Economic recovery relies on a more joined-up planning system, according to Barton Willmore, Copper and Womble Bond Dickinson
In the wake of Government’s renewed commitment to place construction at the centre of the UK’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, a report from BW, Copper and WBD calls for changes to a disconnected planning system which has historically held up infrastructure delivery, imposing risk on projects and investments.
The firms researched perspectives from across the planning, development and infrastructure industry on their experiences delivering nationally significant infrastructure projects (or NSIPs). Comprising both in-depth interviews and industry-wide surveys, the report assesses industry views on the relative strengths, challenges and weaknesses of the Planning Act in 2008 in context of the UK’s wider planning system.
The DCO process is characterised by front-loaded engagement and consultation with stakeholders and the public – which offers certainty that industry continues to welcome, the report found, and will be critical in accelerating delivery of the infrastructure the UK needs to recover after COVID-19. However, participants overwhelmingly thought infrastructure and spatial planning are disconnected from each other, introducing risk for investors and removing choice for developers.
The research asked participants whether the principles of the DCO process could be applied more broadly for large-scale, mixed-use settlements: over 90% either said yes, or maybe. However, this is not as simple as extending the remit of the existing process of wider use – it needs significant enhancements to enable flexibility and retain local authority powerse-height:150%”>
The report concluded that integrating infrastructure, housing and jobs at different spatial scales is needed so that all can be delivered in the national, regional and local interest. Specifically, its recommendations were that Government and industry:
- Reinforces and enhances the certainty of the DCO process
- De-risks projects and facilitates investment by applying the DCO principles of front-loaded engagement and compulsory acquisition to other consenting processes
- Explores extending the remit of the DCO process to new settlements and other complex developments by preparing a National Settlements Strategy (NSS) equivalent to National Policy Statements.
Andrew Weaver, Director of Infrastructure at Copper Consultancy, said:
“It is clear that in the wake of COVID-19, we need to adapt and innovate to support the UK’s recovery. Changes are needed today to deliver the essential housing, infrastructure and economic corridors that will underpin society tomorrow; but its delivery begins and ends with the people we build it for.
“Infrastructure’s success stories are led by open, honest conversations about the need and benefits of a scheme, securing buy-in from stakeholders and communities, and delivering the right scheme for them. We need to work in partnership with communities, articulating the benefits of schemes in ways that are relevant to them. Only when people are at the heart of development does the community, and country, benefit.”
“The DCO process has merit and relevance – but not just because of the certainty and timeframes articulated in the report. Meaningful consultation and engagement is enshrined in statutory law. Approval is dependent on evidence that promoters respond to consultees’ needs and priorities as far as is reasonable. They must demonstrate how they reflect the requirements of the landscape, the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve, and the economic context of the surrounding area.
Kevin Gibbs, Head of Strategic Planning at Womble Bond Dickinson, commented:
“Planning delays and uncertainty remain significant hurdles to the Government achieving its vision for speedier large-scale development and to address climate change. This research provides first-hand insight into the performance of the Planning Act over the past twelve years and seeks ways to improve the regime to better meet the challenges of the UK going forward. To provide the incentive for national and international investment off the back of the Government’s £5bn pledge to boost infrastructure projects we require a system that provides a choice for the development industry. We believe that the range of recommendations in this report provides this choice in a collaborative and innovative manner.”
Ben Lewis, Infrastructure & Energy Director at Barton Willmore, added:
“The UK economy has been seriously shaken by COVID-19 and there will be more after-shocks to come. We need infrastructure investment to power us out of this pandemic and, for that to happen, we need the right conditions for creating confidence, stimulating investment, and enabling projects to move forward. Our research has highlighted the imperative of certainty in the planning process as the most valued aspect of the DCO regime. Right now, we should all see the DCO process as a key cog in the economic recovery wheel – we are going to be heavily reliant on it and we need to ensure it is fit-for-purpose and maintained at all costs.
“Boris Johnson’s government promised the UK an infrastructure revolution and a levelling up agenda,” adds Ben Lewis. “Now, with COVID-19 added on top, and calls for a green recovery, the importance of the right decision-making framework for infrastructure investment is even plainer to see. We are almost a decade on from the first DCO being approved, and the system is proving itself to be more valuable now than ever. In my opinion, it is the single most important aspect of powering the UK back to growth and I think we will see its worth in the next few years more than ever before.”
Informed by the research, the partnership is also engaging with industry bodies, including the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA), and pressing Government to legislate for a formal review of all NPSs every five years and to remove the need for an NPS to be suspended whilst it is under review.
This will enable an improved and enhanced DCO process to function as effectively as possible and eliminate the risks of decisions being stalled or challenged because an up-to-date NPS is not in place.
It will also ensure the maintenance of a comprehensive national need case that ties in with the National Infrastructure Assessment (produced by the National Infrastructure Commission) and hopefully, the Government’s long overdue National Infrastructure Strategy.