The Planning Act gained royal assent today and looks set to introduce a radically new way of dealing with large scale infrastructure projects, impose a new infrastructure charge on development and bring in a range of smaller changes to the existing system.

A new regime for infrastructure development

Two years (almost to the day) from the Barker review of the planning system, key recommendations from that report form the foundations of a new regime for infrastructure development, with key features as follows:

  • Development consents replace planning permissions and a wide range of other consents including authorisations under the Gas Act 1965, the Energy Act 1976, listed building and conservation area consents, and even compulsory purchase orders;
  • Applications will be decided by an Infrastructure Planning Commission ("IPC"). The IPC is likely to have 30-40 members, drawn from a wide range of disciplines including planning, engineering and project management, and will be accountable to Parliament for its overall performance;
  • National Policy Statements ("NPS") will set the policy context for the applications. There will be an NPS in relation to each type of infrastructure development and they may prescribe suitable locations, the nature and scale of potential development, and even the eventual operator;
  • Applications will be different to existing planning applications in a number of key areas:
    • The applicant, or promoter, rather than the relevant local authority, has nearly all of the responsibility for ensuring that the pre- and post-submission publicity and consultation requirements are met;
    • The emphasis will be on written evidence to the IPC rather than the current adversarial system of planning inquiries. Even where there is a public hearing, cross examination rights will be very restricted and the IPC will have significant control over the way applications are handled;
    • The local authority will not determine the application but will be asked to submit a "local impact report” giving details of the likely impact of the proposals in their area;
    • Decisions can be challenged in the courts, but there is no appeal on the planning merits of a proposal.  

The new regime is likely to be brought in quickly as recruitment for the Chair of the Commission has already begun, and a draft "Nuclear NPS" is likely to be issued for consultation next year.

A new infrastructure tariff

The Community Infrastructure Levy ("CIL") is a new name for the latest attempt to solve a familiar dilemma – how to ensure that new development can make an appropriate contribution to the infrastructure needs of its community. CIL will allow local authorities to impose an infrastructure charge when it grants planning permission, securing a sum of money to be spent on infrastructure needs which may include roads, flood defences, educational, medical and sporting facilities, open space and affordable housing. Many of the details of how CIL will work have been left for regulations, likely to be published in draft in spring next year. The existing Section 106 regime will continue, in a somewhat reduced form.

Other changes to the existing system

Finally, the Act introduces a number of smaller, but welcome changes to the existing regime as follows:

  • The processes for producing and adopting Supplementary Planning Documents are simplified;
  • Judges have more flexible powers to deal with development plan documents when they are challenged;
  • There will be a formal power to make non-material changes to planning permissions, including imposing new conditions, removing or altering existing conditions;
  • Compulsory purchase powers are clarified allowing restrictions on land uses to be overridden permanently (thus closing the Thames Water lacuna);
  • Further weight is given to design quality as a key element of sustainable development.  

The Act brings in a range of changes to the planning system – some large scale and radical, some smaller but much needed and others proposing a fresh way to grapple with an old problem. Only time will tell whether it turns out to be a Christmas cracker or a festive failure…