Proposals for more fundamental change
On 13 January 2023, Conservative MP and former energy Minister Chris Skidmore published a review of UK Net Zero policies that was commissioned under the Truss administration. The review is a very wide-ranging piece of work, but it stresses the importance of the planning process in facilitating the massive expansion of renewable capacity that it sees as essential to the country's future prosperity (there is "no future economy but a green economy", it points out).
Mr Skidmore appears to favour going further than the reforms proposed in the consultation discussed below. The review's recommendations include undertaking "a rapid review of the bottlenecks for net zero and energy efficiency projects in the planning system", and reforming it "now", to:
- "ensure it properly supports net zero";
- reflect "the importance of energy networks expansion";
- facilitate "a rooftop revolution that removes the existing constraints and barriers to solar deployments across residential and commercial buildings in the UK", including "no planning permission required to install domestic solar or commercial solar" on rooftops; and
- have "solar farms in the countryside not…planned piecemeal but in a co-ordinated fashion as part of a Land Use Strategy",
all to facilitate deployment of up to 70GW of solar by 2035. Whether or when any of this will become government policy is unknown, but the review is an admirably clear statement of priorities.
Proposals to bolster the National Planning Policy Framework for energy projects
The National Planning Policy Framework (the Framework) sets out the government's planning policies for England and how these should be applied. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is proposing changes to the Framework. These proposals (published on 22 December 2022) come as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities reached the halfway point in steering a series of reforms to planning processes through Parliament (in the shape of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill). They are open for consultation until 2 March 2023.
Chapter 14: Meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change
The proposals may mark a slight thaw in the chilling effect that the Framework and other policy statements have had on the development of onshore wind projects in England, even as the Framework became more important in relation to such projects. When the Framework was first introduced, it only covered projects up to 50MW, with larger projects being subject to a different, national, consenting regime but, since 2016, all onshore wind projects have fallen within local authorities' jurisdiction.
The version of the Framework currently in force states that, except in the case of repowering, proposed wind energy developments should only be granted planning permission if they are "in an area defined as suitable" for such development in the local development plan, and if any objections from the local community have been "fully" addressed and the development has its backing. This is proposed to be amended so that a "supplementary planning policy document" can identify a "suitable area", but only "where the development plan includes policy on supporting renewable energy". Local objections would have to be "satisfactorily" rather than "fully" addressed. It is not clear how much easier these changes, if adopted, would make it for new onshore wind projects to obtain planning permission in practice.
However, repowering of existing projects is an area of growing activity, as existing equipment nears the end of its design life and (if planning permission is granted and it works commercially) there is scope to update or replace it with more efficient modern plant. The government has recently estimated that as many as 40 projects (400MW) are expected to reach the stage where they may consider repowering by the end of 2024, rising to some 100 projects (1.4GW) by 2030. For these, it is likely to be welcome news that another amendment proposed to the Framework states that local planning authorities should "approve an application for the repowering and life-extension of existing renewable sites, where its impacts are or can be made acceptable", and, perhaps even more helpfully, for these purposes, "the impacts of repowered and life-extended sites should be considered for the purposes of this policy from the baseline existing on the site."
In other words, decision-makers are to take the existence of energy infrastructure on the site as a given, rather than comparing the proposed new development with a hypothetical return to what may have been a completely rural landscape before the existing project was built. This applies to all renewables projects, not just wind projects. This is good news for renewables developers (not least when taken together with indications elsewhere that the government has at least not closed its mind to the possibility of making repowering projects eligible – at least in some cases – for the same kinds of regulated financial support as completely new projects (see the government's December 2022 consultation on Contracts for Difference)).
An additional footnote also gives guidance to local authorities that wind energy development of one or more turbines can be granted through local development orders (and other orders), where the impacts identified by the local community have been appropriately addressed, and importantly the community supports the proposal – this seems like a high bar to meet. Planning practice guidance is to be provided explaining how it can be demonstrated how the impacts have been addressed.
A new Paragraph 161 proposes giving significant weight to proposals where the adaptation of existing buildings – in particular, large non-domestic buildings – would improve their energy performance. Such proposals will include installation of heat pumps and solar panels.
Chapter 15: Conserving and enhancing the natural environment
Planning policies and decisions should "contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by recognising the wider benefits from natural capital and ecosystem services." This footnote, in reference to the new Paragraph 178 of the Framework, is proposed to be bolstered to increase the consideration given to the highest value farmland (where best and most versatile land is defined as grades 1-3a), stating "the availability of agricultural land used for food production should be considered, alongside the other policies in [the] Framework, when deciding what sites are most appropriate for development". The relative value of agricultural land is to be included in policy preparation and decision-making considerations, comparing this to poorer quality land where significant development is proposed. This appears to be a nod to planning industry news reports in autumn 2022 which reported then ministers calling for the ability of local authorities to refuse solar development on broader categories of agricultural land.
2023 is proving to be no less challenging for the energy sector than 2022, proposing to bring new developments in the regulatory landscape.