Planning for Major Projects Beyond the 20th Century

United Kingdom

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 bureaucratic;
  • 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 projects.

The way forward – proposals for change

Major Projects

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 in principle;
  • 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 impacts.

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 scheme altogether.

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