Remember Swampy? It was only a decade ago that eco-warriors constructed networks of tunnels and tree houses to prevent roads and runways being built. Now they’re nearly old enough for a reunion tour.
The eco-warriors lost the battle, but possibly not the argument. Last year a report was published about the Newbury bypass, scene of some of the strongest anti-road protests. The study, by the former Countryside Agency and Campaign to Protect Rural England, found the benefits to the people of Newbury were fleeting: congestion in the town at peak times is back to its original levels.
Meanwhile traffic on the A34 bypass, which was predicted to total no more than 36,000 vehicles per day by 2010, had reached 43,800 a day by 2004. To achieve the short term gain, irreversible damage was done to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The trade-off between infrastructure and the environment is usually painful, and there are telling arguments in favour of keeping the wheels of the economy in motion. But the planning process has hardly proved itself a champion of sustainability. The question, then, is whether this week’s planning white paper is likely to bring something better. Instead of subjecting major plans to longwinded adversarial inquiries, an independent commission will decide whether infrastructure projects should go ahead. The hope must be that this will depoliticise planning just as giving responsibility to the Bank of England has depoliticised interest-rate setting. Developers have made it clear they expect faster decisions; this will reduce costs and allow governments to take credit for actions rather than promises.
There’s a fascinating contrast between the tone of ministers’ rhetoric on this issue, which highlights the virtue of efficiency, and the ‘local people know best’ theme in Ruth Kelly’s speech on regeneration last week. As far as planning is concerned, local people may know best about conservatories and potting sheds, but we don’t want them standing in the way of airports and power stations.
There’s a lot to be said for letting a panel of experts review major decisions on infrastructure – although their independence is likely to be severely tested. The cause for concern, though, is the assumption that swifter decisions will necessarily be better. Newbury suggests otherwise. Swampy’s comeback may be sooner than we expect.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine