Reform needs to weld components into a precision planningmechanism

The major potential for offshore wind projects in UK waters is just one of the issues that highlights the need to integrate the proposed infrastructure planning and marine management organisations, claims Rynd Smith.

Successful planning reforms move in phases. In the first, the issues are identified. We have passed through this phase in England with the Barker and Eddington reports and the energy review, as well as documents by Stern, Leitch and Lyons. The housing supply focus and the green paper have, however, brought further issues to consider.

The second phase is identifying agendas for reform. We are well into this following the planning white paper's publication and its associated consultations. The most critical phase, which we are entering, is when all the issues, opinions and evidence are welded into a well-honed, well-oiled machine.

What will be changed and why? What benefit will reforms deliver? Have we properly identified our aims and the best ways of achieving them? Taking a holistic view, how will changes in one area relate to and deliver against objectives in others? How can we avoid unexpected and potentially adverse outcomes?

A practical example illustrates some of the challenges. I recently spoke at a conference that looked at the relationship between proposals for national policy statements and an infrastructure planning commission (IPC), as well as a marine policy statement and marine management organisation (MMO). The main question that delegates asked was whether the IPC or the MMO should take decisions on major pieces of marine infrastructure.

There is potentially a vast array of interests associated with offshore wind generation. The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) considers UK waters to have some of the best offshore wind resources in the world. These could make a significant contribution to meeting the EU target for 20 per cent of generation from renewables by 2020. There are likely to be significant proposals for offshore generation, perhaps meeting as much as 15 per cent of overall UK energy demand.

In crowded seas there are potential conflicts with fossil fuel extractors, navigation, recreational uses and natural systems. Many decisions will need to be made swiftly. Major land-based infrastructure such as high-voltage power lines will also be needed to support large-scale offshore generation.

In this context, the question of whether the MMO or the IPC handles such proposals is crucial. The BWEA strongly supports the idea that the IPC should take the lead. Parts of its argument are persuasive. The IPC would theoretically have an overview of both the onshore and offshore elements of a project so could consider them together, whereas the MMO could not.

However, excluding the MMO appears rather strange given that it will have been established on the basis that it is a national source of expertise in marine matters with resources available to it that the IPC does not have. It would certainly be perverse if such weighty planning reforms left major climate change issues between these two stools.

Surely the best answer lies in RTPI president Jim Claydon's spatial planning mantra - integration, integration, integration. It is possible to conceive of marine and terrestrial legislation that allows members of the MMO to sit alongside those of the IPC as necessary. This would lead to the best of all possible worlds, with quick, effective and integrated decisions being made on infrastructure across a complex area of marine and terrestrial planning policy.

However, it is precisely this sort of integrated solution that requires political leadership. Civil servants also need to identify the synergies in their work and collaborate with stakeholders to identify common objectives as well as the methods of achieving them.

Planning reform presents a major opportunity for our profession, society, the economy and the environment. But to realise this opportunity we must become yet more integrated. Our drive to do so needs to be maintained throughout the stage when reform gets really hard, namely the phase in which technical details are settled.

This is the government's challenge right now. With firm strategic leadership and close, technically-oriented management of change, it must deliver coherent outcomes to meet stated objectives, not a grab-bag of loosely related amendments.

Rynd Smith is RTPI director of policy and communications.

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