Government spin veils planning bill and Heathrow consultation

Every government needs a minister like Ruth Kelly. As education secretary, she had to contend with a major backbench backlash.

At the DCLG she lived through the controversy over home information packs. Now, as transport secretary, she is in charge of the expansion of Heathrow Airport. Not for nothing is she known by friend and foe alike as "Calamity Kelly".

Naturally, no decision has been taken on a third runway, as that would only follow a wide-ranging consultation exercise. Ministers always make such pledges with a straight face and without irony. This approach was hard enough to believe after the energy white paper fiasco. But statements issued this week by Kelly and prime minister Gordon Brown, supporting Heathrow's expansion even before consultation got under starter's orders, betray an ugly truth about how the government conducts itself.

Unless there is an election around the corner, ministers are contemptuous about the reaction to their proposals. So why do they persist in insulting people's intelligence? If they are serious about transparency in the system, why are they not admitting that they do not give a hoot about any opposition? Or would that be too transparent?

At best government consultation exercises now employ the three Cs: consult, consider and consign inconvenient views to the bin. Whitehall's argument that controversial projects should be "fast-tracked" is code for "do not bother with the first two Cs". This approach contributes to an overwhelming cynicism over the government's handling of major policy issues. It increases nimbyism instead of convincing the public of the need for development.

This week's planning bill is the latest example of over-the-top spin on public participation and consultation. People may have the right to be heard by an independent planning commission, but that is pretty lame without the right of cross-examination. The case for the commission itself is far from proven and we can expect controversy to dog its work whenever it is launched. It still looks like a convenient escape route for ministers keen to avoid any backlash from controversial decisions.

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