Learning from fracking and Heathrow: New organisation proposed to give the public a voice in infrastructure planning

The current infrastructure planning system is failing. The public feels shut out which results in protest and delay, as seen most recently with fracking, High Speed Two, and the proposed third runway at Heathrow.

The UK think tank Green Alliance is calling for a new body ‘Citizen Voice’ to be set up to give cities, counties and the public a say in the biggest infrastructure decisions , and reduce the likelihood that the best projects are delayed by public protest. The UK has £466 million of infrastructure projects in the pipeline, and many are crucial to rebalance the economy and reduce climate change and resource price risk.

The new report ‘Opening up infrastructure planning’ reveals that the only way the public currently has to influence debates about national infrastructure need is during the consultation period for National Policy Statements. Even the most controversial of these only attracted 5,000 comments. In contrast an estimated 91,000 people took part in Greenpeace’s Airplot campaign against a third runway at Heathrow.

The Green Alliance research sets out three ways to ensure better public engagement in infrastructure planning:

  • A national strategic plan, supported by a new civil society advisory council: The UK’s infrastructure strategy should be underpinned by an evidence based assessment of needs, with a Civil Society Advisory Council established to test assumptions about need.
  • Spatial planning carried out at city and county level, informed by local public dialogues about infrastructure: This would fill the current missing link between national policy and local planning. As combined authorities form, we propose that they develop infrastructure plans as part of their devolution settlement, using local public dialogue to inform and test their priorities.
  • A new body to be an impartial facilitator of public engagement: Citizen Voice would be an independent source of engagement expertise which supports the civil society advisory council and helps cities and counties run local infrastructure dialogues.

Commenting on the report, Green Alliance director Matthew Spencer said:

“We can’t tackle the environmental and economic challenges of the UK without new infrastructure, but the current system of planning is broken. Protest will continue to be the biggest barrier to new energy and transport projects unless the public are given a meaningful say in what the local and national infrastructure needs are. We’re proposing a new body, Citizen Voice, to make that happen, and work with the grain of devolution.”

A number of political, business and NGO leaders have welcomed the report:

Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park said:

“I know first hand how passionate the public are about infrastructure and how frustrated they are about the limited opportunities for input. We need more effective public engagement at an earlier stage, involving local people in a meaningful way. That’s the key recommendation in this report and I hope it’s taken seriously.”

John Pettigrew, executive director UK, National Grid said:

“Delivering new infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing the UK. But with it comes huge opportunity. So it is vital that we build public support for infrastructure projects by articulating the benefits at both a national and regional level. In this report, Green Alliance presents a valuable set of ideas to help develop thinking about how government and industry can better engage with the public.”

Shaun Spiers, chief executive, CPRE said:

“We won’t get the infrastructure the country needs unless local people are properly engaged in a credible planning process, and decision-makers demonstrate that they care about people, nature and beauty as much as economic growth. There are many more examples of poor engagement than of businesses and politicians getting it right – fracking, anyone? But the good news is that there is growing awareness of the need for proper public engagement. This is very welcome.”