‘Critical National Priority’ for Energy Infrastructure
Bidwells’ Planner Mike Jones, shares his thoughts on updated National Planning Policy and what this means for development and decision making.
2023 and December’s updated National Policy Framework (NPPF) now appear a distant memory!
The focus for February for many across planning and development is the imminent mandatory requirements for Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) for major developments, which comes into effect from today, the 12th of February.
However, January was not without incident. From the 17th the updated ‘National Significant Infrastructure Projects’ (NSIP) National Policy Statements (NPS’s) for Energy were enacted. These include matters of Energy Security and Net Zero, consisting of an Overarching National Planning Policy Statement for Energy (EN1), and a further five “technology specific” energy NPSs; including but not limited to: EN3 ‘Renewable Energy’ and EN5 ‘Electricity Networks’.
For those already averting their eyes, this is not a piece on NSIP’s, but the relevance specifically to ‘small scale developments’, determined at the local level, as opposed to those that are subject to Development Consent Orders (DCO).
NPS EN-1 specifically recognises that that there is a Critical National Priority (CNP) for the provision of significant low carbon infrastructure stating:
● “Subject to any legal requirements, the urgent need for CNP Infrastructure to achieving our energy objectives, together with the national security, economic, commercial, and net zero benefits, will in general outweigh any other residual impacts not capable of being addressed by application of the mitigation hierarchy. Government strongly supports the delivery of CNP Infrastructure and it should be progressed as quickly as possible”.
The objectives in this overarching statement for the energy system are to ensure the supply of energy remains secure, reliable, affordable, and consistent with meeting the national target to cut Green House Gass emissions to net zero by 2050. In doing so it states (my own emphasis underlined in bold):
● “Meeting these objectives necessitates a significant amount of new energy infrastructure, both large nationally significant developments and small-scale developments determined at a local level. This includes the infrastructure needed to convert primary sources of energy (e.g. wind) into energy carriers (e.g. electricity or hydrogen), and to store and transport primary fuels and energy carriers into and around the country. The requirement for new energy infrastructure will present opportunities for the UK and contributes towards our ambition to support jobs in the UK’s clean energy industry and local supply chains”.
The above passage is therefore very clear that these NPS reach beyond the remit of NSIP and DCO.
So, what does this mean for decision making?
As this infrastructure is regarded by government as being of a CNP the NPS state that this should be progressed as quickly as possible and therefore the weighting in any planning balance is heightened for such qualifying projects and EN1 states (again my own emphasis in bold):
● Substantial weight should be given to this need when considering planning applications of this type.
It goes further to state:
● “As a result, the Secretary of State will take as the starting point for decision-making that such infrastructure is to be treated as if it has met any tests which are set out within the NPSs, or any other planning policy, which requires a clear outweighing of harm, exceptionality or very special circumstances”.
So what we can infer from this? I would suggest it enables ‘CNP qualifying infrastructure’ (which are not limited to NSIP) to meet the following (non-exhaustive) list of tests:
● where development within a Green Belt requires very special circumstances, to justify development;
● where development within or outside a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) requires the benefits (including need) of the development in the location proposed to clearly outweigh both the likely impact on features of the site that make it a SSSI, and any broader impacts on the national network of SSSIs.
● where development in nationally designated landscapes requires exceptional circumstances to be demonstrated; and
● where substantial harm to or loss of significance to heritage assets should be exceptional or wholly exceptional”.
However, not all is clear:
It is extremely frustrating that the updated NPPF did not cross reference with these Energy NPS with more clarity, particularly on the nuisance of the weighting in decision making. However, there is reference in part at paragraph 7, under Chapter 2 ‘Achieving Sustainable Development’, which states (with my own emphasis underlined in bold), the importance of the delivery of energy infrastructure, and I would argue this is the hook within the NPPF to the content within the NPS:
“The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development, including the provision of homes, commercial development, and supporting infrastructure in a sustainable manner. At a very high level, the objective of sustainable development can be summarised as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. At a similarly high level, members of the United Nations – including the United Kingdom – have agreed to pursue the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development in the period to 2030. These address social progress, economic well-being and environmental protection.”
In summary, these enacted NPS in parallel with the NPPF highlight the importance of the governments updated direction of travel in achieving sustainable development.
Furthermore, these NPS are not wholly limited to NSIP via the DCO and do in fact apply to a range of smaller scale (local level determined) low carbon infrastructure projects such as renewable energy (generating and storage), waste and electrical grid upgrades and associated infrastructure (substations).
As such, the heightened weight in planning decision making applies to such projects as part of the planning balance. Therefore, qualifying low carbon infrastructure defined as being of CNP should be given substantial weight to the extent that it will meet the tests where policies and guidance requires a clear outweighing of harm or very special circumstances.
This represents significant progress for the planning system in assisting the transition to net zero and supporting many Local Authorities who have motioned ‘Climate Change Emergencies’.
However, as always, we will need to see how this is interpreted going forward to truly see how effective it becomes. Hopefully we see an updated PPG in due course linking the NPS to the NPPF to further support the current wording under Para 7.