The fall and rise of DCO applications, by Angus Walker

In August 2017 there were only four live applications for Development Consent Orders for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), the lowest figure for six years, and this had only risen to six by May 2018.

Ten years after the Planning Act 2008, which set out the legal regime for determining NSIPs, received royal assent, there are 24, approaching the highest ever figure of 27. Why have the numbers fallen and risen so dramatically?

NSIPs are by definition chunky things. OK, the word ‘chunky’ does not appear in the Planning Act, but for each type, a size threshold is set out, above which a project must use the NSIP/DCO regime. They are correspondingly infrequent: over ten years there have been 107 applications for DCOs; by comparison, the past year alone saw 464,000 planning applications.

My first contention, then, is that there is a ‘like buses’ factor – that large, infrequent but fairly random occurrences will naturally see peaks and troughs.

Second is the Highways England factor. The government-owned company that operates major roads, and its predecessor the Highways Agency, have until very recently submitted DCO applications at the rate of one every nine months or so. But it has submitted five in the past four months, with more to come early next year. These projects are part of the government’s first five-year Roads Investment Strategy period (RIS1), which ends in April 2020 and so have to be submitted now to meet the funding condition that they fall within the period.

A third factor seems to have been the 2017 general election, the occurrence and immediate aftermath of which coincided with the trough in applications. It may be pure chance, but the election does seem to have been the main event around that time, and the move from majority to minority government may have affected confidence (the effect was not seen with the 2015 poll).

In my experience and that of others I know, professionals involved with NSIPs seem to be working on fewer but larger projects. The Heathrow expansion, for example, is occupying a huge number of people across many disciplines. Might that mean smaller projects suffer because they can’t find people to work on them? Maybe not, but more experienced people are possibly taken up by the larger projects, which are longer in preparation but still only count as a single DCO. That could account for a downturn in numbers, but not the recent upturn.

Another potential factor is Brexit. While one might expect a slowdown as it draws near, this hasn’t happened – yet. A journalist recently asked me how much NSIP applications had fallen due to Brexit and I had to say they didn’t seem to have fallen at all. Of course, the rise might have been even steeper without Brexit.

Those are elements that appear to have been instrumental in the recent fall and then rise in DCO applications. For now, the rise shows no sign of letting up.

Angus Walker is a partner at BDB Pitmans

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