The new Government’s Coalition Programme has implications for the prospects of new nuclear power stations in England and Wales and has caused some nervousness in the power generator companies. The Programme states the intention to abolish the newly created Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) which was regarded as being undemocratic. The decision should come as no surprise as it echoes the commitment given in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto. However, the announcement has apparently fuelled concerns in the nuclear industry already alarmed by the appointment of the Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne, who is outspoken in his opposition to nuclear power, as Secretary of State to lead the Department of Climate Change. The fact that ministerial responsibility for nuclear energy will come within the remit of the pro-nuclear Conservative MP Charles Hendry has done little to allay fears but, rather, has raised alarms at the thought of the internal in-fighting that may ensue within the Department. The Coalition Programme refers directly to the differences of opinion between the two governing parties with respect to nuclear power and makes it clear that the Secretary of State will be free to speak against nuclear planning policy in the Commons while restraining from voting against it. This is not a position that is likely to inspire confidence in prospective investors despite the fact that the document goes on to speak about making new nuclear construction possible.
It does not seem to me, however, that the decision to abolish the IPC will necessarily impact on the new build programme. The Government does not intend to abandon the programme of National Policy Statements (NPSs) and will presumably proceed with finalising the Energy NPSs. Nor is it proposing a return to the previous procedure for determining applications for planning permission for nuclear power stations. The Government’s main concern was with the perceived lack of democratic accountability in the IPC process; not with the intention to speed up the decision making process. Instead it ‘will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects’. Much will depend, of course, on the nature of this new system but developers may find that the new process is less arduous for them than that proposed under the IPC regime which, in essence, replaced the traditional planning inquiry with a pre-application engagement process to be carried out by the developer.