Big business on the one hand, and community groups on the other, are watching the overhaul of the planning process with interest.
A small piece of history is being played out in a Southampton hotel where a stream of lawyers representing industrialists, councils, environment groups, statutory bodies and local residents are taking turns to tell a government inspector why a massive container port should, or should not be built around Dibden bay on Southampton water.
As the enquiry settles down for what could be at least a year of argument and counter argument, the unwieldiness of the planning system for major infrastructural projects will show. For opponents of the proposed development, a year of debate is nothing less than sensible and democratic. After all, they say, it would include miles of warehousing and new roads which would destroy a unique local environment and affect the quality of life of thousands of people.
But for a major business in a hurry, promising jobs and regeneration and arguing that its very survival is at stake, the planning system is tedious and financially wasteful. The fact that it could take a year and cost a small fortune is seen as penalising initiative.
The Jack Jay inquiry will almost certainly be the last of its sort. When this week the government publishes its green paper on planning, together with five consultancy documents, it is widely expected to recommend that parliament and not an independent inspector should in future recommend whether or not major projects go ahead. It will also give local people and special interest groups only a limited say in future inquiries.
Following the massive terminal five enquiry for Heathrow, and a series of others like Sizewell B and the Isle of Harris superquarry, these recommendations, which are expected to lead to legislation within a year, will be hailed by government as popular and sensible moves.
But for communities or groups who in the future may object to being saddled with new trunk roads, nuclear power stations, giant quarries, ports, runways or opencast mining, the idea of limiting local inquiries to discussing the detail of design, but not the principle of whether the development should go ahead will smack of totalitarianisam and over centralisation. The real fear is that Stephen Byers’s plans will be a further erosion of democracy, making the planning system less accountable and less open.
Parliament, argue groups like the Council for the Protection for Rural England, Friends of the Earth and others, is ill-equipped to make a proper examination of the complex issues involved in major developments. They believe that the further centralisation of decision-making in Westminster will risk alienating communities. Unless people can engage in the planning process on equal terms and be able to voice their concerns, the new system will be discredited before it even starts, they say.
It may also be politically risky. The government is about to embark on 100 new bypasses and massive motorway widening. It also wants millions of new homes. All are bound to impact heavily on existing communities, and many will be opposed.
But streamlining the public enquiry system for major projects is only a small part of what Stephen Byers wants. Pressure has been exerted by the CBI and the Treasury on the basis that planning stifles competitiveness. As a result, the most fundamental shakeup of the system for 50 years is now in the pipeline.
Up to a point the government is pushing at an open door when it seeks reform. Planning is the cinderella of the public services, largely unloved and greatly under valued. Everyone recognises that all is not well in the complex, many-tiered system of regional and local applications and appeals that has grown up since 1947 when the Labour government tried to make it more accountable and democratic.
There is wide recognition, even among planners, that the system spends far too long looking at the minutiae of control, stifling both developers and householders. Inquiries get bogged down by lawyers; some local authorities are renowned for operating inefficiently or idiosyncratically; others sit on reports for months or set arcane and expensive preconditions for development.
The inordinate length of time that planning takes is also widely criticised, but to blame objectors and special interest groups, as the government would seem to prefer, is unfair. As the Council for the Protection of Rural England notes, developers themselves often abuse the system by expoiting loopholes, submitting repetitive applications and appeal against refusals for development which conflict with democractically agreed plans.
Planning is a low-key business, seldom interesting enough to catch the public eye but on it rides the well-being of our environment and quality of life. At its best the system should guide the development process, invigorate local democracy and reconcile the differences between parties with hugely different needs and expectations. When it works well it looks ahead wisely, is transparent, accountable and accessible and legitimises the great changes development can bring to the landscape and quality of life.
Planning is largely the invisible glue that binds communities together so, sadly for Mr Byers, even if he does get it right and rationalises the system without taking away its good qualities, he is unlikely to be recognised for having done everyone a public service. But if he gets it wrong, he will get the blame for the inevitable local conflicts that will follow.