'Better, faster, greener, fairer, and more resilient': Government publishes infrastructure planning reform plan

'Better, faster, greener, fairer, and more resilient':
Government publishes infrastructure planning reform plan
'Better, faster, greener, fairer, and more resilient': Government publishes infrastructure planning reform plan

New action plan for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects promises to accelerate consenting processes in support of UK's net zero goals

The government has today published a sweeping new action plan designed to accelerate the consenting process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NISPs) in support of the UK's net zero, energy security, and environmental goals.

The government said the new plan would deliver a planning system for large infrastructure projects that is "better, faster, greener, fairer, and more resilient", following widespread complaints from industry that planning delays are hampering efforts to deliver critical low carbon infrastructure and acting as a drag on the UK's economic performance.

Writing in a joint foreword to the action plan, the Secretaries of State for Levelling Up, Energy Security and Net Zero, Transport, and Environment, said the new strategy would deliver a planning system that is fit to deliver on the government's targets to improve energy security, achieve net zero emissions, and deliver essential new transport, water, and waste management infrastructure.

"The Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) consenting process has served the UK well for more than a decade," they said. "However, the demands on the system are changing, and its speed has slowed. The number and complexity of cases coming into the system is increasing. Policy changes are more frequent in response to a changing world."

They said that the cumulative impact of planning decisions in sectors such as offshore wind and electricity networks sector now required strategic solutions outside the remit of individual projects, while mounting geopolitical pressures have "underlined how crucial it is for the UK to build its own infrastructure to meet energy security, resilience and net zero objectives".

According to the government, the timespan for Development Consent Orders (DCO) to be awarded through the NSIP regime increased by 65 per cent between 2012 and 2021 from 2.6 to 4.2 years. Moreover, the number of decisions that are facing successful legal challenges is also increasing.

The Ministers said the new regime would help accelerate the consenting process by committing the government to "reviewing National Policy Statements regularly, piloting a new fast track consenting opportunity, streamlining the system to ensure that requirements on developers and consultees are proportionate, focussed and supported, and ensuring that the system is fair and transparent for communities and delivers for the environment".

They said the reforms would seek to deliver on the statutory goal for consenting decisions on NSIPs to be completed within 17 months "as a minimum".

Specifically, the new plan promises to bring forward operational reforms to support faster consenting by "delivering proportionate examinations for all projects, strengthening pre-application advice and introducing a fast-track consenting timeframe for projects that meet quality criteria".

It also promises to improve engagement with local authorities and communities and boost capacity across the planning system through enhanced training and greater cost recovery by the Planning Inspectorate.

And in proposals that could prove controversial with some environmental groups, the plan promises to replace the "cumbersome environmental assessment processes with new Environmental Outcomes Reports", review the protected sites and species policy framework, including Habitats Regulations Assessments (HRAs), and introduce the new biodiversity net gain regime while also developing principles for marine net gain.

The government said the approach would deliver better outcomes for the environment and help fast track the development of clean energy projects that are critical to the UK's climate goals. But some conservation groups fear the reforms could lead to more projects that have an adverse impact on nature and habitats.

The government said it would consult on some of the key aspects of the reforms this Spring, including plans to streamline and improve the examination process, introduce a new fast track consenting timeframe, and establish new quality standards that NSIPs would be required to meet to be eligible for fast track status.

It will also consult on proposals to move towards full cost recovery across the NSIP system, which could see additional charges placed on developers.

Then it plans to pilot aspects of the reforms from September onwards, including the new fast track consenting regime for selected projects, before then bringing forward necessary regulatory and planning guidance changes in Spring 2024.

It said that from 2025 developers should see "further improvements in performance, supported by: a more digital and agile Planning Inspectorate; the introduction of Environmental Outcome Reports; and updated National Policy Statements which are streamlined and regularly reviewed".

The package is likely to be welcomed by business groups and the clean energy industry, which has long warned that planning delays that can add years to the development cycle of new renewables projects are one of the main barriers to delivering on the UK's climate goals.

However, the reforms are also likely to face opposition from some conservation groups who fear they could result in a watering down of environmental protections and concerns from developers over the potential cost implications.

The plans come in the same week as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt declared that the green economy was an "absolutely strategic" priority for the government and Ministers announced plans for a new British Industry Supercharger support package to help curb energy costs for energy intensive industries.

Meanwhile, Opposition leader Keir Starmer is today expected to announce five new strategic "missions" for a Labour government, including a promise to turn the UK into a "clean energy superpower". 

* This article was originally published here