21 million words, 525 days, 'four football seasons'
– these are just a few of the ways in which the planning
inquiry into the Heathrow Terminal 5 (T5) project has been
described. But why did a planning inquiry for such an important
project for the UK take that a length of time?
On 20th November 2001 planning permission was
granted for Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. This is some 12 years
after the Government first invited BAA to prepare proposals for a
fifth terminal at Heathrow.
In less than that time two new terminals have been
built at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, the French Government has
approved the third and fourth runways;and in mid-November it
announced the strategic decision on the location of the third Paris
airport due to open in 2015 near Amiens.
The current system
Many of the criticisms from property and planning
professionals of the current process for major inquiries stem
broadly from three issues:
- the system requires promoters to spend a large amount of money
within a procedure that is inflexible, legalistic and
- the timescale of a final decision is uncertain;
- inquiries can become embroiled in debating national policy,
which is often out-dated.
It is undeniable that there will always be many
important issues that require investigation, and inevitably, the
ultimate decision involves an assessment of 'the planning balance':
on considering the likely benefits and impacts of a development, do
those benefits outweigh the disbenefits? Nevertheless promoters who
plan for and develop major projects are exposed to the effect of
changes, radical or otherwise, in Government strategies and
policies, and in the outside world. While companies have no choice
but to meet and adapt to such changes, the lack of an identifiable
end-date to the process is a major burden for any promoter, and
particularly private developers, to bear.
Promoters of infrastructure in the UK, for the UK's
benefit, (often privatised or public companies) also have to work
with the reality that Government has a dual role of formulating
national policies, whilst at the same time making the ultimate
decisions in the planning process. Without the Government having
clearly stated what the national policy is regarding the
development that is being examined in the inquiry, it is extremely
difficult for all parties to present arguments for and against the
proposals, with any certainty.
Government accepts (in the Green Paper on Planning
published on 12th December) that national planning guidance is long
and often unfocused, mixing practical advice with key policy
principles, and that up-to-date statements of Government Policy on
the need for development are required before major infrastructure
projects are considered in the planning system, to help reduce
inquiry time spent on debating the policy.
It is proposed (see below) that part of this
updating of executive procedure would be Parliament debating
whether to approve projects in principle, prior to the
consideration of detailed issues at an inquiry. The Secretary of
State explained in July 2001 that the aim is to streamline
procedure and reduce unnecessary delay while safeguarding and
increasing public consultation and involvement, and not to remove
the debate from the 'local' arena. The debate will continue
throughout, and beyond, the consultation period on the principles
of change that are detailed in the Consultation Paper on Planning
Major Infrastructure Projects, but Government appears determined to
see this route through, to take ownership into Parliament's
processes of the debate on the need and location of large
The way forward – proposals for
Following the announcement at the CBI conference in
November 2001, the Secretary of State Stephen Byers and the
Planning Minister Lord Falconer issued the Green Paper seeking to
bring about a 'faster, fairer planning system for all', and
proposals for changing the way major planning projects in the
England are decided. Consultation periods end in March 2002. The
new proposals are:
- Statements of national policy (to include public consultation),
followed by Parliamentary debate as to whether to approve a project
- Opportunity for the public to make their views known before
Parliament debates the issues;
- Public Inquiry on the detailed aspects of the scheme.
Time saved in the Parliamentary process may be lost
in the inquiry, and the Government is seeking to prevent this, as
far as is possible, by considering targets and timescales for
determining appeals and call-in inquiries, and new rules for major
inquiries on timetabling and evidence.
This follows on from the May 1999 consultation
paper in the Modernising Planning series entitled
'Streamlining the Processing of Major Projects Through the Planning
System', itself coming a only a couple of months after the Terminal
5 planning inquiry had ended. We responded, making reference to the
lessons we had learnt from the T5 process.
We identified the value of 'Joint Data Groups' - a
system that was developed at the T5 inquiry with the inquiry
Inspector. Joint Data Groups and Working Parties enabled all
parties to meet and seek to agree data, methodologies, and results
outside the inquiry itself. The conclusions of the Groups were then
reported back to the inquiry, saving inquiry time.
Another of our suggestions was the need for rules,
which would allow the Inspector to set timetables and time limits
during the inquiry, to keep the inquiry programme on track.
Some of those recommendations made in response to
the May 1999 consultation paper found their way into the revised
Inquiries Procedure Rules published in August 2000.
Statement of National Need
A major issue to be addressed is the need for clear
statements of national policy, set in place before a major planning
inquiry commences, and the possibility of separating the approval
of a project in principle from the consideration of local
The current T5 process started in 1985 when the
Airports Policy White Paper was published, inviting the-then
British Airports Authority (BAA) to bring forward proposals for a
fifth terminal at Heathrow.
As is often the case with major inquiries, the
Government had used the 1985 White Paper to set out its national
policy on airport development. However, by the time the T5 inquiry
started the national policy was already 10 years old and it was
inevitable that questions of national aviation policy would be
debated at the T5 inquiry. Effectively this meant that there was no
clear statement of government policy at the outset of the inquiry
and therefore it was open to objectors to argue that demand should
not be met, or that the government should consider an alternative
The Green Paper seeks to evolve the debate as to
whether there is a role for Parliament to consider the principle of
major infrastructure development at the outset, and establish
whether or not the proposal should proceed, leaving local issues to
be examined at a local inquiry. There is already some precedent for
this in the Transport and Works Act procedures, although the
disadvantage of the TWA to promoters is the level of detailed
design (and hence expense) required at the initial application
stage of the process. The old Hybrid Bill procedure also allowed
the principle of development to be established after Second Reading
of the Bill in both Houses of Parliament, after which local issues
and objections were heard in Select Committee, although it is now
generally recognised that this procedure is probably only
appropriate where Government is the promoter.
Where next ?
Whether we are concerned with football stadia,
airports, or high-speed rail links, the comparison with
infrastructure projects taking place on the other side of the
Channel shows that we lack a system, which provides an effective
basis for developing essential national kit.
This does not mean that Government, or business,
advocates the steamrollering of local opinion and debate: far from
it. The Government's paper on planning major projects maintains the
right to be involved in comment and public debate, via Members of
Parliament during the debate on national policy and the need for a
particular development, and at the public inquiry into the
'planning balance'. The proposed changes are a long time
coming. If UK plc wants to successfully promote larger projects it
has to be able to do so in a more certain planning environment that
enables all parties in the process to work to timescales and rules
that are transparent and understood.
This article was first published in Facilities
Management. For further information please contact Chris Williams
on +44 (0)20 7367 3571 or at email@example.com.