The Tories say they’d integrate the new Infrastructure Planning Commission with the Planning Inspectorate. It’s a bold vision, but unfortunately it would make the situation worse
The Infrastructure Planning Commission is up and running, but it’s prospects are not good: the Tories have said they will abolish it if they come to power. But what would such a step mean? And where would it leave promoters of major projects who thought that at last they were coming to the end of regime change?
The IPC has been set up under the Planning Act 2008 to produce a fairer and more streamlined system for determining consent for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), including nuclear power stations, large-scale renewable energy generation schemes, airports and road and rail projects.
Depending on the nature of the project, the old system required a swath of consents under various regimes. The ultimate decision maker was the relevant secretary of state, and public inquiries could run for months, even years, at great expense.
The purpose of the new regime is to provide a “one size fits all” process, with the IPC largely making decisions based on the national policy statements that are to be introduced over the next two to three years. The first tranche is not scheduled to be issued until spring and summer next year – in other words, it is doubtful whether many or any will emerge before the general election. At times the Tories have said they will integrate the new quango into the Planning Inspectorate; at other times, they have stated that they will abolish it altogether. Either move would be a major task, requiring primary legislation. They have also said they will retain the principle of national policy statements.
The current set up is that the IPC will only have the power to determine applications for NSIPs where a statement has been issued. To remove the IPC’s decision-making power, therefore, all the Conservatives would need to do is withdraw any statements that have been issued by the time they come to power, not issue any more and rebrand those that they want to keep as something other than a policy statement.
In theory, applications submitted before a Conservative government comes to power should have little to fear in terms of disruption to their process (or at least no more disruption than the teething of the new regime was likely to cause anyway) if the main change is a shift away from the expectation that the decision would be taken by the IPC rather than the IPC making a recommendation to the secretary of state.
Shadow planning minister Bob Neill has said a statutory time limit would be set on decisions by the secretary of state. In fact, a three-month limit already exists in the Planning Act 2008, although few believe that the mere act of setting such a limit will mean it is met.
In reality, who knows what hurdles that anyone who has already begun an application to the IPC will face if a Conservative government comes into power next year? Incorporating the IPC into the Planning Inspectorate, without changing the new application and hearing process, could be relatively painless – and would achieve little more than reducing the number of quangoes by one. Hardly a bonfire.
What the Conservatives are certainly achieving at the moment is prolonged uncertainty over the consenting process for much needed infrastructure. Just when promoters of major projects thought they were going to be handed a new regime it will be whipped away and restructured, yet again. The cost to business, and to the country, of endless fiddling with planning regimes that are never given an opportunity to bed in before they are thrown out must be huge.
With many aspects of the Killian Pretty Review, which looked into more mainstream planning processes, still to be heeded, perhaps the Conservatives should focus their attentions on the recommendations identified there. It offered a range of recommendations, the most of which are pragmatic and long awaited.
It included things such as making the information requirements for applications clearer, simpler and more proportionate, and encouraging the use of alternative dispute resolution.
It’s the culture that has arisen in the world of planning that needs to be addressed. Neither abolishing nor bringing the IPC into the arms of the Planning Inspectorate will do anything to address that.
Anne Harrison is an associate (barrister) and environmental and planning specialist at Beachcroft