Today’s entry reports on the proposed extension of the Planning Act regime to a new type of project.

The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched a consultation on bringing a new type of project into the Planning Act infrastructure and authorisation regime - the transfer and storage of waste water.  This would be the first extension of the regime since it was established in 2008, and the 17th project type to which the regime would apply.

There is a power in the Planning Act to allow the government to add new types of project to the regime, as long as they are in the areas of energy, transport, water, waste water and waste.  The order that would do so is known as a 'section 14 order', since that is the section of the Planning Act that contains the power.  In Scotland, the equivalent national planning framework includes communications infrastructure, but it would not be possible to add that in England and Wales at the moment without amending the Planning Act.

In common with the 16 other types of project, there is a threshold above which the project is to come within the Planning Act regime - if it is below the threshold it will continue to use the current authorisation method (in this case, an ordinary planning application).  The proposal is to add waste water transfer, storage (or both) projects in England that will be able to store at least 350,000 cubic metres of waste water.  I'm not quite sure how you calculate the storage capacity of a transfer-only project, but perhaps it is just the capacity of the transfer system.

Of course we all know why the government is doing this: it is to bring one particular project within the Planning Act regime - the Thames Tunnel.  The Thames Tunnel is a scheme to divert waste water that would otherwise enter the River Thames into a tunnel below the Thames, where it will eventually reach Beckton Sewage Works in east London for treatment.

The proposed capacity of the Thames Tunnel is 1.58 million cubic metres, so it is well above the proposed threshold.  Even the smaller Lee Tunnel in east London, at 380,000 cubic metres, would have been above the threshold, although it has already received consent. Those are the only two above-threshold projects mentioned in the consultation document as likely to be constructed in the next 10 years.

If it were not in the Planning Act regime, its promoter Thames Water would have to make 14 planning applications for the project to the local authorities along the Thames.  The government estimates that going to the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) instead will save Thames Water £82m.

Thames Water has been expecting the project to come within the Planning Act regime, not least because it is specifically referred to in the draft Waste Water National Policy Statement.  The proposed section 14 order allows any steps taken before it comes into force that comply with the Planning Act procedures to count towards pre-application consultation etc.

The government could have used its power to 'upgrade' a particular project it considers is nationally significant to come within the regime, but has chosen to extend the regime generally instead.  The Localism Bill allows upgrades to happen earlier: at present they can only happen once an application has been made, which partly defeats the object of the upgrade.  The government estimates that using a section 14 order will save £5m more than going down the upgrade route.

The consultation opened today and closes on 5 October.  The consultation page is here  Consultation responses can be emailed to section14order@defra.gsi.gov.uk.  There are to be three 'question and answer sessions' hosted by Defra at their offices in central London, on 2 August and 7 and 20 September.