Our Account Manager Rory Puxley attended the first day of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) Forum 2021, with a focus on the impact covid-19 has had on NSIP consultations and the digital innovations that have been accelerated by remote working.

Here are his five key takeaways:

1. 100th NSIP consent and new delivery timeline

The approval of the A1 Birtley to Coal House project was the 100th NSIP consented, with 17 decisions made and 8 new schemes submitted in the past year. Over next financial year, the Planning Inspectorate expects to receive 28 projects for review, slightly lower than last year. Reforms emerging through ‘Project Speed’ include the ambition to cut timescales for projects entering the planning system from September 2023.

2. MHCLG seeks innovation

There is a desire to create space for innovation and risk taking to accelerate the NSIP process, suggesting that the Planning Inspectorate, applicants and statutory consultees could all identify new ways for the process to be improved. The prototype for innovation in the NSIP process is the Highways England A66 project, where new approaches are being invested in to identify innovative ways to deliver faster consents, communicating changes in the process to ensure transparency of reporting and that opportunities to contribute remain. Continuing this work, MHCLG want to identify a small number of other opportunities for innovating process in other sectors, where different hypotheses can be tested to identify strategic benefits for the whole NSIP regime.

3. ‘Digital by default’ consultation?

‘Project Speed’ and the past year of remote working has suggested there is significant opportunity for the Planning Inspectorate to pioneer digital transformation of projects. The planning white paper makes note of digital planning and the benefits it would bring to the NSIP regime, moving to a more ‘digital by default’ approach for engagement with NSIPs. This may present challenges with digital interface, with MHCLG and industry promoting the importance of access and standardization of data, as well as increasing the utility of public documents by making them easier to find, reducing the often overwhelming amount of data and simplifying complex information. As an industry example, Advice Notes currently require a reading comprehension of a post-graduate, with suggestions this should be the level of a 14 year old.

4. Covid impact on NSIP consultation and engagement

The pandemic has changed the way people work and interact with their local area, presenting barriers to consultation, but also new opportunities. Whereas some groups have been disadvantaged by the move to digital consultation, others such as full-time workers now based from home have been able to engage with developments in their local area to a greater degree than before. Research by Commonplace suggests that there is a huge public demand for engagement, with 76% of people wanting engage with projects happening in their local area, whilst 71% want to be kept updated about these schemes, a figure that rises to 87% once someone has engaged with a local project. There are however still major barriers to engagement, with only 27% having taken part in a consultation such as attending a public meeting or other engagement activity, while twice as many people had signed a petition. Trust remains a big issue in the industry, with only 2% of people trusting developers, while 7% trust Local Authorities.

5. Importance of reviewing National Policy Statements

A number of speakers identified the importance of National Policy Statements (NPSs) covering each infrastructure area, with a several calls to review of ambiguity of areas covered and keep these documents updated. MHCLG will be coordinating the need for a review, with the streamlining of NPSs ongoing. Within the context of new renewables projects, offshore wind in East Anglia is currently going through this review process, as others in the industry want a strong policy basis. In some cases, such as the energy NPS, policy had aged significantly since being first drafted. With the desire for infrastructure to be a critical factor in balancing the north and south, driving economic growth and development, NPSs will be crucial to these aims, and will require constant review to keep relevant and in date.