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Offshore wind to be ‘critical national priority’ infrastructure in England and Wales

offshore wind turbines sunset view linkedin

New draft national planning policy statements will establish offshore wind projects, including their offshore and onshore substations and cabling, as Critical National Priority (CNP) infrastructure in England and Wales.

Energy project planning experts at Pinsent Masons said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the new designation, as set out in the updated draft national policy statements (NPS) for energy, including EN-3 for renewable energy infrastructure, published this week. With CNP infrastructure status, there is a presumption that most environmental impacts are unlikely, in all but the most exceptional cases, to outweigh the urgent need for offshore wind.

Gareth Phillips welcomed the introduction of the CNP infrastructure policy presumption, previously the subject of his recommendations made to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee on energy NPS on behalf of the National Infrastructure Planning Association (NIPA).

Phillips, who led the NIPA’s NPS working group, said that the “presumption in favour of development was being lost in examination of DCO applications, with greater weight being given to local impacts”.

“Greater emphasis is needed on the presumption and national need, to put the predominance of those considerations beyond doubt in decision-making,” he said.

The BEIS committee reported to the government in February 2022 with a number of recommendations for reform of the draft NPS. It recommended that a revised EN-1 (overarching) policy statement should provide “clearer direction in favour of the presumption of the delivery of new energy infrastructure required to deliver net zero” and that the policy statement “explicitly sets out that the NPS takes precedent over any other conflicting local or statutory bodies’ planning policies”.

Stirling Amy

Amy Stirling

Senior Associate

Clarity from the government on offshore wind environmental standards and strategic habitats compensation was eagerly awaited but has been postponed to subsequent consultations. It is essential that the government does so promptly

Amy Stirling of Pinsent Masons said: "The last time an offshore wind DCO was granted on time was East Anglia Three back in 2017, and since then we’ve had six offshore wind DCO decisions delayed and one DCO application refused,” she said.

“CNP infrastructure status is undoubtedly a positive step forward for offshore wind, as is the recognition that offshore transmission projects in English waters which enter the DCO regime via a s35 direction will benefit from the policy support in NPS EN-3, however some of the most difficult issues are not yet dealt with,” said Stirling.

“Developers routinely face difficulties seeking to agree methods of assessment with stakeholders and on navigating the habitats regulations process. Clarity from the government on offshore wind environmental standards and strategic habitats compensation was therefore eagerly awaited but has been postponed to subsequent consultations. It is essential that the government does so promptly, if it is serious about addressing the all too routine delays in bringing offshore wind projects forward,” she said.

Draft NPS EN-3 contains some useful policy clarifications, including that energy security and decarbonisation require a significant number of locations for offshore wind, with each location to maximise capacity and no limits on the number of locations required. This should help prevent locations being traded off and compared against each other as part of the ‘alternatives’ case, and the overriding nature of the public interest in offshore wind as compared to habitats impacts is further strengthened. 

Offshore wind projects will be presumed to outweigh any test of harm, including on sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), designated landscapes and heritage assets. There are exceptions to this presumption - where there is an unacceptable risk or interference with human health, national defence or navigation, and importantly, for habitats regulations assessment impacts.

Looking forward, the government anticipates that future development may occur in rounds, or as piecemeal development, indicating the possibility of projects coming forward outside of formal Crown Estate leasing rounds, something which will no doubt be welcomed by industry, said Stirling. Clarity is also provided on ‘repowering’: applicants must submit a new consent application for any repowering of an existing site along with required environmental assessments.

Stirling added that developers would also welcome the policy support for project substations and cables, also included within the CNP infrastructure, sitting alongside the recognition of the evolving landscape in connection solutions and support for a coordinated approach and novel solutions such as connections into multi-purpose interconnectors. Guidance is given on design and assessment requirements, which broadly align with the best practice already been undertaken, for example ensuring that transmission infrastructure is assessed cumulatively. The starting point is that transmission infrastructure should be co-ordinated, and only if that solution is not feasible should a radial connection be proposed. The secretary of state will have to be satisfied that options for coordination have been appropriately considered when making a decision on the application.

In a related consultation, also opened this week, the government is consulting on a recommended approach to community benefits for network infrastructure – including onshore infrastructure associated with offshore wind or interconnectors. Voluntary guidance will be established and is anticipated to recommend direct payments to eligible people in the community – such as those living in close proximity to development – and wider support for local projects. Notably, the government will monitor whether a voluntary approach delivers, and if not then it may move to a mandatory approach, recognising the unprecedented pace and scale needed for network infrastructure. For now, community benefits will remain outside of the planning process, although lines could become blurred, especially if there was a move to a mandatory approach.   

Stirling said: “To deliver 50GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 there is no doubt that significant development of the electricity network is required. There is a lot for the UK project pipeline to support in the draft policy statements, and there are clear benefits for all leasing round projects, including ScotWind, many of which will connect in England. If we can streamline environmental assessments to focus on key risks, deliver environmental benefits through strategic compensation and bring host communities on the journey, then we might get close to the target.”

“The building blocks are there, and the industry is eager to get going. We now need the policy support for offshore wind as a Critical National Priority to become tangible action,” she said.

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