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Navigating the Development Planning System During Lockdown

Navigating the Development Planning System During Lockdown

Most in the renewables industry would agree that 2020 got off to a great start. The Government set out its net-zero 2050 plans and good news seemed to come in unstinting waves. After several years of decline, renewable planning submissions have increased by a quarter since 2018, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by a third since 2010, and the previous twelve months saw a global tipping point in which more fossil fuel plants were decommissioned than built. And of course, in March, Alok Sharma, the Secretary of State for Business and Energy, announced that onshore renewables and storage would be allowed to compete, once again, in CFD auctions; a major corner-turned for the industry following years of lobbying.

The stage was set for a milestone year, but regrettably, COVID-19 arrived on the world stage, drawing the attention of the Government away from new development and forcing everyone in the industry to react to the immediate threat posed by the virus. It’s an understatement to say that Coronavirus has come as a devastating blow for everyone and, given the nature of the renewables industry – that we work to long-term cycles – the true impacts of the pandemic might be felt years down the line.

What is the industry doing to help?

 As the scale and extent of the pandemic became apparent, the major industry bodies (Renewables UK and Scottish Renewables) convened forums to discuss the practical ways that they could assist the government to reduce the spread of the virus, whilst simultaneously formulating plans that would facilitate industry continuity.

This response quickly led to the rescheduling of key interpersonal events such the annual conferences, and a rapid shift to embrace home-working philosophies as far as possible.

This unprecedented engagement has been helped by the fact that renewable power is now a key component of the national electricity system upon which everybody relies. Representatives from the major utilities have actively collaborated to create emergency response plans to ensure that, regardless of the circumstances, the country will continue to ‘keep the lights on’.

At a company level, Dulas’s operations and maintenance teams have adapted to the new guidelines, and are able to continue to work on sites for clients such as Welsh Water as designated ‘key workers’. These measures and others are helping to ensure the security of the electricity supply.

Collaboration to develop new working practices

In addition, the renewable energy community is keenly aware of its duty to continue to displace fossil fuels if the UK is to hit its net-zero 2050 targets. As a result, many in the industry are seeking to find ways to navigate this unusual business environment and to keep as many developments on track as possible.

The industry saw unparalleled and rapid collaboration through Renewables UK and statutory advisors to develop new health and safety guidelines that reflect the change in policies set out by the Government. Much of this focus has been to establish clarity as to whether critical seasonal ecological surveys in outdoor environments can continue, and also to appraise the potential implications to project success, if surveys cannot be undertaken.

As Michael Phillips, Principal Consultant at Dulas states,

‘The ramifications of stopping seasonal survey work would be severe for project timelines because by their nature, it would not be possible to recover lost time until the following season. The industry as a whole tried to act responsibly to this tension and when we looked at it we concluded that it would be possible to undertake most of our ecological and ornithological surveys if we were to modify the health and safety guidelines to reflect the need for stringent spatial rules, protecting our assessors and the public at large. Nevertheless, we still face a challenge to reach some remote sites due to the lack of accommodation that is available. We have had to rethink our approach to use locally based surveyors wherever possible and to reduce the impact of travel time on their activity.’

Dulas has also implemented a broad home-working policy and we are finding that for the most part, other development consultancy activities are also able to continue.

Online Public Consultations

One example of this is where the industry has reacted in earnest to the use of innovative technologies to allow public consultations to progress uninterrupted. In particular, the concept of online public consultation is finding a new lease of life and bringing both advantages and disadvantages.

Dulas are currently engaged by a major client to participate in an early stage public consultation for a new project, which will enable local residents and communities to continue a dialogue commenced in 2019. The online forum will disseminate initial information on the wind energy scheme alongside the website, and will present a moderated Q&A session with the developer. It remains to be seen whether this approach will persist after lockdown measures are removed, but the development community is intent on engaging local communities as effectively as possible whilst the necessity for the planning of new renewables continues in order to keep a throughout of capacity required to meet our targets.

As is the case with many business operations, it’s likely that online public consultation will have to continue for the foreseeable future, although some consultancies are also reverting to traditional postal solicitations for feedback, and others are employing digital surveys. Overall, there is good confidence that through lockdown, the public will still be able to fully engage in project development, activities and hence ensure compliance with statutory requirements.

Business as usual (sort of)

In terms of Planning, authorities in England and Wales are still processing new electronic applications wherever possible, despite the lock-down. Since the lockdown began for example, Dulas has had a planning submission validated for a 1MW solar farm and has submitted three applications for wind monitoring masts in Wales.

Many planning workers are furloughed. But many are still working from home, processing new applications with no slowdown in performance at all. Dulas’s consultancy team is actively working with the planning officers in seeking to keep the planning system moving as best as possible. The drive to keep things rolling forwards comes from both sides – the local authorities are equally invested in progress, and this foments collaboration right across the chain.

It’s crucial that the planning system continues to process new applications in earnest. By keeping new development on track now, planners and consultancies will ensure that schemes can be consented and delivered within the next 3-5 years, which is a crucial delivery period for renewables to deliver our legislatively binding carbon reduction targets,

The good news

 During this unusual period, it’s important to remember some of the positives of recent times. Not least, that renewables have provided up to 44% of British electricity demand over the past few weeks, as wind and solar provided a mainstay of our power requirements. For all of 2019, renewable energy provided for an average of 36% of our total electricity requirements, at a cheaper price and at a time when coal fired power diminished significantly in the UK power energy sector.

Proof, if it were needed, that the major contributions of green energy to decarbonisation and cheaper power are necessary, invaluable and still succeeding, despite all obstacles.