Time is short to get a public consensus on new infrastructure

Ed Davey SSEKeadbyThis post is by Tony Burton, founder of Civic Voice and member of the National Infrastructure Planning Association’s Council. 

Power, money, scale, legacy and to die for photo opportunities; it’s hardly surprising that politicians find big infrastructure projects irresistible.  Now everyone’s at it.  There are more than 50 schemes going through the new planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects.  The Treasury has over 500 projects worth nearly £500 billion in its infrastructure pipeline to 2020.  Airport choices are being debated by a national commission.  And campaigners are clamouring to have their priorities badged as ‘national infrastructure’ to get the attention they deserve.

At the same time we are living through a civic revolution.  Trust in politicians and institutions is in free fall and old style approaches to experts and politicians deciding over development and infrastructure are losing credibility. The government is investing £5 million in providing ‘independent evidence’ about fracking.  “Frack off” is the response.

Instead of being told what to think, people are expecting more of a say, and grassroots community action – catalysed by new digital opportunities – is on the rise.  Even the political system itself is fracturing.  In a world of multi-party politics, no politician can claim a confident mandate without much more effective ways of building public consensus over change.

A compelling need to find new routes to public consensus
Tension over major infrastructure is nothing new.  There is a long history of policy makers trying to square the circle of simultaneously addressing the question of national need with that of local impact.  Each decade has its story.  The Outer Circle Policy Unit proposed two tier public inquiries in the 1980s.  Controversy over the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in the 1990s was only allayed by new environmental impact assessment requirements.  Proposals to pass decisions on major infrastructure to technocrats and abolish public inquiries in the next decade caused uproar.

Ten years on and the tectonic plates of infrastructure planning are moving again: new planning procedures, the creation of Infrastructure UK, Labour’s Armitt Review, proposals for a new Infrastructure Planning Commission, the birth of the National Infrastructure Planning Association and now a timely intervention from Green Alliance on the need for better public engagement.

The need for more effective routes to public consensus is compelling.  While warnings of the impact of delay, uncertainty and extra cost cannot be ignored these should not detract from the fundamental lack of opportunity for people to engage in the decisions over infrastructure which affect their lives.  It cannot be right that the first opportunity most people have to get involved is when someone from National Grid knocks on their door after most of the major decisions have been made.

Nevertheless, Andrew Adonis is correct to emphasise that the government should not become so hemmed in that it can’t act in the public interest when consensus is not forthcoming.  Doing nothing can become the easy option for a beleaguered politician. Progressive demands for warm homes, low carbon living, affordable travel and safe, secure and sustainable energy, need transformational change as much as those focused more narrowly on economic growth.

Evolving approaches
A key question is whether the new structures and organisations proposed by Green Alliance can ever be enough?  Shouldn’t the way people are engaged also move on?  Old methods of public consultation have been surpassed and savvy operators are now seized of the benefits of true public engagement and co-design.  The role of experts is changing and deliberative engagement techniques can help everyone to contribute to even the most complex debates.

We also need to address the issues which defy conventional consultation but which really matter to people: beauty, quality and people’s emotional connection to place, and we need to tap into the power of digital to reach and engage people in different ways.

There is also a gap in infrastructure thinking which leaves out the green and the blue to focus on the grey.  A colossal scale of investment is needed in our open spaces, water management and other soft infrastructure in the face of a changing climate, public health challenges and the need for nature in our lives.  It deserves the same attention.

Political strategy has to keep up with the pace of change
Yet, all this will count for nothing unless those tectonic plates really do shift.  No matter how well drafted the policy, crafted the process or designed the new structures are, the hard truth is that we need to win the politics.  There are encouraging signs of a changing political landscape but the world is changing faster.  Green Alliance and its partners will need to deploy a political strategy at least as good as its excellent report to secure the change that’s needed.  And time is short if we are to avoid conflict and build more consensus over the whether, what and where of the nation’s infrastructure investment.

Opening up infrastructure planning: the need for better public engagement Amy Mount for Green Alliance, February 2015

Tony can be found at @Tony4Place and tony@tonyburton.org.uk

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