To boost the economy post-Brexit the government is committed to establishing up to 10 freeports across the UK. In our latest freeport bitesize article, we look at some of the planning implications of which bidders and bid participants should be aware.
Back in August 2019 the UK Government announced plans to create ten new freeports that would be free of “unnecessary checks and paperwork, and include customs and tax benefits”.
Consultation on the proposals ran from February to July of last year and upon publication of the results it was clear that three of the key proposals relevant to planning that are designed to deliver on the Freeport agenda would be coming into force: extension of permitted development rights, incentivising use of local development orders (LDOs) and a review of the national policy statement for ports (NPSP) to allow for changes to planning processes relevant to significant port developments.
The review of the NPSP is to follow later this year. We are, however, able to comment now on what the extension of permitted development rights and increased use of LDOs could mean for those who wish to take advantage of the new freeports upon their designation.
By their nature permitted development rights remove the need to obtain the prior express grant of planning permission. The Freeports Bidding Prospectus (Prospectus) confirms that the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 2015 will be amended so that all types of ports benefit from the same permitted development rights in order to ensure that there is uniformity for freeports, particularly given the potential for multi-modal freeports. Freeports will enjoy the same permitted development rights available to rail ports and airports and will be able to deliver a wider range of development and undertake operational activities associated with a seaport, particularly in relation to development buildings for purposes connected with the operation of the port, without the need to obtain express planning consent.
It is noted within the prospectus that the government is actively exploring a simpler framework for environmental assessment, something that was also referred to in the Planning White Paper published last August. Permitted development rights are unavailable where development requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and it is unclear as yet what effect the ‘simpler framework’ for environmental assessment will have on the ability to carry out development without first obtaining planning permission. Perhaps a similar regime could be adopted to that available to some statutory undertakers whereby freeport operators can take advantage of permitted development rights where EIA is required upon submission of an environmental statement to the relevant secretary of state? Much will depend on the amendments to the environmental assessment regime that have been promised to follow later this year.
Encouraging use of LDOs within freeports will give certainty to prospective developers, owners and occupiers that particular classes of development will be acceptable within that freeport. Local authorities will be able to control what type of development they wish to promote through the LDO via its formal adoption process. Used in conjunction with permitted development rights the proposals will deregulate much of the planning process in freeports and introduce a form of zonal planning, a key concept promoted in last summer’s white paper.
It should be noted that marine consents are not covered in the prospectus, which some familiar with marine development have seen as a missed opportunity which may be part of future reforms as part of the European Union.
The tweaks to the planning system proposed within the prospectus should in theory assist the country’s new Freeports to deliver the benefits that these free trade zones provide elsewhere across the globe. If you are clear on what you intend to deliver, and that type of development is promoted within the freeport, you should be able to do so with minimum delay resulting from the planning process. Concerns have been raised in some quarters that the prospectus’ pro-development planning proposals could lead to industrial sprawl within freeports. Local authorities worried about this could use Article 4 Directions to restrict permitted development rights (albeit this action would not likely be in the spirit of an application to bid of Freeport status) or perhaps more effectively by use well drafted, flexible LDOs. LDOs provide a mechanism allowing local authorities to accelerate the delivery of appropriate development in suitable locations - they seem a tool perfectly suited to delivering on the aims of the freeport agenda.
If Freeports work as hoped, businesses that rely on the import and export of goods will be able to carry out development as required, including the manufacture or incorporation of their goods and materials into products. Businesses that support these processes should also find a home in freeports, with the government hoping that these zones not only attract investment but also generate jobs and create hubs of expertise stimulating growth in the wider area surrounding the freeport itself, with the consequences of Brexit on international trade providing a good opportunity to maximise the opportunities available when the public and private sector work collaboratively with a shared goal.
At Shoosmiths, we are closely monitoring developments in relation to freeports. We have a dedicated team of specialists who would be happy to discuss the opportunity that freeports present with you.
If you have any queries, do get in touch.