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Public Inquiries In The Digital Age

4th August 2014

Who knew that public inquiries would enter the digital age? Well, they have…

The planning process for dealing with proposals for nationally significant infrastructure projects, or ‘NSIPs’, was established by the Planning Act 2008. This involves a rigorous examination of major infrastructure proposals, allowing people to have their say before a decision is made by the Secretary of State. The procedure was introduced to streamline the decision-making process for NSIPs, making it fairer and faster for communities and developers alike, with statutory time limits for the examination and decision making processes.

The examination is mainly based on written evidence. But following the initial cycles of examiner questions, public representations, responses and comments, the examination stage reaches the non-adversarial public hearings, where people can make their case and challenge the developer on the key issues.

The Act has propelled the public inquiry into the digital age because all communications and evidence is communicated electronically and uploaded to the NSIP project webpage.

This supports the speeding up of the planning process and, more importantly, ensures that all parties have early access to the information they need to make their case in the Examination.

The Highways Agency’s A556 Knutsford to Bowdon trunk road improvement scheme project was the first Agency scheme to seek a Development Consent Order (DCO) under this new process.

The new compact and time limited examination stage is challenging for all parties, but particularly developers, and we needed to respond quickly to issues raised by the examiner, land owners and interested parties; working with them to discuss options, find common ground and achieve resolution where possible, redesigning and submitting amended details to a tight timescale.

What lessons did we learn?  How to conduct a public inquiry in the digital age; the need to establish a project team with the skills, knowledge and capacity to respond to the examiner’s needs for information and a level of design detailing which sometimes exceeded our expectations; the need to create an effective single team through collaborative working able to present a unified and consistent case in the examination; be right first time with information uploaded to the portal since simple errors and omissions can lead to “failure-demand” and undermine the project’s case; and last but not least the use of BIM to support design adaptation and explain engineering solutions was a huge success.

In conclusion, the new planning process will allow the country’s much needed infrastructure projects to be planned and implemented effectively and efficiently - but the associated challenges for developers and their teams should not be underestimated...

Warren Rocca is a Director at Capita

The A556 Project Team was drawn from the Highways Agency, ECI contractor Costain and their designers Capita and preliminary designers Jacobs, and legal team from Bircham Dyson Bell.

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