When the railways were built in the nineteenth century their developers faced the problem of acquiring the land where they could go. The solution was robust. Over 250 private bills were driven though Parliament usurping existing property rights for the benefit of the developers - oh, and the nation of course.
The developers were thoughtful entrepreneurs so the routes were chosen to minimise political opposition. This meant avoiding high-value land or that owned by the politically powerful wherever possible. The odd trajectory of railway lines through London and other British cities tells us to this day where the urban poor then lived.
The slow arrival of democracy in Britain made life more difficult for developers. The private bills of the 19th Century were replaced in the 20th with the so-called hybrid bills, an early and legislative form of public-private partnership. As the century progressed however, public confidence in the ability of Parliament to subject the technical and economic case for major infrastructure projects to informed examination evaporated.
By the seventies the use of hybrid bills had fallen into disuse. The full burden of resolving the complex issues involved in deciding if, and where, nuclear power stations, ports and airports and other major infrastructure should go now fell on a planning system neither designed nor equipped to deal with them.
Ministers always retained the right to accept or reject the findings of any public inquiry and thus, in theory, to remain politically accountable. They were not slow, however, to recognise that political advantages of burying highly controversial issues in the long grass of due process and mind-numbingly boring detail.
For much of the past three decades this has sufficed to disguise the fact that there is no national consensus on the building of major infrastructure projects. There are wide differences of opinion within the public about not only where and how they should be built, but also about whether they are needed at all.
The planning system has been creaking and groaning under the strain for some time. It sort of worked. Most major projects that really were essential actually got built, albeit a bit later than intended. Those that were less well-founded disappeared into the long grass. The opponents grumbled, had their say and then went back to their gardens. Nobody got everything they wanted but everyone got something and political peace was maintained.
The tidal political forces swirling around the development of a third runway at Heathrow suggest that this phoney war between infrastructure developers and their opponents is over. Real hostilities are about to begin. This will expose the absence not only of any public consensus about new infrastructure, but also of any credible mechanism for building such a consensus.
The government’s case for giving the go-ahead for a third runway is deceptively simple: it is good for the economy and can be done without destroying the environment. Once upon a time these arguments could have been counted on to carry the day - if not with the opponents, at least with the wider public.
Today, it is not so easy. The allegation that the Department of Transport colluded with BAA to bend the environmental data to suit its case is more believed than doubted. The complex economic models purporting to show a net benefit to the economy of some £5 billion are recognised as heavily biased in favour of development. The argument that the runway is vital to maintain the City’s prominence as a financial centre is diminished by the fact that only 15% of the passengers at Heathrow are business travellers.
Furthermore, the local concerns about the destruction of 700 homes and a massive increase in disruption by noise and road traffic are powerfully reinforced by the absence of any convincing reconciliation of the government’s aviation growth policies with its climate policies. Large national and local constituencies are combining in opposition.
And they are no longer the urban poor. They are the affluent, confident middle class, experienced in the way business and government work and not remotely deferential. They are increasingly well-informed and highly connected in both senses of the word. They are aware of their rights and can afford to hire top-class lawyers to defend them. They are not easily gulled by pro-forma consultations carried out by a government with no intention of changing its mind.
The looming battle of the runways at Heathrow and Stansted is only the opening round in the infrastructure war that will soon be joined across the whole of southern England. There is no broad public agreement on how many roads, ports, railway terminals, houses, power stations and wind farms should be built, or where.
Three things are clear. The planning system is not the place to try to make these choices, dealing with them on a project-by-project basis will simply institutionalise social conflict and the government is no longer trusted to be a disinterested arbiter between developers and their opponents.
This is clearly recognised in the current Planning Bill. More the pity, therefore, that the proposed remedy will make the problem worse not better. To believe that the proposed Independent Planning Commission will be, or be seen to be, anything other than a factory for producing dodgy dossiers is to be especially naive. This is not a government that has acquired a reputation for welcoming advice with which it does not agree.
We would do better to look across the Channel at the Grenelle process that locked representatives from business, the unions, academics, environmentalists and the political parties in a room until they reached a consensus on how to tackle a range of such strategic issues. In responding to their conclusions, President Sarkozy agreed that France’s reliance on nuclear power should decline from its current 80% to 60%. Stranger things have happened, but not often.
Tom Burke, founding director of E3G, advised three Secretaries of State for the Environment in the 1990s and was Green Alliance’s director from 1982 to 1991