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Infrastructure Planning (Business or Commercial Projects) Regulations 2013

Volume 750: debated on Monday 2 December 2013

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Infrastructure Planning (Business or Commercial Projects) Regulations 2013.

Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 18th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to the many Members of your Lordships’ House who have taken a close interest in the Government’s proposal to extend the infrastructure planning regime to business and commercial development as an opt-in for developers. This change was debated thoroughly in your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013. During the evidence sessions held at the start of the Act’s passage, both the CBI and the British Chamber of Commerce expressed support for the Government’s proposal. The CBI said that companies which are R&D intensive could see scope to use the infrastructure planning regime and,

“that those kinds of developments are very much in Britain’s interest not only from a local point of view in creating local jobs, but in terms of driving growth and developing Britain’s industrial strengths”.

In addition, the British Chamber of Commerce said that it supported the change that would make it possible for a large industrial development that is nationally significant and with export potential to benefit from a faster planning regime.

The Growth and Infrastructure Act provided a new provision enabling business and commercial projects to make use of the nationally significant infrastructure planning regime, and enabled regulations to be made setting out the particular types of projects that could benefit from this option. The Government carried out a consultation last winter to inform detailed design of these regulations. We received over 100 responses, which have allowed us to refine our approach to ensure that it will benefit a wide range of businesses. These regulations therefore prescribe the types of business and commercial projects that will be able to use the infrastructure planning regime. The regulations do not place any additional burdens on business but open up the streamlined infrastructure planning regime as an option for the most significant business and commercial schemes.

Increasing the speed and certainty of the planning regime is vital to our economic growth and has been a top priority for the Government. The Government have made significant strides in simplifying and speeding up the planning system, with the new National Planning Policy Framework published in 2011, streamlined and web-based planning guidance and important legislative changes through the Localism Act 2011 and Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013. However, over the past few years there has been a decline in the speed with which local planning authorities determine large-scale major commercial and industrial applications. This is despite a reduction in the number of cases that authorities have to process. Over the five years since 2008-09, the proportion of large-scale major applications that were determined within 13 weeks fell from 68% to 53%. Delay results in additional costs and uncertainty to developers, delaying much needed new investment and jobs. Large-scale major business and commercial schemes can be complex and controversial locally and may require a number of different consents, not just planning permission.

In response to these concerns, the Government announced their intention to extend the nationally significant infrastructure planning to business and commercial projects, as an option for developers. The infrastructure planning regime—which is focused on nationally significant projects relating to energy, transport, water, waste and waste water—allows for a single consent regime which is useful where multiple consents are required and a streamlined process for considering applications. The infrastructure planning regime offers a number of potential benefits to developers, including statutory timetabling of a maximum of one year from the start of the examination to decision and removing the potential for call-in or appeal. These features could provide important benefits to developers of the most significant business and commercial projects. Increased certainty could also enable developers of the most significant business and commercial projects to secure the necessary finance faster to commence their projects once a decision has been made. By offering a new, streamlined option for the determination of these business and commercial projects, we are providing a way for these important projects to be built more quickly and provide a crucial boost to the economy.

These regulations therefore enable business and commercial development—including offices, research and development, industrial processes, storage or distribution, conferences, exhibitions, sport, leisure and tourism—to benefit from the option of using the infrastructure planning regime. It might assist noble Lords if I briefly explained how the regulations will work in practice. If a developer wants their business or commercial project dealt with though the infrastructure planning regime, they will need first to make a written request to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to use the regime. The Secretary of State will make a direction for the application or proposed application to be determined through the infrastructure planning regime, if he is satisfied that the project both falls within one of the prescribed types of project and is nationally significant.

To assist developers, the Government have published the factors that the Secretary of State will take into account in considering whether a project is nationally significant or not. These are set out in a policy statement published alongside the draft regulations, which is available in your Lordships’ Library and the Printed Paper Office. The Secretary of State will consider carefully all relevant matters concerning national significance, including whether the project is likely to have a significant economic impact over a period of time. Job creation and new investment into the economy would be taken into account. Consideration will be given to whether the impact of the project is wider than a single local authority area; major business or commercial schemes can generate, for example, economic benefits across more than one local planning authority area. The Secretary of State will also take into account the physical size of the project and its importance to the delivery of a nationally significant infrastructure project or other significant development. This could potentially benefit a complex mixed-use business development.

Once the direction is given, the project will need to comply with the requirements of the nationally significant infrastructure planning regime. These requirements include comprehensive pre-application consultation with the local community, local authorities and statutory consultees. The local authority plays a vital role in the infrastructure planning regime, preparing a local impact report and representing the views of the community during the pre-application and examination stages. This enables developers to recognise and understand the issues for local communities and allows them to refine their proposals accordingly.

We all agree on the need to support new investment and jobs. That is why we have acted to extend the benefits of the infrastructure planning regime to business and commercial development, helping to bring forward appropriate development and reduce delays that cause uncertainty for local communities and businesses looking to create jobs. These regulations provide an optional route for the developers of potentially nationally significant business and commercial projects and we believe that they should be approved as part of our wider plans for driving economic growth. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very full introduction of these regulations. She also thanked the many Members of the House who took an interest in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill—clearly a waning interest given the lack of presence in the Committee today. However, we all agree on the importance of generating new investment and jobs for our economy. I think it is fair to say that these regulations carry no surprises in so far as they are entirely consistent with the June 2013 response to the November 2012 consultation. They are part of a range of measures which have as their root the assumption that it is the planning system which is holding back growth and that opening up pathways for developers to circumvent local planning authorities should be facilitated. We could spend a long time debating this—the purpose of planning, the engagement of local communities, the balanced judgments that good planning should entail and much else—but clearly we have before us an SI that emanates from primary legislation which we must accept as a fait accompli.

In the same area, I take this opportunity briefly to ask about the designation of local planning authorities which are deemed not be dealing expeditiously or in a quality way under what was Clause 1 of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. How many of those local authorities, which is an adjunct to this, have currently been designated? I have a few more questions for the Minister. We support the exclusion of the construction of dwellings from the scope of these regulations, but we would like some clarification. The SI covers developments that wholly or mainly comprise the activities set down, but it must not include the construction of one or more dwellings. Can it be confirmed that any minor part of a development, such as a residential floor atop of an office development, would preclude this procedure being adopted? That would seem to be what runs from a strict reading of the regulations.

The secondary legislation committee commented on the consultation process and made reference to the fact that the consultation ran for six weeks over Christmas, which it suggested was at odds with good practice. It went on to point out that it took the department five months to publish its response. Perhaps we might hear from the Minister why that was so. There was also some suggestion of disparity between the conclusions drawn by the Government and the level of responses received under the consultation.

Given the architecture of the position we are dealing with, we support the exclusion of new coal development and oil and gas, as well as the exclusion of retail and generally the exclusion of development of homes, but we are disappointed that there is no commitment on the production of national policy statements. Those criteria could have applications to developments which might have a regional or even sub-regional basis. As the Minister outlined, the criteria adopted are: whether a project is likely to have a significant economic impact or is important for driving growth in the economy, and I would be interested to understand how significant economic impacts are determined for this purpose; whether a project has an impact across an area wider than a single local authority area, which could occur in many developments and hardly be indicative of something of national significance; and whether a project is of a substantial physical size, which, similarly, may be indicative of some regional project rather than something which is of national significance. There is also reference to the creation of sports stadia and it is suggested that where seating capacity is less than 40,000 seats that should not be seen as being of national significance. A 40,000-seater stadium is not that unusual across the country. We in Luton aspire to maybe 25,000—we could do with 5,000 as it stands—but 40,000 does not seem to me indicative of something which is inevitably of national significance.

I have a few more questions. Will the Secretary of State be required to publish the reasons for his decision to assume authority to decide any particular application? In the absence of a relevant national policy statement, what will be the role of the local plan in guiding decision-making? What if anything will be required of local planning authorities in relation to this process? In particular, can the Minister remind us of what is entailed in consultation under this planning route? It appears that a new consent service unit has been established whose task is to improve co-ordination and communication between the Planning Inspectorate, applicants and consenting bodies. Can the Minister give us a clue as to how large that service unit is and how many individuals are involved in it? Can she also say how many applications are currently proceeding on non-business and commercial projects through the national infrastructure process and what the performance levels are? In particular, I am driving at whether the Minister is confident of the capacity for it to do more and to take on projects that might run from this SI.

There was debate, particularly in the other place, when the Bill was under consideration about whether quarrying or surface mineral extraction such as open-cast mining would be included. It is clear that we have excluded new coal, oil and gas, but I am not sure whether that potentially leaves anything under that description. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on this.

Clearly, we will not oppose the regulations, but they give rise to some quite serious questions as to the level of discretion which is left to the Secretary of State on what are fairly broad criteria. It would therefore be helpful to have as much detail on the record today as possible.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for making it clear that the Opposition will not oppose the regulations. I note what he said about the absence of many of those noble Lords who had contributed during the passage of the Bill not being here for the regulations today. I take that as a good sign and am grateful for the support that I have received.

As the noble Lord will know, it was my noble friend Lady Hanham and not me who took the Bill through your Lordships’ House, so it is something with which I am becoming familiar in some detail at this stage. I will try to respond to the numerous points raised. A good place to start is to remind the Committee that we expect that in most cases the local authority will be able to provide a swift decision on business and commercial developments, and that that will remain the route for the vast majority of applications. We are providing an alternative route and, in doing so, some certainty for developers, because of the statutory timetabling of the infrastructure planning regime.

The noble Lord raised a point about the length of the consultation, and about why we only consulted for six weeks. It is worth reminding noble Lords that, in accordance with revised Cabinet Office guidelines, we now take shorter periods for consultation where we believe that the issue is one specific to, or of primary concern to, professional or trade areas, or, in this case, local authority bodies. Therefore, six weeks was considered to be adequate for people to respond, and the fact that we received over 100 responses suggests that people felt they had adequate time.

The noble Lord asked why there was no national policy statement. We do not think the case for one here is strong, mainly because this is a new option for developers; it is not mandatory and the Secretary of State retains some discretion in deciding whether or not an application should follow this route. In this context, therefore, we do not think a national policy statement is needed. He asked about housing, and whether the criteria exclude any residential element. That is absolutely right: we are firm and clear that responsibility for housing should remain with local authorities, so if one of these plans included housing that would render it unsuitable for this type of application. However, I remind noble Lords that most big projects would want to use the existing routes—this is an option, not the way they have to go.

The Minister has been clear. However, if there was a very significant official or commercial development, and it happened to have a few penthouse suites at the top, are we saying that that would completely preclude such a development from availing itself of these provisions, whereas without the suites it would have been eligible?

The advice I have been given is very clear that any kind of housing would not be permissible, if this was the route chosen by the developer. The regulations are quite clear on that, so I can be clearer than I am normally able to be in these circumstances.

The noble Lord referred back to a debate during the passage of the Bill and asked how many local planning authorities are designated as poorly performing. One local authority has been so designated. He asked about the consent service unit, the team responsible for this new process. It is a small unit of three people, with secondees from Natural England and the Environment Agency providing ongoing support to a number of major projects.

The noble Lord also asked why we have not explained how we will decide whether a project is likely to have a significant economic impact. I can best answer that by repeating a point I made in response to another question; namely, that the Secretary of State will need to consider these applications on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, it is not possible for me to be explicit in the way in which he would like me to be. To illustrate my point, perhaps I may use the example of whether a sports stadium is nationally significant or not, or whether cross-local authority issues may mean that it is nationally significant; in many cases it will not be. The point trying to be made by this is that, of itself, one element of a big plan might not warrant it being designated as nationally significant but, when combined with something else, a 40,000-seater stadium, for example, might qualify it as being nationally significant.

The noble Lord also asked about a policy framework for the business and commercial category, such as a national policy statement. I think that I have already answered that point. He also asked about the importance of local plans and how they fitted into the new regime. The local plan is likely to be an important and relevant factor to be taken into account. It is part of the type of things to be considered as and when an application is made.

The noble Lord asked about the number of cases going through the major infrastructure regime more generally. As he said, what was underpinning that question was whether we had capacity for more. Some 14 decisions have been taken under the infrastructure planning regime and another 20 are being considered either at the Planning Inspectorate or by Ministers. A further approximately 60 are at the pre-application stage. The regime is seen as working well and is widely supported by developers.

I think that I have covered all the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. On that basis, I just will restate how grateful I am to him for supporting these regulations. They will provide developers of potentially nationally significant business and commercial schemes with the choice of using the infrastructure planning regime and benefiting from its statutory timetable and certainty. These benefits are important in enabling developers to plan ahead and to secure the necessary finances in a timely manner to take forward their projects with confidence and, we believe, provide an important boost to growth.

Perhaps the Minister would drop me a line on what, if anything, is left around quarrying and surface mineral extraction. She made reference to one authority which has been designated. Is she in a position to let us know which authority that is?

On the latter question, at the moment the answer is no but, if I can, I will write to the noble Lord. As to quarrying, he is right that I did not address that point. Regulations include winning or working of minerals but exclude winning or working of peat, coal, oil or gas. I hope that that answers the noble Lord’s question. If he requires further information, I will write.

Motion agreed.