NIC: UK’s key infrastructure projects can be delivered more rapidly while also improving sustainability

Pictured: The Hornsea One wind farm. Image: Orsted

That is the conclusion of the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) review of the current policy framework around the delivery of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPS). The results of the review have been published today (18 April) in a new report.

Ministers commissioned the review in February, citing concerns that the time it took for projects to go through the NSIP process increased by 65% between 2012 and 2021. These delays could undermine the UK’s ambitions to more rapidly roll out offshore wind, nuclear and hydrogen projects, as well as work to improve electricity, water and transport infrastructure in response to megatrends relating to climate change, urbanisation and population growth.

The NIC’s top-line conclusion is that it should become a legal requirement for National Policy Statements on NSIPS to be updated every five years at a minimum, by 2025 at the latest. This is currently not legally binding. These Statements exist to assess how NSIPS align with Government policies on issues such as health and safety, the economy and climate change.

A new central coordination mechanism for the Statements, reporting to the Prime Minister or Chancellor, is recommended by the NIC. It believes that such a mechanism would ensure that the importance of “regular and consistent” reviews is understood at senior levels of Government.

A priority change to Statements, the NIC is recommending, is the addition of clearer tests that take into account the ever-improving body of scientific research on climate adaptation and mitigation. Tests also, at present, do not reflect the latest technological innovation – and updates less frequently than every five years will leave Statements unfit for purpose as digital and green technologies continue to evolve.

“Into the 2030s, the types of schemes required will expand further, with the potential requirement for carbon capture and storage pipelines and a hydrogen network,” the report notes.

‘Modular’ updates to Statements could be introduced to make this process quicker, the NIC is recommending.

Maximising the benefits

The NIC believes that, if all recommendations in its review were adopted, the average consenting time for an NSIP would reduce from four years to 2.5 years. Crucially, it believes that this reduction in timescales will not result in a race to the bottom on environmental and social standards. On the contrary, it is proposing changes that it believes will make NSIPs more environmentally friendly, will fast-track low-carbon infrastructure, and will ensure socio-economic benefits are more fairly shared.

On fast-tracking low-carbon infrastructure, the NIC sends a  strong message against the Conservative Party’s stance against onshore wind. Its review calls for onshore wind to be added back into the NSIP system as soon as possible; it was removed under David Cameron in 2016, whose administration also removed onshore wind from the Contracts for Difference (CfD) action schemes.

The review expresses concern that onshore installation numbers in England have decreased by more than 80% since 2016 and warns that the UK may not meet its legally binding clean energy and emissions targets without broader support for renewables.

Included in the review is a recommendation for more streamlined reporting on environmental mitigation by project developers. The NIC states that trials of data collection at a habitat level, rather than on a scheme-by-scheme basis, are proving effective in the offshore wind space and should be replicated for other kinds of NSIP.

This approach would enable data sharing between developers looking to host projects nearby, thus streamlining the data collection and reporting process. The NIC is calling for a reform of the current system of Environmental Impact Assessments and Strategic Environmental Assessments by the end of 2025. It is recommending that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) introduces a digital data-sharing platform in 2024, forming the foundation for this reform.

Additionally, the NIC wants the Government to develop a framework for measuring the direct benefits of NSIPs for local communities by the end of the year. Benefits covered can be environmental, social and/or economic. This could help allay local challenges to key projects and put the onus on developers to contribute to the levelling up agenda.

“Improving the speed of the planning system for major infrastructure does not need to come at the expense of good decisions which take communities and the environment into account,” the report says. “Longer decision-making processes mean more uncertainty for communities while decisions are made. Similarly, inefficiencies in environmental data gathering and mitigation design slow down the process, but do not improve the environment.”

The UK Government is in the process of shaping reforms for the NSIP process and will need to determine which of the NIC’s recommendations to take on board in the coming months. It has already confirmed that a new ‘fast-track process’ will be piloted for selected projects. Projects subject to this process will have shorter statutory timelines set by the relevant Secretary of State. Also confirmed are new measures to support developers through the pre-application process, including funding to train more expert advisors at local councils.

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