Earlier this year I was invited to give the closing speech at the National Infrastructure Planning Association’s (NIPA) annual conference. As a former Planning Inspectorate (PINS) employee, I jumped at the chance this offered me to reflect on the impact of 10 years of the Planning Act – a move which created powers for Secretaries of State to grant ‘development consent’ for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) – and given this, what the future may hold for infrastructure and related development.
The Act heralded a fundamental change in how infrastructure was planned and very quickly the then Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) had to establish itself as the authority on how this new process would work, and be ready to demonstrate they could make effective, timely decisions, free of bias and perceived bias. All at a time when major political parties were preparing a bonfire underneath quangos.
It was a fascinating time and three key legacies were forged in the early days of the IPC (later to become PINS), which I think are worth reviewing in more detail.
Impartial decision making
Early on at the IPC it became clear to me that confidence in the integrity of the process had to be a priority. The original Planning Act prevented the IPC from commenting on the merits of any application and, internally, only appointed inspectors could review examination material. This meant the IPC, and indeed applicants, couldn’t get the best out of the professional support teams and that the full intellectual burden of projects fell on the Commissioners.
It’s taken the intervening 10 years to get to a position where PINS can give meaningful advice on merits with confidence. There is however, still a reluctance in terms of what can and can’t be said, and who feels able to say it. In my view, the knock-on effect has been one of a stifled discussion at the project and industry level, where PINS’ treasure chest of knowledge and experience remains locked away.
Thankfully, views throughout the industry have been strong about people wanting to discuss merits, and legislation and guidance has evolved in support of that. The growth of the NIPA demonstrates an engaged organisation and one that is looking to understand and share lessons, to make the examination process as smooth as possible.
A legal framework for a planning process
At PINS, an internal training session was held on project management where someone suggested that because it so clearly sets out what needs to happen, when and how, the Planning Act was effectively one big project management guide. So in theory, the NSIP process should be easy! However, it’s not.
The challenge, as ever, is making sure the process can balance competing demands and ever-changing circumstances so that decisions are transparent and fair. It’s this ability to balance competing interests that is at the heart of a good planning system.
It struck me early on that the NSIP regime seemed to be a planning process overlaid with a very detailed legal framework, and it was legal debates and lawyers who dominated proceedings. Gradually, different disciplines have entered the arena, in particular planners, and our value in working closely with lawyers, environmental specialists, engineers and more, is starting to be realised. I wonder however, if one of the issues that has caused difficulties for applicants is that perhaps too much focus has been placed on what the process
requires as opposed to the breadth of skills and team-working required to prepare and deliver these projects.
That said, the Act has come into its own in guaranteeing a decision, or at least a recommendation, within statutory timescales. PINS 100% record is something for everyone in the industry to be very proud of, given how notoriously brutal examinations can be.
Before the NSIP regime, pre-application wasn’t a serious prospect in planning.
The best developers always remain engaged and seek views, but this Act was notable for requiring developers to lead pre-application, write their own consent and demonstrate how they had regard to representations.
Leading the controversial Preesall Underground Gas Storage scheme taught me that the process can be very powerful in engaging people at the beginning, so that they are ready to take part in examinations. From an early stage, we had local people sharing a table with statutory consultees and the promoter, and the Inspectors were credited for taking their representations seriously throughout.
The NSIP process has forced all of us to engage directly with other stakeholders, where previously we may have passed that responsibility on to the decision maker, and I wonder if the Planning Act burst open the doors to standardise a more long-term, collaborative way of engaging people in projects that affect them?
So, has everything we’ve been learning about national infrastructure in the last 10 years helped set us up for infrastructure delivery in the next 10 years? What else might shape it?
Here are the three things that I think are going to be influential:
The growth of Infrastructure
When I joined Barton Willmore, I was quickly reminded that not everyone defines their infrastructure by definitions in the Planning Act. Early conversations with colleagues ranged from district heating to smart cities, green infrastructure to roundabouts, and of course housing.
What people understand by infrastructure, and what is necessary to meet our needs and create opportunities varies enormously, which raises the question of how widely can infrastructure be defined within the Planning Act regime?
To my mind there are three common factors that are drawing the regime and a wider interpretation of housing as infrastructure closer together:
- Perception of need – and housing is top of the list
- Urgency of delivery – and housing is top of the list
- Complexity – whist housing may not be at the top of the list, the delivery of large scale, sustainable, transformational settlements, of which housing is an essential element, perhaps is.
If we need to deliver considerably more housing than is currently being planned, in places that will be altered significantly, then isn’t there the need for this to be debated by Government and supported by, for example, the work of the National Infrastructure Commission – an organisation that have already defined housing as infrastructure? If the regime is to handle more complexity, I think this is where it must dovetail with the Town and Country Planning system, the development plan regime, regional governance and
local industrial strategies, to fill that planning gap between national policy
and individual applications.
As decisions on Hinkley Point C and Swansea Tidal Lagoon have shown, a consent is no good without funding and my second prediction is that devolution will have a key impact on infrastructure, via its role in creating collaboration and competition, as well as the potential city region deals have in order to leverage significant infrastructure investment. However, their business cases need to be founded on effective cross-sector partnership and leadership.
This means the involvement of Local Enterprise Partnerships, universities and collaborative local authorities. Where this is happening, it is leading to direct engagement with Network Rail and Highways England to identify priorities more readily and lobby for delivery. Regions are thinking about the infrastructure they need and want and are pushing for it.
Collaboration is often talked about but is genuinely very hard to achieve, especially for large organisations and long-standing professions. Successful collaborations only happen when people engage with others to bring different perspectives and experiences that deliver competitive advantage, but also assist in identifying and solving challenges.
Well-planned infrastructure demands collaboration. Unlike stand-alone projects, infrastructure is connected to and relevant to everyone. It’s hard to separate out transport, energy, water and waste from the day-to-day lives we live, and therefore everyone has a stake. I also think technology will lead to infrastructure becoming a much more contested world as people find different ways to disrupt, engage and indeed collaborate.
Combine technology, devolution, collaboration and a front-loaded planning system and you can start to imagine how infrastructure could be something that people create, rather than something people passively use after its built for them.
Therefore, everyone needs to be involved. Alongside your traditional infrastructure faces and the admirable leadership from the National Infrastructure Commission, we need the housebuilders, local communities, technology companies, universities and local authorities thinking on a national scale. Perhaps then we can harness collaboration and innovation across sectors, and bring together planning, funding and governance in a way that really does deliver the infrastructure we need to see us through these challenging and uncertain times.
Marking the 10 year anniversary we, alongside Copper and Womble Bond Dickinson, have launched a study to capture what we have learnt, assess how fit for purpose the existing system is, and explore how it can evolve to meet the fast-changing needs of UK PLC. Please get involved and complete the first stage of our study with our short survey.
This article was originally published in our magazine Update.
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