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How to fix the UK’s planning system for nationally significant infrastructure projects

21 April 2023

A new report looks at how to speed up consenting for strategic infrastructure in the UK – will the recommendations work? 

How to fix the UK’s planning system for nationally significant infrastructure projects
The aim is to ensure a quicker planning system that delivers better outcomes for communities and the environment. Image credit: Shutterstock

The UK’s planning system is too slow to deliver enough infrastructure at the pace needed to achieve its key strategic goals.

Earlier this year, the government asked the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to investigate how to reduce the delays that are putting net zero, climate resilience and other long-term objectives at risk.

The NIC’s report says more regularly updating National Policy Statements (NPS) will help reduce uncertainty and speed up decision-making.

Why was a review needed?

The Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime was established in 2008 to provide more certainty on the need for major projects.

The aim was to reduce the time those projects would take to achieve development consent.

The system worked well at first.

But, since 2012 consenting times have increased by 65%. The rate of judicial review has jumped to 58% from a long-term average of 10%.

The system has become slower and more uncertain just as the number and complexity of projects needed to deliver the UK’s strategic goals is growing.

For example, National Grid has calculated that achieving the government’s 50GW offshore wind ambition by 2030 requires at least 17 new energy transmission consents in the next four years.

That would be a more than fourfold increase in annual consents from historic rates.

The planning consent system will need to operate flexibly and at pace to deliver the net zero transition.

The NIC's key recommendations

Here are the NIC’s key recommendations for making that happen:

1. More regular National Policy Statement reviews

A major reason the system has slowed down is because National Policy Statements (NPSs) have not been updated since they were first published in 2011.

This means it’s unclear how the need for infrastructure relates to more recent legislation, such as the net zero target.

Out-of-date guidance also slows down the planning process by making it harder to take decisions and increasing the risk of legal challenges.

The government has already said it will update the NPSs this year as part of its NSIP action plan.

However, the NIC wants it to go further and make at least five-yearly reviews of key NPSs a legal requirement.

This would include the NPSs for energy, water resources and national networks.

It says the government should also set criteria for triggering reviews of other NPSs by 2025.

2. Principles to enable better decision-making

The NPSs should remove uncertainty from the planning system. Regular updates alone will not achieve this.

The NIC has developed a set of principles to guide future revisions and ensure the content of NPSs enables better decision-making. 

These include:

  • avoiding generalised language and including measurable tests in NPSs
  • referring to spatial plans to ensure clarity about which infrastructure projects are needed
  • considering whether technology types and thresholds for inclusion in the NSIP regime are fit for purpose
  • setting out clear timelines and standards for consultations

3. ‘Modular updates’ to ensure flexibility

The report also recommends building more flexibility into the system to ensure NPSs keep pace with new legislation outside the five-yearly reviews.

It recommends attaching ‘modules’ to primary and secondary legislation that would make it clear how changes relate to existing NPSs.

These would be subject to the usual parliamentary scrutiny. They would allow the government to automatically update these sections without having to re-designate NPSs.

The NIC says this system of ‘modular updates’ should be introduced by July 2024.

What else did the report recommend?

The NIC says government should amend legislation to bring onshore wind into the NSIP regime as soon as possible.

Including all viable forms of renewable generation is vital to achieve net zero.

Other recommendations are targeted at reducing inefficiencies across the system.

These include:

  • a new data platform for developers to share environmental information and effective ways of addressing the impact of proposed infrastructure projects
  • offering local communities more tangible direct benefits for hosting infrastructure that supports national objectives
  • a new central coordination mechanism, reporting to the UK prime minister or chancellor, with measurable targets for reducing NSIP consenting times

Will it work?

The NIC says stakeholders in its consultations supported reform, rather than replacement, of the current NSIP system.

The government has committed to reform in its NSIP action plan.

The NIC’s recommendations are intended to build on those promises.

Implementing them could ensure that consenting for major projects would be completed within two and a half years, compared to the current average of more than four years.

Many of the proposals address long-term challenges.

But the NIC says they require action from government now to ensure delivery of net zero and other strategic goals.

It sets out four tests the system must meet: faster, more flexible, increased certainty, and better quality.

The aim is to ensure a quicker planning system that also improves decision-making and delivers better outcomes for communities and the environment.

Without these changes, the NIC says the planning system will likely become ‘a major barrier’ to the government achieving its social, economic and environmental goals.

ICE's view

There’s an urgent need to reduce delays and uncertainty across key infrastructure systems.

With the NSIP regime now over a decade old and the consenting process clearly slowing down, the time for reform is right.

The ICE has previously recommended that the option of a single NPS for infrastructure is explored.

This would be published alongside the National Infrastructure Strategy and ensure it drives planning and development.

While the NIC’s report does not reflect that approach, its proposal to legally require five-yearly reviews of key NPSs alongside ‘modular updates’ is a welcome one.

This would ensure those NPSs reflect the changing policy, social and technological landscape.

It would help maintain a clear link between the government’s long-term strategic objectives and day-to-day infrastructure decision-making.

In case you missed it:

  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE