In late November 2011 Infrastructure UK published its second National Infrastructure Plan 1 (NIP 2011). NIP 2011 recognises the importance of good infrastructure in stimulating economic growth, and prioritises investment in 40 areas. For the roads sector, these comprise:
- Highways Agency – the pre-2010 Spending Review programme in construction, the 2010 Spending Review programmes for trunk road improvements and managed motorways and the 2011 Autumn Statement package (25 schemes in total);
- New Lower Thames crossing;
- Mersey Gateway Bridge;
- Local transport projects – funded at or before the 2010 Spending Review (includes the Heysham to M6 link road);
- Local authority major transport schemes – development pool projects (included some 26 road schemes as at December 2011).
So in total over 50 major road schemes have been prioritised for funding.
NIP 2011 might, in itself, be seen as an expression of national policy on the need for new road schemes. Nevertheless national policy for roads is shortly to be set out in the National Networks National Policy Statement (NNNPS). The principal purpose of this document will be to guide decision-making on applications for major road schemes captured by the ‘national significance’ thresholds in the Planning Act 2008. These are currently administered by the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which from April will be replaced by the National Infrastructure Directorate of the Planning Inspectorate. The NNNPS also has the potential to outline policies for road schemes not caught by the Planning Act.
The NNNPS will initially be published in draft for consultation, and will be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny prior to being designated. At the time of writing a publication of a draft NNNPS was expected ‘imminently’ from the DfT.
The NNNPS will potentially be a powerful document. It has the capacity to set out how much roads development is appropriate, where it should go, and what action should be taken to mitigate adverse impacts. Most importantly, once the NNNPS is designated any major road scheme caught by the Planning Act 2008 will, in essence, be decided in accordance with the NNNPS unless the adverse impacts would outweigh the benefits. Thus promoters of road schemes are strongly recommended to participate in the consultation, with the aim of ensuring that the NNNPS is supportive of, or at least consistent with, their scheme.
A third key policy development is the National Planning Policy Framework 2 (NPPF), a draft of which was published for consultation last year and which is likely to come into effect in April. Its aim is to simplify planning policy, and it audaciously reduces nearly 1000 pages of existing policy guidance into just 52 pages.
The NPPF is aimed at local authorities, and so national policy statements for nationally significant infrastructure projects (e.g. the forthcoming NNNPS) will exist separately. However, the draft NPPF does state that local authorities should work with other authorities to assess the quality and capacity of transport, and take account of the need for nationally significant infrastructure in their areas. Furthermore infrastructure schemes below nationally significant thresholds will continue to be decided by local authorities, and the draft NPPF says that local authorities should set out strategic priorities to deliver the provision of infrastructure.
The so-called ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ in the NPPF has been the cause of some controversy. The NPPF states that local authorities should grant planning permission where the local plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date, unless the adverse impacts would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits. Note that this is a stronger test than for nationally significant projects, which can be refused if the adverse impacts (simply) outweigh the benefits. It will be interesting to see whether this is used to support the approval of local road schemes that post-date existing local plans.