This is the most significant time for the DCO regime since 2008: my NIPA story

5 May 2023

Robbie Owen
Partner and Head of Infrastructure Planning & Government Affairs at Pinsent Masons LLP

I see it as a privilege and a responsibility to do what I do. Being part of professional teams that determine the outcomes of critical UK infrastructure proposals is a special thing.

I started on the road to becoming a national infrastructure specialist from my first days as a newly qualified lawyer. I didn’t know it at the time of course – the 2008 Planning Act wasn’t even a glint in someone’s eye back then – but I was interested in and attracted by national consenting for national projects like harbours, ports, highways, tramways and railways. In those days we called it ‘Parliamentary’ work.  That was where I spent my formative early years and, when the DCO regime emerged, it was a natural progression for me to apply my skills there too. I’ve never regretted it and never looked back.

Like many who work in the sector, I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing things built. I’ve been part of the teams that have consented and constructed everything from new port terminals to critical new roads. I’d be lying if I said it’s not a thrill. I relish the intellectual rigour and challenge of the DCO process because it’s demanding. I appreciate the value of what we do – societally, environmentally, economically and in such a wide variety of other ways.

The next 24 months are going to be critical for the DCO regime. With reviews of a range of NPSs and the workings of the DCO regime well underway, coupled with wider consultations across planning, this is without a doubt the most significant time for the regime since 2008 and the Act’s origin. Like many of the things we build, there’s a lifecycle factor in play here – at fifteen years on since its creation, the tenets of the regime are due some investment and a refresh.

For all of us that work in infrastructure planning, this means it’s also a significant opportunity. We need to get this right. It’s a great moment to be involved and to make a contribution to shaping the future. Whether you’re in or outside of NIPA, there’s a job of work to do.

From my seat as NIPA Secretary, I’m contributing to the marshalling of all manner of ideas and information. As NIPA, we want to play our part in contributing our expertise to inform a fit for purpose and effective future regime. There are some really exciting and stimulating conversations taking place.

That’s one of the things that makes me most proud of NIPA and the NIPA family. We have a voice, we have passionate and purposeful people giving their time and professionalism to make a difference, and we have a mission which is more relevant now than at any other time. The UK needs a next generation of infrastructure and we need solutions for our economy and for our environmental sustainability. If you’re reading this and you’re not yet a member of NIPA but feel you have something to bring, we’d welcome you gladly into the fold. The NIPA family is only as strong as its membership and anyone with energy, ideas and a contribution to make would be an asset to our number.

To the question of ‘what would I say to my 21-year-old self about what I do now and why get into this field’, I’d say it’s a great space in which to practise and offers so much – hugely interesting and relevant, demanding yet fulfilling, and vitally important to ‘UK PLC’. I’d say use your early years to really get to know your onions technically and to get to grips with the nuts and bolts. Whilst it might not seem like it, you’ll have more time to spend on these aspects in your 20s than you will ever have again, so invest in bedding down that essential knowledge and creating a platform for your professional career that will follow.

Likewise, build your networks. Invest equally in forming friendships and connections with the people who will be your future clients, peers, friends and competitors. This will stand you in good stead.

And finally I’d say recognise the resilience you’ll need. As James Maurici wrote in his NIPA story, this is not a sector ‘for the faint hearted’. There can be long days and weeks, in fact months, and a DCO is a demanding objective. You need to be ready, mentally and physically! But the reward, in terms of satisfaction in achievement, is immense.

Something else worth saying as I tell this story – whether to a 21-year-old or a 51 year old – is don’t overlook the criticality of the DCO itself as THE authorising instrument.

An NSIP application can get big and complicated pretty quickly. The client will have their objectives and requirements, and their own set of pressures, there will be lots of professionals around the table, and any DCO requires the management of a massive amount of information. Famously before we all went digital, photos of DCO applications being submitted were like mini competitions for whose stack of files formed the biggest skyscraper or required the largest van to deposit them in Bristol. There is a lot that goes into an application – that’s my point.

So remember that the single thing that will be more crucial than anything else at the end of the day is the DCO itself. Draft it carefully, every single word, consider it wisely, and scrutinize it hard.  Do all that pre-application. Don’t fool yourself that you can apply for a DCO with anything less than a very high standard draft.  That time spent then will make all the difference. Fail to do so and you can get into all sorts of later complications, which is where the cries from some quarters of a DCO ‘not being adequately flexible’ can come from. I don’t see it that way. Draft your DCO right in the first place, ensuring you have the justifications required, and it will then do exactly what you need it to do. Treat ‘the application draft’ with respect – it really does need to be 95% there!

I’m immensely proud of what NIPA has become and what NIPA has accomplished in the last 13 years. That’s testament to the people who have put in and shaped its achievements. However, as we all know but always need to remind ourselves, past performance is no guarantee of future success.

Now is a critical time for the Act, for the DCO regime, and for all of us who care about delivering the infrastructure this country requires. If you want to get involved, please don’t sit on the side-lines. NIPA is here for you and you’ll find kindred spirits similarly motivated to make a contribution and to make a difference.