News: UK Government proposes overhaul of NSIP planning process - Pinsent Masons


By Robbie Owen (Pinsent Masons)The UK government has published a plan to overhaul the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs).

According to the 'Action Plan', drawn up by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DHLUC), the consenting process has slowed significantly in recent years amid a rise in the number and complexity of cases coming into the NSIP planning system. It added: "Cumulative impacts, particularly in the offshore wind and electricity networks sector, require strategic solutions outside the remit of individual projects. International developments have underlined how crucial it is for the UK to build its own infrastructure to meet energy security, resilience and net zero objectives."

DHLUC said changes were needed to make the NSIP regime, first introduced in 2010, better at delivering development consent orders (DCOs) that are "as robust as possible" to give developers and communities more certainty. It also outlined a streamlined process, and a new fast-track route for suitable projects, to make the system faster at handling all applications. Additional reforms would see the regime focus on environmental protection and enhancement, rather than just minimising harm, and an emphasis on the benefits to local people that come with major infrastructure investment.

Jan Bessell, strategic planning expert at Pinsent Masons, said: "A first real informed look at the workings of the DCO consenting and delivery process is to be welcomed, especially if it can help to strip out unnecessary processes and focus on what works. The challenge will be to deliver certainty for all and good sustainable outcomes in a timely, proportionate and accessible way - no mean feat."

The action plan acknowledged the role of communities and local authorities in infrastructure planning and delivery, highlighting the importance of "constructive and collaborative working to build trust in both the consenting process and between all parties." Bessell said recognition of this collaboration was "good to see" and "could be of real benefit" if local authorities and communities are incentivised and resourced to work together to deliver effective outcomes and reduce the complexity and volume of material.

Bessell said the proposal for a fast-track route for certain projects was "one to watch", since the current legislative framework "already allows for shorter examinations which are rarely delivered". She added: "It will be interesting to see the quality thresholds that are established for this new fast-track route, and whether this can deliver wider benefits that do not just relate to shorter examination timescales. At its best, the reform could deliver new focused quality applications with a high degree of collaboration and a more targeted and effective examination process."

"If the UK is to speed up - and reduce the cost of - delivery of vital infrastructure projects, we need a clearer national infrastructure planning policy that covers key sectors, and an improved way to keep that policy updated."

Robbie Owen - Partner, Parliamentary Agent

DHLUC said improvements to the NSIP regime could not be achieved "through legislation and policy approaches alone", and asked developers and other interested parties to "engage proactively" with its reforms. "By working together, we can support the delivery of nationally significant infrastructure, incentivise more investment into the UK and ensure we are able to meet our infrastructure, energy and environmental challenges," it added.

Robbie Owen, infrastructure and economic development expert at Pinsent Masons, welcomed publication of the action plan, which he said had been "a long time in coming" but added that it was "now essential that its suggested reforms are progressed" as soon as possible. "Consultations will be needed, and it is important for government to prioritise work on these immediately," he said.

"More broadly, if the UK is to speed up - and reduce the cost of - delivery of vital infrastructure projects, we need a clearer national infrastructure planning policy that covers key sectors, and an improved way to keep that policy updated. We also need better and stronger guidance from the government on what is a reasonable and proportionate level of baseline environmental data for environmental impact assessments and habitats regulations assessments," Owen added.

The action plan comes after the government's infrastructure advisory body, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), launched a review of the national policy statements (NPSs) system. NPSs are planning policy documents used to consider development applications for NSIPs. The government asked the NIC to "identify how the planning system could create greater certainty for infrastructure investors, developers and local communities" and examine whether the current requirement to update NPSs every five years is "the most effective way forward".

The government also asked the NIC to provide recommendations on how the consents process could be improved and whether the current format of the NPS framework remains suitable for making timely decisions on development applications. Ministers are also seeking any additional recommendations that the NIC "considers would help strengthen and improve the policy framework for NSIPs."

The NIC said the introduction of the NSIP system had greatly increased the speed with which major infrastructure projects progress through the planning process. Prior to the NSIP system, the NIC said, the application for the Sizewell B nuclear power station took seven years to receive consent. In comparison, the NIC said the Norfolk Boreas offshore wind farm, consented in 2021, took just two-and-a-half years "from application submission to its DCO being granted".

But the NIC acknowledged that the NSIP system "has slowed in recent years", adding that between 2012 and 2021, the average wait for a DCO to be granted increased by 65%. It said: "Where NPSs have been designated without review for a long period, time in examinations can be spent debating the need case of a particular project and infrastructure in order to agree the policy framework for that application. This can take significant time which can be avoided through updated NPSs which put the needs case beyond doubt."

According to the terms of reference for the review, the NIC will focus "on the NSIP regime and major infrastructure projects which are covered by NPSs" and "set out recommended priorities for government on infrastructure planning" for the next 18 months as well as the next five years. The review follows a commitment to an NSIP reform programme in the government's 2020 National Infrastructure Strategy. The programme is intended to speed up timescales by up to 50% for projects entering the system from September 2023

Owen said DHLUC's Action Plan and the NIC review were both "very welcome news" that "reflect the continuing focus in government on an effective planning process for NSIPs." He added that the government's focus on NPSs was "essential" to avoid the current delays being experienced in the NSIPs planning regime. "Out-of-date NPSs only result in a lack of clarity for applicants, interested parties and all other participants in the planning process, leading to more complex examinations, increased costs, legal challenges and delays in project delivery. The government needs to get on and designate this year the outstanding new and revised NPSs for energy, rail, road and water infrastructure projects," Owen said.

But he warned that "careful thought" needed to be given to whether the whole NPS system is sustainable and fit for purpose. He said: "The NSIPs regime must have a strong national planning policy backbone in order to be effective. The current NPS system has shown itself to be slow, resource hungry and unresponsive to change. It does not provide the once-every-five-years review of NPSs envisaged by the architects of the NSIPs regime back in 2007 and 2008."

Owen added: "It is therefore well overdue to consider how it may be improved and I strongly welcome the Commission's review of the way in which NPSs are prepared and how this might be improved. A more dynamic and efficient approach to NPSs, with more overarching elements covering all infrastructure sectors, and government putting in place and being accountable to deliver a programme for regular NPS reviews, is what is clearly needed."

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