The Planning Act 2008 was granted Royal Assent on 26 November 2008 and provides for a complete overhaul of the planning regime in England and Wales. Under the Act, an Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) is to be established as the new authority granting development consent for nationally significant infrastructure projects. It is hoped that the IPC will cut the costs of delivering infrastructure by £300 million a year and will reduce the time taken for a decision from 100 weeks to 35 weeks.

The IPC

The IPC is to comprise a Chair, two Deputy Chairs and other ordinary Commissioners who are expected to be appointed during 2009. Sir Michael Pitt has already been appointed as the chair and his first role will be participating in the recruitment of the Chief Executive and the other commissioners for the IPC. It is expected that it will have 35 commissioners when fully staffed. He will also be working to ensure that the necessary preparations for the new body are made, including producing guidance for applicants to enable the IPC to function effectively from the date it begins operation.

Once the Commission is up and running, the Chair is likely to be overseeing around 45 major cases a year and a larger number of less complex cases. However, Sir Michael Pitt has revealed that it has already received 50 applications. The government's consultation on the roll-out of the IPC closed on 19th June and the responses will help decide which major infrastructure projects to fast track through the planning process. A summary of the responses will be available by 19th September.

Decision Making

Projects prioritised by the IPC will not be processed through the planning system or by statutory order, but by the independent IPC and where a commissioner does not have knowledge of a specific subject for a scheme then outside expertise will be sought. In addition, Parliament will first decide upon a series of National Policy Statements (NPSs), which will set out priorities in a number of areas, such as energy or transport. The publication of the non-nuclear energy policy statement has already slipped and this is now not expected until the autumn and it is not clear whether the publication of the first, in relation to ports, is still on track.

The IPC will then consider submissions and will decide which schemes best fit the country’s needs. Within the IPC, depending on the nature of the application, either a Single Commissioner or a Panel of three or more ordinary Commissioners will act as the "Examining Authority" responsible for considering an application for development consent. It is not yet clear on what basis allocations of applications to an Examining Authority will be made. Where a Single Commissioner is dealing with an application and reports on it, that report will be passed to a 'Council' for a decision. Such Council is to be composed of the Chair, the Deputy Chairs and ordinary Commissioners appointed for the purpose of deciding that application.

Timescales

The IPC will be established as a legal body so that it is able to start advising potential applicants from autumn 2009 and be ready to receive applications in the first half of 2010. The regime is expected to be “switched on” for different sectors on a phased basis and discussions are under way with potential promoters and other interest groups as to the appropriate lead-in time of the new system for each sector.

Next Steps

The details regarding how the IPC will be run, the requirements of pre-application consultations and application procedures, the procedural rules governing IPC examinations and orders, and perhaps most importantly the prescribed matters that the IPC will have to take into consideration in determining applications are all still awaited and will need to be finalised by the autumn to enable the IPC to start advising potential applicants. The future of the IPC will however depend on who succeeds at the next general election, as the Conservatives have recently stated that they would disband the IPC if they were to win.

In the meantime, the government is to set up 'Infrastructure UK', an advisory body to identify the country's infrastructure needs for the next 50 years. Infrastructure UK will take stock of the status of energy, waste, water, communications and transport plans and analyse what more can and needs to be done.