Growth and Infrastructure Bill

Memorandum submitted by Manchester Airports Group (GIB 68)


1. Introduction  


1.1 The Manchester Airports Group (MAG) is the UK’s largest British-owned airport operator. Our three airports - Manchester, East Midlands and Bournemouth – currently serve a total of almost 23 million passengers every year and have significant cargo operations. The Group also runs thriving businesses in property development and management, car parking, airport security, fire fighting, engineering and motor transport. As the largest British-owned airport operator, MAG plays a major role in UK aviation, contributing £3.2 billion to the UK economy and supporting over 130,000 jobs.

2.   Clause 4: Limits to the Power to Request Information  


2.1 Overall, this measure introduced by this clause of the Bill would be a welcomed amendment to the current primary legislation. The previous power to request information and particulars ‘as they consider necessary’ was too heavily weighted in favour of the local planning authorities (LPA).

2.2 We note with interest that it is the Government’s intent that the Bill will ‘ensure a swifter system’ in regard to this change. There is no doubt that the scope of the detail that is often sought within supporting documents by LPA’s acts as a drag on efficient decision making. MAG (and our trade body the AOA) has made frequent representations on this point. It remains a serious area of delay and cost and a burden on developers. Ministerial will needs to be more effectively translated into changes in policy, procedures and day to day practice. We would give our full support to more focus on this topic.

2.3 This issue of relevant information for a planning application submission has plagued the planning system for a substantial period of time. Previous changes to S.63 of the TCPA brought about by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (and now in conjunction with the provisions of Article 10 of the DMPO) provided for local lists or ‘validation checklists’ in an attempt to improve certainty and clarity in the system; but the results have been far from effective. Whereas applications were once refused permission for a lack of information, now they are not validated adding delay and cost to the development industry. More often than not, LPA’s use the validation process heavy handily and require documents that are not relevant.

2.4 We note that at paragraph 193 of the NPPF, there is a similar policy stance taken by Government as proposed in the Bill. The change to the NPPF has had little effect, and it is unlikely that the introduction of legislation to restrict requests to those of material relevance will improve things significantly either, since LPAs can still abuse the concept of materiality. There is of course, no absolute definition of what is material to the planning process and the Courts are the arbiters of what constitutes a material consideration: judgements have offered interpretations in the past, but there is still allowance for LPA’s to require large volumes of information to consider matters that could be left to a condition for example, or even matters of no relevance.

2.5 The whole issue is made more complex by the sheer volume of ‘emerging’ plans in the pipe line - many authorities lack up to date plans and therefore have limited strategic direction, or are making decisions on the back of policies not yet adopted let alone examined by an inspector.

2.6 There remains a residual concern that the amendment will not genuinely restrict LPA’s taking matters into account that have no or little relevance. The decision making process will not be improved measurably as a result.

2.7 Practically, the solution to the problem is for LPA’s to take a reasoned and informed approach when receiving planning submissions and an understanding that one size does not fit all. To adopt this approach requires judgements to be made by officers. But the fear of objector complaints, of Judicial Review, or simply not having appropriate training or sufficient levels of responsibility, ensures that LPA’s take the ‘safest’ option - which is to require more information. Indeed, the Impact Assessment that accompanies the Bill, acknowledges that the main impact of the proposed intervention would be "likely to be behavioural". Government (and the LGA and RTPI) need to give clear and unambiguous guidance to LPAs to change the heavily risk averse culture that now pervades local authorities – and statutory consultees.

2.8 Therefore, alongside the Bill’s proposed changes, we would urge the Government to investigate and consider better ways in which LPA’s can be held accountable in the levels of information they seek. It is acknowledged that the Impact Assessment states that secondary legislation will clarify the right to appeal where applications are not validated. This is vital to the process.

2.9 However, the process of appeal in such matters remains costly and time consuming exercise in comparison. The Government and the Bill should go further so as to introduce the potential for punitive measures for making unreasonable and excessive requests for information throughout the whole application process (from validation to concluding S106 discussions). These along with timescale restrictions for seeking further information at the validation stage would add weight to the Government’s current suggested changes. In addition, access for applicants to prompt independent arbitration would assist in speeding up the process.

2.10 There is scope for such changes to be accommodated in the primary legislation, but it is also necessary that in parallel, clearer guidance to LPA’s on matters of materiality is required and the forthcoming review of the national guidance that will form annexes to the NPPF is vital, and should be expedited. This will assist in providing the technical tools that will allow robust and informed requests for information to be formed by LPAs.

3. Clauses 9 and 10: Stopping up of Highways and Public Paths  


3.1 M.A.G. has made previous representations on this matter and is firmly of the view that the current process is cumbersome and adds unnecessary delay and cost to the planning process. The changes to both regimes are welcome, and should be implemented without further delay.

4. Clause 21: Business and Commercial Projects within Planning Act 2008  


4.1 Insofar as the Bill is concerned, M.A.G. is supportive of the NSIP proposed amendments as is broadens the ability for certain projects to benefit from the development consent procedure for the benefit of realising economic growth to defined timetable for a decision. Notably, the process proposed by the Bill provides for flexibility over whether or not to apply for NSIP status; this is a very important element of the Bill that should not be lost.

4.2 The NSIP process has its benefits, but there is a careful balance over the cost implications and timescales of the NSIP process compared to that of a planning application. In this regard, elevating development to nationally significant status should be reserved for only a select amount of development where the benefits of a certain timescale for development can be genuinely realised.

4.3 Whether substantiated or not, there is a perception that by having a decision taken centrally undermines the local democratic process. Given the opportunity to apply for NSIP status, applicants will have to be cognisant of the potential for them to be seen as attempting to circumnavigate the local Council(s) decision process by elements of the community and stakeholders.

4.4 Over a substantial period of time, M.A.G. has taken every effort in order to build and maintain relationships with the local community and councils at each of our airports. This has ensured that for major developments either for airport infrastructure or airport related uses (which may now qualify as NSIP) the local decision making process has not been an undue barrier to delivery. Where the Group has been successful in receiving timely decisions the unquantifiable investment in our community relations work has been vital.

4.5 The Group’s concern therefore would be if the balance between a local process and a national process would be altered in favour of a more regularly used central decision structure; all the community relations work undertaken by M.A.G. could be undermined as well as exposing more of our development proposals to longer, more costly consenting procedures.

4.6 Therefore, it is critical that the process is used only in exceptional circumstances for only the most significant circumstances. Maintaining the flexibility proposed by the Bill as draft is essential. Additional clarity is required as to what "business and commercial" projects mean and what scale and form of development may meet the criteria; we note that a separate consultation has now been issued to this effect.

4.7 As a final point, in order to ensure that the NSIP process is not further considered to be a more convenient process for applicants by local communities, there is no basis in our view for the introduction of separate policy advice in the form of a National Policy Statement. To introduce one would logically require it to differentiate itself in some way from existing policy criteria concerning commercial and business uses; there would be no sound basis for this. Regardless of scale, ‘business and commercial applications’ should be subject to the same policy tests i.e. the NPPF and adopted local plans. In any event, the introduction of an additional tier of policy would not be in the spirit of reducing the burden of policy documents on the planning system.

December 2012

Prepared 10th December 2012