UK: Planning Act Blog: 163: Swings and Roundabouts for Major Infrastructure Projects

Last Updated: 13 September 2010
Article by Angus Walker

This is entry number 163, first published on 10 September 2010, of a blog on the implementation of the Planning Act 2008. Click here for a link to the whole blog. If you would like to be notified when the blog is updated, with links sent by email, click here.

Today's entry reports on news affecting three of the country's largest infrastructure projects.

There has been mixed progress on three (potential) nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) this week, one each in the three areas covered by the Planning Act of energy, transport and water/waste.  Here are the latest developments.


Before the election, the government had commissioned a feasibility study of five projects to generate electricity from the tidal bore of the Severn Estuary.  These would all have far exceeded the 100MW offshore threshold for NSIP status, as previously reported on the blog.  Three of the projects are barrages that span the Severn, and two are lagoon projects that let water in and out at one side of the estuary.

Last Sunday, the Observer reported that the government will announce later this month that the largest of the five projects, the Cardiff-Weston barrage, is not to go ahead (article here).  Despite the overall impression of cancellation, the four smaller projects are reported to carry on.

Not so, said the government - all the projects are still in the frame, according to this article.  The announcement of which projects will continue is to be made 'in the coming weeks, but it is not definite that it will be this month'.

Tidal energy is interesting from a Planning Act point of view because the Renewable Energy National Policy Statement (NPS) does not cover it, despite it being a form of renewable energy.  The rationale is that the technology is at a sufficiently early stage that a project of NSIP size is unlikely to come forward during the lifetime of the NPS.  Nevertheless there is already a tidal energy project on the IPC's books - a Mersey scheme proposed by Peel Energy, who are expected to apply for consent in April 2012.  Perhaps the forthcoming second issue of the NPS will include this type of generation.


On the waste front, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman MP, has confirmed that the proposal by Thames Water to build a tunnel beneath the Thames to carry sewage and thus reduce pollution of the Thames in heavy rain has the support of the coalition government, who will use the Planning Act regime for it. 

Such a tunnel would not be within any of the existing categories of NSIP, but there is a power in the Act for the government to declare that a project should nevertheless use the new regime.  Technically this should be done only once an application has been made under the non-Planning Act regime (in this case an ordinary planning application), which is one of the anomalies in the Planning Act that it is to be hoped that the forthcoming Localism Bill will clear up (the anomaly being that even when everyone knows that the project will use the Planning Act, Thames Water will have to go through the charade of making up to 14 planning applications).

Mrs Spelman also announced that the waste water NPS would be issued in draft this autumn and would include the Thames Tunnel within its scope, so we have the unusual situation of an NPS dealing with a project that is not technically an NSIP.  The fate of the other NPSs is expected to be revealed in an updated 'route map' due from the government in 'late summer'.


Heathrow Airport has suffered another blow following the coalition government's refusal to support a third runway there.  BAA was considering allowing more flights to use the existing runways by allowing them to operate in either direction at any time (so-called 'mixed mode'), rather than the present fixed half-day per direction requirement.  The Transport Minister Theresa Villiers turned down the application on the grounds that the local adverse impact (i.e. increased noise for residents) outweiged the benefits.

It is an interesting (well, to me, at least) feature of the Planning Act for airports that the relaxation of a condition attached to the operation of an airport can count as an NSIP, even if nothing is built, if its effect would be to increase capacity at the airport by the requisite 10 million passengers per annum.  The mixed mode option would have allowed 164 extra flights a day, which by my calcuations would have to average 168 passengers per flight to mean that it would constitute an NSIP.

In the same statement to Parliament, Mrs Villiers did not rule out ending another related restriction, known as the Cranford agreement, where normal take-offs are prohibited on the northern runway in an easterly direction.  Mrs Villers said:

The airport operator, BAA, is currently developing proposals for ending the Cranford agreement with a view to confirming the necessary works by the end of this year. I will look to BAA to ensure that proper consideration is given to appropriate mitigation and compensation measures for those likely to be affected by the proposals.

The Cranford agreement arose from a statement made by a government official to a meeting of the Cranford Residents' and District Amenities Association on 31 July 1952, surprisingly long-lived for an oral assurance.  It is now enshrined in the airport's noise abatement restrictions under the Environmental Noise Directive.

Gatwick has also shared in the gloom, as Network Rail has announced that it is putting on hold its proposals to remodel Gatwick Airport railway station and increase capacity there, due to uncertainty of government funding.  Perhaps the magic date of 20 October, when the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review are announced, will bring better news.

Previous entry 162: MPs to quiz Chris Huhne on national policy statements and new nuclear build

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