This is entry number 224, published on 17 March 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today’s entry is an up-to-date summary of the regime for authorising major infrastructure projects introduced by the Planning Act 2008.

This is the seventh summary, which is updated and reissued every few months. For more detailed information, you can get hold of our free 16-page brochure on the Act - click here to obtain one. For a complete picture of the new regime, Bircham Dyson Bell has written a book on it, published by Butterworths at the end of July 2009. Click this link for more details. A second edition is on the cards. For up-to-date links to all the relevant Planning Act documents, see this blog entry. Finally, we are running a 'Planning Act masterclass' on 31 March and there are still a few places left. Click here for more information.

There are four new abbreviations to get used to when talking about the new regime, which neatly cover the four main new concepts it involves. The vast majority of tha Act is geared towards speeding up the authorisation of major infrastructure, mainly in England, some types in Wales and one type in Scotland. The remainder of the Act tweaks the existing planning system and also introduces the Community Infrastructure Levy, more on which later. The Localism Bill moves decision-making to the government, and makes some minor changes to the regime.

National Policy Statements

The first abbreviation is ‘NPS’ – National Policy Statement. There are going to be 10 or 11 of these: the first seven were published in draft in November 2009; six of these were republished in October 2010 and one more was published in November 2010. The remaining three or four will be published over the next year or so. These will set out national policy on a particular area of national infrastructure in a single accessible document, and will state to a greater or lesser degree what infrastructure is needed over the next 15-20 years, and set out the impacts of the infrastructure that should be addressed by project promoters when making applications, and the Infrastructure Planning Commission when considering them.

The 10 or 11 NPSs proposed are to have the following titles (with links to the eight that have been published already and expected dates for those that have not): Overarching Energy (i.e. energy of all types, to sit above the other energy NPSs); Nuclear Power; Fossil Fuels; Renewable Energy; Electricity Networks; Gas and Oil Infrastructure; Ports; Waste Water; National Networks (in 2011) (i.e. railways, motorways, trunk roads and rail freight interchanges); Hazardous waste (April 2011) and Water Supply (the one that may or may not be published).

Consultation on the eight already issued has closed; Parliament has reported on the energy NPSs (twice) and the Ports NPS, but not yet on the Waste Water NPS (expected next month). The government expects to lay the six energy NPSs before Parliament for approval in May 2011 (and approve them in June). Parliamentary approval is another innovation of the coalition government, to become a requirement (actually just the potential for Commons disapproval) via the Localism Bill.

The point of NPSs is to avoid debates about policy when applications are under consideration – nearly a quarter of the Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry was taken up with debating whether it was needed, for example. Now, the commissioner will just be able to say ‘It says it is needed in the Airports NPS – when that came out in draft, that was your chance to debate that issue. Next, please!’

Nationally significant infrastructure projects

The second abbreviation is ‘NSIP’ – Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project. This should not be confused with NPS, and is being pronounced ‘ensip’, which helps to distinguish it. The regime only applies to NSIPs, and the Act sets out, for each type of project, how big it needs to be for it to become an NSIP.

The 16 NSIPs are: electricity generating projects of all types; overhead electric lines; underground gas storage; LNG facilities; gas reception facilities; gas pipelines; other pipelines; highways; airports; harbours; railways; rail freight interchanges; dams/reservoirs; water transfer facilities; waste water treatment plants and hazardous waste facilities.

For each type of project, the Act sets out a threshold above which it becomes an NSIP. For example, a new airport would be an NSIP if it is expected to be able to handle at least 10 million passengers per year, or 10,000 air cargo movements per year. Expansions of existing facilities can also be NSIPs - if an airport is to expand by those same amounts, it would be an NSIP. The brochure I mentioned gives the threshold for all the 16 types, and whether they must be in England, Wales or Scotland.

Since 1 March 2010, it has been compulsory for applications for the first 12 of the 16 types of NSIP listed above to use the new regime – indeed illegal to build an NSIP without having used it (although a project authorised by an Act of Parliament could override this). The new regime will become compulsory for waste water NSIPs on 6 April 2011 and waste and water NSIPs (probably) in 2012.

It is generally forbidden for a project below the threshold to use it, although the government can decide that a below-threshold project, a project outside the descriptions in the Act (as long as it is an energy, transport, water, waste water or waste project) or a cluster of projects should be considered an NSIP. The coalition government has said it will do this in one case: the Thames Tunnel sewage project, but an actual decision cannot be taken until an application is made, expected next year.

The Localism Bill will allow requests to be made to 'upgrade' projects in this way. On the other hand, the government has said that High Speed 2 will be authorised by a Bill in Parliament and will not use the Planning Act regime. It is not otherwise possible to 'downgrade' a project to fall outside the regime.

Infrastructure Planning Commission

The third abbreviation is ‘IPC’ – Infrastructure Planning Commission. This is the new body that considers applications for NSIPs. It will have a short existence, as the coalition government intends to replace it with a unit of the Planning Inspectorate in April 2012, but until then it will operate as intended. The full complement of 39 Commissioners has now been appointed (although one has resigned).

One commissioner, or a panel of three or more, will consider the evidence on an application (depending on its complexity - the only application to have reached examination stage has a panel of three). If no NPS is in place, while the IPC is in existence, it will refer its recommendation to the Secretary of State for decision, which will take up to three more months.

The measures to replace the IPC and make other changes to the regime are contained in the Localism Bill, published in December 2010 and now awaiting its Report Stage in the Commons. It is expected to be enacted in November 2011. The authorisation regime remains unscathed, but the consideration of applications will transfer to a 'Major Infrastructure Planning Unit' of the Planning Inspectorate. In the meantime, and for just over a year, the IPC will continue to examine applications and make recommendations on them. Given the timing of the energy NPSs it may well decide the two applications it is currently considering.

The IPC maintains a log of advice it gives and projects it is expecting on its website. To date, it has received three applications since they had to be made to it on 1 March 2010: it declined to consider the first, but accepted the second and third for examination, proposed energy from waste projects in Bedfordshire and Merthyr Tydfil respectively. Seven other projects have started their formal pre-application consultation, and a further 44 projects are expected.

Everything about the IPC is geared to speeding up the process. The IPC will have (fairly) fixed timescales to work to – around three months from the application being made to sort itself out procedurally, six months to consider evidence and three more months to make a decision or a recommendation. Oral examination is discouraged (although will probably still happen more often than not). Applicants will have to do a great deal of consultation before they even apply to the IPC, in an attempt to front-load the process and identify areas that could be changed before things get too entrenched and expensive.

When the IPC is replaced, the government intends to give itself a deadline to make decisions since this is often a cause of considerable delay - and the Localism Bill has set this as three months as for the existing regime when no NPS is in place.

Community Infrastructure Levy

The final abbreviation is 'CIL' or Community Infrastructure Levy. This is a separate innovation to the new regime for authorising NSIPs outlined above. It is designed to formalise a tariff system for developments (consisting of buildings) getting planning permission to contribute to the infrastructure burden that they will create. It is up to each local authority to decide whether to introduce it. It won't happen anywhere for a while, because the authority must have completed the first iteration of its local development framework, must then publish a 'charging schedule' for its CIL and hold an examination into it if there are any objections. Only then can it start to charge CIL.

Income from CIL is ring-fenced and must be spent on 'infrastructure' - which for this purpose has a wider meaning than in the rest of the Act. The regulations introducing CIL are in force; the coalition government has now decided to retain CIL and has published further regulations making minor amendments to the regime.

The regime is finally starting to be implemented: charging schedules are out for consultation in London (to help pay for Crossrail) and Newark and Sherwood. There may be others.