It is clear that in the wake of COVID-19, we need to adapt and innovate to support the UK’s recovery. Changes are needed today to deliver the essential housing, infrastructure and economic corridors that will underpin society tomorrow; but its delivery begins and ends with the people we build it for.

Copper, along with planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore  and solicitors Womble Bond Dickinson,  has released a report on the successes and challenges of the development consent order (DCO) process, in context of the wider planning system and society’s fast-evolving needs. The report asks ‘Can Development Consent Orders help meet the challenges of our time?’  and calls for changes to a disconnected planning system.

We researched perspectives of leading voices from across the planning, development and infrastructure industry on their experiences delivering nationally significant infrastructure projects (or NSIPs). Comprising both in-depth interviews and industry-wide surveys, the report assesses industry views on the relative strengths, challenges and weaknesses of the Planning Act in 2008 in context of the UK’s wider planning system.

The DCO process is characterised by front-loaded engagement and consultation with stakeholders and the public – which offers certainty that industry continues to welcome, the report found, and will be critical in accelerating delivery of the infrastructure the UK needs to recover after COVID-19. However, participants in the study overwhelmingly thought infrastructure and spatial planning are disconnected from each other, introducing risk for investors and removing choice for developers.

The research asked participants whether the principles of the DCO process could be applied more broadly for large-scale, mixed-use settlements: over 90% either said yes, or maybe. However, this is not as simple as extending the remit of the existing process of wider use – it needs significant enhancements to enable flexibility and retain local authority powers.

The report concludes that integrating infrastructure, housing and jobs at different spatial scales is needed so that all can be delivered in the national, regional and local interest. Specifically, its recommendations were that Government and industry:

  • Reinforces and enhances the certainty of the DCO process
  • De-risks projects and facilitates investment by applying the DCO principles of front-loaded engagement and compulsory acquisition to other consenting processes
  • Explores extending the remit of the DCO process to new settlements and other complex developments by preparing a National Settlements Strategy (NSS) equivalent to National Policy Statements.

Infrastructure’s success stories are led by open, honest conversations about the need and benefits of a project, securing buy-in from stakeholders and communities, and delivering the right scheme for them. We need to work in partnership with communities, articulating the benefits of schemes in ways that are relevant to them. Only when people are at the heart of development does the community, and country, benefit.

The DCO process has merit and relevance – but not just because of the certainty and timeframes articulated in the report. Meaningful consultation and engagement is enshrined in statutory law. Approval is dependent on evidence that promoters respond to consultees’ needs and priorities as far as is reasonable. They must demonstrate how they reflect the requirements of the landscape, the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve, and the economic context of the surrounding area. Only when people are at the heart of development does the community, and country, benefit.

A summary of the report’s findings can be found below.

If you would like to read the full report, follow this link.