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Can something as humdrum as planning reform be a vote winner? It hardly makes for sexy politics. But it is a clever gamble by the UK’s opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer when it comes to winning over businesses.
From housebuilder Barratt Developments to energy group ScottishPower, corporate bosses regularly gripe about the UK’s planning rules.
National Grid’s chief strategy and external affairs officer, Ben Wilson, told a meeting at this week’s Labour party conference in Liverpool that it can take more than ten years to build a new electricity transmission line in Britain. “Seven years of which is planning,” he said.
It is little wonder then that Starmer says, if elected, his party will tackle planning blockages to get “Britain building again”. But ungumming the system will be no easy task.
For one, local authority planning departments, which assess applications for new housing developments, are frequently under-resourced and understaffed.
Salaries for planning officers can hardly compete with similar roles in the private sector. A quarter of planners left the public sector between 2013 and 2020, says the Royal Town Planning Institute. The 300 new planning officers promised by Labour if it wins the next UK election is a start, but it needs “another zero on the end” said the RTPI’s chief executive Victoria Hills.
When it comes to infrastructure planning, difficult decisions will be required in communities where pylons and other infrastructure are proposed. Politicians often like to hide behind planning rules to avoid these.
Key to building infrastructure faster will be spelling out — without ambiguity — the government’s priorities. Wonkishly-named “national policy statements” — of which the government has published about 13 — are meant to do this. First introduced in the early 2010s, they were intended to prevent nationally significant infrastructure projects such as new power plants or reservoirs from being snarled up for years in public inquiries. Initially they worked well. One problem is that the statements have not been kept up-to-date in line with other policy changes such as net zero.
“They get out of date really quickly,” said Robbie Owen, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. “For those who want to try and sink these projects . . . it provides lots of scope for them to argue — when eventual decisions are taken on outdated national policy statements — that they are legally flawed”.
The National Infrastructure Commission, a government advisory body, has blamed this for a slowdown in planning for big transport, energy and water projects. Since 2012, average consenting times had increased from about 2.5 years to more than four, it said. The proportion of decisions subject to judicial reviews has also risen to 58 per cent from a long-term average of ten per cent. Updating statements doesn’t mean applications will always succeed. But it should shorten delays.
Labour has promised to update all NPSs within the first six months if it wins power. Current environment secretary Thérèse Coffey published a new NPS for water resources infrastructure in September. New statements for some energy infrastructure, but not all, have been consulted on but are yet to be published in final form.
Remaining plans must be accelerated. Experts such as the NIC insist the government needs to introduce a mechanism to ensure the statements are updated every five years, otherwise the system could grind to a halt again.
The question of winning over local communities is harder to resolve. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves suggested on Monday that people living near new pylons or substations could be offered lower energy bills. That’s unlikely to be enough for residents in areas such as East Anglia, where a lot of grid infrastructure will be needed to transmit electricity from large offshore wind farms planned off the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts.
Developers already offer benefits on a project-by-project basis. But ministers this year consulted on a system of “community benefits”. These, the government said, should be “fair and just both for communities hosting the [electricity grid] infrastructure, and for those who fund it”.
That will be a tricky balance. Where house prices might be affected, very little will seem “fair”. If the next government really wants to get Britain building, it must be prepared to push ahead with housing and infrastructure projects even if they are unpopular locally.