Magazine article Public Finance

Power Plays

Magazine article Public Finance

Power Plays

Article excerpt

Later this year, as recession edges further towards depression, ministers will face another multibillion pound funding dilemma: the challenge of renewing England's ageing power generation and electricity distribution networks.

But that's just the start Details of other, equally expensive projects under the all-embracing 'infrastructure' label - improved roads and railways, expanded ports and airports, for instance - will soon be published by Whitehall, hi the most extensive exercise of its kind, government departments are preparing a stream of officially titled 'national policy statements' for England - on energy and much else besides - as part of the biggest legislative shake-up in the planning system for more than 60 years.

Hand in glove with this process is a parallel, more controversial exercise, central to the reforms and embodied in the 2008 Planning Act. This is the creation, potentially, of the most powerful quango since the acronym for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation' was coined in the 1970s. The Infrastructure Planning Commission, now emerging in shadow form and certain to come into effect next year, will become the final arbiter of how these policy statements are put into practice: the siting of power stations, wind farms and new runways, for instance.

Into this legal minefield - for High Court challenges are likely in a number of areas - steps Sir Michael Pitt, who has emerged as the government s preferred candidate to chair the IPC. Pitt, a former chief executive of Kent and Cheshire county councils, is an engineer by training who has held a number of senior technical posts in local government Since his critical report on the disastrous 2007 floods in England, he has also assumed the mantle of government troubleshooter

The IPC will be based in Bristol, conveniently not too far from Pitt s home near Malmesbury, Wiltshire. But he will have his work cut out Unsurprisingly, the IPC concept has provoked uproar among environmental groups. They warn of the potential for endless judicial reviews and civil disobethence. Indeed, the green custard hurled recently at Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, in protest at plans for a third runway at Heathrow, could be just the start

Now the shadow Cabinet has jumped on the bandwagon. In a recent speech extolling the virtues of 'localism', Conservative leader David Cameron said a future Tory government would retain the relatively uncontroversial national policy statement process. But he promised that he would scrap the IPC, whose independence has been compared to that enjoyed by the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, which sets interest rates.

Cameron also promised that other anti-democratic' aspects of the government's planning and development apparatus would go - notably national house building targets, an emerging regional planning system that dilutes the powers of town halls, and nine regional development agencies, which would oversee part of the process. Instead, Cameron said, local councils would be given more planning powers.

The growing row between Opposition and government seems a far cry from one of Labours greatest achievements: the ground-breaking 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and associated legislation, which created green belts, national parks and new towns, with land nationalisation the eventual aim.

Changed times, indeed. Far from proposing anything quite so radical, the new legislation was born at the opposite end of the political spectrum: namely how to tilt the system more towards big business. It was based on a review, largely commissioned by the Treasury, from the economist Kate Barker - significantly, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee. Her report gave the former chancellor, Gordon Brown, what he wanted: a more market-friendly planning system, which offered the prospect of fast-tracking big infrastructure projects deemed vital to the national economy.

That meant keeping business sweet in pre-credit crunch times, by curbing the use of the time-consuming public inquiry process. …

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