Hong Kong to Hybrid Bills and DCOs: my NIPA Story

10 November 2023

Amanda Pownall
Transport infrastructure TWAO, DCO, Parliamentary Bills

What would I say to my 21-year-old self? Probably that switching from the osteopathy course to a planning degree might have been the right choice…. On graduating, I landed a role with Llewlyn Davies under the wise hand of Martin Crookston.  I was thrown straight into the deep end working on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and Jubilee Line Extension, probably the start of my passion for major infrastructure.

Back in those days the professions weren’t so clearly defined, so being environment manager for the London section of the Rail Link wasn’t such a stretch for a town planner. Martin was a great mentor – he would slash my heartfelt university prose scrawling ‘so what’ in bright red pen, a little disconcerting but a solid grounding for the real world.

Within a year I found myself in Hong Kong, one of a team of two, preparing the environmental strategy for the Southwest New Territories Development Strategy, not a small challenge!  This was pre-1997, Hong Kong was, and still is, a melting pot of cultures drawing together skills from across the world. I continued to work for the Government moving to the Territorial Development Strategy, then for a leading developer, and finally as a strategic advisor across the industry. My time included a fascinating two terms as an associate professor with Hong Kong University.

The pace and intensity of development was astonishing; housing, recreation, conservation, and the magnificent Chek Lap Kok Airport (Romer’s Tree Frog a key memory – the tiny amphibian that challenged a behemoth of a project).  The benefits of a zoning led, and less constrained but conscientious planning system were clear when it came to innovation and facilitating growth.

Back in the UK many major infrastructure projects followed, ranging from Hybrid Bills (Crossrail & High Speed 2), Transport and Works Orders such as West Coast Mainline Route Modernisation, Northern Line Extension and Bank Station upgrade, and post the 2008 Planning Act, Development Consent Orders.

I worked with some amazing individuals – the infrastructure world needs this inspirational talent.  John Willis (Head of Transport Planning at TfL) springs to mind.  In all the celebrations of Crossrail I never see him mentioned. He was passionate about proving employment and housing growth benefits – the tunnelling (across London end-to-end) was so expensive that the case couldn’t be made on costs vs revenue alone. I am convinced that it was his work that underpinned success of the Hybrid Bill at first reading in Parliament when it had previously failed.

We need to celebrate these individuals and the essential role mentors such as Martin play in bringing ideas forward and developing the next generation.  I’m a big believer in three days back in the office for the mixing of ideas and mentoring to support this up-and-coming talent.  The fashion for back-to back teams calls just cannot replace what you gain from office osmosis and being connected in person. Programmes such as the NIPA Early Years Practitioners are to be celebrated with the support it brings to this the up-and-coming members of the industry.

Working across many projects, in various roles, you begin to get a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t.  Whilst Hybrid Bills and Transport and Works Orders are strong tools and have their place, the Development Consent Order has been a game changer, bringing together key elements that other processes lack. It has integrated planning consent into the Order, brought formal consultation to the process, set time limits, and provided a strong policy framework for decision making.  It also benefits from being iterative; with the policy framework under constant review, the September issue of the National Planning Policy Framework being hot off the press as a latest refresh; and the road and rail industry pausing with bated breath for the up-and-coming National Networks National Policy Statement.

For it to work these reviews have to be timely with no substantive policy vacuums. NIPA provides a valuable role in the development and refinement of this process.  Explaining the benefits, supporting change where it matters; and providing an open forum to develop ideas and share knowledge for the myriad of professions that contribute.

But it’s not just the process that matters – it is the talented individuals working in those professions that bring it alive. Successful delivery is defined by the ability to work together as a team, building on the individual skills and experience brought from previous projects.  The 2008 Act and supporting policy provide the framework.

However, success is dependent on the skill set needed to put this into practice.  This includes an understanding of basic principles such as the case for the scheme, option appraisal and the planning balance, plus what each of the myriad of workstreams requires and how these fit together to deliver. This is something the industry does well but needs to learn to do in a consistent way building on previous experience and expertise, too many projects default to an extended application programme and delayed submission. The added efficiency this brings is an overriding principle which supports project speed announced in February 2021.

A critical piece of this jigsaw, often seen as a ‘tailpiece’ rather than the main event that it so obviously is, is the construction contractor.  The making of the DCO is a fixed point in time. It is the construction teams that must bring it alive and deliver on time and within budget.

Working in Southeast Asia taught me the value that an element of flexibility brings to open up the innovation and dynamism inherent in the contractor skillset.  I have worked with contractors as part of the consenting process on Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf footbridge, Bank Station Upgrade and more recently National Highways Road schemes and seen the benefits first hand of a contractor involved approach.    I celebrate the work being done by NIPA looking at ways of bridging this gap and improving the cradle to grave process through the NIPA Insights I, II & III.

I have been fortunate in my career to be part of fantastic teams delivering across many and varied projects.

My remaining ambition (being now more in the autumn of my career than a spring chicken), is through NIPA to work to further develop ways to support the construction industry with their DCO challenge.  This includes looking at ways of building on NIPA Insights to explore how we can provide that flexibility but also bring a greater level of support to the contractor understanding around the complexities of the made Order and delivering on the ground. So, in conclusion, looking back to my initial question …

I love my job, I am proud to be making a contribution to development of infrastructure across the UK, and yes lass… you did make the right choice.