The white paper Planning for a sustainable future was published in May. It contains proposals for major reforms of the planning system and focuses on how nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) – including waste, energy and water developments – should be treated with a view to streamlining the planning process and removing decision-making from local government.

The document identifies existing problems with the current system. These include the absence of a clear policy framework, badly prepared applications, too many different development consent regimes, a slow and inefficient inquiry process, and a two-stage decision process.

The paper goes on to propose various solutions. Firstly, the production of national policy statements for key sectors whereby the case for NSIPs should be set out by government in national policy statements. These would integrate the Government’s objectives for infrastructure capacity, and deal with questions of need, climate change and other necessary mitigation measures. They would also be “locationally specific as appropriate”.

These statements will remove the need for inquiries on individual applications. It is proposed that there is ‘appropriate’ public consultation on the content of the statements. Ultimately, while the national policy statements should provide the market with more certainty, there is no timetable for their production and so decision-making on projects where no sector policy exists will remain with the Government.

The second solution proposed is new requirements for the preparation of applications. Applications will have to be prepared to a defined standard before they will be considered. A ‘scheme development stage’ will include a requirement to consult the public and affected landowners before submitting an application.

It is also proposed that it should be a legal requirement to consult affected local authorities and other organisations such as the Environmental Agency. The onus will be on the promoter of the scheme to publicise the fact that an application has been submitted and to ensure appropriate notices are served.

High commission

There is also a proposal to create an Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) that would become responsible for taking decisions on the following:

  • applications for NSIPs in England, and nationally significant energy projects in England and Wales
  • development consent for infrastructure projects above statutory thresholds (to be referred to in national policy statements)
  • applications for projects which are identified as being of national significance in national policy statements or which ministers direct are to be treated as such.

New legislation will set thresholds for sector projects where none already exist. The proposed statutory thresholds for waste and water NSIPs include energy-from-waste plants producing more than 50 megawatts. Also any plant whose main purpose is the final disposal or recovery of hazardous waste, with a permitted hazardous waste throughput capacity in excess of 30,000 tonnes per annum.

Or, in the case of hazardous waste landfill or deep storage facility for hazardous waste, a permitted hazardous waste throughput or acceptance capacity at or in excess of 100,000 tonnes per annum. The thresholds will also apply to waste water treatment plants where the capacity exceeds 150,000 population equivalent, and waste water collection infrastructure that is associated with such works.

Lastly, the document suggests that regulatory regimes should be merged. To simplify the process for obtaining consent, it is proposed that the IPC is able to grant all necessary authorisations creating, as far as possible, a unified single consent regime. This will simplify the planning process for waste projects where there are overlaps between the town and country planning and the waste permitting regimes.

The white paper aims to streamline the planning process. The proposals will have a significant impact on the process of obtaining approval for NSIPs. Local authorities will have an important role to play in ensuring that national decision-makers take full account of relevant local and regional factors when developing NSIPs.

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