The Government has launched a discussion document on adjustments to the planning regime for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects under the Planning Act 2008. The document was published on 4th December 2013, and comments are requested by 24th January 2014. The discussion document is available here. The document is not so much a formal consultation on specific proposed changes to the system, but rather sets out a range of opinions and ideas on five areas where the Government wishes to obtain thoughts on how the system is operating and how it could be improved. These are:
- improving the pre-application phase and improved clarity on consultation requirements;
- improving the pre-examination and examination phase;
- the process for making changes to Development Consent Orders after consent is granted;
- the extent to which the system can streamline the inclusion of non-planning consents in Development Consent Orders;
- improving engagement between promoters, local communities, local authorities, and statutory consultees.
These ideas for discussion have been collated following initial liaison during summer 2013 between the DCLG and a range of organisations/individuals, so not surprisingly there are themes proposed for formal discussion which represent all viewpoints on the system. From the perspective of promoters/developers two areas proposed for consideration and responses are likely to be particularly welcome: firstly more flexibility to make changes to an application if required after it has entered the examination process but before it is consented; and secondly a revision of the process for making changes to Development Consent Orders after consent is granted.
- for changes to applications in progress, the suggestion is that the Government may produce stronger guidance and/or make changes to legislation, since at present there is no statutory process and it is sometimes unclear what the appropriate procedure is. Improving the process here could make it easier for changes to be made to an application during the examination process, for example where improvements to a project have been identified and agreed.
- for changes to approved Development Consent Orders, it is recognised that the current statutory process is relatively inflexible, and could be improved by outlining new and different procedures depending on whether the change proposed is considered non-material, minor-material, or significantly-material. There is also a suggestion that any subsequent examination should focus on the changes, rather than operating as though there was an entirely new application for a major project.
For example, in the case of energy projects, changes to a consent may be required to incorporate more recent technology, to allow improved efficiency and/or reduce environmental impacts, or simply to enable a project to proceed. It is welcome, and would be consistent, for the Government to consider the recent Regulations allowing variations to Electricity Act Section 36 consents as a model which might be adapted for changes to development consents under the Planning Act 2008.