Government speeds up consent for big projects

Ministers are forging ahead with major reforms of the planning system to make it faster and cheaper for developers to gain permission for large construction projects with substantial environmental impacts.

Business groups welcomed the government’s long-awaited Planning White Paper, published in May.1 But environmental organisations were dismayed by how little the government had toned down earlier proposals for simplifying and speeding up the planning of major infrastructure projects.

The White Paper builds on last year’s Treasury-led reviews of planning and transport by economist Kate Barker and former British Airways chief executive Sir Rod Eddington. These called for decisions on major infrastructure to be made by a new independent planning commission, rather than ministers, to simplify and speed up the process (ENDS Report 383, pp 34-35 ).

The White Paper calls for legislation to reform the planning process for all major projects in England and for major energy projects in Wales. They would include the building of ports, airports and runways, power stations, new roads, sewage works, reservoirs and waste treatment plants. The new regime would also cover large offshore renewable energy projects, major pipelines, power transmission lines and road access to major projects, but not railways because existing planning arrangements are deemed to be adequate.

The reforms will reduce the obstacles facing the new generation nuclear power stations that the government wants to see built, although the White Paper does not mention the ‘n’ word.

The government-appointed Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) would have up to 30 commissioners, largely full time, with a wide variety of expertise and experience.

Ministers would draw up national policy statements, covering individual sectors and setting out the country’s infrastructure needs over the next 10-25 years. These would aim to integrate the government’s economic, social and environmental objectives, "including the government’s climate change commitments". Some would specify locations for individual major projects.

Ministers would consult the public in drawing up the statements and there will be some as yet unspecified form of Parliamentary scrutiny. Final statements would then be the primary consideration for the IPC in making decisions on projects.

Developers wishing to put forward major projects would have to consult the public, local government and government agencies. After further consultation the IPC would decide whether to give consent. It could reject a project even if it accords with the relevant national policy statement, but only if it judges that the local harm done would outweigh the national benefits, or if the proposal conflicted with European and UK conservation and environmental laws, or with human rights legislation.

The function of public inquiries for major projects would change significantly. They would no longer be able to debate the need, and in some cases the location, of a particular project, because these would be included in the national policy statement.

Environmental groups, who are gearing up for a major campaign against the proposals, fear the IPC will be a "rubber stamping" body highly likely to give consent to projects. The proposals would also reduce their opportunity to turn inquiries into high profile public debates on government policy. And, by taking the final decision away from elected ministers, it curbs their opportunities for political campaigning.

They also fear national policy statements will be framed largely in terms of meeting projected growth in demand for energy, travel and natural resources rather than reducing rising demand through policy interventions. The White Paper does not mention demand management, and it holds up the highly controversial 2003 aviation White Paper - seen by green NGOs as a classic case of "predict and provide" - as an example of a national policy statement.

Airports group BAA called the White Paper "a step closer to creating a clear, accountable and more streamlined planning process." CBI director general Richard Lambert said: "It introduces necessary reforms to help deliver the major projects which the UK is crying out for… many vital developments have become bogged down in a quagmire of red tape and bureaucracy."

But Friends of the Earth’ planning coordinator, Tom Picken, argued that it is "a document which would fundamentally change the balance of the planning system away from protecting the environment and towards meeting the interests of business."