Build me a planning headache (part 2)

How are we going to make the planning system work in its redesigned form? This question posed by Professor Tom Foulkes, director general of the Institution of Civil Engineers, was key to the debate that took place recently at a seminar hosted by the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum.

As detailed in my last blog, the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) is to be absorbed into the Planning Inspectorate (PI) - an integration which both parties hope will be complete by April 2012. Central to making this work, at least on a cultural front, is getting IPC commissioners (typically more innovative) and PI inspectors (typically more traditional) gelling together to deliver the outcomes required.

What the Government would like to see, according to the PI's chief executive Katrine Sporle, is "a new Planning Inspectorate - smaller, more nimble, cost-effective and looking to the future". And while many spectators are hopeful the transition will result in a process that's more democratically accountable, there are still some niggling concerns loitering on the sidelines.

The first of these is political risk. Basically, leaving ministers to decide whether to flick the green light switch on or off for a big build application. "We need to have the confidence that ministers will be brave enough to make unpopular decisions," pointed out Kirsten Berry, a partner at ERM's waste management and planning department.

Berry's reckoning is that while there won't be that many major waste projects going through the PI route, waste in itself is a controversial subject, and so those that do make it through for consideration - typically high capacity incinerators - may well be dogged by fierce public opposition.

You only have to look at the size of the planning application document for one energy-from-waste proposal currently under scrutiny by IPC commissioners - a whopping 6,173 pages. With the IPC at least you have impartiality as it has been set up as an independent body. Ministers however are servants to their electorate and very capable of bowing under political pressure, rightly or wrongly.

Another bugbear is the time-consuming pre-application phase, which while offering an opportunity for developers to consult and negotiate with their stakeholders, is considered by many to be over-complex and somewhat of a tick box exercise. There are hopes the IPC-IP transition will go some way to streamlining and clarifying this stage of the process.

What is dwelling most on people's minds, however, is investor confidence. It is mainly overseas companies that are looking to finance our future national infrastructure. And our cumbersome planning system doesn't present the UK in a good light; it makes us uncompetitive compared to other countries, according to Professor Foulkes.

"We need to be spending £40-50B a year for at least the next 20 years to get our national infrastructure in a shape that society needs," he argued. "The risk is that our current planning system cannot provide the degree of predictability that private investors require."

As the new Planning Inspectorate starts to take shape, it has a great opportunity to iron out some of these concerns and provide clarification where needed. Lets hope it also fosters an informed dialogue with ministers whose decisions will be key to making the revised system more robust, more risk-adverse, and more accountable.

maxine perella

Topics: edie
Tags: energy from waste | Infrastructure | investors | planning | transport | waste management
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