This week Lord Falconer announced his proposals to make public inquiries into major projects 'faster and fairer for all concerned'.Working on the assumption that 'no-one benefits from an adversarial planning system', the changes advocate round-table discussions facilitated by professional mediation and independent technical advisors in a bid to resolve potential conflict before and during an inquiry. Still reeling from the Terminal 5 inquiry (more than six years from appointment of the planning inspector to delivery of the final report), the construction industry is unlikely to be enthused by the prospect of 'more talk'. But the government has addressed the need for speed with a pledge to enforce 'sensible limits'to cross-examination and to set a clear date for the delivery of the Inspector's report to the secretary of state. Everybody gets to talk, but nobody gets to prattle on for too long - it seems like a winner all round.
The only problem is that the most effective means of speeding up any discussion is to place limits both on the number of voices to be heard, and on the scope of the issues which are open to debate. So it is perhaps inevitable that the proposed reforms restrict both by decreeing that, where major projects are concerned, Parliament should be able to make a decision 'in principle' before the detail is considered at a public inquiry. Falconer's apparent truism that no-one benefits from an adversarial planning system is only true if you discount those whose voices would otherwise not be heard at all. Friends of the Earth has dismissed Falconer's proposals as a 'con-trick'designed to reduce the scope of public inquiries to 'issues such as what colour fence the nuclear power station should have'- a sentiment which is likely to find sympathy with other interest groups.
So is the government committing to a much-needed overhaul of unwieldy bureaucracy, or a devastating blow for democracy? Probably both. It looks as though the government has faced up to the fact that it is logically impossible to simultaneously speed up a system and to accommodate parties who may have a vested interest in delay.