The RTPI’s Policy and Practice Adviser, Madeleine Pauker, reacts to last week’s Infrastructure Planning announcements from 2023’s Autumn Statement.
Each autumn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announces major spending decisions and priorities. This year, planning was high on the agenda. The Chancellor’s announcements on planning included several significant announcements for infrastructure, many of which the RTPI welcomes as opportunities to plan for infrastructure more quickly and strategically.
However, we continue to urge the Government to deliver on their commitment to producing the UK’s first-ever National Spatial Plan for Energy Infrastructure.
The Government proposes to publish data on the geographical spread of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects. This platform will show the red line boundaries for proposed NSIPs at the environmental scoping phase, allowing for a better, earlier understanding of environmental and other impacts.
This mapping exercise and platform will provide better data on infrastructure in the pipeline, which is a major step towards more coordinated planning. However, we expect it to look more like a reactive tool for tracking projects rather than a geographically focused spatial plan.
As a result, Government seem likely to stop short of proactively aligning infrastructure with housing and employment activity in specific locations that the RTPI has called for.
This is the spatial planning approach for transport, water, waste, and wastewater that we’re pleased to see will be championed by a new taskforce led by the Chief Planner.
We’ve argued that adopting this approach more widely across government would help to maximise the community benefits of planning and help to minimise the trade-offs between environmental protection and growth.
Response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s infrastructure planning review
Over the years, National Policy Statements have become out of date and their review processes very long and drawn out. We are pleased to see that the government agrees with the National Infrastructure Commission’s proposals to review NPS every five years and create a new central government forum with strategic oversight of major infrastructure projects. This was also one of the asks of political parties in our Planifesto for the next General Election. However, the government could still go further to provide a clearer plan to develop platforms for sharing environmental data.
Long-term plans for engagement and consultation
The Government has indicated that it will explore reforming the way engagement and consultation operate to increase certainty and reduce delays. It is promising that the government acknowledges that effective democratic engagement can allow for collaboration between developers and communities, increasing acceptance of projects and reducing the risk of legal challenge.
We support attention the government will give to international best practice to design a system that facilitates meaningful engagement at an early stage. In our response to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ September consultation on reforms to the NSIP consenting process, we highlighted the potential to build on international approaches like that of France's Commission Nationale du Débat Public, an independent national body that oversees engagement for major infrastructure projects.
Community benefits for electricity connections
The Government plans to consult on community benefit packages for new grid infrastructure in order to incentivise communities to host infrastructure in their local areas. This is likely to entail both mandating bill discounts of up to £10,000 per property (over 10 years) and a wider community benefits fund. Government surveys conducted to support this consultation show that 78% of people consider discounts on electricity bills would help make new grid infrastructure more acceptable.
The application of benefits to major nationally significant infrastructure such as strategic transmission lines is a new concept which would merit very careful consideration. A key concern is defining proximity in determining which households qualify for discounts. For example, a new transmission line could have landscape impacts beyond its ‘host’ localities. More fundamentally, providing discounts to individual households would also create a precedent in the planning system of paying individuals – rather than providing public services, improving the built environment, or delivering infrastructure – to compensate for the impact of development.
In the context of local energy infrastructure, we have previously said that community ownership of energy infrastructure is a better mechanism than payments as a way of giving communities a stake in local projects. Providing for a collective stewardship of assets is a well-established part of planning – providing direct financial benefits to individuals to compensate for development is not.
The RTPI will further consider the opportunities and challenges of introducing bill discounts in the planning system before the Government acts on these proposals.
Cost recovery for infrastructure consenting
Many of the changes to the consenting process were previously put forward in the consultation on reforms to the NSIP consenting process. Our response to that consultation expressed support for enabling the Planning Inspectorate and Statutory Consultees to achieve cost recovery for their work on consenting, a new fast-track route for projects that meet a quality standard, and building capacity in local authorities to support NSIP work.
A new announcement on capacity-building which is much welcomed is the creation of a long-term resourcing plan for infrastructure delivery. We noted in our response to September’s NSIP consultation that the government needs a resourcing strategy to support the Planning Inspectorate in particular, given that these and other reforms will expand its role in the planning system.
The RTPI will continue to actively engage with the government as it develops these proposals for infrastructure planning reform, particularly with respect to its long-term vision for engagement and consultation, innovative approaches to community benefits, and national spatial planning.
Find out more information about the RTPI’s policy and public affairs work on infrastructure planning reform here.