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Autumn Statement 2023: planning reform earmarked for UK infrastructure delivery

Jeremy Hunt autumn statement 3 2023 SEO

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The government has committed to reviewing planning policies specific to some ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’ (NSIPs) more regularly, as part of a wider drive to update planning rules to drive increased productivity and economic growth.

Under the plans outlined on Wednesday, national policy statements (NPSs) for energy, water, and national networks would be reviewed at least every five years, instead of every 10 years as has been the practice. The change would implement a recommendation made earlier this year by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in a report the government has now issued its response to.

Publication of the response came on the same day as UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt made his autumn statement, in which he said it takes “too long to approve infrastructure projects and business planning applications”. He said reforms can be a catalyst for improved productivity and growth. The government also published a separate policy paper on Wednesday that sets out how it intends to speed up infrastructure delivery over the short and long term.

Taken together, the documents, outline a pipeline of forthcoming changes that the government intends to deliver to the planning system in England, not just for NSIPs but for other projects too. They reflect widespread calls for reform over recent times, including from the NIC in its report on improving nationally significant infrastructure planning and its more recent second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2), and the government’s own action plan for overhauling NSIPs planning drawn up earlier this year. The opposition Labour party set out its own plans for reform at its annual party conference.  

Phillips Gareth_May 2020

Gareth Phillips


The positive effect of policy and reforms signalled in the autumn statement extends beyond the UK, as emerging markets take their lead from ours

For NSIPs, particular concern has been expressed about the amount of time it has taken in recent years for projects to pass through the consenting process. According to the NIC, the NSIP system "has slowed in recent years”. It said that between 2012 and 2021, the average wait time for a development consent order to be granted increased by 65%.

Applications for development consent for NSIPs are considered against relevant NPSs. A raft of NPSs has been developed to address specific types of project.

The government said it “recognise[s] the importance of keeping NPSs up to date through regular reviews” and, while it would not legislate for this, committed to reviewing the suite of NPSs at least every five years. It said it will also commission an external review to see whether it is possible to make the process of reviewing the NPSs “more flexible”, adding that “a modular approach is likely to form part of the solution” but needs “further work” before it can be committed to. Recommendations from the review are anticipated by the end of 2024.

The government also promised to “link NPSs to spatial plans”, where appropriate. Plans are already in place to adopt a new geospatial approach to energy infrastructure planning specifically, but the government said a new taskforce will be established “to draw conclusions by summer 2024, about the merits of adopting a more spatial planning approach in transport, water, waste and wastewater sectors, building on the approach in energy, and to set out next steps”.

Robbie Owen

Robbie Owen

Partner, Parliamentary Agent

This presents a real opportunity to address the issues of the certainty, speed, and effectiveness of the infrastructure planning process

Over recent months, the government has been in the process of updating NPSs relevant to energy, water, and national networks NSIPs. On Wednesday, it published final NPSs for energy, which will take effect when they have been designated following parliamentary approval.

The finalised energy NPSs address different energy technologies and infrastructure and set out how issues pertinent to such projects should be assessed and balanced – policy that will ultimately shape whether relevant applications for development consent are granted or not. The government has said, however, that it will not update existing legislation to specifically recognise onshore wind projects as NSIPs.

One of the new energy NPSs is specific to electricity networks infrastructure. The government has set out a new connections action plan specific to electricity networks to complement the new NPS, with a view to ensuring renewable energy and low carbon generation projects in particular are connected faster to Britain’s electricity grid.

NSIPs planning law expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons said: “We welcome the progress government has made in finalising the updated suite of energy NPSs, which are vital to making progress with decarbonising our energy supply and moving towards net zero, by bringing greater certainty and supporting the urgent need case and grant of consent for individual generation and transmission projects.” 

“Almost of greater importance though are the announcements of the taskforce, and an external review to make NPSs – including the way in which they are regularly reviewed and updated – more dependable and reliable. This presents a real opportunity to address the issues of the certainty, speed, and effectiveness of the infrastructure planning process to result in positive consents and deliverable projects in these sectors. Improving the way in which NPSs are kept up to date is critical, otherwise legal challenges to decisions regarding NSIP applications taken with reference to outdated and ambiguous NPSs will only continue and delay project delivery,” he said.

Speaking at the Offshore Wind Australia conference in Sydney, UK renewable energy expert Gareth Phillips said: “The positive effect of policy and reforms signalled in the autumn statement extends beyond the UK, as emerging markets take their lead from ours. Recognition of all forms of low carbon infrastructure as being a ‘critical national priority’, alongside fiscal incentives to encourage investment, and a reduction in consenting timescales, in the UK, will resonate worldwide, helping global decarbonisation.”

Richard Griffiths, planning law specialist at Pinsent Masons, said: “There is one notable omission in the suite of energy NPSs that have been published – the new nuclear NPS. The government has said that it intends to designate a new NPS for nuclear power by 2025 and will shortly consult on the policy approach to siting new nuclear reactors. Whilst disappointing that no movement has been made on the nuclear NPS despite the government talking about it for a while now, I would urge the government to treat small modular reactors like any other generating station and not require them to be sited in a particular location. The whole point of SMRs is their flexibility in design, fast construction, and location." 

Wider operational reforms to the NSIPs consenting process continue to be considered following work done by government over the last two years, culminating in a consultation between July and September 2023. The reforms envisage improved support for applicants at the pre-application phase – including proposals that would give applicants access to new guidance on consultation requirements, as well as to a new enhanced pre-application service operated by the Planning Inspectorate. The government said it plans to confirm its policy on those reforms in early 2024, with a view to the new regulations and guidance being in place from April 2024.

Broader plans to increase funding for local authorities to help them engage better in the NSIPs process and process other planning applications faster, were also announced by the government on Wednesday. Iain Gilbey of Pinsent Masons welcomed that announcement but warned that a shortage of skills and expertise would remain a barrier to speeding up the planning process.

“Providing more funding is helpful but it may be a theoretical intervention if the local authority doesn’t have the resource or expertise to process the application,” Gilbey said. “That will then require outsourcing with attendant delays around procurement and appointment. As such, I don’t see that this proposal will have a short-term impact in speeding up major planning projects and much will depend on the relevant threshold and local authorities’ ability to find the expertise and experience to resource these projects.”

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