Environment News Service (ENS)

British Public Could Lose the Right of Public Comment

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Source: Environment News Service (ENS)

LONDON, UK, July 13, 2007 (ENS) - An application to build a waste incinerator on the site of London's beloved St. Paul's Cathedral was delivered to the Corporation of London's Planning Office on Monday. The application was made by Planning Disaster, a coalition of British environmental organizations representing more than two million people.

The application was withdrawn on Tuesday. Its sole purpose was to make the point that the public's right to have a say on major new developments is under threat from government proposals to reform the planning system.

The government is proposing to change the planning system to speed up major developments – such as power stations. New developments as large as nuclear power stations and airport runways could soon be forced through without public input as part of a major overhaul of planning.

Plans for the overhaul are detailed in a White Paper published May 21 by the government of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

'Today, the public can still have the right to object to barmy planning applications which could damage our environment or our communities - such as the application we made to build an incinerator on the site of St Paul's Cathedral,' said Owen Espley, coordinator of Planning Disaster.

'If the Planning White Paper goes ahead in its current form, the public will effectively lose their right to a say,' he warned.

Proposals in the Government's White Paper would remove the public's democratic right to challenge projects at public inquiry.

Planning decisions would be taken out of the hands of accountable politicians and handed over to an unelected, unaccountable new body called the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

'We are asking people to act now (click here) or lose their voice on what happens in their area,' Espley urged.

In the 199 page White Paper, public comment is mentioned only once, to explain 'the guidance role of the infrastructure planning commission at the scheme development stage.'

It says the commission 'might recommend that where appropriate, promoters carry out both an early consultation on options for the development and a further consultation on a preferred option.'

'We believe that once a promoter has selected its preferred option, it should carry out further consultation to inform the public of its choice and gather their views on the preferred option,' the White Paper states.

The commission might also recommend 'a minimum time for which the promoter should consult, to ensure that members of the public, affected landowners and It local communities have a fair opportunity to comment,' states the White Paper.

The White Paper was presented by the former heads of four government agencies - Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Govenment; Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry; David Miliband, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for Transport.

None of these officials is in the same position today that they occupied in the Blair government when the White Paper was presented, but they are all still in the Cabinet. Kelly is now Transport Secretary, Darling is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, Miliband is now Foreign Secretary, and Alexander is now Secretary of International Development.

Members of the Planning Disaster Coalition were hopeful that under the new government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the White Paper will be shelved.

But the Prime Minister told the House of Commons Wednesday that the forthcoming Planning Bill would, 'implement the Barker and Eddington reports to speed up the development of major infrastructure projects ... and speed up planning generally.'

Ben Stafford, CPRE’s Head of Campaigns, said, 'There is an ongoing consultation on the Government’s Planning White Paper. Environmental NGOs are united in saying that many of the proposals in the White Paper will be a disaster for the environment and for local democracy. We fear the Prime Minister may be pre-empting the outcome of this consultation.'

If the planning proposal does get the green light, the NGOs warn that up to 10 nuclear power plants around the UK, including reactors at Sizewell in Suffolk, Calderhall in Cumbria and Hartlepool, could be approved without public input.

Other developments that the public would not be able to comment on include super-incinerators at Deptford in South East London and Colnbrook in Slough; as well as airport expansions at Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Heathrow and Stansted.

Major road schemes including a bypass between Hastings and Bexhill in the South East, M6 widening between Staffordshire and Cheshire, and a new road bridge across the Mersey would also be off-limits to public comment if the new planning proposal is approved.

The Planning Disaster Coalition, whose members include, Airport Watch, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of The Earth, nef, the Ramblers' Association, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Transport 2000, The Wildlife Trusts, and The Woodland Trust is publishing a complete list of major developments in England over which the public's right to have a say could be threatened.

The Coalition has made it easy for members of the public to make their voices heard in the government consultation. All they need to do is send the government an email . The deadline for public comment on the White Paper is August 17.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England, CPRE, says, 'We fear the proposals for Major Infrastructure Projects will reduce the level of real community involvement in deciding what gets built in their local area.

'It has the potential to result in a twin track approach where scheme promoters and large environmental organizations will engage in consultation but individuals and communities will find it difficult to have their voices heard,' the CPRE says.

CPRE is also worried that the proposed Independent Planning Commission's membership will be too much influenced by economics and won't have enough people 'with a robust environmental background.'

CPRE is holding a Planning White Paper Seminar next Thursday from 10:30 am to 4.30 pm at the Resource Centre in London. People can find out about the government’s proposals for planning reform and what this means for towns and cities, and the environment.

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