On the 18 December 2012 the Government launched a consultation on changing the thresholds above which highway (and rail) projects are considered nationally significant.  Projects that are not considered nationally significant do not need to be authorised under the Planning Act 2008 and so the outcome of this consultation is likely to have significant impacts for promoters of highway projects.

For highways projects the consultation put forward four proposed changes:

First, the construction of roads where the local authority will be the highway authority is to be removed altogether.

Secondly, where these trunk roads are to be constructed as necessary mitigation for a developer’s project (eg a housing development) and planning permission is in place for that project, then the Planning Act 2008 will not need to be used for the highway works.

Thirdly, those projects that have existing Highways Act orders that are less than seven years old, but which need to be changed, will no longer need to be re-applied for under the Planning Act 2008.

Lastly a size threshold would be introduced for projects to be caught by the Planning Act regime.  Rather than a length threshold the consultation proposes an area threshold that will relate to the speed of the given road. For motorways, the threshold would be 15 hectares; for trunk roads where the speed limit is 50mph or more, the threshold would be 12.5 hectares; and for trunk roads with speed limits of less than 50mph the area would be 10 hectares.

The proposals have received mixed reviews, largely depending on the audience.  The removal of local authority roads from the Planning Act 2008 regime is likely to appeal to some local authorities, although it seems to us that some larger local authority schemes would fulfil the ordinary meaning of ‘nationally significant’.  Creating a blanket approach and removing all local authority roads from the regime is perhaps a step too far.

The second proposal potentially seems appropriate.  Given that for these types of projects the sole purpose of the highway is to connect the development with the trunk road or motorway, it seems unlikely that such highways will be nationally significant in the ordinary sense of the phrase.  However, a blanket approach to such ‘link’ roads seems bold given that for some such roads, there is often more than one purpose.  Should this proposal be implemented in the form consulted on, we may see some attempted bending of the rules.

The third change is a seemingly simple and sensible change.  It is unlikely to have a long term effect as it will continue to be of less use over time and will become ineffective altogether on 1 March 2017.

Finally, introducing an area threshold seems unnecessary.  Given the mathematical relationship of ratio and the fact that slower roads tend to be narrower, the length is likely to work out at about the same, which begs the question: why not just make things simpler and have a length in the first place?

For those promoters, whose allegiance lies with the Planning Act 2008, all would not be lost: schemes that fall below the threshold will still have the option of applying to use the regime.

The consultation closed on 22 January 2013 and the results have not yet been published. Draft legislation is expected to be published in late April or early May, but the changes are not expected to be implemented until June, at the same time as other amendments to the Planning Act 2008.