Experts back devolution of planning permission laws

Devolving major infrastructure planning decisions to local authorities would speed up delivery, experts told MPs this week.

A Parliamentary Transport Committee hearing on Wednesday (1 May) heard that the current system, where major infrastructure projects need consent from central government, is slowing down development where it is needed most.

“We need to devolve a lot of the powers and funding abilities to where the main impacts of new transport investment will be felt,” said Ben Hopkinson, policy researcher at Britain Remade, a campaign group focused on economic growth.

He cited the extension of a tram line in the West Midlands by a mile so that it could reach the HS2 station at Curzon Street. Design work began on the planned extension to the West Midlands Metro to Birmingham Eastside back in 2013, and a planning application was submitted in October 2016.

“It took 40 months for the transport secretary to give permission to Birmingham to build a mile extension [to the project],” Hopkinson said.

“I think these kind of case studies show that really, we need to devolve a lot of the planning approval and the funding mechanisms to the local level where these local projects are being developed.”

Construction sector chiefs have long bemoaned delays in the planning process putting a spanner in the works of big projects.

Major infrastructure projects need to get the go-ahead from the government, which means officials and ministers dealing with multiple applications at any one time.

University of Hertfordshire visiting professor Stephen Joseph told the committee that devolution was the key to getting vital projects on track.

“My one-word answer to how do we deal with [delays] is devolve,” he said.

“Actually, there’s no point people in London working out whether a particular bus should run to Newton Aycliffe or whatever. That should be devolved.”

He also referenced a law passed in France a few years ago called the droit de la mobilité (right to mobility), which established passenger transport executives in local and rural areas.

“For the first time, it is focusing people on what money is around on transport, and how to make it work better as the right to mobility, for people to be able to get to work and hospital and so on,” he said.

Such a process would allow local authorities to prioritise projects that are most in need locally, he argued.

However, cash-strapped local authorities have struggled to recruit enough planning officials.

In 2022, Ashurst partner and co-head of planning Claire Dutch told Construction News a lot of good planning officers get poached by the private sector as the pay is higher.

She warned morale “has been sucked out of public service, particularly from planning departments”.

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