As part of its increasingly aggressive drive to achieve growth, the Coalition Government have introduced the Growth and Infrastructure Bill (G&I Bill) to Parliament. Slotted in to the gap left behind by the Lords Reform Bill, the G&I Bill feels somewhat shoehorned into Parliament and is now being pushed through at pace.
As the Localism Bill made its way through Parliament we were all fully engaged with the process. In comparison, this new bill seems to be sneaking its way through with its second reading due today. This Bill appears to be at odds with the Localism Act, placing economic interests before both local people and the environment. While it doesn’t mention ancient woodland directly, we feel the direction of travel poses a very real threat.
But what fireworks does this new act bring and what will go on the bonfire in its wake? Here are the elements that I think will have the most impact on the natural environment:
Speeding up the planning system…
- The 2008 Planning Act brought in the major infrastructure regime whereby major projects deemed to be of national significance are examined by the Planning Inspectorate and determined by the Secretary of State within a year. Currently this approach only covers nationally important infrastructure projects, such as airports and very large energy and waste developments. The G&I Bill will extend the remit of this process, but only defines this as far as “economically essential development, like manufacturing parks or big leisure parks”. Though in a speech the Planning Minister Nick Boles has indicated this could include science parks, industrial developments and minerals extraction. This will take power away from local people who want to protect their local environment.
- Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) that have a poor performance record in terms of time it takes them to reach decisions, and LPAs which are most often overruled at appeal, will be subject to special measures which would allow developers to bypass them and go straight to the Planning Inspectorate. Details of how these criteria will be judged have not however been made clear in the Bill so far, but it seems to me it will put increasing pressure on LPAs to rush decisions through, putting an increasing emphasis on quantity over quality.
- The Bill gives Mineral Planning Authorities (MPAs) greater discretion as to when they review Minerals Planning Permissions. The 1995 Environment Act currently determines that all minerals permissions should be reviewed every 15 years to ensure that all the attached conditions remain relevant and up to date. As you can imagine, with improving technologies there is always scope to minimise many of the impacts of mineral working such as noise, dust and vibration, and even conditions written only 15 years ago can seem very outdated. It also ensures that the best possible restoration scheme is progressed. To lose this opportunity to enhance environmental protection and improve the quality of life for residents near quarries for the sake of saving minerals operator’s money seems very short sighted.
- The Bill will also place a limit on the amount of information an LPA can request when an application is submitted, it must be judged to be reasonable. There is a real risk that ecological and arboricultural surveys may be the first to go if the LPA is under pressure to act quickly and there are no designated sites involved.
Facilitating new development…
- New rules will make it easier for landowners to prevent town and village green applications by allowing them to block other peoples applications. It will also end people’s right to apply to register a village green when there is a trigger event such as a planning application. We know this designation has been abused in the past and we knew it was coming, but what about the new ‘designated green space’ that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) promised?
- The G&I Bill will also amend the regulations that restrict where telecommunications equipment can be installed. This will make it easier for operators to install equipment in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
This is not supposed to be a definitive list; the G&I Bill covers many different things from employment law to investment in energy. This article just highlights some of the key planning points and illustrates what we believe to be an increased threat to natural environment as the dash for growth trumps other concerns. It seems to be a direct contradiction to the Localism Act. Instead of promoting local engagement and ‘people power’ it puts economic interests alone before the places that we all care about.
Victoria Bankes Price, Planning Adviser