The energy review argues for a ‘streamlined’ planning process for nuclear power stations. But blocking opposition at the inquiry stage may simply antagonise residents and campaigners who feel sidelined …

The government is promising “radical action” to rebalance national and local interests because of the urgent need for more electricity generation capacity and gas supply infrastructure.

The UK is facing a substantial reduction in electricity generation capacity as a result of the planned closure of coal, oil and nuclear power stations. As North Sea oil and gas stocks dwindle, the nation is also becoming increasingly reliant on imported gas. In its report Energy Review: The Energy Challenge, published on 11 July, the government highlights the delays that planning consent procedures can cause to the delivery of energy infrastructure projects such as renewables generation, nuclear power and gas import and storage facilities. Part of the problem, the government admits, lies in its failure to provide a clear message about strategic national need.

The government published a ministerial “statement of need” earlier this year to set the context and economic case for gas infrastructure. The review builds on this approach by providing a statement of need for renewables which, together with existing government policy on renewables in Planning Policy Statement 22, effectively provides a presumption in favour of renewable energy development, even if the project does not convey any particular local benefit. For nuclear-build the review also proposes a statement of need approach, which planning inspectors could rely on to block debate at planning inquiries about the place of nuclear power in the national generation mix.

The government is concerned that potential investors in energy infrastructure are put off by the time and expense associated with planning inquiries. This is particularly relevant for nuclear power plants, which the government insists must be funded entirely by the private sector.

The basic question ‘Is nuclear power safe?’ would be addressed at national level

The review proposes rules to improve the efficiency of planning inquiries for large generating stations. These include extending the role of pre-inquiry hearings, greater use of written procedures, and the appointment of a “high powered inspector” (a senior judge or QC) for complex cases.

The government also proposes to streamline and simplify the consenting regimes for gas supply infrastructure and to limit the scope of planning inquiries for nuclear projects to local considerations. High level issues, such as strategic site selection and the basic question, “Is nuclear power safe?”, would be addressed at national level. The inquiry would instead focus on the relationship between the proposal and local plans, local environmental impacts and the minimisation of construction and operational impacts.

The long-term impact of the review depends on the outcome of further consultations. Many of the substantial planning reforms proposed will entail legislative amendments, which will require parliamentary time and continuing political will. It seems likely that most of the review’s proposals will take at least three years to implement.

Energy sector developers are likely to welcome the proposal to clarify the strategic need for particular types of energy infrastructure. That should give them more confidence that an appropriate balance will be struck between national needs and local concerns. Similarly, streamlined planning inquiries should provide both developers and investors with greater confidence that undue delays will be avoided. It is unlikely, however, that these measures will do anything to reduce local opposition to energy infrastructure projects. On the contrary the government risks inflaming opposition if local communities feel that, through these measures, they are being denied an effective voice. The proposed reforms may increase the risk of legal challenge to the validity of planning decisions, exacerbating rather than reducing delays and costs.