Is there progress on energy infrastructure planning?

Clare Hennessy, UK Technical Director at Parsons Brinckerhoff, finds the infrastructure planning regime a mixed success but welcomes recent changes.


If I had a pound for every energy client I have worked with who has complained about changes to planning and environmental legislation and bemoaned how good things used to be back in the day….well, I’d be a very rich lady.  The advent of the 2008 Planning Act – and with it the introduction of a new means for consenting Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) – was no different, with concerns about an untested process and unfamiliar decision makers (first the Infrastructure Planning Commission, then later the Planning Inspectorate and the relevant secretary of state).
As a planner involved in promoting major infrastructure projects, I was optimistic and hoped that lessons would be learnt from planning for past mega-projects – such as Heathrow Terminal 5, where years were spent battling through public inquiry.  I was hopeful that we would move into a new era where planners were no longer lambasted for holding up growth but were seen as part of the delivery agenda.  The NSIP regime promised a faster, more efficient process and also, perhaps paradoxically, a process that was more accessible and transparent for all involved.  More than five years on and with over 50 projects going through the application process (75% of which are energy infrastructure projects), has it been successful and how positive are my energy clients feeling?
For those promoting the larger energy projects, such as Hinkley Point C, the process has been faster, certainly in terms of the public examination period which is now concluded within six months.  This is principally because the debate about the need for infrastructure is not conducted on a project-by-project basis and instead is determined by a suite of National Policy Statements produced by government.
The whole process, including the more demanding pre-application consultation period, can still mean that a project will take two or three years from start to consent.  For promoters of smaller projects (the regime is mandatory for all projects over 50MW) this does not always compare well with applications made to local planning authorities or to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) for “deemed” planning consent.
One of the major benefits of the NSIP regime is knowing that once you submit an application you will get a decision within 12 months.  This certainty has compelling benefits for promoters of the new-build energy projects hoping to compete in the Capacity Market auctions, for which having planning consent is a pre-requisite.
For those of us who have made applications for Development Consent Orders, the process is demanding and whilst more efficient, necessitates a considerable volume of supporting evidence.  Arguably this is not a corollary of the regime, but more the demands of EIA Regulations, mounting planning and environmental case law, and the ever-present risk of legal challenge.  Nevertheless, the Planning Inspectorate and appointed Inspectors have adopted a rigorous approach to handling representations and managing the inquisitorial-style examination process.  The downside of this efficiency, if there is one, is that the process is driven by a timetable that waits for no man or consultancy team.  For clients there are very limited opportunities to introduce changes to projects and real pressures to resolve local impacts, which can sometimes lead to gold-plated mitigation strategies.
Government has recently concluded a review of the regime.  Improvements include new guidance on when changes to consented schemes will be considered “material” and the potential to deal with such changes in a shorter timescale and without a fresh public examination.  These changes will particularly benefit developers of new energy infrastructure where advances in technology and changes in the market demand flexibility and a consents regime that can keep up.