Monday, 19 November 2012

Making planning easier or how to circumvent democracy?

We’re in a war or at least the economic equivalent of one, according to the Prime Minister.  He cites the Second World War when ‘normal rules were circumvented’ and everything was thrown at the one aim of defeating Nazism.  So his plan is that ministers will cut down on the ‘time-wasting’ he sees as legally challenging government policy.  The legal right to a judicial review of decisions, especially for major infrastructure projects has, he maintains, grown out of control and needs to be scaled back largely because it either delays or prevents things getting done.  So his plan is to reduce the three month limit in which people can apply for judicial review and charge more for reviews to prevent objectors bringing ‘hopeless cases’ to review.
The Prime Minister may be right to raise this issue given the burgeoning number of applications for judicial review: in 1975, there were 160 but by 2011 this had increased to more than 11,000 but three quarters of these were in immigration and asylum cases anyway.  The critical question is whether this increase in judicial review  has contributed to the government being ‘too slow in getting stuff done’ whether he is right that  ‘Consultations, impact assessments, audits, reviews, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, complying with EU procurement rules, assessing sector feedback--this is not how we became one of the most powerful, prosperous nations on earth’ .  There is an important balance in a democratic society between the need for any government to govern and the right of people to object to the policies that the government is pursuing and the Prime Minister is suggesting that the balance has shifted too far towards the right to object. 
All of this is to do with how best to stimulate the economy—the war that Cameron says we must win if we are to retain our economic global influence and prevent Britain sleepwalking into EU exit.  This may well be how the war looks from the bunkers of the generals but what about the cannon-fodder that appears to be the rest of us?  Stimulating the economy by making it easier for business to do things may well have a beneficial effect on the rank-and-file by providing much needed employment and hence taxation to address the country’s deficit but at what cost?  If you take two areas of policy—the need for additional airport space and the question of nuclear power as a means of addressing energy security—both are issues that will be vigorously contested but are also questions that need quick resolution largely because of the length of time they will take to implement.  These are projects of national importance so should a small number of objectors (small that is relative to the nation’s population) be allowed to hold things up?  David Cameron would argue that they should not: they should have to right to object but once their objections have been heard (and presumably rejected) the projects should go ahead.  I suspect that nationally there would be few objections to this stance; people are concerned about energy security especially where it relates to rising fuel prices and large infrastructure projects would create jobs especially if they were situated in areas of endemic unemployment.  The question in a democracy is when is it acceptable to run rough-shod over the views of the minority for the benefit of the majority and who decides?  The answer, of course, is precisely those institutions and processes that the Prime Minister thinks should be truncated. 
It would be much easier if Britain was not a democracy.  The government could decide policy and implement it whether people agreed or not.  But then we would not be a democratic society in which the right to be heard and to object to policies you disagree with is fundamental.  Democracy can be annoying, often inefficient and certainly from the political classes’ point of view frustrating but that’s the point of it!

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