Justice and the planning system

Ian Bailey and Hoayda Darkal, ‘(Not) talking about justice: justice self-recognition and the integration of energy and environmental-social justice into renewable energy siting’, Local Environment 23 (2018), 335-351.

Despite the title, this article is not centrally concerned with wind energy or its pros and cons. It discusses a bigger issue – the way the planning process works and specifically the role in it of the concept of justice. While pitched at a level of abstraction that will presumably mean it’s not that widely read, the arguments are important and have some potentially wider applications of interest to environmental and cultural campaigners in Cornwall.

Bailey and Darkal begin by noting that the role of justice in debates over planning applications has been under-researched. What research has been done is by surveys and interviews after the event. In contrast, their method was to analyse public submissions for and against five wind turbine applications in Cornwall in the period 2011-15.

Arguments over the turbines revolved around the then central government policy to promote renewable energy on the one hand and some local concerns on the health, environmental or social impacts of wind turbines. But in the submissions they note there was little discussion of wind energy projects as justice issues. This, they argue, contributed to a lack of robust debate.

What do they mean by justice? First there is distributive justice. This relates to social and spatial equity and might argue that while the benefits of building projects are enjoyed by external agents, the costs are borne by local people. Then there is procedural justice. This focuses on promoting stakeholder participation, utilising local knowledge and democratising decision-making. Arguments relating to procedural justice would criticise biased, partial and undemocratic processes of evaluating information or arbitrating between different viewpoints.

Finally, we have recognition justice, which guards against stereotypes or ‘other means of cultural domination’, such as the blanket labelling of opponents of projects as ‘nimbys’. The authors have a, perhaps fond, belief that utilising fairness issues such as these, together with an explicit vocabulary of justice to defend their rights, would strengthen the arguments of communities and enhance the level of debate surrounding planning issues.

In contrast, using wind turbine applications as an example, they found that only 5% of arguments referred openly to justice claims. Although more included implicit references to justice, these were predominantly around distributive justice, with a very low use of procedural justice arguments. Bailey and Darkal conclude that the reason both sides emphasised technical or planning requirements was because the normative agendas of the central government’s National Planning Policy Framework inhibited people’s confidence in utilising justice concepts and in particular their willingness to challenge the values and practices of government policy.

The authors conclude by asserting that disputes over the siting of building projects are ultimately debates about justice, about the distribution of benefits and costs, mechanisms to promote public participation and procedures to evaluate between different sets of evidence. They raise concerns about the government’s commitment to public debate – ‘strong government agendas and “technical-rationalist” leanings’ have ‘eroded the ability and confidence of affected communities to express concern as justice issues’, even when the outcomes are regarded as palpably unfair.

Pushing a centralised agenda through, they insist, is counter-productive in the long run. It erodes public trust and compounds resistance to those agendas. Instead, they propose a more inclusive approach to planning. This should be open to values as well as to planning criteria, where the primary emphasis is on procedural justice to build trust.

This is all well and good. However, there seems more than a whiff of naivete underlying this contribution. Will explicit use of justice arguments really make decision-makers more likely to listen to objectors? And will such argumentation strategies actually move the planning process towards inclusivity and democracy? Critically, the context of planning policy is ignored in the article.

While it’s noted in a short paragraph that government policy underwent a u-turn on onshore wind energy after 2015, explanations of that aren’t offered. Such a change in policy is surely a lot less likely in other areas, for example, plans to build over acres of the countryside to accommodate ‘growth’.

Nonetheless, campaigners on issues such as the speculative house-building frenzy in Cornwall or other unsustainable projects could well gain some inspiration here. Perhaps we should make a lot more use of procedural justice arguments and demand the ‘fairness’ that the Framework Convention on National Minorities appeared to offer. It might embarrass them and the situation is becoming so dire that any tactics are worth trying.

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