Tag Archives: infrastructure

GK Point of View – Raising the roof?

GK consultant Milo Boyd assesses the new proposals from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for nationally significant infrastructure, and if these will truly get the UK planning system firing on all the right cylinders. 

The planning system has long been viewed as one of the things that has hamstrung the UK and its growth, particularly in the case of energy and transport infrastructure. Too often, the planning system has been the way that so-called ‘‘NIMBYs’ have been able to stymy any new developments that impact them locally, despite arguments in support of their national importance.

Planning remains a considerable hurdle for the Government if it is serious about achieving its net zero objectives. Onshore wind energy has perhaps been the best example in recent years of how the planning system has hindered the rapid and necessary development of cheap and vitally important infrastructure. In 2015, the UK Government effectively gave local communities the right to veto windfarms by stipulating that they have the final say over whether onshore wind farm applications get the go-ahead in their area. That move, coupled with a removal of subsidies, brought onshore wind installations to an immediate and almost complete halt, the cost of which we are all feeling.

According to IPPR, where England had previously been making modest yet steady progress with onshore wind before the effective ban in 2015, the years since have seen the number of sites receiving planning permission fall off a cliff. Of those which did receive approval, they generate just 0.02% of the target for onshore wind set by the National Grid Future Energy Scenarios, putting England thousands of years behind schedule of its targets for onshore wind.

Now, the Government and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) have outlined a number of new proposals which aim to deliver a system with more flexibility for nationally significant infrastructure (NSIPs) development to take place. The proposals fall broadly into 3 areas of reform:

  1. Operational reform to support a faster consenting process;
  2. Recognising the role of local communities and strengthening engagement; and
  3. System capability – building a more diverse and resilient resourcing model.

These proposals form part of the Government’s wider ambitions to stimulate growth and create jobs, as well as ensuring that the UK power, waste and water, and transport systems are future proofed. Removing burdens is viewed as a one of the key ways that the Government can promote new opportunities, scale up training and build a more dynamic workforce. In doing, it provides a good deal more certainty and confidence for the promoters and developers of projects – something that is vital for investment. This is something that has similarly been trailed by Labour in recent months, advocating for planning reform to reverse the UK’s sluggish growth and remove barriers to investment in new industries. It is unclear as of yet what Labour’s response to this consultation will be, but it seems likely given recent announcements that Labour will follow a similar tack.

The most eye-catching of the Government’s announcements is a ‘new’ fast-track route for certain projects, which builds on the fast-track system first proposed in 2016 under the Housing and Planning Bill. What is most useful about this measure is that if infrastructure projects are deemed to deliver tangible environmental or community benefits, they can be fast-tracked through the planning process if they meet the proposed quality standards, and – owing to their tangible benefits – quickly sidestep any potential local opposition. The scope of this is also broad, covering energy, water and waste facilities, and transport, thus going beyond the Housing and Planning Bill’s ambition to galvanise housebuilding and meaning that a wide range of projects will be able to benefit from DLUHC’s new measures.

To complement the fast-track route, there is real focus on the pre-application stage of the planning process. and new, targeted input from the Planning Inspectorate for applicant projects. To ensure that those projects which successfully apply to the fast-track route speedily receive consent, the Government is effectively seeking to ensure that any practical hurdles are overcome at the pre-application stage. This would mean that the process for projects can essentially be streamlined to move from acceptance to decision within a shorter maximum examination timescale of 12 months, whilst striking a balance between external consultation and ensuring that involvement is very light touch. Government proposals aim to ensure a limited number of meetings are held during the pre-application process. Following this, any further meetings should only be held at key milestones of the project.

Overall, the fact that the reforms aim to considerably streamline processes for NSIPs is positive. Of course, what the final proposals look like is still up for consultation, but seeking to ensure that projects do not have to jump through a prohibitively high number of hoops will no doubt give investors and developers a heightened degree of confidence that their projects will get off the ground.

Get in touch with the GK team through milo@gkstrategy.com if you would like any further information.

Is levelling up a Conservative priority again, and what should Labour do about it?

GK Associate Sam Tankard analyses the recent announcement from Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, on the Government’s plans to boost urban regeneration and kickstart new development, and what we can understand from the Labour Party’s response. 

Michael Gove announced this week a long overdue relaxation of planning rules to boost urban regeneration, bringing life back into the Government’s neglected commitment to levelling up the UK. The plans include setting up more than a dozen new development corporations, that would be able to use compulsory purchase orders to boost building and attract investment, akin to the hugely successful regeneration of the London Docklands. It will also relax permitted development rights, making it easier for disused office buildings to be converted to residential, all of which should come as a welcome package of policies for developers, businesses, and aspiring homeowners alike, all keen to see the densification of key cities.

One of the flagship examples announced to bring forward new homes, is the proposal for a new Cambridge Urban Quarter. The Quarter is designed to couple gentle density seen in many European cities and parts of London, with improved landscaping and infrastructure, with the aim of unlocking investment in the city’s growth areas of life sciences and tech R&D. This is something the city has sorely missed out on over recent years, while international competitors like Boston have soared ahead.

Indeed, this set of policies is shrewdly targeted at voters most at risk of fleeing the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats, demonstrated by recent by-elections in Conservative heartlands. By focusing the message on urban development, it focuses any future housing development in building up density in cities rather than urban sprawl into green space. This combines neatly with Sunak’s recent commitment to protecting the Green Belt around cities, and criticising Labour for the opposite.

However, the limitation of the Green Belt poses a much bigger problem for all stakeholders, having traditionally driven housebuilding in out-of-town developments instead of expanding cities themselves, therefore often encouraging urban sprawl further.

If properly implemented with the ambitious devolution agenda that has been set out, including 20 regeneration zones and investment zones, we could see the investment into the built environment required to really level up our industrial centres. Sunak will also hope it appeals to the middle of the road millennial voters who feel they are being priced out of cities, as well as those who oppose new homes due to lack of infrastructure.

What is Labour’s response?

This presents a significant challenge to Labour, who themselves are being urged to embrace a new levelling up agenda, which has so far been absent from Starmer’s Five Missions. However, Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy has openly committed to radical planning reform to boost building, including building on the Green Belt, restoring housing targets, and making social housing the second highest form of tenure. In response to Gove’s plans, Nandy has criticised the Government for offering more empty promises, and for overseeing housebuilding which is at the lowest rate since WWII. Importantly, however, levelling up goes beyond just housebuilding, and revolves significantly around investment into local public services, prioritising education and early years, as well as attracting and supporting businesses in growth areas.

Therefore, Labour needs to look to capitalise on the separation created between Conservatives and Labour on the issue of Green Belt development and be braver to articulate what is possible from a comprehensive levelling up programme. This programme must reflect the full suite of issues that comprise sustainable and equitable levelling up. This will not only present a more ambitious levelling up agenda that delivers on chronic housing supply issues, but also brings disillusioned renters with them.