Article - Issue 33, December 2007

Planning for a low-carbon economy

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

The infrastructure challenge facing the UK over the next quarter of a century, as we try to adapt to climate change, is unlike any in our history. Here are just four of the biggest ‘must haves’ for the next few decades if we are to make any significant progress towards a low-carbon economy:

  • We need to transform our electricity supply industry to achieve a low-carbon mix.

  • We need to transform the demand side to become smarter in our use of energy.

  • We need to build, from scratch, a new industry, roughly the size of our present oil and gas industry, to capture and store carbon.

  • We need to create a transportation system that can compete effectively with the internal combustion engine.

We cannot deliver any of these within the constraints of our existing planning system. It is, quite simply, not fit for purpose, as Paul Golby, Chief Executive of E.ON UK said recently.

In the Queen’s Speech last month, we learnt that the Government will introduce a Planning Reform Bill in the next session of Parliament. In the Planning White Paper that preceded the announcement, the Government highlighted the need for efficient, consistent and reliable decisions.

We all know the horror stories. Keen to put up a wind farm? Want to build a nuclear power station? Expect the planning process to exceed the construction period. It took seven years to reach a decision on Heathrow’s Terminal 5, a year longer than it will take to build. The process involved 37 different applications across seven different pieces of legislation and included a public inquiry that lasted 46 months. It took over six years to reach a decision on plans to upgrade the high-voltage electricity transmission line in North Yorkshire. The Belvedere energy-from-waste incinerator for London took over15 years to reach a planning decision. The list goes on.

The Planning Reform Bill is intended to establish a new separate planning system for major infrastructure projects. The Government is proposing an Independent Planning Commission (IPC) to take decisions based on National Policy Statements for key infrastructure sectors – the strategic road network, energy and power, reservoirs and waste water are highlighted. This is a welcome step, but not nearly radical enough.

The Government’s proposal will apply only to England. It ignores rail, waste recycling and the concept that small-scale distributed infrastructure might be a vital part of the whole mix.

Above all, what the UK needs is a long-term National Spatial Strategy, as the Institution of Civil Engineers has proposed. Then we can agree ‘what goes where’.

The Dutch Government recently adopted just such a National Spatial Strategy. Aimed at ‘planning for development’ rather than ‘controlling planning,’ this sets out a structure for devolving decision making within an overall, joined up national/regional/local spatial framework. Providing space for critical infrastructure is determined at a national level, offering increased certainty for promoters of solutions for infrastructure deemed vital to the national interest. Five policy themes attract special status: the supply of construction materials, military areas, energy supply (electricity supply and transmission, gas extraction and storage), water supply and the use of underground space.

Despite this approach, legal challenges still delay every initiative. Inspraak is the Dutch expression for the democratic right that everyone may speak. These cases can reach the highest levels in the courts, as in the recent Waddenzee judgement on gas production from the Ameland fields, where the Supreme Court eventually rejected environmental claims in favour of the national interest. We need to ensure that our new system is not simply another legal battlefield.

Will our new Independent Planning Commission have the courage to drive through the necessary changes? Will we be able to link National Policy Statements to a National Spatial Strategy? How can we include smaller facilities that are clearly an important part of the mix?

Without a planning system that can provide assurance that common sense will prevail in a reasonable timeframe, investors will drift away. We need strong national leadership on this. The engineering profession is ready to provide it, but it can only do so within a planning framework that can respond quickly and reliably to the challenge of climate change.

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