Labour and the Planning System: Lessons from Fracking

A genuinely democratic system that is open to popular knowledge is an essential part of defining our lived social spaces

Planning is not the sexiest part of being in government. It lacks the European chic of train nationalisation, the rugged aesthetic of housebuilding or the youthful elegance of free higher education for all. It does not have existential necessity of increasing long stagnant wages for the many and ending the brutality of the benefit system. Despite this, when Labour come to power they will need to decide what to do with the planning system if they want to achieve a transformative agenda. I want to start with a look at the state of the current system, and how it has been used to support shale gas ‘fracking’. There is no reason why Labour could not impose the manifesto’s socially beneficial proposals (more housing, transport links, green energy) using the top-down, centralised system this and previous governments have. It is worth asking though –what would a democratic socialist planning system look like?

Fracking in the U.K.

After years of contestation, the U.K. has seen its first shale gas fracking operation since 2011 (though not without incident). The nascent industry looked like it was dead in the water after the site at Preese Hall in Lancashire was responsible for two small earthquakes, yet on the last day of the parliamentary session this summer the government gave permission to begin fracking just a few miles away at Preston New Road. The seven years between these two events have seen significant contestation between the government and industry on one side – and a network of residents, environmentalists and the newly politicised on the other. Various legislation and regulations have been altered as the day to day running of fracking operations has been disrupted. One of the key areas where these two sides come face to face though, is in the planning system.

In 2015 the site that began test fracking in the last few weeks, known as PNR, had planning permission rejected as well as another nearby site at Roseacre Wood. It looked like an unlikely victory had been won by the anti-fracking network, the Lancashire County Councils planning officer had recommended permission be granted, but the councillors sought legal advice and moved to reject. The fracking company, Cuadrilla, appealed, and just a few weeks later the government announced that future fracking decisions could at any time be ‘called-in’ by the minister for them to decide upon. The appeal was also conducted on this basis – a planning inspector oversaw the public inquiry, but the final decision was made by Sajid Javid. Unsurprisingly, the LCC decision was overturned.

This level of state intervention is not enough. The government has recently finished consulting on making the initial stages of the fracking process ‘permitted development’, which puts it in the same category as a conservatory and means that it will not come before a local authority planning committee. The final stage is set to become a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, with the final decision taken at a national level. Contrast this with onshore wind, where each site is still subject to a veto by local communities.1

These new proposals contradict the original ‘Big Society’ attitude from the beginning of the Coalition and of fracking in the U.K. In 2011 the Coalition introduced the Localism Act, which was prefaced by this statement by Greg Clark regarding citizens and centralised government and planning:

[People in the U.K.] bridle at imposition from afar, however well-intentioned, and will expend considerable effort and ingenuity in resisting it. It requires a bureaucracy of enforcement which becomes divisive and adversarial and costly as well as entailing uncertainty and delay.

The same minister co-signed the Written Ministerial Statement that announced the proposal to move to ‘permitted development’ for fracking sites, which will effectively centralise decisions over fracking sites. It is not a new technique, to make sites permitted development to avoid scrutiny, in this case it places the decision making power into the government’s hands. It turns out that localism and democracy, for the Tories as it was for New Labour, is only valuable when it delivers the results you want.

One might ask - why is the government so desperate to push this through? It made an early commitment to go ‘all out for shale’, and they are right to say the U.K. will be using gas in the next decade or so (though quite how much depends on investment in renewables). Clearly, those in the industry have strong links to the Conservative party. INEOS have the largest area of licenses for fracking and their CEO Jim Ratcliffe is the U.K.’s richest man and has the ear of the government, in the past a letter from George Osborne to government departments was leaked with specific ‘asks’ from Cuadrilla.

It might well be that it is more than just a simple tale of government being cosy with business – though there are now serious questions regarding the profitability of fracking from the US case. Fracking does though, represent something more than simply profit and potential for accumulation during economic stagnation, as a source of onshore extraction it fits neatly into the post-Brexit, independent vision of Britain the Tories are pushing. When we get this sort of nationalism, authoritarianism is usually not that far behind, as specific interests become defined as universal.2

Labour and Planning

Labour’s history is intertwined with that of the planning system. The Attlee government passed the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947, which is still to a large extent the basis of the planning structure today. It introduced the idea of ‘planning permission’ beyond the simply category of owning land, and further required planning authorities formed from county and borough councils to put forward comprehensive development plans for their area – to effectively rebuild the country in the post-war period including allowing compulsory purchase to redevelop lands and prevent landowners waiting for values to increase (land-banking) whilst protecting particular historic and other buildings. The aim was to democratise decisions over land-use, mere ownership was not enough, but also led to a top down system which became increasingly centralised.

The Blair government also looked to reform planning. New Labour were keen to ‘streamline’ the planning process for development, whilst also introducing regional planning bodies and legislation to allow this to be ‘sustainable development’.3 There were attempts to move away from the top-down post war system, which had survived the attacks of Thatcherism, as some attempt was made to incorporate a more inclusive and deliberative approach.4

Unsurprisingly, Tories are generally hostile to the planning system, which is effectively a state intervention into the ‘market’ for land. The Coalition removed the regional planning architecture, and throughout the fracking case the Coalition/Conservative governments have effectively treated planning decisions as ratifications of the supposed necessity of extracting Shale Gas. The planning system is still remarkably similar in its structure to what came out of the 1947 act (the Tories are even happy to use compulsory purchase for Crossrail and HS2), the difference is that it is now solely geared towards facilitating the private sector – on the basis that the market knows best. Even this is not enough for the ultra-Thatcherite zealots, who basically desire a return to the pre-1947 system.

Lessons from Fracking

It would be tempting too, for Labour to look back in time, to the period of post-war rebuilding that the
planning system was designed to support. This would be a mistake. For all its achievements – the overly centralised planning system of the post-war period was too often based on what some patrician, if well meaning, gentleman thought working class people required. It was top-down, and whilst voters could determine the general priorities for land use at the ballot box, it should be our aspiration to provide a more direct democratic control our social space and how it is (re)produced.

Let us go back to the fracking example. The first site quietly slipped through its initial planning permission, only when it caused earthquakes did a whole regulatory system have to be orchestrated by the government. The local council had to react to the proposals from industry and then the government’s definition of what was in the ‘national interest’ – which almost exclusively seems to be what is in the interests of capitalists. This is perhaps unsurprising, the determination of this interest is conducted by Cabinet rather than through any consideration of the interests of the actual people who live in Lancashire or the U.K.

Would it not be possible for each municipality to have a democratically agreed plan on how it would contribute to energy production?

Currently a council will have a plan for how to deal with ‘Minerals and Waste’, which is often reactive and deals largely with mitigating the effects of something like Shale Gas extraction – as well as being subject to the written ministerial statements and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which direct much of it. A proactively made plan for energy production within a national limit (a region would have to produce 10% of its energy e.g.) would allow decisions to be made before the fact – especially if bound by vote rather than a sham consultation system. If citizens really wanted to exploit shale gas reserves, they could argue and vote for it in their plans, giving the industry a guide for their support.
I would also suggest a broader remit to what can be covered within planning permission cases for large scale and controversial projects. These are often deeply political conflicts, and planners should be allowed to consider the wider political arguments and affective issues beyond that which are technocratic and measurable. It might be messier and slower, but we should not have the timeframe (in fracking decisions it is 16 weeks) of democratic decisions dictated by the needs of capital. We need to build new forums to make choices about land usage which accept that people have competing interests rather than predetermining a ‘national interest’ that does not in fact exist.5 The various iterations of the NPPF have led to an increasingly centralised system that defaults to a ‘yes’ to development, with localities only being allowed to decide how to mitigate the differences.

Fracking also shows the importance of how information and knowledge is used within planning. Recent academic work points to asymmetries in both access to and treatment of evidence within planning decisions, highlighted when the government redacted and delayed full publication of a report that suggested fracking would have a negative impact on house prices and water supplies. The minister responsible for this, Andrea Leadsom, had that year given a speech on the importance of communicating the proper evidence to the public.

What this highlights is the need to make substantive structural changes to the democratic element of the planning system. This should go beyond simply gaining consent to give a project legitimacy, which is effectively how the planning system has been treated by this government. Instead, it can been as substitute for the market in capturing what Hayek terms ‘tacit knowledge’. The strength of his argument against centrally planned economies is that such structures fail to capture tacit and local knowledge(s), whereas the price mechanism is able to do this. In environmental terms, however, one has to really question whether this is true. The market may capture certain tacit knowledge that e.g. can make supply chains more efficient, but does it really capture our socio-ecological understandings of our local and global environments? Critiquing the notion of “tacit knowledge” in Hayek, Hilary Wainwright, by contrast, argues the tacit knowledge that is truly valuable is not individual, it is shared, horizontal and collective, embodied and developed in social movements. It is precisely this knowledge that a future Labour government needs to open up planning to.

A more democratic system then, that lets disputes play out and allows citizens a meaningful impact on decisions as well as the ability to challenge government attempts to hegemonise both information and priorities is needed to capture the tacit knowledges that are missed by both the central state and the market. This is the time for Labour to research on how to build upon the democratising ethos of the 1947 Act. Such changes have to be structural. They have to give genuine power to citizens in a way that any future government would have to actively remove, rather than the lip service of the Localism Act that washed away under the same minister that introduced it.

The temptation will be to push on in the fashion that the current government has with its fracking project. Building housing, renewable energy, public services like hospitals… these could all be slowed down by redistribution of power and the temptation would be to keep with a top-down system – even if for more socially beneficial aims. With democratising any institution, it comes down to a choice about whether you trust citizens to be able to be able to reach collectively beneficial decisions and whether you are willing to accept the tensions such a process entails. Moreover, as a significant strand in the thought around Labour’s new economic agenda suggests, it may well be that democratising planning is the best way to make radical change “irreversible”. McDonnell has argued “we aren’t going to take control of these industries in order to put them into the hands of a remote bureaucracy, but into the hands of all of you, so that they can never again be taken away”, explicitly arguing the top-down character of the post-war nationalised industries made their privatisation easier.

Ultimately, Labour may feel that the top-down method can give them the results they want, but this is to slip into the bind New Labour found themselves in. They too often saw planning as an obstacle, as neoliberals usually do, preferring to trust the power of the market to guide development. In government, we need to structurally alter society in such a way that people have greater control of their lives – and that means taking power away from the market and companies as well as relinquishing some of the power of the State to its citizens.

The key issue for me from the fracking case isn’t only that it’s an unnecessary use of fossil fuels (even though it is), it’s that it we aren’t able to define our lived social spaces as well as how our land is used. As democratic socialists, we need to do a lot better than saying we know best. Land is one of the most valuable commodities in the U.K., and improving its social use will ultimately require decommodifying it. This is achievable through state power, but more likely to be successful if it engages and seeks the consent and valuable contributions of the people whose social space it really is. At the party conference, Labour launched a Planning Commission to research and consult on planning reforms – now is the time to be as bold in the post-war period in democratising the use of land.

  1. For information about the current and historical state of play with fracking, I cannot recommend more DrillorDrop as a piece of independent journalism. 

  2. Like the ‘authoritarian populism’ Stuart Hall argued re: Thatcherism, particularly in ‘The Great Moving Right Show’

  3. For an overview of this, see Phil Allmendinger –New Labour and Planning: From New Right to New Left 

  4. See Patsy Healey Collaborative Planning: Shaping Places in Fragmented Societies – which tried to move planning on from the problems of the post-war system. The following suggestion about pro-active plan-making is similar to what she proposed, and has had some implementation. 

  5. A more agonistic system is advocated by Jean Hillier and Michael Gunder, amongst others.