Of the 32 recommendations in Kate Barker's much anticipated Review of Land Use Planning report (December 2006) her recommendation that an independent planning commission (IPC) should decide major waste, energy and transport infrastructure proposals has attracted the most attention.
The case for an IPC is that it would overcome at least some of the deficiencies in the way the planning regime currently deals with the authorisation of major projects. Whilst it is by no means always the case in our experience that major projects take an eternity to be decided, there is a commonly held view that the planning system is not at its best when dealing with large schemes and that something ought to be done about the length and cost of inquiries into the biggest schemes.
An IPC would comprise a ‘well respected’ group of experts in their respective fields whose job would be consider whether a proposal should be permitted in view of its particular characteristics and having had the opportunity to hear views from those affected by it. Time would be saved because IPC would not have to grapple with issues of national policy beyond deciding whether the scheme is compliant with it or not. The Government will have already formulated policy in the form of a ‘statement of strategic objectives’ the precise form of which is at present uncertain, although perhaps the Airports White Paper is an indication of the sort of thing Kate Barker had in mind.
What might be the advantages?
?? Quicker decisions – the IPC would decide without reference to the Minister;
?? Removing any question of unfairness as Ministers would no longer be participating directly in the decision making process;
?? Decisions made by acknowledged experts in the relevant area of activity; and
?? Greater clarity about who is doing what.
A number of important questions remain unanswered at the moment, not least which projects would go before the IPC. Kate Barker suggests that a large number of projects could be determined by the IPC but there is no detail in her recommendations as to criteria that would be applied. This would come later, one assumes, in the form of various thresholds rather than a broader test along the lines of that for call-ins by the Secretary of State under s77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
Whether the Government is sufficiently attracted by the idea of an IPC to legislate for its introduction will turn, no doubt, upon whether it considers that the benefits for it can be achieved in practice (for example formulating policy statements will be difficult in practice and a target for legal challenges) and whether in democratic terms, a decision by the IPC, however expert it members may be, is acceptable.