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A view from the NSIP Forum 2023

Energy, Transport & Infrastructure

By Douglas Johnson

Most years that I’ve attended the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) Forum, discussion has followed a similar course. Generally, everyone agrees it would be helpful if the government updated the ageing national policy statements, notes ongoing resource challenges for consultees with concern, and enjoys the drinks in the evening.

The recent publication of the NSIP Action Plan by the government meant there was more to talk about at this year’s event, which took place last week. This sets out five areas where the government intends to improve the planning process for NSIPs: setting a clear strategic direction for infrastructure planning, operational reform to support a faster consenting process, realising better outcomes for the natural environment, recognising the role of local communities and strengthening engagement, and system capability.

It was particularly interesting to hear Lee Rowley MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, emphasise the need for developers to secure community buy-in for new infrastructure, telling the conference that, ‘growth needs to work for the average person on the street.’

This was borne out by other speakers. Mike Gildersleeves from the South and East Lincolnshire Councils Partnership highlighted the need for infrastructure to provide real benefits to the communities where it is located – and the challenges for host local authorities when it did not.

The Action Plan makes a number of welcome commitments to support engagement, including increasing funding available to local authorities for NSIP work and setting up a Local Authority Support Network. Consultee capacity and access to expertise can be a challenge in securing effective engagement on NSIPs and this should help.

Notably, the Action Plan also places a higher expectation on developers to engage with communities. User feedback received by the government shows that communities want to influence the strategic planning of infrastructure. They find it hard, however, to gain a meaningful understanding of projects early in their development and to keep up with volumes of information involved.

These issues compound a widespread lack of trust that we encounter regularly – in developers, in government and in the planning process as a whole. This undermines many people’s willingness to engage in the planning process.

Addressing the issues raised in the Action Plan will help overcome this. But developers also need to look to their own reputations here: can they demonstrate that they are reliable partners for the communities where they work, who deliver on commitments and provide benefits that people actually consider meaningful?

The government has committed in the Action Plan to produce guidance on additional expectations for community engagement, as well as consulting on how communities can benefit from hosting infrastructure. Until this is produced, developers may want to consider what they can do to steal a march on addressing the issues it raises – and that means thinking about their own reputations.