Log in | Register

Consultation on infrastructure: What France can teach us


What can be done to improve decision-making about the UK's infrastructure? Daniel Slade suggests following the French model

Over the past year the Institute for Government has been trying to answer this question: Why is infrastructure decision-making in the UK often so poor, and what can be done to improve it?

An issue that kept emerging was the government’s approach to community engagement – a sense that government decides on major projects unfairly and without enough local input. This galvanises opposition, leading to delay, uncertainty and diminished faith in decision-makers.

The main route by which big projects in England gain planning consent – the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) planning regime – can contribute to such feelings as public input often comes too late. 

Critically, under the NSIP regime, the principle that developments of particular types should go ahead is established in National Policy Statements (NPSs). Communities can have a say on NPS drafts during formal consultations, but often find it hard because NPSs are generally vague, and do not explain which parts of the country will be affected. The quality of consultations on individual infrastructure projects can also be variable, with not all project sponsors aware of the benefits of full public engagement. 

"The government should create an independent commission for public engagement"

How might we improve this? France’s Commission Nationale du Débat Public (CNDP) provides a potential model. The CNDP – an independent public body – was set up to guarantee “public participation in the decision-making processes of major infrastructure projects of national interest that present important socio-economic stakes”.

It hosts debates on contentious projects as early as possible. All sides are given equal resources to make a case. The CNDP summarises these views in a report, to which project sponsors must respond. Of the 61 projects on which the CNDP facilitated debates between 2002 and 2012, 38 made significant modifications.  

French project sponsors view the CNDP process as a valuable exercise in public engagement and data collection; the public see it as independent, impartial, and a real chance to have their voices heard.

Our government should create an independent commission for public engagement (CPE) to:
Facilitate public debates with communities likely to be affected when NPSs are developed or updated.

Advise project sponsors consulting during the ‘pre-application consultation’ stage of the NSIP planning regime.

Facilitate in-depth deliberations with representative, randomly selected citizen panels. 

The benefits of a CPE, which would cut delays and overruns that cost developers and taxpayers millions of pounds, would far exceed its likely costs.

Daniel Slade has just moved from the Institute for Government to join the RTPI as a research officer. Nick Davies, associate editor at the Institute for Government, edited this piece.

Image credit | iStock


Email Newsletter Sign Up