A lack of public understanding of large scale infrastructure projects is holding the UK back

Written by: Josh Woolliscroft | Published:
Josh Woolliscroft

Just in time for the announcement of a December general election the much-awaited Environment Bill progressed to the Committee stage.

Described as ‘ground-breaking’ by the Government the bill aims to solidify the Conservative party as being the party of ‘green issues’.

Though an important step forward, the Bill does fall short of expectations.

The establishment of a new watchdog, the Office of Environmental Protection fills some of the function of the European Commission but crucially does not exercise the power to issue fines to government departments for missing targets. This questions how effective and accountable the watchdog can really be.

The Bill sets out to protect nature, but the mechanism for this is left ambiguous. Promoting net gain for biodiversity is only related to new property development and does not set out a clear plan for recovering national biodiversity.

It was hoped that the Bill would provide a framework for returning national biodiversity, sadly this has fallen short.

More detail needed

Recycling and waste management is lacking in detail in the draft legislation. Under the May premiership there was a focus on the circular economy, with a commitment that the UK producers should pay 80% of the cost of disposing of packaging . Yet this has not been set out explicitly in the legislation.

Measures to bring responsibility for waste disposal into the purview of producers is referenced, but the 80% target is not.

As expected, the Bill has given greater clarity to aspirations surrounding plastics. This includes charges for the use of single-use plastics and confirmation of the much-trailed bottle deposit return scheme.

With election campaigning set to start in earnest next week, issues around the environment will be crucial if the Conservatives wish to retain seats in London and the South. It remains to be seen if this Bill will be enough.

Key infrastructure targets

The election has also raised questions about the delivery of key infrastructure. With a recognised ‘infrastructure gap’, it is likely that all parties will make manifesto commitments on how this can bridged.

The previous Labour government’s solution in 2008 was Development Consent Orders (DCO) which are now in their second decade. They were supposed to simplify proceedings, but how effective have they been?

DCO legislation was part of the 2008 Planning Act which sought to streamline the planning process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) including more effective delivery across local authorities.

At the same time, it aimed to provide a clear framework for consultation which would improve public understanding of planning for infrastructure and ensure consistent communication across projects.

Public engagement on major projects was pretty much standard and the primary change the DCO brought about was to make pre-application consultation compulsory.

Of course, the significant challenge with this process is always the extent to which the public can have a genuine input into development plans.

When it comes to infrastructure, scope for input can be limited – where is the wriggle room for changes when planning a large EfW? And therein lies the problem - the laudable aspiration that communities could shape proposals is instead seen as shallow window dressing.

Delivery has stepped up, but at the same time public understanding and acceptance of NSIPs is still low and reactions hostile.

Despite implementing a more robust regime for feeding back, communities still see NSIPs as being fait accompli and to a certain extent they are right.

Indeed, the Institute for Government in their report investigating opportunities to reform DCOs suggest that the consultation procedures can exacerbate rather than limit public opposition.

No single format for consultation procedures

It is certainly true to say that the quality, breadth and sincerity of public consultation can vary. The importance of NSIPs means that the decision has largely been made and that at the lowest end of the spectrum public consultation simply mean diligently writing down comments and equally diligently ignoring them.

This compares unfavourably to countries such as France where a Commission Nationale du Débat Public enables real and significant commentary on major projects.

Although the Commission does not have the power to amend plans those delivering projects usually do. Indeed from 2002 – 2012 nearly two thirds of developments changed their plans based on feedback. With open and honest facilitated debate large scale projects have a greater degree of legitimacy.

But greater facility for debate is not necessarily enough. Although something like the French Commission, resident juries or other methods can boost public engagement, they are not the whole solution given they fail to recognise changes in technology and demography.

As anyone who has organised public consultation knows the ‘same old faces’ attend all of them. Change has started and new technology is a part of that, but more can be done.

The tech for delivering digital consultation is already available giving applicants the tools to reach out to wider communities.

Investment in time and technology is essential to ensure that the DCO consultation delivers on its function to boost public understanding and acceptance – saving considerable legal bills and delays.

With the UK ranked 27th of 144 for the quality of its infrastructure far more needs to be done. A lack of public understanding surrounding the need and rationale for large scale projects is holding back delivery and causing expensive delays. What is clear is that more dialogue and increased debate will make this process more effective.

By bringing communities into the process early and using a variety of tools, applicants can lead the way in delivering quality infrastructure on time and on budget with a genuinely engaged, interested and informed community. This is an important part of the infrastructure agenda and one that parties of all colours must address in the coming months.

Josh Woolliscroft is account director at PLMR

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