The Atmos team hit the ground running this year with a number of development projects being submitted for consent decision, including solar and wind energy projects and a residential led masterplan site in Shropshire.  From residential property development to road and rail infrastructure, wind energy to solar schemes, master planning and agricultural diversification, the year ahead promises to be another eventful year for us all, full of opportunity together with some challenges for us to overcome. Atmos MD Jean Curran looks at what 2017 might bring. 

Our expertise in the energy development sector remains in demand, even though the marketplace has changed substantially over the past year.  Also, across the UK the demand for housing continues and we expect to play our part in helping our clients support the delivery of the Government’s agenda to build 1 million new homes across the UK by 2020.   A critical challenge for policy-makers and developers will be in identifying and bringing forward the right sites on the best commercial terms.  Atmos is already working with small and medium sized developers on driving forward plans for developments that will contribute to this target. We are looking forward to helping our clients maximise their opportunities arising from the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments’ policy initiatives and grant programmes to drive this agenda.
 
Our GIS-supported environmental services to developers in this area are making it much easier (and more economical) to integrate environmental design into early stage decision-making, meaning it is no longer an afterthought or a tick-box compliance exercise. We help our clients to identify environmental opportunities and constraints early on in the process to  determine the feasibility of proposals and to actively resolve planning and design risks – and their associated costs.
 
Once again this year, the team is looking forward to exploring issues of interest to our wider community of practice. Some of the areas we will be exploring during the year with our colleagues and clients include the continuing progress of the Scottish Governments’ planning review. We are keen to see this facilitate the important physical, social and business infrastructure key to the Scottish economy – housing targets, physical and digital connectivity, industrial and business space and energy infrastructure.  In short, like many others, we hope to see the planning process become more efficient and effective. In particular, we are looking forward to working with colleagues and partners within the Scottish Property Federation to advocate for continued progress in the improvement of our planning system.  Some of those improvements could include:

  • Increased resources within the system.  The Scottish Government has recently opened up consultation on enhanced planning fees.  This would see current planning fees maxima rising to a higher capped level to better reflect the level of resources they demand. It seems clear that the key to this working positively for development is the maintenance of harmonisation of fees with other administrations and most importantly the condition that the additional income is re-invested in the performance of the planning process, so that we can greatly reduce the time needed to determine applications.  You can have your say here (before 27th Feb);
  • But even more critical is a planning system that keeps pace with change in the market and indeed in technology;
  • Increasing integration between other policy areas and planning; for instance, by making more binding commitment to energy targets.

Atmos Environmental Apprasial Wind FarmsTurning to energy, in Scotland the year has started with the Scottish Government re-stating its commitment to decarbonised electricity in the draft Climate Change Plan laid before parliament on the 19th January.  In that context, through the Draft Scottish Energy Strategy, the Scottish Government has confirmed its commitment to renewable energy through measures that include a new target for renewables to deliver half of our energy needs by 2030.   Consultation on this strategy is now underway. Given Atmos’ long track record of servicing the low carbon economy, in particular through the solutions we bring to developments in the energy sector, our team will consider the detail of these proposals and will look to continue to contribute to the debate throughout the consultation process. As always, the challenges our clients face are crucial in informing our future solutions and these will similarly inform our own contribution to the debate. 

Our experience in onshore wind energy continues and already in 2017, we see new prospects emerging from the challenges that faced that sector during 2015 and 2016.  Our Ornithology and GIS specialists continue to build their clever and cost-effective solutions to understanding and managing/minimising the constraints to potential new developments in order to help make less obvious sites more readily developable.  In a future where bigger/taller turbines are the cost effective solution, planning policy and consenting regimes will need to include a better understanding of the environmental implications of this more efficient technology. And again, increasing integration between different government policy areas – be that planning, energy or otherwise – will also be essential.

Atmos Bat Surveys Inverness Castle

Looking further afield to North Wales, we look forward to a year working closely with our Welsh partners on work in Flintshire of a distinctly local flavour. We will also be working to take full advantage of opportunities for collaboration between the Welsh Government and Northern Powerhouse organisations as the Atmos team continues to work extensively across North Wales and the North West of England.
 
We are also pleased to be supporting Arts in Business Cymru and look forward to highlighting the positive commercial advantages to be gleaned from quality sustainable design and development and an integrated approach that incorporates the increasingly important concept of Natural Capital.

Our Inverness team has been lucky enough to have supported some of the early stage projects flowing from the £315m City Region Deal for Inverness and the wider Highlands area, which will see money invested over 10 to 20 years, attracting £1bn in private sector investment to the area.  Initiatives such as the redevelopment of Inverness Castle, and others have all benefited from the expert, commercially focussed input from the Atmos Inverness team. The team is already gearing up to support further physical and digital infrastructure development across the Highlands, including the requirement to deliver 6,000 new homes over the next 20 years.

Undoubtedly, this year will see a lot of time and energy expended on trying to understand the implications of Brexit and it would be remiss of me not to touch on this as we move closer to the date for triggering Article 50. Whether a hard or soft Brexit, there is no doubt that the process will have an impact on us all.  From an environmental planning and development perspective, it is likely to be some time before the implications become clear. However, given that a great deal of current UK environmental law derives from EU legislation, it would be reasonable to expect some change over time. At the same time, the consequences of climate change and environmental harm will continue to create challenges for the UK, be that inside or outside the EU. Sustainable development will still be important in achieving social and economic well-being and the long term viability of our planet for future generations.
 
Whatever the size, development invariably leaves a footprint on the environment. The challenge is to achieve our commercial objectives whilst ensuring that the footprint is not unnecessarily deep.  In fact, our experience is that environmental considerations can often hold the key to unlocking development and infrastructure projects. Using the characteristics of the Chinese rooster of 2017, our consultants are here to support you by delivering commercially pragmatic solutions that smooth the way to successful consent.  
 
As we move forward, we wish you and your organisation every success for the coming year, safe in the knowledge that whatever environmental challenges you may face, we are here to support you in realising your project objectives.