UK: Boles Overshadows Bills And Balls At NIPA Conference

Last Updated: 20 May 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on yesterday's annual conference of the National Infrastructure Planning Association.

Refusing to be diverted by news of the Queen's Speech and Sir Alex Ferguson's resignation, the second annual conference of the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) took place yesterday in the sumptuous Clifford Chance auditorium in London's Docklands.

NIPA Council Chair Steve Norris chaired the morning session in his usual robust way.  The first speaker was planning minister Nick Boles MP, who had a breezily engaging style as he cantered across the planning landscape.  I liked his reference to China building [insert large number] airports in the time we take to build one, rebutting this by saying we don't want to be like China, we want to protect the environment and uphold democracy, so things will take longer here.

Two quibbles I had with his speech is that first he trotted out the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) line that the 'humdrum reforms' in the Growth and Infrastructure Act improved the 'one stop shop' concept.  All it actually did was to remove some certification requirements that had only been in existence thanks to the Planning Act in the first place.  No pre-existing consents were brought within the regime.

The second quibble was that he said further combining of consents was not possible because of the EU and other reasons.  The EU may have many faults but stopping the UK from having a one-stop consenting regime is not one of them.

In answer to a question he said that as National Policy Statements (NPSs) were not both urgent and important they were not a current priority, although several later speakers said they would be very useful.

No more primary legislation on planning is to be introduced before the general election in two years' time ('if anyone suggests more planning legislation I will shoot them').  Apparently since there will not be time for new legislation to have an impact by the time of the election it can't help to win it for the government and so there is no point in doing it.  Did he really say that?

After yours truly had set out the current status of Planning Act applications and reflected on the efficacy of the new regime (on which the theme of 'inquisitoral not adversarial' was picked up by several later speakers), Nick Boles' opposite number Roberta Blackman-Woods set out Labour's stall.  In a lower-key performance she said that policy reviews were still under way.  Labour would not do anything radical to planning but were likely to tweak the Community Infrastructure Levy and Local Enterprise Partnerships and were considering a National Spatial Plan.

Alison Cremin, DCLG official, set out the proposals for business and commercial projects coming into the regime, saying that the secondary legislation setting out the types of project was due this spring.  A panel of Chris Lewis from Prologis, promoters of the DIRFT 3 application, Martin Tugwell from Oxfordshire County Council and Trudi Elliott, RTPI Chief Executive was then rather sceptical that this extension to the regime would get used.

I found the three case studies very interesting - Tim Cook from Network Rail described the Ipswich and North Doncaster chord projects, Rob Gully the Galloper offshore windfarm and Bethan Edwards and Alex Blake the Brechfa Forest onshore windfarm.  Tim Cook thought that on reflection they had been too accepting of amendments to the Development Consent Order suggested by others during the examination, and would have preferred an NPS.

Rob Gully claimed theirs was the first application to include two separate nationally significant infrastructure projects.  My fact checkers (i.e. me) are working on verifying that.  He said that early Statements of Common Ground had been invaluable, although they had declined to purse them with some parties for various reasons.  He agreed with others that the amount of written material was overwhelming.  He suggested that the Planning Inspectorate provide more guidance on what level of certainty of funding should be expected of project promoters as this had varied considerably to date.

He commented that many interested parties did not really engage until the deadline for written (i.e. the later, fuller) representations, a month after the preliminary meeting and up to six months after the application had been made, and that something should be done to encourage earlier engagement since there were only five months of examination left by then.  He asked that hearing agendas be circulated a few days in advance to make them more effective.

Bethan Edwards managed to sneak a picture of the victorious Welsh rugby team into her slides, and Alex Blake said that the lack of any equivalent of 'statements of case' made hearings difficult to react to as people could raise anything.  The presenters of all three case studies did praise the regime on balance, which was a good sign.

The afternoon session was chaired by NIPA Chair Keith Mitchell and the first speaker was head of the Planning Inspectorate Sir Mike Pitt.  He provided an 'organogram' of the new structure of the part of PINS that included the Planning Act regime.  It had Simone Wilding (35) as head of case management, which I thought was her age at first until the next person was Tom Warth (3).  Rounding off the three people below Mark Southgate, Director of Major Applications and Plans was Adrian Harding (3), head of the new Consents Service Unit.  He was at the conference, which was nice to see, as was the CSU's prospectus, which can be found here along with some frequently asked questions.

Sir Mike said that the shortest time between PINS being notified of a project and an application being made was 4 months (fact-checkers checking that one too), but that wasn't necessarily, and almost certainly wasn't, from a standing start.  He said that the promoters of the Preesall gas storage project had launched a judicial review of the refusal of that application, making a fifth in a week, although I later learned that it was only at the 'letter before action' stage rather than proceedings actually having commenced.

Sir Mike had a slide on 'avoiding the pitfalls' (or Pittfalls - his joke).  First was DCO and Environmental Statement inconsistencies - they were sometimes describing different projects as one had advanced as the project evolved where the other hadn't.  He said that the wording of any relevant NPS was absolutely crucial, that early engagement with statutory bodies such as Natural England was highly recommended, and that people were being left out of books of reference.  My colleague Robbie Owen took him to task on the usability of the PINS website during an examination and he promised that this was being improved and would be improved further.

Julie Foley of the Environment Agency gave a very detailed talk about how willing the EA were to engage with promoters and say 'yes, if' on the main application and associated consents.  If all the rest of the EA and the other statutory bodies are as knowledgeable and engaged as Julie then we should be very encouraged.

Tony Burton of Civic Voice stopped us all getting too carried away with how marvellous we were by reminding us that promoters were still failing to engage fully with those living in the vicinity of major infrastructure projects, and that the stereotypes of people's attitudes to developers and vice versa still often held true.  The Planning Act regime at least allows for such engagement, but does not guarantee it.

Finally John Rhodes of Quod gave an amusing round-up of the day's proceedings and encouraged those present to engage with NIPA for it to be effective.  He said that NIPA were focusing on the pre-application stage (echoing Sir Mike's analysis) and had issued a questionnaire to get feedback on experiences of this.  I will post a link when this finds its way on line.

All in all a good day.  Oh, and the Queen gave a speech that didn't have any planning in it, although she did mention High Speed 2 legislation, as Fergie (not her ex-daughter-in-law) hung up his chewing gum.

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