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3 key takeaways from the UK’s nationally significant infrastructure projects action plan

07 March 2023

The UK government has proposed an overhaul of the planning process for the NSIP regime – what do the commitments mean? 

3 key takeaways from the UK’s nationally significant infrastructure projects action plan
A new National Policy Statement for nuclear power generation is being developed, which will cover small modular reactors. Image credit: Shutterstock

In February, the UK government published its action plan for reforming the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs).

The plan is extensive, though many of the actions consist of existing government announcements and commitments.

There are 18 actions across various government departments with timeframes for some as far ahead as 2025.

The actions are grouped under five broad reform areas:

  • Setting a clear strategic direction
  • Bringing forward operational reforms to support faster consenting
  • Realising better outcomes for the environment
  • Recognising the role of local authorities and strengthening community engagement with NSIPs
  • Improving system-wide capacity and capability

Below are some of the more significant announcements and what they mean for the UK infrastructure system.

What is the NSIP regime?

The NSIP regime was established in 2008 to reduce the time taken for major infrastructure projects to achieve development consent, and avoid the need for conventional planning inquiries.

It’s now seen over 100 energy, transport, water, wastewater and waste infrastructure developments determined, with a 95% approval rate.

It typically has a strong record for offering high quality consents, is robust to legal challenges, and provides certainty of timescales for investors.

But the consenting process has slowed in recent years (the government states it’s seen a 65% increase in the length of time for a case to reach a decision from 2012 to 2021), while projects themselves are becoming more complex.

Looking ahead, the regime will need to continue to navigate global challenges such as climate change and rapid technological shifts.

It’s important that the planning process responds to these challenges and is able to play its full role in driving progress towards net zero and national objectives.

1. Updated National Policy Statements are coming

In recent years, the NSIP regime has come under fire with development consent for major infrastructure programmes being more frequently challenged in court because the corresponding NPS is out of date with government policy.

The most notable example is a third runway at Heathrow in light of the net zero target.

The government outlines that, particularly in the offshore wind and electricity networks sector, strategic solutions are required outside the remit of individual projects, which current NPSs don’t reflect.

In fact, many NPSs have not been updated in over a decade, even though government policies have shifted the dial significantly.

The 2050 net zero emissions target, publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy in 2020 and development of the Energy Security Strategy last year are just some examples.

The government says it will set out and maintain an up-to-date policy framework across the suite of NPSs.

Currently, the following NPSs are expected:

  • a new Water Resources NPS in Q1 2023
  • an updated suite of Energy NPSs in Q2 2023
  • an updated National Networks NPS later in 2023
  • a new Nuclear Power Generation NPS in early 2025, which will include small modular reactors
  • a separate Nuclear Fusion NPS, with timing yet to be determined

2. A new fast-track consenting route

The action plan confirms that the government will pilot a new fast-track consenting route from September this year, with a consultation on quality thresholds due out in the spring.

The current NSIP framework does already allow for shorter examinations, though these are rarely delivered.

The fast-track process would be supported by new primary legislation, with the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, currently going through Parliament, allowing the Secretary of State to shorten the maximum examination timeframe.

The government also wants to incentivise infrastructure developers, and those they consult with, to address complex issues before an application is submitted.

In theory, this will allow for more focused applications that demonstrate strong levels of collaboration and engagement.

Not all projects will be suitable for the fast-track route, however.

The government says it will work with sectors that face complex and strategic challenges, including offshore wind and transmission network developers, to speed up applications outside of the fast-track system.

3. New guidance and support on community engagement

The action plan acknowledges the role of communities and local authorities in infrastructure planning and delivery.

Funding available to local authorities to support NSIP work will be increased through the Local Authority Innovation and Capacity fund.

Further funding will be provided for projects that support local authorities to engage earlier and more effectively with the NSIP process.

Meanwhile, new guidance on community engagement expectations will be provided.

Developers will be expected to demonstrate how the views of the affected communities have been considered and the resultant measures as part of planning applications.

The government is also exploring how communities engage in and benefit from hosting infrastructure for which there is a national need.

The newly formed Department for Energy Security and Net Zero will consult on measures to ensure communities are benefiting appropriately from hosting electricity transmission network infrastructure.

What happens next?

Now the NSIP action plan has been published, the government intends to consult "in the coming months" on the reforms, including:

  • measures to streamline and improve the examination process;
  • a new fast-track consenting timeframe and the quality standards that NSIPs must meet to be eligible for this; and
  • proposals to move towards full cost recovery across the NSIP system.

The ICE's view

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

The National Infrastructure Commission’s study into NPSs, being run as part of the action plan to support the reforms, is also important.

This will look at how the policy framework for NSIPs can be made more effective, not only in the short term but, importantly, what long-term reforms might be needed.

On this need for long-term reform, 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, including providing guidance for regulators for price reviews.

A single NPS for infrastructure would ensure consistency across sectors on issues such as noise limits.

The coming updates to NPSs for national networks (transport), energy and water are long overdue – these NPSs have not been updated in well over a decade.

These updates should reflect the changing policy, social and technological landscape, allowing the government to set out its strategic objectives, and guide the priorities of regulators, industry and investors to ensure the public gets the infrastructure they need.

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