Big project rule faces axe

A government exercise to reduce planning red tape is likely to result in less consultation over key documents that guide decisions on big infrastructure projects if proposed changes to planning regulations go ahead, an infrastructure planning expert has said.

Signalled: a National Policy Statement on transport networks is due from the DfT
Signalled: a National Policy Statement on transport networks is due from the DfT

The recently concluded Red Tape Challenge on planning administration asked businesses and members of the public for their opinion on the future of 182 technical planning regulations.

The aim of the exercise was to make the planning system more efficient and accessible, the government said.

Planning minister Nick Boles announced that, following the exercise, the government had earmarked 38 planning regulations that would be scrapped. Around 90 regulations are to be merged or simplified, he said.

The 38 regulations to be scrapped are "redundant regulations that are no longer needed", Boles said.

But among the regulations proposed for the scrapheap is the "Infrastructure Planning (National Policy Statement Consultation) Regulations 2009" that covers the level of consultation required over key documents that guide decisions on big infrastructure projects.

Angus Walker, a partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, said removing this regulation would mean that the government could consult "who it liked" over draft national policy statements, rather than being obliged to gain input from a fixed list of consultees.

He added: "When the government publishes a national policy statement they have to consult a large number of organisations - around 100 at the moment.

"The government will almost certainly consult fewer organisations if this regulation is scrapped as proposed, but the move may reduce the administrative burden and increase flexibility. Individual project promoters will continue to have to consult a similar list, however."

Matthew Sheppard, director at consultancy Turley Associates, said that as long as the right organisations and interest groups are consulted on the content of new national policy statements, removing this regulation would not be a bad thing.

But he added that it would not be helpful if its removal was used as a way to avoid involving key organisations.

He said: "National policy statements are very significant - they can set the need for, and location of, huge and potentially controversial developments.

"If there is a situation where there has not been effective consultation on the strategy for that infrastructure, there won't be any level of agreement on how and where it should be provided.

He concluded: "This could really slow things down when much needed projects hit the examination stage."

Mike Kiely, the London Borough of Croydon's head of planning and one of two "sector champions" appointed to help the government with its red tape simplification task, said the government would be running a series of consultations following the exercise.

He added: "The point is that there things that are not finalised. And if there has been an error, and if it's genuine, I'm sure the Department for Communities and Local Government will be up for correcting it."

A spokesman for the DCLG said: "The government already consults on a wide range of policy statements without a list of precise consultees set out in regulation, and there is no need for national policy statements to be different."

The spokesman added that the government would continue to carry out public consultations on any future national policy statements.

RED TAPE CHALLENGE: A PRIMER

Q: How did the process work, and how did the government arrive at these particular proposals?

A: The government launched the five-week consultation on 30 January. It sought views on about 182 planning administration regulations, allowing people to comment via the Red Tape Challenge website or via a private inbox. Following the consultation exercise, DCLG civil servants produced a paper of proposed changes that was put before Red Tape Challenge tsar Oliver Letwin.

Q: How much interest was there in the planning Red Tape Challenge?

A: The consultation received about 150 comments, according to Planning minister Nick Boles. The website itself received 36 comments on the planning procedure section; one on the planning infrastructure and major projects; one on the planning authorities; and seven on the local planning section. Roger Hepher, head of planning at consultancy Savills, and one of the chosen "sector champions" for the planning Red Tape Challenge, said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the reaction to the exercise. "It wasn't a situation of reform fatigue," he said.

Q: What happens now?

A: Boles said a "phased programme" would begin to reduce the number of technical planning regulations to 78, but no timeframe has been provided. A spokeswoman for the DCLG confirmed that consultations would follow the Red Tape Challenge.


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