UK planning laws hindering charging rollout
Complex and lengthy planning process threatens to make local targets redundant
The UK must radically overhaul its planning and procurement processes in order to achieve government targets for EV charging infrastructure, the leader of an alliance of local authorities tells EV inFocus.
Jason Torrance, CEO of UK100, a consortium of 110 UK local government authorities which advocates for “local-led rapid transition to net zero and clean air”, says that it often falls on local authorities to secure business and planning consent for new charging infrastructure.
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But the central government’s lack of a unified policy approach is impeding the ability of local authorities to do so.
“Local and combined authorities have some kind of influence over about 80-82pc of all emissions,” says Torrance, although he stresses that “some is an important word”. And not only do local bodies have restricted power over emissions in their own jurisdiction, there is also a disparity in how well-equipped local authorities are to win business and funding for EV infrastructure.
“On funding and finance, local authorities have what can only be described as a sort of Kafkaesque environment where they have to bid for funding, sometimes against their neighbours, you have a ‘survival of the fittest’ or Hunger Games situation where those that are best practised at writing the bids win and those that are not often lose,” Torrance notes.
“The ability to create investable propositions is often absent in local authorities,” he laments, resulting in a “postcode lottery” system in which local authorities are not starting from a level playing field in terms of their ability to plan and invest in EV infrastructure.
But a far bigger problem is the delays and bottlenecks which are common under current planning laws, such as the lengthy process of securing planning and building consent for chargers, whether that is on-street or motorway services.
Owing to the current state of UK planning laws, local and combined authorities “do not have enough powers to actually enact the kind of changes on the ground that they feel are necessary”, Torrance says. For example, there are too many hoops that installers and authorities must jump through to procure business and secure permission to build on new land.
“Our planning system is not fit for purpose to deliver the rapid change in land use and the delivery of infrastructure that is needed for net zero, whether that is rail infrastructure, or consolidation centres for freight, or for chargers,” Torrance continues.
“When a company wants to put in a new EV charging system, there is a process; a number of steps that they have to go through to get planning permission, engaging with the local authority, going through a consultation process and often there is a queue of schemes,” he says. “At the moment there are many, many steps which companies have to go through to get planning consent, but there also needs to be more resource to get these things through a simpler system.”
And the complexity and lag of the process is leading to bottlenecks for manufacturers and installers in the charging industry. “I was talking to a charging manufacturer which says it has almost an aircraft hangar full of chargers that it cannot place because the times of the planning system to get them into the ground is ludicrous in some places,” Torrance complains.
In light of these bottlenecks, DfT announced in early October that “the government has committed to exploring measures to speed up the installation of charge points for electric vehicles and extending grants to schools to install charge points”. But Torrance contends that “the absence of a national government intervention to reform our planning system will mean that you can make all the obligations you like on local authorities, you can have all the enthusiasm you like from EV installers, but there will be a glass ceiling”.
And any sort of joined up national planning for EV infrastructure will need to start with making sure the UK can meet electricity demand with an upgraded power grid, but this faces similar challenges around red tape, Torrance believes. “There is not a capacity problem but there is a connectivity problem,” he says.
“It is a challenge on grids to think about linking up new electricity supply infrastructure in the form of offshore wind farms or more distributed electricity production in general. It is a big grid challenge. I think the actual charge point is the easy bit,” says Rachel Solomon Williams, executive director of advocacy alliance Aldersgate Group.
For now, however, the government has only issued the vague commitment of reviewing grid connections process for EV charge points, "with the aim to accelerate it”, as part of the same plan which also widens the eligibility of OZEV charge point grants for “authorised” installers.
DfT currently says that it has the “intention to introduce laws to require local transport authorities to produce local charging strategies if they have not done so as part of local transport plans”. “This will ensure that every part of the country has a plan for EV charging infrastructure,” it says.