The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has granted development consent for the construction and operation of a 400kV overhead electric line in the South East of England. The line covers approximately 20km between two substations at Richborough and Canterbury, and more significantly will eventually connect the UK electricity grid to mainland Europe via the UK-Belgium ‘NEMO’ interconnector.
As with every development consent decision, there are useful lessons, and insights into Examining Authority and Secretary of State thinking. The issue that caught my eye on reading the Secretary of State’s decision letter was pre-application consultation.
Overhead lines aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you ever talk to anyone whose job involves working with pylons they’ll be able to sort your single-circuit PL1bs from your L2 Ds as you wander down a country lane.
DCO applications for overhead lines tend to generate significant interest, and understandably so. When the Planning Act 2008 came into force, National Grid was one of the first organisations to engage with the then Infrastructure Planning Commission, to work out how it could best carry out pre-application consultation to meet the new requirements.
Linear projects often go through several rounds of pre-application consultation, in order to identify and refine a preferred route that can stand up to the scrutiny of an examination, and naturally this requires significant early engagement with any potential interested parties.
For the Richborough application, a number of parties raised concerns during the examination that the applicant’s pre-application consultation wasn’t adequate. They argued in particular about the quality of the applicant’s consultation.
For example, South East Water felt that in designing the scheme, the applicant didn’t take proper account of its proposal for a reservoir, either in its design or consultation material, and that other consultees may therefore have been prejudiced. The applicant responded by saying that it had met all the requirements and that this had been endorsed by the local authorities at the point that the application was accepted.
The Planning Inspectorate noted at the Acceptance stage that although there were outstanding issues, the applicant had had regard to responses received and that any outstanding issues could, at the discretion of the Examining Authority, be explored during examination. The Examining Authority concluded that the applicant had met all its duties for pre-application consultation – its reasoning is set out in section 4.3 of the recommendation report and is a valuable read.
The Secretary of State agreed with the Examining Authority’s conclusions.
This demonstrates firstly that even if an application progresses to examination, the approach to pre-application consultation could still be an area for scrutiny during examination. However, meeting the letter of the procedural requirements appears to be sufficient to satisfy the Secretary of State on matters of consultation, regardless of whether the issues have been resolved.
Therefore, the challenge for any applicant wishing to minimise the risk of additional examination time and cost is to maximise effective engagement. That’s not to pass comment on this particular application, but to note that there is a potential difference between consultation (meeting the requirements) and engagement (resolving or reaching clear positions on the issues), and that the latter is perhaps the holy grail for those who want a smooth examination.
All the application documents and examination submissions relating to the project are available at the Planning Inspectorate website.
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