I have learnt from officials at the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) that the implementation of the announcements made on 6 September is taking shape and consists of four workstreams. The written ministerial statement by Eric Pickles is here and the Number 10 news release is here. The key paragraph in the statement is quite far down and is as follows:
"... we now intend to review the thresholds for some of the existing categories in the regime, and also to bring new categories of commercial and business development into the regime - making it possible for such schemes, where they are of sufficient significance, to be considered and determined at a national level. We will also work to extend the principle of a one-stop-shop for non-planning consents for major infrastructure, and amend the Special Parliamentary procedures which apply to major infrastructure to ensure they are fit for purpose."
Stream one: SPP
The first stream is looking at reducing the suitations where Special Parliamentary Procedure (SPP) kicks in after an infrastructure project has been consented. This Saturday will be the first anniversary of the then Infrastructure Planning Commission consenting the first application under the Planning Act 2008, but it is still held up in Parliament undergoing SPP. SPP happened in this case because the applicant was seeking to acquire statutory undertakers' or local authority land and was not itself a statutory undertaker or local authority. The land in question was a small strip of one highway but it has unlocked a complete reappraisal of the application. The Bill may also include reforms to SPP for other types of land set out in the Planning Act.
To reform SPP would require primary legislation, either a stand-alone bill or an amendment to an existing bill.
Stream two: thresholds
The second stream is looking at the Planning Act thresholds. Those are the ones that decide whether a project is in our out of the Planning Act regime that I have analysed in recent blog posts. They may be clarified, raised or lowered. This does not need primary legislation, since the Planning Act already allows ministerial orders to change or expand thresholds, as has happened once in the case of waste water storage projects.
Stream three: fields
The third stream is looking at expanding the 'fields' that the Planning Act covers. The fields are currently energy, transport, water, waste and waste water. The ministerial statement says that the government will 'bring new categories of commercial and business development into the regime'. How to define that category or categories is now being looked at. I would suggest considering further infrastructure categories as well, such as communications and flood defences. Extending the fields outside energy, transport, water, waste and waste water would require primary legislation, including new categories within those fields, such as a general waste category, would not.
The Number 10 news story says that 'Thousands of big commercial and residential applications to be directed to a major infrastructure fast track', but I'm not sure if that really means that the Planning Act caseload will increase a hundredfold.
Stream four: one stop shop
Finally, the fourth stream is looking at the 'one stop shop' issue - i.e. whether further consents can be brought within the regime, either compulsorily or optionally. This could be done at a stroke without primary legislation by repealing the regulations that require consent to be obtained for a series of consents to be able to be included in an application. That would not require primary legislation, and neither would the inclusion of further compulsory consents, since the Localism Act amendments allowed those to be varied by order as well.
What would require primary legislation and is to be included under this part of the review, is the reduction in certification and other requirements in the back of the Planning Act at sections 127 to 138. These were additional checks and balances put in when the decision-maker was the independent Infrastructure Planning Commission rather than the government, as it is now. It seems pointless to obtain additional certificates from the government when the government is making the decision anyway.