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Fast-track planning: how to balance national and local needs

24 April 2024

Governments are trialling quicker ways of delivering infrastructure, but they still need to engage with communities, writes Sharon Darcy.

Fast-track planning: how to balance national and local needs
Electricity networks will require significantly more investment. Image credit: Shutterstock

The amount of new infrastructure needed to deliver net zero is eye-watering.

This was brought into sharp relief when the Electricity Systems Operator’s ‘Beyond 2030’ report called for an additional £58 billion investment into electricity networks by 2035.

That’s 1,000 miles of power cables, including pylons, that will need public approval in the next 10 years. 

This is why, globally, governments are looking for ways to fast-track the consenting process for significant projects.

Planning flexibility in the UK

In the UK, the government is looking to create more flexibility in planning decisions for major infrastructure projects.

It’s setting a 12-month target for decisions that have met a quality standard test.

While we do need to move faster to deliver national goals, there’s also a growing understanding that to do this, we need to take communities with us.

What’s the right balance?

Agile planning processes are needed...

Flexibility is important in major project planning to account for changes in the wider context and other land use requirements.

For example, to consider the needs of other infrastructure sectors, economic development and issues like energy and food security.

More dynamic processes can help planners adapt to uncertainty, particularly around climate and environmental effects.

As the scientific evidence base evolves, this is likely to become more and more necessary.

Agile consenting processes are also important.

Static processes can make it difficult for decision makers to respond to evolving stakeholder views, reducing the chances to collaborate.

…but participation is also important

Communities are often the experts in a particular place and have valuable insights on local issues.

Their involvement in infrastructure planning can lead to better decision making and build public support for projects throughout their lifecycle, reducing the risk of legal challenges.

Proactive public engagement can also open new opportunities and deliver co-benefits such as habitat protection and the development of nature-positive solutions.

Communities will ultimately pay for new infrastructure. As such, it’s important that they have a say in what's built and where.

What are the potential pitfalls of fast-track consenting regimes?

Faster and more agile planning processes can bring many benefits. But, there are also potential drawbacks.

Not considering the necessary evidence carefully and in full could lead to poor decisions, including those based on what’s easiest and quickest to measure, rather than what’s most relevant.

There could be a higher risk of legal challenge if communities and other stakeholders can show that due processes haven’t been followed, and that they didn’t have enough opportunities to make their voices heard.

In such cases, a fast-track regime could potentially lengthen the consenting process and even damage public trust in the wider democratic legitimacy of the planning system.

If this weakens public support for climate action in other areas (such as the public behaviour changes needed for net zero) this would clearly be a problem.

How can policymakers achieve the right balance between national and local interests?

Addressing the weaknesses of the planning process by purely focusing on issues with individual projects will only take one so far.

Change is also needed at a big-picture level to give a clearer sense of direction and certainty about the outcomes wanted:

  1. Policymakers need to do more to prepare the public for change.

    They must explain why new infrastructure needs to be built, what the alternatives are, and, when building for net zero, why things can’t stay as they are.

  2. National Policy Statements, which provide the basis for planning decisions on major infrastructure, should more clearly address the balance between national and community interests, and how to deal with trade-offs, when it comes to net zero.

  3. There needs to be more focus on strategic spatial planning – how public bodies influence the social, economic, and environmental use and development of land – in key sectors such as energy and water and on the links between them.

    Statutory bodies, including regulators and the Planning Inspectorate, need to work more closely together.

  4. Policy and regulatory frameworks need to ensure engagement with stakeholder groups, such as environmental NGOs, at this big-picture level, so that they can explore alternatives and share their expertise in terms of social and environmental impacts.

  5. In terms of individual projects, planning bodies should require that communities and other stakeholder groups are involved earlier, including at the pre-application stage, and in an ongoing and systematic way.

Can technology support faster decision-making?

New technologies such as advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence are an important part of the equation in terms of speeding up the planning regime.

New tools can synthesise and analyse vast quantities of information and systematically go through different options in a fraction of the time taken by traditional methods.

This can help address the skills and capacity challenges faced by planners and project developers.

Importantly, they can also provide platforms for real-time stakeholder engagement and collaboration.

They could enable users to question alternatives, creatively explore trade-offs, and balance different interests in a transparent and consistent way.

New tech can identify issues much earlier in the process, before time and resources are wasted, and decisions are locked in.

The Linear Infrastructure Planning Panel’s new white paper sets out the steps needed for such innovative technology to move into the mainstream and transform the planning system.

Read the paper

*The ICE welcomes guests to share their views about infrastructure policy issues on the Infrastructure Blog. These views are the views of the individual.

The views expressed in this blog don't necessarily reflect those of all Linear Infrastructure Planning Panel members or any of the organisations associated with the panel.

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  • Sharon Darcy, chair at Linear Infrastructure Planning Panel