Today a consultation closes on how Labour propose to change the system we have for planning long-term infrastructure need in the UK. Sir John Armitt, the Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, has been drawing up proposals for the party, and the National Trust has been commenting on these.
This matters to us because, whether new roads or rail lines, airports, large scale electricity generation or pylon routes (to give a few examples), infrastructure can have a profound effect on the special places we care for, and special areas of countryside and coast more widely.
Sir John is proposing the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission, independent of Government, which will produce a long-term (25-30 year) National Infrastructure Assessment. Government departments would then draw up Sector Infrastructure Plans to address specific aspects of the need identified by the Commission.
Broadly speaking, we don’t see the need for the major reforms to the current planning process that Sir John is proposing. We do however see scope to improve public engagement and the ability for people to shape schemes as they come forward. There may also be need for Government to give clearer spatial guidance on where development shouldn’t go, so that we can ensure it avoids damaging special places such as National Parks and AONBs.
Decisions on infrastructure need and what to prioritise are not simply about what kit should be placed where, but are also values based choices about what would be appropriate and their relative impacts on people and places.
Depoliticising this process – as proposed by Armitt – may seem attractive, but could mean the decision-making framework becomes less responsive to these values based, political factors. Not everything that is valued by society can be priced or monetised, at least not without some heroic assumptions that are not without challenge.
This is why we believe a Government Minister should continue to be responsible for making decisions about infrastructure as the embodiment of the wider public interest.
We are also concerned that creating a National Infrastructure Commission could lead to a situation where new ‘grey’ infrastructure is always seen as desirable, when improving existing infrastructure, demand management (including the role of taxation or pricing), or using green or natural infrastructure such as natural flood management may sometimes be the more effective and sustainable solution.
Some of our concerns in this area are heightened by the detail of the proposals. For instance, in drawing up the National Infrastructure Assessment, the two main factors the Commission would need to consider are the need to support long term economic growth and maintain the UK’s international competitiveness. For the National Trust, thinking long term means more than simply supporting ‘long term economic growth’. The Commission should assess infrastructure need not based simply on the needs of the economy, but using a triple bottom line approach which reconciles these needs with those of the people and the planet.
Landscape and natural beauty should be particularly important considerations in preparing the assessment, as should the need to deliver net gain for biodiversity, but these do not feature at all. Mitigating and adapting to climate change and achieving sustainable development seem to be second order considerations in the current proposals rather than key factors.
We are also concerned about the independence of the Commission. In our view the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have far too great an influence over the Commission if the draft proposals remain unaltered. For instance, they can give guidance to the Commission on how to exercise its functions, appoint members of the Commission, are consulted on who is to be the Chief Executive Officer, and have a say over how many staff the Commission has.
If the Infrastructure Commission is to make decisions which are in the genuine long-term interests of the country, its members must represent a broad range of interests from different sectors and should be nominated by other Government departments, including Defra, DECC and DCLG. These members should be approved by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee as well as by the Treasury Committee.
Finally, there is a concern that both the existing system and the replacement proposed by Sir John overlook the local and personal experiences of infrastructure and the need to secure a wider public mandate.
We have asked the review team to consider some proposals from Green Alliance (of which the Trust is a member) on how better to involve the public in infrastructure planning, including the positive experience of the French National Commission for Public Debate.