Energy columnist Malcolm Chilton explains what the changes to the planning system will mean for the waste industry.
It can be argued that there are clear tensions between the government’s desire to push through development by streamlining the planning system and creating a decentralised approach to localism. These differences are apparent especially to those of us involved in the development of the UK’s waste infrastructure.
The Localism Bill is currently working its way through parliament. However indicators are emerging about how this interface will be managed outside Westminster (at a local level).
The recently published Waste Review contained some decidedly localist messages, including:
· confirmation that the government will not lower the 50MW threshold for waste projects to be considered within the streamlined planning system for nationally significant infrastructure projects in order to ensure that the vast majority of waste planning decisions are taken at the local level and in response to local views; and
· rowing back on threats from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to enforce “every Englishman’s right” to have their bins emptied every week by telling local authorities what pattern of waste collection to adopt.
At the same time, there are some mixed messages emerging around the concept of sustainable development that the government wishes to place at the heart of the planning system. Before the election, the Conservative party’s planning policy promised that localism would be enshrined through a new “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, which would ensure that local planning decisions reflected the wishes of local communities. Such thinking was widely derided as paving the way for a ‘NIMBY’s charter’ in which the weight of local opposition would outweigh the economic, social and environmental arguments in favour of development.
By the time the 2011 Budget was announced along with its “Plan for growth”, the Government’s planning agenda had changed dramatically. Now, it was argued, key Government objectives required more, not less development:
· more housing, especially affordable housing to help overcome market entry-barriers
· more commercial development to create jobs in the private sector to replace those that will be lost through public spending cuts
· more infrastructure, in renewable and low-carbon energy (something which is urgently needed), and in transport.
The new “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, it was promised, would be the lynchpin in enabling this development. It would be the “silver bullet” that would pave a clear way through local opposition by defining the parameters for acceptability. The draft of what this new presumption might look like was issued for comment at the end of June. It stated that:“The Government is committed to ensuring that the planning system does everything it can to support long term, sustainable economic growth, and has made it clear that significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic recovery through the planning system and related consent regimes.
“Our approach to sustainable development involves making the necessary decisions now to realise our vision of stimulating economic growth and tackling the deficit, maximising wellbeing and protecting our environment, without negatively impacting on the ability of future generations to do the same.”
Going forward, the default position for local planning authorities should be to say ‘yes’ to development, except where the adverse effects would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits. In other words, planning permission should be refused only where merited by strong material considerations, including, crucially, the provisions of an up-to-date development plan.
Many will look at this and ask what is fundamentally different to the plan-led system that already operates, but there are three crucial differences.
1. peoples’ expectations about their ability to influence outcomes are substantially greater;
2. the means of community organisation and action are much better developed; and
3. the Localism Bill will give communities powerful new tools with which to exert influence over their elected representatives.
Malcolm Chilton is UK Managing Director of Covanta Energy