PPS’ Head of Waste & Resources, Rebecca Eatwell is a regular contributor to Recycling & Waste World, this month she writes an article on the impact of the Localism Bill on the sector.
Now that the Localism Bill has been published what should the waste and resources industry make of it? Which of the proposed planning reforms set out in Open Source Planning make it into the Bill, and what will it mean for the future development of new waste infrastructure?
At first glance the rhetoric of the Bill is in line with the messages coming from central government since the coalition was formed. The focus on decentralisation and shifting power away from central government to local people is the central tenant of the Bill, as is the desire to give local people the power to decide what they want for their communities.
For those looking to bring forward waste infrastructure, what does it mean? There were ripples of unease throughout the industry when the government announced that the planning system would be radically reformed in line with the Conservative Party paper Open Source Planning. However, whilst the Bill is not the fundamental re-write of planning policy that some had expected, there are a number of proposed changes which waste developers will be watching with a keen eye.
Looking at the Bill with a cynical eye you could argue that the devolution of power to the local level is the Government’s attempt to pass the responsibility for controversial issues, such as waste management, to local authorities. Indeed it is hard to see how this hands-off approach from the centre will help an already difficult planning process easier to navigate for waste developers. With decision making left entirely to the local level, local politics is even more likely to influence planning decisions.
The Government proposes to give local communities and neighbourhoods a greater say over development in their area. This has unsurprisingly led to concerns that NIMBYs will take over and stop all new development. The government recognises this fear but suggests that if development is led by local communities, and local communities share in the benefit then NIMBYISM can be avoided. Decentralisation Minister Greg Clarke argues that “we need a planning system which encourages the idea that development can positively benefit a community”.
This will make the task of winning hearts and minds even more important than it has been in the past for developers of waste infrastructure. Extolling the benefits of waste facilities to the local community is nothing new with community funds commonplace for many waste facilities. Community benefit is increasingly becoming something that local councillors are expecting to see. In Suffolk, a local ward councillor has expressed his opposition to a proposed Energy from Waste (EfW) facility but called for the local community to maximise the benefit from the proposal. In many ways the Government promoting direct economic benefit from waste facilities to local communities may help to overcome the accusations of ‘bribery’ that have been levelled against community funds in the past.
Proposed changes to the Community Infrastructure Levy will enable local authorities to have more power to direct the funds received from developers under the scheme to the neighbourhoods affected by the development. However, some have argued that the Bill doesn’t go far enough in this respect. Waste management company SITA UK has expressed its disappointment that the Bill did not include provision for community buy-in options (such as a share in ownership or cheaper electricity) arguing that this is necessary to have any chance of overcoming local opposition and demonstrating real community support.
Communicating on planning applications
The Bill proposes some significant changes in the way that consultation on planning applications will take place.
Requirement to consult
The Bill proposes a statutory requirement for pre-application consultation. Whilst you will rarely find a waste developer attempting to get planning permission without some form of consultation, the Bill will set some standards by introducing a new system for consultation (which looks very similar to the system already in place in Scotland).
Whilst the full details of what this will entail, and what scale of application will be affected, aren’t yet known, a future Development Order may set out consultation requirements for:
- Publicising the application
- Ways for the public to respond to the publicity
- Consultation processes to be used
- Collaboration on the design of the proposed development
- How the applicant should “have regard” to responses and how this is demonstrated
- Anything else not listed above connected with consulting local people and having regard to their responses
Of particular interest in the Bill, is the proposal to give local residents the power to instigate, via a petition, local referendums on any local issue. Whilst holding a non-binding referendum on a planning application is something that already happens on occasion, there is little in the way of existing guidance on the way they should be held. The Bill will provide more structure to how referendums are held and we will undoubtedly see more planning applications subject to this form of polling.
The prospect of a referendum will strike fear in the hearts of many waste developers, as it will arguably give local councillors a convenient way out of making tough decisions. What we are likely to see is a move towards more campaigning on the side of developers, who will need to take a more pro-active approach to getting the positive messages about their development out into the community. An increased focus on supporter mobilisation, which is commonplace in other sectors, is likely to occur, even though in the waste sector uncovering support can be challenging.
The Bill will end the situation where local councillors are prevented from expressing a view on a planning application without this affecting their ability to vote on the proposal. Councillors will now be able to campaign on a scheme providing they are still open minded at the point of decision making. Whilst this may open the door for more active opponents at Councillor level, the Bill will also make it easier for developers to get in front of decision makers to explain their scheme, something which has proven difficult at times in the past.
Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects
As expected the Bill will also formally abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) as the decision making body for major infrastructure projects. This will be replaced by the Major Infrastructure Planning Unit, which will be located in the Planning Inspectorate, giving the final say to ministers. This is unlikely to impact many in the waste sector as only the largest of EfW facilities meet the threshold for energy generation (50MW) to be considered as a major infrastructure project. Many had hoped in vain that the threshold may have been lowered for EfW applications and the Institution of Civil Engineers has called for more waste infrastructure to come under this planning regime. However, this is unlikely to happen as the pressure from the Government seems to be away from regional waste management facilities to more community based schemes.
As the Bill passes through parliament it will be interesting to see what reaction it gets, but one thing is clear, the localism agenda is here to stay and will provide the waste sector with challenges and opportunities along the way.
Rebecca Eatwell, Director and Head of Waste & Resources at PPS Group
Written by Stephen Byfield