Highways England is making plans for the future
Three years ago, there would have been no argument about the role of the (then) Highways Agency in the planning process. The development community and local authorities would have said that they were there to protect the operational interests of the Strategic Road Network, prevent impacts from adjacent development where possible, maximise developer contributions and retain as much available capacity for strategic movement as possible. In short, this was a ‘No – because….’ approach, and we had all got used to it.
Then came the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) published in March 2012, and soon afterwards, a replacement policy circular 02/13 from the Department for Transport (DfT). This marked the start of a definite push to make planning a more proactive process, with NPPF’s positive support for sustainable development and the move away from Circular 02/07’s dogmatic and inflexible approach to assessment and planning. Within the Highways Agency, this marked the start of a process of moving from ‘No – because…’ to ‘Yes – if’.
There was recognition within the Agency that this would be an issue which required both process and cultural change to be addressed. To support this work, a Sustainable Development Steering Group* was formed to act as a sounding board with representatives from public and private sector participants in the development process, including local authorities, developers and their advisors. This group was engaged in the development and promotion of planning reform initiatives and supported the monitoring of the Agency’s planning outcomes to find ways of becoming a more pro-active organisation – with some success.
So, in 2014, it was announced that the Highways Agency was due to become a wholly Government-owned company, with a brief to oversee the most ambitious programme of investment in the Strategic Road Network for generations, but with a particular focus on supporting economic growth. In turn, this created a need for the new organisation to work as a proactive partner in the planning process, from the early stages of plan-making through to decision taking for development proposals as they are brought forward, so that future proposals for the SRN can take account of proposed growth patterns.
Highways England published its ‘Planning for the Future’ proposals for working with key stakeholders in the planning process in September 2015. This document reflects the same technical and policy requirements as contained in Circular 02/13, but goes further by setting out how constructive partnerships between the Strategic Highway Company, local authorities and developers should work as development plans and projects are brought forward. Most notably, ‘Planning for the Future’ states that, ‘Development proposals are likely to be acceptable if….’, reflecting the language in NPPF, as well as reflecting the behavioural shift being sought towards, ‘Yes if….’
A key message in ‘Planning for the Future’ is a plea for developers to engage early. Whether development is being promoted through the plan-making process, or outside it, it emphasises the advantages to be gained from early agreement about the scope of work needed, early discussion about potential packages of mitigation, and thus consideration of any necessary transfer of the burden of growth that might need to be taken into account in future roads investment strategies or through other funding mechanisms.
As we enter the era of ‘Planning for the Future’, a key role for the Sustainable Development Steering group will be to ensure that we learn from experience, and support the objective of achieving economic growth through the operation and improvement of the SRN. For example, the emphasis on Travel Plans as a way of underpinning development proposals will require better understanding of how to secure sustainable travel outcomes through the planning process. Experience to date suggests that this is a challenge for both technique and resources; and whilst there are some clues in ‘Planning for the Future’ about the interpretation of ‘severe’ impacts on the SRN, we will also need to learn from experience of projects as they work through the planning system and through the process of recommendation and appeal to the Secretary of State, so that there can be greater certainty about what is likely to find favour and what is not.
Highways England’s stance on proactive planning is clearly welcome. It builds on efforts made over the last few years to instil a more ‘solutions focused’ approach from Highways England in their asset management teams and consultants. The litmus test of success will be properly judged in the experiences of those of us working in the plan-making and development planning process, but as a brief consultation with colleagues about their recent experiences suggests, good progress is being made with this; with the number of examples of a more constructive approach offered up easily reaching double figures and examples of a less progressive approach being very low.
This is not to say that engagement on these issues is without difficulty or challenge. Time-consuming analysis and debate will still be required to reach agreement about viable and deliverable solutions, and constructive engagement with other transport stakeholders such as Network Rail, LEPs, and PTEs about alternative transport options will become an even more important part of the process; but with less positive examples of engagement with Highways England now in diminishing proportion, the direction of travel is positive and welcome.