629: what the election means for infrastructure planning
Today’s entry considers the result of the 2015 general election.
Defying the pre-election polls and even the exit polls to some extent, the Conservatives have won an outright majority for the first time in 23 years. What does this mean for infrastructure planning during the five year Parliament?
The consenting regime
There will be no radical changes to the infrastructure planning regime created in 2008, but there will no doubt continue to be small tweaks to keep improving it. Labour’s proposals for a National Infrastructure Commission are unlikely to see the light of day, even in a modified form that the Conservatives might claim was their idea. The series of annual National Infrastructure Plans will probably continue, as will the trend for them to become more like actual plans.
The Planning Act 2008 regime may be extended to large housing projects if the current system continues to fail to deliver the number of houses the government wants. Perhaps this is more likely with Greg Clark as Secretary of State.
I suspect that fracking may be added too, once a few projects get bogged down in local delays. Having said that, the 13 safeguards before fracking can take place that were introduced via the Infrastructure Act 2015 were moved at the last minute from planning permission to well consents, which means that they will stay in place even if planning consent comes within the Planning Act regime.
HS2 is safe, Crossrail 2 is more likely having had a reference in the manifesto, and the endorsement or not of the recommendation of the Airports Commission for a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick will be the first big infrastructure test for the new government. The Chancellor is rumoured to favour Heathrow, the newly-elected MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip opposes it.
Onshore wind farms are pretty doomed, but offshore ones are likely to continue. Nuclear power should be OK, but probably needs the final investment decision on Hinkley Point C to take place before it really gets going.
With more than one in 12 of the MPs in Parliament, the SNP has effectively swapped places with the Liberal Democrats. Alex Salmond will undoubtedly become leader of the SNP in the Commons, and will get to ask David Cameron a question every week. It may even be a different one each time.
As Commons committees must reflect the strength of each party in the House as a whole, this means that there will be SNP representation on every select committee and every bill committee with at least 12 members. A replacement is needed on the HS2 bill committee, since Lib Dem Mike Thornton lost his Eastleigh seat, and it may well be an SNP MP who is appointed (although that’s only a 6-member committee). There may also have to be a fair number of SNP life peers appointed to make up the numbers, since there are precisely none at the moment. Did I mention that I was born and grew up in Edinburgh (albeit the only Labour constituency in Scotland)?
For those of us old enough to remember the last Conservative government from 1992-1997, governing with a small majority isn’t that easy. In 1992 the government had 336 seats in a 651-member House of Commons, making a majority of 21, compared with 12 now (or effectively 15 once Sinn Fein and the Speaker are taken out of consideration). By the end of the 1992 Parliament successive by-election losses and defections had removed the majority altogether.
This means that a fairly small number of backbench government party MPs who have given up on ministerial office can exert disproportionate power over the party leadership, since the government would be defeated if they and all the non-Conservative MPs voted against it. This could affect projects that are locally unpopular but nationally supported, such as fracking.
One of the main issues likely to cause divisions in the Conservative party is …
The EU referendum
The Tories have pledged a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union in 2017. This will dominate UK politics for the next two years, just as the Scottish referendum did in Scotland. Presumably David Cameron will be campaigning to stay in the EU, but many of his backbenchers will not be. Fun and games will therefore ensue. And if the referendum result is to stay in the EU, the issue may not go away, if Scotland is anything to go by – 98% of seats going to UKIP at the next general election, anyone?
Much of the infrastructure planning system is affected by EU law – environmental impact assessment, habitat protection, air quality, waste water treatment, emissions from power stations to name but a few. If the UK were to leave the EU (which would not happen overnight), these controls would become optional (although some, such as participation in environmental decision-making and consideration of transboundary effects, are created by international treaties independent of the EU). Those darned lawyers would have a field day.
Human Rights Act
The government has pledged to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. Whether that also means unsigning the European Convention on Human Rights (if one can) remains unclear. If not, then it is only the way rights can be enforced that would change rather than the rights themselves. Those relevant to planning are Article 6 – the right to a fair trial, Article 8 – the right to privacy and Article 1 of the First Protocal – the right to enjoyment of property.
Perhaps in expectation of some coalition haggling, Parliament is not due to convene until 18 May, when MPs start signing the roll. The Queen’s Speech, which will shed light on the new government’s programme for the first year, is to be on 27 May. The next election is on the next Thursday 7 May – in 2020.
11 May 2015