UK: National Policy Statement Pressure Grows As Appetite Wanes

Last Updated: 30 January 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on concern at the lack of National Policy Statements.

At a National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) Council meeting on Monday, considerable concern was expressed about the stalling of the programme of National Policy Statements (NPSs).  No activity has taken place on the NPS front since February 2012, when the Waste Water NPS was finalised ('designated'), despite only eight out of the expected twelve being in place.  I have been presenting the latest state of play on NPSs and nationally significant infrastructure projects to NIPA every three months and haven't needed to change my NPS slide for four presentations.

Current situation

While DECC can be smug that theirs are all in place, the Hazardous Waste NPS has been languishing in draft since July 2011, and there is no sign at all of the Water Supply NPS, the National Networks (road and rail) NPS or the Airports NPS.

Indeed, the DfT have been putting hurdles in the way of producing the two transport ones: the National Networks NPS was not to appear until the (now delayed) Transport Strategy has been put in place (and possible separate road and rail strategies below it), and the Airports NPS wasn't to appear until Howard Davies' commission has reported on maintaining UK hub status. The latest vibe from the DfT is that the NPSs may not appear even then.  My prediction of no NNNPS this year is looking good and it's still only January.

Meanwhile, Defra seems equally uninterested in finalising the Hazardous Waste NPS or producing a Water Supply one.  Perhaps the arrival of a hazardous waste application on Owen Paterson's desk in mid-April will help concentrate the mind (the East Northants Resource Recovery Facility, whose examination concluded on Tuesday).

The expansion of the regime to business and commercial projects via the Growth and Infrastructure Bill has raised the prospect of one or more further NPSs.  The government has just consulted on whether to have one or more for such projects, but its preferred option is not to have any.  This is despite Sir Mike Pitt, head of the Planning Inspectorate, saying at a WEETF conference on Tuesday that he would like one.

Analysis

Why the reluctance? It seems to be based on two issues.  First, whether an NPS is merely a re-statement of existing government policy, or whether it is a declaration of new policy.  Either way, this should not delay the production of NPSs. 

The inevitable fact that policy is always developing means that any snapshot of existing policy will not be up to date for long, but that shouldn't deter the government from producing it.  If it is so difficult merely to re-state existing policy, then there is clearly something wrong with the current expression of policy.

On the other hand, if NPSs are declarations of new policy that are to help promote economic growth, then the urgency to develop and promulgate such policy is even greater.  Why publish a Transport Strategy and then an NPS, why not just make the Transport Strategy an Overarching Transport NPS like the energy one and kill two birds with one stone?

The second issue is whether NPSs are merely (now that the Infrastructure Planning Commission no longer exists) for internal government purposes only - after all PINS is a govenrment agency and Secretaries of State now take decisions on applications.

To me, that is wrong on several levels.  First, policy is not a private matter for the government, it should be easily accessible by all.  Like the Berkeley case on environmental statements, it's not good enough to say 'the policy is all there somewhere, we don't need to put it in a specific document'. 

Secondly, for there to be business confidence in investing in infrastructure, promoters need as much certainty as possible as to what will be consented, and a clear statement of need is crucial for this.  They need to know not just what will be consented, but what won't be consented - it is just as useful to say what the government considers is not needed or whose impacts would be too great (e.g. a third runway at Heathrow) than what is needed. 

Thirdly, NPSs aren't just about declarations of need, they provide guidance to promoters as to what impacts they should assess in their applications.  Having such a steer will give applicants more confidence that their applications are worth making (or what impacts would mean their applications would not succeed). 

Fourthly, compulsory purchase powers are available to private companies via the Planning Act regime, and NPSs support the 'compelling case in the public interest' test that must be met for such powers to be granted.

If the government is serious about the contribution infrastructure (and business and commercial projects) make to economic growth, then it should provide as much certainty as it can to project promoters as to what will and will not be consented, and National Policy Statements are a crucial vehicle for doing so.

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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