UK: New Bill Expected For Planning Reform As Government Solicits Ideas

Last Updated: 15 August 2012
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on a possible new bill in Parliament and an internal government consultation on planning reform.

Economic Regeneration Bill

A blog entry from the Deputy Editor of the Telegraph, Benedict Brogan, suggests (see the third-last paragraph) that the Prime Minister is preparing a bill - the Economic Regeneration Bill is the working title - to kick-start the economy.  The bill will fill the vacuum created by deciding not to progress the House of Lords Reform Bill.

The new bill is 'likely to include a new attempt to relax planning laws, which is already causing Cabinet strain, and will act as a push for major infrastructure projects and regulation'.

Mr Brogan goes as far as to say that the bill 'means, for a start, a third runway at Heathrow, new nuclear power stations, and more road-building'.  I think it is unlikely to be the route by which a change of heart on Heathrow is conveyed, given the existing proposal for a 'call for evidence' on that issue by the Department for Transport this autumn, but the other two seem likely given that they are existing policy.

Departmental consultation

I have also heard that the Prime Minister is looking for ideas from government departments about how to speed up infrastructure delivery. The first stage is a brainstorming exercise, with a deadline of next Friday, 17 August, where departments are encouraged to 'be broad and be bold'.

The second stage is to consider the identified ' top 40 infrastructure projects [and programmes]' and consider whether and how any of these might be accelerated specifically.  The latter is to cover procurement issues as well as legislative reforms, since many of them have been consented but just not finished yet - or even started


These are good signs, and if handled carefully, will benefit infrastructure planning and delivery.  Infrastructure is the backbone of a thriving economy, as long as it is the right infrastructure, which means it needs to be planned properly as well as delivered quickly.  A complete change to the regime would not be helpful and would create more uncertainty, but a few well-aimed interventions will help everyone.  'Broad and bold' can be good, but isn't something that should be done in a hurry - and to fill the spaces in the Parliamentary timetable this autumn would constitute a hurry.

The most pressing issue needing legislative reform on my - and others such as NIPA's - list is GET RID OF SPECIAL PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURE (SPP) for statutory undertakers' and local authority land.  You might as well get rid of it for open space land not being replaced as well.  Both of these can be given a special status in the Planning Act process, but should be part of that process and come within the same timescales.

The clearest demonstration of the delay this is causing is on the only project to have been consented under the Planning Act regime - the Rookery South energy from waste project in Bedfordshire.  When the Parliamentary committee considering this project next meets, it will be over a year since the consent was issued.  Indeed, SPP will probably take longer than the whole of the rest of the application process.  This simple step would remove a lot of delay and uncertainty from a lot of projects.  The government cannot boast that the regime is speeding up delivery until this embarrassing feature is removed.

The requirements to get certificates from various government departments for taking certain land and rights in land should also be abolished and replaced with a special status in the Planning Act process (if that). These are again a pointless duplication and complication in a supposedly streamlined regime.

Removing the need for obtaining consent to be able to include a list of consents in the main application would speed things up and simplify them too.  When you ask a body if you can remove its consenting power, understandably it almost always says no (although I did get a yes once).  The regulations under section 150 of the Act should be repealed (the list of consents) but section 150 itself should be got rid of too so that it doesn't rear its ugly head again.

With a bit more blue sky thinking, if these deadlines are so effective for applications, how about having them for producing and reviewing National Policy Statements (NPSs)?  We have been waiting for nearly three years for a sniff of a road and rail NPS but there is not likely to be any sign of it until 2013 at least.  An NPS is not meant to be new policy, merely a convenient expression of existing policy, so a timetable shouldn't interfere with the government's freedom to make policy at any time.

NPS are not the end of the story, of course - for example, saying that eight nuclear power stations are urgently needed has only produced one application so far.  Can anything more be done? Planning and consenting issues have probably not contributed greatly to the delays with the other seven, which are more related to the recession, Fukushima and electricity market reform.  Should Hinkley Point C get consent (for which the deadline is 22 March 2013), then this may encourage les autres.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Angus Walker
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