Air quality uncertainty is now a serious concern for infrastructure promoters, by Richard Garlick

Delays in decision-making on Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) used to be an exceptional circumstance. Only one of the first 42 decisions missed the three month decision deadline. But suddenly they are becoming commonplace.

This week transport minister Paul Maynard announced that the Silvertown Tunnel proposal, to build a new road tunnel under the Thames between the Greenwich Peninsula and West Ham, would be postponed by ministers for a second time 'to enable further consideration of the effect of the scheme on air quality' and will not now be issued until May 2018.

The decision had originally been due on 11 October, but on that day Maynard announced it would be postponed until 10 November.

Decisions on four other NSIPs applying for Development Consent Orders (DCO) have been delayed in the past year: Hornsea Offshore Wind Farm, the Yorkshire and Humber Carbon Capture and Storage project, the Richborough high voltage connection point in Kent and the East Anglia Three Offshore Wind Farm. There have been some exceptional circumstances, not least the political turmoil of the past year, but the previously pretty spotless reputation of the DCO system for timeliness is at risk of becoming tainted.

However, the more serious concern is the impact of the uncertainty around the government’s air quality policy on the infrastructure pipeline. The government’s latest air quality strategy was published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in July, after its previous two versions of the plan were successfully challenged in the courts by campaign group ClientEarth. Plans for a second runway at Heathrow have also been delayed by the government’s need to consult on how it fits with the latest air quality strategy.

Now ClientEarth has announced that it will challenge the government’s latest air quality strategy. As National Infrastructure Planning Association board chairman and Planning columnist Angus Walker has pointed out, a successful challenge could necessitate further rounds of consultation and further infrastructure delays. For the infrastructure pipeline to flow freely, the government will need to demonstrate once and for all that it has a robust air quality plan in place.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning //

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