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Part-nationalisation and "ditherama"

Tony Travers
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Eric Pickles has announced that his department will remove planning powers from councils “where [they] are poor at processing decisions” and transfer them to a national planning inspectorate. So the latest step in localism is to shift powers from localities to Whitehall. If only there were the slightest hope that such a change would speed up decision making.

With impeccable timing, the part-nationalisation of planning decisions coincided with the setting up of an official commission to consider the need for airport expansion in the south-east. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, described the government’s policy as “ditherama”. There can be no doubt that the coalition is paralysed by the endlessly debated issue of whether or not to build an additional runway at Heathrow.

Much the same approach has been adopted by successive governments towards the country’s energy policy, with little willingness to make the important planning decisions about whether the UK should develop additional nuclear, coal or renewable energy. A replacement for Trident nuclear submarines has been pushed into the future. Crossrail took over two decades to get from white paper to construction stage. Decision making about dozens of major road and tram schemes limps on from year to year. The high speed rail line from London to Birmingham will take years to push through - if it is ever built.

By no means all of the dither and indecision about these projects started with the coalition. Much of it originated under Labour and, indeed, under the Conservatives before that. Central government is so big it finds it hard to manage itself and therefore to make effective decisions. The one thing government is good at doing is initiating structural reforms of local government, the NHS, colleges and so on. But the need to make big decisions about planning will, more often than not, induce paralysis.

There is no more certain way to slow down decision making in relation to planning than by nationalising it. Central government and its new pro-development ministers may be able to get a few more conservatories and garden sheds built, but when it comes to the bigger decisions they will, in Mr Pickles’ words, remain “poor at processing decisions”.

Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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