Changes to planning policy for onshore wind were announced last Thursday (18 June 2015) by the Department of Communities and Local Government. These had been expected since the Conservatives were elected in May. Greg Clark issued a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) setting out how local people will have the final say on wind farm applications, thereby also fulfilling one of the commitment made in the Conservative's 2015 election manifesto.

The new policy

In short, 'when determining planning applications for wind energy development involving one or more wind turbines, local planning authorities should only grant planning permission if:

  • The development site is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan; and
  • Following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and therefore the proposal has their backing.

The changes take effect from 18 June 2015, subject to transitional arrangements for applications submitted prior to this (see further below).

The golden thread turned on its head

Even though the changes were anticipated, most were surprised by how quickly those changes were brought into force and how far they reach. They turn the National Planning Policy Framework's (NPPF) golden thread on its head. The WMS says that in applying the new considerations, suitable areas for wind energy development will need to have been allocated clearly in Local or Neighbourhood Plans.

The WMS does not tell us the extent to which sites will need to be assessed before they can be considered suitable, save that maps showing a good wind resource, or similar, will not be sufficient.

Changes to Guidance

The changes made to the Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) provide more detail. The new PPG states that the requirements of the technology and, critically, the potential impacts on the local environment, including from cumulative impacts should all be considered. It refers to the methodology for assessing the capacity of renewable energy development that can be found on the DECC website as well as local assessments, but cautions the need to make sure these reflect the impacts of the latest technology (i.e. the increased size of wind turbines).

However, assessing capacity for renewable energy is very different to assessing site suitability, so these assessments will not take us very far. It also refers to Landscape Character Assessment, particularly where carried out at a County or District level which it says will provide a more appropriate scale for assessing likely landscape and visual impacts of individual proposals. In identifying suitable areas, it requires policies to set out the factors to be taken into account in individual proposals, which may be dependent on the investigatory work underpinning the identified area.

In practice, areas are unlikely to be promoted by Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) or Neighbourhood Communities (save perhaps for small community schemes), especially where there is no specific requirement for them to do so. We are only aware of a handful of local plans that identify areas of search (not the same as allocated sites) in existing Development Plans and, ironically, these are largely in Scotland and Wales where the new guidance is not applicable. For the wind industry in England, this will mean a significant change of focus. Up to now, with the benefit of many years of practical experience and no evidence that areas previously identified by local authorities for wind energy in local plans were technically and economically feasible, development plans have generally set out criteria based policies. Going forward, it will not be enough even to demonstrate that a site is the best and most appropriate site for wind development in a given area as the criteria on which some local residents may object to a wind energy development of any scale seems to be irrelevant. The determining factor is whether or not there is local objection and not whether the objections have substance or are land use related basis. For any wind energy development that is not already submitted, would-be wind energy developers will need to take a strategic, long term approach to selection, promotion and delivery of sites. Until sites are allocated, and therefore in the short term at least, the new policy will effectively act as a presumption in favour of refusal of sustainable development, which is completely at odds with the golden thread of the NPPF.

Local community backing for proposals

Even if sites are allocated, any objections to a site will have to be addressed fully and comprehensively to deal with the second limb of the new policy.

The WMS says that whether a proposal has the backing of the affected local community is a planning judgement for the LPA. A LPA is unlikely to approve an application in the face of unresolved objections. It remains to be seen whether the Planning Inspectorate will take a more positive approach in exercising judgement where it considers objections to have been addressed sufficiently by mitigation. Of course, that also depends on the extent to which harm can be mitigated – take for example the difficulties of mitigating landscape and visual impact.

Applications subject to the transitional arrangements

The same issues arise for applications subject to the transitional arrangements. The WMS states that where a valid planning application has already been submitted to a LPA and the Development Plan does not identify suitable sites, transitional arrangements will apply. Before permission can be granted this requires the LPA, following consultation, to be satisfied that planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been addressed, and that the proposal therefore has the local communities backing.

What next?

This new policy will apply to all onshore wind schemes in due course. Legislative changes are being promoted through the Energy Bill to remove 50MW plus onshore wind farm schemes from the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project regime.

The planning policy changes affect only England, not Wales or Scotland. However, the Government's proposals to close the Renewables Obligation to new onshore wind on 1 April 2016, one year earlier than planned, will affect projects in each of these jurisdictions. Added to that, on 22 June 2016, the Government gave their clearest indication yet that no support for new onshore wind would be available under the new contract for difference regime either. So, not only will a new project have to pass substantially higher planning hurdles, it will also need to be financially viable without any financial support from the electricity bill-payer.

The cost of investment and risk profile of onshore wind energy has dramatically increased overnight. And the complete U-turn on wind energy policy has been achieved without any consultation and even without amending the NPPF. No wonder then that the industry is very carefully considering whether the Government's recent announcements could and should be challenged.