Big projects, big worries
The government wants to take back control of large-scale infrastructure decisions. But, asks Dean Stiles, is it just playing politics with the planning system?
Planning decisions for large-scale infrastructure projects will shortly move from the Infrastructure Planning Committee (IPC) to a new unit established within the Planning Inspectorate that will continue fast-tracking major infrastructure projects such as wastewater treatment facilities, offshore wind farms and nuclear power stations.
The change is part of the government’s strategy to bring decision-making in-house where ministers, not a quango, will take decisions on applications but within the same statutory fast-track timeframe as the current regime, says decentralisation minister Greg Clark, announcing the change.
The IPC, whose powers largely apply to England, was set up last year with considerable support from business and industry leaders to streamline decisions on projects deemed important to the national infrastructure. The Planning Act sets the threshold on what is determined as large infrastructure, which includes facilities like wastewater treatment work because of the number of people served.
The IPC started work in October 2009 and although it has 42 proposals at a “pre-application stage” – carrying out consultations and environmental impact assessments – none has yet been formally submitted. It was due to begin work on the water industry publishing this year draft national policy statements for sewage treatment infrastructure that would form the basis for the IPC’s planning.
New primary legislation will be brought forward to close the IPC. Until it is in place, the IPC will continue to consider and determine applications.
Since Clark’s initial announcement, the Government has clarified the changeover period in its timetable for implementing the decentralising and localism agenda. This indicates that the Infrastructure Planning Commission may survive until April 2012, the date when ministers anticipate the new Major Infrastructure Projects Unit (MIPU) will be established in the Planning Inspectorate.
That is also the target date for a new national planning policy based on the Conservative’s Open Source Planning proposals. According to the timetable set out in the Cabinet Office’s draft structural reform plan for the Department
for Communities and Local Government, ministers expect to have Royal Assent for the Localism Bill by November.
Much of the initial focus and discussion concerning large infrastructure planning has focused on the energy sector, but the water industry is firmly in the scope of the changes.
Barrie Clarke, director of communication at Water UK, says: “The water industry sector increasingly does see itself as working with other sectors, particularly with demand management where water and energy must work together. This whole question is important to us and indeed the planning side is important as well.
“We are interested in this from all points of view: questions of where you can locate wastewater treatment facilities for instance, planning for floods, and flood risk protection, is an important part of this as well.”
Water UK, like other business groups welcomed the creation of the IPC as a sensible way of addressing the need to plan for major infrastructure without unnecessary delay.
“We are not disagreeing with the change,” says Clarke. But he reserved judgement about the change without more clarity about its implications.
Other business groups have accused the Government of playing politics with the planning system. The Infrastructure Planning Commission had some degree of independence from ministers and the power to override local authorities if projects fulfilled national objectives such as delivery of essential new energy capacity.
Some of the concerns expressed by environmental campaigners about the powers of the IPC – that it greatly excludes the public from taking part in decisions – were the very thing that gave business leaders confidence in it.
Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, says the group fundamentally disagreed with the move because it put vital projects at the whim of short-term political considerations.
“Business has supported the commission because it would have provided greater certainty on the major transport, energy and communications projects critical to the UK’s economic future. The commission’s abolition puts politics back into the planning system,” he says.
Miles Templeman, director-general of the Institute of Directors, describes the Government’s decision as wrong and flying in the face of its supposed “open-for-business” agenda. “We remain concerned that, if final planning decisions rest with ministers, projects will be delayed or blocked completely for political reasons,” he says.
According to Neil Bentley, director of business environment at the CBI, the new system would be judged on its ability to deliver decisions swiftly. “Investors and companies need certainty from the planning system to invest with confidence in the UK,” he says.
John Healey, shadow planning minister, says the coalition had simply moved officials from one quango to another “at huge administrative cost”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, he said: “I think they are over hyping the change. I’m glad to see they are keeping much of the new single system that we put in place 18 months ago.”
He said national policy statements, public consultation, strict timetables and national experts were staying, but if ministers were to take a “fresh look” at plans after the planning inspectorate had taken its view, it could slow the process down. He dismissed the idea that the Government was making a big change. “What they are doing is moving the IPC, which they call a quango, into another quango, the planning inspectorate. It’s moving the same experts into a different place and calling them something different,” Healey said.
Richard Guyatt, partner at Bristol-based Bond Pearce LLP and a legal adviser on major infrastructure projects, questions what would happen to the IPC and the specialist team brought together to deal with major infrastructure.
“Quality and committed staff have been recruited. It is essential that this expertise is not now dissipated, through either unnecessary reform, or through uncertainty whilst the Government fine tunes its proposals,” he says.
Guyatt says: “The minister suggested that a new Act of Parliament is needed to restore a degree of democratic accountability to the process. But under the 2008 Planning Act the Secretary of State can already direct any application for a major infrastructure scheme be referred to the Secretary of State for a decision. All that needs to happen in the short term is that, for all applications, such a direction is given and the Secretary of State has the final say. Until NPS are in place, a minister must always be involved in the decision anyway.”
The reality is that the reform could be less radical than initial government statements suggest, Guyatt says. “There will be opposition to all of the schemes. One issue that makes the IPC regime stand out from any previous planning regimes is the amount of consultation required by developers.
“This consultation is structured and policed by the IPC to an extent never before seen in UK planning law. The key role of local authorities in the consultation process and their advice to the IPC means there is an element of local democracy. The system will ensure stakeholders are involved at a local level,” he says.
All of the consultations and processes for submitting an application to the IPC are time consuming, Guyatt says. “It is essential for all parties involved that this process is allowed to be taken forward with a degree of certainty so that consultation is structured, meaningful and delivered on time.”
He says there is little of clear substance to the change. “The IPC is in business for the time being and is likely to remain so, albeit potentially subsumed into the Planning Inspectorate. Increased democratic accountability to the decision-making process and NPS drafting in every case is to be welcomed.
“There’s little substantive change needed to the existing regime, if that is the only required outcome of the proposed changes. Would it not be better to allow the IPC to prove its worth, rather than bring in wholesale change for little purpose other than a political gesture?
“It is key for promoters, politicians and even opponents of schemes that a clear, logical and stable process for decisions on infrastructure provision is allowed to bed down. Uncertainty and confusion is the last thing that should occur in infrastructure consenting. Hopefully the Government will think twice before instigating wholesale change in such a key area.”
When it comes to large-scale infrastructure, the Government’s latest announcements have done little but encourage confusion and delay. None of this is in the interests of planning Britain’s infrastructure.