Challenges of Infrastructure Planning in England: A Case Study

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Explain the infrastructure planning system in England and critically assess the challenges of infrastructure planning in England with a case study of a major infrastructure sector.

Globally, the introduction of a specialised planning system in the late 19thcentury was due to and to reform to the poor living conditions and the diseases associated with these as a result of the slum like housing developments, which were rapidly appearing all over the world. One of the most vital features of a planning system is that there is a spatial element to allow for a place to behold all dimensions of society to integrate the social, economic and environmental needs in order to create a desirable place which is designed around meeting people’s needs (Allmendinger et al., 2005; Shaw & Lord, 2007). Vertical integration has always been a key part to a successful planning system, and this has been recognised and adopted into the English planning system which has a clear top-down approach with Governmental regulations dominating the plan making and decision-making processes for all new developments (Morphet, 2011). In this essay there will be a focus on the history of English planning system and the changes it has been through, there will be a predominant focus on changes affecting the planning process of major infrastructure systems. There will be an evaluation on how changes at the top affect the delivery of vital infrastructure in England and a specific focus on the energy sector and the development and evolution of Hinkley Point nuclear power stations.

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The concept of a national plan was the by-product of the 1940 governmental commissioned Barlow Report (Jones, 1940). The result was the reformed 1947 planning system which introduced many major new additions to the spatial planning agenda including the designation of National Parks; The New Towns Act (1946); and the Town and Country Planning Act (1947) which delegated plan making and decision taking powers to lower down local governments. The main aims of the 1947 planning system were ultimately the same those today to control land management in the long term and for the social, environmental and social dimensions of a society to be wholly incorporated into new developments (Rydin, 1993). This new strict and structured planning system did negatively impact on the speed of delivery, as there were many new stages legislation to pass through and a rise in conflicting ideas for all sectors of major infrastructure developments. Prior to 1947 the ability for the development of a new power station, rail or road route would have been significantly easier and quicker to deliver. The localised opposition to such developments is not a new phenomenon, it was just an easier hurdle to delivery to bypass providing that major projects had government backing (Marshall, 2013).

All infrastructure systems, such as the transport, energy, waste and digital sectors are complex independent but interdependent systems, which due to an ever increasing demand are becoming more and more strained, calling for constant updates and upgrades to avoid becoming outdated or eventually reaching the end of their lifespan (Oughton et al., 2018). Consequently, most major countries are faced with a constant need to review their infrastructure systems and have crucial ongoing projects to address any issues to subsequently allow for modernisation and adaptations as required, these are predominantly notable and constant in the transport and energy sectors. The importance of consistently staying up to date and highly functional in these sectors is driven by a global need to accept change to achieve a lower carbon output. International competition is another major factor in the constant need for infrastructure development, as it is often a factor which is taken into consideration when assessing a nation’s global status and their success can be directly linked to the subsequent growth of the economy (Fay et al., 2003).

To focus on the delivery of energy infrastructure systems in England, the changes to the infrastructure planning system need to be considered; prior to the mid-twentieth century infrastructure planning had always been decentralised and it was a responsibility held by local authorities (Hall et al., 2012). Up until the 1980s the state had either significant control over or wholly owned the majority of energy operators and developers. Because of this there was complete transparency in new energy infrastructure developments and the Government were able to easily see the need for new major infrastructure projects, which in turn allowed for legitimacy to be apparent to the public (Marshall, 2013). This pre 2008 planning system was however argued to be inefficient, overly complicated and too central politically (Newman, 2009).

It was more recently when the infrastructure planning system returned to a nationalised system in the mid-twentieth century (Wong & Webb, 2014). This shift to the current nationalised and more market-based infrastructure system has been driven by the emergence of neo-liberalism based strategic policies in England. Inherently, there is a heavy reliance on the development and the delivery of hard infrastructure systems, which are independent systems that rely the soft infrastructure systems to maintain the social, institutional and technical elements of infrastructure cohesion which are all vital for the integration and functional ability of a national infrastructure system (Turner, 2018). This shift has also led to a subsequent rise of a polycentric approach to infrastructure systems due to the state becoming more privatised and selling off parts of the infrastructure systems making them external decentralised bodies. Ultimately, this means that the state is only one actor in the system, the others are predominantly private investors (Turner, 2018). This composition of private investors and the state being in control attracts controversial opinions. For some it can be interpreted that the infrastructure systems are being used primarily as financial assets to increase investors revenues and rather than a means of public benefit (Inderst, 2010).

The Government’s Planning for a Sustainable Future (2007) outlined plans for a new “streamlined” system, this was seen as a positive movement by the many, especially those in the nuclear power industry. One way in which the development of polycentric system has been legitimised in England is through the adoption of the 2008 Planning Act, created by the previous Labour Government. This act made several changes to planning policy and legal legislation relating to which nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIP) are to come forward and receive governmental as well as private backing. The two ways in which these changes were proposed was through the creation of National Policy Statements (NPS) and through the formation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC). These changes were made with the intention that both the delivery of NSIPs was increased so that the current demand for upgrades and new systems in England was met while simultaneously ensuring that the needs of the private investors were met (Turner, 2018). The Labour Government also claimed that these reforms would create a more transparent system with more accessible planning inquiries allowing for higher levels of public consultation and participation at such events which allow for the local residents who would be affected by such developments to voice their objections or show support (Newman, 2009).

The National Policy Statements (NPS) are Governmental documents produced to outline the policies that infrastructure sectors and their subsequent partners must adhere to in order to meet the government’s total objectives when proposing the development of new NSIP. There are twelve different designated NPS which are focused on setting out government policy on different types of national infrastructure development (Marshall, 2011). The main focus of the NPS is on how each sector plays a role in the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change and places sustainable development, integration with other systems, capacity and demand and safety at the core. They have a strategic spatial element as they suggest specific locations for new developments and subsequently outline a clear framework for investment and the final planning decision. One major criticism of the NPS is that through separating the sectors to have their own statements created by different bodies is that there is little inter-sector integration which is vital in order to achieve overarching national goals (Marshall, 2013).

The IPC were formed in conjunction with the NPS in 2008 but were created as a standalone body who sat independently from the government and the rest of the planning system. It was 35 experts who were at the head of the IPC, with a varied base of expertise covering industries from local and national government, planning, law, environment, and engineering (Johnstone, 2010). The formation of the IPC solidified a movement towards a more fragmented governmental structure, where agencies do jobs which used to be carried out by the government’s own ministers and departments (Newman, 2009). It was the IPC who were to independently make the final decisions on which NSIP were to be taken forward. It was the intention of the Labour Government that through having an independent decision panel focused purely on infrastructure, the speed of delivery of critical NSIPs would be accelerated as the examination and final decision making process would not be affected by the rest of the planning system (Pitt, 2010). It was the responsibility of the IPC to control any conflict in opinions between developers and the public, removing this from governmental management control (Newman, 2009). They were also responsible for the construction of national strategies, but not policy (Johnstone, 2010). This was the first time where there was a different body overseeing the national plan making process to the national decision-making process (Pitt, 2010).

The Labour Party Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband announced that it was envisaged that by 2019 there would be 10 new nuclear power developments in the UK, this was forward and driven by the goal of reducing 60% of man-made carbon emissions by 2050 (Johnstone, 2010). The main reason as to why this proposal was deemed to be so ambitious was that the last nuclear power development in the UK was back in 1985, at Sizewell B. Previous Governments had discounted the construction of new nuclear developments due to them being deemed too expensive and awkward, especially when considering issues with dealing with the waste produced and other elements of its reputation in the public eye (Johnstone, 2010).

The creation of the IPC was highly criticised and one of the main areas of concern was that due to a changed format away from public inquiries the ability for participants to cross-examine other witness in a legal format was removed as evidence was allowed to be presented but not tested (Newman, 2009). When the 2010 Coalition Government were elected, one of the initial reforms they made to the planning system was the 2011 Localism Act, this contained the legal abolishment of the IPC (Marshall, 2013) and to subsequently confirmed in April 2012 delegation this power back to the Planning Inspectorate.

The 2010 Coalition Government also adopted the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), with the revision in March 2012. The Framework has been revised most recently in July 2019. The NPPF outlines how a strategic, rather than spatial approach will be achieved in England through stating the clear guidelines for local authorities to follow and adhere to in both the plan making and decision taking stages. During the decision making process, all local planning authorities must use the NPPF as a material consideration (Ashworth, 2011). The Framework does not make any direct reference to the development of NSIPs or state any new policies for the infrastructure projects to adhere to. Rather, it delegates this responsibility to the NPS which is the most relevant to each individual infrastructure project. In order to grant these projects planning permission the NPS are therefore the main piece of legislation to be considered with the aims of the NPPF to promote sustainability, economically, environmentally and socially to be clearly shown as benefits of each NSIPs.

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Improving national infrastructure was one of the main aims of the 2010 Coalition Government. It was believed that through improving transport networks, extending broadband networks and developing nuclear and offshore wind energy systems the ever-stalling UK domestic economy would be lifted. There was seen to be a gap in national infrastructure planning policy and in 2011 the first National Infrastructure Plan was published, to fill the national gap. Once again, the driving factor behind the production of the NIP was the speed of the delivery of NSIPs in England. The most recently adopted NIP in 2014 focuses on 40 NSIPs which cover all different infrastructure sectors (Wong et al., 2012). This allowed for the creation of a hierarchy when considering NSIPS and priorities’ some NSIPs over others when looking at long-term goals. This is the first document that clearly states a funding breakdown for each of the NSIPs which is ultimately the most vital part in securing the delivery of the project (Marshall, 2012). The development of Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant is included in the 2014 NIP.

The NIP has been under scrutiny for showing various significant faults. Initially, although it does consider funding and costings for each project, the direct sources for each of these investments are not stated and therefore their viability and deliverability is questionable (Wong et al., 2012; RTPI, 2012). Secondly, the whole NIP is focused on projects of national importance and the deliverability and co-ordination of these projects and there is no focus or mention of more local scale infrastructure projects, which differs from the inherently localised planning system adopted by the government. This also fails to highlight the importance of the ability for the local scale infrastructure to support the national scale infrastructure as there is an interdependence between the two scales, especially when considering sustainability, which again is the main focus of the English planning system being at the very centre of the NPPF. Finally, when assessing the NIP, again sticking with the trend shown in the NPPF, there is no spatial element in the plan and rather focuses on each project individually (Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum, 2011).

The Coalition Government also introduced another two pieces of national legislation in 2013 for the infrastructure planning sector, which built upon the flaws of NIP and again had a heavy focus on the funding for NSIPs. The National Infrastructure Delivery Plan (NIDP) was published in 2013 and has been subsequently updated in 2016. The aim of the NIDP was to replace the NIP and therefore outlines which NSIPs were to have Government backing, the timelines for their delivery and importantly also contains strategic policies for each of the infrastructure sectors to meet (HM Treasury, 2016). The NIDP outlines the details of over 600 potential infrastructure projects nationwide to be carried out until 2020-21 and which have cumulative sum of investment of £483 billion. When looking at the element of funding overall, in the NIDP the government’s pledge to invest at least £100 billion to infrastructure is reiterated, this does however highlight the reliance on private investment which is a significant sum of over £300 billion if all the projects are to go ahead. A large majority of this is being funded by investment from the European Union, and therefore the outcome of Brexit will play a major part in whether these investors will still be interested in supporting UK infrastructure (Dunton, 2014). Additionally, the National Infrastructure Pipeline was published with the intention to be fully cohesive with the NIDP. It was intended that the National Infrastructure Pipeline should be updated annually which updates on the progression on the NSIPs as outlined in the NIDP. It is to be noted however that the National Infrastructure Pipeline is not a confirmation of commitment to deliver any aforementioned project and is rather intended to provide certainty to investors for any of the projects listed (HM Treasury, 2016).

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) were both set up in 2016 with the intention that these bodies will support the NIDP Framework, once again decentralising the infrastructure planning system. Both of these bodies have different goals. Short-term deliverability and funding is at the heart of the IPA whose responsibility is to report on the progression of NSIPs and to certify that the development is as cost-efficient as possible (HM Treasury, 2016). It is the long-term progression of NSIPs which is the focus of the NIC and this body must advise the Government on any problems that need to be overcome to ensure the deliverability of planned infrastructure over the next 30 years. In order to deliver sound advice to the Government, the NIC evaluate how infrastructure challenges can be overcome and avoided in the future in order to establish which NSIPs should be prioritised by the Government (Parker-Klein, 2017). The research conducted by the NIC plays a vital role in updating the NIDP and therefore consequently in altering the projects prioritised in the NIP.

In the UK, investment levels in the energy sector reached £18.7 billion in 2017. When this is broken down, 60% of this investment was in electricity production, 30% in oil extraction, 7.5% in gas and the remaining 2.5% in traditional coal mining extraction and the refined petroleum industry (BEIS, 2018). This is supported by a shift in energy policy towards nuclear power production, which is propelled by the desire to develop low-carbon technologies (Watson & Scott, 2009). In the NIPS, a consortium comprised of 3 multinational companies, EDF and CGN, Horizon Nuclear Power and NuGen have proposed that there are to be 6 new nuclear power developments, these are the developments at Hinkley Point, Sizewell, Oldbury, Bradwell and Moorside (HM Treasury, 2016). It is intended that if these developments go ahead that there will be at least 18 GW of new nuclear power produced by 2030.

The development of a new nuclear power facility on the Hinkley Point Complex in Somerset is highly logical and could be seen as a replacement of the decommissioning Hinkley Point A and an extension to Hinkley Point B which is still in operation. This development was first suggested back in the 1980s and underwent an initial public inquiry between 1988-89 (Jenkins, McCauley & Warren, 2017). This is a perfect indication of just how long NISPs take to deliver in England through constant revisions in policy making it an unsustainable system and due to this slow progress and lack of delivery, it is unsurprising that there is a growing need for change. The Hinkley Point C Development is the first new state approved nuclear plant to be approved since 1985 (Renssen, 2014), and is to be developed by a multinational consortium with EDF energy at the top. It is estimated that the construction will cost around €31.2 billion. The development is planned to become operational by 2023 and when at full capacity it will generate around 7% of the UKs total electricity production and will serve up to 6 million homes (Cernoch & Zapletalova, 2015).

In conclusion, the infrastructure planning system has been through rigorous policy changes and is often heavily affected by changes in Government. Because of this there is little progress for many NSIPs and where there is progress this progression is at a very slow rate. There are currently multiple adopted infrastructure planning documents, which have been summarised above, however there is little integration between policy documents and therefore the strategic approach is hindered. The adoption of the NIDP and the NIP has allowed for some integration to occur between plans and infrastructure sectors, despite a lack of a spatial framework. It is clear that the present system needs to be improved to allow for infrastructure developments to come forward in England so that the nation has a sustainable infrastructure system that is flexible enough to cope with any potential changes in the near future.


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