National Networks National Policy Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:34 pm on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee 4:34, 26 March 2024

It is a pleasure to make a short contribution to this debate. As the Minister alluded to, the Transport Committee conducted the scrutiny of the draft national networks NPS. We concluded it in October last year and published our recommendations. Before I get into the substance of my remarks, let me take this opportunity to place on record my grateful thanks to the Clerk of the Committee, Judith Boyce, her team, all the advisers we had and the witnesses who gave us evidence. Particularly on topics that can be very technical, their support and guidance was invaluable, and I thank them all for helping me in this work.

The review of the NNNPS was overdue and I am glad that the Government appreciated that there was a need for an update. I am also grateful that they accepted one of our central recommendations: that the NNNPS should be placed on a five-yearly review, with a shorter review term if that is justified by policy changes. That does not mean we should look forward to a complete handbrake turn revision of the NNNPS, but it is important that there is the opportunity to consider the wider policy environment and Government priorities.

I also very much welcome the Government’s acceptance of some of our other recommendations, with the first being that the NNNPS should, for clarity, explicitly state the Government’s understanding of the legal precedent for permitting major infrastructure schemes that increase emissions where that increase is judged as not likely to harm the achievement of a national target. Secondly, the Government accepted that they should publish their own estimated congestion forecasts for the strategic road network. Thirdly, they accepted a reinstatement of wording on sites of special scientific interest. The draft did not contain that and without it developers may have been able to argue that the impacts of a project on biodiversity would not need to be mitigated. I am particularly grateful that that wording has been reinstated.

Alongside the Government’s response to our recommendations, we heard two welcome announcements. The first was of a review of the transport infrastructure legislation to seek more effective delivery of future nationally significant infrastructure projects. Perhaps most significant was the announcement by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety, my hon. Friend Lee Rowley, who is in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, that a wider independent review would be set up, headed by Lord Banner, on speeding up the delivery of major infrastructure projects. Over many Governments, there has been a frustration that significant projects required for the country take too long, so looking at ways to speed this up is very much to be welcomed.

I just want to caveat that welcome with a suggestion that we also need to look more widely at the strategic decision-making process for transport and related infrastructure. The NNNPS and the two reviews I mentioned look at the “how” of transport infrastructure project delivery but less at the “why” and the “should”. One recommendation we made, which the Government rejected, was that they should be more transparent in the decision-making process on potential alternatives to nationally significant infrastructure project choices. The rejection of that recommendation raises a concern with me, as transport projects are not just put in place for the sake of it; we do not build a new railway, road, port extension and so on just because it is good in itself. These projects are there for a purpose; they are there to support wider policy objectives. Be it in supporting trade, housing and economic regeneration, decarbonisation or many other things, transport does not sit in glorious isolation from other policy objectives.

I question whether we, as a country, have had the right decision-making process in place, over many decades, to appraise and evaluate different projects, in order to ensure joined-up thinking on policy across Government. To help explore that, one of the Committee’s current inquiries is on strategic transport objectives. I do not yet have any recommendations to make, as we are still part way through that inquiry. It looks at a number of issues in the round, including policy development, what decisions should be made centrally or at a devolved level, and how to inject longer-term certainty into the system to help lever in additional private investment.

Transport will always fall below more immediate and electorally saleable spending. Whether that spending is on the health service, the police, defence or a range of other areas, transport will always be lower down the priority queue under any Government. By their very nature, projects last well beyond the course of a single parliamentary or governmental term, so having that longer-term perspective is important. In addition to our inquiry, the Liaison Committee is undertaking an inquiry on strategic thinking to ensure the way that the Government are wired enables a longer-term planning perspective.

I wanted to place those points on the record. In a 90-minute debate we are not going to be able to get into all the whys and wherefores, but I welcome the revision to the NNNPS and the two related reviews that the Government have announced. It is two cheers from me, though, because there is another element that we need to consider. I look forward to the work of my Committee and others contributing to that debate.