Lewis Thomas, Senior Planning Manager, Welsh Government
Lewis began the event by charting the changing policy context for a new category of planning application called Developments of National Significance (DNS). This new type of planning application is designed to streamline the way decisions are made for nationally significant infrastructure projects such as large wind farms, power stations and port facilities.
Planning policies at the national, regional and local levels would be significant factors when deciding a DNS application. Lewis stressed too the importance of early consultation with communities by scheme promoters before an application is submitted to the Planning Inspectorate.
Lewis finished his talk by reminding delegates that the planning context for DNS was still evolving with the emerging National Development Framework (a planning document being prepared by Welsh Government that would set out national policies and show where nationally significant developments like DNSs would go). Further devolutionary powers for Wales set out in emerging legislation might also influence the policy context for DNS, for instance by increasing the size of energy developments that could be classified as DNS applications.
Ifan Gwilym, Policy Officer & Tony Thickett, Director Planning Inspectorate Wales
Ifan explained the process by which decisions on Developments of National Significance (DNS) would be made.
A DNS differs from a normal planning application in the way that it is decided. Instead of the local planning authority making the decision, an Inspector will be appointed to examine a DNS application and make a recommendation to the relevant Cabinet Secretary based on planning merits and national priorities. The Cabinet Secretary will make the ultimate decision whether or not to grant permission.
Ifan highlighted four particular points in the decision-making process where there would be opportunities for community consultation. However, he stressed that local communities would have the greatest impact by making their views known at the earliest stage (by attending events and meetings or talking to the developer before the application is lodged). There will be limited opportunities to change the proposed development later in the process.
The onus is on the developer to consult early with local communities. Who will be consulted by the developer, what local communities say and how their comments are dealt with by the developer will be key questions asked by the Planning Inspectorate when processing DNS applications.
Local planning authorities will be expected to prepare Local Impact Reports; factual documents containing information about the proposed development and its impact on the local area. The Planning Inspectorate will also look to the local authority to provide contact details of community groups who should be consulted at the pre- application consultation stage.
Gareth Hall, Bidbenbidbont Ltd
Gareth provided a local planning authority perspective by drawing lessons from his experiences of large scale energy projects on Anglesey. He highlighted the benefits of a streamlined process for delivering large scale developments and suggested this will help present Wales as being business friendly.
However, there are potential tensions and challenges due to the loss of local accountability. To help bridge the gap, Gareth stressed the importance of early community engagement and the benefits it brings to the developer, community and local authority, but which requires a maturity between all parties.
Gareth noted the need for a proactive approach by local planning authorities through maintaining regular contact with their Members about emerging DNS proposals, maintaining an accurate contact list of local community groups, and ensuring that meetings with different parties add value and feed into Statements of Common Ground and Local Impact Reports (LIR). Gareth also stressed the need for DNSs to be integrated into Local Development Plan’s visions and objectives and suggested whether LIRs could be jointly prepared with community and town councils or funding directed their way.
Dan Simons, Project Manager, Egnedol Limited
Providing a developer’s perspective, Dan explained the approach to pre-application community engagement that Egnedol had undertaken as part of their DNS proposal to construct a biomass electricity generating power plant near Milford Haven. Dan explained the approach that comprised open days, presentations to Pembrokeshire Council Members and Milford Haven Town Council and construction of a website where all the documentation about the proposal could be found. Dan emphasised the benefits of community engagement for Egnedol in terms of being able to communicate directly the benefits of the proposal to the local area (e.g. number of new jobs), understanding the communities’ views and exploring whether these can inform the final proposal e.g. in this case two notable modifications were made to the scheme to mitigate noise and traffic concerns.
Mark Galbraith, Clerk to the Council (Llanelli Rural Council) & Wales Policy Liaison Officer (Society for Local Council Clerks)
Mark presented a community perspective on the new DNS process from his role as Clerk to Llanelli Rural Council and as Wales Policy Liaison Officer for the SLCC (the body representing local council clerks). Mark highlighted a number of points that he felt many in the planning and development industry forget, notably that most community and town council clerks work part time and often from home; not all parts of Wales have community and town council representation; many community and town councils are limited by what they can do because of resources and finances; and, not all have adequate planning or specialist knowledge.
Mark acknowledged the caricature of local communities being NIMBYs but he stressed that early and meaningful engagement and participation can help garner support for a proposal. The importance of good, early community engagement for DNS is therefore key as is the issue about providing resources for community and town councils to help them understand the technical and specialist knowledge required to understand these types of application and draw up meaningful representations. The key message being: understand your target audience and don’t pay lip service to the pre-application consultation process.
The aim of the group sessions were to understand what’s working, what isn’t and how things can be improved. Having listened to the speakers, each group was invited to take a different perspective and develop answers to a specific questions.