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Brian Whiteley: NSIPs - The case for reform

Brian Whiteley MRTPI is a Planning Advisor for Planning Aid England. In this role, he has helped support local parish and town councils to engage with the NSIP consultation process, including for Sizewell C Nuclear Power Station, with consultations held between 2016-2022. 

A background to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs)

The sheer number of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) now running or programmed in East Anglia is daunting. Perhaps it is worth remembering why the UK introduced the NSIP system in 2008. Faced with previous lengthy public inquiries for major developments – e.g. the Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry, which lasted for 525 days spread over 3 years and 10 months – the NSIP framework was introduced to:

  • streamline planning and decision-making for major infrastructure projects;
  • centralise decision-making through the Planning Inspectorate, to ensure consistency and coherence across regions;
  • consolidate approvals for projects like energy, transport, water, and waste management; and
  • promote economic growth by facilitating timely development of critical infrastructure while maintaining environmental protections.

It will be a test for the planning system as to how efficiently it can process this high number of major projects coming forward in one region.

The Local Context: Offshore Energy and Reinforcing the Grid in the East of England

A recent East of England webinar on offshore energy and reinforcing the grid focussed on the latest nationally important windfarm schemes just offshore from Norfolk and Suffolk - and the challenges of connecting these new sustainable power sources to the National Grid.

During the webinar Graham Gunby from Suffolk County Council (SCC) outlined some 19 NSIP proposals affecting Suffolk including the East Anglia 1 North and East Anglia 2 windfarms. He highlighted the point that onshore cable routes and connections associated with energy projects often cause considerable local public concern. He also explained that as the National Grid is at capacity already across much of its area, SCC expects to see further projects coming forward aimed at increasing capacity.

He explained how all will be different in character, complex and often controversial. Partly as a result of all this activity, SCC has set up a "NSIP Centre of Excellence" to disseminate information on NSIPs. They are providing free webinars focussed on issues important to local authority planning officers engaged in NSIPs as well as more general recorded information on NSIP processes, aimed at newer officers.

Another speaker, Sheery Atkins from Equinor,  gave a detailed run through of their major local project. It involves cables linking their offshore Sheringham Shoal and adjacent Dudgeon wind farms to the National Grid. Cables from the two windfarms will land together on the Norfolk coast just to the west of Sheringham and run along a joint 60 kms route to a substation just south west of Norwich, connecting there with the National Grid.

Tom McGarry from National Grid Transmission explained the challenge:

“North Sea windfarms now make a major and growing contribution to national electricity needs. Despite these new net-zero supplies, the National Grid has not been subject to an upgrade since the 1960s to facilitate their distribution.

The Grid was focussed then on distributing electricity from coal-fired generating stations in the Midlands to major industrial centres at the time. The whole network now urgently needs a revamp to feed in new supplies from windfarms off the Scottish, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglian coasts.”

Addressing the challenges

To help with challenges like these the Government is now seeking reform of the NSIP system to help deal with concerns regarding efficiency, public engagement, and environmental considerations. For example:

  • the average length of time to reach decisions on Development Consent Orders (DCO) increased by 65% between 2012 and 2021 from 2.6 to 4.2 years;
  • more projects are requiring multiple extensions of time at the decision stage;
  • there has been an increase in the volume of documentation created during the NSIP process - some applications have generated in excess of 90,000 pages of documentation published on the Planning Inspectorate website; and
  • the number of projects that are subject to successful legal challenge is increasing – e.g. four Development Consent Orders (DCO) were quashed during 2021.

The RTPI has welcomed recent government efforts to progress with its NSIP Action Plan and believe that many of the proposals suggested in its consultation will help to speed up the consenting process, improve pre-application and post-consent stages, and support the Planning Inspectorate, local authorities and statutory consultees in the planning system to engage more effectively with new infrastructure projects.

The reforms also aim to enhance public participation mechanisms to ensure community voices are heard, fostering trust and accountability in decision-making. Finally, they are designed to strengthen environmental safeguards to align with evolving sustainability goals, mitigating potential ecological impacts.

A need to go further

However, the RTPI believes that government needs to go further to ensure that infrastructure can be integral in delivering a net zero future whilst driving economic growth. In our view:

  1. New National Policy Statements are welcome but should be updated more regularly, at least every 5 years (as supported by the National Infrastructure Commission).
  2. National Policy Statements and the National Infrastructure Strategy should be updated to provide a clear spatial planning framework for infrastructure. They should “go beyond just saying what is infrastructure is needed” to “provide important spatial direction about where infrastructure should be delivered. They should also be interlinked to establish a clearer understanding of our built environment.”
  3. Resourcing the Planning Inspectorate needs to become a greater focus of the Government’s capacity and capability strategy for planning. The success of these reforms depends on their ability to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of experienced planners to deliver these reforms.
  4. Government should establish an independent Commission for Public Engagement or a public framework of public engagement consultancies to “ensure major project’s consultation requirements are proportionate, create a more level playing field between project developers and communities and reduce the delays and costs associated with local opposition.”.

You can read more about infrastructure planning on the RTPI website.

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