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Devote energies into planning not talking

By Clyde Shanks

The importance of the sustainable energy sector to the local economy cannot be underestimated. It has quickly secured a prominent place in the public consciousness given the level of media attention during the last year.

Regular supplements to this newspaper have provided opportunities for the industry to raise concerns and provide commentary on how we are doing. As we strive to reach Energy Minister Arlene Foster's ambitious 2020 vision that 40% of all energy consumption here be renewably sourced, we sit at a little over the 10% mark.

Worryingly, without fundamental leaps forward in organisation it seems we'll not get within a beagle's goul of it, to borrow a favourite phrase from my north Antrim youth.

So what needs to be done? Firstly we must place a renewed focus on getting the planning process working better. It is clear to regular users we have a chronically under-resourced renewable energy team at the Department of Environment's planning headquarters and elsewhere.

There has been much rhetoric from our politicians about the economic importance of the sector. Sustained growth in the number of renewable energy projects submitted to DoE planning has not been reciprocated by additional resource being allocated to the teams charged with processing this heavy workload. Budgetary measures are to blame but recently introduced much higher planning application fees which have heavily penalised larger industry operators must be met with greater departmental investment in the decision making process. It simply cannot be acceptable that such a key growth area is so inadequately resourced. The cavalry is needed and quickly.

Secondly, we must have consistency in how projects are dealt with. We must get rid of a budget driven mind-set in our civil servants. This prioritises planning applications over effective pre-application consultation. Early engagement between developer, DoE planning and all relevant consultees, undertaken in a collaborative manner with collective focus and strong DoE planning leadership, will enhance the quality of the environmental information that will form part of the planning application. It will significantly reduce frustration and delay and lead to quicker processing times. It is an approach which in the earlier days of the strategic projects team we succeeded in applying and we must get back to it.

We can learn much from our English counterpart, the Infrastructure Planning Commission. It places a huge focus on pre-application consultation and collaboration which all parties within the process subscribe to. Getting to where they are has required a major cultural change in approach and is now delivering results. It provides a strong focus on simple but highly effective measures which, if quickly adopted here, would make such a difference.

Clyde Shanks, director and founder of new planning consultancy Clyde Shanks, will speak on key planning issues affecting energy infrastructure projects at the annual Northern Ireland Energy Forum on Thursday

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