The application for the solar farm is 0.1 MW under the threshold for nationally significant infrastructure projects. This means that it falls just outside the development consent order (DCO) process. While it is hard to be definitive, this approach strongly suggests that the application was prepared on this basis so that the local planning authority could make the decision.
The DCO process was introduced by the Planning Act 2008 to speed up decision-making for large energy and infrastructure projects. It does, however, still take on average over a year for the formal process and two years if you include the pre- application process. Given the time and expense of this process, it seems developers are balancing these downsides against the benefits of the DCO process, such as a clear policy framework in support of energy projects and defined time-frames for a decision made by a Secretary of State. In this instance, there was planning policy against solar farms on the best and most versatile agricultural land and that did not incentivise the developer to use the DCO process.
Another example of the non-DCO process being utilised is London Stansted Airport's recent planning application to raise the cap on its annual passenger numbers from 35 million to 43 million. This increase of eight million passengers a year is below the ten million passenger threshold that would have made it a nationally significant infrastructure project requiring a DCO.
Both these examples clearly suggests the normal Town and Country Planning Act 1990 Act has advantages over the Planning Act 2008 process. This is often the case where there is no "in principle" objection by the local planning authority or where there is strong policy support for the project. This will primarily be due to the time and expense of the DCO process and the pre-application consultation required, particularly if there is no National Policy Statement in place. The expansion of Heathrow Airport is, as ever, an example of this.
The DCO regime was introduced as a result of the time it took to obtain consent for Terminal 5. This framework was supposed to produce greater certainty and expedition. It is not working as well as intended for some projects, particularly aviation projects where a National Policy Statement is not in place. It is interesting that energy projects are also seeking to avoid the DCO process in certain circumstances.
The Government is looking at how energy storage should be consented. There is uncertainty as to which consenting regime applies at the moment. In my view, it is important there is flexibly so that projects can utilise the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 Act or the Planning Act 2008 process in certain circumstances, eg, sub 100MW. In addition the DCO process needs to be streamlined and made more flexible so that key infrastructure can be delivered as quickly as possible.
North Kesteven District Council last week approved Branston Solar Extension’s plans to construct a 49.9MW solar scheme at a site covering 97 hectares at Branston, near Lincoln.