The Importance of Good Planning

As I am nearing the end of my travels, I have the opportunity to pull a few themes together – one is the importance of planning. Much of what I have learned, and many of the common themes from the past eight weeks, are obvious. Obvious things aren’t always dealt with, or implemented well, though. Many of the lessons below are framed for government, but I’d like to think they have broader applicability. They are built on what others have done, or – in a number of cases – what others wish they had done decades ago when they started this process. Caveat: It starts from an unrealistic premise, which is that you’re starting with a completely greenfield, blank-slate position – and nobody is – but I think there’s some value in the underlying thinking all the same.

Start Early

Of course. Thanks Captain Obvious. The reason why this still bears mentioning though is that this doesn’t always (or even often) happen. Sometimes things just sort of grow and progress – even when it comes to large infrastructure and energy projects. Especially when we’re all in a hurry. I would probably contrast two conversations I had in Spain. One – where I was proudly shown the planning maps from 25 years previous which had helped to guide development – and the other where one of the relevant Directors-General was very upfront about the fact that they could have done more planning, and therefore directed industry development more effectively.

Think About a Wide Range of Factors

In León, Spain in 1999, they primarily looked at three things to guide where development should be supported and prevented:

  • Energy network
  • Renewable resources
  • Environmentally important and sensitive areas

These days there are – or perhaps should be – additional layers applied, particularly in places with large renewable build-out where land-use conflict has become problematic, this includes things like:

  • Identifying prime agricultural land (as the Netherlands and Zaragoza have done)
  • Identifying other incompatible uses (like surface mining, again using Zaragoza as the example)
  • Residential areas and residences
  • For offshore wind, identifying – in consultation with industry – important fishing grounds (something that’s starting to happen in the UK)
  • Archaeologically/culturally significant areas
  • Other key infrastructure, like roads, ports, railways and pipelines

At the end of this, you want some kind of map which hopefully rules out development in areas that will cause harm, negative externalities or otherwise upset lots of people, identifies attractive areas for development, and might provide a framework for permitting development in the bits in between.

One of the challenges with this: It requires a whole lot of cross-agency work to make it happen – and that can be difficult sometimes.

Communicate Publicly

Industry do a great job of talking about their projects – but it’s often heavy on the positives and lighter on the negatives. Because of this, the public also takes things with a grain of salt.

There is a key communication function between government and the general public that many have commented on the need for, but few have been able to point me to a good example of. This piece includes talking about:

  • What the energy transition is, and why we’re doing it; this isn’t easy. It is a topic that is subject to politicisation, as we’ve seen in Australia for the last couple of decades. Places like Europe that have been operating with a price on carbon for years now, or states like California, certainly demonstrate higher levels of general energy literacy and acceptance/understanding of the transition (which is not to say they have nailed it, either)
  • What the benefits and opportunities will be – and get industry to join in for this, as they will be well placed and likely happy to do this
  • What the challenges and drawbacks might be: This is the hard conversation that is often avoided – which creates a gap for all kinds of mis/disinformation to seep in. One of the key missing pieces is the recognition that not everyone is going to be immediately better off or happier at every point in this journey, and there is a role for government in helping to take sharp edges off. This discussion is probably a little easier if the discussion around the energy transition referenced up top is handled effectively. It also includes a feedback element to understand community views. Does this frontloading take time? Yes. Will some of this groundwork never get used? Probably – you aren’t going to see every potentially developable site activated.

There are some key benefits to doing this though:

  • Once you have a plan for where developments might go, the community can and will have views on shaping that further.
    • You might not know about key local social factors: For example, I heard about a wind project was stopped in Castille y León because it would impact the amenity of a forest, which had great social significance to the local community but was an unknown issue at the planning agency levelIf you can avoid places that are likely to be opposed before proposing projects there, you’ll keep more people onside with the transition generally. No project or initiative will ever have 100% support, but the less opposition and litigation that has to be dealt with, the faster and cheaper things will happen in the long term
    • The community might have some ideas about areas that would be particularly good for development
      • For example, the mongrel paddocks that produce very little crop might be a great place for energy infrastructure, and local landowners might jump at the chance to do something with them. This granular local knowledge is generally not captured by region- state- or nation-wide datasets
  • If Government undertakes this work, it also makes life easier for industry, as they can start project investigations knowing that there has been some local awareness of development possibility, and that any particularly contentious locations and thought bubbles have already been knocked out

I draw upon a UK offshore wind example where the government initially gave developers relatively free rein over site selection – and the first the fishing industry would know is when they arrived on the wharf with a permit in their hand and told people what they were doing. Clearly, this was not a process that the industry and the communities that supported them were thrilled with.

Whilst it’s not yet perfect, more recent processes, such as those in the Celtic Sea, have involved the Crown Estate working with the fishing industry (and others) to understand potential no-go zones, and provided industry with more targeted development locations. This frontloading means less conflict, less litigation, and faster and cheaper processes.

Set Some Limits

The above doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting there needs to be detailed consultation at every stage of every possible project. A balance needs to be struck between an informed, consulted and engaged community and the ability for projects to progress according to relatively predictable timeframes. I would argue that the Spanish experience – which really focuses on landowners and local government officials – has probably undercooked the community engagement side of things, but places like California which provide numerous opportunities for submissions (and litigation) from organisations that might not even be from within the state of California contribute to timing and cost uncertainty for industry and project finance that can stifle even sensible and well-intended development.  

Include Industry

Nobody will have a better idea of what is technically and commercially viable than those who build and operate these projects for a living. As end users of the planning process, their inclusion will likely result in a plan that will get used. This isn’t to suggest that they should be given control over design of planning processes, but if the goal is to grow and develop a specific industry sector, it makes sense that they have input.

Why Has Nobody Done This?

To varying degrees, many have (I don’t think I’m revealing anything groundbreaking) – the big challenge that the jurisdictions I visited have is that, because they’ve been in this space for 20-30 years, they have discovered things that they didn’t realise they needed to plan for (like some of the social impact elements in particular). They have been very much building the plane whilst flying it, and learning to fly in some cases too.

The opportunity that exists in Australia is that – whilst the plane is already definitely in the air here too – we are much earlier on the journey. The challenge is that this requires a little bit of a ‘go slow to go fast’ approach, which isn’t necessarily politically easy – and also runs counter to the urgency to address emissions and climate change – but is also an approach that is subject to capture by those who would rather see us put the plane back in the hangar altogether. In any event, it’s providing good food for thought as I think about how to structure my final report.

1 thought on “The Importance of Good Planning”

  1. Great summary Nils and I keenly await your final report to dive a little deeper into some of these topics while also discussing how our broader community can apply what you have learned.

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