Is the draft road and rail National Policy Statement good enough?

The House of Commons Transport Select Committee was this week assessing the usefulness of the Government’s draft National Policy Statement for the future development of national road and rail networks.

Keith Mitchell

We will hear what the Select Committee thinks of the draft statement in May. 

But according to long standing authority on transport planning, Peter Brett Associates chairman Keith Mitchell, the NPS lacks focus on strategy and an understanding of how it will really support the delivery of major transport projects

“The main purpose of the NPS is to set out the national need for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) and therefore to make it clear what type of transport projects should be supported by national policy," explains Mitchell.

“But the draft NPS doesn’t provide a spatial context for national policy, nor does it suggest criteria against which this can be judged," he says. "It is therefore difficult to tell from the current drafting what schemes should be promoted at the national level and why? If not in the NPS, where should these issues be debated and justified? It is not at all clear now, and I don’t think the NPS as it stands makes it any clearer."

According to PBA, after four years only one National Network NSIP project has been opened. The Ipswich Chord will now allow freight trains to travel from Felixstowe to the rest of the country more easily. It is vital, Mitchell says, to have a transparent and clear framework for national networks, and a joined up process for setting priorities and assessing schemes.

"The draft NPS doesn’t provide a spatial context for national policy, nor does it suggest criteria against which this can be judged. It is therefore difficult to tell from the current drafting what schemes should be promoted at the national level and why? If not in the NPS, where should these issues be debated and justified?"

“That is why I am a great supporter of Sir John Armitt’s proposed independent infrastructure commission," he adds. "That would reveal the issues and help to decide, out of the political firmament, what the country needs This could provide the basis for a more consistent and deliverable policy framework.”

Mitchell, whilst running a rapidly growing practice that specialises in front-end development and infrastructure consultancy, is also chairman of the National Infrastructure Planning Association which is concerned mainly with projects which are to be promoted through the Planning Act process.

“NIPA plays a key role in bringing together those involved in the planning of NSIPs. Creating a shared understanding between those in the public, private and voluntary sectors helps to improve the process, and leads to better project outcomes," he says. "Experience of the process so far emphasises the importance of a robust NPS in encouraging the right schemes to be brought forward, and an effective planning process, which is why it is so important to get this NPS right.”

A road map for delivering local infrastructure

The issues are not just at national level, Mitchell says. PBA recently produced a report on why delivery of local infrastructure is not happening and what should be done about it.

PBA’s initial research with local authority planners revealed a key gap between policy making and the delivery of projects on the ground, even amongst those authorities implementing a Community Infrastructure Levy. To establish possible solutions, the firm consulted with central and local government, developers and academics among others.

The result was a paper – ‘Beyond infrastructure: Achieving Growth’ which came up with practical steps that could fix the problems. Key among these was a delivery focused ‘infrastructure roadmap’.

This is not intended to be another formal planning document but a way of setting out the practical processes that pick up where the delivery plan stops and get projects to the start line. The road map would help prioritise projects, set out what needs to happen on the route to delivery – by when, by whom; and what is involved in sorting out cash flows and development finance.

“We could almost hear local authorities preparing local development plans and CIL schedules and giving a big sigh of relief, before their hard pressed planning team was then diverted on to the next urgent task. With CIL rolled out, many councils are now holding the money, and have a greater responsibility to deliver the infrastructure required to support the development plan, so we thought a road map would help,” Mitchell says.

PBA is in talks with a range of professional bodies and local government about the next stage in the initiative, and will be organising regional roundtables to discuss next steps.

Peter Brett Associates - a growing story

Meanwhile, Mitchell has been overseeing a remarkable transformation in PBA’s fortunes.  The consultant has just won the NCE/ACE Award for firms with between 250 and 2500 employees.  The firm, along with recently acquired Hannah Reed & Associates, employs around 600 people. It is on target for a turnover of £44M this year.

Recent success, says Mitchell, is down to:

* Adapting the firm’s core skills for the needs of our clients and acquiring extra skills when needed. “That was one of the reasons behind our merger with Roger Tym & Partners in 2011,” he says. “It brought skills in planning, economics and up front development advice.”

* Growing the practice’s abilities in environmental and sustainability consulting, particularly for very large infrastructure projects. “At the last count we were working on 15 nationally significant infrastructure projects, three years ago it was one,” Mitchell says.

* Expanding regional reach. “That was a key reason for our acquisition of Hannah Reed & Associates last year.  Our business is all about people, and our understanding of local markets is important to clients. We had good regional coverage before, but there were places we missed that Hannah Reed had, such as Cambridgeshire and Doncaster. Between us, we have also now strengthened our education portfolio and can list both Oxford and Cambridge Universities as major clients.”

“Managing our growth is going be one of our biggest challenges,” Mitchell says. “We need to manage the pace, direct it, make sure the quality remains high and that our teams are well supported.

“Another interesting challenge is deciding what we want to bid for. Margin is always important but you have to have the belief that overall margin will be fine if you get the fundamentals right. Getting the balance right is key, between extending our range of interesting and challenging projects and avoiding over extending ourselves in the process; and between early stage advisory work where we can benefit from creating value for the client, and the important experience of project delivery where returns are tighter as clients look for cost-effective delivery. But these are good challenges to have!”

If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email jackie.whitelaw@infrastructure-intelligence.com.