The press has been speculating, or has possibly been briefed, on the contents of the forthcoming Economic Regeneration Bill. The main interest has focused on the green belt, but an article in the Daily Mail suggests that housing may be added to the categories of infrastructure project covered by the Planning Act regime.
Although its original purpose included providing public open space and recreational areas, the green belt, actually 14 belts around urban areas in England and one in Wales, is principally designed to prevent urban sprawl - see paragraph 79 of the National Planning Policy Framework. To allow replacement of green belt land - i.e. using it up in one place and declaring some other land of at least the same area to become part of the green belt - would maintain the overall size of the green belt but would defeat that primary purpose. I suspect that this measure will not make it to the statute book, even if it does make it to the bill.
The Daily Mail article suggests that housing projects could be 'reclassified as projects of national importance', to which 'ministers give final approval' and where 'national need overrules local objections'. While the language is not quite right, and the part about overruling is incorrect, it is fairly clearly a proposal to include housing within the categories of nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) and thus come within the Planning Act regime.
This would require primary rather than secondary legislation, since at the moment only infrastructure projects in the fields of energy, transport, water, waste and waste water are covered by the Act, and the secondary legislation extension power is confined to those areas.
As with other NSIPs, there would presumably be a size threshold above which housing projects would come within the Planning Act regime, and below which would continue to be the subject of planning applications to local authorities. What might that threshold be? The requirement in the Localism Act 2011 for pre-application consultation for all planning applications above a certain size - not yet in force - has been assessed as applying to housing projects of 200 units or more.
I would expect the NSIP threshold to be considerably higher than this. According to government statistics, 194 200-plus housing applications were made in the first quarter of this year, which would rather overwhelm the National Infrastructure Directorate of the Planning Inspectorate, which has received a tenth of that number of applications in nearly 2 1/2 years. In other words, setting the threshold at that level would increase the application rate a hundredfold.
Including housing might also assist the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station project, where there is a tussle between the promoter and the local authorities about what will happen to temporary accommodation once it is finished with for the purposes of constructing the power station. The local authorities would like it to be able to be used for housing (and therefore be designed in the first place so that it could fulfil this later purpose), but whatever the views of EdF Energy might be they cannot include dwellings in their application so would be taking a risk if they said that the temporary accommodation could be used for dwellings later. A change in the law to allow housing to be included in a Planning Act application, which would presumably be a side-effect of including housing as an NSIP, would remove that risk.
Although housing is not the complete cure for a recession that some believe it to be - see all the unfinished projects in Spain, for example - it, along with 'economic' infrastructure (i.e. that currently included in the Planning Act) would provide jobs and make the ground for the green shoots of recovery more fertile. If infrastructure of any kind is properly planned then securing consent for it should be as painless as possible.