Last week, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published its updated Action Plan aimed at reforming the planning process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs).
With the existing process having been implemented more than a decade ago and with more than 100 major infrastructure projects consented, the government’s case for reform focuses on the increasing number and complexity of projects entering the planning system. It believes the current process is not offering investors and developers enough certainty and wants to incentivise greater investment in infrastructure. With the current process averaging around four years for developers to secure consent (which as the paper notes is still half the time it took to consent Heathrow Terminal 5 prior to its introduction), it seems right to be seeking further efficiencies to streamline the process.
Hot on the heels of the recent ‘power of five’ we’ve seen in Sunak’s pledges and Starmer’s missions, the plan sets out five key areas for reform to the NSIP regime with the aim of making it better, greener, fairer and more resilient. The timeframe for exploring and implementing the proposed reforms is ambitious with government wanting to consult this Spring, start piloting some changes in the Autumn, with further implementation by Spring 2024. However, with many of the updated National Policy Statements (NPSs) expected to be designated later this year and the NPS for Nuclear Power Generation not scheduled until 2025, this doesn’t leave much room for government to meet some of the existing infrastructure ambitions it has announced.
The first reform area, ‘setting a clear strategic direction’, focuses on clarifying and reducing policy ambiguity for individuals. This is to be achieved through the review of existing NPSs to ensure they provide a clear needs case for infrastructure. In addition, the National Infrastructure Commission will study and recommend how NPSs could be consolidated to alleviate pressure across departments. If the NPS for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-7) won’t be in place until 2025, then achieving its own ambitions like having Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in place by the early 2030s, as set out in the Energy White Paper, seems unlikely.
The second reform area, ‘bringing forward operational reforms to support faster consenting’ aims to speed up the consenting process through the introduction of proportionate examinations and by streamlining the process for engagement with statutory consultees. The reforms also aim to improve the service offered by the Planning Inspectorate by delivering stronger planning advice and better tracking of project issues. Although this will mean additional fees for developers, this funding should be welcomed if it delivers on supporting timelier consultee responses and processing of applications.
The third reform area, ‘realising better outcomes for the environment’ seeks to replace the current environmental assessment process with new Environmental Outcomes Reports. These will focus on delivering bespoke environmental outcomes aligned to the targets set in the Environmental Act 2021. The paper suggests that the current process is seen as too long, technical and prone to legal challenge. Changes here are to be introduced via the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill.
The fourth reform area is ‘recognising the role of local authorities and strengthening community engagement with NSIPs’. Much of the text in this section of the paper will seem familiar to anyone having navigated the planning system since the 2008 Planning Act (infrastructure project or not), with references to expectations that developers will engage early, address legitimate concerns and demonstrate how community views have been considered in an application. However, there are some new commitments to increase funding of local authorities to support NSIP work and to build capacity through the establishment of a Local Authority Support Network.
And while there is a general move towards the digitalisation of the NSIP process, the text around this largely focuses on the Planning Inspectorate, processing, and certification itself. This could be a missed opportunity to review consultation expectations and guidance for developers, where in an ever-changing digital environment, digital reform could streamline and arguably facilitate better consultation and stakeholder engagement.
One further driver for reform in the consultation space focuses on cumulative impacts. On this, government intends to explore how communities engage in and benefit from disproportionality hosting infrastructure that is nationally required. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero is to consult on this to ensure communities benefit from hosting electricity transmission network infrastructure.
The final reform area, ‘improving system-wide capacity and capability’ will include skills and training as well as extending proportionate cost recovery by the Planning Inspectorate and key statutory consultees to support effective preparation and examination of NSIPs and build resilience into the system.
Government is right to look at these reforms and this Action Plan is clearly a positive step towards ensuring that the NSIP planning process can efficiently support the investment in and delivery of the infrastructure the country needs.
Additional capacity is required within PINS, statutory organisations and local authorities to support their involvement in the NSIP process if we’re to improve our energy security, realise economic growth, achieve our Net Zero 2050 target and see the transport improvements we need.
Whilst the reforms are likely to be welcomed by many, with the next general election less than two years away, the timetable for implementation is late in the day.
BECG Group support NSIPs across the UK and in sectors including solar, nuclear, highways, rail, battery storage, onshore wind, offshore wind and more. Get in touch here if we can help.