This is entry number 212, published on 4 February 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 reports on scrutiny of the Waste Water National Policy Statement.

The last couple of weeks has seen Parliamentary and public scrutiny of the Thames Tunnel project, sorry, the Waste Water National Policy Statement (NPS). Although not as prominent a subject as, say, nuclear power, there were some interesting points made of relevance to the Planning Act regime generally.

NPSs set out the need and impacts that applicants should address and the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) - or its successor - should assess. A draft NPS on waste water was published in November and it essentially says that only two projects large enough to come under the Planning Act will come forward in the next five years - a relocated Deephams sewage treatment works in Edmonton, north London, and the Thames Tunnel, the proposed 'super sewer' that will run under the Thames and catch sewage before it goes into the river.

On 18 and 25 January, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons examined witnesses on the draft NPS. The witnesses were from Ofwat, the water industry regulator, the Environment Agency (EA), Thames Water (TW - promoter of both proposed projects), London Councils (the umbrella body for London local authorities) and the Greater London Authority. There is to be one more session on 9 February next week, when the water minister Richard Benyon MP will be quizzed. Links to the transcripts of the sessions that have taken place so far can be found here and here.

I also attended one of three public consultation meetings on the NPS on 1 February. Again two out of three have taken place - the third will be in York on 10 February. More on that later, but first the Parliamentary scrutiny.

National Policy Statements in general

George Eustice MP asked whether NPSs were redundant now that the government was recovering decision-making of nationally significant infrastructure projects. An interesting question, but the NPSs are still needed for project promoters to advise them on what impacts to assess, and for the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit to have need set out and to allow them to balance it against impacts in their recommendation to the government.

Waste Water NPS in general

Ofwat said that the NPS was wrong to assume that because a project was in a water company's asset management plan that had been approved by Ofwat, that Ofwat approved of the project - they only approved of the plan overall. Furthermore, they did not look at need specifically, just limits on consumer prices. They did think that the NPS had established the need for the two projects, however.

The Environment Agency, on the other hand, said that if a project was in their 'National Environment Programme', then they did agree with it in principle. The EA welcomed the NPS as a whole.

Ofwat were concerned that the NPS did not say enough on good design (although they were coming from it from the angle that good design might cost too much). They strongly recommended that the NPS set out a framework for cost-benefit analysis of projects.

Thames Water called for the need case in the NPS to be stronger - not just saying that the projects were in the EA's plan, but why they were. This is an interesting point for NPSs in general, because promoters have to rely on the government's declaration of need in an NPS and so want it to be as strong as possible.

Both Thames Water and London Councils thought that Defra had not reached that many people through consultation on the NPS. It is certainly difficult to excite people about policy rather than actual projects. However, this is an important point because this NPS identifies sites, which then cannot be questioned once the applications come forward. Thus this is the only chance for in-principle objections to the two projects in the NPS to be made, as with the Nuclear Power NPS.

Members of the committee agreed with witnesses who said that the NPS did not set out enough about requiring impacts on local communities to be assessed - I predict that their report will recommend this.

The main impact of sewage works is odour - did you know that odour is measured in European odour units (ouE), which is how concentrated a substance has to be before people can smell it. Thames Water thought that the NPS was using an odour standard that was higher than it should have done.

London Councils mentioned the relationship between neighbourhood development plans (NDPs) and the Thames Tunnel, but in fact the tunnel could not be the subject of an NDP, according to the Localism Bill.

There was discussion about Local Impact Reports (LIRs), which local authorities may produce on applications to inform the decision-maker. They are the only documents that must be taken into account when making a decision. Tommy Docherty MP, who asked some of the more searching questions, thought that councils should be paid if they were officially scrutinising the application by producing an LIR, but not if they were just a consultee. The answer is probably somewhere in between the two.

Deephams sewage treatment works

Not much consideration was given to the first of the two projects identified in the NPS. Apparently the Deephams works in Edmonton processes 800,000 people's waste which is 200,000 tonnes per day. I didn't realise that people produced 250kg of waste per day - presumably most of that is flushing water.

Thames Tunnel

By far the majority of the scrutiny was taken up with the Thames Tunnel, a project not yet even officially part of the Planning Act regime, but declared to become one when an application is eventually made (which is currently the earliest this can happen, although the Localism Bill will improve this situation).

Formal pre-application consultation on the project is due to start on 5 September this year, with an application in mid-2012, although an informal consultation stage has already taken place from September 2010 - January 2011. Consultees were most concerned about, in decreasing order, use of open space for construction and operation, traffic and noise.

Thames Water were considering changing the locations of some of the 22 sites where surface land was needed, most likely the three they described as 'greenfield sites' at Barn Elms in Richmond, King's Stairs Gardens in Southwark and King George Park in Wandsworth. I had thought that King Edward VII Memorial Park in Tower Hamlets was one as well.

Apparently the project will put £50 per year on Thames Water customers' bills, although the number of years was not stated. By my calculations if TW have 13.8 million sewerage customers and the project will cost £3.6bn, that would correspond to 5 years' bills.

Isabel Dedring for the Mayor of London was concerned that the NPS did not consider lesser (or greater) alternatives to the Thames Tunnel sufficiently, but was reasonably satisfied that TW had selected its 22 surface sites carefully.

Public consultation meeting

I attended the 1 February public consultation meeting on the NPS in Westminster. It had been downgraded from a formal meeting format to a drop-in session. While I was there, I think I was the only 'member of the public' who attended. The difficulty of engaging the public on a policy document was all too apparent. If it had been billed as 'your only chance to consider the principle of the Thames Tunnel', then maybe the result would have been different. One thing I did establish was that Defra accepts that the NPS identifies sites as potentially suitable for projects, and therefore it engages the additional consultation requirements in the Planning Act. This means all host and neighbouring local authorities must be asked how local people should be consulted, and Defra certainly appear to have tried to discharge this duty, albeit not to much effect. The London Borough of Enfield does not seem to have been sufficiently concerned to ask for a public meeting near the Deephams sewage works, for example.

The public consultation on the Waste Water NPS closes on 22 February. The consultation document can be found here.