I’ve been asked a question on social media concerning my stance on the new hospital: hypothetically, if I were the Environment Minister after the election and the hospital decision fell into my in-tray, would I approve the Overdale application or reject it?
Leaving aside the presumption of ministerial position, it is nevertheless a good question in principle. However, it is also not simple to answer. There are many factors that may have changed by the end of June. We are also in the middle of a planning process, with the public enquiry about to start. Formally, the Environment Minister is tasked with either accepting the recommendation of the inspector, or rejecting it.
Process matters. My starting principle is that there should be a high bar for a Minister to overturn a decision by a planning enquiry. So the short answer to the question is that in most circumstances my presumption would be to accept the recommendation of the inspector.
For a longer answer, read on…
It might help if I explain my basic position on the Overdale application.
First, anyone who looks at the planning application website will see that I have lodged an objection. I think the building is far, far too big for the site, and would cause terrible damage to the skyline of the bay. It has been recommended for refusal by the Planning department because it is clearly in breach of the Bridging Island Plan.
Second, the situation in which we find ourselves is a terrible indictment of the current government. They have been told repeatedly that a new hospital at Overdale would breach planning policy. Costs have spiralled out of control as they attempted to deal with the shortcomings of the site. That they went ahead anyway represents a betrayal of all principles of good government.
Third, we are nevertheless where we are. There is a planning process underway, the planning inspector is about to start the public enquiry, and as I say the answer to the original question is to a significant extent dependent on the outcome of the inquiry. Let’s look at some hypothetical scenarios.
If the inspector recommends rejecting the application I – in this hypothetical role as planning minister – would have little hesitation in confirming the inspector’s decision. It would mean that every planning assessment had gone against the application. (Should this happen, I think a two site solution would offer the best alternative, allowing for a much lower impact redevelopment of the Overdale site, combined with redevelopment at Gloucester St.)
If the inspector unambiguously recommends accepting the application then as I say my presumption would be to accept this recommendation, unless there were exceptional circumstances which I cannot at the moment foresee.
However, it is also possible that the inspector’s report does not give an unambiguous recommendation. He may say for example that the application fails on planning grounds, but nevertheless there is a case to be made for building it anyway, on the grounds that it would cause greater harm to turn it down. In these circumstances I’m afraid a lot would depend on the nature of the arguments and how the inspector summed them up. I am not prepared to prejudge that situation.
Finally, it’s worth saying also that a future Environment Minister would have to at least consider some other issues alongside the inspector’s report. For example, what is the view of the new Council of Ministers and the new Assembly? What would be the financial consequences of the different options? These considerations would not determine a decision, but they would be factors in it.