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Politicians and planners: who can we trust?

Friday 21 June 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard is far from alone in fearing the gradual crushing of local democracy in Britain. Here, he predicts that the latest Government attack of local planning councils will mean future heartbreak for people in the Yorkshire Dales

PROMISES, promises, the cheapest currency of modern day politics. Remember “Education, education, education?” Remember “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime?” Ten years after these slogans were first coined, thousands of children leave school unable to read and yobbos and violent criminals roam our streets at will.

Sadly for country folk, another promise was added to this list when Gordon Brown’s great clunking fist – a memorable description thought up by Tony Blair himself –this week forced through Parliament a Bill which will take away powers on major planning decisions from locally elected councillors and hand them to Government appointees on yet another quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC).

poer lines
Will Brown's planning quango bring pylons and turbines to the dales?

This decision was taken against the advice of many of England’s most respected countryside conservation groups (See News, Wednesday and Thursday) and in the face of opposition from rebel Labour backbenchers. But as with many of the controversial initiatives of the past decade, it came with a promise.

The IPC, so Brown pledges, will only sit in judgement on major projects like airports, power stations and new motorways. Smaller developments will still be judged by local councillors who can be voted out of office if they approve unpopular development. This has just happened on Craven District Council in the Yorkshire Dales after a controversial office block was approved on a green-field site at Skipton.

So we have Gordon’s word on that, then. Like the promises made when New Labour introduced draconian new snooping laws designed to fight terrorism. They would only be used in exceptional circumstances, it was said. Now, local councils are using them to spy on what people put in their dustbins or if they are cheating to get their children into a school of their choice.

This new (and no doubt very expensive) quango comes into being because it took eight years to get planning permission to build Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport - and that has turned out to be an absolute disaster.

The six year delay in getting overheard power lines strung across the Vale of York against vociferous protests was actually quoted in Wednesday’s debate as an example in favour of the new IPC. In other words, country folk who objected to their landscape being ruined, never mind the serious health risks to people living near such power lines, were merely ignorant yokels too thick to have their concerns taken into consideration.

And after punching his way through Parliament, his own MPs and highly respected and knowledgeable charities, Mr Clunking Fist himself appeared the very next day to announce the building of another 4,000 on-shore wind turbines in England – and a pound to a penny, some of those will be in the Yorkshire Dales.

Craven District Council, under attack for allowing green-field developments in Skipton, already has before it a planning application for five 320-feet high turbines which will dominate some of the most beautiful scenery in England for 20 miles in all directions.

Nervous councillors are considering allowing the German power company involved to build a 200-foot anemometer – wind measuring instrument – to see if the winds in the area justify such an expense. The project would also mean felling hundreds of trees and widening quiet country lanes to make way for the pre-fabricated turbine parts, which would be made in Germany and therefore provide little work for English engineers.

As opinion polls stand now, democracy might still get another chance. Fingers crossed!

I will lay a pound to a penny that this particular proposal will be taken out of the hands of the Craven councillors and handed over to the new IPC. It could be the precursor to many more such windfarms in the hilly regions of northern England. And it does not stop there.

There is a long-running row between the county councils in Lancashire and North Yorkshire over plans for a second motorway over the Pennines to ease the load on the busy M62. The Lancashire section of the M65 has been open for years but it stops at Colne, a few miles from the North Yorkshire boundary, because of opposition from North Yorkshire councillors. My bet is that this would be forced through by the IPC.

To take this nightmare to the ultimate conclusion, there have been rumours for half a century of secret Government plans to drive a motorway north along the path of the present A65 to make a fast connection between industry in West Yorkshire and Scotland.

Conveniently, this route lies just outside the Yorkshire Dales National Park – a Labour creation which even modern bureaucrats would hesitate to despoil.

There is, however, one ray of hope: all these developments would take some years to plan, never mind execute, and the Great Clunking Fist must face a general election (his first!) in two years time. As opinion polls stand now, democracy might still get another chance. Fingers crossed!

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