UK: Former Civil Servant Reveals NPS Wrangling

Last Updated: 15 November 2012
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on the publication of a behind-the-scenes analysis of the Planning Act regime.

A former civil servant at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Christine Hemming, has revealed a lack of co-operation between government departments as one of the main reasons for the initial delay in the production of National Policy Statements (NPSs).  In a paper entitled 'The Road to Hell?', she sets out a personal analysis of the introduction of the Planning Act regime and reveals what went on behind the scenes at the time.  The paper is only available via LinkedIn at the moment, as far as I can see.  LinkedIn does have a use, after all!

She starts with the general proposition that governments do not use evidence to decide policy, but select evidence to fit the policies that they have already decided.  Evidence is used 'like a drunk uses a lamppost - for support rather than enlightenment'.

The Planning Act regime was no different - in its regulatory impact assessment (RIA), other benefits were lumped in with the preferred option of setting up the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) to make sure it was the most attractive.  It was only thus that the RIA for the Localism Bill could argue the opposite - that getting rid of the IPC was the best option too.  The RIA attached to the Planning White Paper in 2007 that led to the Planning Bill estimated that the regime would save the public and private sector an average of a staggering £14.4m per application compared with doing nothing.  By the time the Planning Bill was introduced this had fallen to £450k per application.

While there was a rationale for introducing a faster regime for the very largest projects, it could have been argued that there were too few of them to justify setting up a new organisation - the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) - just for them.  The thresholds ended up lower as a result, but this caught smaller projects which tended to be dealt with quickly anyway.  Having said that, I think that the new regime is still quicker on average than what went before and also has a higher legitimacy through greater public participation - two pre-regime Electricity Act applications attracted around 2000 objections each and yet a public inquiry was not felt to be necessary.

As the author worked on NPSs in particular, the paper focuses on this area.  Unwillingness to be guided by the planning department, DCLG, led the three project departments - the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) - to struggle to produce documents that were fit for purpose as planning documents and avoided risk of challenge.  The delay in producing NPSs resulted in the decision in July 2009 to 'switch on' the regime for energy and transport projects in March 2010 even if the respective NPSs weren't ready.  Indeed the first two applications to be decided by the Secretary of State for Transport in autumn 2012 still did not have the benefit of even a draft NPS to be assessed against.  Ironically the internal draft of that NPS was regarded as the one that had had the most rigorous sustainability assessment.

The delays weren't all inter-departmental wrangling, though.  The requirement for Parliamentary scrutiny of NPSs introduced delays due to the intermittent sitting dates for Parliament. Lack of proper strategic environmental assessment led to a second consultation round on the energy NPSs, prompted not by internal advice but a letter from Friends of the Earth.  Ironically, procedures to reduce burdens on business from legislation added a further layer of delay - some NPSs have had to undergo Regulatory Policy Committee scrutiny, some have not.

Rather disappointingly, the author suggests that there may not be any more NPSs, it not being a priority for departments to produce them (when their Ministers now make the decisions anyway) and, with the time and effort involved, it being easier to declare policy without having to go through the NPS procedure (last November's rail freight policy document being an example of extra-NPS policy).  I hope that is not the case because whatever has gone on behind the scenes, the NPSs are genuinely useful and have a coherent feel to them.  Putting it another way, if the government has such difficulty distilling policy into a series of documents of use to the outside world, imagine how difficult it is for the outside world without them.

There was another turf war over which department should decide applications when the IPC was abolished (although in fact the Secretary of State would have decided applications where no NPS was in place in any event), with DCLG eventually ceding control to DECC, DfT and Defra, on condition that it could monitor progress on the late flurry of pre-switch-on applications under the old regimes.

If I can take the most positive point made towards the end (and conveniently ignoring some of the negative conclusions), the paper says that the Planning Act regime is not an inherently bad regime - "in many ways it represents the ideal model - it is the type of planning regime that the experts would design if starting with a blank sheet of paper".  Thus looking forward rather than back, we should continue to improve the regime as it is the right one to have, and the government should play its part by proceeding with the production of the missing National Policy Statements.  This is something that the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) has been calling for, as evidenced by a letter in the Times this week.

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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