Prime Minister David Cameron today used his speech to the CBI to suggest that he will make it much more difficult for members of the public or interest groups to question Government plans. He says that this is necessary in order to get the economy moving again, that we need to recapture the wartime spirit of not dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ in trying to win this ‘global race’.
Once again, though, this bluster is just a smokescreen to mask the fact that the Government has failed to provide anything that looks remotely like a growth strategy. They hired octagenarian Parliamentarian, Michael Heseltine to produce a strategy for them and promptly kicked it into the long grass when George Osborne felt his toes beig trodden on. Judicial Review (JR) is an important check in our democracy; it means that members of the public can hold Government to account for its actions by making sure that policies and decisions are legal. David Cameron waved around huge figures in order to demonstrate massive growth in JRs. What he failed to say is that the vast majority of JRs relate to immigration and asylum cases; they’re nothing to do with blocking development.
Cameron also announced an end to the need for ‘equalities assessments’. Somerset residents may recall that it was Somerset County Council’s failure to properly undertake this requirement that ultimately saved our beloved libraries from Maddock and Osman’s axe so let’s not pretend that this move will be without adverse consequences.
The number of developments that are held up by JR is in any case tiny. The problem is not that the planning system is holding back business developments and jobs, the problem is that business, often quite cash-rich, is deterred from investing through lack of confidence; a lack of confidence caused by the double-dip recession. Reforming the planning system and limiting access to Judicial Reviews will do nothing to unlock the business purse.
Cameron used the examples of the need to build new roads and rail infrastructure and insisted that the system couldn’t be allowed to get in the way. This is a fallacy as such developments are already dealt with by the Infrastructure Planning Commission quango (IPC) not local Councils. The IPC was established by the Labour Government to enable development without needing to do any proper consultation. Somerset residents may be familiar with its operation through the recent Hinkley inquiry where residents were not allowed to discuss the principle of the development and had to restrict their comments to what colour it would be painted etc. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that particular case, it is silly to pretend that the planning system is standing in the way of infrastructure development.
Having said sall that, the planning system is not perfect and neither is the way it is operated by local Councils. I have long railed against Taunton Deane Borough Council’s obsession with redeveloping employment land for housing and not replacing it. In the centre of Taunton, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide something meaningful at the Firepool site. It looks, from the local press, however, that we are being softened up to accept an Aldi store instead.
So my message to David Cameron would be that if he wants to avoid delays in implementing his plans, start making them legal.