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Transport Select Committee scrutinises National Networks NPS

Angus Walker picture-13This entry reports on a Parliamentary oral evidence session on the National Networks National Policy Statement.

National Policy Statements (NPSs) are the backbone of the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure consenting regime. They perform two main functions: they set out what infrastructure of different types is needed, and what impacts project promoters should address and examining inspectors should assess when applications are made.

Nine NPSs have been brought into force ('designated' is the official word) so far - six on various types of energy, and one each on ports, waste water and hazardous waste. A tenth, covering road, railway and rail freight projects - the so-called 'NPS for National Networks' was published in draft in December 2013. The draft can be found here.

The scrutiny process for an NPS is fairly lengthy. There was a public consultation, which closed at the very precise time of 11.45pm on 26 February - woe betide anyone who submitted a response during the remaining 15 minutes of that day. There is then a phase of Parliamentary scrutiny. Technically either the relevant departmental select committee or a specially-created committee could be charged with considering the draft, but in every case so far it has been the select committee that has performed this function.

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Previous select committees have held a few evidence sessions where they ask questions of invited witnesses about the draft, but the Transport Select Committee, as far as I can tell, has decided to hold just one session, which took place on Monday. There is no transcript of the hearing available yet, but it will appear in due course at the bottom of this page, although a video recording of the proceedings can be found here. As a confirmed Planning Act anorak I went along and can thus impart to you what went down without you having to watch the recording.

The whole thing was over in less than two hours and was divided into three chunks. The first chunk was roughly the promoters' slot: Paul Plummer from Network Rail, Maggie Simpson from the Rail Freight Group, Richard Ballantyne from the British Ports Association and Martin Heffer from Parsons Brinckerhoff. I'm not quite sure why they had someone representing ports when the Ports NPS is already designated rather than someone from the Highways Agency who will be virtually the sole promoter of highways projects, but I suspect it is because they chose amongst those who had submitted written evidence to it and the HA hadn't, being an executive agency of NPS author the Department for Transport.

Committee chair Louise Ellman MP repeatedly asked witnesses whether the NPS was clear and whether its existence would make any difference. Most agreed that it was clear and would make a difference, although perhaps a bit vague on why. Maggie Simpson said that it would give users of the Planning Act regime more certainty and thus more confidence, which must surely be the case.

Rail freight is a bit different from the other two infrastructure types covered by the NPS, since the project promoters will be various private companies, while the strategic road network and rail network are the exclusive domain of the Highways Agency and Network Rail respectively (although in rare cases another party such as a local authority might act on their behalf). Confidence is therefore more of a factor for rail freight than the other projects.

The second chunk saw John Rhodes from planning consultancy Quod, Andrew Shaw from the Planning Officers Society, Jeremy Evans from the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Naomi Luhde-Thompson from Friends of the Earth (FoE). In common with other organisations such as the Campaign for Better Transport, FoE isn't very happy about the NPS at all, saying that its traffic forecasts are too high and the NPS simply declares that such predicted demand should be met, and it also doesn't allow climate change to be considered on individual applications.

John Rhodes, who of all the witnesses has the most practical experience of using the regime, said that the NPS could be made clearer for practitioners to be able to use it. The two other witnesses were mostly concerned that the NPS did not adequately address the effect of nationally significant road and rail projects on the local transport network.

On the clarity for practitioners front, the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) put in a submission. Unfortunately the NIPA website has been down for about nine months, but you can find the submission on the Parliament website here.

The final session had two witnesses: transport minister Robert Goodwill MP and John Dowie, a senior civil servant at the Department for Transport. I thought Robert Goodwill was quite good, and only needed to have his answers 'clarified' by his official a couple of times. He defended the omission of climate change from individual project impacts well, saying that climate change was a generalised effect that it was not up to a particular project to address, in contrast to pollutants such as nitrous oxide and particulates, which were more localised and a legitimate impact for a particular project to deal with.

My heart sank at one point when committee member and MP for Cleethorpes Martin Vickers asked if fixed timescales should be introduced for projects covered by the NPS, when his constituency has the most live NSIP applications in the country (four), and even worse the minister didn't know, or had forgotten, that fixed timescales are a key feature of the Planning Act regime either and waffled on about local authority targets. Sigh.

In order to engage Martin Vickers, Robert Goodwill kept referring to a fictional bypass of a market town in North Lincolnshire, although I'm not sure that would be an NSIP. In fact there is a real highway NSIP currently at pre-examination stage in North Lincolnshire - the A160/A180 improvement. Tip to civil servants: check for NSIPs in MPs' constituencies when briefing ministers.

So that may be the sum total of public scrutiny of the NPS by the select committee, who are under a duty to produce a report, likely to be the next thing to happen. In fact there isn't long for this, because according to the standing orders of the House of Commons, it needs to be published not later than 39 days before the date mentioned in the minister's statement when the NPS was published, which was 21 May. By my calculations that gives them until 12 April. Let us not forget the House of Lords, who will also consider the NPS but haven't announced a date for doing so yet.

Robert Goodwill said that the government would report on the NPS in the autumn (i.e. produce a consultation response and a final draft of the NPS) and aim to designate it by the end of the year.

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