This is entry number 235, published on 19 April 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today’s entry considers a report from the Business Infrastructure Commission.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), the umbrella organisation for chambers of commerce around the UK, set up a body to look at UK infrastructure last year - the Business Infrastructure Commission (BIC). Last week, the BIC produced its first report into the state of UK infrastructure, with ten recommendations. Most relate to financing, but two of them are about infrastructure planning. The report can be found here - here is a summary of the relevant findings.

The infrastructure planning section starts on page 13. Eight sample projects are shown as examples of the lengthy authorisation process before the Planning Act - without mentioning that the first two, Camden Town tube station and Dibden Bay container port, did not even get consent at the end. Heathrow Terminal 5 leads the way at 86 months, with the M6 Toll road a close second at 85 months.

The BIC doesn't like the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), saying that it 'adds further potential uncertainty, cost and delay to the process.' It likes National Policy Statements (NPSs), but wants them integrated better with the National Infrastructure Plan (see this blog entry for more) and the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework.

Parliamentary scrutiny of rejection of recommendations

The first of its two infrastructure planning recommendations is to introduce Parliamentary scrutiny of decisions on applications when the government goes against the recommendation of the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit (MIPU - the IPC's proposed replacement). The BIC is concerned that applications might be overturned by the government if they are politically unpalatable, and that ministers should be accountable to Parliament in such a situation.

The report says that MPs could question ministers on why NPSs weren't adhered to. It would be difficult to fit this into the three month timetable for decision-making, so runs the risk of lengthening the process, but presumably the intention is to discourage the government from disagreeing with MIPU and refusing consent. The report does not seem to contemplate the opposite situation where the government overturns a recommended refusal.

Note that MIPU and the government can only recommend refusal or refuse an application, respectively, that is in accordance with the relevant NPS if they consider that the adverse impacts outweigh the benefits (plus a few other matters of law). It would therefore have to be a difference of opinion on that matter alone that resulted in the government going against MIPU's recommendation.

Planning Performance Agreements

The second recommendation is about Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs). These are agreements reached between project promoters and local authorities where the former gives the latter a sum of money in return for an agreed process and suitable staffing for handling the application. Nationally significant infrastructure projects are infrequent and burdensome on local authorities, who are unlikely to have the requisite in-house expertise waiting to deal with them fully, given their rarity (rather like not having mothballed snow ploughs for infrequent extreme weather).

EDF have concluded a PPA reportedly running into millions of pounds for their proposed Hinkley Point nuclear power station, and the BIC report mentions another one for Sizewell (which can be found here), although Covanta Energy refused an offer from the two Bedfordshire authorities hosting their project to enter into a PPA. On the other hand some local authorities are reluctant to take the developer's shilling, although it shouldn't stop them opposing a project.

The main difference between a Planning Act PPA and a PPA for an ordinary planning application is that the latter is concluded with the decision-maker, whereas the former isn't. Thus the Planning Act process will trundle on regardless of whether there is a PPA, whereas a planning application would be speeded up with one.

On the other hand a local authority without the time or resouces to examine a project properly is more likely to oppose it out of precaution, making refusal of the application more likely. The application is also likely to get less scrutiny from a poorly-resourced local authority, which may result in potential improvements being missed.

The BIC report urges greater use of PPAs to speed up the pre-application process. That is no doubt since once the application is made its speed does not depend on local authority resources.

I would guess that the first recommendation was rather less likely to get taken up than the second. The government is not going to subject itself to further scrutiny and potential delay voluntarily, but it doesn't cost anything or require any changes to legislation to urge greater use of PPAs.

The BCC were in the news a second time last week, for being handed £300k by the government to co-ordinate the network of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). This caused some resentment amongst other bodies that might have been given a share in the role - see e.g. this Telegraph article.