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Energy planning improved but still doesn’t power nature’s recovery

Simon Marsh, formerly the RSPB’s Head of Nature Protection and now a freelance planning consultant, reflects on the key points raised in Link's response to the Government's recent consultation on energy National Policy Statements.

May 2023

Planning for major energy infrastructure has evolved rapidly in the last few years. In 2020 the Government started a review of the Energy National Policy Statements (NPSs), originally adopted in 2011. Consultation took place the following year, but this was shortly followed by the Net Zero Strategy (October 2021) which set out the Government’s plan for reducing reliance on fossil fuels and making the transition to low carbon energy consistent with net zero commitments. The need for domestic energy security was turbo-charged by the outbreak of war in Ukraine and the spike in global energy prices. The Business Energy Security Strategy (April 2022) made several commitments related to energy, planning reform and the energy NPSs.

Consultation round two has just closed on the energy NPSs. Five of them are under review (all except nuclear). New coal and oil for energy have been ruled out. The NPSs will provide the primary policy for decisions by the Secretary of State for Net Zero and Climate Change under the Planning Act 2008. In other words, they translate government energy policy into a form for making decisions on Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs); everything from offshore wind farms to grid connections – but not onshore wind farms, which are still dealt with under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

What do we make of the revised energy NPSs? Our verdict in summary: there are some welcome improvements to detail, but the big picture is still flawed.

In the rush for net zero, there’s a high risk that nature will be left behind. The climate and ecological crises are just two sides of the same coin: a single global crisis in which both need to be tackled together. From nature’s perspective, there are five key issues that need to be fixed.

1. Need

Link accepts there is a compelling need for new renewable energy, but the definition of ‘Critical National Priority Infrastructure’ is too broad and vague, for example including related network reinforcements, whatever and wherever they are. Need cannot be prioritised over environmental impacts, otherwise developers will be tempted to short-cut the mitigation hierarchy and leave residual impacts in the ‘too difficult’ box. We are already seeing this happening with the routing of onshore connections from offshore wind farms through Sites of Special Scientific Interest without robust application of the mitigation hierarchy. Applicants must demonstrate how all legal and policy requirements have been met, and in particular how the mitigation hierarchy has been applied, for example through consideration of alternative routes or designs. Adequate compensation for all impacts must be secured where necessary.

2. Alternatives

Restricting alternative solutions, such as alternative locations or different ways of developing (such as by having fewer turbines in a wind farm) is poor planning practice and legally questionable. Previously, NSIPs which would have had unacceptable impacts on biodiversity, such as the London Array offshore windfarm, have been enabled to proceed after redesign in this way.

Identifying the least environmentally-damaging alternatives to a project is key, but without an overarching spatial plan, this is impossible. The recent report by the National Infrastructure Commission, ‘Delivering net zero, climate resilience and growth’ (April 2023) recognises the importance of spatial plans for infrastructure in resolving questions of need and prioritising schemes. Link supports the NIC’s call for such plans, where they exist, to be designated as spatial planning documents subject to public consultation and accompanied by the appropriate assessments including Habitats Regulations Assessments and Strategic Environmental Assessments. In sectors where clear spatial planning frameworks do not exist, such as energy generation, Link recommends that they should be urgently developed.

3. Biodiversity net gain

We welcome the updating of the biodiversity net gain section to reflect the provisions of the Environment Act 2021. We urge rapid progress of the work on developing biodiversity net gain for the marine environment. The Secretary of State now needs to provide a biodiversity gain statement for NSIPs, which can be incorporated in the NPS after further consultation. It is important that given the significant scale and duration of NSIPs, the ambition for biodiversity net gain should be at least 20%; the metric must be demonstrated to be fit for purpose to assess large-scale projects; biodiversity gain must be maintained in perpetuity; it must be additional to the mitigation hierarchy and not conflated with compensation measures; it must exclude irreplaceable habitats; there must be long-term post-implementation monitoring, and there must be no exemptions for any class of NSIPs.

4. Irreplaceable habitats

It’s good to see updated text on irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees. However, the Government is committed to improving protection following a review of implementation. The NPS should reflect the recommendations that come from the review, and be clear that the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats should be wholly exceptional.

5. Greenhouse gas emissions

Link welcomes the broadening of carbon assessments to greenhouse gas assessments and the requirement for a greenhouse gas reduction strategy to be secured under the Development Consent Order. We particularly welcome references to the creation and preservation of carbon stores and sinks including through woodland creation, peatland restoration and other natural habitats.

However, we are deeply concerned that operational carbon emissions, such as from gas-fired electricity generation, are not to be assessed for individual NSIPs, and that their contribution to carbon budgets, net zero and international climate commitments will be managed only in an economy-wide manner. We do not have confidence that economy-wide measures, many of which may rely on untested policies, will be sufficiently effective to do away with the need for assessment of individual NSIPs.

You can read Link's response to the energy National Policy Statements consultation here

Simon Marsh was formerly the RSPB’s Head of Nature Protection and a Link Trustee, and is now a freelance planning consultant.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.