It is a bit less than two years since the Government issued its National Policy Statement on Renewable Energy (EN-3) under the Planning Act 2008, to provide (its words) “the primary basis” on which applications for nationally significant renewable energy infrastructure projects would be determined. To be within the scope of the NPS an onshore windfarm would need to have a capacity of over 50 MW, about 14 turbines of typical size. Proponents of such schemes might have hoped that, together with the overarching NPS on energy infrastructure (EN-1), these statements would provide a clear basis for consenting decisions over the next few years. However, Lesson 1 which should be learnt at planning schools today is that no government can last more than 5 minutes without tinkering with planning policy and indeed planning law.
So now we have the introduction mooted of measures to “give communities a greater say over the siting of onshore wind farms”, coupled with the carrot to induce them to be “the community that likes to say yes” of a five-fold increase in the value of community benefits to be paid: as much as £100,000 a year for a medium size windfarm wafting in the local community’s direction. As Secretary of State for Energy, Ed Davey, wittily put it – communities should see the windfall, not just the windfarm.
There will – apparently – be new planning guidance from DCLG to make clear that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities, as well as giving greater weight to landscape and visual impact concerns. Striking a balance between the need for renewable energy infrastructure, and its effects on landscape, natural features, the historical heritage, and local amenity are of course what planning is already about. Equally, pre-application engagement – another element of the proposed changes – is an important part of good practice. However, is community concern itself a sound basis for refusing consent, at least unless it is embodied in a local plan policy which has been tested for soundness? The truth is perhaps that onshore wind has become the lightning conductor of public concern about having local environments spoilt for what may seem like remote reasons of global carbon reduction goals. People question why they should have to look at what they see as a blot on their landscape and listen to unwanted turbine noise or blade swish to save carbon emissions which are a drop in the ocean compared with those of the 1,200 coal fired power stations currently in the planning stage globally, 75% of them in India and China. Promised local jobs from the project turn out to be little more than some work for fencing contractors, in the mind of the public at least. Unlike a power station, a windfarm once up and running isn’t going to employ many local people.
Interestingly, the government’s call for evidence on onshore wind in September 2012 suggested that much of the capacity for new onshore wind contemplated under the 2011 “Renewables Roadmap” is already largely visible within the planning system, though Scotland is by far leading the way, with roughly 60% of the UK’s currently consented capacity. Suitable sites for onshore wind projects in the UK are of course not unlimited, and increasingly as the most suitable sites are taken, future increases in deployed capacity become more difficult. Giving local communities the ability effectively to veto schemes would reduce available sites still further, perhaps very considerably. Wind is a free resource and onshore windfarms are therefore a cheap source of renewable energy, but they have certainly not –it would appear – become a much loved feature of the English landscape. The current success rate in obtaining planning permission is around 35%. Some well-placed and carefully consulted schemes may benefit from the changes, but my money is on that success rate falling under the new dispensation. Further, how many economically marginal schemes may falter as a result of the new and greatly increased community benefit obligation? So overall, the changes seem more of a victory for the anti-windfarm lobby than an attempt to boost renewable energy.