Electric line threshold consultation

Overhead electric lines (i.e. electricity poles and pylons and the wires running between them) are one of the 16 types of infrastructure project that above a size threshold are considered nationally sigificant and must use the Planning Act regime to be authorised.  The government announced on 6 September that it would review the Planning Act thresholds, but this review has broken ahead of the field.

Currently, the threshold applies to all lines that will have a voltage of at least 132kV, except (already) for some minor works that are covered by the Overhead Lines (Exempt Installations) Order 2010.

The government has now launched a consultation to remove further projects from the Planning Act regime.  The consultation document is here.  There are four options proposed:

  • no change,
  • change the threshold to 'over 132kV' rather than '132kV and over', i.e. exempt 132kV lines,
  • keep the threshold at '132kV and over' but add a minimum of 2km length and exempt uprating of existing lines where no physical changes are proposed, and
  • change the threshold to be the same as for environmental assessment, i.e. at least 220kV and 15km, or below that but considered by the government to require assessment.

Guess which one the government is suggesting...

The consultation document notes that in the two years before the Planning Act came into force on 1 March 2010, 65 applications under the previous Electricity Act regime were made for 132kV and over lines (44 for 132kV lines, one for a 275kV line and 20 for 400kV lines).  It omits to mention in the two years since then, only one was made and even it was not accepted for examination (although two have been made more recently).

The difference in fees is stark - £50 under the old regime (although paragraph 7.3 suggest this is going up to £2000) and an average of £57,000 under the new (with a maximum of nearly £300,000).

As you might have guessed, the government favours the third option.  It takes its cue from National Grid, whom it says voluntarily undergo environmental impact assessment for new lines of over 2km.  I agree - the rationale being that the change would more closely align with the ordinary meaning of 'nationally significant'.  The fourth option is too low, and the second is too high, removing what could be long and impactful lines of pylons.

The government envisages that the changes would come into force on 6 April 2013.  One of the questions is whether projects that would fall below the new threshold but have taken some steps towards an application without actually making one should be able to continue under the Planning Act.  There is no question that applications already made should continue.

The consultation closes on 28 November.  Responses can be emailed to consultation.coordinator@decc.gsi.gov.uk, but should concentrate on the questions asked in the consultation document.

Ministerial comments

Meanwhile, new planning minister Nick Boles has given the Communities and Local Government Select Committee some pointers as to what 'business and commercial' developments might be allowed to benefit from the Planning Act regime, choosing that forum rather than adding comments to my previous blog post, for some reason.

According to Planning Magazine (log-in required), he said that the regime could be extended to 'big business and science parks, research and development facilities, storage and distribution centres, minerals extraction, major industrial developments like oil refineries, big chemical works and major manufacturing plants'.

He also referred to national policy statements (NPSs), since if these developments were added to the regime, there would 'normally' be corresponding NPSs setting out the need for the development and the impacts that should be considered.  Nick Boles said that rather than NPSs for these types of development, 'a clear set of criteria' would be drawn up to guide such development.  He confirmed that housing would not be brought into the regime, but that there might be more 'call in' for larger developments (i.e. the government taking over the role of the local authority in deciding applications under the standard planning system).

Having taken several years to become familiar with the regime, I am of course pleased that it is to be extended.  We should not, however, assume that it is therefore as good as it can be yet, and the other changes announced on 6 September should be made swiftly so that any new developments brought into the regime can benefit from them.

In fact they may well be - apparently the changes that require primary legislation are expected to be contained in a Growth and Infrastructure Bill, to be published today.  Watch this space.