UK: Super Sewer On The Big Stage

Last Updated: 20 September 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on yesterday's preliminary meeting for the Thames Tideway Tunnel - and another preliminary meeting the previous day.

The preliminary meeting is the first meeting to which all interested parties on an application under the Planning Act 2008 are invited and starts the six-month examination period.

I have attended two in the last two days: that for the North Killingholme Power Station at my old stamping-ground of the Humber Royal Hotel, Grimsby, and then that for the Thames Tideway Tunnel (TTT) in the no less prestigious venue of the Barbican Hall.

I must first say that I think everyone present would agree that the leads of the three-member panel (Kelvin MacDonald) and five-member panel (Jan Bessell) respectively both conducted their meetings to the highest standard. This was despite them having fairly different approaches, which shows that there is a range of ways to conduct such meetings, and in the latter case at least, fairly difficult jobs to do. They both shut me up at different times, at any rate.

There were also no logistical problems at either event, which is a tribute to the Planning Inspectorate and venue staff too. I and a colleague did stereotypically manage to get lost in the Barbican at lunchtime, though, and the Humber Royal was the only one to offer free coffee. Suggestion to PINS: please add 'Will refreshments be offered free of charge?' to your venue questionnaire.

At both meetings the promoter of the project proposed changes to the application, in one case reducing the order limits and in the other increasing them. In the latter case, the preliminary meeting was nearly adjourned for several days to allow the changes to be considered before the examination started (since it will only start once the preliminary meeting ends), but shortly after 5 p.m. the panel decided to close the meeting and thereby start the examination, meaning the acceptability of the changes would be considered within it.

Given the frequency that promoters clearly need to change projects, I think that there needs to be more guidance on when this will be acceptable, rather than throwing it onto individual inspectors and panels to decide. There will inevitably be issues in common that can be addressed, and we shouldn't still be harking back to the Bob Neill letter.

I won't go into the detailed legal arguments put forward on various issues by the dozen or so who spoke - there will be meeting note and full recording you can listen to if you are interested enough - but the main ones in summary were entertaining changes to the project desired by others, strategic environmental assessment and adequacy of consultation.

At Grimsby only the promoter was represented by counsel, but at the Barbican there seemed to be most of the planning bar present.

For the first time that I am aware of, the TTT panel has taken advantage of the ability to appoint its own counsel, and has appointed two QCs and a junior (from No. 5 Chambers), only the last of whom was there. She didn't say anything, but was taking copious notes all day. I seemed to have the role of informal legal adviser to the panel at one point.

Lessons to learn

Check the project web page on the PINS website shortly before the meeting as there may well be new information on there. PINS does not routinely send new information to interested parties - even a revised agenda for the meeting - as it is quite resource-intensive (not just a bulk email).

Be prepared to answer questions without notice. You should probably bring the suite of guidance documents, recently fully revised, and if you are a lawyer, the Planning Act and regulations beneath it, as currently amended, as you may be asked about them.

Although you are likely to be able to use a table at the hearings proper, at the preliminary meeting you will probably have to juggle papers while standing, so be organised.

So two rollercoasters have started their journeys this week (in the sense of speed, ups and downs, thrills and an inablitiy to get off), with Thames Water in particular having an extremely challenging series of deadlines to deal with.

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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