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Planning reform to avoid another T5

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Lord Rogers' scheme for Heathrow's Terminal 5 is likely to get the go-ahead within the week. Zoë Blackler asks whether the planning Green Paper will prevent a repeat of the T5 situation

After eight years of deliberation, it seems a decision on a fifth terminal for London's Heathrow Airport has finally been reached.

The lengthy saga over Lord Rogers' airport extension has been typical of the problems inherent in the current planning system. As the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions prepares its Green Paper on planning, the legacy of the £100 million T5 inquiry has no doubt influenced its thinking about the treatment of high-profile infrastructure projects.

The paper will not be published for a few weeks - unofficial sources suggest 4 or 11 December - but a speech by planning minister Lord Falconer at the CBI conference in Birmingham this month revealed government thinking towards reform of the public inquiry system.

Lord Falconer suggested that major infrastructure projects should be agreed in principle by Parliament - probably at a special select committee - with inquiries set up afterwards to discuss details. Certainly, there is a need for a major overhaul, but are the government's proposals the correct way to address the problem?

Surprisingly, there seems to be a broad consensus across developer and design interests about what the current problems are and how best to resolve them.

A range of organisations have been contributing advice during preparation of the Green Paper, and a number of interesting collaborations have resulted. The RIBA has been in discussions with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and the Royal Town Planning Institute, while CABE shares much of its attitudes with the CBI and the British Property Forum. In general, there is agreement that there needs to be 'a greater efficiency of process' while producing 'better quality outcomes'.

CABE chief executive Jon Rouse believes the government's proposals are 'absolutely right'.

The key issue is who the decision-makers should be. 'Given that MPs are democratically elected, and we trust them to make decisions on education and health, why should planning be an exception?'

asked Rouse.He pointed out that in the time taken for T5 to go through the system, Charles de Gaulle Airport has added another two terminals and a runway.

Rouse argued that the UK is a competitive country and its planning system must reflect that: 'We can't afford another T5 if the UK is to maintain this position.'

The comparison with France is telling. While the French system is much faster and its financial compensation more generous, critics claim that public participation suffers. When asked at the time how he managed to produce Charles de Gaulle so fast, President Mitterand said: 'When you have to drain the pond, you don't consult the frogs.'

Certainly the RIBA, which has been contributing to the debate, would not advocate following France's lead.

Chair of the planning policy group Wendy Shillam is pressing for public consultation to be included in the very early stages, before a proposal is taken to select committee. It needs to be done in a wider way than at present, she said, and with professional consultation.

Shillam agreed that there are 'inherent problems' with big inquiries, not least the quasi-legalistic way they are conducted, which tends to favour larger pressure groups over unskilled objectors. She recommended 'a more democratic understanding about what everyone thinks', including those in silent support. Shillam calls it 'listening to the little voice'.

Even so, the RIBA supports CABE in its calls for the decisionmaking process to be speeded up.

Shillam said: 'The world moves fast, our economy moves fast.

We need to make decisions at the pace at which life moves.'

But not everyone has welcomed the changes. Friends of the Earth, which has been the major third-party objector during inquiry, described the proposals as 'steamrollering' the planning system and accused the government of turning the system into 'a huge rubber stamp'. 'We have a David and Goliath system, ' said aviation campaigner Paul de Zylva, 'and [the government] is turning it into a David and Godzilla system.'

The outcome of the T5 inquiry, he suggested, was predetermined by the needs - and disproportionate resources - of big business, with a lip-service consultation process designed only 'to play to the gallery'.

Friends of the Earth sees one of the answers to the issue of public participation as the introduction of a third-party right of appeal, an idea rejected by Rouse as 'using a sledgehammer to crack a nut'.

Publication of the planning Green Paper will be followed by a three-month consultation period during which these issues will continue to be discussed at length, but it is clear that one option is being ruled out: there will not be a return to the laissez faire attitude of the 1980s and the stunningly bad developments that resulted.

'Control has to be worked into the planning system, ' said Rouse. 'No control is no answer.'

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