UK: Secretary Of State Decides First Infrastructure Project As Regime Review Signalled

Last Updated: 10 September 2012
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on the first decision by a Secretary of State on a Planning Act project and a statement from Eric Pickles indicating changes to be made to the regime.

Note that further ministerial changes were made yesterday after my last blog post, which I have amended to reflect.  The final confirmed changes are now there.

First decision

Although the letter is signed by a civil servant, new Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin MP has made history on his first day in the job by approving the first application under the amended Planning Act regime. The decision letter refers to the Secretary of State as 'he', so it is him rather than his predecessor Justine Greening who has made the decision.

The application is for a railway chord in Ipswich that will allow freight trains travelling to and from Felixstowe to travel more directly to Nuneaton (i.e. not via London) without changing direction in Ipswich goods yard. The promoter is Network Rail, who get the gold medal for getting through the Planning Act regime. There is a scheme already decided by the then Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), which continues to be held up in Parliament.

Here are links to the Secretary of State's decision letter, the final Development Consent Order (DCO) and the report of the single inspector who examined the application, Gideon Amos.

Paragraph 33 of the decision letter contains the text that is the nub of this and any other decision on a Planning Act application: 'He is satisfied that the adverse impacts which would remain after mitigation are limited and are clearly outweighed by the benefits of the scheme.'

Also of interest is paragraph 35, since it sets out the further changes to the DCO that the Secretary of State thought necessary beyond the version approved by Gideon Amos, demonstrating that it has not just been rubber-stamped.

The timing of the decision is one week short of the three months that is allowed for it to be taken by the Secretary of State. The application was made on 29 June 2011, so has taken one year, two months and seven days from application to decision, or 434 days overall. This is somewhat less than the 15 months that the average application is likely to take, which is encouraging. It is the first time that a Secretary of State has been subject to a time limit for a decision of this type, and some had queried whether the government was capable of deciding something in a mere three months, but now we know it can be done.

Congratulations are in order to Network Rail, the Planning Inspectorate, the new Secretary of State - and to the Planning Act regime for delivering a nationally significant infrastructure project so efficiently.

Pickles statement

Continuing as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles has issued a substantial Written Ministerial Statement today covering a wide range of issues. I summarise the whole lot here, and then go on to consider the two areas that affect the Planning Act 2008.

  • £10bn for a debt guarantee for affordable housing, (previously heralded), expressions of interest invited from tomorrow
  • £300m for loan guarantees for affordable housing (doesn't sound too different)
  • £280m for a first time buyers scheme to help them get mortgages
  • a DCLG and BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) industry-led group will look at how to speed up delivery of large housing schemes (not adding them to the Planning Act quite yet, it seems)
  • the Homes and Communities Agency will accelerate the release of surplus public sector land
  • the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) to take over deciding planning applications at poorly-performing local authorities (needs legislation)
  • increased use of Planning Performance Agreements
  • increased ability of inspectors to award costs when 'due process' has not been followed
  • consultation on shortening small commercial appeal periods (smaller-scale than previously heralded)
  • an extra year to implement planning permissions (this has been used before)
  • a review of Planning Act thresholds and categories
  • making the Planning Act more of a one-stop shop and ensuring Special Parliamentary Procudure is fit for purpose (hurrah!)
  • introducing appeal of s106 agreements if they are making schemes unviable and the ability to renegotiate s106 agreements (needs legislation)
  • an urgent review of standards for s106 agreements, with possible legislation to standardise
  • no change to green belt protection, but local plans that alter green belt boundaries will be helped through
  • a three-year relaxation in permitted development rights to allow larger extensions to houses and commercial premises (the one that's hit the headlines)
  • change of use from commercial to residential use to be permitted development (that's been on the cards for a while)

That's quite a lot to digest, so I will focus on the two Planning Act related measures. I repeat the relevant text is full:

'we now intend to review the thresholds for some of the existing categories in the regime, and also to bring new categories of commercial and business development into the regime - making it possible for such schemes, where they are of sufficient significance, to be considered and determined at a national level. We will also work to extend the principle of a one-stop-shop for non-planning consents for major infrastructure, and amend the Special Parliamentary procedures which apply to major infrastructure to ensure they are fit for purpose.'

First, then, there is to be a review of the thresholds that decide whether a project comes within the Planning Act as a nationally significant infrastructure project, but also a review of whether new categories of development should be added to the regime.

I am of course going to welcome any lowering of thresholds and inclusion of further categories as a supporter of this regime. The National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) and I have also been calling for the regime to become more of a one-stop shop (i.e more consents being combined within it) and for SPP to be dramatically reduced, which is therefore welcome if being 'fit for purpose' means dramatic reduction, which it surely should.

So infrastructure's place at the heart of the government's thinking is to continue, and the Planning Act regime will maintain if not enhance its role at the heart of infrastructure consenting. The only cloud on the recent horizon is that Howard Davies' commission to look into new airport capacity in the south east of England has been asked to report after the next election in May 2015. That's the sort of long grass that might appeal to a (dor)mouse.

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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