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Government announces plans to improve the NSIP regime

The Government has published its response to a consultation reviewing the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project ("NSIP") regime. The consultation followed significant changes made last year, which extended the regime to cover certain business and commercial projects.

The Government response states that the NSIP system has steadily improved and is working well; however, practical improvements are needed to further boost effectiveness.

The NSIP regime

Under the Planning Act 2008, NSIPs are approved by the Secretary of State via a single Development Consent Order ("DCO"), thereby circumventing the need to apply to the local authority for planning permission. The rationale is to provide a streamlined planning system for NSIPs in order to improve the delivery of infrastructure.

NSIPs were initially limited to the fields of energy, transport, water and waste. However, legislative changes last year mean certain types of business and commercial projects can now also use the regime if they are deemed nationally significant. Prescribed categories of business and commercial project capable of being treated as NSIPs include office use, research, storage, leisure and tourism.

The NSIP consent process involves six key stages:

1. Pre-application: Applicants must consult affected local authorities and produce a corresponding 'Statement of Community Consultation' ("SCC"). When an application is submitted, it should be accompanied by various supporting documents, including the SCC and a draft DCO.

2. Acceptance: The Secretary of State has 28 days from submission to decide whether to accept the application. As part of this process the local authority will be asked to provide a statement on the adequacy of the consultation.

3. Pre-examination: If the application is accepted, pre-examination begins. This is a procedure similar to the lead up to a major public inquiry. The local authority can make representations and must submit a local impact report on the proposed development. The Secretary of State will finalise the issues to be examined and the process for doing so.

4. Examination: Most issues will be dealt with by written representations; however, there is scope to call hearings at which interested parties may provide evidence.

5. Decision: The examining panel has 3 months to report to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State then has a further 3 months to publish a decision.

6. Post-decision: There is opportunity to challenge the decision via judicial review.

Proposed improvements

The Government's consultation response has identified three key areas for improvement: the pre-application process, post-consent changes to DCOs, and engagement with communities and local authorities.

Detailed guidance on the pre-application process is to be published, including worked examples of good applications and draft DCOs.

The Government will also look to provide a simpler, more flexible and quicker consent process for material changes to DCOs.

Improved guidance will be produced on community engagement, while a working group for statutory consultees and local authorities will be created to clarify roles and encourage peer support.

The full Government response is available here.

To see a fuller explanation of the process and the implications for local authorities click here.