Planning system hounded by 'vested interests'
Published:  17 December, 2010

UK: Vital local infrastructure projects are not going ahead because of "over-elaborate and unrealistic economic predictions" emerging from a planning system bogged down by "vested interests", an influential economist has warned, writes Mark Conrad.

A report by Bridget Rosewell, chief economic adviser to the Greater London Assembly, urges the Government to go further with its overhaul of planning regimes by developing systems that focus on the long-term benefit major projects bring to the UK economy at the expense of the 'Nimbyism' undermining current decision-making.

'Planning Courses', Ms Rosewell's report published on 15 December, shows how despite efforts to streamline planning, vital projects are still not going ahead.

She claims that planners still waste too much time looking for "perfect" solutions to challenges, while using "deeply-flawed" tools to make their predictions about community and national benefits. Many still use overly-technical criteria that they demand must be met before proceeding with a project, she added.

Planning, she explained, has "become captured by experts and 'vested interests' who use language that only bureaucrats understand and which excludes everybody else".

The debate over building London's Crossrail line, for example, centred on "obscure disagreements over time-savings, ignoring the fact that the capital's transport network is hugely over-stretched and the effect this has on the economy and quality of life", she said.

Ms Rosewell suggests the UK is in need of around half a trillion pounds of infrastructure investment in areas such as transport, energy generation, water supply and waste management.

To achieve investment close to this level, she suggests four further reforms: projects should be pursued according to their value to the economy and not 'welfare' considerations; the 'bottom up' design of business plans so that potential investors can understand them; the use of flexible, long-term plans rather than early decisions on projects that are then set in stone; and the combating of 'Nimbyism' by allowing local areas to keep more of the revenues raised by new projects.

Ministers have already revealed plans to help local authorities and communities keep extra business rates income through their Tax Increment Finance (TIF) proposals, but Ms Rosewall suggested they should go further.

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