Dither and delay? Fifteen years of the Planning Act 2008

Written by

Alex Smith


The Planning Act 2008 entered into law more than fifteen years ago, bringing with it a new decision-making regime for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.

Initially intended to streamline the planning process, recent years have seen deferrals and delays become much more commonplace, with a knock-on effect to the delivery of some of the UK’s biggest infrastructure schemes.

Ahead of Cavendish’s upcoming LinkedIn Live on Politics in DCOs, our team has trawled through the data relating to every decision made by the relevant Secretary of State in accordance with the Act so far.

Since the first development consent order (DCO) was determined, the average length of time between an application being Accepted by the Planning Inspectorate and a Decision being made by the Secretary of State has increased significantly, with much of that increase coming from the past few years.

For the first 70 projects going through the DCO process (which covers applications accepted for Examination between July 2011 and June 2017), the average length of time taken from application acceptance to the Secretary of State’s decision was around 505 days. For the 65 DCOs that have followed since, the picture is quite different.

The average time it has taken to determine an application between July 2017 and the present is four months greater, whilst six applications in this period have taken more than 1,000 days to determine. This includes National Highways’ A303 Stonehenge project, which holds the dubious honour of being the DCO that has taken the longest amount of time to pass through the process – 1,701 days (more than four and a half years).

There are also four projects that should have been determined by now but which are still waiting to learn their fate. These include another National Highways project, A1 Morpeth to Ellingham, for which the Inspectorate wrote their recommendation report two and a half years ago. Plus, there’s the case of the AQUIND Interconnector, which successfully appealed the Secretary of State’s original decision to refuse development consent in March 2021, but for whom a fresh decision is not forthcoming whilst the Ministry of Defence cite ‘significant national security concerns’.

So, why is it taking so much longer for applications to be determined? Well, political manoeuvring is often the answer here. For the first 70 DCOs considered under the current regime, 67% were determined slightly quicker than the three months that the legislation affords the Secretary of State. 23% of projects were determined on time, whilst on only 10% of projects did the Secretary of State need longer than three months to make their mind up.

Of the next batch of projects, only 34% have seen a decision turned around in less than three months, whilst 38% have taken longer than that to be determined. Of this latter category, the extent of the delay is generally much greater than it was for the first 70 projects – eight projects saw delays of more than a year. Meanwhile, energy and road projects are most likely to be impacted by delays.

Whilst there are examples of the Planning Inspectorate taking longer to complete its parts of the DCO process than legislation stipulates, these are generally few and far between. In contrast, more than a fifth of all DCOs considered under the current regime have been impacted by delays once the recommendation report hits the Secretary of State’s desk.

There will be a plethora of reasons for this, but the high turnover in government ministers, particularly across the (former) Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department for Energy Security and Net Zero will likely be one explanation – since the 2019 general election there have been six different ministers responsible for decision-making on major energy projects. Given that we are now just months away from a general election, the odds are that there will be little change in the short-term.

In our upcoming LinkedIn Live, our panel of experts will further discuss the success of the Planning Act 2008, including how politicians are increasingly interfering on major infrastructure projects, and how more and more projects are encountering well-organised opposition groups.

Re-watch our event from 16th May here.


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