Don't blame Mrs Miggins
It's a shame the government doesn't trust ordinary people to come up with the right answers
It seems grimly appropriate that the greatest threat to British democracy in a generation will be forced through parliament by a man who has never faced the electorate as prime minister: Gordon Brown. Less appropriate is that the bulldozing of our planning system - as announced in the Planning for a Sustainable Future white paper of 21 May - will be carried out behind a pretence of concern about global warming, an issue in which Brown has shown little if any interest so far.
Although Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is officially the minister in charge of steering the legislation through, Brown's fingerprints are everywhere. It was Brown who commissioned Kate Barker to undertake a review of the land-use planning system explicitly biased in favour of promoting business-friendly economic growth, at the expense of the environment and local communities. It was Brown, too, who let the cat out of the bag in last December's pre-Budget report by revealing that there would now be "a presumption in favour of development for major infrastructure proposals" such as roads, runways, waste dumps and power stations.
All of this - and more - is in the white paper. Not everything is bad: it is certainly true that the current planning system is cumbersome and bureaucratic, and often already leaves local democracy poorly served. Individuals with no legal experience are left to battle it out with highly paid professional lawyers each time there is an inquiry. Affected communities can also be left blighted when inquiries about new developments drag on for years. And not everything need go to planning: it is a good idea for rooftop solar panels and small wind turbines to be considered as permitted development. Streamlining planning is sensible - but can only be undertaken in good faith by a government that truly believes in promoting local democracy and is committed to environmental sustainability.
Instead, this government seems to see a Britain stymied by local vested interests, where our whole economic future is called into question because Mrs Miggins doesn't want a motorway through her back garden, or a nuclear power station built next door. This is a world-view that ministers have absorbed, through osmosis, from the Confederation of British Industry, which seems to regard economic prosperity and local democracy as polar opposites. (The CBI, needless to say, is enthusiastically back ing the planning white paper.) Its solution is to cut Mrs Miggins - and anyone else who wants a say in what happens in their local neighbourhood - out of the process. Instead, big decisions will be taken by an appointed panel of "experts".
I am not suggesting that only local people should be consulted on projects of national importance. If a new railway needs to be opened up as an alternative to short-haul flights, then the national benefits may outweigh local disbenefits. Similarly, a new windfarm may help to reduce carbon emissions - again of national concern. But, as a rule, local people remain the best custodians for local areas, the best protectors of their immediate environment, and the ones who have most to lose from a damaging project. The presumption should not be in favour of development, but in favour of democracy - local people should only be overruled in exceptional circumstances. Instead, what ministers are pro p osing is to replace a flawed system that largely excludes ordinary people with a more streamlined one that totally excludes them. Most offensive of all, the proposals - allowing supermarkets, airports and new motorways to spread more rapidly - will lock us in to a high-carbon economy for decades, yet they are being promoted as if to help windfarm developers face off Noel Edmonds and the anti-renewables lobby.
Into this hornets' nest lands the latest energy white paper, with its controversial proposal for a rash of new nuclear power stations. I have long conceded that nuclear has a strong case as a provider of low-carbon baseload power, but this must not be at the expense of renewables and energy efficiency.
It is these kinds of questions that the new planning system must be equipped to deal with as we move towards a low-carbon economy. It's a shame the government doesn't trust ordinary people to come up with the right answers, and so sets up another quango instead. None of the "independent panels" deciding on the new power stations will be elected - but then neither will our next PM. Such is new Labour democracy.