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Mind the gaps in planning system

Major projects are under threat from chinks in the planning and authorisation system, senior industry experts warned this week.

Former transport minister and Transport for London board member Steve Norris warned that vital energy upgrades and rail projects such as High Speed 2 were at risk from planning delays.

He said it was vital that the government ensures that ministers be given a three month deadline on future planning decisions.

Norris was speaking at the launch of lobbying body the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA), which he will chair.

NIPA is the brainchild of lawyer Bircham Dyson Bell and is being set up to help address planning concerns ahead of the government bringing forward the Localism Bill later this month.

“The issues around planning – such as for energy – are simply too important for the UK to ignore,” said Norris. “The truth is, it’s already too late on energy issues.

“By 2016 we’re at risk of brownouts,” he added.

“The truth is, it’s already too late on energy issues. By 2016 we’re at risk of brownouts”

Steve Norris

Norris also predicted that the government was not going to make the proposed 2015 construction start date for High Speed 2, blaming delays on a reluctance to build on experiences of the High Speed 1 railway. “Little seems to have been learned from the planning of HS1 to the early stages of HS2,” he said.

The intention is that while it will lobby the government, NIPA will also act on behalf of all sectors - from local authorities to contractors and developers – of infrastructure development. “This is about technical advice on processes and authorisations and sharing the resource of expertise on the subject,” said Norris.

“It doesn’t mean waving this or that through without people having their say,” added Bircham Dyson Bell partner Angus Walker.

One of the key issues for NIPA is ensuring that developers and contractors no longer have to do a lot of high cost work before knowing whether a scheme will get approval from even the highest level of government.

In future, ministers responsible for making a planning decision on nationally significant infrastructure projects should have a three month time limit on the decision, added Norris.

The coalition government has transfered the Infrastructure Planning Commission’s (IPC’s) functions to the newly created Major Infrastructure Planning Unit (MIPU) within the Planning Inspectorate. MIPU will then recommend projects to departmental ministers for approval.

However, Norris said the IPC – set up under the Planning Act 2008 – had represented a “very considerable step forward” in national infrastructure planning and the plan to remove it was simply “change for the sake of change”.

“The [coalition’s] original enthusiasm for localism meant that the Planning Act 2008 was vulnerable,” said Norris. “But it is now clear that while the government is still committed to localism it has the desire to see national infrastructure projects go ahead.”

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