Heathrow delay 'shows expert panels can't take politics out of planning'

The government's announcement that it is to further delay a decision on airport expansion in the South East until next summer shows that it is unrealistic to expect independent expert panels can take the politics out of planning, planning experts have said.

Heathrow: fresh uncertainty over expansion plan
Heathrow: fresh uncertainty over expansion plan

The government-appointed Airports Commission was tasked with making a recommendation on how to expand aviation capacity in the southeast.

It unanimously concluded in July that an additional runway at Heathrow Airport is the preferred option.

The two remaining shortlisted options under consideration were a second runway at Gatwick Airport and an extension of the existing northern runway at Heathrow.  

The government said at the time that it would offer its response to the commission’s recommendations by the end of this year.

However, it has now announced that it will undertake "a package of further work", which it expects will conclude over the summer 2016. 

Angus Walker, partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell and chair of the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA), said the statement does not mention any airports by name, which he said "appears to be having the effect of winding the Airports Commission work back to when it published its shortlist of three options".

Walker added: "It doesn’t bode that well for the National Infrastructure Commission because it shows that you can’t take the politics out of planning. But then I don’t think you should in fact. You have to recognise that politics is an essential element of planning.

"But what the Airports Commission and presumably the National Infrastructure Commission will provide is a better evidential backdrop for these political decisions to be taken."

Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, suggested it was not realistic to think politics could be taken out of planning.

He said: "Planning decisions should be based on rational evidence … but all decisions in planning are also about values, and that means they are about politics, so politics is always going to be a part of this."

Ellis said independent expert panels do offer benefits, but added "they only deal with part of the decision-making process".

He added: "They bring benefit, you would hope, when they work well by getting people to agree what the evidence is for growth or not, or the environmental impact, or not. But what they have been less successful of in an English context is to actually communicate that and talking to people and getting their views about it."

For more reaction click here. 


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