Rethinking the planning process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects

Top tips for ensuring new infrastructure projects protect the natural environment without slowing down development

We only need look as far back as the canal system developed by the Georgians and the construction of our railways by the Victorians to see how investment in major infrastructure projects has been essential to UK economic growth for hundreds of years.

These transformative pieces of infrastructure created an environment where goods, people, wealth and jobs flowed easily between towns and cities, enabling greater prosperity through social mobility.

To some extent we still rely on elements of this infrastructure today, though much investment has been made through recent centuries in projects of other forms, such as the Strategic Road Network, our electrical grid, major clean energy projects including nuclear power stations and wind farms, and reservoirs and wastewater facilities.

Most of these, since 2008, will have been designated as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). These do exactly what they say on the tin – provide infrastructure of national significance, delivering economic growth by connecting communities across the UK together while contributing to national decarbonisation and ‘levelling up’ policies.

Local Government Minister Lee Rowley MP stated that ‘NSIPs allow the UK to ensure energy security, minimise projects’ impacts on local habitats and biodiversity, and deliver the transport connectivity, water and waste infrastructure this country needs’. It is therefore of no surprise that successive governments have sought to ensure these projects are able to progress with as few blockers as possible – but consistent challenges remain. To release the hand break on these projects and unleash their potential, we must embrace the process now underway to reform the NSIP planning regime.

The current NSIP regime, designed to provide more certainty on these projects, has succeeded in benefiting development since its inception by strengthening public involvement and consultations, and providing greater clarity on timescales for planned projects. Development Consent Orders (DCOs) were brought in to streamline the planning decision-making process for large infrastructure projects.

However, in recent years, this system has been struggling to effectively handle the increased number of applications at the speed required to meet government targets for net zero delivery. This has manifested itself in delayed decision-making, increased legal challenges to DCO decisions, policy questions being debated at planning examinations, uncertain timescales for the redetermination of quashed DCOs and onerous information requirements, all of which are making it more difficult to meet key policy tests and avoid legal challenges.

While the NSIP framework brings real material benefits to the UK, systemic change is needed to improve delivery, attract private investment and ensure that the planning process is not unduly delaying critical infrastructure, with the urgent need to scale up our clean energy infrastructure particularly clear.

With this in mind, there are some opportunities for considered change and progress. First, setting a clear strategic direction for infrastructure through the ongoing reviews of key National Policy Statements. This process must outline an up-to-date need case for infrastructure in development, including assessing alternatives and cumulative effects.

For schemes that progress to development, fast-tracking the consenting process is vital to streamlining planning. In particular, implementing digital tools in the DCO process, especially for less complex projects, can shorten the timeframe required for planning and move projects closer to construction. Simplifying the current Environmental Impact Assessment regime can support this streamlined approach by ensuring infrastructure protects the natural environment without having assessment slow down development.

In addition, it is essential that communities are involved in the planning process from the beginning. With the incredible social and economic impact of NSIPs, strengthening community engagement through incentivising early consultation can address potential impacts of planned schemes earlier in the process. Likewise, increasing funding for local authorities to support NSIP work can facilitate a smoother application process.

And finally, one of the central challenges to the current planning system is the lack of resourcing available to deliver NSIPs. Hence, increasing the capacity of the Planning Inspectorate and other government agencies to manage and review applications can reduce pressure on available resources.

Without these and other reforms of the NSIP process, the UK will struggle to see development at scale and realise the economic, social and environmental benefits of planned schemes.

Ultimately, simplifying decision-making in the NSIP planning process will avoid unnecessary delays and see the economic benefits of these projects realised more quickly. As part of the Government’s ambitions to rebalance region’s economies in the UK, reform of the NSIP framework must be taken to unlock the benefits of these revolutionary projects and deliver on the nation’s net zero targets.

About the author

Amy Hallam is Head of Profession for Infrastructure Planning at WSP, the multi-disciplinary professional services consultancy.

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