Autumn Statement and National Infrastructure Plan - what's new from the planning perspective?

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Summary: The last two days have seen the Government’s Autumn Statement and the 2014 National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) released. From the perspective of infrastructure planning and consenting, what do they mean? The stories behind the headlines: what does the NIP 2014 say?

This year, ‘planning, performance and delivery’ merits a chapter all of its own in the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP).

In terms of high-level measures to deliver infrastructure, the Government doesn’t let us forget the roles of:

  • The NIP itself
  • Infrastructure UK
  • The Cabinet Committee for InfrastructureThe National Infrastructure Plan Strategic Engagement Forum (NIPSEF) (us planners love a good acronym!) (which is co-chaired by Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, and Association for Consultancy and Engineering Chief Executive, Nelson Ogunshakin)
  • The key infrastructure departments within Government (DfT, DECC, DEFRA, and DCMS)

There are no shortage of forums focussed on infrastructure delivery, which is to be welcomed.

Coming down then to the detail of ‘streamlining the planning and consenting systems’, the Government first re-iterates what it has already done (see our summary of NIP 2013 below).

Recap of where we were last year – NIP 2013

So, just to remind ourselves, in the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) 2013 a year ago, the Government committed to streamlining the planning system as it was recognised that the ‘planning system is a key component of infrastructure delivery’ but was identified ‘as a major reason for excessive scheme costs’.

At that point the steps proposed to address consenting issues included:

  • establishing the Major Infrastructure Unit at the Planning Inspectorate;
  • the NPPF presumption in favour of sustainable development; and
  • ‘radically reducing’ planning policy and guidance.

The Government last year also recognised that the Planning Act 2008 regime for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) had bedded in well. Indeed, since then, the development consent has been granted for the largest NSIP project in the country – the Thames Tideway Tunnel (which the NIP 2014 recognises as being of exceptional size and complexity) – within the strict decision-making timetable set by the Act.

Also in the NIP 2013, we should remember that the Government launched the review of the NSIP regime. This has since culminated in proposed amendments to certain procedural aspects of the DCO consenting regime, as well as new guidance on certain aspects.

Finally the NIP 2013 considered how meritless Judicial Review claims could be addressed, and since then the new Planning Court has got underway.

So where has that all got us to for this year? Read on...

So what we do we think of the NIP 2014?

All of the noises are good – and should reassure the industry that the Government remains committed to infrastructure delivery – but the details will really give the full picture when they emerge.

So, taking each of the headline items (which are repeated in both the Autumn Statement and NIP 2014) in turn:

1. Establishing the principle of development

The Government commits to: ‘taking forward measures to ensure that the principle of development need only be established once, to give greater certainty and allow locally-supported development to proceed more quickly’.

For Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) under the 2008 Planning Act, the designation of National Policy Statements (NPSs) can address the issue of the need for a project. When it comes to major infrastructure, it is not clear what the Government intends to do to bring the above commitment to life, as many of the NPSs are in place, and the Government has made the commitment to sort out the NPS for road and rail this month.

2. Section 106 negotiations

The Government commits to: ‘taking steps to speed up section 106 negotiations, including revised guidance, consulting on a faster process for reaching agreement, and considering how timescales for agreement could be introduced, and improving transparency on the use of section 106 funds’.

As with many of the commitments in the NIP 2014, the principle is to be welcomed, but it really is the detail which will count here.

Also in the context of S.106 and planning gain, the NIP 2014 picks up on Community Infrastructure Levy (‘CIL’). Whilst it is true that a number of local authorities do now have charging schedules for CIL, it still has a little way to go before it has fully bedded down alongside the conventional S.106 regime. But in referring to it, the Government would seem to remain committed to CIL, at least for now.

3. Speed of planning decisions

The Government commits to: ‘keeping the speed of decisions on major applications under review, with the minimum performance threshold increasing to 50% of major decisions on time as performance continues to improve’.

In the context of delivering major infrastructure projects, which can secure consent under the Planning Act 2008, there is already a fixed timetable for decision making by the Government. Hence this commitment appears aimed at the medium or smaller infrastructure schemes and of course major housing schemes, which are in the main to be determined by local planning authorities or urban development corporations. Again the detail is awaited.

 4. Reform to the compulsory purchase regime

The NIP simply states that this is a matter for the Budget 2015.

The regime for compulsorily acquiring land is as complicated as ever, both in terms of the process and the compensation that follows. Consideration of improvements is welcomed.

5. National transport policy statement (the national networks NPS)

The Government reiterates that it proposes to lay the national networks NPS before Parliament this year.

Many other NPSs have come into play already, and the consultation for this NPS closed in February 2014, so after some 9 months this appears to be ready for issue; which is just over 6 years since the Planning Act 2008 came into being.

6. Other

Interestingly the Government asserts in the NIP 2014 that the new Planning Court has led to a ‘significant reduction’ in the time taken to deal with Judicial Review cases. Whilst undoubtedly there have been improvements, as with changes to the planning system as a whole, the improvements remain in the ‘bedding in’ phase and it will take time for confidence, based on certainty of timescales, to become the norm.

And finally - we’ll tell you what we’ve told you

In addition to the headlines listed above, the Government also reiterated in the NIP 2014 what is already being done to seek to improve the regime for NSIPs. Hence the Government lists the ongoing changes which flowed from the review over the last year or so, which are to be welcomed and include:

  • getting more non-planning consents into DCOs;
  • improving the process for amending DCOs;simplifying and improving certain parts of the DCO examination process; and
  • clarifying parts of the pre-application process in respect of environmental information.

It is these kind of tweaks which will offer greater comfort to those responsible for delivering infrastructure, and which give greater confidence to those investing in UK infrastructure both now and in the future.

Watch this space…..

In terms of planning and consenting, the Autumn Statement and NIP 2014 are good on overall noises, but it is the detail as it emerges that will interest the industry the most. Naturally the continued focus on infrastructure in the UK is good news. The NIP as a tool remains a useful opportunity for the Government and the industry to take stock of progress, and perhaps to help the industry consider where it might want to help Government (this one, and whoever comes next) to make further improvements. With this momentum of Government support mixed with growing investor confidence and complemented by positive thinking by those of us who play a part in the delivery of important infrastructure, we have a cocktail for growth to toast the end of 2014 and the start of a prosperous 2015 for UK Plc.

For our analysis of the wider themes of the Autumn Statement and National Infrastructure Plan please see our Backing Britain's Infrastructure article.

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