The Planning Inspectorate achieved a major milestone this week. A century of examinations and decisions made since the introduction of the Planning Act in 2010.
The inspectorate’s celebration of this “tremendous achievement” was welcomed across the infrastructure planning community. And rightly so. It’s testament to the hard work of the Inspectorate, project developers, stakeholders and the many thousands of infrastructure professionals involved in these critical schemes.
It also underlines the success of the Planning Act process. The focus on pre-application engagement and the assurance of a clear and fair examination process has helped give investors and developers confidence in bringing their projects forward. It too deserves acclaim.
So, with the government making infrastructure investment central to the economic recovery post-COVID, what can be done to sustain this? How can the Planning Inspectorate continue its record and hit the next hundred decisions in a shorter time frame?
First up, National Policy Statements. The cornerstone of all NSIP projects and central to giving developers clarity on how projects should be progressed. With many now several years old, the announcement in the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) that the statements will be reviewed is timely. Developers and stakeholders want and need to know how projects will align with wider policy moves, especially net zero. The NIS was light on details so industry will be looking for leadership and progress from government to support the investment decisions needed for recovery.
Secretary of state decisions. The Inspectorate has an impressive track record on hitting deadlines with its first 100 decisions. Each one has met the timetable set out from application to recommendation. The same cannot be said for the respective secretaries of state some of whom have kicked consent decisions down the road to buy time. Planning decisions will never truly be independent of political influence, but with an ambitious investment programme, eyes will be on Westminster to match this with action and achieve the same efficiency and focus on outcomes as the Planning Inspectorate.
Levelling up and social value. There’s much more to this than political slogans to win votes. The Prime Minister seems genuinely intent on seeing economic investment distributed across the UK. But with that comes a need to re-evaluate how projects are assessed. Not all projects will initially look attractive on economic grounds alone. Social value opportunities, biodiversity enhancement, contribution to net zero targets can and should be success factors. More and more, these issues will be key points for discussion in examinations. The Inspectorate has a valuable and important role in making sure projects deliver for society and the environment in the fullest sense. Recent announcements on the Green Book and biodiversity investment are welcome and the trajectory looks positive.
Inclusion and engagement. Pre-application engagement has changed enormously since the first NSIP projects, particularly in the last year given the further moves in digital engagement. Through involvement in over 25 DCO projects we’ve been part of that transition ourselves. There is still much more opportunity in this area though. Using digital technologies to engage wider demographics and encourage involvement can help developers create better projects. Good communications can also help build support for social and environmental investments.
The Inspectorate’s century milestone feels significant as the country looks to recover from the challenges of the pandemic. A success that provides valuable learnings while underlining the strength of the Planning Act in bringing forward infrastructure. It’s a welcome platform on which to build as the UK ushers in a new chapter of infrastructure investment. Build back better? We certainly look well placed to do so.
Greg Phillimore is an associate director at Camargue