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Infrastructure 2012: Making the complexities simple

One of the great question marks hovering over 2012 is to what degree - good or bad - proposed changes will affect the complex issue of planning in the UK.

The coalition government, like many of its predecessors, has had a great fondness for slogans. Two in particular - “the big society” and “localism” - have been made great use of and promise to have a dramatic impact on the planning system early next year.

“Planning experts fear that oversimplifying such a complex process could create more problems”

From the implementation of the Localism Act - and its abandonment of existing structures such as the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) and Regional Development Agencies - to the new proposals for a stripped bare National Planning Policy Framework and progressing the National Policy Statements, there is a great deal that has to be got right.

Much has been made from the start by government that the new 50 page national planning document would eradicate over a thousand pages of bureaucratic guidance.

Ambiguity on the cards

But planning experts fear that oversimplifying such a complex process could create more problems. While there is a general consensus that maybe there was a little too much in the previous guidance they warn that because planning is so litigious in nature, slimming down guidance potentially pushes ambiguity on to the users, which could leave projects open to more disputes and invariably delays.

Also of concern is the Act’s abandonment of the regional development agencies, which have been previously providing the bridge between local authorities trying to work with each other on infrastructure schemes of mutual benefit.

“For nationally significant infrastructure there are some key changes that are set to come into force next year”

In their place there are the more fluid Local Enterprise Partnerships, which are increasingly open to private sector involvement but which come with no precedent, and may often lack skills to develop their remit.

The general consensus is that if local authorities and organisations have had a history of collaborating well, the Localism ethos will work well. But for those that have less experience, there is little in the Act that offers them advice on how to move forward with plans that are, for example, inclined to benefit one local organisation more than a collaborating neighbour.

For nationally significant infrastructure there are some key changes that are set to come into force next year too. However, there is again great debate on the usefulness of these changes. The rather dramatic announcement in the early days of the government that the IPC would be scrapped was met with industry criticism. But as the months rolled on it became apparent that it was more a rebranding exercise.

Waiting game

The IPC will from April be incorporated into the Planning Inspectorate but will still exist and make recommendations about developers’ applications. However, there is one apparently nominal change, in that the responsibility of making final decisions will rest with the relevant secretaries of state.

However, at a recent Westminster conference IPC chairman Sir Michael Pitt said that while this removed a “democratic deficit”, the commissioners’ recent decision to green light their first project - the Rookery South energy from waste scheme - was “cold and professional” and “evidence based”.

And while he said he had been reassured by ministers that they intended to endorse recommendations, we would “have to wait and see”. Another variable that is making patchy progress towards supporting national infrastructure planning is the fact that of the 12 originally proposed National Policy Statements - by which projects are assessed to determine whether they are handled by the IPC or at a local level - only six have been designated.

“The uncertainties must be turned into certainties in 2012”

These relate to energy. According to the National Infrastructure Plan, updated last month, a ports NPS will follow “shortly”. Of the remaining - which relate to water and transport - only hazardous waste and waste water have dates scheduled for 2012. The others have been held up by aviation, highways and water industry reviews.

The uncertainties must be turned into certainties in 2012 to ensure that the raft of new schemes announced by the chancellor come to fruition and enable an infrastructure-led recovery.

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