UK proposes 'New Deal' pandemic planning and infrastructure response

Out-Law News | 30 Jun 2020 | 5:25 pm | 3 min. read

The UK government will speed up planned infrastructure investment and reform the planning system as it attempts to offset the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the prime minister has announced.

Giving a speech in the West Midlands, Boris Johnson said that the UK needed to "build back better" and "finally tackle … the great unresolved challenges of the last three decades" in response to the crisis.

The pledges include a £5 billion capital investment package focused on schools, hospitals, roads and local growth. The government also intends to introduce "the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war", with full details expected to be published in a policy paper next month.

Planning law expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said: "Changing the planning system will play an important part in kick starting the economy and getting more shovel ready projects off the ground - including the urgent need for more housing".

Owen Robbie_November 2019

Robbie Owen

Partner

As we emerge from three months of catastrophic uncertainty, what are needed right now are some carefully targeted planning system changes.

However, he said that targeted changes, rather than rushed reforms, were needed.

"There is no doubt that a reform of planning rules is long overdue but radical and comprehensive reforms are both unnecessary and could result in lasting damage, both through project delays whilst major reforms are implemented and poor planning decisions," he said.

"Instead, as we emerge from three months of catastrophic uncertainty, what are needed right now are some carefully targeted changes. These particularly include clear and up to date national policy covering the whole range of infrastructure development, a streamlined approach to local authority plan-making, a more flexible approach to town centre uses, a better way of approving major housing schemes, and a modernised form of development corporation that is locally-led and accountable. These important changes would restore market confidence and public faith in the planning system over the next year, helping the country to rebuild itself quickly and sustainably and facilitating the timing highlighted in No. 10's ambitiously-titled 'Project Speed'," he said.

The £5bn investment promised by the government includes £1.5bn for hospital maintenance and building and improving mental health facilities and A&E capacity; £100 million for 29 road projects across England; £10m for rail development work in the Manchester area; and £1bn to fund the first 50 projects of a new, ten-year school rebuilding programme, to be confirmed in the autumn. The pledges also include £900m towards 'shovel ready' local growth projects in England over the next two years, and £96m to accelerate investment in the town centres and high streets of locations selected for 'town deals'.

The government will also work with the devolved administrations to accelerate infrastructure projects in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It will publish a National Infrastructure Strategy in the autumn as planned, setting out its longer term planning for core economic infrastructure including energy networks, road and rail, flood defences and waste.

Infrastructure law expert Jon Hart of Pinsent Masons said: "These are big commitments with, on the face of it, some eye-catching procurement opportunities".

"There simply aren't enough 'shovel ready' projects out there, and it remains to be seen what this announcement will mean in practice," he said.

Hart Jonathan

Jonathan Hart

Partner

There remain some bigger questions around how projects can be delivered more quickly and efficiently and the extent to which new investment can be orientated towards the challenges of zero carbon.

"The previously-announced 'pipeline' contains a number of anomalies in respect of projects that have already been announced, and today's announcement would also appear to include previously committed schemes.  There remain some bigger questions around how projects can be delivered more quickly and efficiently and the extent to which new investment can be orientated towards the challenges of zero carbon.  During such an economically turbulent time, the government needs to remove uncertainty around approaches to procurement, particularly for schools and hospitals. It will be interesting to see how tendering processes can be sped up and how the public sector capacity gap within government for procuring schemes, when coupled with the industry's own skills shortage, is going to be addressed," he said. 

"There is also an opportunity to grasp the political nettle of private investment and building a new schools investment programme from scratch to replace the Priority Schools scheme that has just about run its course. Simply wanting something to happen doesn't necessarily make it so: a concern must be that it could be years before many of the schemes being talked about will be in a position to be tendered for, let alone for construction work to commence," he said.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is due to provide an update on the UK economy, jobs and training next week.