It’s taken 13 years, one judicial review, two revised drafts, two lengthy consultation periods, three iterations of the UK government’s department responsible for energy, and a great deal of technical policy discussion, but at last we have a new suite of National Policy Statement (NPS) for Energy.
Those NPS were designated (in other words, adopted by government) on 17 January 2024 and apply to energy infrastructure developed in England & Wales, qualifying as nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs). There are various criteria in the Planning Act 2008 (the Act) to determine what an NSIP is, but specific to the solar industry, a solar PV farm constitutes as a generating station NSIP in England, if its capacity exceeds 50MW, and in Wales if the capacity exceeds 350MW.
Most would have considered the policy context for solar to be positive before this latest development, so why does it matter? What does it mean for the solar industry and the significant number of utility scale solar projects being developed across most of the country?
A dive into the NSIP process
The NSIP regime is managed by the Planning Inspectorate, an executive agency of the Department for Levelling Up, Homes & Communities. (DLUHC). There are several stages to the process and strict time limits applicable to each stage: pre-application (typically 12-18 months); submission and acceptance of application (one month); pre-examination (typically three to six months); examination (six months); recommendation report writing (three months); and decision making (three months, unless extended by government).
Designated NPSs are important because the law requires DCO applications to be made in accordance with them. If there is no designated NPS, the law requires a DCO application to be determined having regard to “important and relevant” matters.
Now the new 2024 NPS have been designated, there are several solar NSIPs at the pre-application stage and feature on the Planning Inspectorate’s website, and many more in origination, that must be determined in accordance with those NPS. This is a much stronger position for those projects to be in.
That said, the 2024 NPSs will also benefit those projects already awaiting determination, in examination or accepted by the Planning Inspectorate, before they were designated, because they represent the government’s very latest energy-related policy. The NPS will be important and relevant, attracting significant weight in the determining the applications.
Drawing this together, the designation of the energy NPSs means we now have strong, up to date policy, which supports solar development, not just for utility scale projects, but also for projects under 50MW because the NPS will be a material consideration for local planning authorities when determining applications for planning permission.
Key areas the NPS supports
Over the course of 2023, I have led four solar DCO examinations, whilst preparing other applications for submission. Looking back on those, there are two key areas where the designation of the new NPS really helps.
First, the classification of all low carbon infrastructure, which includes solar, as “critical national priority infrastructure” (CNPI). This classification is the government’s response to the renewable industry call for the need for energy infrastructure to be expressed in the strongest possible terms.
Whilst the original NPS made clear the urgent national need for energy infrastructure, in practice that seemed to get lost, or diluted, in examinations, where the focus was on local impacts. The presumption in favour of development was nowhere to be seen, as planning inspectors engaged in months of debate relating to the smallest of impacts. This could also be seen in the recommendation reports they produced.
The recommendation was to refuse consent for several renewable energy projects, particularly those offshore, which left the Secretary of State in a difficult position, having to carefully unpick the recommendation in order to justify the grant of consent. The response in March 2023 was to classify only offshore wind as CNPI.
However, government was asked why other technologies were not included, particularly solar, which is cheaper and faster to deploy. Credit to the government, it listened, and amended the NPS accordingly.
In examination, those opposed to solar development would argue that the adopted national policy support did not include solar, or if it did, then such support was not specific to ground mounted projects, but roof top only. As the draft NPS evolved in favour of solar during last year, the cry would be that government could and would change its mind about solar.
There can be no doubt now that ground-mounted and rooftop solar have the highest policy support in designed NPS. Moreover, the policy around CNPI creates the expectation that the need for it will outweigh local impacts in the planning balance. Those impacts still need to be properly assessed and considered, but the bar those need to pass to outweigh need is much higher now.
Second, over the last couple of years, one could not escape the public debate around food security, loss of agricultural land and what should constitute best and most versatile (BMV) agricultural land. This featured in the 2022 Conservative Party leadership hustings, at least two parliamentary debates, and at one point it appeared as though the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), was promoting BMV related policy at odds with the positions taken by DESNZ and DLUHC.
The key point was whether land with 3b classification should be treated as BMV. If so, this would most likely rule out the development of that land for solar and most other forms of development. Interestingly, throughout all that political noise, the policy position remained the same. Not one policy document changed.
Indeed, the September 2021 draft NPS included a new test that when undertaking site selection, agricultural land quality is not the predominating factor, rather grid connection, availability of renewable source, and land availability will be key factors. That test has remained throughout the intervening period and features in the designated NPS, alongside helpful confirmation that BMV land includes grades 1, 2 and 3a only, not 3b. This is very helpful support for the typical site selection undertaken by solar developers.
More must be done to streamline solar developments
Despite these key benefits of the new NPS, there remain areas of policy to work on and improve. The first is a bug bear of mine – the Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) of 2015.
Despite it never having been consulted on and not forming part of policy documents, the WMS remains extant policy. The Energy White Paper 2020, the British Energy Security Strategy 2022, Powering up Britain 2023, the emerging revised draft NPS in 2021 and 2023, and variations to the National Planning Policy Framework, all made clear the need for solar in the energy mix to achieve security of supply and net zero.
Yet, the WMS has been allowed to trump those more recent policies in refusing planning permission for solar farms on brownfield land because the onerous and impossible to achieve compelling evidence test has been deemed not satisfied by local planning authorities.
The Planning Inspectorate has made a hash of this too, with some inspectors concluding the WMS has been superseded and should be given little weight, whilst others have given it more weight than more recent national policies.
The designation of the new NPS will help to solve this policy conflict a degree because it is the latest national planning policy position and does not contain the onerous test of the WMS. Indeed, the new test about land quality not being the predominating factor, counters the compelling evidence requirement.
However, to sort this out once and for all, DLUHC needs to formally withdraw the WMS. In my view it should so without delay, because otherwise the WMS will only serve to undermine the strong policy support solar now has in the NPS. The pickled policy must go!
In conclusion, the new designated energy NPS will be a great support to solar development above and below 50MW in England & Wales. They should resolve policy conflict, make the preparation and examination of DCO applications more efficient, and ultimately improve the prospects of consent being granted.
After a long, 13-year wait, we now have national level, technology specific policy support for solar. This will expedite the deployment of solar towards the 70GW expectation in the British Energy Security Strategy and now reinforced in the NPS as a target.
This is a shortened version of Gareth Phillips’ contributed blog. The full version will feature in our publisher Solar Media’s upcoming PV Tech Power 38 magazine in February.