UK infrastructure planning reform with plans to accelerate clean energy deployment

Posted on 27 February 2023

The UK Government recently published a plan to accelerate the planning and delivery procedure for large-scale infrastructure projects, including offshore wind, which can take up to 12 years to develop. The Action Plan for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) includes large projects relating to energy, transport, water, wastewater and waste. The Government has explained that it can promote the plan and accelerate delivery while strengthening environmental standards. 

Between 2012 and 2021, there was a 65% rise in the time taken for projects to pass through the NSIP process. The Energy Transitions Commission recently published research stating that the average timescale for an offshore wind project in the UK is 12 years. The Commission believes this could decline to 5.5 years with additional measures to enhance planning and permitting without impacting environmental and social standards. The UK aims to create 50GW of offshore wind by 2050 and considerably develop its low-carbon hydrogen infrastructure in the same timescale. 

Within the new plan, the UK Government has detailed that an accelerated process will be tested for various projects. Projects within this process will have a shorter timeline applied by the Secretary of State. A consultation on the fast-track process will begin later this year. At the same time, the UK Government will explore suitable projects. There are measures to accelerate the delivery of all NSIPs. The plan promises a more detailed examination process for all projects, plus additional skilled support within the pre-application process. To ensure the support can be offered locally, the Government will examine how much additional funding local authorities will require to grow and upskill. The plan also includes launching a new application service portal this year. Digitising the service and implementing the digital system will result in a more efficient analysis. 

The plan also includes reviewing and updating the National Policy Statement to define a clear, strategic direction. These statements include tests that NSIPs must meet regarding health, safety, environment, community and economy. The Government recently asked the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to comprehensively review the statements. At present, a review is required every five years. The NIC will explore whether a more regular analysis is necessary.

Environmental Outcomes Reports 

The Government documents clearly state they do not want to impact environmental standards to deliver more projects quickly. It is launching a new environmental outcome report requirement for NSIPs developers, which will involve developers displaying evidence of their contributions toward legally binding targets, like those in the Environmental Bill and Environmental Improvement Plan. These plans include factors associated with biodiversity, air and water quality, soil health and waste.  

The UK Government has stated that it will ensure the NSIP process meets broader environmental goals, including achieving net zero. The lack of focus on net zero in related projects to data has been an issue for the green economy. 

Green Economy Reaction In response to the news, Juliette Webb, the environmental policy analyst for RenewableUK, highlights that they are pleased that government ministers have recognised recommendations to restructure the planning process to allow quicker progression of renewable energy projects. Webb believes the current planning system is moving very slowly, often taking years to secure approval for an offshore wind farm. If we are to reduce energy bills, improve energy security and meet our net zero targets, the UK Government must eliminate unnecessary hurdles and streamline how the system works. 

It is positive that Ministers now recognise the need for more collaboration between project developers and statutory bodies and added commitment to scale the resources needed within the planning system to enable it to work more effectively. 

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