Michael Gove orders ‘rapid review’ of planning system to fast-track energy projects and homes

Image: DLUHC

Gove announced the decision at a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) meeting on Tuesday night (19 December), and his Department confirmed this more widely on Wednesday morning (20 December).

Sam Richards, who served as energy and climate policy advisor to Boris Johnson, has been selected to spearhead the review. Richards is currently advisor to the Britain Remade campaign group which he co-founded earlier this year to lobby for measures to grow the economy by accelerating infrastructure development.

He has been tasked with identifying “unnecessary delays” and presenting recommendations for policy interventions to Gove, plus Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, in early 2024.

Gove has flagged the current consultation process as a likely source of delays. Richards will assess the statutory consultation regime that requires planning authorities to consult a range of expert bodies before finalising their decision.

Richards “will look at whether the current group of consultees is right, whether the performance reporting is effective, and whether the absence of a reply within an appropriate timeline should be treated as a green light, rather than a red one,” Gove stated.

“I am clear that I expect both local authorities seeking advice, and the consultees providing it, to be judicious and pragmatic in their approach – because too much caution serves no one’s interests.”

Statutory consultees such as Natural England, the Environment Agency, and Historic England will not be removed by the process but have been asked to shorten their response times.

Also up for assessment is whether more 24/7 working should be permitted on large infrastructure projects.

Opportunities and risks

There is the potential for the review to unblock delays relating to clean energy development and related grid infrastructure improvements. The process for delivering Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) including large wind farms and nuclear projects swelled by 65% in the decade leading up to 2021 by the Government’s own figures.

But concerns will doubtless be raised about whether there is a risk of a race to the bottom on environmental and safety standards for the sake of rapid development.

Gove stated that Richards is a “green hero” who “understands the need to protect the natural world” and will embed these considerations in his recommendations.  Nonetheless, he called some existing green regulations “over-complex, inefficient and counter-productive”.

The National Infrastructure Commission has already set out proposals for speeding the NSIP process without weakening these standards. But concerns persist around whether the Government will adopt these proposals, and how it is approaching smaller-scale developments.

The Government attempted this year, in a bid to speed up housebuilding, to change ‘nutrient neutrality’ rules. Under these rules, first introduced in 2017 by the EU, housing developers are mandated to prove that their work will not cause pollutants to enter nearby waters.

Gove sought to scrap the rules under pressure from trade bodies in the construction sector. But the motion was blocked in the House of Lords within three weeks.

Gove said there are “legitimate environmental concerns about new development” including habitat loss due to green land conversion. But he joked about nutrient neutrality proponents having an “affection for newts”, inferring that their concerns were less legitimate.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities set out a nutrient neutrality update in the wake of Gove’s speech.

The update confirms a £110m Local Nutrient Mitigation Fund to benefit local councils. They will be able to support developers with mitigation activities on site and also develop positive benefits elsewhere which they can then sell as ‘credits’.

£57m has been allocated already and a second Fund round will open to applications in early 2024.

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