Yesterday, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne delivered his fourth budget to an eager nation and some rowdy MPs.  His soundbite was that we are 'an aspiration nation'.  This presumably means an increase words beginning with H, already being implemented via the Hinkley and Heysham approvals on Tuesday.

There are three relevant documents.  The main budget document can be found here, and for infrastructure junkies there is a new Infrastructure Delivery Update accompanying the budget, which can be found here. There is also a Plan for Growth implementation update.  Consideration of infrastructure starts at paragraph 1.87 of the budget document.

Money

The main money headline is that the government is to spend £3bn a year extra on infrastructure from 2015 onwards (i.e. after the next election, so rather a 'jam tomorrow' commitment that could change if the government changes, or changes its mind).

Two carbon capture and storage projects have been given 'preferred bidder' status - that by Shell and Scottish and Southern Energy in Peterhead in Aberdeenshire and one from Drax Power, Alstom, BOC and National Grid (the 'White Rose CCS project') in Yorkshire, the latter of which will be authorised under the Planning Act.

Is it just me or are there more misprints in government documents than there used to be?  I've spotted two in the DECC press release about the CCS projects - 'best practise' and 'part of the Government's boarder efforts'.  The Infrastructure Delivery Update refers to the month of 'Mayy' so it hasn't even been spell checked.

Shale gas

Shale gas - aka fracking - gets a push with four measures:

  • a new 'shale gas field allowance', the detail of which is to be consulted upon; technical planning guidance on shale gas, to be produced by July this year - swimming against the tide of guidance reduction, see below;
  • proposals for 'community benefit' (aka money for locals) for shale gas projects, to be developed by this summer; and
  • detail of the objectives, remit and responsibilities for the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, which I hope will be referred to as Off-U-go.

Although George Osborne said 'Shale gas is part of the future. And we will make it happen' I don't think the last verse of A Day in the Life will come to pass.

Tellingly, the document says 'The Government will keep under review whether the largest shale gas projects should have the option to apply to the major infrastructure regime', i.e. the Planning Act 2008.  I think they already do, since they are in the 'field of energy', but this may become official.

Delivery

The document then goes on to infrastructure planning and delivery.  Ex Olympic chief Lord Deighton (rhymes with Brighton) will embed Infrastructure UK staff in various government departments (presumably DECC, DfT and Defra in particular) and will produce 'tough' 'Infrastructure Capacity Plans' for them by the summer.

The Major Projects Authority will be enhanced, but when the same text is cut and pasted into the Infrastructure Delivery Update, it will be 'enhance'. 

The Government will consider options for making more use of independent expertise in shaping its infrastructure strategy.  Yes please, I volunteer.

Planning

After announcing various housing initiatives, which I won't cover since it seems that not one single house will ever be authorised under the Planning Act, the document moves on to planning.

There is slight spin on local plans - 70% of local authorities have 'at least a published plan', but of course that is an earlier stage than an adopted plan, which is what previous statistics referred to.

The Taylor review into planning guidance will result in the publication of 'significantly' reduced guidance this summer.

There will be consultation on allowing changes of use from agricultural and retail to residential.

Lord Heseltine's recommendation for pro-growth planning policies as part of a 'Local Growth Deal' will be implemented - see chapter 2 of the government's response to his report for more details.

Regulatory reform

Later on, the document announces that a second phase of the Red Tape Challenge will be launched this summer.  This will look at 'the whole regulatory system – including laws, guidance, compliance, and enforcement, through short targeted reviews. The reviews will look at areas such as infrastructure ...'

There is then a suggestion of protective provision reform: 'the Government has asked the economic regulators to develop a coordinated and streamlined approach to charging and conditions on new infrastructure where it crosses existing infrastructure.'

Finally, previouisly heralded reform to judicial review will be introduced.  Proposals to shorten time limits will be announced in the 'spring' (which by my reckoning is the period starting today and ending on 21 June), and further measures on planning judicial reviews in particular will be developed by the 'summer' (21 June to 21 September, I think).

Infrastructure Delivery Update

The infrastructure delivery update is effectively the fifth iteration of the National Infrastructure Plan, originally published in 2010.  It repeats a lot of what is in the budget statement, but there is also an update on what are variously called the top 40 'priority investments'. 'projects' and 'projects and programmes'.  They weren't ever all individual projects, but included spending pots such as the Regional Growth Fund. The document is quite short, but then again the last update was only in December.

Two of the items on the list are due to complete this year - the first one listed, 'Highways Agency programme in construction, pre 2010 Spending Review', and the other is improvements to King's Cross Station in London (the answer to the riddle 'What is the largest crustacean in London?').  Two down, 38 to go.

It's terribly up to date as it mentions the consents given for the Heysham to M6 Link Road and the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which were only issued the day before.

The 'UK Guarantees' scheme to underwrite funding gaps for nearly-funded projects has been offered to the extension of the Northern Line on the London Underground to Battersea Power Station and also to Drax Power, to convert a coal power station partially to biomass - two very different power station conversions.

The handy map of the UK with infrastructure projects by region that was on page 17 of the previous update has been updated, now with little symbols for each type of project, although the designations of 'starting soon', 'funding announced' etc. have been removed.  This allows them to include e.g. 'Nuclear: Wylfa', which is not mentioned elsewhere in the document and nothing much is happening on it.

Plan for Growth update

The Plan for Growth implementation update reports on progress on the government's intentions in the original Plan for Growth.  I have spotted four items of interest.

Item 34 in the list of 235 growth measures refers to progress on the backlog of pre-Planning Act consents.  DECC still has eight on its books, and the DfT has five.  Item 32 promises the finalised Aviation Policy Framework this month, i.e. it is still on target.

At item 55, it says that there are over 80 Planning Act projects at pre-application or application stages.  What an exaggeration - there are only 79, although there were 81 at the start of the week.

Item 60 refers to final guidance on habitats being published shortly, together with plans to radically simplfiy over 2500 pages of existing guidance.

So all in all incremental rather than revolutionary change.  A few consultations on tweaks to the system coming up, but otherwise it's business as usual.