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:
- Operational reform to support a faster consenting process;
- Recognising the role of local communities and strengthening engagement; and
- 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.
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