European Union: EU Recommends Planning Changes As UK Lags In Renewable Energy

Last Updated: 5 August 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on the European Union's critique of the United Kingdom economy as it relates to infrastructure planning.

On Tuesday, the European Union published in its Official Journal (OJEU) the recommendations of the Council of the EU on reform programmes for 23 of its 28 countries (the missing ones are Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Ireland, which presumably are getting more frequent attention, and Croatia, which has only just joined).

Each report contains a preamble assessing recent performance and then a short number of recommendations.  In the preamble of the UK report planning is mentioned twice.  First, in relation to housing, it says:

(12) The Government has taken action to reform the spatial planning laws but residential construction remains at a low level and the planning system, including green belt restrictions, continues to be an important constraint on the supply of housing.

Then in relation to infrastructure, I reproduce what it says in full, as it is worth reading:

(16) The UK has a challenge to renew and upgrade its energy and transport infrastructure. Furthermore, the UK needs substantial investment in new electricity generation capacity by 2020, both to replace old plants that are due to close, and to meet the renewables obligation and tighter carbon emissions standards. At 3,8 %, the share of renewable energy sources in final energy consumption ranks 25th out of 27 Member States (EU average 13,0 %). Regulatory certainty will be required to facilitate adequate and timely investment. Shortcomings in the capacity and quality of the UK's transport networks are a structural problem for the economy, especially for goods producers, distributors and exporters. There is currently a significant gap between committed funding, public and private, and the pipeline of transport investment needs which the Government is seeking to address by prioritising public spending towards infrastructure and by attracting additional private investment. Unit costs in transport construction and maintenance also remain high in the UK.

The reference to renewable energy relates to the UK target for 15% of energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2020, which is not just electricity but transport and heating as well.  I found the data on which this was based and it can be found here. The latest data is for 2011, and the UK's 25th position has remained unchanged since 2004. The two countries below the UK are Luxembourg and Malta.  The UK is now presumably 26th, since Croatia is some distance ahead of it.

The UK's strategy to achieve 15% overall is to concentrate on electricity generation and aim for 30% for that and not much of an increase for transport and heating.  Current figures for electricity consumption show about 5% from renewable sources, (see this site, click 'hide all' on the left and then 'Generation by fuel type (table)') so there is some way to go there.

We then get to the recommendations.  Recommendation 2 relates to housing:

2. Take further action to increase housing supply, including through further liberalisation of spatial planning laws and an efficient operation of the planning system...

I won't comment on that but it is interesting to note.  The complaint about the green belt hasn't translated into a recommendation, at least. Recommendation 6 relates to infrastructure:

6. Take measures to facilitate a timely increase in network infrastructure investment, especially by promoting more efficient and robust planning and decision-making processes. Provide a stable regulatory framework for investment in new energy capacity, including in renewable energy. Improve the capacity and quality of transport networks by providing greater predictability and certainty on planning and funding and by harnessing the most effective mix of public and private capital sources.

Analysis

The EU clearly identifies planning as something that needs to be addressed on the road to economic prosperity. It calls for liberalisation of planning laws in relation to housing, more efficient and robust planning processes in relation to 'networks', and more predictability and certainty on planning in relation to transport infrastructure.

These demands are not that helpful as they do not set out what in particular is wrong, which regime(s) they are talking about and what they think should be done to fix it.  I also don't see why there is a distinction between what needs to be done for networks and for transport - both of these need a regime that is all of efficient, robust, predictable and certain.

Be that as it may, is the Planning Act regime 'efficient and robust' for network infrastructure?  It is undefined, but I assume it means energy, transport, water and waste water connecting infrastructure, from electric lines to water pipes.  The only 'network' projects to be decided so far are two rail schemes and one road.  They have all been made on time so far, so the system seems efficient.  The road decision has been judicially reviewed, it therefore remains to be seen whether it is robust.

Is it 'predictable and certain' for transport infrastructure?  I'm not quite sure what the difference is between those two words.  Looking at the French version isn't much help: 'une meilleure prévisibilité et une plus grande certitude'.  Anyway, predictability and certainty is what the regime should be all about as it gives confidence as to what sort of project will, and will not, be given consent.  Looking at transport, the decisions issued have been what the promoters have been seeking, although there have been some unexpected changes.  Certainty on timing has taken a knock with the Able Marine Energy Park decision being delayed for a second time, but one would of course prefer a delay to a refusal. 

On that note, in the energy field there has been a refusal, so could one have predicted that outcome in advance?  The decision hinged on whether the applicant satisfied a paragraph in the relevant National Policy Statement (NPS), which was indeed available in advance.  The promoter believed it had done so, but the Secretary of State disagreed.  As this is the subject of judicial review proceedings we shall find out what the courts think later in the year.

So will the EU's recommendation result in any changes to the Planning Act regime?  There is certainly a window of opportunity for change with the 2014 review, but I suspect that the recommendation is not specific enough to have much effect.  Perhaps EU officials will communicate with UK government officials as to what they mean - I would be interested to see such an explanation, and whether it is based on up-to-date data.

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