Improving the speed of the planning system for major infrastructure does not need to come at the expense of good decisions which take communities and the environment into account.
That was the message from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in its latest review, which calls for a new data platform to share environmental information, a speeding up of the planning process and a better deal for communities in areas where major infrastructure developments are taking place.
The NIC report ‘Delivering Net Zero, Climate Resilience and Growth’ states longer decision-making processes mean more uncertainty for communities while decisions are made.
Meanwhile, inefficiencies in environmental data gathering and mitigation design slow down the process, but do not improve the environment.
The Commission says more effective ways of addressing the environmental and social impact of proposed infrastructure and projects will enable stronger protection for natural habitats and speed up schemes crucial to the net zero transition.
As the government’s official infrastructure advisers, the NIC also recommend local communities are offered more tangible direct benefits for hosting infrastructure that supports national objectives.
A menu of benefits for hosting major schemes might include proximity-based payments for households or funding for local projects.
The Commission says the mandatory adoption of such a framework by developers would provide greater consistency at a national level, when it comes to the benefits received by local communities for helping the UK meet its infrastructure needs.
Those needs are increasing dramatically, with the report highlighting that, in the next decade, the UK needs to consent and build transformational infrastructure including wind farms, electricity transmission lines, and reservoirs to achieve energy security and net zero, and build resilience to climate change.
Into the 2030s, the types of schemes required will expand further, with the potential requirement for carbon capture and storage pipelines and a hydrogen network.
The report stresses that the planning system is currently too slow, partly because National Policy Statements – which guide the recommendations the Planning Inspectorate makes to ministers about whether schemes should proceed – have not been routinely updated.
The NIC recommends making the review of National Policy Statements every five years a legal requirement and ensuring future National Policy Statements include clear tests against which proposed projects will be assessed.
These should reflect the latest technological advances and set out clear timelines and standards for consultation during the pre-application phase.
The NIC is also requesting the government amends legislation to bring onshore wind back into the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects system as soon as possible.
It says since planning decisions on onshore wind were returned to local authorities in 2016 –alongside tighter restrictions in the National Planning Policy Framework – the number of installations in England have decreased by more than 80 per cent.
The Commission adds a new central coordination mechanism, reporting to the Prime Minister or Chancellor, would oversee regular and consistent reviews of National Policy Statements and ensure that consenting times for key schemes are shortened.
It also wants to see service level agreements between statutory consultees and developers, with budgetary implications if public agencies fail to stick to deadlines.
The Commission calculates its recommendations could ensure that consenting for major projects would be completed within two and a half years, compared to the current average of more than four years.
The changes could also reduce the likelihood of legal challenge by ensuring better outcomes for the environment and local communities.
For some schemes, consenting could be reduced to two years due to more strategic management of environmental impacts.
The review, commissioned by the Chancellor in February, builds on the government’s Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects Action Plan published that month and other recent moves to speed up decision making, such as the Offshore Wind Environmental Improvement Package.
The Offshore Wind Package includes trialling a more strategic approach to environmental mitigation, and the Commission’s review calls for this approach to be adopted across other sectors so that environmental data is gathered at a habitat level rather than on a scheme-by-scheme basis.
The review proposes that government develop a new system of strategic guidance for scheme level assessments by the end of 2025, including a library of effective mitigations from which schemes can select.
The review stresses any such solution must remain fully compliant with international environmental obligations and be monitored effectively by a central body.
The Commission’s recommendations are designed to ensure the consenting system is capable of delivering the volume and complexity of infrastructure projects the nation needs for the future, and that it meets four tests of being faster, more flexible, provide increased certainty and better quality.