Red light for green inspiration

May 25, 2001

It's time for John Prescott to deliver a more delicate touch to town planning, says Chris Miller.

An election campaign is not the ideal time to discuss the role of the state in balancing public good and individual liberty: reflection on inherent conflicts gives way to pledges to promote both.

But in its 1997 manifesto, Labour promised to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, and although the Human Rights Act 1998 has been in force for less than a year, its impact has exceeded expectations with the right "to a fair and impartial hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal" coming closest to embarrassing the government.

Public administration has been built on statutes in which a minister is required to define departmental policy as well as to determine appeals by any person aggrieved by a decision taken in pursuit of that policy. It was in town planning that this alleged lack of independence was first challenged.

Reform of planning legislation would have been urgently required but for the Law Lords' ruling this month that the power of individuals to seek judicial review of planning decisions taken by ministers was sufficient to safeguard "the right to a fair hearing".

Planning by its very nature is inimical to individual rights. It requires the extinction of landowners' rights to develop their land as they wish. Planning's purpose is to allocate land use in the public interest, as defined in approved development plans and policy guidance notes published by the executive. And planning has always involved a tension between public and private interests. The removal of the minister's appellate role (in less than 1 per cent of appeals) amounts to little more than fine tuning. But given the gravity of the problems in his portfolio, John Prescott would be reluctant to loosen his grip on any of the few levers available to him.

Failure to achieve an agreement on carbon emission reduction at the International Conference on Climate Change at the Hague makes it difficult to persuade the British public to accept changes to an accustomed lifestyle. That setback occurred as governments across Europe were pondering protests about a policy - raising the duty on fuel for road vehicles - with green credentials.

Large sections of the European Union's population voiced their support for direct action in protest against fuel prices. The UK government is unable to point to a clean, safe and efficient system of public transport to which motorists should turn. And while Labour's 2001 manifesto is committed to "low-carbon economic growth", it avoids any suggestion of restrictions on private motoring.

Planners' unique contribution may be in coupling opportunities afforded by information technology with imaginative policies on land use that reduce the demand for travel, thereby reducing carbon emissions. Politicians have every reason to hope that motorists can be "planned", rather than coerced, away from their cars.

The alternatives are incompatible with the cherished "right" of driving wherever and whenever we wish. Mr Prescott must know that the conflict between planning, rights and the environment cannot be legislated away.

Chris Miller is senior lecturer in the European Studies Research Unit at the University of Salford; he is the editor of Planning and Environmental Protection to be published by Hart in July, priced £22.00.

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