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We need a new vision for the road ahead

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 the draft revised National Networks National Policy Statement.

June 2023

Hot on the heels of the revised energy National Policy Statements (see my previous blog ‘Energy planning improved but still doesn’t power nature’s recovery’), the Department for Transport has published the draft National Networks National Policy Statement (NNNPS) to replace the current version designated in 2014. This will provide the decision-making framework for strategic road and rail projects (aka the tongue-twisting national networks nationally significant infrastructure projects, or NSIPs).

Link’s response highlights many similar flaws to the energy NPSs. There’s no overarching strategic, spatial plan which makes it possible to identify the least environmentally-damaging alternatives to a project. Again, we support the National Infrastructure Commission’s recognition of the importance of spatial plans for infrastructure in resolving questions of need and prioritising schemes.

Transport is currently the largest contributor to UK domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and the vast majority of carbon emissions from construction and operation of the strategic road network is generated by the vehicles that travel on it. So we are deeply concerned that a net increase in operational carbon emissions (such as from road users), is not in itself reason to refuse consent for individual NSIPs, and that they will only be managed in an economy-wide manner to ensure consistency with carbon budgets, net zero and international climate commitments. We do not have confidence that economy-wide measures, many of which may rely on untested policies, will be sufficiently effective or timely to do away with the need for such an assessment for individual NSIPs.

Although we welcome the section on biodiversity net gain, as with the energy NPSs we need the Secretary of State to provide a biodiversity gain statement for NSIPs, which can be incorporated into the NPS after further consultation. We also need to see strong and consistent policy for biodiversity and landscapes across planning regimes.

You can read Link’s response on these and other matters here. But I’d like to highlight the problematic approach to need and alternatives.

It’s good that the statement of need is less focussed simply on congestion and network overcrowding, and now identifies a range of challenges including supporting the Government’s environment and net zero priorities. However, the statement “that at a strategic level there is a compelling need for development of the national networks – both as individual networks and as a fully integrated system” is problematic, and meaningless as a planning policy.

Need is so broadly defined that any national network NSIP anywhere could fulfil need, even if it only supported one driver of need, such as supporting economic growth. The approach of the NPS seems to be to allow enough flexibility so that projects can be brought forward to tackle a diversity of issues, but this is little different from an ‘anything goes’ approach. Nor are the drivers of need all equal: in our view, all projects should be driven by environment and net zero priorities.

The statement of need has the effect of being the overriding policy consideration and trumping all other matters. This creates a problem for the protection of environmental assets, such as irreplaceable habitats, as the statement of need can be interpreted as demonstrating the wholly exceptional reasons for development under the policy test. The need for national networks NSIPs is highly location-specific. Without a strategic, spatial plan, need must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and the NNNPS must be clear that a project does not necessarily meet the wholly exceptional test (or any other similar policy test) just because it is an NSIP.

The ’anything goes’ approach is reflected in the Appraisal of Sustainability, which prefers the so-called balanced approach of the NNNPS. The problem with a balanced approach is that it inevitably involves a trade-off of environmental objectives against other objectives. Given the current ecological and climate crisis this is not appropriate, especially as environmental health is foundational to economic and social wellbeing.

An integrated approach which prioritises ‘win-win’ solutions, where environmental objectives are always delivered alongside other goals, is also likely to have lesser adverse effects on protected sites. We therefore also disagree with the conclusion of the Habitats Regulations Assessment that no suitable alternative solutions exist; they just have not been tested properly.

We conclude that the NNNPS is fundamentally flawed in its approach to need and alternatives. In the context of a climate and ecological crisis, we need an alternative vision for national networks which places the achievement of environmental goals (for biodiversity and net zero) at its centre.

You can read Link's response to the National Networks National Policy Statement 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.