The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Nationally significant infrastructure projects: Another dent in the UK's localism agenda?

Formed during the boom years, the UK's localism agenda was intended to act as a brake on development. With investment capital scarce after the global financial crisis, the policy is starting to look unaffordable, with campaigns to make all sorts of projects look like "nationally significant infrastructure projects" (NSIPs) to speed up planning delays and attract funding, as James Patterson-Waterston discusses.

James Patterson-Waterston

James Patterson-Waterston

Cities: London

Topics: Integrated planning, Roads and traffic, Transport, New cities and special projects, National governance, Development authority, Participatory governance, Environmental impacts

The UK Planning Act 2008 brought in by the Conservative-led coalition government introduced a new "fast-track" planning regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) such as airports and rail lines. The new rules, designed to limit the potential for costly delays in the planning process, were introduced following a series of lengthy and damaging planning enquiries into London Heathrow Terminal 5 and the High Speed 1 line through the Kent countryside. The planning system, with its long-borne focus on adjacency rights and the multiple opportunities for judicial intervention, appeared unfit for purpose in a modern, investment-hungry and open economy like the UK.

The reform therefore received much praise from the industry and investors alike, amid the damaging global economic slowdown. It appeared that the NSIP fast-track process would increase both the opportunities and the viability of large-scale infrastructure projects in the UK.

All good so far, you might think, however in parallel the UK Conservative Party released its 2008 Localism green paper, recommending the introduction of a series of measures designed to maximise the involvement of local communities in planning decisions, such as those discussed here on The Global Urbanist last month. These measures included length public consultation and statutory referenda. The reforms were central to the party's successful 2010 election campaign, and in large part supported by their devolution-hungry junior partners in the resulting coalition government, the Liberal Democrats.

What followed was a critical meeting of the two agendas: a sluggish economy desperately in need of infrastructure investment; infrastructure investors with new centrally supported "fast track" tools to negotiate the labyrinthine planning system; and a government faced with the conflict of both requiring and encouraging such investment, while also retaining its support for local statutory decision-making (particularly in the generally more affluent areas in which it garners most support).

Two agendas collide

So what does this mean for the government's much-trumpted localism agenda? It should be recognised that much of these policy agendas were developed during the UK's economic boom, with its seemingly insatiable demand for growth in urban centres in the southeast of England. Many localism policies were proposed as de facto restrictions on development, as opposed to true consultative measures. The UK situation demonstrates the dangers when there are not clear distinctions and measures to deal with overlaps between local and national planning hierarchies.

This is a dilemma facing many developed countries around the world, as governments seek to increase capital spending in infrastructure projects in order to inject much needed activity into national economies. There is no clear answer in the conflict between national or regional strategic infrastructure priorities and local community.

The UK experience does demonstrate the importance of consultation (statutory or otherwise), in allowing for public discourse and the mitigation of negative common impacts. This can most clearly be seen in the case of the pending High Speed 2 rail line plans: protagonists are moving the debate towards the macroeconomic benefits of such a project and away from the negative impacts on nearby properties (and the wholesale removal of an urban block adjacent to London's Euston station).

Can anything be nationally significant infrastructure?

The official position appears to be developing rapidly into something along the lines of: localism good, unless it gets in the way of the nationally significant. Although this approach may make sense to a lot of observers, the big question is: what is nationally significant? And again this is something under debate in the UK, with a new consultation underway to expand the definition to include large office developments, research and development parks and other industrial activities — a long way from the vision initially proposed. Furthermore, although specifically excluded from the NSIP legislation, there are also plans to make it easier for ministers to wave through more large housing developments if they are "of such a scale that they are bigger than purely local developments". There are even campaigns underway to enable the inclusion of incidental housing in an NSIP application.

But times are hard in the UK at the moment, and investment is in short supply. So it seems that localism is still good … but only as long as it's affordable.

is a consultant on strategy, urban planning and development at Happold Consulting, with a particular focus on projects in China and central Asia. He was formerly a researcher on sustainable development in western China at the University of Cambridge, where he continues to be affiliated to the Mongolian and Inner Asian Studies Unit. His opinions are his own.