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Innovation fund for local authorities aims to improve NSIPs planning process

Local authorities in England and Wales that believe they can fast-track their own involvement in the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs), including by using new technology or data better, have been invited to apply for new funding for their ideas.

The Innovation and Capacity Fund has been set up by the UK government to provide individual grants of up to £100,000 to local authorities that successfully apply for funding. The initial expression of interest phase was recently opened by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), which has issued guidance to support applications. Applications close on 8 April 2022.

Robbie Owen

Robbie Owen

Partner, Parliamentary Agent

The government has been keen for a while to find ways to engage with local authorities and local communities on NSIPs regime reform and this opportunity should maintain the interest they are now showing in the reform agenda and help generate transferrable ideas

The fund concerns NSIPs – proposed development of major energy, transport, water, wastewater and waste infrastructure in England and Wales, which is subject to a special planning process. Developers must obtain a development consent order (DCO) for NSIPs. DCO applications are submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. It makes a recommendation to a senior government minister who subsequently decides whether the application should be granted. The process, however, requires developers to consult on proposed DCOs with local authorities impacted by their plans.

The UK government is trying to speed up the delivery of major infrastructure in the country, in line with its ‘Project Speed’ initiative launched in mid-2020 and the national infrastructure strategy published in November that year, through its national infrastructure planning reform programme which started work in June 2021. The new fund is designed to provide financial support to local authorities (LAs) that identify ways to cut the length of time they are involved in the NSIPs planning process or that otherwise will help make NSIPs more ‘green’.

“We are looking for proposals which drive better effective engagement with the developer, Planning Inspectorate and other statutory consultees in order to ensure that the DCO process delivers benefits for local communities in line with the government’s ambitions for better, faster and greener infrastructure delivery and our mission for levelling up (in this case securing economic benefit for local communities from the investment that major infrastructure development offers),” DLUHC said.

“We expect to issue grants up to £100,000 to be used for initiatives which are over and above work that the authority already intends on undertaking. Bids which have an element of match funding from the LA and/or demonstrate collaboration between authorities are particularly encouraged but are not compulsory… The proposal must be centred around NSIP projects which have already entered or will enter one of the recognised phases (pre-application, acceptance, pre-examination or examination) in the NSIP process during the period at which the funding is provided (January 2022 to June 2023),” it said.

Local authorities that apply for funding should explain how their idea achieves one of the objectives listed by DLUHC, according to the department’s guidance.

Examples of the objectives include: the development of innovative approaches to LA engagement with NSIPs; the driving of innovations which could support greener NSIP projects; the introduction of digital innovations including digital ways of working and/or better use of digital data in the NSIP process; and the development of innovations at various stages of the NSIPs process which contribute to better, greener or faster results.

DLUHC said: “The [NSIPs planning] system is currently dealing with an increased rate of projects entering the system which are more complex than previous projects and require specialist knowledge and experienced personnel to consider wider issues like net zero and bio-diversity net gain. This increase in both quantity and complexity of NSIPs is likely to reduce the speed at which NSIP projects progress through the system and result in delays to decisions on Development Consent Orders due to poor quality or missing information.”

“The aim of this fund is to explore if and how using resources more efficiently or supplying additional resources for key users of the regime can improve our programme outcomes through provision of expertise or innovative work. This expression of interest constitutes an opportunity for local authorities (LAs) to apply for funding up to £100,000 to support them in dealing with NSIP applications to address the issues and challenges they face as key users of the system,” it said

Local authorities play an important role in the NSIPs planning regime, as consultee at different stages and in preparing the local impact report which must be taken into account when a decision is taken on each individual project. The Planning Inspectorate’s ‘Advice Note Two’ sets out guidance on this role, saying that participation for local authorities is “not obligatory but is strongly advised”. It is recognised that resources will be limited, however, and authorities are “strongly encouraged to discuss and work through the issues” that are raised when proposals for NSIPs are put forward. According to the Planning Inspectorate, local authorities can provide “important local perspective”, in addition to the views of local residents, groups and businesses.

Depending upon the nature and scope of the NSIP concerned, multiple local authorities may be involved and they will most likely become the responsible public body for discharging many of the planning conditions, known as requirements, set out in the DCO. Authorities will also have a monitoring and enforcing role.

Commenting on the announcement, Robbie Owen, a planning expert at Pinsent Masons, said: “This is a very welcome development and represents the first material output of the review of the NSIPs planning regime and government’s stated target to improve it by September 2023. It was said from the very beginning of this regime that local authorities had been stitched into it every step of the way, but the reality has been rather different. Resourcing has been a real issue and the approach taken by applicants for DCOs, in the form of planning performance agreements, very varied.”

“Whilst this new fund will not be providing general funding to local authorities for their role with individual NSIPs, it will give local authorities, particularly those in DCO hotspots such as Essex, Kent and Suffolk, the opportunity to bring ideas for reform, innovation and other improvements to the table. It also has real potential to drive innovative behaviours,” he said.

“The government has not confirmed the total funding pot available, and so it will be interesting to see later this spring how many bids have been awarded funding. The government has been keen for a while to find ways to engage with local authorities and local communities on NSIPs regime reform and this opportunity should maintain the interest they are now showing in the reform agenda and help generate transferrable ideas.”

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