December 14, 2023
Planning – The Single Point of Failure?
The Government is clear that its priority is to grow the economy, and the Autumn Statement put forward the Chancellor’s plans to create the conditions for the private sector to thrive by removing barriers to investment and thereby unlocking growth.
This is a long-overdue narrative. Over the last decade, mobile companies have grappled with flat or declining customer revenues while investing extensively in network capacity to carry customer data that has risen from virtually zero to 8.1GB per customer per month.
The Government has jointly invested £1 billion into the Shared Rural Network to extend 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK’s by 2027 and, looking forward, has ambitions for 5G Stand Alone technologies to cover the majority of populated areas by 2030
Removing barriers is key to delivering investment in critical infrastructure. The Chancellor’s proposals to reform the planning system to speed up approvals and reduce the time for new projects to come to fruition is heartily welcomed, but what is important now is turning these words into tangible action. Lacking from the statement was a true understanding of the task in hand and the enormous effort needed.
Critical National Infrastructure is, by definition, critical. The problem is that much of it needs to be upgraded, and the planning system is just not ready or able to cope in its current form. Not just legislation, but whole the system is facing a massive resourcing shortage at a time when it is about to be hit with a wave of applications. Could it be the single point of failure that could thwart the urgent needs of the country?
Energy – Electrifying the nation
The energy sector is being battered by increased flooding, storms and heat waves while also needing to decarbonise. The scale of change and investment needed is staggering. Low-carbon electricity generation will need to quadruple by 2050. Housing must be retrofitted to local energy production. Existing gas power stations will need to be equipped with carbon capture and storage, while renewable technologies will need to be built and connected to the grid in record time. Across multiple sectors, £50 billion per year will need to be invested in low-carbon technologies by 2030 to meet net-zero targets.
Water – Plugging the Leaks
Water companies must also step up their investments to ensure the security of water supply and to significantly reduce the amount of sewage entering rivers and seas. Again, the challenge is daunting. In total the water companies have outlined a need to invest £96 billion between 2025 and 2030. This figure is a 90% increase over the current period and is equivalent to more than 40% of the total investment in the rest of Europe.1
Digital – Connecting the nation
The digital sector offers perhaps the biggest opportunity for growth, as connectivity underpins much of the goals and ambitions of the Government. Connected devices, or IOT, will propel the fourth industrial revolution, with the worldwide number forecast to double from 15 billion to more than 29 billion (2020-2030).2 The networks need to add capacity and quickly. Ofcom reports mobile data traffic growing by an average of 40% yearly and expects this to continue. The scale of investment, like other sectors, is immense. The Digital Connectivity Forum found that to achieve 98% population coverage, connectivity to semi-rural areas, and the enablement of advanced 5G Stand Alone, £23-£25 billion will be required over and above the expected £9 billion of existing projected investment by 2030.
The Planning Conundrum – Planning to Fail
The investment challenge is staggering but planning system could be the key pinch-point which frustrates the UK’s ambition. With such enormous investment requirements there will inevitably be a massive amount of planning applications to come. An effective planning system that brings about swift decisions would help to boost that investment and reduce costs and enable growth. However, the actual picture is extremely concerning.
The National Infrastructure Commission reported that consenting time for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects has slowed by 65%, from 2.6 years to 4.2 years on average, and the rate of judicial review has spiked to nearly 60% from a long-term average of 10%.3 Planning delays increase the costs of infrastructure and defer the benefits accruing.
Councils are spending less on planning. Total public expenditure in England on planning services fell from £1.4bn in 2009-10 to £1.17 billion in 2022-23, a contraction of 16%. In Wales, net expenditure on planning was cut in half between 2008 and 2021 in real terms, and in Scotland the budget for planning services saw a reduction of 38% between 2010 and 2022, and a quarter of planning staff cut (2009-2022).
The reduction in funding is causing serious resourcing issues as planners look elsewhere with a quarter leaving the public sector (2013-2020). The RTPI found 82% of planners reported employer difficulties hiring. This is compounded further by the age profile of the planning sector with a growing gap between those retiring and replenishment. In Scotland, the Heads of Planning Scotland suggested 700 recruits are needed in the next ten years to replace retiring officers.4 To put that in context the entire planning workforce across the 32 local authorities in Scotland amounts to 1,600 officers.
Sue Bridge, President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, summed things up:
“Budget reductions in local authorities and other public sector agencies are leading to unimaginable workloads, insufficient staff and overstretched workers. Without a sufficient arsenal of qualified, well-resourced planners, Local Planning Authorities are unable to deliver the affordable homes, public services and critical infrastructure individuals, families, and communities need and which are so vital to our economy.”
The planning system represents an existential threat to the needs of the country. It is in dire straits and could be the single point of failure at a time when the Government and opposition parties expect it to deliver. Decades of underfunding and a perfect storm of planners exiting the industry through retirement and opportunities elsewhere mean that it is only going to get worse. It is time that all political parties recognise this and put forward plans to invest in the sector, signalling to the infrastructure sector that it is serious about creating the right conditions to unlock private investment. Recent announcements from Labour for 300 new planners and from the Government for £32 million to ‘bust the backlog’ only scratch the surface. Rachel Reeves’ announcement of a ‘once in a generation set of reforms to accelerate the building of critical infrastructure for energy, transport and technology’ is the right rhetoric but what the infrastructure sector needs to see are concrete actions to address the resourcing and funding issue in the planning sector, without which, we will find ourselves going nowhere fast.
About Building Mobile Britain
Building Mobile Britain is a campaign created by Mobile UK seeking to work with national and local government, as well as interested industry groups to overcome the challenges we face with expanding the existing mobile networks, while also developing innovative services for customers.
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