Today’s blog is written by Simon Marsh, Head of Nature Protection, on whether planning changes for major infrastructure will help deliver a nature positive world.

From vast offshore wind farms to nuclear power stations, infrastructure needs careful planning. 

The RSPB has been at the forefront of environmental voices making sure that nature is protected for many years. In England, how we plan for major infrastructure was radically changed by the Planning Act 2008. (It covers Wales as well, but only for energy projects larger than 350 MW). The Act introduced a new, supposedly front-loaded and fast-tracked system, as well as new terminology: National Policy Statements (NPS) and Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). National Policy Statements are the main point of reference for the Planning Inspectorate who examine NSIPs and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State.

In the 10 years since the first NPS were approved there have been 200 NSIPs. The RSPB has engaged in 39 NSIPs which have had particularly significant impacts on nature - more than two-thirds of them have been in the energy sector, mostly offshore wind farms but also nuclear, solar and road proposals.

Government review

Now the energy NPS (apart from nuclear) are up for review, and the Government is also looking at how the process works with an eye to making speedier decisions. A review is well overdue to take account of the new target to achieve net zero carbon by 2050.

On a positive note, the Environment Act 2021 introduces a new system of ‘biodiversity gain’ for most new development, which not only has to avoid harm but create more nature than was there before. We successfully argued that this should be extended to NSIPs, although details of how it will apply are still to be worked out. It won’t in itself, though, fix the failure of strategic planning for major infrastructure.

We see this starkly illustrated in the marine environment, where a poorly planned approach to offshore wind expansion jeopardises nature and the UK’s ability to reach net zero. The absence of holistic marine planning and an isolated approach to the management of our already degraded seas means that instead of a green energy revolution, our offshore energy transition is on a trajectory to deepen the ecological emergency, including through the loss of our globally important seabirds like the red listed kittiwake.

Significant negative effects on biodiversity

Consultancy Atkins has assessed the draft NPS for their effect on sustainability on behalf of the Government. They rightly recognise that both construction and operation of NSIPs can have significant negative effects on biodiversity in the short, medium and long-term, and there is also the possibility of cumulative effects on biodiversity from multiple projects. The appraisal looks at alternatives, but doesn’t thoroughly explore ones which have lower environmental impacts, such as directing development to the least ecologically-sensitive locations. Alternatives which might be better for nature always seem to be trumped by concerns about security of energy supply.

Future planning needs to give greater weight to options which are positive for both net zero and nature. Marine spatial planning also needs a complete and urgent transformation. If there is no overarching spatial plan, it is impossible to properly assess the impact of multiple offshore wind farms, for example, especially when combined with other marine development. The effects on birds and other marine wildlife may extend for hundreds of miles beyond the immediate site, even to neighbouring countries.

Developers need to make every effort to avoid damage to biodiversity, but sometimes NSIPs get the go-ahead even where there is damage to protected sites and species. In these cases, the right mitigation measures need to be put in place, and as a last resort, appropriate compensation. The NPS need to do more to steer developers towards appropriate measures which are robust legally, financially and ecologically.

Front-loaded failure

As for the planning process, it was designed to be ‘front-loaded’, but it’s not achieving this aim. The idea was that by the time developers come to submit their application, most issues have been sorted and the fast-track examination and decision process can focus on substantive areas of concern. If only that was always the case.

We have seen too many examples of developers who haven’t provided enough detail or engaged early enough, either with us or the public, to enable key issues to be sorted out at pre-application stage. Then there’s been persistent late submission of additional or amended information, leaving participants drowning in paperwork and struggling to respond within the timescale of the fast-track process. If larger charities like the RSPB are struggling, how much more difficult it must be for community groups who don’t have the same resources or experience.

The Government needs to properly understand the experience of community groups and could commission further research on this. Another simple step would be to give the Planning Inspectorate more time to vet properly the quality of submitted applications – refusing to accept some would send a strong signal to developers to up their game.

A key outcome must be quality decisions which result in both zero carbon development and the protection and enhancement of nature, not just speedier decision-making. In a year in which the Government has committed to a ‘net zero’ equivalent for nature with its species abundance target in the Environment Act, nothing else will do.

Other resources:

Read the RSPB response to energy NPS consultation 

NPS review RSPB response 2021 final.pdf