Consultation could bring swifter project delivery

Government proposals to streamline the planning process for major sewer projects would benefit water companies like Thames Water, says Shane Toal, partner in the real estate team at law firm Dundas & Wilson

Running from Hammersmith in the West to Beckton in the East, a proposed 32km long, £3.6bn sewer, as wide as three double-decker buses, has been dubbed London’s “super sewer”. It is claimed that the sewer, which will be constructed by Thames Water, will prevent 37M tonnes of sewage going into the Thames each year and will potentially solve water pollution problems in the capital for the next 100 years.

Critics however argue that the sewer will reduce home values, increase water bills for all Londoners, and leave a legacy of ugly concrete shafts, service buildings, smells and 24-hour noise. Thames Water has promised to listen to groups affected and modify plans, where possible, to address concerns. A first round of public consultation took place from 13 September 2010 to 14 January 2011 and the second consultation on any revised design will follow later this year.

However, given the background and the scale of the project, it is inevitable that there will be objections, whatever design or route is finally used. This means, even after the public consultations, Thames Water’s planning applications are likely to face serious scrutiny by a number of different councils and objectors.

The current planning process for large sewer projects, which typically affect a number of local government areas, requires multiple applications – at least one for each council affected. This increases the risks associated with such projects as, naturally, multiple applications substantially increase costs and the development risk because the whole project hinges on all the applications being successful.

If one should fail, the entire project could be delayed or even jeopardised.

The Government has recognised that multiple applications are not just cumbersome and overly complex for applicants, but many individuals, communities and other stakeholders also have found it difficult and costly to make their voices heard. In 2009, the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) was established under the Planning Act 2008 to streamline the planning system for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) for applications for development consent from the energy, transport, water and waste sectors.

The IPC is due to be abolished in line with the Coalition agreement and replaced by the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit which will be established in the Planning Inspectorate. In the short term the applications will still however be referred to the Commission.

NSIPs only require a single application to the Commission rather than (potentially) multiple applications to different local planning authorities. This new process is intended to reduce the time taken to make a decision on the whole project to under a year on average.

Major sewers projects are not covered by the Commission – but this could be about to change. In July, Defra launched a consultation to classify proposed major sewers as NSIPs.

Over the summer, Defra consulted on proposals for secondary legislation, which would amend the Planning Act 2008, to specify major sewer projects in England above a storage capacity threshold of 350,000m3 as NSIPs. They would then be able to go through the same planning application process as other NSIPs, including submitting a single application to the Commission. It is worth highlighting that the threshold figure of 350,000m3 has not been finalised. Defra is specifically seeking views on whether this figure is set at the right level. Water companies should consider future requirements and respond to the consultation if they believe the threshold is not set at the right level.

For comparison, the Thames sewer will be over one million cubic metres. The only other project currently exceeding the threshold is the construction of the Lee Tunnel (which has received planning consent). This tunnel is actually the first of two tunnels, and will collectively capture an average of 39M tonnes a year of sewage from London’s 35 most polluting, combined sewer overflows.

We expect water companies, such as Thames Water, will have welcomed the Defra consultation and the changes proposed.

New infrastructure is required to protect the environment and public health, and to meet consumer demand. Simplifying the process will not only reduce costs, but help ensure projects are completed faster so that consumers and businesses benefit from the new sewers. The consultation closed on 5 October.

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