Faster consents and clearer benefits: UK Government’s initiative for electricity infrastructure expansion

United Kingdom

The UK government has initiated an ambitious plan to expedite the construction of power lines across the country, with the goal of halving the current development timeline. The urgency of this initiative is underscored by calls for a fivefold increase in power lines over the next seven years. However, the plan is not without its challenges, including potential political opposition and concerns over landscape disruption.

The Electricity Networks Commissioner (“ENC”) published a report on 4 August 2023 (available here) which proposes a comprehensive set of recommendations to expedite planning applications for electricity transmission infrastructure, including pylons and substations. The objective is to cut the delivery time of electricity projects from fourteen years to seven years.

The recommendations in the report are broad and call for changes throughout various elements of the planning and consenting process, an exploration of how Ofgem’s role can be improved and more specific recommendations relating to land access and community engagement. There are numerous factors to consider if the targeted level of expansion is to be feasible.

Some of the key recommendations from the report are set out below. Underlying all of the recommendations is an urgent need to establish the Future System Operator (“FSO”) and set out its roles and responsibilities. 

Strategic Spatial Energy Plan (“SSEP”)

The ENC has emphasised that work relating to the Holistic Network Design and a Centralised Strategic Network Plan (“CSNP”) needs to go further. It is suggested that a SSEP, which would be regularly refreshed, should be developed to bridge the gap between existing Government policy and wider development plans for the network. The aim of this SSEP would be to anticipate electricity supply and demand throughout the country and how demand would fluctuate in different locations. This would be supported by the CSNP, which the report suggests should be split into a short-term and a long-term plan, along with other strategic regional plans. Forecasting electricity demand with these plans would ensure that networks could be developed with sufficient time and in the right places, to avoid capacity upgrades running behind the demand at any given point. It is recommended that Ofgem provide strategic oversight in producing this SSEP with regular input from DESNZ as the SSEP is updated, with the aim of speeding up the approval and production of this plan.

Planning system reform

The report makes various recommendations for broad planning system reform in both England and Scotland. A key recommendation which would be applicable in both jurisdictions is to reduce the time it takes to get planning consent to just twelve months. This is proposed to be achieved by reforms to the Electricity Act 1989 and various pre-application requirements to speed up the process post-application. In order to achieve the level of expansion required to meet increasing electricity demand, a smoother and quicker consenting process will be vital.

In England and Wales, focus is given to improving the consenting system for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). Current resource availability means that the pre-application process in England and Wales can take up to eight years. The report suggests that provision of additional resource to PINS to accommodate early liaison with transmission owners would ensure applications were correct, which could reduce the time of the pre-application process to just two and a half years.

One of the recommendations for the Scottish system in particular is to remove the trigger for a mandatory public local inquiry when the local planning authority objects. The report suggests that this should be replaced with an alternative process that allows Scottish Ministers to investigate specific issues raised by statutory consultees, providing a quicker alternative to a public inquiry. This would still allow a public inquiry to be called by the Ministers based on responses from all statutory consultees. The report recommends that this amendment to the Electricity Act 1989 should be urgently progressed in the current Energy Bill passing through Parliament.

The report also touches on the marine planning process. In order to support connection of the increasing number of offshore wind farms and the anticipated increase in offshore cables over coming years, it is important that sufficient attention is given to improve this licensing process. The report recommends that a ‘Marine Environmental Assessment’ should be undertaken to inform the proposed SSEP. It is suggested that the Crown Estate should lead an offshore delivery route map, in order to coordinate the development of various electricity networks, facilitate net zero and speed up the offshore licence consenting process.

Land access

A frequent challenge which developers face is accessing third-party land for the design and construction of new infrastructure, which often leads to delays in project timelines. In response, the report recommends that Transmission Operators (“TO”) be granted statutory powers (in line with those which other utilities hold) in order to access land for surveys when voluntary access is denied. This would avoid the lengthy process and resource strain in obtaining a warrant through the court system. It also suggests that compensation for wayleaves and land purchases, both voluntary and compulsory, should be standardised at a national level and that a transparent methodology for determining compensation should be set up, to be used when negotiating land purchase and wayleaves. The report further emphasises the need for additional research, to understand the impact of changes to the existing land purchase and wayleave processes. To implement these recommendations, the report suggests legislative amendments and the formation of a working group to explore further changes to land purchase and wayleave processes.

Community engagement and benefit

As has become increasingly prevalent across the sector, the report highlights the importance of community engagement throughout the design and consenting process of electricity transmission infrastructure. In order to avoid strong opposition by local communities to proposed development, the report suggest that guidance on community benefits (which is currently undergoing consultation) should be delivered more quickly. This guidance should clearly set out what benefits can be provided to local communities by TOs. The anticipated impact of this is hard to predict – as this will only be guidance, the impact will heavily depend on how TOs interpret the guidance and how much weight and consideration is given to the guidance by decision makers.

Route Design

Currently, the design of transmission routes can vary significantly, which can complicate the planning process and lead to delays. By standardising the design of these routes, the report considers that the planning process can be simplified and expedited. This would involve developing a set of standard design principles that all new projects would need to adhere to.

Designing transmission routes can be time-consuming and the report therefore recommends that an automated corridor routing process should be adopted by TOs as standard practice. This would involve development of a software tool that automatically considers and generates corridor routing options. A design engineer would oversee this process and use the automated routing output to decide on the final proposed route design. This would significantly reduce the time and resource which is required in the process of route design. The report notes that planning, development consent orders and energy consenting processes would need to recognise the wider use of such a software to ensure this was acceptable throughout the planning approval stage.

Future of Green Energy

The UK Government’s initiative to expedite the development of power lines is a bold step towards a greener energy future. However, it remains to be seen how these plans will unfold in the face of political and public opposition, and whether the expected benefits will indeed outweigh the potential drawbacks. Moreover, this highlights the need for comprehensive systemic reforms and innovative solutions to ensure that the shift to renewable energy does not compromise the environment or communities. The report suggests that a more strategic approach, greater transparency, and community benefits could be key to achieving this delicate balance. The proposed planning reforms, if implemented effectively, could significantly accelerate the development of the UK’s electricity infrastructure, paving the way for a more sustainable future.

Next Steps

Linked to the publication of this report, DESNZ has opened a consultation on new policy areas for the Future System Operator (FSO) related to resilience and security.  Consultation ends on 20 October 2023 – all parties with an interest in the regulation and operation of the electricity and gas systems should consider responding to the consultation.

Co-authored by Erin Crawley