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Planning Act 2008 (Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects) (Electric Lines) Order 2013

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Planning Act 2008 (Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects) (Electric Lines) Order 2013.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the Government are today bringing before the Committee amendments to the Planning Act 2008 to transfer applications for development consent for minor works to electric lines above ground from the Planning Act 2008 back to the Electricity Act 1989.

The Planning Act regime provides fast, transparent consideration of applications for development consent for major infrastructure. However, for minor works—that is, proposals for works to overhead lines of 132 kilovolts or greater nominal capacity that are less than two kilometres in length—it is, we consider, disproportionate to use this regime. Such works may have a total project value of around £100,000 to £200,000 and be completed, if consent is given, in three to six months. The pre-application process under the Planning Act 2008 may take 18 months to two years to complete. Examination and determination of an application takes another nine to 16 months. The costs of this process may run into many thousands of pounds, with application fees alone costing at least £30,000.

The statutory instrument I am introducing will change how a nationally significant infrastructure project is defined in the Planning Act 2008 by extending the exemption in Section 16 to include overhead lines of less than two kilometres in length and projects to increase the nominal voltage capacity of existing lines where there is no substantial change to physical infrastructure. This means that determination of applications for such minor works will in future be made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, under Section 37 of the Electricity Act 1989. We are, in practice, reintroducing the consenting regime that applied to such applications before the Planning Act 2008 came into force in March 2010.

The effect of this statutory instrument will not be to exempt these projects from development consent requirements altogether. They will still require consent from the Secretary of State and be subject to rigorous scrutiny. However, we consider it more proportionate to apply the regime under the Electricity Act 1989 to applications for development consent for minor works. This is because these regulations under the Electricity Act 1989 are not prescriptive, so the Secretary of State may exercise his discretion as to the form of local consultation and what information is necessary to decide whether to grant an application for development consent.

This does not mean, however, that there are less stringent requirements. Consents under both the Planning Act and the Electricity Act are determined by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Under both regimes, the public will be consulted. The Electricity Act regime requires applicants to notify local authorities of applications for consent under Section 37 and publication of proposals in local newspapers for applications for consent of lines with a nominal voltage of not less than 132 kilovolts. If a local authority objects to any proposal submitted under the Electricity Act, it will go to public inquiry; and the Secretary of State may determine that, even if there are no objections by the local authority, the application should be the subject of a public inquiry. In determining whether to hold a public inquiry, my right honourable friend will consider any objections from persons other than the relevant local authority.

However, it is important that we make a clear distinction between projects that are nationally significant and those that are not. This is why we are transferring only applications for proposals for works to overhead lines of less than two kilometres in length or those which would increase the nominal voltage on an existing line without significant changes in that line’s infrastructure. These are projects that are unlikely to contribute significantly to national electricity network infrastructure. I estimate, based on applications over the past six years and notifications of potential projects to the Planning Inspectorate, that approximately 15 applications annually will be returned to the Electricity Act regime.

This amendment resolves a situation whereby works to overhead lines with no national significance have to comply with the Planning Act regime intended to apply to consideration of major projects such as a new nuclear power station or a major rail project. I commend this statutory instrument to the House and beg to move.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for presenting this order in such a lucid way to the Grand Committee. I have scrutinised it carefully in the hope that I could find some holes in it and things to complain about. I have to report that I have failed completely in this endeavour, and the proposal seems to be entirely sensible. It is a little ironic for those of us who fondly remember grappling with the detail of the Planning Act 2008 when it went through this House, particularly the new planning regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. We were told that the main reason why the regime had to happen was that such projects were all taking too long, the system was all too bureaucratic and difficult, and we needed a new streamlined regime that would be a lot quicker, less bureaucratic and less expensive. It is slightly ironic that in this instance at least, it has turned out not to be the case and we have to revert to the status quo ante. Perhaps we will find some other matters on which we will have to do the same thing. However, I am very happy to support this order.

I thank the Minister for her explanation of the order. I may be on safe ground when I say to her that I will not contest it. I agree with her explanation that the order is merely a fine-tuning of the planning process for overground lines of 132 kilovolts or greater which are less than two kilometres in length. Underground electricity lines are not required to have development consent.

Furthermore, the order does not remove any lines from planning; it merely transfers installations from falling within the Planning Act 2008 to being assessed under Section 37 of the Electricity Act 1989. The Explanatory Memorandum states that approximately 21 applications for consent for electric lines at 132 kilovolts or greater and 17%, or 15 in number, are for projects of lengths of under two kilometres. The Minister’s department considers that lines of under two kilometres should not normally be considered to be national infrastructure projects. The memorandum then speaks admirably concerning the disproportionate nature of the provisions that then fall due. However, is the Minister confident that simply assessing projects on the basis of length is enough to assess whether significant, albeit nationally significant, issues will not come into play? I realise that a number of respondents to the consultation argued for excluding any line under 15 kilometres in length. Can the Minister clarify whether among the responses to the consultation there were any environmental implications, bearing in mind that Article 2(b) of the order inserts new subsection (3A), which provides that subsection (3)(ab)(ii) does not apply where part of the line is in a SSSI or a European site?

The Explanatory Memorandum is comprehensive and clarifies excellently that there will be no transitional costs as both of the regimes are familiar to developers who, following this order, will be far more willing to undertake improvement projects as a result of the reduction in time and costs consequential on the transfer to Section 37. I agree that the level of 132 kilovolts is intended to facilitate local consultation where electric lines might well have a significant impact and is not intended to determine whether an electric line is nationally significant. Is the Minister extending this argument to the question of length, as mentioned previously?

I would welcome the Minister’s clarification on the matter of developers beginning to seek options that avoid having to make an application under the Planning Act, even where that option may be considerably more expensive or delay investment in infrastructure projects. Can she clarify the reasoning set out in the letter dated 21 February 2011 from the Electricity Networks Association to the Minister of State? The Explanatory Memorandum also mentions that the Minister’s department is consulting separately on a proposed revision of the fees payable under Section 37 with the intention of moving to full cost recovery. Can the Minister give the Committee an update on this?

Finally, I agree that the under the coalition Government’s policy of “one in, one out” regarding regulation containment, this order neither removes nor adds any regulation. It does not change the implementation of either the Planning Act 2008 or the Electricity Act 1989. The number will not change. However, there is a significant reduction in costs from the provisions of this order transferring from the Planning Act to the Electricity Act. Will the Government include the cost savings of this change in the sum of the benefits they may well consider claiming from their policy of “one in, one out”? Perhaps I can tempt the Minister to allocate a sum that will be claimed for this order.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for any further comments that she may wish to make and I am content to confirm my consent to the order.

My Lords, I am pleased to have received such strong support from my noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, for what I think is a very common-sense statutory instrument. My noble friend did not raise any questions, for which I am extremely grateful because he is known for his microscopic and forensic approach to legislation. However, the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, has asked some questions. I will try to answer as many of them as I can and, where I fail to do so, I shall ensure that Members of the Committee receive the response in writing.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked about environmental impacts. The provision in relation to areas of specific scientific interest in paragraph (3)(a) means that all applications in such areas will be considered under the Electricity Act since they are not subject to exemption regulations applying to other lines. The noble Lord mentioned the treatment of the SSSIs, and whether they would be covered in overhead lines. The different treatment for project in nationally designated areas is to ensure that applications in these areas have the appropriate scrutiny. I am sure that the noble Lord, like me, would be content with such an approach, where similar projects outside nationally designated areas would be exempt from development consent under existing regulations.

The noble Lord asked about the reasoning behind the length of 2 kilometres. We find that proposals for works over 2 kilometres for 132 kilovolts or greater voltages are more likely to be nationally significant, because they generally contribute to the national network to help provide electricity to everyone. Minor works are not nationally significant and will probably amount to routine maintenance or to work on the existing networks.

The noble Lord also asked whether there would be a cost saving to be brought in with the “one in, one out” policy. Yes, it will reduce the cost to companies of complying with the regulations and will reduce the cost of application fees with total benefits to companies of around £1.2 million, which is a significant sum to those companies. He also asked about the linkage of new subsection 3A, on developers avoiding costs, to the letter to the Minister of State at DECC from the Energy Networks Association. The impact assessment indicates that two applications for 132 kilovolt lines were withdrawn, and one project was subsequently undergrounded at an additional cost estimated at around £1 million so that it could be completed within six months. There would have been an extension of time had it involved overhead lines. The other project was re-engineered to fall within existing exemptions, but it meant that that additional work had to be carried out at additional cost. It is safe to say that there are difficult ways of getting around it unless you incur those extra costs.

Finally, the noble Lord asked about simply assessing lines by length. I think that I dealt with that earlier by saying that it is clear in the response to the SI that it is covered through not being a significant infrastructure project. I thank noble Lords for their contributions and commend the order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.