As part of its ongoing struggles to reconcile localism and sustainable energy production, the Government has now published planning guidance to clarify its position. The companion guide to PPS22 has been repealed and replaced with new, short planning guidance that sits alongside the NPPF. The new "Planning Practice Guidance for Renewable and Low Carbon Energy" gives local planning authorities and applicants guidance on applications for solar farms (as well as wind farms, hydropower and active solar technology). All applications for solar farms will now be decided with respect to the new practice guidance.
In June, a joint DCLG and DECC announcement stated that new planning guidance would be issued to ensure that renewable energy does not "automatically override environmental protections and concerns of local communities". This was widely interpreted as giving communities a right to veto new sustainable energy development, a fact denied a week later by housing Minister Mark Prisk.
The government claims that the guidance "is an important step in ensuring that communities can continue to shape their local surroundings and that landscape and heritage are properly considered and protected". The guidance is only relevant to applications considered by LPAs, and not those Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects submitted to the Planning Inspectorate under the Planning Act 2008, although LPAs are encouraged to use the technology-specific NPSs in developing policies.
The Practice Guidance emphasises that the NPPF's recognition of the need to increase the use and supply of green energy does not override "environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities".
Much of the guidance is a restatement of policy, rather than anything new. The Guidance encourages LPAs to identify suitable areas, and prepare energy-specific policies and buffer zones. It is specifically noted that LPAs should not have to grant consent for speculative applications outside those areas that have been identified where the impact will be unacceptable. The "proximity of grid connection infrastructure and site size" is noted as a particular example of a technical consideration for solar farms.
Criteria for LPAs to consider in deciding applications (and specific policies) include: need, cumulative impacts, local topography, conservation of heritage assets, adverse impacts on protected areas, and protecting local amenity. Furthermore, LPAs should consider:
- use of previously developed land, continued use of agricultural land and/or biodiversity improvements on greenfield sites;
- use of planning conditions to ensure the development is temporary, and structures are removed;
- glint and glare impacts on the landscape and nearby uses, as well as aircraft safety;
- security measures;
- conservation of heritage assets and impacts on their settings;
- mitigation of landscape and visual impacts, in particular screenings;
- energy generating potential.
It is notable that the Practice Guidance does not mention the need for contributions to community led renewable energy initiatives, in particular the need to mitigate any impacts. LPAs are encouraged to prepare specific policies to determine applications for renewable energy development, and if contributions are to be sought they should be sought through these policies. Communities are encouraged to promote their own renewable energy initiatives, promoting these through neighbourhood plans.
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