Friday, December 14, 2012

Build! Build! Build! Tory plans to demolish planning laws

Guest blog: In the first of two blogs, Phil Martin from the A556 Lobby Group explains recent plans to steamroller local opposition to boost the construction industry.

Of all the bloody cheek! At the recent gathering of EU leaders to thrash out spending over the next few years, the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that cuts would have to be made to the infrastructure budget (i.e., roads, rail and runways) in order to freeze or cut the deficit .

This is the same David Cameron who (presuming he talks to his Chancellor) is overseeing the investment of another £5 billion of public money invested in national infrastructure projects on top of the £5 billion announced in 2011 to kick start over 500 road building and other construction projects, including airports and revived PFI schemes.

It’s the same David Cameron who gave a speech on 19th November 2012 to the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) stating that:

“Consultations, impact assessments, audits, reviews, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, complying with EU procurement rules, assessing sector feedback: this is not how we became one of the most powerful, prosperous nations on earth. It’s not how you get things done. As someone once said, if Christopher Columbus had an advisory committee he would probably still be stuck in the dock. So I am determined to change this. 

Here’s how:  Cutting back on judicial reviews. Reducing government consultations. Streamlining European legislation. Stopping the gold-plating of legislation at home. And quite simply: getting our roads and railways built more quickly.”

One might have thought, perhaps naively, that consultation, judicial reviews and the like were core elements of a democratic society and not bureaucratic hindrances. It’s worth stating the subsequent section in full, because if there was any doubt of the intentions of the coalition, Cameron makes it crystal clear, not only concerning policy but of their attitude to local people who seek to challenge decisions made by central government.

“Last on my list – and it overlaps with some of the above – is getting our roads and railways built more quickly. In the 50s it took us 8 years to design and build the first 50 miles of the M1. Today it can take that long just to widen one section of a motorway. So we are speeding things up. Since we came to office we haven’t just announced a load of road and railways schemes – yes, we have actually got diggers on the ground on the A23, the M62, the M4, M5 and M6. What’s more it’s our ambition to cut the time it takes to upgrade our roads in half."

"So we are determined to dismantle some of the procedures that have been slowing us down and slowing you down. But none of this will mean much unless we have a change of culture in Whitehall too. There are understandable reasons for that. When you have lobby groups lined up to criticise every action you take and Parliamentary Select Committees ready to jump on every bump in the road then the rational choice is to be cautious – even over-cautious. But for the sake of our country’s progress we have got to cut through this. I want every Department in Whitehall to be a growth department. I’ve insisted that every Permanent Secretary has growth as a key objective. And I want every Minister and every official to understand that the dangers are not just in what you do but what you don’t do that the costs of delay are felt in businesses going bust, jobs being lost, livelihoods being destroyed.”
(From http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2012/11/david-camerons-speech-to-the-cbi/)

But Cameron’s decision to make his rant to a CBI audience was no accident. The International Business Times reported in the autumn of 2012 that the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), were lobbying the government to speed up infrastructure projects and put their money where their mouths were. An article entitled 'CBI and BCC add pressure over infrastructure investment' flagged up a new CBI report 'An Offer they Shouldn't Refuse: Attracting Investment to UK Infrastructure' which highlighting several steps the government could take to ensure there is the cash to get projects off the ground. The core recommendations included:
- government underwriting of projects to reduce risk to potential backers
- extending capital allowances to cover all infrastructure projects
- time-limited tax breaks for pension funds that invest in such projects.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), suggested the government utilize its AAA credit rating to borrow cheaply from the bond markets and spend on infrastructure projects. CBIDirector-general John Cridland was quoted as saying that "Infrastructure spending offers the UK the elusive growth boost we are all seeking. We need the political will to focus relentlessly on economic growth”.

So Cameron’s speech occurred only a couple of months after the CBI launched their campaign. In effect he was saying “yes, we heard what you say and we will give you what you want.” This was confirmed in the governments own press releases.

What was also interesting that the International Business Times article chose to veer into opinionising commenting that “Planning laws, the bane of construction firms but the beating heart of that truly British trait of nimbyism, will be relaxed under the new reforms aimed at boosting the construction sector”. Note – it does not say that the laws are being relaxed because more houses are needed, or that traffic levels are so critical that roads are essential to alleviate congestion. No, it’s about boosting the construction sector.Cameron’s sneering reference to lobby groups echoes the sarcastic mention of nimbyism. One might be tempted to think his speech was heavily based on the CBIs own pronouncements.

In actual fact Osborne’s own statements over the last two years clearly demonstrate that economic growth as opposed to actual local need is the main motivation for all this orgy of destruction. The Daily Mail noted on December 5th that:
“George Osborne hopes that spending money on new buildings and transport projects will help the stumbling economy get going.”

Price Waterhouse Coopers chief economist, Dr Esmond Birnie was reported assaying:
“The Chancellor is anxious to get capital projects moving to stimulate infrastructure investment, economic competitiveness and the construction sector - The challenge now is to find big projects.... that are ‘shovel ready’ and can stem the continued haemorrhage in the local construction industry.”

There is no question that environmental considerations would prevent this. In the autumn statement of 2011 Osborne explicity said “we will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like Habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses."

Another International Business Times article from September 2012 announced that a new task force – the Cabinet sub Committee for Growth Implementation would consider “how planning laws block or hinder infrastructure projects from going ahead.” And would try to “bring down the bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles perceived to stand in the way of growth, particularly in infrastructure investment”

The same week as Cameron delivered this the Planning Minister Nick Boles did the rounds of television studios promoting the Growth andInfrastructure Bill which the www.gov.uk website states euphemistically titled offered ‘Measures to reduce bureaucratic barriers to growth and infrastructure’. The Bill’s specifically aims at reducing the number of different consents infrastructure developers require, but contains provisions to allow the existing fast-track planning process created for nationally significant infrastructure projects to be extended to pretty much any major business and commercial projects that are judged “important to delivering growth and prosperity and boosting the economy.”

These potentially include “manufacturing and major tourism and leisure proposals, office development such as research and development facilities, and warehousing. Developers would be allowed to request that their application for these nationally significant business projects be determined through the infrastructure planning system which ensures decisions are made within 12 months from the beginning of examination. Existing requirements to consult local communities are retained.”

Boles commented: “It is vital we secure investment in new nationally significant infrastructure and commercial development, and that quicker and better planning decisions are made, if we are to help boost the economy and create the new jobs we need."

"Planning delays help no one. They bring uncertainty for local people and local firms and can deter new investment all together. By streamlining the planning process to make it quicker and easier for these national significant projects to be decided we can ensure sustainable development gets underway without delay."

Note again – Boles mentions boosting the economy and job creation but not reasons such as traffic reduction.This is just the latest stage of a wholesale purging of planning rules and guidance since 2010 which has seen the introduction of a presumption in favour of development into guidance through the Localism Bill in 2011. Slipping under the radar in early 2012 the coalition made it law that applications for consent for development of major infrastructure projects would now be decided by the Secretary of State, following a recommendation by a planning inspector from the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit. Previously those decisions were made by the independent Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will close and be replaced by the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit. The Major Infrastructure Planning Unit will sit within the Planning Inspectorate and continue to use the framework set out by the national policy statements. The government said that the change will "return democratic accountability to major infrastructure applications".

But in reality the ideas proposed by the CBI and other business lobbies differ little from the proposals made by Osborne and Cameron on numerous occasions since coming to power. Speeches are littered with references to accessing pension fund cash or acting as guarantor for private investment in construction but what seems to be the case is that despite the pledges and rhetoric as far as business leaders are concerned not much has been delivered. Their vocal calls were more a poke in the ribs ahead of Osborne’s autumn statement to remind them of what they promised. We shall see what happens – but whatever it is, it wont be pretty – or very environmentally friendly. For a green analysis (which actually includes local Councillors using the British Chambers of Commerce arguments to support road building in the South West) see: http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/1620131/road_building_programme_gets_green_light_by_stealth.html

On 5th December 2012 the chancellor’s autumn statement confirmed plans to cut public spending in order to use the money to build new schools and transport schemes. The £5bn saved is to be spent on capital projects in an effort to ‘kick start growth’. It’s unclear whether this is an extra £5 billion to that previously pledged for similar purposes back in 2010 or an additional sum.

More funding was also promised to me made available for local transport projects including £270m for projects to remove bottlenecks and support development (my italics) and £333m for road maintenance; significantly another £60m was earmarked for Enterprise Zones to support housing and commercial development. The Government agreed to provide £10 million per annum for ‘capacity building’ within Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and each LEP will be able to apply for up to £250,000 additional funding per year to support the development and delivery of their strategic plans.

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