Ten years on - older, but any wiser?

The Planning Act was a key milestone for infrastructure delivery, but on the tenth anniversary of its introduction, its biggest legacy may still be yet to come, says Tom Carpen.

2018 will probably be remembered as the year of the Royal Wedding, a scorching summer and Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat. But, of course, it also marked ten years of the Planning Act. It may not have made too many headlines, but it’s a significant milestone for infrastructure delivery. 

In 2008 the Planning Act created powers for secretaries of state to grant “development consent” for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) – a complete overhaul in how infrastructure was planned and enabled.

So how has it fared? And what difference have we seen within the decade?

Alongside the impartial decision making, a detailed legal framework and guaranteed decisions within statutory timescales, perhaps the biggest impact of the NSIP regime has been the requirement for developers to get serious about pre-application in the planning system, demonstrating how they had engaged directly with stakeholders. It’s seen the introduction of a process that has proved to be very powerful in engaging the public early and involving them in examinations. Local people get a place at the table alongside statutory consultees and the promoter, and their representations get taken seriously. 

It’s sown the seeds of a cultural shift towards engaging people in the projects that affect them. And that’s important when we look ahead to the next ten years. Because well-planned infrastructure demands collaboration – after all, it’s connected to and relevant to everyone. Everyone has a stake in our transport, energy, water and waste networks. 

The infrastructure of the future needs to be something that people come together to create, rather than simply passively use after it’s built for them. 

The National Infrastructure Commission may be doing an admirable job, but alongside those seasoned infrastructure faces we also need local communities, universities, technology companies and local authorities to bring together innovation, planning, funding and governance to deliver the infrastructure the country needs. 

Technology, devolution, and this more ‘front-loaded’ planning system should make this collaboration easier to achieve. Technology is opening up more avenues for stakeholders to disrupt and engage with the process, and the regions are lobbying for the infrastructure they want to see (and leveraging the investment to back it up). 

And it doesn’t have to stop there. Definitions of ‘infrastructure’ are growing beyond the Planning Act’s interpretation, from greenspaces and smart cities to housing. At a time when we need to deliver significantly more housing than is currently planned, and fast, large-scale settlements may increasingly transform local areas. 

Now that we’ve broken it in, is it therefore time to marry the NSIP regime with the Town and Country Planning system, the development plan regime, regional governance and local industrial strategies, to plug the current hole between national housing policy and individual planning applications? 

We may be ten years in, but the biggest legacy of the Planning Act may still be yet to come. 

Tom Carpen is an infrastructure and energy planning associate at Barton Willmore.