UK: Planning Act Blog 218: IPC And PINS Merger Proposals Mooted

Last Updated: 28 February 2011
Article by Angus Walker

This is entry number 218, published on 24 February 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. 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 the Infrastructure Planning Commission and Planning Inspectorate views on how they will merge on 1 April 2012.

The Localism Bill, once enacted (probably in November 2011) and in force (probably on 1 April 2012), will abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC). It will return examination of applications and decisions on them to the government, although the authorisation regime under the Planning Act 2008 will otherwise remain largely unchanged.

The job of examining applications will be subcontracted by the government to a new unit of the Planning Inspectorate (PINS). The current working title for this is the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit, although I am told this may change so that people don't call it 'my poo'.

At a Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum event on Tuesday (always good quality events - for its future programme here is its website), Sir Mike Pitt, Chair of the IPC (founded 2009) and Katrine Sporle, Chief Executive of PINS (founded 1909) set out their stalls as to how they saw the folding of the former into the latter taking place. To demonstrate their solidarity and common purpose they used a joint set of Powerpoint slides that had the logos of both organisations on each slide.

It is clear that PINS is expecting former IPC commissioners (those who remain in post) and existing planning inspectors both to be able to do either the job of examining applications under the Planning Act or of hearing planning appeals and other matters currently the domain of PINS. Katrine Sporle used the word 'interchangeable' a couple of times, although suggested that when they were doing the former job, they should be known as Examiners, and when the latter, Inspectors. Sir Mike did not demur from this. We shall see whether that actually happens - the concept of MIPU suggests otherwise at the moment. If everyone is interchangeable, there would be no idea of a separate 'unit'.

Another phrase that was used that suggests changes to the current regime in the offing was 'full cost recovery'. This was an idea that was being explored for application fees to match the actual costs of examining applications (which would mean that they would be considerably higher). Sir Mike said that currently, IPC application fees were regarded by promoters as 'trivial' relative to the cost of making an application as a whole. Of course it is for the government to set fee levels under the Planning Act, so it will have the final say, but this is what the IPC and PINS will be lobbying for.

I asked Sir Mike and Katrine whether they thought that the lack of applications to the IPC so far was due to the operation of the current regime and the (actually unwarranted) uncertainty over its future, or exernal factors such as electricity market reform. In reply Sir Mike acknowledged that there was slippage, but said that this was more apparent amongst those who did not have high quality legal advice to call on rather than those who did. Just thought I'd mention that. Katrine said that even allowing for a long pre-application period, applications for nationally significant projects would still take less time than those that were made before the system was introduced, citing Heathrow Terminal 5, Sizewell B and Felixstowe container terminal.

It is frustrating that the perception that the authorisation regime is in flux and that the IPC is vanishing is putting off would-be applicants - in fact the system will hardly change at all. As Richard McCarthy, a Director General of DCLG (the government department responsible for planning), said in the final address of the event, he expects 1 April 2012 to be very boring (no April fools, then). In other words the moment of transition from IPC to MIPU will be almost imperceptible.

I have been pressing for the transition to be even more seamless than it is currently proposed to be. The Localism Bill provides that what happens to 'live' applications on 1 April 2012 will be decided at that time on a case-by-case basis. At the WEETF event someone said that if applications were treated differently from each other that might generate litigation, another point in favour of equal treatment. Wouldn't it be better to declare now that they will all continue as if nothing had happened, and amend the Bill accordingly? That is almost what Richard McCarthy said - we will see what the decentralisation minister Greg Clark MP says at the Bill committee when it reaches that provision next week.

Previous entry 217: will enough energy projects be delivered in time?

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