UK: How Long DCO Applications Are Taking

Last Updated: 5 August 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on the length of time applications under the Planning Act 2008 are taking so far.

At a recent NIPA Council meeting, views were expressed that there was not enough data around to demonstrate what the timing issues were under the Planning Act in practice, to inform the powers that be.  Time for this blog to step up and fill the breach.

So far, nine decisions have been made on Planning Act applications.  The graph below shows the timeline for each one, centred on the 'preliminary meeting' since that is the start of the examination of each entry and when the fixed timescales kick in.

I apologise for the size of the image which is restricted by the blogging software, I can send a bigger version on request.

The first segment of each bar is the length of time between starting formal pre-application consultation (phase 1 of it, if there was more than one phase) and making the application.  This period is entirely up to the developer.  The shortest so far has been the North Doncaster chord at just under 100 days, and the longest has been Hinkley Point C nuclear power station at nearly 500 days.  There were three phases of formal pre-application consultation for that project.

Of course formal pre-application consultation isn't the start of a project: there is time before that from 'twinkle in the eye' onwards, but such data is not available.  The Planning Inspectorate (PINS) generally reckon that from twinkle to application can take 1-3 years.

The second segment is the period between making the application and holding the preliminary meeting.  The length of this period is mostly up to the developer but PINS also has a role. You can see that the periods are in a much narrower range than the pre-application phase, varying between 120 days (Heysham to M6 Link Road) to 190 days (Galloper offshire windfarm).

The third segment is the examination, which should take no more than six months.  An even tighter range here, from 134 days (Ipswich chord) to 184 days (a tie between Galloper, Hinkley Point C and Brechfa Forest).

The fourth segment is the recommendation period, which should take no more than three months.  The range here is 82 days (Ipswich chord) to 101 days (Kentish Flats), even narrower.  Note that the Rookery South application did not have this period, which was added by the Localism Act 2011 when it abolished the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

Finally as far as the approval process is concerned there is the three month decision period.  The range here is a mere 13 days, between 77 days (North Doncaster chord) and 90 days (four projects).

The bar chart shows graphically that from the start of the examination until a decision is issued takes up to a year, which is how the regime was intended to work, and should provide comfort to future users of the regime. In fact range of times for each stage gets narrower as you go along, so the later stages have more certainty than the early ones. So far so good. Of less comfort is what happens next. 

The huge orange section for Rookery South is the time it took in Parliament undergoing special parliamentary procedure.  Thanks to amendments made by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, this should only rarely happen from now on, although one or two live projects may be caught by the changes, which only apply to applications since October 2012.

The final section for four of the bars is the judicial review (JR) period, which is still continuing in each case.  I understand that the Rookery challenge has been permitted to go forward to a full hearing; the two Hinkley Point C challenges are likely to be heard in the High Court next week (the permission and substantive stages being 'rolled up' together), the Heysham challenge will be heard in Manchester the week after, and the Preesall challenge is still being considered on the papers.

It is good news that the challenges have been dealt with reasonably speedily by the courts, but not so good that they have been made at all, and that nearly 50% of projects have been affected.  It remains to be seen whether any of them is successful.  Some of the points they raise will settle issues for future projects and reduce the likelihood of further JRs somewhat, but many of the points are particular to the projects in question.

While the middle of the process is reasonably certain and reliable in terms of time, the periods before an after an application is made could clearly do with some further attention to make them shorter or at least more predictable.

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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