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Balancing local pain with national gain

Planning Communications and Consultation
general election 2024

Nationally significant infrastructure projects – they’re visible, they take a fair bit of time to build and usually, they need to go somewhere where previously there wasn’t anything. A blessing for a general election candidate contesting a marginal. And there are plenty of them this time round (candidates contesting marginals, and NSIPs...particularly energy NSIPs). 

The rise of both will leave many new candidates facing a dilemma that will become increasingly familiar to them should they be elected: how to tackle a divergence between national policy and the local sentiment of your constituents, who ultimately you are elected to represent.

It’s a dilemma not just reserved for election time (see Steve Barclay 
versus an incinerator permit a few months ago) but it is accentuated by the fact that the ones that fill up your inbox each week are the ones who are most likely to bother to turn out to vote.

Navigating this conflict to date has mostly been a challenge reserved for the Conservatives – by their very nature NSIPs are usually proposed in their rural heartlands. However, with various polls showing some of the safest Conservative seats on a knife edge, Labour is now facing the same headache.

Nationally, Labour has extremely ambitious energy policies - the finer points of GB Energy aside, it is looking to decarbonise the grid by 2030. It’s a huge challenge, and within such a short period of time, renewables such as wind and solar will be doing the heavy lifting to achieve it. The party has also been bullish about how it could get there, with Keir Starmer last week indicating he would be willing to override community objections to deliver new energy infrastructure.

All well and good if you ignore the inevitable complexities on the ground of doing so. There are already notable examples of Labour candidates breaking rank in response to local pressure – with Louth & Horncastle’s candidate
campaigning against the Great Grid Upgrade and his counterpart in Faversham & Mid Kent noting her concerns about Cleve Hill Solar Farm (which has already been consented, by the way).

What has always been interesting about this topic is that Conservative and Labour policy is not too divergent. The Conservatives want to treble offshore wind capacity, Labour wants to quadruple it. Labour is aiming for 50GW of installed solar by 2030, the Conservatives 70GW by 2035. Both agree that the DCO process needs to be quicker and simpler to deliver nationally significant infrastructure. But to state the obvious: no matter what colour the government, MPs are beholden to represent the views of their constituents. As these examples show, don’t be shocked if your newly elected Labour MP swings by their predecessor’s office to pick up their placards. Surprise Labour wins in unfamiliar rural landscapes (in many cases aided by a split Reform/Tory vote rather than a seismic switch to Labour) will leave outsiders with a point to prove that Labour 'can do the countryside' to keep them there. 

An example might be Labour’s Hanif Khan in Sleaford & North Hykeham. Conservative with a 32,000 majority in 2019, Ipsos Mori has placed the seat too close to call. Should he win, this former London Borough of Hounslow councillor will have to balance Labour's national solar targets against local concerns about four solar NSIPs which together could provide over 2GW each year. A Boris Johnson/Heathrow runway-style conundrum, though almost certainly without foreign affairs trips to avoid the issue.

The more interesting point will be to see whether this has any influence on the decision-making of the incoming Labour government. No doubt about it, pressure from Conservative backbenchers proved to be effective, with carefully worded ministerial statements, ‘policy changes’ and delays in decisions to two solar NSIPs now waiting on the incoming Secretary of State’s desk to pick up.

Initially, we think not. The incoming Labour government will be keen to show progress on its decarbonisation pledges and demonstrate that the DCO regime can be effective in delivering critical infrastructure. Over the longer term, expect more emphasis on that nebulous concept of ‘community buy-in’ often touted by Labour, especially within key cluster areas. The onus will be on developers to demonstrate good design in partnership with communities - providing tangible benefits and offsetting impacts where possible to assuage new MPs in unchartered rural waters.