The Planning Inspectorate, in close collaboration with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and other government departments, is actively shaping future service offerings for the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) sector, as outlined in the NSIP Reform Action Plan.
In a news story dated 7 July 2023, the Planning Inspectorate announced the launch of the Early Adopters Programme (EAP). The EAP sees seven NSIP projects, identified through an expression of interest exercise undertaken in April 2023, trialling various potential ‘components’ of a future enhanced pre-application service.
Circa six months into the EAP, the Planning Inspectorate reflects on the experience of the programme to date and elaborates on the role of the trials in helping to develop the final design of the reformed service which is expected to be available to applicants, and the wider system, in 2024.
What has happened so far?
During the summer the Planning Inspectorate held meetings with each of the participating projects to initiate development of the components that the applicants had chosen to trial.
Since the initial meetings at least one further meeting has been held with each applicant to monitor their progress and understand how the components are shaping up. The Planning Inspectorate is helping to refine the brief around each component in order to optimise the expected value within the reformed pre-application service. In this respect flexibility and responsiveness from the EAP applicants is key to the trial’s success.
The Planning Inspectorate has also established a bi-monthly cross-government forum with affected agencies from Defra and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. This provides an essential opportunity for those agencies to share experience of their interaction with the EAP and contribute to the final design of the reformed service. The agencies attending this forum include Natural England, The Environment Agency and Historic England.
What have we learnt so far?
We are already learning a great deal from the EAP, with feedback from applicants and affected statutory agencies actively informing the maturing design of a reformed and improved service.
The additional work EAP applicants are doing to frontload evidence anticipates benefit to processes at post-submission stages; however, this is not a guarantee of engagement in the trials and those participating understand this. Notably, there are accepted limitations associated with commencing trials later in the pre-application process, which based on the original qualifying criteria for the EAP is representative of each project involved. The reformed service will see the Planning Inspectorate supporting the development of all relevant components from project inception in order to surface key evidence earlier, maximise positive influence on the pre-application programme and achieve smoother and potentially faster post-submission stages.
The Planning Inspectorate offers the following reflections in relation the ongoing development of the components being trialled through the EAP. Please refer to the news story dated 7 July 2023 for a summary description of the original brief in relation to each component. Note that the components involved in the EAP are not an exhaustive representation of the components that may feature within a reformed and improved pre-application service:
1. Use of Programme Planning (mandatory for all projects)
The Programme Planning element of the EAP has developed since its inception to establish two discrete tools: a higher-level Public Programme Plan (PPP) which is published and maintained on the applicant’s website, and a Detailed Programme Plan (DPP) which is not publicly available but is shared with key statutory and other consultees to inform resourcing and interactions.
PPPs have been prepared and published by all EAP applicants. An example from Five Estuaries Offshore Wind Farm is available. It is already clear that for DPPs to add value to the process they need to be shared early and proactively reviewed with key stakeholders to assist with resource planning and enable an optimised service to be provided. Within a future service, at the outset of pre-application we would expect applicants to be responsive in tailoring programmes to service the engagement of statutory agencies and other key consultees.
2. Use of Evidence Plans
One EAP project, Outer Dowsing Offshore Wind Farm, is trialling the Evidence Planning component. This has proved to be a challenging component for the Planning Inspectorate to engage in effectively as an Evidence Plan Process (EPP) had already been established by the applicant with finalised terms of reference and an independent chairperson. Some encouraging feedback has been received from consultees relating to the Planning Inspectorate’s involvement at EPP steering groups in this case, but we expect that within a future service our involvement in the EPP from the outset will provide an opportunity to influence the programme and provide early, assertive advice which will maximise benefits to the system.
3. Use of Issues Tracking
The Issues Tracking component is engaged by four EAP applicants. As would be expected, internal tools are already established by each applicant to record issues and monitor status. Whilst there have been some benefits associated with better transparency of issues, it has proved challenging to translate the complexity of applicant-owned issues trackers into a simplified agenda of issues for discussion with the Planning Inspectorate. Work is ongoing to refine this component and clarify the relationship between issues tracking, Principal Areas of Disagreement Statements and Statements of Common Ground within an optimised future service.
4. Use of Pre-application Principal Areas of Disagreement Summary Statements (PADSS)
Three EAP applicants are trialling Pre-application PADSS. Pre-application PADSS are a new initiative being trialled under the EAP, whilst post-submission PADSS, which are already being used by appointed Examining Authorities, are not part of the EAP. Within a future service it is expected that Pre-application PADSS, initiated circa project inception, will be sustained into the examination. On this basis they will be the same tool available to the system at different stages.
The EAP has raised some important considerations around ownership of PADSS and their relationship with issues tracking and Statements of Common of Ground. The Planning Inspectorate considers that these are all separate tools which offer unique value to the system and their separate functions and interactions, which will all contribute towards an improvement in the way knowledge is transferred between pre-application and post-submission stages, will be clarified in the future service.
5. Production of Policy Compliance Document (PCD)
Four EAP applicants are preparing a PCD to support their application. To date, draft iterations of this document comprising scope and structure only have been shared with the Planning Inspectorate. An example of advice provided in relation to this document for Five Estuaries Offshore Wind Farm is available.
Some clarification has been required around the scope of the PCD and the separation of intended functions between the PCD and the Planning Statement, which affected EAP applicants now understand.
6. Demonstrating regard to advice
One EAP project, Byers Gill Solar, has engaged this component. Draft evidence associated with this component is expected to be provided by this applicant shortly. The finalised evidence within the submitted application will provide assurance to the system that advice issued by the Planning Inspectorate and statutory consultees has been considered by the applicant and shaped the final form of the application. In line with DLUHC’s recent consultation on reform proposals (section 4.2.2), it is expected that this component will feature in the future assessment of suitability for a fast track route to consent.
7. Production of Design Approach Document (DAD)
Three EAP applicants are preparing a DAD to support their application. The Planning Inspectorate has elaborated on its original brief concerning the production of this document, with substantial input from Examining Inspectors, to each affected applicant. In relation to Outer Dowsing Offshore Wind Farm, which provided for review a draft Design Principles Document to seek to discharge the requirements of a DAD, the advice has been issued.
8. Production of mature outline control documents
Three EAP applicants are trialling this component. The Planning Inspectorate has shared emerging resources with each applicant to support production of mature Outline Construction Environmental Management Plans (or equivalents) and expects for well-developed draft iterations of this document to be provided by each applicant for review in advance of the final application being submitted.
9. Use of Advice log
Three applicants are trialling the use of the use of an Advice log as a streamlined mechanism to record pre-application interactions and advice issued under s51 of the Planning Act 2008. An example of a live Advice log, maintained in relation to Byers Gill Solar, is available. This approach was previously trialled on the A66 Northern Trans-Pennine Project.
10. Use of multiparty meetings
This component is engaged by three EAP applicants. Feedback to date reports that multiparty forums have been assisted by the attendance of the Planning Inspectorate, however the trials are yet to engage the Planning Inspectorate’s offer to adopt a centralised/ chairperson role. The multiparty meeting component is intended as a separate tool to multiparty forums established within an Evidence Plan Process and this will be clarified within the future reformed service. In the coming months, the Planning Inspectorate may request for multiparty meetings to take place if in its opinion they may provide a meaningful opportunity for issues to be resolved pre-submission.
What does success look like within the EAP?
Indications that the EAP is adding value to applicants and the wider system may be realised in the shorter term as the EAP matures, for example as issues are progressed/ resolved prior to submission or relationships are improved. However, as acknowledged in the original literature supporting the launch of the EAP, more substantive indications of added value may not emerge until post-submission stages; for example, where a pre-application component intervention can be attributed to less examination time spent concerning a related issue.
Importantly, the Planning Inspectorate considers that ‘success’ within the EAP may manifest in either positive or negative outcomes. For example, to the extent that the component interventions featuring within the EAP do not achieve predicted desirable outcomes, this does not necessarily indicate a failure of the trials. Rather ‘failure’ will indicate to the system that amended or different interventions are required to be established in a future pre-application service in order to contribute to the achievement of smoother and potentially faster post-submission stages.
What happens next?
The Planning Inspectorate will continue its programme of interactions with each EAP applicant, including reviewing associated documents/ tools as they are provided within the remainder of the pre-application stage in each case. The advice issued by the Planning Inspectorate in this respect will be published in the normal way on the relevant project pages on the National Infrastructure Planning website. Links to relevant advice will be provided in updates to this page as it becomes available.
Feedback from all affected actors on the EAP experience will continue to be compiled and taken account of as the design of the future service is developed. This process will be continued as the engaged cases move through post-submission stages in order to capture predicted benefits later in the process.
It is noted that some EAP projects have announced delays to the anticipated application submission date originally indicated to the Planning Inspectorate, although this is understood to be natural slippage and not directly influenced by engagement in the EAP.
Whether or not a project is involved in the Early Adopters Programme, we welcome and encourage receipt of any information in relation to any innovative approaches applicants are taking at the pre-application stage with a view to making the consenting process smoother. Please discuss these with your allocated NSIP Case Team or provide details to [email protected] for the attention of NSIP Reform.
Discussions are ongoing across government as to what any potential extension of the EAP will look like. As well as an opportunity to trial similar components, it may also be opportune to try new measures or act as an opportunity to identify likely demand for any new enhanced pre-application service offering in future.
“The Five Estuaries team have found the Early Adopters Programme of significant benefit in improving dialogue with key stakeholders. There have been excellent two-way discussions with the Planning Inspectorate on identifying and improving the overall pre-application process, being part of the EAP has also made us think differently about the way we can make our project programme more accessible to the local community and key stakeholders.” – Five Estuaries Offshore Wind Farm
“East Yorkshire Solar Farm Limited has been pleased to engage in this trial of the PINS enhanced pre application service. We have seen the benefit with our key stakeholders of ensuring there is transparency regarding our project programme.” – East Yorkshire Solar Farm
“RWE has been pleased to part of the pilot programme. We have found the new approach to documents have helped to clarify positions with stakeholders and focus on the key elements of the proposals to help the DCO application strike the long-sought balance between flexibility and certainty. We look forward to the framework evolving to grow the Planning Inspectorate’s pro-active role in pre-application advice, and the new processes benefit from knowledge, experience and resources in key statutory consultees” – Byers Gill Solar
“Participation in the Early Adopters Programme (EAP) has facilitated a number of meaningful discussions with consultees about the practical applications of the trial components. We have made some good progress, for example on issues tracking and identified innovative ways of improving access to information. We continue to use our experience and knowledge to shape each component as we move forward.” – Hynet North West Hydrogen Pipeline
“Tillbridge Solar welcomed the opportunity presented by The Planning Inspectorate to participate within the Early Adopters Programme as a means of supporting proposed reforms to the NSIP process to speed up the consenting timeframe in accordance with the Action Plan published in February 2023. We have been trialling the Advice Log with respect to s51 advice. This is a positive change from the previous approach to s51 advice published as full minutes collating all s51 Advice into one document and clearly setting out the main actions arising, and topic areas discussed at each meeting.” – Tillbridge Solar Project
“Outer Dowsing Offshore Wind is pleased to support the government’s ambition to reform the consenting process by taking part in the EAP. We will continue to work with the Planning Inspectorate and Statutory Bodies to help streamline the NSIP consenting process by 2025 to support future infrastructure that will be needed to achieve net zero by 2050.” – Outer Dowsing Offshore Wind Farm
Reflections provided by Cory Decarbonisation Project are available separately, here.