Planning ahead

The launch of the Infrastructure Planning Commission in the UK has been heralded as the key to unblocking planning barriers and encouraging private investment in the UK’s infrastructure. The question is: Can it deliver?

The vociferous reaction from a wide range of parties to the sale of Gatwick Airport last week highlighted the sensitivity surrounding infrastructure assets and projects which could be subject to controversial planning decisions in the future.

In the past, planning hurdles have proved the bane of many an infrastructure project, not least for airport owners. The new £4.3 billion (€4.8 billion; $7.1 billion) Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport struggled with planning glitches for seven years before finally gaining consent. Similarly, the £5 billion Thameslink rail expansion programme was also bogged down at the planning stage and dragged through two public enquiries before being approved.

These projects are not the only ones to have suffered at the hands of the British planning system. The frustrating nature of gaining planning consent has led to an environment where it is often unattractive for private developers to undertake large-scale infrastructure projects.

Help may now be at hand. The Infrastructure Planning Commission, a new body formed to expedite the planning process and encourage private investment in infrastructure, was launched this month. Infrastructure Investor met Michael Pitt, the head of the IPC, earlier this week to find out more. “The new regime makes life much simpler for all concerned,” Pitt, a former civil engineer specialising in road and bridge infrastructure, promised.

The commission is currently acting in an advisory capacity, but it will begin to formally receive project applications in March of next year. Its remit will span the full infrastructure spectrum, ranging from oil and gas pipelines, water and waste projects to roads, ports and railways.

Energy will be a particular focus. Of the first 11 projects to be considered by the commission, two relate to new nuclear power stations, five are wind farms and two electricity grid projects.

Airport development will also be addressed, so perhaps the next runway or terminal to be proposed may take slightly less than the seven years Heathrow’s terminal 5 took to secure approval. (Gatwick’s seller, BAA, had last year put forward the idea of building a second runway at the airport. Its new owner could pursue similar plans.)

According to Pitt, the IPC has been warmly received by private developers. And its establishment has come not a moment too soon for some in the industry.

“Some firms, frustrated by the UK’s planning regime, have already taken their investments overseas, so the top priority for the government must be to publish the National Policy Statements on infrastructure development sooner rather than later. That will allow firms to invest with confidence, […] building the new transport and energy infrastructure needed to shift to a low-carbon economy,” said John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, a business lobbying group.

Surely, until visible progress is made in infrastructure project planning, it will be impossible to tell whether the IPC has been able to deliver on its promise.

It is a proactive move, though. And if it does encourage private investment in infrastructure, other countries may soon follow the IPC’s lead.