Gaining permission to build a new railway can potentially take years between conception of the proposal and when the building work actually starts. Writes Robert Slatcher

In response to this, the Development Consent Order (DCO) was introduced through the Planning Act (2008) to assist with planning for nationally significant infrastructure such as major rail, road and energy projects. It is a streamlined route to gaining the permission to build a new railway. The aim of the DCO is to speed up the process by bringing the consultation forward and combining all required permissions into a single consent.

There are other legislative mechanisms to grant consent for a new railway. One option, only open to Government, is a hybrid bill. Crossrail was consented using this approach and High Speed 2 is currently going through the hybrid bill process. Others, such as Network Rail or another private promoter, could seek consent through a Transport and Works Act Order (TWAO). However, a project should be promoted as a DCO if the scheme satisfies the criteria of being a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP). For a railway proposal, this would apply if the new track would have a continuous length of more than 2km.
Network Rail has submitted four DCO applications:

    • Ipswich Chord (granted September 2012)
    • North Doncaster Chord (granted October 2012)
    • Redditch Branch Enhancement Scheme (granted October 2013)
    • Norton Bridge Junction Improvement (granted March 2014).

Five years on from the introduction of DCOs in 2008, the Department for Communities and Local Government published a review on the NSIP planning regime. While the DCO scheme has been broadly hailed as a success, refinements have been introduced. These include the posting of good examples of draft DCOs on the Planning Inspectorate website, setting agendas in advance of hearings so all sides can prepare, and allowing the appointment of two planning inspectors (to save costs if two rather than three will suffice). Going forward, it is also intended that further guidance and clarification will be made available on many topics.

DCOs do present considerable challenges to the planning process, such as the need for extensive consultation early in the process, the establishment of Statements of Common Ground, and agreement before the application is submitted, as far as possible, on all major issues. This creates the need to develop the design of the project to include environmental mitigation, requiring more integrated working between design engineers, environmental specialists and Network Rail.

The DCO process has a defined timetable from application submission through to final decision, and the option exists to receive assistance from the Planning Inspectorate to make sure milestones are met. Project proponents therefore have more confidence in planning for construction knowing when they will be able to commence works as DCOs are completed in a set time of 15 months.

Covering environmental bases

Major infrastructure projects are often challenged on environmental grounds. Therefore, there is a benefit in using an environmental team with the ability to act with independence from the design team, to challenge design and conventional solutions, and to ensure that opportunities through DCOs for more integrated mitigation and enhancement are fully realised.

Importantly, the independent environmental team is able to focus on minimising risks associated with environmental and social matters. These might slow down the consultation processes or even jeopardise acceptance of the scheme. Constructive challenge on design assumptions and approaches can lead to opportunities to solve several problems at once through innovative design.Newt trapping, October 2013 [online]

For the relationship between environment and design to be effective, it is essential that an environmental presence is embedded in the project team. This champions sustainability and ensures that the consideration of environmental impacts remains an integral consideration throughout design evolution. A close collaboration between environmental and design teams also supports the environmental assessment process, which is enhanced by having a clear understanding of the scheme design and ‘real time’ opportunities to influence the scheme design.

It is recommended that lines of communication between environment and design are formalised in a manner which allows the client to have visibility of this key interface and well-documented decision-making. By creating a formal record of the interface, the project team can also produce proof of evidence of the environmental input into the scheme design. This can be very useful to support the final DCO application and in other submissions such as CEEQUAL.

Revisions to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations (2011/92/EU) were approved by the European parliament in March 2014. The revisions will lead to changes in the way EIAs, which are often required to support a DCO application, are carried out. This includes an expansion of EIA topics with respect to impacts on human health, biodiversity, land, contribution and vulnerability to climate change, and use of natural resources during construction and operation. There will also be clearer requirements for post-construction environmental monitoring, which could have significant cost and resource implications for Network Rail and its contractors.

Other revisions are either already in place for DCOs or will be conducive to the smooth running of the DCO process. These will require design modifications, mitigation and monitoring to be agreed at an early stage and incorporated into the consent.

It is specified that environmental statements must be prepared by ‘competent experts’. This strengthens the case for involving independent environmental teams. Whilst these EIA revisions will not come into force until 2017 and schemes that are scoped beforehand can continue under the current Regulations for the duration of the project, early adoption would be recommended. This is particularly relevant for NSIPs as larger projects work to longer timescales between scoping and application, even with the time saving that DCOs have achieved.

Case Study : Norton Bridge Junction Improvement

This major upgrade of a West Coast main line junction presented significant environmental challenges in relation to the volume of spoil generated by extensive cuttings, the need to construct three new watercourse crossings and embankments in the floodplain, and the presence of protected species such as barn owls, bats, badgers and great crested newts.

Coordinated environmental assessment and feedback into the design process enabled effective holistic solutions to be incorporated into the scheme. Spoil was designed to be retained on site to provide earthwork bunds to mitigate visual impacts on residential properties and to raise the flight lines of barn owls and bats over the railway to prevent the risk of collisions with trains. The bunds were shallow-graded to blend in with the wider landscape and to maximise the ability to farm the land post-construction.

Detailed flood modelling and consultation with the Environment Agency allowed the project to implement shorter span bridge crossings. The ability to agree this bridge design avoided significant visual impacts associated with the more extensive alternative design solutions and ultimately a six million pound saving in infrastructure costs.

The Department for Transport required the project to be completed by 2017. The presence of great crested newts and the need to translocate them prior to construction presented a major challenge to meeting this programme, as licences for translocations are usually not granted until a scheme has planning consent. Engagement with Natural England enabled a special early licence to be granted, which enabled the tight programme to be maintained. As a result, the newts were translocated in advance of the DCO approval to a purpose-built receptor site at a local Christian retreat and conference centre which included landscaped areas and walkways for visitors.