This is entry number 96, first published on 8 February 2010, of a blog on the implementation of the Planning Act 2008. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today's entry reports on the second and third of three sessions held by the Transport Select Committee into the Ports National Policy Statement.

The Ports National Policy Statement (NPS) was one of seven (and the only non-energy one) to be published in draft for consultation on 9 November 2009. The Transport Select Committee of the House of Commons has been interviewing witnesses at three of its meetings in January. The first meeting is reported in a previous blog entry. Here are some nuggets from the second and third.

Transport Select Committee, 20 January

First session witnesses: David Whitehead, British Ports Association; Richard Bird, UK Major Ports Group; Phillip Williams, Associated British Ports (ABP); Stephen Baxter, Peel Ports; Andrew Harston, Hutchison Ports.

The first session saw the two main industry bodies and three of the largest port operators giving evidence.

The witnesses thought that the impacts that the NPS recommends that applicants deal with be given some sort of prioritisation so that the more important ones could be given more attention.

On a scale of one to 10, the lack of simultaneous consideration of the National Networks NPS, dealing with road and rail (which has been delayed by a few months) was given a score of 10 for its importance.

Port masterplans should be mentioned in the NPS as having weight attached to them by the IPC.

Not surprisingly, the witnesses welcomed the lack of mention of locations as suitable for port developmemnt, preferring the market-led approach.

They believed that security issues were already dealt with satisfactorily.

They believed that the thresholds in the Planning Act for projects to come before the IPC were too high - perhaps a vote of confidence in the new regime.

ABP thought that there was still not enough certainty in the NPS to allow it to reapply for Dibden Bay, the proposed new container terminal whose application was turned down in 2004, basically on need not being sufficient to override harm to protected habitats.

Three of the five witnesses thought that on balance, the NPS could be designated as it was rather than not.

Second session witnesses: David Asprey, Chamber of Shipping; Chris Welsh, Freight Transport Association; Matthew Farrow, CBI and Maggie Simpson, Rail Freight Group (RFG).

The second group were industry groups from slightly more indirect industries than the ports themselves.

The RFG thought that the NPS was not 'low carbon' enough, and should do more to encourage rail and water rather than road transport to and from ports.

The witnesses thought that the expression of need in the NPS was acceptable, and agreed that it should not be locationally specific.

There was a bit of a chicken and egg argument about what you build first - rail and road links or port infrastructure? This was not really resolved, but the witnesses were lukewarm towards the NPS being a driver for encouraging growth away from the south east.

Third session witnesses: Simon Birch, Environment Agency; Doug Parr, Greenpeace and Andrew Dodd, RSPB.

Although from three environmental organisations, this session was two against one, with the Environment Agency disagreeing with the other two on most things.

The RSPB repeated its line that the consideration of alternatives in relation to 'appropriate assessment' (assessment of the effects of a project on protected habitats) was inadequate and flawed.

The witnesses thought that the NPS was too abstract for people to engage in it, and that if it did not go as far as being locationally specific (which would help with that), at least a map of where port infrastructure was currently would help.

Greenpeace and the RSPB thought that the model of 'predict and provide' for building new infrastructure was outdated.

These witnesses were also asked about Dibden Bay but did not have an opinion one way or the other as to whether it would have been approved under the new regime. They did argue that more certainty before applications were made would be helpful.

Transport Select Committee, 27 January

First session witnesses: Sir Mike Pitt, Robert Upton and Dr Ian Gambles, Infrastructure Planning Ccommission (IPC).

The Chair, Vice Chair and Director of Strategy of the IPC were the first witnesses at the third and last session considering the Ports NPS.

After their initial statements, Philip Hollobone MP challenged the witnesses on not having any expertise on ports, which no doubt got things off to a good start.

He then challenged them on the NPS saying that capacity for the next 20-25 years was already consented so no more was needed. The initial answer was that no applications were expected, which drew a remark from the Chairman that the whole enterprise was therefore somewhat pointless. This elicited the response that the philosophy of the NPS was that the market determined need, i.e. if an application came forward then it would be needed.

Incidentally, the Port of Dover submitted a Harbour Revision Order a cuople of weeks ago that would have been above the threshold for submission to the IPC, had it been made after 28 February, so there may still be the odd ports project lurking around.

There then followed an interesting exchange betwen John Leech MP and Sir Mike Pitt, where John Leech suggested that by putting most of the work before the clock started ticking, projects would actually take the same time from inception to approval than before. Sir Mike said that he disagreed, as the steps would be taken in the right order that would lead to less time being taken overall, even when you included the pre-application stage.

Philip Hollobone asked whether the IPC could be merged with the Planning Inspectorate (the current Tory line). Sir Mike replied that the two had very different roles, but a merger could be accommodated 'if that was the wish of government'.

There then followed an exchange as to whether the IPC could consider the impact of an application for new Port A on existing Port B. After an initial reply that it could not, this was refined somewhat to questions of need and economic impact, which could be considered.

Finally, when pressed, Sir Mike said that he would resign if a judicial review of an IPC decision went against it that revealed that the IPC had 'badly fallen down'.

Second session witnesses: Paul Clark MP, Ports Minister; Richard Bennett and Philip Grindrod, Department for Transport.

The government took the stand in the final session. The minister confirmed that the NPS would provide guidance for below-threshold projects (to the Marine Management Organisation, which will consider them from 1 April) as well as IPC projects.

He said that the National Networks NPS (road, rail and rail freight interchanges) would be issued around the end of March. On the non-existence of the NNNPS, he said that it was OK since no ports applications were expected in the near future. That's all very well, but what about road and rail projects themselves? The very first project predicted by the IPC is a road one.

Angela Smith MP had a line of questioning suggesting that the NPS should encourage development further north and that the NPS could be made locationally specific to reflect this, but this was resisted.

In response to carbon impacts, Paul Clark replied that paragraph 2.17.17 specifically preferred rail and water transport over road.

Finally, Paul Clark refuted suggestions from the committee chair that the Ports NPS should be delayed until the National Networks NPS was published, not surprisingly, but it did give a hint that the committee may recommend this.

Here endeth the consideration of the Ports NPS by the Transport Select Committee. The next dates for your diary are 15 February, the deadline for consultation responses to be made to the DfT, and 4 March, when the House of Lords holds a debate into the Ports NPS