Invest to earn

When improving the public sector, and in planning especially, and almost always when ICT is involved, we expect to hear the phrase “invest to save”. It’s become part of the branding – it avoids the need for value judgements like “it will improve our service” or “the public will find it useful” or even “it’s a good idea and I’m going to back it”.

This month’s announcement from Chris Huhne on energy means that you can expect to hear a new twist on this phrase – the ability for councils to resell energy to the national grid means their programme of renewable energy provision becomes an invest to earn proposition. At least for the sensible ones. But what does this mean for planners ?

Renewable energy opportunities

In brief (you can expect more from us and our colleagues in the LGA on this) the story is this. Local government is a very big consumer of energy, has lots of assets that might be used to generate energy and is uniquely able to play “ringmaster” to get collaborative efforts like heating schemes off the ground at a neighbourhood level. Provided that we don’t all get so excited we forget the dull-but-better-return-on-investment energy efficiency stuff first it’s just a no-brainer.

The likely outcome is that renewable energy schemes might actually get going in a meaningful volume – and we can also expect “big energy” to be stung into some kind of action also. Lovely. But what – aside from determining the occasional planning application – does this have to do with us ?

Development management

Remember before the gloom and doom descended ? Before everything was about reducing costs by a quarter ? We, as a sector, were talking about ‘development management’. After struggling with this for more time than I’m comfortable admitting in public, I’ll use shorthand and say DM is about a culture change – about planners adding value much earlier in the process of understanding and delivering better places.

This positive framing of our purpose is too important to forget now in the scrabble for jobs and budget. Blink now and we’ll find ourselves well and truly in the regulatory portakabin. This is why this change of approach to energy couldn’t come at a better time. But this is not just going to be a “good thing” automatically – I’ll put two possible scenarios to you.

Option 1: The Finance Director’s approach

There are already a couple of offers on the FD’s desk. She may already have been eavesdropping on her colleagues in the schools who are renting out their roofspace. A quick tender, some kind of appraisal based on how little capital is required now and what kind of kickback there is – perhaps nuanced by the transfer of risk on energy price fluctuations leads to a long-term deal. Probably called a “partnership”.

Behold, at little short-term cost there is a long-term (I’ve heard 20 years is not uncommon) contract. Yes, it’s better than the status quo. But the risk is that you get the technology that seems right now – just prior to the explosion in innovation that everyone is predicting. You can imagine the other issues – a monoculture approach – a trickier upgrade path – an illusory transfer of risk – arguments over the responsibility for delivery.

Option 2: The Planning Director’s approach

Can you imagine something that falls more naturally into the ambit of good “planning” ? This is like falling off a log.

Let’s start with the facts – are you a windy place and/or a sunny place ? Get a quick energy opportunity study published so that people can see for themselves. Then there are probably only three things you need to worry about:-

  1. How can you welcome these bits of kit into the built environment ? Beg / borrow / steal something on design codes. If the CSE doesn’t have one already, they will soon. Give your colleagues the confidence by explaining how you’d like to say “yes” to their ideas.
  2. What new public sector development is happening, and how can it directly (by being post-Merton) or indirectly (through tariff) deliver or provide capital for this stuff for you ?
  3. What are the opportunities arising from “big stuff” ? More difficult for me to be glib about, this is what sorts “proper” planners from box tickers. Whether you have significant demand or supply you probably also have the opportunities for creative and collaborative schemes that will bring real results when brought about by a thoughtful approach and an enabling framework.

In comparison it is more involved than simply outsourcing to a “partner”, but in return you get to keep more of the benefits and retain a longer-term flexibility. You’ll almost certainly end up with a mixed economy so you get to compare and contrast different methods in a realworld context.

Demonstrate your value or accept the consequences

These two situations are at opposing ends of the scale. I put it to you that renewable energy planning is an ideal test for whether you are really doing ‘development management’, and (perhaps more importantly) whether your council actually trusts you enough to do it.

What a fantastic opportunity – not just a slightly abstract take on “culture change” but a big fat new project to test development management out on.

But, for those of you about to put together a programme of DPD production that puts publication of your renewables policy sometime in 2015 I’d suggest you brush up your interview technique. Or, if you learn 3rd hand that the FD has just sold all your rooves to a PV installer you might want to go and work  somewhere else where they might appreciate your skills as a planner better.

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