This is entry number 234, published on 15 April 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog. If you would like to be notified when the blog is updated, with links sent by email, click here.

Today’s entry reports on the latest questions from the Infrastructure Planning Commission about its first application.

The furthest advanced application being considered by the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) is for an energy from waste plant in Bedfordshire being promoted by Covanta Energy. This week the IPC published its second (and final) set of questions about the application.

There are two significant features of the examination of applications under the new regime. First, it is almost entirely done in writing, where previously the largest applications were the subject of public inquiries, which sometimes lasted for years. Secondly, those examining the application are taking a more active role, where previously a planning inspector would sit impassively and fairly quietly to hear the oopposing sides. This week's developments are a chance to examine the second of these features.

The panel of three IPC commissioners considering the application published this further series of questions for the parties involved to answer. Somewhat confusingly they are recorded on the IPC website under 'Project Documents - Written Response to ExA questions' (ExA being short for 'examining authority', i.e. the panel in this case), when they are the ExA questions. {Update: the website has now been changed to make this clearer]

The first set of questions published by the panel can be found at Annex C (page 27) of this document. They are directed at Covanta, the project promoter, although anyone who had made representations was entitled to comment on them.

This time the questions are not just directed at Covanta, giving an indication that the IPC is taking up its inquisitorial role. I see this as an area that will develop further as more applications are considered. The IPC taking on an inquisitorial role is one answer to the charge of inequality of arms - i.e. that promoters can (usually) afford QCs and leading expert witnesses, whereas local objectors often cannot. The IPC can take on a greater role in the examination where objectors may not have the time or money to do so.

For example, the second question asks that Covanta, the two local authorities involved and rival company Waste Recycling Group Ltd get together and produce a Statement of Common Ground on waste arisings and where they will be treated. Question 4 is directed at the Environment Agency, whereas question 2 of the first set of questions was about the Environment Agency, but arguably still for Covanta to answer. I don't know if the panel has pointed out to the relevant parties that they have questions to answer, but that would obviously be a good idea.

Incidentally, the concept of statements of common ground has always seemed the wrong approach to me - what is really of interest is where the parties differ. Why not have 'statements of matters at issue' instead?

The deadline for answering these questions is 9 May, four days before the sole 'specific issue hearing' on the drafting of the development consent order (DCO), requirements and s106 agreements. I am planning to attend that, given that we are drafting several DCOs here at BDB. 9 May is also the deadline given to the parties for submitting any updated documents or comments for the specific issue hearing, according to question 7.

After the 11 main questions, there is a list of incorrect references or missing items from three Covanta documents: the Book of Reference (i.e. the document giving details of whose land is to be acquired), the Statement of Reasons (for acquiring the land) and the recent response to the first set of questions (20 missing footnotes!). Message to future promoters: before submitting any documents, make sure all the footnotes exist and cross-references are correct!

The panel for the second application before the IPC, another Covanta waste from energy project in Wales this time, is likely to announce the date of its preliminary meeting and a draft timetable soon. It will be interesting to see how the timetable evolves from the Rookery South timetable - not least allowing for time to consider 10,000 rather than 1000 objections.