With 75% of municipal waste infrastructure planning permissions granted through the appeals system, the high court judgment over Sita’s proposed incinerator at St Dennis in Cornwall might look, on the face of it, like another shot in the long-running war between Nimbys and waste planners.
The case is no mere Nimby debate though, and the latest judgment is another twist in an extraordinary tale of convoluted decision-making distorted by conflicting interests, contradictory ‘facts’, local authority unitarisation, and confused waste planning and procurement.
Perhaps the Government’s Localism Bill can help prevent such painful long drawn out muddles in future - there is certainly huge scope for improvement - but it will do so only if lessons are learned now.
The high court judgment makes apparent that the process by which relevant ‘competent authorities’ reached their various decisions about the proposed Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre was opaque not just to the communities affected, but also to the authorities themselves.
With significant implications for the localism and planning deregulation agendas, there seem to be two key areas where clarity must be provided - one about a community’s right to be taken seriously; the other about the relation between the planning and environmental protection regimes.
At the heart of Cornwall Waste Forum’s case, upheld by the high court, was their ‘legitimate expectation’ that substantive points raised in the planning and permitting processes be properly considered. The fight this small self-funded community network had to be heard at all demonstrates that we still have much to learn about effective working with communities - especially where communities of interest overlap with geographic communities. Just because people are local doesn’t mean they lack technical knowledge or rigour!
The lack of due consideration of the substantive points raised by the Cornwall Waste Forum illuminated a gap, and some confusion, between the Planning Inspectorate, the Environment Agency and Natural England. The boundaries of the planning, pollution control and habitat protection regimes were found in this case not to meet. Lord Chief Justice Collins made clear that while the Environment Agency was the authority with regard to the pollution control of an operation, the Planning Authority should attend to its impacts even where these result from an operation controlled by the agency.
So in the future planning regime, if the presumption is to be for sustainable development, whose definition should we be following? It’s clear now that the answer is far from clear. A bad answer will see a proliferation of judicial reviews as we work it out on a case by case basis.
Matthew Thomson, chief executive, London Community Resource Network
Cornwall incinerator decision: a triumph for localism?