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Pitt urges haste in planning system revamp

Changes to the planning process for major projects must not undo efficiencies made since the 2008 system overhaul, Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) chairman Sir Michael Pitt warned this week.

“If we are careful we can keep the best of what was in the 2008 Act. We must ensure that the important progress made is not forgotten or lost,” he told delegates at NCE’s New Nuclear conference in Birmingham.

Last week decentralisation minister Greg Clark confirmed that the IPC is to be abolished stating that it was undemocratic for major decisions to be made by an “unelected quango”. He confirmed that the IPC would be absorbed into government and replaced by a Major Infrastructure Planning Unit. This he said would ensure that all planning decisions are made by ministers.

“We will be merged with the planning inspectorate,” explained Pitt. “This was always a possibility. We are located in the same building in Bristol,” he said.

Pitt said that the statement issued by Clarke last week had clarified the situation for the IPC but he confirmed that there are still several areas of uncertainty including the parliamentary process surrounding National Policy Statements (NPS). These documents form the backbone of planning guidance are understood to be under review by the new government. Unlike the current system, any new NPSs developed in the future must be approved by both the House of Lords and the House of Commons before ratification.

“The new government is making it clear that these documents will be voted on, and they have said in both Houses of Parliament. I don’t think it has quite sorted out what happens when one votes one way and one votes another or if both vote against what the secretary of state wants. So is there going to be a hiatus if we don’t have greater clarity on the parliamentary process itself? That is something to be watched,” said Pitt.

It is also not yet clear whether the communities and local government Eric Pickles will have the final say on all major planning applications, or whether secretaries of state for various government departments will make decisions on projects in their sectors. What is known is that the MIPU final report will be used as a recommendation by the relevant minister.

Until the introduction of a new Act of Parliament the current planning system for major projects cannot be changed, but Clarke has confirmed that a new Bill will be put before the house in the current parliamentary session with a view to obtaining Royal Ascent in Autumn 2011.

“We will continue in our exact form until the Act comes in to being,” said Pitt, who also revealed that the IPC was severely under staffed with less than half of the staff it needed. “It is vital that we have the resources to enable us to keep to our programme. I have 40 people, I need 80-110, but there is a recruitment freeze,” he said.

According to the current system major projects that are accepted by the IPC to go through the approval process will receive a final decision within 12 months. Pitt said that the IPC is determined to continue to meet the timetable and has been given permission by government to second in planners from other government departments.

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