Sunday, 5 July 2015

"You can't take the politics out of infrastructure planning"

When it comes to infrastructure, it's not just a matter of 'getting on with it'....

Infrastructure is not in itself a 'good thing' - or a 'bad thing' for that matter:
Futures Forum: The Infrastructure Bill: "Infrastructure isn’t just about pouring concrete... It’s essential that we see infrastructure as a means to an end, not as an end in itself."

There is always a political purpose in building infrastructure:
Futures Forum: Subsidies and social engineering: or why we build roads.

And there will always be a desire to 'cooperate' between the politicians and the builders of infrastructure:
Futures Forum: Happy news coming out of Cranbrook... churnalism and the partnership between developers and politicians...
Futures Forum: Crony capitalism and lemon socialism in East Devon........ The costs of "substantial growth and expanding business"
Futures Forum: Lobbying: big business and big government in East Devon

Someone - usually the taxpayer - has to pay for it, however:
Futures Forum: Investing in roads in East Devon: who pays ... and who benefits?

Someone's private property has to be used to make way for infrastructure:
Futures Forum: The Infrastructure Bill, trespass law and fracking

And someone has to benefit from the infrastructure -  but they might be hundreds of miles away:
Futures Forum: HS2 and the South-West
Futures Forum: What transport infrastructure do we want for East Devon?

Nevertheless, the more astute developers appreciate the need to 'get on with' the political process, as in this piece from the Engineer magazine:
You can't take the politics out of infrastructure planning | Opinion | The Engineer

The green infrastructure lobby also appreciates that with "more discussion about choices and trade-offs, better decisions are made and more will get built."
Don’t take politics out of infrastructure planning | green alliance blog

In the wake of the decision on Heathrow, Andrew Rawnsley in today's Observer takes us through the issues:

We’d dig ourselves a deep hole if we took politics out of planning

We may be slow as a country when it comes to major infrastructure projects. That’s the price of living in a democracy

Sunday 5 July 2015 

Anti-fracking campaigners

 Anti-fracking campaigners celebrating outside county hall in Preston after Lancashire county council rejected Cuadrilla's application to frack for shale gas at two sites in the county. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Observer
New York in the 1920s was a mess. Let down by its venal politicians, the city’s transport was hopeless and its housing dreadful. Then along came a man with a plan. A grand plan. His name was Robert Moses. Armed with autocratic powers, and fuelled by a titanic megalomania, the urban planner ruthlessly transformed the place. Some of what he did in park creation and bridge construction was magnificent; much of his legacy was terrible. Expressways were sliced through neighbourhoods as he prioritised cars over people. His construction projects had scant regard for the fabric or the quality of human life. Scores of traditional communities were ripped apart. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. All in the name of progress. And masterminded by a man who was never elected to anything.
Robert Caro, in his superb and recently republished biography of Moses, writes: “Democracy had not solved the problem of building large-scale urban works, so Moses solved it by ignoring democracy.” To which the defenders of Moses will retort: “Well, at least he got things built.”
I catch an echo of that story whenever Britain debates why we are rather slow and clumsy when it comes to major infrastructure projects. It brings out the inner Moses in those who think they know best how to turn this into a promised land. It is in the voices of the lobbyists for the expansion of Heathrow when they complain that a decision is still stuck in a holding pattern. Bugger the objections of the mayor of London, local MPs and a lot of the voters who live under the flight path. So says the CBI in so many words when it huffs: “The government must make a decision now and get diggers in the ground.”
Something similar comes from the proselytisers for fracking when they fume in frustration that Lancashire councillors are throwing sand in their plans by refusing to sanction it in their county. Stuff the objections of these nimbyish naysayers. Just get on with boring for Britain.
It is the refrain you hear every time that enthusiasts for grand projects they believe to be in the national interest – and possibly their own self-interest – are frustrated. “Why can’t we take the politics out of this?” they cry. What they are really saying is: “Why can’t we take the democracy out of this?”
There is and always will be tension between strategic planning and local interests, especially when it comes to big infrastructure projects. My vital contribution to our country’s future is your blighted neighbourhood. Your national imperative is my flattened house. Airports are the classic case, which is why the arguments about a new runway in the south-east of England seem to have been rumbling around since the invention of the biplane.
The last Labour government, like several governments before it, hummed and hawed, squabbled and split over whether or not to support the expansion ofHeathrow. At that time, David Cameron was a leader of the opposition exploiting Labour’s torment and hungry for power. He was chasing environmentally minded voters. Those were the days of “Vote Blue, Go Green”. He wanted to win marginal seats in the west of London. He was projecting himself as a different kind of Tory leader who would not everywhere and always give big business the first thing it asked for. So he decided not to take the politics out of Heathrow, but to inject more politics into the issue. He declared himself against a third runway: “No ifs, no buts.” The sort of declaratory statement that sounds ringing in opposition, but can come back to bite you later.
To symbolise his pledge, he planted an apple tree in an orchard that would be razed by Heathrow expansion. The tree is now dead. The orchard has vanished and where it stood is a patch of thistles. A rather neat metaphor for the prickly predicament that the prime minister now finds himself in.
He has been bludgeoned by intense pressure from the pro-Heathrow lobby within and without government. These are people who still believe in the power of advertising to bend credulous minds. There is a subway connecting Westminster and Whitehall that is much frequented by MPs, civil servants and political journalists. Walk through it and you are confronted with wall-to-wall advertising clamouring for the third runway.
His party and his government divided, Mr Cameron sought “to take the politics out” of the decision by commissioning a report from an “expert”. Step forward Sir Howard Davies, former controller of the Audition Commission, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, former deputy governor of the Bank of England, the technocrat’s technocrat. Sir Howard has spent almost three years and approaching £20m investigating the subject. He has laboured mightily and brought forth an elephant. His report weighs in at 344 pages. Within the terms of reference he was given by the government, he and his commission have done a painstaking job. He marshals the evidence for and against this option or that before reasoning his way to the conclusion that there should be a third runway at Heathrow. Job done? Political timebomb defused? Decision cleared for landing? Is it heck.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London, newly elected MP for a seat in the west of the capital and wannabe successor to Mr Cameron, is still promising to prostrate himself before the bulldozers – a pledge we must hold him to. Zac Goldsmith, wannabe Tory successor to Mr Johnson at City Hall, is as implacably opposed as ever. As are other Conservative MPs representing seats in the area, including at least five cabinet ministers. Sir Howard’s report has not eased Mr Cameron’s dilemma. It may even have made it worse. The prime minister is still stuck in a patch of thistles.
Calling in “the expert” has not taken the politics out of this decision. Nor should it have done. Sir Howard’s report, while presented as the cool, unpartisan and authoritative analysis of a technician, is itself a piece of politics. It takes as a given that “hub airports” are the future. On that premise it builds another, which is that expansion in the south-east of England is the priority. That assumption is twinned with another, which is that increased capacity is essential for our national future. Then comes the largest assumption of the lot, which is that the only worthwhile definition of what is beneficial for our national future is economic growth – and economic growth of a particular type. The report argues that Heathrow expansion could boost GDP by £147bn over 60 years. Note the important verb in that sentence is “could”. I won’t be alive long enough to find out whether it actually will. Neither will Sir Howard. Even if the economic gains turn out to be as advertised, they still have to be balanced against the disbenefits of slapping down more runway in one of the most congested and polluted parts of Britain.
Margaret Thatcher, the high priestess of the free market, once put it well when she said: “We should always remember that free markets are a means to an end. They defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life than the wellbeing they achieve by the production of goods and services.” Making a judgment about when it is right to pursue growth and when the consequences are too negative for it to be worth it: this is not a job for an unelected commission. Reconciling national needs with local sensibilities can’t be left to technocrats either. That is the business of politics.
For sure, there are times when projects of national strategic interest should prevail over local protesters. Each of us will have a different idea where we think the balance ought to be struck and our conclusions will be shaped by our personal priorities and perceptions of what is in the country’s best interests. I have long argued that we should build a lot more houses. I think the urgent need to create more affordable homes ought generally to take precedence over the objections of the already well-housed when they simply want to preserve the pretty view out of their window. The business of politics is to arbitrate between these conflicting desires.
What is the alternative? Well, there is dictatorship. That is a way of getting airports, power stations, roads, railways and other large-scale infrastructure built much more quickly. Turn me into Stalin and I can build houses where I like because I have a grand vision of what is best for the nation. Give autocratic power to exponents of fracking and they will have a drilling rig anywhere they fancy. The cheerleaders for expanding Heathrow point to China and, as if it were the clinching argument for laying down more tarmac, say that the Chinese are banging out a new airport every week – or something like that. That you can do when you do not have to be troubled by democratic debate and public consent and can crush communities with the pen stroke of a Beijing autocrat.
Democracy is much more complicated. It is fractious. It can be tortuously slow to arrive at decisions. It can be extremely frustrating to men with grand plans. Thank goodness for that. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the other ones.

We’d dig ourselves a deep hole if we took politics out of planning | Andrew Rawnsley | Comment is free | The Guardian

With thanks to:
Planning and democracy | East Devon Watch

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