demanding simplification to the point of truncation need respectful attention. But the paper makes no reference to them.

  15.  Why should this be so? Perhaps they have been assessed and judged irrelevant by Ministers. If so, this would sit oddly with the claims made repeatedly throughout the consultation paper, that the measures will "safeguard public consultation and involvement", and even "increase" it—when the truth is that they will reduce it.

  16.  A second possibility is that changes over the past decade or so, both within Whitehall and in the ownership structures of bodies promoting "large infrastructure projects", have led such democratically healthy dimensions of previous public involvement to be forgotten. The succession of civil service reforms in the 1990s—widespread devolution to new executive agencies, contraction in numbers and roles of departmental officials, new methodologies of audit and accountability aimed at enhanced efficiency, and the recent ascription of planning and environmental protection roles to different departments for the first time since 1970—may have led to contractions in "institutional memory". And these effects may have been compounded by a loss of interest in (or indeed memory of) now-relevant past experience, as a result of the privatisations of the electricity, nuclear and water supply industries, and the changed internal cultures and priorities these have produced.

  17.  Whatever the explanation, if such neglect is not corrected and adjustments made, the reforms risk being counter-productive. Abolishing well-established expectations of intelligent involvement, without creating appropriate equivalent mechanisms for testing schemes in a fashion convincing to increasingly educated and sceptical publics, will simply lead to frustration and to other, less constructive forms of critique and objection. In such circumstances, it is not hard to anticipate new patterns of disquiet, delay and even disorder.

  18.  In the consultation paper, Parliament's role is envisaged as the safeguard against this, through its consideration of public "representations" and its approval of the principle of individual projects. I consider now whether the conditions necessary for Parliament to fulfil this role are in place.

(c)  Parliament's role

  19.  Under the government's proposals, Parliament would have just 60 days in which to consider both the principle and the site location of an individual project designated by the Secretary of State, and to approve (or reject) it by Affirmative Resolution procedures. This would include a 42-day "consultation period" -though Parliament would not necessarily receive the putative developer's "Statement of the wider economic and other benefits" until 21 of the 42 days had elapsed. The ways in which Parliament would handle the proposals and any associated "public representations" on them is left to Parliament itself—for example, whether or not there should be, within the 60 days, specially convened committee hearings. At the end of the 60 days, assuming an Affirmative Resolution, the scheme in question would be the subject of a conventional local planning inquiry, limited to matters of detail only. In this way, it is suggested, "the proposed new Parliamentary procedures will help speed up the decision-making process on major infrastructure projects by saving inquiry time later".

  20.  Such a formula seems unlikely to command public confidence. Recent experience—whether analysed by specialist commentators, or derived from personal experience—points to Parliament's present acute limitations. The 2001 report of the Hansard Society, "The Challenge for Parliament: Making Government Accountable" is unequivocal: Parliament "has failed to adapt to the challenges it faces" at a time when fresh forms of accountability from non-parliamentary institutions—NGOs and pressure groups, regulators of privatised industries, the media, etc—have been gaining countervailing authority. "Levels of confidence in politics are low and declining", and public respect for Parliament specifically has been weakening. The continuing, even intensifying, dominance of the executive in the control of parliamentary business and decisions has been compounding this attrition.

  21.  Even Parliament's specialist tools for holding government to account—notably Select Committees—are acknowledged by the Hansard Society and others to have serious shortcomings, however conscientious and well-focused individual inquiries may be. Their limitations—particularly relevant in the present context—include small staffs, acute variability of coverage and of quality of scrutiny in particular fields, limits of time and resources, and lack of independence from majority party (ie executive) influence. My own personal experience, both as an expert witness before House of Commons committees, and as an occasional Specialist Adviser to House of Lords committees, confirms that the quality of engagement and analytical sophistication of parliamentary committees is highly variable.

  22.  In the likely circumstances of a controversial "major infrastructure project", the role envisaged for Parliament under the Government's proposals seems likely to strain Parliament's capabilities to their limits—indeed probably beyond them. Given the Government's apparent determination to constrain active public involvement in issues of principle surrounding individual schemes, the associated parliamentary procedures would be seen as structurally biased towards the interests of developers at the expense of those of citizens. In today's climate, against the background of accumulated experience and expectations outlined earlier in this submission, these limitations would be likely to result in frustration and anger. History suggests that in such circumstances, spectres of legal challenge (under common law or the new human rights legislation), public protest, civil disobedience, and the like will tend to present themselves.

  23.  In short, it seems unlikely that Parliament, as at present constituted, would be able to command the authority envisaged in the consultation paper for giving public legitimacy to the principle or individual siting of schemes subject to the new measures.

(d)  Potentials for Institutional Innovation

  24.  The Government's proposals for new ways of handling the principles and location of "large infrastructure schemes" are radical. Alternatives to them may have to be equally radical.

  25.  If well-established expectations of public involvement within the public inquiry framework are to be denied, then other ways of generating legitimacy for the principle of such schemes, when and if these are appropriate, will have to be created. This implies an urgent need to develop new mechanisms—beyond the issuing of "national policy statements"—for authentic discussion and debate around the policy trajectories of which such schemes are expressions, aimed at generating a greater degree of consensus around the need, or otherwise, for individual schemes. This has implications for Parliament as well as for the executive.

  26.  What forms might such innovation take? There may be clues in the current discussions surrounding contentious issues of science and technology, precipitated by the succession of crises of government authority on matters such as BSE and Genetically Modified crops. The implications of these crises, and the need for active new institutionalised forms of interaction between "experts" and citizens on the ever-wider issues bearing on future scientific and technological innovation, have been highlighted in a number of recent studies, including the 21st Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, "Setting Environmental Standards" (1998, Cm 4053) and the "Science and Society" report (2000, HL Paper 38) of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

  27.  An initial discussion of the range of mechanisms now being explored for advancing such interactions—programmes involving deliberative mechanisms such as consensus conferences, citizens juries, standing panels, focus groups, and the like—exists in the March 2001 report of the Parliamentary Office on Science and Technology (POST), "Open Channels: Public Dialogue in Science and Technology". Bodies as varied as the Foods Standards Agency, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, the Environment Agency, Nirex, local authorities, and a variety of health trusts are now experimenting with these and other methods in the development of their own policies and 'outside' relationships—a burgeoning body of experience now being monitored and documented by social scientists and others. The Regional level of government may well constitute a further (as yet largely untested) node for such innovations.

  28.  Clearly, there are limitations as well as strengths to these processes as they stand currently. But collectively they constitute a fresh field of serious UK experiment and innovation aimed at harnessing the perspectives and energies of citizens, of potential relevance to the present proposals. Though unlikely in themselves to provide substitutes for procedures and rights underpinned by statute, such initiatives, properly considered, may offer pointers to ways in which new forms of democratic involvement and social intelligence might be nourished, to inform both departmental and parliamentary thinking about issues and dilemmas of the kind the present consultation paper is seeking to address.

  29.  The POST report has called for the establishment of a "National Learning Resource" aimed at fostering exchanges of experience in the use of such mechanisms, and energetic reflection upon the implications of that experience. The establishment of such a Resource, and the integration of its reflections with parallel thinking by bodies such as the Hansard Society, the UCL Constitution Unit, the Study of Parliament Group and others, should be given a high priority by government. It could be developed as a new piece of strategically useful machinery for Parliament. And proposals to emerge from it could be designed to go with the spirit of the parliamentary reforms now being fostered by the Leader of the House. More specifically, they could also ensure much-needed integration of the spirit of "sustainable development" into Parliament's procedures for the handling of new infrastructure proposals.

CONCLUSIONS

  30.  To summarise, the potential challenges implied by the Government's proposals—to Parliament's future legitimacy, as much as to Ministers' capacity to be able to sustain an adequate national infrastructure—are such as to require fresh thinking reaching well beyond the issues and options touched on in the consultation paper.

  31.  The present proposals are unsatisfactory as they stand, because:

    —  they rest on loose and questionable assumptions about what could be said to constitute a "major infrastructure project";

    —  they fail to recognise and give weight to important democratic merits of the sophisticated public involvement which helped shape the character of the inquiry processes Ministers now wish to limit;

    —  they rely on unrealistic expectations of Parliament's authority and capacities in present circumstances; and

    —  they are insufficiently ambitious in the approach to potential new processes for citizen involvement around future infrastructure issues.

  32.  The issues addressed in the consultation paper constitute a call to creative institutional innovation. This submission has sought to highlight some key issues which that innovation should embrace.

March 2002



 
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