01 December 2020

Simon Fisher is group finance director at Banks Group, the family-owned developer and operator of renewable energy projects, residential and commercial property and coal mines, based in County Durham. Having previously spent nine years at Newcastle International Airport in a similar role, Fisher is acutely aware of the role of government involvement in driving forward strategic infrastructure development.

“The government needs to create the conditions in which the UK develops infrastructure successfully. Comprehensive, well-understood and supportive planning policies are key to delivering projects, and support in the form of either additional funding or guarantees is very important for businesses like us to provide surety of investment to help deliver government targets.”

Banks Renewables currently operates 10 onshore wind farms, providing 224MW of renewable electricity generating capacity across Scotland and the north of England, with planning permission secured for two more in Scotland. It is also seeking to invest in complementary infrastructure including solar, battery storage and heat networks.

At the same time, Banks Mining develops, operates and restores surface coal mines in the north east of England, putting the business at the sharp end of the government’s net zero targets. “Whilst coal for power station use in the UK is diminishing, there remains an enduring need for coal for UK industries which have specific uses for coal that are not readily replicated by any other means,” says Fisher, in industries such as steel and cement manufacture and heritage railways. “We are challenging the government on why we are importing over 80 per cent of the UK’s coal from countries when it can be mined and transported with much less environmental impact and global greenhouse gas emissions here in the UK.”

Understanding policy objectives on decarbonisation at a local and countrywide level is a challenge, says Fisher: “At the moment, it’s hard to assess what local authorities and central government consider net zero looks like and how to invest to support the UK and the regions in achieving their targets.”

As a residential and commercial property developer, one area of interest to Banks Group is heat networks – sometimes called district heating – which provide a distribution system of insulated pipes to take heat from a central source and deliver it to a number of buildings. Heat networks are described as an important part of the government’s plan to reduce carbon in domestic heating and to cut bills.

“We have to decarbonise domestic heating, but very little is happening on centralised planning of heat networks,” says Fisher. “Central government have ruled that gas boilers must be removed from new home installations from 2025 but have not provided a clear route or policy to decarbonise heat from new developments.”

It is estimated by the Climate Change Commission that around 18 per cent of UK heat will need to come from heat networks by 2050 if the UK is to meet its carbon targets cost effectively.

“Another challenge is that planning policy expects housing developers to support the costs of infrastructure. Particularly in the North East there is a significant level of cost levied on the developers to support local services relative to the value of houses which makes development harder to justify. Alternative approaches need to be adopted to help support residential development.

“We all know that it is private investment that drives costs down,” says Fisher, “because equity involvement drives more efficiency which means the technology becomes more ubiquitous and available to consumers. But it does need government help getting it off the ground so that people will invest in the technology; that’s really important.”

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Perspectives on Infrastructure: Investment opportunities in the UK

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