20 large business plans set for PINS shortcut

Between ten and 20 large-scale commercial and industrial projects are likely to be referred each year to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) for a fast-track decision under the Planning Act 2008, the government has said.

The estimate was revealed in an impact assessment of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill released this week by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Under plans set out in the bill, developers would be able to submit major business and commercial applications directly to PINS as nationally significant infrastructure projects.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said it will be consulting on the details, but the focus will be on the small number of large-scale projects that could take more than a year to determine under the normal process.

In 2011/12, around 13 per cent - 41 decisions - of large-scale commercial and industrial applications took more than 52 weeks to decide, the document says.

"Our initial assessment of the number of new commercial and business cases likely to be referred to the Planning Act regime is between ten and 20 per annum," it says.

The government is also to consult on whether a national policy statement (NPS) is required to make decisions on such applications under the infrastructure regime.

NPSs provide the framework within which inspectors make their recommendations for decisions to the relevant secretary of state.

Business minister Michael Fallon told MPs last week during a debate on the bill that the government would consult on the types of commercial development that it intends to count as major infrastructure and on whether a NPS should be drawn up.

It comes after planning minister Nick Boles had told the Commons communities and local government select committee that he did not believe that a national policy statement was needed.

Legal experts said that, if major commercial projects were to come under the 2008 act's regime, they would need some policy against which they are judged.

Claire Dutch, partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, said: "If the government thinks these projects are so important, then it needs to be on the same footing as big energy and waste projects and it needs a proper statement that deals with them."

Robbie Owen, head of major projects at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell and secretary for the National Infrastructure Planning Association, said it was not required under law to have an NPS, but that there needs to be a clear policy backdrop.

He said it could be difficult to produce a national policy statement for commercial schemes if it needed to cover the wide variety of projects outlined by the government, ranging from science parks to minerals extraction.

Lawyers were also unconvinced that the government could get one in place quickly given that since the 2008 act was introduced, only statements covering energy projects and ports have been approved.

"The disadvantage could be that schemes are held up while someone writes a big, lengthy NPS and it is debated in parliament, and that it could be no quicker than going though the local authority," Dutch said.

Richard Guyatt, head of the planning team at law firm Bond Pearce, said the amount of work required up front for infrastructure applications may put developers off. "They would need to be absolutely sure of their scheme before submission," he said.

Slowest decision makers over two years

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