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Infrastructure blog

How civil engineers can help improve how nationally significant infrastructure is approved in the UK

06 October 2021

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities seeks ideas and reflections on the national infrastructure planning process to help shape the government's reforms.

How civil engineers can help improve how nationally significant infrastructure is approved in the UK
Thames Tideway is one major project that was approved in the NSIP scheme, which the government is hoping to make more efficient. Image credit: Shutterstock

What do Thames Tideway and Hinkley Point have in common? For one, they were major projects of great importance to the UK. Secondly, they were infrastructure projects that were approved under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime – and that process is now under review.

What is the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime?

The NSIP regime was established in 2008 and has now seen approximately 100 important energy, transport, water, wastewater and waste developments determined, with a 95% approval rate. It has a strong record for offering high quality consents, robust to legal challenge and with certainty of timescales for investors.

Practice has evolved quickly and the NSIP process has become recognised for the way in which it's able to deliver timely consents in the national interest, as the growth of offshore wind has powerfully demonstrated.

The process has also enabled highly complex projects such as Hinkley C new nuclear power station, Thames Tideway Tunnel Waste Water, and the Tilbury2 Port facility to be consented within the statutory time limits.

Why does the process for consenting NSIPs need reforming?

The context in which the regime was established is changing constantly. New and novel types of projects are using the process, some communities are experiencing clusters of NSIPs, and each NSIP brings with it increasingly significant volume of information to interrogate.

The overall recent pattern for NSIPs is one of longer timescales and greater complexity (as recent offshore wind decisions have demonstrated) and looking ahead, the regime will need to continue to navigate global challenges such as climate change and rapid technological change.

It is important that the planning process responds to these challenges and is able to play its full role in driving our economic recovery, and progress towards net zero.

What is the government’s goal for the new NSIP process?

This government believes that it's possible and necessary for the UK’s global competitiveness to deliver infrastructure more quickly, and we have set an ambition that, by September 2023, some projects will be able to go through the NSIP process in up to half the time than at present. We believe this can be achieved while also improving the quality and fairness of the process, and with better and greener outcomes.

The National Infrastructure Planning Reform Programme will refresh how the NSIP regime operates, making it more effective and bringing government departments together to deliver more certainty in the process and better and faster outcomes.

How you can get involved with the government’s Operational Review

Fundamental to the success of the reform programme is first establishing a holistic and robust understanding of how the NSIP process currently operates, allowing us to carefully target improvements.

We are therefore undertaking a comprehensive end-to-end review of the NSIP process and all its interactions – our Operational Review.

This Operational Review was launched at the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) summer conference in July. In advance of that meeting, Minister Chris Pincher wrote to NIPA members on 21 June to introduce the reform programme and launch our Operational Review. In the annex to this letter, he posed the following questions which he wants those who interact with the regime to carefully consider:

  • What the government, its arms-length bodies and other statutory bodies could do to accelerate NSIP applications.
  • Aspects of the examination and decision process which might be enhanced.
  • Impediments to physically implementing NSIP projects.
  • Digital improvements to the regime.
  • Cross-government co-ordination including government departments and arms-length bodies.
  • Interactions with other consenting and regulatory processes and the wider context within which infrastructure projects operate.
  • Potential limits in the capacity or capability of NSIP applicants, interested parties and other participants.

The government is keen to hear from all those who engage with the NSIP regime, including but not limited to local authorities, statutory consultees, specialists such as engineers, environmental experts and project managers, and the communities affected by development.

We want to understand what they see as the main issues affecting it, and what potential solutions might be deployed to remedy these.

ICE members will clearly have a wealth of first-hand experience of how the NSIP regime operates and of the implementation of the projects which have passed through it. We are therefore keen to hear your thoughts on the system and how you think it could be improved.

  • Jenny Preece, deputy director at Planning Infrastructure Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities