Written evidence submitted by National Grid [FPS 088]

Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?

  1. Introduction

 

1.1.   National Grid owns and operates the electricity transmission network in England and Wales, and the gas transmission system in Great Britain. We sit at the heart of the energy system, and our businesses supply gas and electricity safely, reliably and efficiently to millions of customers and communities across the UK.  Our networks are critically important to the achievement of national objectives for a net zero future and central to the operation and growth of the nation’s housing, businesses and public services.

 

1.2.   The Planning White Paper does not touch directly on the issue of energy networks but the sweeping nature of the proposed reform could pose risks for this nationally significant infrastructure. This submission highlights those risks and suggests solutions. At the same time, the process of reform will create opportunities to enhance and simplify planning for energy – working with the grain of the reforms, this submission suggests how those enhancements can be secured.

 

  1. Protecting energy networks in planning reform

 

2.1.   It is essential that energy networks are taken into account in the Government’s planning reform agenda. The UK’s net zero and growth ambitions are central to the Government’s objectives.  A planning system which protects and grows energy networks will help meet carbon reduction targets and serve new homes and businesses creating a society where no-one is left behind.

 

2.2.   As that agenda is implemented, there are important opportunities that can be taken to enhance the protection and planning of our energy networks:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.3.   These opportunities are described in more detail in our response to the individual White Paper proposals below.

 

  1. Planning White Paper proposals

 

Proposal 1: Simplifying the role of Local Plans to identify three types of land – Growth, Renewal and Protection Areas

 

Protecting our networks in the current planning system

 

3.1.   We work hard within the current system to protect our energy networks from incompatible or unsafe developments, by engaging regularly and extensively in the development plan and planning application processes, to ensure the safe, reliable and efficient supply of energy to millions of customers. We have energy infrastructure and operational land holdings in around three quarters of the Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) in England. Our electricity transmission network comprises 4,481 miles of overhead lines, 1,416 miles of underground cables and 347 substations and gas transmission network, 4,740 miles of high-pressure pipe.

 

3.2.   This system generally allows us to avoid unsafe development and significant costs to bill payers or other developers. However, it is far from ideal and creates risks. We have referenced some examples below.

 

Local Plans

 

3.3.   The presence of our infrastructure across a site presents a constraint on development. However, provided design is sympathetic, it is usually possible to accommodate new development near to our assets – for example, by configuring residential layouts to avoid buildings near to the infrastructure. It is therefore rare that proximity to our assets would make a plan allocation unacceptable or incompatible in principle. The main purpose of our engagement is therefore to ensure that planning policy is positively framed with this in mind.  For example, we have prepared design guidelines for development near pylons and high voltage overhead powerlines to assist LPAs and developers.

 

3.4.   Under Regulation 18 of the Local Plan Regulations 2012, LPAs are required to notify prescribed stakeholders, including gas and electricity licence holders, who they consider may have an interest in the Local Plan. However, as the onus is on the LPA to determine whether we have an interest and therefore the need to notify us, we have found that we can get missed from consultations. To help safeguard against this, we proactively monitor and engage in the Local Plan making process across the country to help ensure the continued safe operation of our infrastructure and to facilitate future investment, under the current system. It is commonly necessary to remind authorities of the need to consult National Grid.  Consultants are instructed to monitor and engage with over 300 local plans plus neighbourhood plans and supplementary planning documents but the lack of policy or guidance requiring energy networks to be protected means that we have to be constantly vigilant and, even then, risks arise. 

 

3.5.   For example, Uttlesford District Council (UDC) recently failed to consult National Grid on a proposed Local Plan allocation for a new settlement on land that contained a high-pressure gas pipeline. This error wasn’t picked up until right before the examination and it called into question the soundness of the allocation. The failure to account for the pipeline was one of the reasons the Inspectors gave for their recommendation to UDC to withdraw the plan, thereby substantially delaying delivery of much needed homes.

 

Planning applications

 

3.6.   The detail of development proposals is key to ensuring compatible and safe development (e.g. to maintain safety clearances). The outline/reserved matters or full planning application stages in the current system are therefore vital steps.  Perhaps surprisingly, National Grid is not a statutory consultee.  It is physically impossible to monitor all planning applications and there is no national policy or guidance which requires such notification or which enables authorities to identify the location of the national energy network. 

 

3.7.   Where notification is missed and we are not consulted, and development impacts our assets, there are important implications for public safety, as well as costs to bill payers and developers to resolve the issue.

 

3.8.   For example, the development of a brownfield site adjacent to the M4 in Hillingdon has recently resulted in the construction of two semi-detached houses over two 275kV high voltage power cables that form an essential part of the electricity supply for London. A diversion of the cables to avoid the houses might affect the adjacent M4 embankment, and the cost of such a diversion is likely to exceed the value of the houses. The houses and the cables cannot coexist. The removal of the houses is likely, without them ever having been occupied.

 

3.9.   Clearly, risks inherent in the current system on occasion already allow undesirable and unsafe developments. We are concerned that if not carefully designed, the loosening of control proposed in Planning for the Future could worsen this situation.

Risks and opportunities of the White Paper proposals

3.10.                      Planning for the Future proposes that planning control in Growth and Renewal Areas will be streamlined. In Growth Areas, which are envisaged to include “include land suitable for comprehensive development, including new settlements and urban extension sites, and areas for redevelopment, such as former industrial sites or urban regeneration sites”, outline approval for development would be automatically secured for forms and types of development specified in the Local Plan.

 

Risk of development conflict

 

3.11.                      Whilst we welcome the intention to bring development forward more quickly, we are concerned that this could remove an existing check from the process, which would increase the likelihood of incompatible development being allowed. This is especially concerning given that the fast track process proposed would not allow the same degree of assessment as an existing outline planning permission. The reforms also mean that all significant sites in a local authority area would be planned and consented at the same time, stretching local authority resources and swamping our ability to monitor and protect the network.  The concern is also sharpened by the fact that much of our infrastructure is in areas of greatest pressure that are likely to be considered suitable for Growth Area status (e.g. existing and former industrial land, urban fringe sites).

 

3.12.                      A similar concern relates to land on which we are planning future infrastructure, either under the mainstream planning regime or via a DCO. We already experience conflict over land on which we propose new infrastructure, and this is likely to be amplified by the Growth Area proposals.

 

3.13.                      We note that in both the Growth and Renewal Areas it would be possible for a proposal which is not anticipated by the Local Plan but this is expected to be the exception rather than the rule. Care needs to be taken to ensure this approach does not inadvertently prevent or delay energy infrastructure or other development, which will not typically be anticipated in Local Plans. This is particularly important given the dynamic nature of the technologies necessary to meet net zero commitments.

 

3.14.                      Conversely, development would be restricted in the Protected Areas. Energy infrastructure is often located in designations such as National Parks and Green Belt. Whilst we understand that no change is proposed to existing arrangements in these areas, consideration needs to be given to supporting such development where appropriate and avoiding the perception that Protected Area status prohibits such developments.

 

3.15.                      Any effort to simplify planning for housing must ensure that there are no unintended consequences for other types of development, particularly infrastructure that supports net zero and provides for security of supply of the transmission network.

 

Loss of development claims

 

3.16.                      Aside from these concerns about control of development, the loosening of control over large areas of land on which our assets are located could have the unintended consequence of significantly increasing ‘loss of development’ claims from landowners. In general, National Grid does not own the land crossed by its overhead lines, cables and pipelines. Perhaps surprisingly, National Grid’s electricity network has no ‘secure right’ to occupy land, unlike its water and gas counterparts.  60% of affected landowners host National Grid’s electricity assets under annual wayleave agreements, capable of being terminated at notice.  Generally, National Grid works to achieve more security through negotiated easements. To install and operate equipment, we require the rights to do so from the landowner or occupier. For existing assets, these rights cannot be imposed unless notice is served by the landowner and BEIS grant a 15-year necessary wayleave.

 

3.17.                      A wayleave or easement agreement with the landowner or occupier gives us the rights to install, access, maintain and repair our equipment on their land. Negotiated easements typically provide for landowners the ability to claim for compensation if, for example, they are granted planning permission which they cannot implement due to the agreement. This is a significant issue already for National Grid, with costs for value compensation amounting to c. £50m pa, adding directly to our regulated settlement at public expense or to customer’s bills. 

 

3.18.                      The ‘automatic’ award of large scale outline permissions in Growth Areas creates the risk of an escalation of claims, which would increase costs directly to bill payers.  The planning system needs to put in place protection for energy networks, both to protect nationally significant infrastructure and to protect against an escalation of costs.

 

Regeneration of surplus land

3.19.                      Notwithstanding the risks we have flagged above, the proposed Growth and Renewal Areas present a welcome opportunity to bring forward housing and other regeneration developments on our surplus land estate. Our land is brownfield land, typically situated in highly sustainable locations where regeneration can make a significant contribution to the delivery of new homes and other community objectives. St William, our joint venture with Berkeley Group, is expected to deliver 20,000 new homes across London and the South East on land we no longer need, like former gas works sites. Our new joint venture with Places for People, one of the largest regeneration, development and property management companies in the UK and a registered provider of affordable housing, aims to regenerate an additional 10 sites for new homes over the next three years.

Protecting energy networks in planning reform – proposed improvements.

3.20.                      Despite these risks, planning reform creates the opportunity to increase the protection of our nationally important energy networks. We propose that this is best achieved by:

 

 

 

3.21.                      Embedding up to date information on the location of National Grid’s existing and proposed energy infrastructure, and operational land holdings in every Local Plan (see further below).

Proposal 2: Development management policies established at national scale and an altered role for Local Plans

3.22.                      National Grid supports the proposal for national development management policies. We agree that local plans are far too long and that there would be substantial benefit in a national set of development management policies, uniformly applied.  We suggest that they are separate from the NPPF, which would continue to provide high level policy, as a full set of standardised policies that could be simply incorporated into every Local Plan.  In this way, those policies would obtain the equivalent protection provided by Section 38 (6), which provides statutory status for Local Plan policies and would oblige the national development management policies to be the starting point in the determination of every planning application. National development management policies would also guide the preparation of Local Plans and ensure, for instance, that the appropriate approach was taken to energy and other infrastructure in the designation of Growth Areas and other plan proposals.

 

3.23.                      This proposed reform creates an important opportunity for the protection and enhancement of energy networks.  Within the national set of policies, there should be a clear, positive national development management policy that supports the development and protection of energy networks and the role they play in supplying low carbon and green energy to homes and businesses. In terms of drafting, National Grid has already prepared best practice development management policy text in its Design Guidelines for Development near Pylons and High Voltage Overhead Power Lines, 2019.

 

3.24.                      This policy should be supported by additions to the NPPG which currently contains no advice to authorities on how to support the development and protection of energy infrastructure. The online nature of the PPG makes it an ideal host for a link to our Network Rote Maps. 

Proposal 3: Local Plans should be subject to a single statutory “sustainable development” test, replacing the existing tests of soundness and abolishing the Duty to Cooperate

3.25.                      The White Paper asks how strategic, cross-boundary issues could be best planned for in the absence of a formal Duty to Cooperate.

 

3.26.                      Our experience under the current mainstream planning system suggests that cooperation between planning authorities on cross-boundary infrastructure projects is already piecemeal and fragmented.   This can prove challenging for infrastructure developers (for example, in alignment of decision-making and timescales), and these issues may be amplified in the absence of a formal Duty to Cooperate.

 

3.27.                      A number of existing arrangements may provide useful examples. Under the Planning Act 2008 DCO regime, LPAs are able to undertake Local Impact Reports jointly. Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs) could allow for bespoke arrangements across administrative areas to support cooperation.  The principles set out in the Manual of Procedures for the permitting process for Projects of Common Interest in the UK may help facilitate constructive cooperation.

 

3.28.                      Without such arrangements to facilitate cooperation, it is likely that developers and projects may have to opt into the DCO regime to facilitate better cooperation with LPAs and certainty on timescales, which will be disproportionate for many projects.

 

Proposal 7: Local Plans should be visual and map-based, standardised, based on the latest digital technology, and supported by a new template

3.29.                      National Grid strongly supports the digitisation of Local Plans as an opportunity to standardise and simplify the data used nationally. It also presents the opportunity to make available critically important information such as the precise location of energy networks and other constraints. We therefore propose that Local Plans are required to include up to date information on the location of National Grid’s existing and proposed energy infrastructure, and operational land holdings. This information is publicly available, as GIS shapefiles, on our website. To protect our infrastructure from third party development, this information should be accompanied by the standardised safeguarding policies set out in the national development management policies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proposal 8: Local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate will be required through legislation to meet a statutory timetable for key stages of the process

3.30.                      It is critical that National Grid is consulted in the Local Plan development if proposals interact with national energy assets. The proposed streamlining of planning making and planning control in Growth and Renewal Areas would threaten our ability to safeguard assets and potentially lead to allocation of land for incompatible development.

 

3.31.                      The inclusion of our infrastructure in Local Plan maps would provide a good safeguard but, such is the significance of our networks, and its ability to thwart planned development, a clear requirement to consult National Grid is essential. We therefore propose that National Grid is confirmed as a statutory consultee in the new Local Plan making process.

 

3.32.                      As noted above, National Grid has energy infrastructure and operational land holdings in in around three quarters of Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) in England. The proposed deadlines for plan making will lead to large numbers of LPAs preparing plans at the same time. We are concerned that this will present a significant resource challenge for those stakeholders like National Grid who have interests across the country.  The use of digital policy maps to identify and safeguard assets, together with clear consultation requirements would be an important protection.

 

Proposal 11: To make design expectations more visual and predictable through local design codes and guidance

3.33.                      National Grid sees good design as an integral part of planning energy infrastructure development and regenerating our surplus estate. We are innovative in our approach to designing and developing projects. It is important that design codes and guidance:

 

  1. Achieve a balance between sympathetic design and not compromising the operational efficiency, functionality or safety of energy infrastructure.

 

2.              Design requirements do not significantly increase costs, increasing the costs of infrastructure to bill payers or making regeneration projects commercially unviable.

 

3.34.                      Where development is being planned near our infrastructure, we recommend that design codes and guidance include a policy that takes account of infrastructure at the outset of the layout or masterplanning process. Proposals should employ appropriate methods to lessen the impact of the infrastructure on development.  A good starting point would be for codes/guidance to include the model policy on page 25 of our design guidelines for development near pylons and high voltage overhead powerlines, to ensure a consistent and appropriate response to development where infrastructure is present.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proposal 15: Amending the NPPF to target areas where a reformed planning system can most effectively play a role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and maximising environmental benefits

3.35.                      Amendments to the NPPF should help to articulate to the public, the need for the energy infrastructure required to achieve the UK’s net zero future, including substations, overhead lines, gas pipelines and energy storage. It is of vital importance that the NPPF and the planning regime for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) are aligned and the relationship between the two regimes is clear. The NPPF should reflect the National Policy Statements (NPS) under which development consent order applications are considered.

 

3.36.                      Paragraph 151 of the NPPF should be revised to include a clear presumption in favour of the protection and enhancement of energy networks to connect the increasing number of new sources of low carbon and green energy. Supporting the development of energy networks is critical to delivering the Government’s net zero ambition and must be a priority for the amended NPPF.  At present the necessary policy support is missing.

 

 

3.37.                      Given that they were published in 2011, we would also support an update of the Energy NPS to ensure they reflect the net zero ambition. There is typically local concern about the siting of new infrastructure, especially in locations where there is currently none. Updating the current NPS’ to recognise the clear need for such development, will support the development of the infrastructure needed to achieve net zero.

 

3.38.                      More broadly, planning reforms should be considered alongside other infrastructure plans and policies including the National Infrastructure Assessment, emerging National Infrastructure Strategy and the expected Energy White Paper to ensure an integrated approach to infrastructure planning. We recognise that the White Paper covers the mainstream planning system in England. We consider an integrated approach to planning is required to support economic development, energy and infrastructure development. This should include integration with other government policies (for example, those of BEIS).

 

Proposal 16: A quicker, simpler framework for assessing environmental impacts and enhancement opportunities

3.39.                      National Grid welcomes the Government’s intention to design a quicker, simpler framework for the assessment environmental impacts and opportunities, that speeds up the process while protecting and enhancing the most valuable and important habitats and species in England.

 

3.40.                      Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) legislation is well understood, utilised and trusted by professionals as a robust way of assessing development proposals on the environment, and therefore is solid starting point for any new framework. Given the need to protect the natural environment the EIA process is necessarily technical, and simplification therefore should not be at the expense of rigorous decision making.

 

 

 

Proposal 19: The Community Infrastructure Levy should be reformed to be charged as a fixed proportion of the development value above a threshold, with a mandatory nationally-set rate or rates and the current system of planning obligations abolished.

3.41.                      National Grid Land and Property deals with the management and regeneration of our brownfield surplus estate in the UK. Particular care must be taken when reforming CIL as any proposal to apply a standard levy to sites carrying abnormal costs, such as gas holder demolition and remediation, will render them undevelopable. For good reasons, such sites are often zero rated for CIL in order to enable their regeneration.

 

3.42.                      A simplified levy may be very helpful for smaller scale and greenfield sites.  For our larger brownfield regeneration sites, however, the ability to plan and deliver on site infrastructure is essential to place making and delivery. Sites of this scale must be exempted and enabled to develop bespoke solutions if they are to be delivered, and particularly with the quality of place making aspired to in the White Paper proposals, which we support.

 

3.43.                      In reforming the current system of planning obligations, appropriate arrangements must be retained for continued use of s.106 obligations for larger sites, including for nationally significant infrastructure projects promoted through the development consent order regime. In those cases, it is often essential that the project can commit to mitigate its impacts directly.  Reliance on local authorities to potentially deliver mitigation would greatly reduce the community’s perception of the acceptability of large scale development.

3.44.                      Any new infrastructure levy will require clarity on scope and where the levy will be directed; exemptions must also be made clear for certain types of development, including nationally significant energy infrastructure projects.

 

3.45.                      We would caution against CIL replacing all other planning obligation requirements, such that s.106 obligations are still likely to provide the most appropriate mechanism to secure appropriate mitigation and targeted contributions.

 

October 2020