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Infrastructure planning: change is coming, but what change?

sunset

It’s been 14 years since the introduction of the Planning Act 2008 and little has fundamentally changed in infrastructure planning since. It’s a well-known process and, in most parts, well-liked by the industry. But while the world has changed immeasurably since 2008, the process seems not to have evolved to suit. Andrew Weaver, Copper’s Director of Infrastructure, looks at what the British Energy Security Strategy (ESS) tells us about the future of infrastructure planning.

To meet the challenges of today, the government has signalled that change to infrastructure planning is coming. Consultation on making the regime quicker and more fit for purpose took place last year. And with the release of the ESS, the green shoots of change can be seen. The question remains, what change and will it be enough to deliver the infrastructure the country needs to reach net zero?

The government has set out a clear desire to consent infrastructure projects quicker, particularly in the energy sector. The ESS sets out their ambition to cut offshore wind consenting from up to four years down to one year. We understand the saving is in reference to the period after DCO submission. Promoters and developers will be delighted I’m sure.

There is mention of trimming the timescales for the examination process. Given the Government’s record on sticking to existing timescales for decisions – around a third of applications under Boris Johnson’s premiership have been delayed at the point of decision – it is doubtful this is really going to make the difference.

Updates to National Policy Statements are promised and there is recognition of the need to consider how projects interact with each other, potentially grouping applications to enable a holistic approach to delivery. Both of these are long overdue. From a public perspective seeing projects for energy transmission in isolation to each other let alone the energy production has long been a difficult subject to explain. It would be good to see this rolled out to other sectors where understanding of the end product is essential to consenting its constituent parts – carbon capture storage springs to mind.

There is little more to add at this stage. Perhaps the Queen’s Speech will reveal more.

In the meantime, for me, greater change is surely required to meet our country’s need for speed. Planning needs to be simplified and offer the certainty and clarity promised back when the current regime was instigated in 2008. Change needs to go further than cherry picking certain types of infrastructure such as offshore wind and solar. It needs to be wholesale so that there is a consistent approach that the public and stakeholders can quickly understand and engage with.

The process also needs to become more transparent and less legally thick. To paraphrase Kwasi Kwarteng, you can’t build infrastructure where people don’t want it. The public support infrastructure projects if they can see how they would individually benefit from them. Ensuring there is a clear understanding around the need for projects and taking the public on the journey through the planning process is critical to timely delivery. Having a clear process to base these messages off is essential. Government has a role to plan in owning this message and communicating it to communities.

Change is needed and is coming. We’re seeing the shoots in the ESS and as an industry we should be ready to embrace it. We’ve got a good process to build on. Now it’s about stripping this back and dealing with what is essential to making a decision.

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