As Europe's largest civil engineering project, the £16 billion Crossrail would qualify as a nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) under the Planning Bill. The point is academic now that it has planning permission under the Crossrail Act, but it raises an interesting question.
The Planning Bill provides for an appointed infrastructure planning commission (IPC) to decide applications for NSIPs. The government has argued that the bill will give communities affected by NSIPs a far greater say on such projects. But had the IPC been in place when permission for Crossrail was sought, would it have made the decision-making process more accountable?
Consent was obtained for Crossrail through a hybrid bill covering construction, maintenance and operation. Hybrid bills are public bills that affect particular private interests more than others. The Crossrail Bill, for example, provided for compulsory purchase of a significant number of properties along the route.
- Petitioner concerns answered
Following the bill's Commons second reading, a select committee of the house sat for 84 days to hear 205 petitions. Later, a Lords select committee sat for 29 days to hear a further 45 petitions. These were only a fraction of the total presented, many of which were settled in undertakings given by the promoter.
A large proportion of the petitions were brought by private citizens whose homes would be affected by construction noise and disturbance and businesses set to lose their premises. All were able to present their concerns in public meetings with MPs and peers involved in the scrutiny process. Many achieved significant concessions and safeguards.
The select committees secured provision for a new station at Woolwich and a dedicated ticket hall at Liverpool Street. The consensus is that these changes provide a better scheme. But a plethora of minor changes and safeguards accepted by the promoter are reflected not in the act itself but in improvements to more detailed government commitments that resulted from the committees' robust public scrutiny.
An important lesson is that politicians have a vital role in striking the appropriate balance between delivering new infrastructure for all and respecting the amenities and property of those directly affected. Even where petitioners were disappointed by the outcome, they saw that their concerns had been considered by people who were not experts but who, like them, had a lay perspective and were mindful of the questions and apprehensions that arise in that context.
It seems that the IPC will be a more distant creature. It will have a statutory duty, unless limited exceptions apply, to decide applications for NSIPs in accordance with national policy statements (NPSs). These are to be produced by government departments in Whitehall, stating how much infrastructure of a particular type is required and setting criteria for its location.
- Accountability gap emerges
While NPSs will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, the detail of particular applications is to be left to the appointed IPC. The level of democratic accountability would then compare poorly with the select committee procedure, where the detail is inspected by those actively engaged in the parliamentary process.
The accountability gap appears even greater in the Welsh context. The Planning Bill does not prescribe an active role for the Welsh Assembly Government in drafting NPSs, not even in cases where development is expressly directed to Wales. The most the assembly gets is that it should be consulted.
The implications of this accountability gap for major infrastructure projects, which are rarely uncontroversial, are clear. The two matters that typically emerge as the greatest concern for private citizens are the impacts on residential amenity and property rights. Crossrail was no different, but the direct involvement of the democratic process added legitimacy to the decision-making.
It brought a sense that the likelihood of ongoing controversy had been reduced because of the involvement of select committees charged with protecting the private interests of people affected by the scheme. As the Planning Bill enters its final stages, parliament might do worse than to reflect upon recent experience with the hybrid bill process and the advantages of direct democratic accountability on NSIPs.