By Professor Alister Scott – Professor of Environment and Spatial Planning who specialises in policy and decision making processes

George Osborne’s announcement today that an unelected super-panel will be tasked with ruling on infrastructure projects shows a complete lack of faith in existing government guidance and legislation to build what is needed.

In unveiling his plans, Osborne the political magpie has secured Lord Adonis as the principal architect – defecting from his Labour position in the Lords – and reinstated a Commission he helped abolish only five years ago.

Such a development challenges opposition to Tory desires to command and control planning, further exposing the sham of localism and muddying the waters of the current duty to link planning policy with strategic planning issues and combined authority devolution.

George Osborne

The Chancellor’s announcement has revealed the fundamental weakness of the duty to cooperate function, whereby councils look at large cross boundary planning issues. With the inclusion of housing this has shown a complete lack of faith in existing government guidance and legislation to build what is needed.

In a period where many local councils are moving towards combined authorities at the government’s behest, this news completely flies in the face of any suggestion that we are heading for real devolution with command and control planning alive and well in HM Treasury.

Local plans are put in place for a good reason and allow the public and local authorities to make informed decisions about the future of their towns and cities. But these plans may be completely undermined by this unelected panel whose modus operandi seems to be to bypass any delay caused by opposition or public protests.

Furthermore the idea that any such decisions can be based on facts and are not political is wrong. Where development goes is necessarily a political decision based on subjective assessments of different trade-offs. The key lies in such criteria being transparent for public trust and confidence.

As things stand the body is not even accountable to the public and there is a real danger that it will try to fast track projects running into conflict with existing legislation which requires effective consultation such as Aarhus Convention and EU Directives that are there to protect the public interest.

What we are seeing is the creation of an increased disconnect between local plans, combined authorities, devolution and accountability. Planning governance is now as clear as mud.

It’s all the more ironic that the Commission signifies a return to the top down form of planning which the Tory party has actively criticised Labour for.