This is entry number 166, first published on 20 September 2010, of a blog on the implementation of the Planning Act 2008. Click here for a link to the whole blog. .

Today's entry reports on a gas storage decision that indirectly involved the new Planning Act regime.

One of the sixteen types of infrastructure that is covered by the new authorisation regime under the Planning Act is that of underground gas storage. Gas can be stored underground in large quantities in two main ways: either in empty gas fields or in salt caverns. THe Planning Act only covers onshore storage.

Last week, the government authorised a new underground gas storage facility at Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire, which despite its name is of the depleted gas field type. 700 million cubic metres (mcm) of gas will be able to be stored there, more than 2km below the surface, and it will be able to be withdrawn at a rate of 9 to 10 mcm per day. This is well above the 43mcm capacity / 4.5mcm daily withdrawal rate threshold in the Planning Act that would make it a nationally significant infrastructure project if applied for today. The unround figure of 43mcm is derived from being 1% of UK gas storage capacity at the time the Planning Bill was drafted.

Old versus new

The applicant is called Wingas, and is a joint venture between Wintershall, a subsidiary of German chemical company BASF, and Gazprom, the Russian gas company. It made a preliminary application in October 2007, and a formal application a year later, so predates the start of the new regime on 1 March 2010. Given last week's decision, it has taken two or three years to be authorised, depending on how you calculate it.

The only other recent large-scale gas storage project to be approved was of the salt cavern type at Northwich in Cheshire. This was approved following a planning appeal in December 2009. The applicants, King Street Energy (named after the Roman road of that name that the site abuts and a subsidiary of Glasgow-based development company NPL Estates) had sought planning permission for a 160mcm facility and 58km pipeline and had initially been refused by the local authority. The Inspector's Report is here This application was made in October 2007 and granted on appeal in January 2010, so took two years and three months to be decided.

Contrast this with the Planning Act regime, which requires applications to be decided about a year after they are made (or 15 months in the absence of a National Policy Statement).

Contrast it too with the 'one stop shop' nature of the Planning Act. For the Saltfleetby gas storage project, the following applications had to be made:

  • consent to store the gas
  • hazardous substances consent
  • an application for a compulsory purchase order for land not owned by Wingas and
  • consent to install an 8km pipeline to connect it to the national gas network

Under the new regime, these could all have been combined into a single application.

Urgency

One of the interesting aspects of this approval for Planning Act aficionados was that the draft National Policy Statements (NPSs) were prayed in aid to demonstrate that the provision of gas storage infrastructure was 'urgent' and this was a key factor in the approval.

As reported at paragraph 5.36 of the Inspector's Report (here), Wingas maintained that although existing energy policy only called for 'timely' provision of gas storage infrastructure, the Overarching Energy NPS (EN-1) referred to 'the urgency of the need for energy infrastructure' (at paragraph 4.4.3), and so timely meant urgent.

Not good enough, said Lincolnshire County Council, the principal objector (at 6.81). The NPS does refer at paragraph 4.4.3 (not 4.3, as printed) to 'the urgency of the need for energy infrastructure as set out in this NPS', but it does not actually set out that the need for energy infrastructure is urgent anywhere. A fair point - it does indeed not actually say in terms that need is urgent, it only says it is significant.

Nevertheless at paragraphs 11.107-108 the Inspector concluded that there is an urgent need for energy infrastructure, based on a combination of a 2006 statement of policy, EN-1, EN-4 (the Oil and Gas Infrastructure NPS) and the creation of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), designed to speed up consents, and he approved the applications. There was also quite a debate on the traffic impact of the development on Tinkle Street, but perhaps that is for another time.

So although only one application of any kind has so far been made to and accepted by the IPC to date, the new regime is beginning to influence decisions on applications made under previous regimes. Once the first NPSs are finalised ('designated'), due next spring, then this effect will only increase.