Following the determination of the 100th Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project application, DHA's David Harvey explores the benefits and achievements of this process
January 2021 saw the determination of the 100th Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project application – a milestone which has taken just over 12 years to reach following the introduction of the NSIP regime through the Planning Act 2008.
During that time, the NSIP application process has demonstrated that it can achieve what it set out to do – to speed up investment in the country’s infrastructure whilst both providing certainty for developers and ensuring timely and effective community engagement throughout the preparation and examination of applications. The Planning Inspectorate has continued to ensure the examination of applications within the stated statutory timescales and the NSIP regime has shown that it is an effective way of dealing with the issues which come with complex NSIP projects, with 95 of those first 100 applications being consented. More recently the NSIP application process has demonstrated that it is capable of flexibly adapting to ensure business continues as close to normal as possible during the pandemic.
With the regime having become established and proving its effectiveness, it was no surprise to see the recently released National Infrastructure Strategy making it clear that the Government intend to retain the NSIP consenting process. What will the coming years bring for the NSIP regime?
The Government have committed to making the system more effective and faster, with an ambition to cut the timescales for some projects by 50%. There will be extremely complex projects for which those timescales are unlikely to be possible and the preparation and examination of applications, even for less complex NSIPs, still place considerable pressure on applicants, local planning authorities, statutory consultees and local communities alike.
Innovative measures will need to be introduced to create such an improvement in timescales whilst retaining the robust decision making which sits at the heart of the system. The pandemic has forced the NSIP regime to prove that it can work effectively on a virtual basis and the continued use of virtual consultations and hearings is one approach which could lead to improvements in efficiency and timescales but must be balanced with the commitment to effective engagement with all elements of local communities throughout the NSIP process.
Many of the first 100 applications have been in the energy sector. The Government have acknowledged the need to review the National Policy Statements which underpin decisions on those projects which are now outdated; a process which will be important to help drive the continued shift to a renewable and low carbon energy infrastructure and which will hopefully encourage the delivery of innovative new technologies as they emerge.
January 2021 was also notable for the submission of the London Resort theme park application. As the first business and commercial application made since the ability for that type of project to be sought under the Planning Act was introduced in 2013, it is an opportunity for the NSIP regime to move beyond the consideration of conventional infrastructure projects.
The Government’s Planning for the Future White Paper then raises the question of new settlements being brought forward under the NSIP regime, which would appear to be ideally placed to manage the consultation, examination and consenting of those large and complex projects. However, the ability to seek residential development through an NSIP application represents a significant shift for the regime and the legislation; any National Policy Statements which will emerge to deal with that area will have needed careful consideration to allow the process to effectively deliver that type of development.
Alongside the London Resort, the next few years could see NSIP applications made at Heathrow and Gatwick, with an application also being prepared for the Lower Thames Crossing which would be the longest road tunnel in the UK. It has been a successful first 12 years for the NSIP regime and it looks set to continue to help deliver key infrastructure development, with a number of exciting projects on the horizon and the possibility of the scope of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects expanding further to help deliver the growth the country needs.
DHA have secured two Development Consent Orders since the introduction of the Planning Act 2008; a Combined Cycle Gas Turbine in Kings Lynn, Norfolk for Palm Paper Ltd in 2016 and the Kemsley K4 CHP Plant in Sittingbourne, Kent for DS Smith Paper Ltd in 2019.
Our team has spent over two years working on the preparation and examination of the Wheelabrator K3 and Wheelabrator Kemsley North waste-to-energy facilities application, scheduled to be determined in February 2021, and have also worked in an advisory role for local planning authorities involved in the DCO process.