Planning reform should be a new Government priority

Not much remains of short lived Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini budget, and as we went to press it was unclear what exactly new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Cabinet will do with the little left, but the otherwise hapless Chancellor might have left behind what could be a useful legacy in the shape of a new approach to planning.

Kwarteng seemed at least to have partially diagnosed the symptoms, if not the cause, of the UK’s pained pace for approving vitally needed infrastructure. “Today, our planning system for major infrastructure is too slow and fragmented,” he told the House of Commons. “The time it takes to get consent for nationally significant projects is getting slower, not quicker; we have to end this.”

It can take ten years for a large infrastructure project to get through planning and approvals, and it may take another ten years to build. So companies getting involved in large projects might not start to see significant return for their investments of time and money for 20 years; few can countenance that. Various funding models have been suggested that would allow investors to recoup money during the construction and commissioning phases, which would help. But there isn’t much reward guaranteed for sticking with a project through the planning phase, especially if it fails to get through all the planning hoops.

Nobody involved in developing major projects since World War II would argue with the former Chancellors’ words above. Even obviously desperately needed infrastructure like a by pass of Worthing on the congested A27 has failed to get through public inquiries twice; it is so badly needed that planning for it started even while WWII was still raging. The M25 would probably still be at public inquiry if it had to go down that route.

Kwarteng outlined planning reforms that could at least speed the process up, even if it stopped short of allowing road planners to press on with schemes without public inquiry approval. He would bring forward a new Planning & Infrastructure Bill to “unpick the complex patchwork of planning restrictions and EU-derived laws that constrain our growth”, he said. Other benefits would be to reduce the ‘burden of environmental assessments’, reduce bureaucracy in the consultation process, reform habitats and species regulations and increase flexibility to make changes to a Development Consent Order once it has been submitted.

The plan also highlighted some road, rail and energy infrastructure projects to prioritise for acceleration, and some details on plans for Investment Zones with liberalised planning rules and tax incentives. A cross-government action plan for reform of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure planning system was promised.

Options would be considered for changing the Judicial Review system to avoid claims which cause “unnecessary delays” to road schemes. There was more, but the above alone – if delivered on – would represent substantial improvement on the current planning system.

Unfortunately, all of it could be swept away under a cleaning of the augean stables type exercise as the new incumbents of government bring forward their own plans and distance themselves from the previous failed regime. Or the new regime could have even better ideas. Let’s hope their ideas can be swiftly developed because speeding up infrastructure planning is crucial to the UK’s chances of promoting economic growth, whoever is in power.

Nick Barrett