UK: Infrastructure Hits Headlines As Parliament Reconvenes

Last Updated: 4 September 2012
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on plans to boost infrastructure reported in the Sunday papers as MPs return to the Commons.

Not since the Telegraph's Hands Off Our Land campaign in summer 2011 has planning been as prominent in newspaper and website headlines.  Here is a summary.

The House of Commons reconvenes today for just over two weeks, whereupon it rises again for the 'conference recess' until 18 October.  The House of Lords remains on summer recess until 8 October.  According to the BBC, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne MP, has revealed that Parliament will have two bills to consider imminently. 

Infrastructure Bill

First, the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill will put the 'UK Guarantees' scheme that was launched in July into effect - see this blog entry - the bill corresponds to the phrase 'subject to legislation' used at that time.  For projects to have their shortfalls underwritten by the government (up to £40bn-worth), they will have to be 'nationally significant', ready to start construction within 12 months, financially credible and 'good value' for taxpayers. 

It will be interesting to see whether the phrase 'nationally significant' will correspond to the same definition in the Planning Act 2008.  If it does, then only projects consented before the regime started or about a dozen of those so far applied for would be eligible, since all the rest would not be ready to start construction within 12 months.  A further £10bn will be made available to guarantee housing projects, but this appears to be going to happen without legislation.  Reports say that this bill will be rushed through Parliament to become law by the end of October.

Economy Bill

Secondly an Economic Regeneration Bill, or perhaps just an Economy Bill, is supposed to follow.  The two ideas floated earlier, namely allowing building on the Green Belt if it is replaced and adding housing to the definition of nationally significant infrastructure project are no longer mentioned in the context of the bill. 

On the first point, the government is saying that local authorities should use their existing powers, presumably to rejig Green Belt boundaries, which would then allow development on any land removed from protection.  On the second point no more has been said, so maybe it won't happen after all, although of course it still might.  Instead or as well, the bill will apparently focus on reducing the time allowed for appeals and judicial review.  The Green Belt controversy may be replaced by one to relax Sunday trading laws.

The deadline for planning appeals, which can only be against the refusal rather than grant of planning permission, is six months.  It is worth noting that the previous government tried reducing this to three months in 2003, but returned to six months in 2005 because of the huge appeal backlog it created.  'Householder' appeals were then given a 12-week time limit in 2009 and this has survived so far. 

If plannng permission is granted, or an appeal against the refusal of permission fails, the remaining remedy is judicial review.  Non-statutory judicial review (which would apply to a grant of planning permission) has a 'promptly but in any event within three months' time limit, whereas the equivalent of judicial review in statute (e.g. in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and Planning Act 2008) tends to have a six-week time limit. It would be a bit much to shorten that any further, but the three-month limit could be reduced in its application to grant of planning permission.  I don't see that as a huge barrier to growth, though.

Airport timing

Another issue where the Planning Act may have an effect is on airports.  My colleague Robbie Owen is quoted in the Sunday Times (and his remarks have been helpfully repeated by the Sunday Telegraph for those outside the News International paywall) on timing issues.  Because the Planning Act regime introduces a reasonably fixed timescale for consent to be obtained for any nationally significant infrastructure project after an application is made, this goes some way to levelling the timetable playing field for various airport options.

It is estimated that a third runway at Heathrow would take about 12 years from policy approval to opening for business, and a brand new Thames Estuary airport would take 14.  The latter figure is based on the proposal by Foster and partners for the Isle of Grain ('Foster mainland'? It needs a good nickname), but the same rationale would put expansion of Gatwick, Stansted and Boris Island all in the same ballpark.  The Planning Act regime could thus have an effect on policy once the 'call for evidence' on airport expansion in the south east of England has taken place. 

Also mooted is that instead of or as well as this call for evidence, a cross-party commission will look at the issue, with a view to any change of policy being proposed in 2015 election manifestos.

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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