Is chaos coming to infrastructure, by Angus Walker

The 2016-17 storm season started with storm Angus, and recently Aileen and Brian have also caused trouble. In the infrastructure planning world, are we about to see a storm of epic proportions? Let's call it Storm Doug, for roads being dug up. Sorry, it's the best I can do.

Applications for the Development Consent Orders (DCO) needed to permit Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects have been petering out, with only three applications having been made since July last year. But that gives a false sense of a lack of activity. Government agency Highways England published a delivery plan update on 19 October, and although it revealed short delays to several schemes, it still promises about 36 DCO applications by early 2020. One organisation, therefore, expects to put in more than three times as many applications in the next two years than the entire infrastructure industry managed in the last two.

This is of course a challenge for Highways England (although challenges are often opportunities as well, for economies of scale and greater consistency in this case), but also for the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), who have been twiddling their thumbs for a long time, and the Department for Transport too, whose small but perfectly formed consenting unit will have to process the decisions and must also face this onslaught. Further down the line there are challenges for finding enough raw materials and people to build the roads.

When the Planning Act 2008 regime was first set up, it was envisaged (having dug out the original impact assessment) that there would be an average of 44 applications a year, 25 of which would be for highways. Those were the days, but highways were always expected to form the majority of applications, and so it will apparently come to pass. Even the number of applications expected in the next two years are fewer than the total originally predicted for an average year, so at least we can say that the regime was designed to be up to the task.

The calm before the storm may be an issue, however, because PINS couldn’t employ people to hang around doing nothing during the period in which there were hardly any DCO applications, and thus has a greater challenge than usual to be ready for the onslaught. The same impact assessment assumed that the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which initially handled DCO applications before PINS took over, would have 75 full-time staff. I doubt there are 75 staff currently dedicated to DCOs at PINS.

However, the amount of forthcoming Highways England DCOs were heralded at the 2015 National Infrastructure Planning Association conference, if not before, so at least there has been a fair amount of notice of Storm Doug.

Angus Walker is a partner at Bircham Dyson Bell

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