Briefing - Extending major infrastructure regime to business projects

The national infrastructure consent regime is being offered to major business and commercial schemes, Matthew Sheppard explains

Stadia: included in new fast track regime
Stadia: included in new fast track regime

Q: What projects will be eligible for this option?

A: Draft regulations published at the end of last month under the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 will formalise the power for developers of commercial projects to "opt in" to the nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) process.

The proposed expansion of the NSIP regime covers office uses, research and development, industrial processes, storage and distribution, and conference, exhibition, sport, leisure and tourism guidance. It also includes the winning or working of minerals except peat, coal, oil or gas.

An accompanying policy statement indicates that it would "not normally" cover schemes with less than 40,000 square metres of internal floorspace, 100 hectares of leisure, tourism and sports facilities, 150 hectares of mineral development, or stadia with fewer than 40,000 seats.

Q: What is the NSIP regime and what types of projects does it currently cover?

A: NSIPs designated under the Planning Act 2008 are generally large-scale power, transport, water and waste developments. Applications are determined by ministers following a recommendation by the National Infrastructure Directorate (NID), which is part of the Planning Inspectorate. Successful applications result in a development consent order (DCO).

Q: Why is the government doing this?

A: It sees the move as offering more certainty to the development industry by addressing concerns over delivery. The NSIP regime imposes statutory timetables for decisions to be made as well as combining associated consents, such as compulsory purchase orders, into a single process.

Q: How would this affect the way developers prepare, present and promote proposals?

A: The process is heavily frontloaded, with nearly all the consultation, discussion and negotiation being undertaken before an application is submitted. The NID examines a draft of the DCO and supporting information, which the applicant has to draft.

Q: What role will local planning authorities play in this process?

A: Host authorities will be expected to play a key role in helping to define the consultation strategy for the project, as well as making representations to the examining authority on the adequacy of the consultation. They will also prepare and submit a local impact report.

No application fee is payable to host authorities, so they will need to find resources from existing budgets. The use of planning performance agreements with developers to recover some costs of processing proposals could help to offset this additional expenditure.

Q: What national and local policies will be taken into account?

A: So far, the NSIP regime has been governed by a series of national policy statements (NPSs). The government has no current plans to prepare an NPS for commercial developments. However, decisions on NSIPs can take into account other matters that are "important and relevant", so the National Planning Policy Framework and any compliant local policies will probably be relevant factors.

Q: Is this process likely to be taken up by applicants?

A: The NSIP system offers guaranteed timescales for certain elements, but not for the entire project. Early signals suggest that commercial developers may not be attracted to what can be a long and costly process with a different risk profile.

Concern over applications not being accepted by the inspectorate, with an associated need to repeat consultation efforts, has led to the industry adopting a cautious approach to consultation and in-depth legal involvement. The potential for delay and extra cost contrasts unfavourably with increasingly speedy and pragmatic responses from local planning authorities eager to deliver growth.

However, there may be very controversial cases where independent decision-making could help to achieve a balanced view on developments that may be politically undesirable but acceptable in planning terms. It is for good reason that government does not anticipate this route being adopted by the majority of applicants, but the option to do so does suggest its willingness to support the delivery of sustainable economic development.

Matthew Sheppard is a director at Turley Associates and their head of environmental impact assessment

FACT BOX

- The Department for Communities and Local Government launched a consultation on the proposals on 22 November 2012 and announced its response on 21 June 2013.

- NSIP project timescales from acceptance of the application to decision average around 15 months.

- The NSIP pre-application stage, in our experience, can last up to 12 months from project inception.


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