Planning for Political Disaster - Submission to planning policy reform white paper

Introduction

I currently work as an independent, self-employed environmental policy and research consultant, a position which I have held for 15 years. I had previously worked as an environmental policy consultant for a private environmental consultancy, Inspectorate Casella.

I qualified with a PhD on nuclear policy making in the United Kingdom from the Open University, awarded in 1987. The six years researching and writing my doctoral thesis, Nuclear Powers: an assessment of nuclear decision making, 1932-1979, with special reference to the Anglo-American  Atomic Relationship, gave me a detailed grounding in the successes and failures of major nuclear  energy projects across five decades. I have subsequently (1987-1990) co-authored a book on nuclear waste policy development and implementation, The International Politics of Nuclear Waste, Macmillan Press, 1991; a chapter on Thorp and radioactive waste policy in Management of Nuclear Waste, Thomas Telford 1991; and two chapters on nuclear waste and civil nuclear security policy in the UK in Nuclear or Not, Palgrave Macmillan, February 2007.

I have also contributed to several other books on nuclear decision-making, including The Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age (1989) and made several submissions to nuclear public inquiries, including Sizewell B  (in1983-85) Dounreay European Demonstration Reprocessing Plant (1986) and Hinkley C (1989), as well as submissions to several Parliamentary select committee hearings, including the House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee  (TISC) enquiry into nuclear power (2006), The Environmental Audit Select Committee enquiry into ‘Keeping the Lights on’ (2005-06), and Lords Science & Technology Committee enquiry into Radioactive Waste Management (2006). Additionally, I was a contributing author to the European Parliament’s Science & Technology Options Programme (STOA) investigation into European Nuclear Reprocessing Plants (2001) and the International MOX Assessment (IMA) Project (1996). Between 1999-2000, I was also international editor of Plutonium Investigation, a monthly specialist web-based newsletter.

My other relevant experience to make this submission is I was a member of both BNFL  national stakeholder dialogue (2000-2004), when I was a member of both the Plutonium Working Group and the Security Issues Working Group; and subsequently the successor Nuclear Decommissioning Authority national stakeholder engagement group, participating in the Nuclear Materials Issues Group. During this period I was a member of the SERA energy Group, for which I prepared evidence submitted to 2006 Energy Review.

Commentary

The whole perspective of the White Paper is based on an erroneous evaluation of what has been wrong in the past with planning process, and therefore unsurprisingly comes up with suggested solutions, which  would make changes that do not address the real problem: that is, the proper engagement of the public and other interested parties in the planning system.

My criticisms which follow are based on my own evaluation of what is wrong with planning process from my 20–odd years of active engagement with it, in particular in the energy and nuclear sectors.

In my judgment there ought to be a legal underpinning to ensure independent and objective “opportunities for public consultation and community engagement” (first mentioned at Para 1.37, and eight times subsequently). It is insufficient to rely upon ministerial guidance issued in connection with any particular planning inquiry.

Para1.37 also asserts the importance of “transparency” I agree this crucial, but discovered the proposed system “may” include exclusive pre-consultation with “relevant experts or organisations” on particular National Policy Statements, selected presumably by Government departments under political direction of ministers. Such a proposal would undermine any subsequent transparency, because it would give officially selected interests the ability to set the policy agenda, which would only subsequently be subjected to the possibility of minor amendment, but not radical change of direction, in any open public or parliamentary consultation.

My view is any National Policy Statement produced by Government informed only by elite selected input would be defective. It might indeed produce a “clearer strategic framework” for policy, but it would be undemocratic and inevitably biased. If ministers genuinely want better policy development they should test the coherence and credibility of national policy in an open public Inquiry. It may take longer, but having it tested by interested parties which volunteer participation, rather than being chosen by government, will improve the robustness and utility of the policy framework.

My experience of the very long running Sizewell Public inquiry in 1983 was unless the national energy policy framework as presented by the then Department of Energy had been subjected to close policy scrutiny, the subsequent nuclear policy decision would have  been even more in error than it turned out to be. I believe the whole concept of elite  “National Policy Statements” is misguided, because popular scrutiny will be missing.

The suggestions for Parliamentary scrutiny of NPSs are welcome, but the mechanisms proposed are too vague. While Select Committees may be able to conduct detailed scrutiny, especially if the Committee is given the powers of discovery of papers and people held by the Environmental Audit and Public Accounts Committees respectively, select committees have no powers to require ministers to act on, as against reply to, their conclusions.

Following consideration by Select Committee, the Committee’s proposed changes to any NPS should be subject to a resolution  put to Parliament on a motion in the name of the relevant Committee, on which MPs should be allowed a free-vote. This should not be subjected to Party political amendment by the Lords. If there is to be a legal challenge thereafter, Government should never be allowed to challenge Parliament’s decision in the Courts.

I have one general point to make in respect of chapter 4 on consultation: the voluntary organisation opponents of any project should be provided with public funds to allow them to adequately and fully present their objection; such funds should cover minimally board and lodgings at inquiry  venue, travel, research and any legal costs incurred. The funds should be raised as a levy on the promoters of the project.

I am unconvinced by the merits of an elite Infrastructure Planning Commission. However, if an IPC is to be created, it must be ensured its composition and resourcing is fair and adequate for purpose. Its membership should in each case contain at least one representative of an non governmental group, one from a trades  union, and one academic in each case that oppose the planned infrastructure development. Unless such overt opposition is represented on a statutory basis, I feel the IPC will lack credibility.

While I agree commissioners should not be appointed to the IPC as “representatives of particular organisations, interests or political parties,” (Para.5.58) I do feel they should represent the concerns of sectoral interests. I feel the suggestion that commissioners might be appointed for up to eight years is misguided. While not wanting to create insecurity through fear of dismissal, I think three years would be more than adequate as a period of tenure.

Para.5.61, if implemented as currently drafted, would render any sensibly composed IPC unworkable, as commissioners would only be useful in making major decisions in the public interest if their interesting the matters under consideration were to influence their decisions. This should rather specify “financial interest.”

Rather than as is suggested by the White Paper on page 78, projects referred to the IPC should be done so by ministerial direction alone,  they should  be subject additionally to Parliamentary approval on a free vote.

My general comment is the proposed revision of the planning system tends towards more elitist and less democratic decision-making. It ought to aim for the exact opposite.

Dr David Lowry
Stoneleigh, 17- 8-07

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