It’s not done until it’s done – delivering a Development Consent Order

March 6, 2024

A NIPA Matters conversation (28 February 2024) – summary by Ben Copithorne

Success comes in many shapes and sizes but, for major infrastructure, the job isn’t done until a project is commissioned, consented, constructed and operating. Projects predicated on ‘national need’ have not fulfilled their purpose until they have been built and started to deliver the benefits behind their business case.

To help address the challenges and questions a project faces as it moves from consenting to contracting, National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) council member Amanda Pownall chaired a debate between leading voices from the contracting and construction sectors on ‘the challenges of delivering a Development Consent Order (DCO) on site’.

The starting point was that although consenting and contracting are arguably two sides to the same coin, they can sometimes feel separate and disconnected.

The premise was that ‘things could be better’ if the contracting parties were more embedded into the consenting process and into an overall end to end approach rather than a ‘let’s consent it and then let’s build it’ model, as can be the case, often with a clunky handover.

The main conclusion? That outcomes, quality, cost, and predictability are better when contractors are involved earlier. That Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) will reap a return.

‘They would say that wouldn’t they’, would be a fair question. So, let’s take a look at the arguments, evidence, examples and insights shared in the session which was attended online by some 80 guests.

  • Buildability matters: everyone had examples, good and bad, of when buildability is or isn’t factored into consenting strategies and project design. The key point? Unless you’re thinking ahead and understanding how you’re going to construct your consented DCO, you’re kicking problems down the road at best or being negligent at worst.
  • The contractor needs to understand the issues: DCOs are complicated and knowledge – and the continuity of that knowledge – carries a premium. If the subtleties and nuances of why a DCO is written the way it is aren’t clear to the contractor, this will slow things down. The best projects involve the contractor within the consenting and examination phases and carry forward individuals and teams with a grasp of the complexities so that they can be involved in implementing the solutions.
  • Be brave when you want to achieve better outcomes: teams can be reluctant to go back and change the DCO for fear of delay or hassle. The message from the discussion is to be braver when it comes to seeking to deliver better outcomes and to go back to the drafting of the DCO when it’s obvious a new or different solution to the one understood at approval stage could achieve an enhanced outcome. Everyone knows the pain of ‘re-opening the box’ but contractors are clear – if better delivery for the long term is at stake, do it.
  • Standardisation is desirable but not always possible: while engineers are typically comfortable when things are predictable and similar, no two DCOs are the same. Project teams should seek to standardise as much as they can but also accept and anticipate that every project will bring its own set of unique issues and circumstances as well as opportunities for innovation. That said, all of the experts agreed that consistency on land take would be valuable and avoid the pitfalls of mistrust and frustration which can occur when ‘too much’ land is taken into the DCO than is ultimately specifically needed for final delivery.
  • Words versus numbers and interpretation versus fact: everyone recognised that lawyers draft DCOs to achieve agreed and acceptable wording and contractors build best when the instructions are clear. The experts therefore touched on the traps involved in ‘interpretation’ of the DCO and what may or may not be the intent behind specific drafting. Overall, the conclusion was to ensure the DCO is not opaque or ambiguous to the construction team and that any ‘translation’ of the DCO is dealt with early.
  • Start when you’re ready: consenting can take a long time meaning the pressure to ‘get going on site’ can kick in as soon as the Secretary of State’s verdict is known. But pace and lack of preparedness can be enemies. Ask ‘are you fit to go fast’ and ‘don’t start until you’re ready’ were the wise words from experienced delivery teams. Remember if you mobilise and then have to stop or stall, you could be burning a budget in the region of £1-10 million per day for the big projects – so make sure you don’t leave any problems in the DCO that come out of the woodwork later.
  • Value and keep ‘the golden thread’: with DCOs frequently becoming large and complex projects with vast amounts of paperwork and complex sets of stakeholders, all recognised the benefit of retaining focus and consistency through a ‘golden thread’. The experts advocated the approach to assist with parcelling over, to protect and preserve knowledge through the lifetime of the project, and to maintain a single lens through which all decisions should be assessed. When things risk getting very complicated, keep it simple and keep bringing it back to the project purpose and project intent, was the message.
  • Community matters at consenting, community matters during construction: linked to the ‘golden thread’ and continuity points, the speakers advocated for a mindset of sustained sensitivity to make sure the impact of projects on stakeholders and communities was managed effectively and empathetically. All noted the potentially adversarial positions that can arise during consenting and the need – post decision – for pragmatism and working relationships during construction and implementation.
  • It’s on us to help the clients: in typical NIPA fashion, the discussion accepted the responsibility on everyone involved to share, educate and upskill clients where they may not have the benefit or depth of relevant knowledge and experience. All of the speakers spoke of their commitment to enabling clients and projects by sharing insights and seeking adjustments that would stand the project in better stead and deliver a better outcome.

As readers of this article will most likely know, NIPA was created to develop and disseminate learning and best practice for both promoters and those engaged in and affected by proposed projects. This discussion on DCO delivery is a case in point.

Thank you to: Ian Cook (Pre-construction Director, Balfour Beatty); Damian Leydon (Programme Director, Sunergos Partnership); Scott Shaw (Chartered Civil Engineer, AtkinsRéalis) and Philip Emison (Senior Project Manager, Costain) for sharing their time, experience, and insight.

And thank you on behalf of NIPA to Amanda Pownall, supported by Viki James and Victoria Redman for making it happen.