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Can the ‘Big Society’ deliver infrastructure investment?

Malcolm Chilton

The UK’s government took office in May with a big idea: instead of big government we would have the ‘Big Society’.The idea, in summary, is that wherever feasible the state should take a back seat and allow citizens and communities to decide what should happen at a local level.

Announcements since May have given an indication of how this Big Society is to develop. The question now for those involved in waste, energy and indeed any major infrastructure development is how will this impact planning decisions, sectoral progress and the ability to meet essential targets?

One of aspects of the Big Society to watch with interest is how it impacts on the allocation of financial resources. Historically elected political leaders, advised by professionals, make the often difficult judgements about which social priorities should take precedence in the allocation of resources. The mobilisation of communities may make that process more difficult.

Evidence of this conflict is already becoming apparent. Recently, Dartford Borough Council gave residents a choice between weekly or alternate weekly refuse collections. The decision was to maintain a weekly service which was commended by Local Government Minister Bob Neill. “It’s good to see the council listening to local people,” he said. However, Oxfordshire District Council led the decision to swap to alternate weekly collections, boosting recycling from 44% to almost 70% within a year and making an annual saving of £400,000.

This clearly illustrates the dilemma. Two core objectives of government policy are to boost recycling rates and to reduce the cost of public services, but, given the choice, people may vote to keep approaches that are both fiscally and environmentally inefficient.

The problem becomes even more significant when it becomes necessary to reconcile nationally important needs for investment, for example, in new homes and infrastructure, with local decision-making. At one level this is addressed through the planning regime that has been created (subject to impeding reform) to handle Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). But many regionally important projects will fall below the thresholds for that regime and be determined by local planning authorities.

For example, an Energy from Waste facility designed to handle 400,000 tonnes of waste would fall below the 50MW energy threshold of the NSIP regime, but generally would serve the residual waste management needs of more than one local planning authority. A localist approach to planning would be likely to subject the planning application for such a facility to some kind of local referendum, taking the decision away from elected members, assisted by professional advice. Indeed, future planning reform promised by the Coalition and set out in the pre-election Conservative party green paper ‘Open Source Planning’ envisages going further than this. It says that where a significant minority of those affected by a development proposal express their opposition it will be refused planning consent.

Underlying this appears to be a belief that vested interests, backed by an endless stream of cash, are able to ride roughshod over the wishes of local people. But that simply isn’t the case. Any planning applicant is required to expend substantial time and effort in liaison and consultation with local communities and a host of other interested parties. They must demonstrate that their proposals conform to a host of regulatory requirements and policy positions. At the end of the process, applicants should be entitled to expect that their proposals will be seriously weighted in the public interest by well-advised political leaders.

Ministers seem to be aware of this tension and when talking of reform to the planning system (commencing with the Localism Bill), they refer to the need to provide incentives to communities to host forms and levels of development that, instinctively, they may not favour. In terms of the energy sector, and pertinent to EfW, ministers are saying that it should be permissible for prospective developers to offer direct community benefits to help overcome opposition. Suggested benefits include discounted electricity and community funds – but these types of benefits are already possible through Section 106 agreements and are already offered on many planning projects. Certainly in my experience such benefits are increasingly expected but have little impact on the level of opposition and objection that a proposed development elicits.

It is clear from this brief overview that the government needs to think carefully about where the balance between strong political leadership and local self-determination should be drawn.

Malcolm Chiltern is managing director at Covanta Energy

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