The future of the Infrastructure Planning Commission set up to deal with major infrastructure projects has been in some doubt during the election campaign with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats saying they would abolish it. However, it appears that, with a few modifications, the IPC will effectively be retained as part of the Planning Inspectorate.

What projects are affected?

The Planning Act 2008 provides for a fast track “one stop shop” consent regime for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs), large scale projects in the energy, transport, waste and water sectors - in many cases subject to size or capacity thresholds. Examples of NSIPs include new electricity generating stations with a generating capacity of 50 MW (onshore) or 100 MW (offshore); new hazardous waste facilities and new railways connected to the network.

How are NSIPs dealt with currently?

The 2008 Act established the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), an independent Government body responsible for considering NSIPs. The IPC is empowered to grant a development consent order (DCO) in relation to a NSIP. The DCO is a single consent covering planning permission and a range of other issues from compulsory purchase powers to the power to close or divert roads etc.

How does the IPC operate?

The IPC provides a fast track process for considering NSIPs, with a target to deal with cases in under a year. This challenging timescale is achieved in three main ways:

  • Pre-Application Consultation: Extensive consultation of affected persons and stakeholders must be undertaken before the application is submitted.
  • Streamlining of Evidence: The default position is that evidence is submitted in writing. There is very limited scope for giving oral evidence and cross-examination is all but non-existent.
  • Binding National Policy Statements (NPSs): NPSs are designated as such by the Secretary of State. Where there is a relevant NPS, the IPC is under a duty to decide applications in accordance with it (except in very limited circumstances). Where there is no relevant NPS, the IPC’s decision must be ratified by the Secretary of State.

What does the Coalition Government intend to do?

The Queen’s Speech on 25th May 2010 included the Decentralisation and Localism Bill, one of the main objectives of which is to “abolish the IPC and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects”.

In practice, according to a recent circular letter from Sir Michael Pitt, chairman of the IPC, “the expertise, processes and special character of the IPC will be retained by creating a Major Infrastructure Unit as part of a revised Communities and Local Government (CLG) structure that includes the Planning Inspectorate”.

The two likely changes are:

  • NPSs will have to be debated and approved by both houses of Parliament.
  • All decisions will have to be ratified by the Secretary of State, rather than just those where there is no relevant NPS.

These changes are designed to redress the “democratic deficit” which the coalition partners perceive as being a major problem with the IPC as currently constituted.

When are these changes likely to take place?

It is understood that the Decentralisation and Localism Bill could be published as early as autumn 2010, in which case it is likely to become law by summer 2011 and the IPC could be formally abolished and the new specialist unit operating from autumn 2011.

What does all this mean for me?

Large scale energy, transport, waste or water projects are likely to continue to be dealt with by the IPC at least until autumn 2011. As its successor body will operate in much the same way as the IPC, it can be anticipated that the handover from one body to the other should be relatively smooth. You are unlikely to notice very much practical difference in the procedures apart from potentially having to wait an additional period of time while the Secretary of State considers his final decision.