The strength and certainty of the Development Consent Order (DCO) planning process will be essential for powering the UK economy back to growth following Covid-19, according to research findings from Barton Willmore in conjunction with Womble Bond Dickinson and Copper.
The planning and design consultancy has surveyed the industry to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the planning regime for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects as created by the Planning Act in 2008, the year of the global financial crisis. The process deals with planning applications for major infrastructure projects from roads and railways to power stations, wind and solar farms, rail freight terminals and a host of specialist schemes at scale.
Certainty created by the DCO process – which is the result of a heavily prescribed set of responsibilities on both the applicant and on the Planning Inspectorate, which determines applications in conjunction with a final decision by the relevant secretary of state – makes the process more important now than ever, according to Barton Willmore.
Ben Lewis, infrastructure and energy director at Barton Willmore, said: “The UK economy has been seriously shaken by Covid-19 and there will be more aftershocks to come. We need infrastructure investment to power us out of this pandemic and, for that to happen, we need the right conditions for creating confidence, stimulating investment, and enabling projects to move forward. Our research has highlighted the imperative of certainty in the planning process as the most valued aspect of the DCO regime. Right now, we should all see the DCO process as a key cog in the economic recovery wheel – we are going to be heavily reliant on it and we need to ensure it is fit-for-purpose and maintained at all costs.”
The Barton Wilmore research also highlighted: -
- That the DCO process’s ability to balance scrutiny of proposals with a committed timetable for decision-making is its most widely appreciated strength.
- How these ‘certainty principles’ are integral to the effectiveness and success of the DCO regime over a decade of delivery since its creation in 2008.
- That sustained efforts must be made by government to keep an up-to-date set of National Policy Statements (NPS) in place – on the basis that these statements underpin the need case and are the foundations upon which the DCO process is built.
- How the clarity and certainty of the DCO process timetable ensures that projects can move from planning into construction and operation quickly and seamlessly – gone are the former delays between a project approval and the applicant’s ability to get going because the fixed DCO decision-making timetable enables applicants to accurately forward plan for construction and operation.
More than anything, the research reinforces the value of the DCO process for effective and timely decision-making, according to Barton Willmore, and proves that it will have a crucial role to play in the immediate future.
“Boris Johnson’s government promised the UK an infrastructure revolution and a levelling up agenda,” adds Ben Lewis. “Now, with Covid-19 added on top and calls for a green recovery, the importance of the right decision-making framework for infrastructure investment is even more plain to see. We are almost a decade on from the first DCO being approved and the system is proving itself to be more valuable now than ever. In my opinion, it is the single most important aspect of powering the UK back to growth and I think we will see its worth in the next few years more than ever before.”
Informed by the research, Barton Willmore is also engaging with industry bodies, including the National Infrastructure Planning Association and pressing government to legislate for a formal review of all NPSs every five years and to remove the need for an NPS to be suspended whilst it is under review. This, Barton Willmore argues, will enable an improved and enhanced DCO process to function as effectively as possible and eliminate the risks of decisions being stalled or challenged because an up-to-date NPS is not in place.
It will also ensure the maintenance of a comprehensive national need case that ties in with the National Infrastructure Assessment (produced by the National Infrastructure Commission) and hopefully, the government’s long overdue National Infrastructure Strategy.
The report, Can Development Consent Orders help meet the challenges of our time? is due to be published on 8 July 2020 and is available from http://www.bartonwillmore.co.uk/