Infrastructure planning system | Study
In February 2023, the government asked the Commission to undertake a study on the infrastructure planning system and the role of National Policy Statements. The full terms of reference for the study can be found on gov.uk. This report sets out the Commission’s recommendations on how to improve the consenting process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). Over the course of the study the Commission has sought input from a range of stakeholders and this report provides an independent, expert assessment of what could be done to strengthen and improve the current system both in the short and longer term.
The Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project planning regime was established through the Planning Act 2008 to provide more certainty on the need for nationally significant projects. Under this system government sets out the need for different types of infrastructure through National Policy Statements. The system was designed to be inquisitorial, and the role of the Planning Inspectorate, acting under delegation from the Secretary of State, was to weigh the balance of scheme impacts on the basis of clear policy guidance from government.
Initially the system worked well, but since 2012 consenting times have increased by 65 per cent, moving from 2.6 to 4.2 years, and the rate of judicial review has spiked in recent years to 58 per cent from a long term average of ten per cent. The system has in part decelerated because National Policy Statements have not been updated since they were first issued and have not been supported by clear supplementary guidance. As a result, the role of the Planning Inspectorate has shifted from that of inquisitor to that of arbiter, having to determine the meaning of old and sometimes subjective guidance. Without clear and up to date statements of need for infrastructure, policy questions are being debated at planning examinations, lengthening timeframes. Inefficiencies and uncertainties in the system’s approach to the environment have also slowed down consent times and reduced the quality of outcomes. Schemes can spend months or years collecting environmental data which other schemes have already collected, or designing environmental mitigations where existing mitigations for the same impacts have already proved successful elsewhere.
The system has slowed down and become more uncertain while the need for it has increased dramatically. In the next decade, the UK needs to consent and build transformational infrastructure including wind farms, electricity transmission lines and reservoirs to achieve energy security and net zero, and build resilience to climate change.1 Into the 2030s, the types of schemes required will expand further, with the potential requirement for carbon capture and storage pipelines and a hydrogen network. A slow planning system also constrains transport schemes and the economic growth they deliver. As the UK attempts regional economic rebalancing, delays to projects defer their economic benefits.
Improving the speed of the planning system for major infrastructure does not need to come at the expense of good decisions which take communities and the environment into account. Longer decision making processes mean more uncertainty for communities while decisions are made. Similarly, inefficiencies in environmental data gathering and mitigation design slow down the process, but do not improve the environment.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is aware of these issues and produced an action plan in February 2023 to deliver reforms to the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project planning process. This plan introduced changes which should have a positive impact on the system and reverse to some degree the deceleration in planning consent timelines. The recommendations in this report build on and complement the proposals in the action plan as requested in the terms of reference for this study.
As an independent agency, the Commission has developed recommendations which comprise further reforms to ensure the system remains capable of delivering the volume and complexity of projects needed to meet net zero, energy security, climate resilience and growth goals and bringing consenting times back to at least 2010 levels. Although some of these reforms will have longer term benefits, the Commission’s recommendation timelines reflect the fact that action is needed now to secure them. Without these reforms, it is likely that the planning system will become a major barrier to government achieving its policy goals.
Stakeholders with which the Commission engaged support reform of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project system rather than its replacement. The Commission believes that the system can be reformed to support the delivery of net zero, energy security, climate resilience and economic growth across regions. The recommendations set out in this report are designed to ensure the system meets four tests:
- Faster: The system must deliver more infrastructure more quickly, at a minimum rapidly returning to two and a half year consenting timetables achieved in the early 2010s. Longer term, this could be reduced further to around two years due to efficiencies derived from strategic environmental mitigation2
- More flexible: The system needs to be able to respond to rapid changes in technology, and to changes in legislation which have implications for planning policy
- Increased certainty: Scheme promoters, investors and communities must have more confidence about the outcome of planning decisions and the time they will take
- Better quality: The system must ensure that environmental outcomes are measurably improved and communities that host nationally important infrastructure receive direct benefits. It must also recognise the importance of good design, as set out in the National Infrastructure Design Principles.3
As National Policy Statements have aged there has been less clarity about the need for infrastructure and how this relates to more recent legislation, such as the commitment to net zero. Government has committed to its first round of updates to National Policy Statements this year in its recent action plan. It should go further and make at least five-yearly reviews of key National Policy Statements a legal requirement. Government should also set out the criteria for triggering reviews of other National Policy Statements. These statements should follow a clear set of principles set out in more detail in the body of this report. To achieve net zero, the system also needs to include all viable forms of renewable generation, including onshore wind.
By 2025, government should introduce legislation to make at least five-yearly reviews of the National Policy Statements for Energy, Water Resources and National Networks a legal requirement. These statements should include clear tests, refer to spatial plans and set out clear timelines and standards for consultation during pre-application. Reviews should consider the appropriateness of existing and future technologies and thresholds. Government should amend legislation to bring onshore wind into the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project system as soon as possible. By 2025, government should also set out the criteria for triggering reviews of other National Policy Statements.
Government should make the system more flexible, enabling National Policy Statements to keep pace with legislative change, such as the net zero target. ‘Modules’ should be produced and attached to legislation to set out how these changes relate to existing statements. They should not need to be separately consulted on as the legislation will go through, or be scrutinised by, Parliament. This will increase certainty in the system by ensuring statements align with newer legislation and enable departments to set out how they do so.
By July 2024, government should introduce a system of modular updates to National Policy Statements linked to primary or secondary legislation to ensure clarity on how future legislative change relates to National Policy Statements.
Currently the environmental impact of infrastructure is managed on a scheme-by-scheme basis. This undermines the speed, quality and certainty of the system. The system is slowed down because individual schemes are required to collect up to three years of environmental data, sometimes duplicating recently gathered data. The system has fewer optimal outcomes because environmental management is considered on a scheme by scheme basis, but environmental impacts should be managed at ecosystem level. Finally, the system is less certain because the lack of clear guidance and expectations can mean that schemes’ proposed environmental management plans are open to legal challenge.4
These reforms will require the sharing of baseline data and the development of a library of mitigations which will take a while to deliver time savings. For urgent prioritised infrastructure, government should take a proactive approach by gathering baseline data and agreeing mitigations with developers. This should start with wind generation and electricity transmission, followed by water resource infrastructure, because these sectors are critical for delivering net zero, energy security and climate resilience.
By the end of 2024 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should introduce a data sharing platform for environmental data with clear data standards, sharing relevant developer and local nature recovery strategy data. By the end of 2025 statutory consultees should develop a library of historic and natural environmental mitigations for different kinds of infrastructure. Statutory consultees should also receive and use new resource to gather baseline data and agree strategic mitigations for urgent infrastructure, firstly for wind generation and electricity transmission, and then water resources, by the end of 2025.
Some schemes, such as electricity transmission lines, deliver benefits at national level, but not at local level. Providing social, economic or environmental benefits at local as well as national level could improve community trust in the system which could in turn reduce the risk of legal challenge. Requiring developers to engage with communities early to understand their needs also improves the quality of the system. Community benefits have hitherto tended to be allocated on a voluntary basis by industry and developers and, as such, the level of funding and how it has been allocated has varied. Given the scale and rate of infrastructure change required, government should introduce the measures necessary to ensure local communities receive consistent, tangible and fair benefits from hosting network infrastructure that supports national objectives.
By the end of 2023 government should develop a framework of direct benefits for local communities and individuals where they are hosting types of nationally significant infrastructure which deliver few local benefits.
The failure to update National Policy Statements suggests that some departments may have overlooked planning in favour of short term concerns. More projects are also requiring multiple extensions at the decision stage. All parts of the system, including ministerial decision making, must be more disciplined to meet timeframes, and must resolve issues at the appropriate stage in the process. Given the challenges faced, stronger accountability is needed at the centre of government to guarantee the system meets the tests the Commission has proposed in recommendation 1. This could be in the form of a new appropriately skilled unit or task force under the Prime Minister or Chancellor to closely monitor the performance of the system, coordinate regular and consistent reviews of National Policy Statements, and to learn lessons from applications, unblocking systemic issues affecting certain types of schemes as they emerge.
By the end of 2023 a central coordination and oversight mechanism should be developed, reporting to the Prime Minister or the Chancellor, with measurable targets for reducing consenting times for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.
Statutory consultees have a clear remit, such as protecting the natural environment or the historic environment, but this is not always aligned to the consenting and delivery of nationally significant infrastructure. Updates to National Policy Statements should provide statutory consultees with clear guidance. But the need for national infrastructure should also be reflected in the resourcing and incentives for these bodies. Similarly, developers should be required to demonstrate engagement and agreement with statutory consultees on cost recovery and service level agreements in advance of schemes being accepted for examination.
By May 2024 performance indicators for statutory consultees operating under a cost recovery model should form part of compulsory service level agreements with developers, with budget implications for failure to meet agreed service levels. Developers’ applications should only be accepted for examination once a service level agreement is in place.
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