Following our April update on the Infrastructure Planning Commission ( IPC ), the coalition government have confirmed plans to set up a Major Infrastructure Unit to deal with large-scale infrastructure projects and abolish the IPC which was established under the Planning Act 2008 in order to speed up applications for major projects by providing a fast-track one-stop-shop “development consent order”. We understand that the change is likely to take place in April 2012.
Proposals to redress a perceived “democratic deficit” were a recurring theme in policy debate leading up to the election in May 2010 as was the question of whether planning powers should continue to be exercised at a regional level, as advocated by Labour, or devolved to a local level, as proposed by the then opposition. In a letter to developers, Michael Pitt, chairman of the IPC, stated that the government wanted to bring forward primary legislation to replace the IPC with “fairer, faster decision making” and an “efficient and democratically accountable fast-track process for major infrastructure projects”. The legislation will take the form of a Decentralisation and Localism Bill, which the government hopes will become law in 2011.
The new proposals
Whilst the expertise, processes and special character of the IPC will be retained under the proposals, the Major Infrastructure Unit will form part of a revised Communities and Local Government structure that includes the Planning Inspectorate. All decisions of this unit will have to be ratified by the Secretary of State and National Policy Statements ( NPSs ) will be subject to a parliamentary vote rather than just debate as at present. Part of the rationale behind these policies is to reduce the likelihood of legal challenges to decisions by removing the final decision from the new Major Infrastructure Unit.
Until the IPC is formally abolished the current situation will continue. If an application reaches the decision-making stage and a NPS is in place then the IPC will make the decision. However, if a NPS is not in place when the application reaches the decision-making stage, the IPC will make recommendations to the Secretary of State, who will have the final say. As its successor body will operate in much the same way as the IPC, it is anticipated that the handover from one body to the other should be relatively smooth. Developers who are working towards the submission of an application are unlikely to notice very much practical difference in the procedures apart from potentially having to wait an additional period of time while the Secretary of State considers his final decision.
Developers’ efforts for the moment need to be directed towards ensuring that there is a relevant NPS which supports any proposals they propose to put forward. There is under the IPC, and will continue to be under the Major Infrastructure Unit, an effective presumption in favour of development which is in accordance with a relevant NPS, so it will be an enormous advantage to developers in having a supportive NPS in place. A number of NPSs are either out to consultation or shortly will be.
For more information please contact Nigel Hewitson of Norton Rose LLP.