This is entry number 72 of a blog on the implementation of the Planning Act 2008, first published on 9 December 2009. Click here for a link to the whole blog.
The Planning Act applies a new consent regime to sixteen different types of project – the first time that energy, transport, water and waste projects will use the same regime for authorisation. For each type of project, a threshold is declared, above which a project must use the new regime, and below which it cannot unless the government decides to upgrade it. At yesterday’s airports conference a number of speakers – including Sir Mike Pitt, Chair of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) – were of the view that the threshold for airport infrastructure was set too high. Today’s blog entry compares the thresholds in terms of the numbers of projects likely to be referred to the IPC, using data provided by the government on how many projects in the year 2008 would have been above them.
The government can vary the thresholds by issuing a ministerial order, which would be subject to the ‘affirmative resolution procedure’ in Parliament (i.e. it must be positively voted through rather than going through unless voted down). This may happen once the new regime has operated for a while to even out inconsistencies in numbers of applications of different types.
The airport infrastructure threshold is probably the highest of the lot, at a capacity increase of 10 million passengers per year or 10,000 air cargo movements per year. Given that only four UK airports currently have a throughput of more than 10 million passengers per year (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester), it is unlikely that any others would fall within the new regime as they would have to more than double in size. Given that Manchester’s second runway is fairly recent and Stansted’s application for one is already in – and leaving aside ‘Boris Island’, on which even Theresa Villiers refused to speculate – that leaves only two airports in the frame for the foreseeable future. If the Planning Act had been in force for 2008, the government estimates that only Stansted would have used it that year.
In 2008 there would also only have been one port application, the threshold being an ability to handle at least 500,000 (more) containers per year, 250,000 ro-ro units or 5,000,000 tonnes of loose material (or a proportionate combination of these), and one strategic rail freight interchange application, the main threshold being a size of at least 60 hectares (plus some other features). Having said that, I think that future projects of those two types are more likely than airport projects.
The lowest threshold is a toss-up between the ones for electricity generation and electric lines. Anything onshore that is able to generate more than 50MW – or 100MW offshore – or an extension to an above-threshold generating station of whatever size (so adding a single turbine to a 60MW wind farm would count), comes within the Planning Act. If the Planning Act had been in force for 2008, the government estimates that nine electricity generation projects, including four wind farms, would have used it. For electric lines, the threshold is a line that carries at least 132kV. This time the 2008 figure is estimated to have been 10 projects.
Although the government estimates that there would have been no LNG (liquid natural gas – is that an oxymoron?) facility applications in 2008, that does not necessarily mean that the threshold is too high. It is simply that all such projects are infrequent.
The most complicated threshold is probably the threshold for roads. This is not a numerical threshold, but is expressed in terms of highways for which the Secretary of State is the highway authority (mainly motorways and trunk roads), which I will call major highways. The new regime applies to (a) the construction of a major highway or a highway constructed for a purpose connected with a major highway; (b) the improvement of a major highway if it would need environmental impact assessment; and (c) the alteration of a highway by the Secretary of State for a purpose connected with a major highway. Note that the connected 'highways' don’t even have to be vehicular ones – they could be as lowly as footpaths if their construction or alteration was for a purpose connected with a major highway. Despite this seemingly low threshold, the estimate of 2008 above-threshold highway projects was only two.
The most obscure threshold is for railways. There, the threshold is that a project on the main network could not have relied on ‘permitted development rights’ (PDRs) to get permission, which are a sort of advance blanket planning permission. PDRs can usually be used if a railway would remain in the original corridor set out in the (usually 19th century) Act of Parliament that authorised its construction. This means that the threshold is not necessarily related to size – quite a quite a small project, for example a chord joining two existing railways, might fall within it. Quite a large project might not reach the threshold – for example the redevelopment of Reading station, involving new platforms and rearranged lines, would not have done.
Those are eight of the thresholds. There are others – expressed in fairly simple size terms - for gas storage facilities (two in 2008), gas reception facilities (none in 2008), gas transporter pipe-lines (three in 2008), other pipelines (two in 2008), railways (none in 2008), sewage works (three in 2008), dams and reservoirs (none in 2008) and hazardous waste projects. The government is not sure about the last one as they might have been authorised by a local planning application and never have reached them.
There may be lobbying to raise or lower thresholds as the new system gets under way, possibly due to the numbers of projects, but also if promoters think that the new regime would be to their disadvantage or advantage respectively.