Build me a planning headache (part 1)

It currently takes an average of seven years for waste companies to get new facilities up and running €" and four of those are spent tangled up in the planning process, according to the CBI. As the confederation's deputy director general Dr Neil Bentley aptly points out, "That is not the way to attract investment."

And when you consider that over the next ten years some 2,000 new waste facilities will need to built, at an estimated cost of £10B, that's a pretty tall order if the planning machine keeps grinding to a halt. Throw into the mix localism and the abolition of the independent Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) and things get even more complicated.

For starters, the IPC is to be replaced by a new major infrastructure unit within the Planning Inspectorate which will fast-track big build applications like energy-from-waste plants. Ministers will then make the final decision. However, a facility needs to have an output of 50+MW per year to qualify for this rapid request route €" and most renewable energy plants don't produce to that level of capacity.

Many within waste circles feel the 50MW bar has been set too high to have any real benefit in delivering the infrastructure needed in the timescales required. That means investor confidence will be knocked. Those proposals that fall beneath the 50MW threshold will have to contend with going through the usual local authority channels, having to negotiate not only the stumbling block of nimbyism, but the prickly thorn of localism too.

For those projects lucky enough to be considered worthy of fast-tracking, there's the question of transition. Until new legislation is in place the IPC will continue in its present role. But what about those applications under active consideration by the IPC when it is abolished? What arrangements are being put in place to ensure a seamless transfer to the new Planning Inspectorate unit? And will this further delay those applications, or even mean them having to start again from scratch?

While some feel these reforms are just about replacing one quango with another, others worry that leaving the final decision in minister's hands could see controversial projects buckle under political whim and pressure. Another concern is whether the new unit will be meaty enough to ensure that any nationally important decisions are informed by drawing on an appropriate evidence base.

The only clear thing in the planning pool right now is uncertainty. Tomorrow I may find out some answers at a gathering in Westminster, where representatives from both the IPC and Planning Inspectorate will be talking and taking questions from the floor. Expect a second installment as I report back from proceedings.

maxine perella

Topics: edie
Tags: energy from waste | Infrastructure | localism | planning
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