This is entry number 230, published on 5 April 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 the switch-on of waste water projects tomorrow and today's select committee report on the Waste Water National Policy Statement.

Switch-on for waste water projects

As of tomorrow, applications for waste water treatment plants (sewage works to you and me) above a size threshold must be made to the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), joining energy and transport projects. This is the first expansion of the regime since the IPC opened for business on 1 March 2010.

The size threshold is that a new waste water plant is able to treat the, er, output of at least 500,000 people, or an existing waste water plant is to expand by that amount. As with most (but not all) of the thresholds in the Act, it is the size of the expansion, not the size of the eventual expanded plant, that matters. For example, a 3,000,000-person facility could avoid the regime altogether by creeping up by a dozen separate 250,000-person increments (or do I mean the opposite of that word?).

Two areas remain to be brought into the regime. One, hazardous waste facilities, was expected to be brought in this April as well, but has been delayed, probably because the corresponding National Policy Statement (NPS) has not come out in draft yet. The other area, water supply, was expected to be brought in next year, but since there is not likely to be a Water Supply NPS in the near future due to lack of large enough projects, the switch-on date may also be delayed.

Tomorrow's switch-on could be fairly academic, since the draft Waste Water NPS, issued in November last year, only identifies two projects likely to come forward in the next five years. These are the reconstruction of the Deephams sewage treatment plant in Edmonton, north London (850,000 population, so well over the threshold), and the Thames Tunnel. The latter (reported in the last blog entry) is not a waste water treatment plant, but the government intends to use its powers to make the Planning Act apply to it.

Nevertheless it is still possible that an unplanned project comes forward. The Department for Transport did not anticipate any port projects, but I am working on one that is due to be submitted at the end of next month, so these things happen.

Don't forget that it is a criminal offence to build a nationally significant infrastructure project without authorisation under the Planning Act, or in excess of an authorisation, and these sanctions will therefore apply to the largest sewage works from tomorrow.

Indeed, with that in mind there may be a problem with the transition to the new regime for waste water. When energy and transport were switched on in March 2010, there was a 'saving' provision so that projects already applied for but not yet consented under the previous regime were not caught (or indeed already consented but not yet built).

I wasn't sure whether it was sufficiently comprehensive at the time (see here), but whatever the pros and cons of that, there is no such saving in the waste water switch-on. This may be because there aren't any (known) nationally significant waste water treatment projects that have been applied for but not yet consented, or consented but not yet built, but if there were, they might be in trouble.

Turn-off for waste water NPS

By coincidence, today the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee published its report into the Waste Water NPS, having held three evidence session on it earier this year (reported here). The report can be found here.

As with other select committee reports on NPSs, the report is highly critical of the draft. In particular, it criticises the inclusion of the two chapters dealing with the two projects mentioned above that are expected to come forward (not just 'poorly drafted', but inappropriate to include them at all). The Committee would prefer that the NPS was redrafted so that it was wholly generic (i.e. did not refer to any specific projects).

The generic sections do not escape either - they 'lack sufficient detail and clarity', and the NPS shouldn't have been published until more detail had been added. The NPS should not be designated until these deficiencies are addressed, and should be subject to a debate on the floor of the House of Commons.

To be fair, it would be a bit odd for the NPS to generically address large sewers (i.e. the Thames Tunnel without mentioning it) while they were not part of the Planning Act regime as a category. On the other hand, the committee does recommend that large-scale sewage collections and transfer schemes are 'urgently' brought within the Planning Act regime generically. That would have to come first before the NPS could cover them.

Given the potential delays to the energy NPSs, the Waste Water one could have been the first to be designated, but today's report may give DEFRA pause for thought.

Finally, by another coincidence, the House of Lords is due to debate the Waste Water NPS at 3.30 this afternoon in a Grand Committee session.