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Infrastructure ‘super’ policy idea should be explored, say MPs

Construction site with cranes on silhouette background

The idea that a single national policy statement should govern decision-making over nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) across sectors – first proposed by Pinsent Masons – should be explored by the UK government, a committee of MPs has recommended.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee made the call in a new report that scrutinised the government’s plans to overhaul national planning policy for new energy infrastructure in England and Wales.

The report highlighted concerns that reliance on sector-specific national policy statements could lead to inconsistencies between ministerial decisions over NSIPs and the government’s broader objectives for infrastructure – including in relation to meeting ‘net zero’ targets. It specifically referenced a Pinsent Masons article from July 2020 in which the government was urged to prioritise the creation of “one overarching 'super' NPS”.

The Committee said the government should review and “consider the potential merits of implementing a single national policy statement (NPS) across sectors with sub-sector statements linked to different technology developments”. It gave the UK energy secretary 12 months to report to the Committee “with the conclusions of this review”.

Robbie Owen

Robbie Owen

Partner, Parliamentary Agent

A single NPS would significantly improve the sustainability and effectiveness of NPSs, which provide a crucial foundation stone to the NSIPs planning regime

Infrastructure expert and parliamentary agent Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons said: “The Committee’s recommendation in relation to Pinsent Masons’ overarching NPS proposal is very welcome. The report back to the Committee in 12 months’ time will be a real test of the ability of departments across Whitehall to respond with one voice on this issue. A single NPS would significantly improve the sustainability and effectiveness of NPSs, which provide a crucial foundation stone to the NSIPs planning regime.”

NPSs are documents which guide decision-makers on the application of government policy when determining applications for development consent for NSIPs under the Planning Act 2008 regime.

Currently, there are different NPSs for energy, transport, water and waste infrastructure. The government is currently in the process of reviewing five of the six NPSs that apply to energy infrastructure. Those energy NPSs include an overarching policy statement and other policies that concern specific types of energy infrastructure, including fossil fuel electricity generating infrastructure, renewable energy infrastructure, gas supply infrastructure and gas and oil pipelines, electricity networks infrastructure, and nuclear power generation. The nuclear power generation policy does not form part of the current review.

In his previous article, Owen, together with infrastructure and planning law expert Jan Bessell also of Pinsent Masons, said a ‘super’ NPS “would set out the government's high level priorities, needs, objectives, assessment principles and decision-making tests, and any standards for new infrastructure across all sectors”, and “integrate economic, environmental, design and social objectives to deliver sustainable development that supports the net zero transition as well as including any strategic spatial considerations”.

The ‘super’ NPS “would be supported by a series of sector-specific annexes” but the development of the single overarching policy would avoid “introducing repetition and inconsistencies for different sectors and by different departments”. The approach would also enable the package of policies to be reviewed as a whole, unlike what happens currently under the sector-specific approach, enabling necessary updates to be made on the basis of an holistic, more manageable, review process, they said.

In its report, the Committee also recommended that the government move to five-yearly reviews of the NPSs for energy infrastructure, endorsing the view of the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA) in the process.

Jan Bessell, board chair of NIPA, said: “It is really important to have more frequent, and at least five yearly, reviews of the NPSs, as was always the intent of the Planning Act 2008, so that there is relevant and up-to-date policy against which to prepare, consider and consent applications for NSIPs.”

The Committee stressed the need for new energy infrastructure in the UK in response to the climate crisis – in particular, the need for renewables and low carbon infrastructure – and called for this to be recognised in the revision of the energy NPSs. Bessell described the interventions as “very important, essential and timely”.

The focus in the report of using the revised energy NPSs to boost onshore wind capacity in the UK was welcomed by Gareth Phillips, who led the NIPA working group on the revised NPSs.

Phillips said: “The National Infrastructure Commission has identified a need for 18 to 27GW of onshore wind in order to achieve net zero in the UK by 2050, yet this technology features nowhere in the government’s draft revised NPS on renewable energy infrastructure, despite its earlier inclusion in its energy white paper.”

“NIPA raised concerns about this omission and inconsistency in policy, and we are pleased to see the Committee recognise the importance of onshore wind as a significant source of clean energy and as a key part of the energy mix required to achieve net zero. The Committee’s recommendation that the government consider the inclusion of onshore wind within the NSIP planning regime is welcome,” he said.

Phillips said that while the BEIS Committee had not made similar specific recommendations in relation to solar and tidal energy projects, comments it made were nevertheless relevant to developers.

He said: “It is disappointing to see that no specific recommendation has been made in relation to solar and tidal technologies.  The NIPA and Solar Energy UK recommended the inclusion of targets to meet the need identified by the Committee for Climate Change to deploy 54GW of solar by 2035. The report also acknowledges NIPA’s warning that the omission of tidal range is a missed opportunity. However, the same end is perhaps achieved where the Committee, in its report, recognises the benefit of the inclusion of specific targets for the delivery of renewable energy and states that if they are not to be included in the relevant NPS, the link between the NPS and targets given elsewhere in energy-related policy must be made clear.”

The report acknowledged the government’s view that the NPSs should not be overly prescriptive to avoid discouraging the development of new technologies. However, the Committee also recognised that the NPSs should also facilitate the development of new technologies in this fast-moving sector. It has recommended the clear alignment of the NPSs with specific technology roadmaps: “Government should develop technology roadmaps with industry where they don’t yet exist. Explicit and clear cross-references would help to provide clarity both in terms of policy and planning required to encourage innovation and promote the scaling-up of new technologies.”

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