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Infrastructure blog

Evolving how strategic infrastructure projects secure planning approval in the UK

20 July 2021

ICE’s recent policy position statement explored the link between strategic infrastructure policy and how decisions on granting planning approvals are made. This blog provides more detail behind our recommendations.

Evolving how strategic infrastructure projects secure planning approval in the UK
More regular assessments could help improve planning and lower the cost of delivery. Image credit: Shutterstock

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has recently launched an operational review of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime. This regime, established in 2008, was put in place to bypass local planning approval for projects that had a predominately national rather than a local impact.

Over the last few years, the regime has taken a significant battering with ‘development consent’ (the granting of planning approval) for major infrastructure programmes being brought before court due to the corresponding National Policy Statement (used to determine if a project is in line with government ambition) being out of date with latest government policy. The most notable example being a third runway at Heathrow. This highlights that something is wrong with turning strategic policy intent into decisions on granting development consent.

Our recent review of strategic infrastructure planning in the UK looked into this challenge. Paul Sheffield, the Lead Fellow for the study, explored the first set of recommendations from our paper; this blog explores the second set, which deals with the link to the planning regime.

The link between the National Infrastructure Commission’s advice and the NSIP regime

The last five years have seen change in how strategic policy intent for major infrastructure programmes is developed. The independent National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) advice outlined in the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) and other studies is turned into a National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) by government.

The original intent set out in the Armitt Review of strategic infrastructure planning (we explored this in our discussion paper) was for an NIA to inform new Sector Infrastructure Plans by each government department. These plans would replace National Policy Statements and their role in determining development consent. However, this model from the Armitt Review was not applied.

As a result, despite a NIS being published in 2020, the strategic intent in the government’s publication has not been fully embedded into decision making, with some National Policy Statements still not updated.

Our review suggested several recommendations to improve the process and ensure consistency and certainty.

Evolving the link between strategic infrastructure policy and development consent decisions

The first step is to make a National Infrastructure Strategy a statutory document.

We recommended in our paper that the requirement for a NIS at least once every five years should be enshrined in legislation. If this can be done for a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, then it can also be done for something as important as a national strategy for infrastructure development.

Enshrining the need would provide the NIC with certainty on the frequency of Assessments (at present, this is listed as ‘once every Parliament’). It would also give transparency to the construction industry on the cycle of updates supporting the ability to plan ahead.

We also recommend that the NIS be published either as, or with a single National Policy Statement for infrastructure in the future. This would close the loop to ensure strategy drives planning and development, including providing guidance for regulators for price reviews, which is crucial over the next decade.

The Energy National Policy Statement is an example of an NPS that provides both a strategic overview as well as specific recommendations on energy infrastructure development. A single National Policy Statement for infrastructure could achieve the same effect, with the NIS serving as the strategic element, or first chapter, of that single NPS.

We also recommend that the existing NPS suite should be updated in light of NIS2020. Even without this recommendation, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has recently published guidance on reviewing National Policy Statements, considering whether a review should be made at least every five years by departments.

By evolving the process of strategic infrastructure planning, policymakers can improve the accuracy of forecasting, which will, in turn, sharpen the focus on the benefits of infrastructure system interventions and help lower the cost of delivery.

ICE is engaging with Parliament, officials and the NIC to look at how these recommendations can be adopted so that the UK's strategic infrastructure planning process delivers even greater benefits in the future.

  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers