The ministerial statement from Eric Pickles indicating a harder time for promoters of on-shore wind projects received headline publicity earlier today.

What does this mean for current and future wind farm projects? The statement which has been made in response to pressure from Conservative MPs, arises from the grant of planning permission for on-shore wind farms in the face of local opposition, often on appeal by the promoter. The conclusion reached by Mr Pickles is that current planning decisions on on-shore wind are "not always reflecting a locally-led planning system". The blame for this is placed on the previous Labour administration. The current Government has been in power for three years and the national planning policy framework is a year old so it is surprising to hear that current planning decisions are the fault of the previous administration.

In response to the pressure from local MPs and others, the ministerial statement announced new measures on two broad fronts:

  • Proposed amendments to secondary legislation to make pre-application consultation with local communities compulsory for the more significant on-shore wind applications; and
  • New planning practice guidance to be issued shortly to assist local councils, and appeal inspectors in their consideration of local plans and individual planning applications.

Pre-application community consultation

Pre-application consultation is already compulsory for wind farm schemes above 50 megawatts (MW) where applications are made direct to the planning inspectorate under procedures introduced by the Planning Act 2008.

The majority of wind farm applications below 50 MW require formal environmental impact assessment. The development of wind farm schemes and the compiling of environmental information inevitably involves engagement with statutory and community stakeholders.

The wind farm proposals which fall below environmental impact threshold will generally be small single turbine developments. It is not clear, therefore, what difference the proposed secondary legislation will make.

New planning practice guidance

The content of the proposed practice guidance is indicated as being:

  • That the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities

Comment: the need for renewable energy has never been considered to automatically override environmental protection. The national planning policy framework adopted last year confirms the long standing practice to balance renewable energy benefits with environmental impacts.

  • That decision should take into account the cumulative effect of wind turbines and properly reflect the increasing impact on: (a) the landscape and; (b) local amenity as the number of turbines in the area increases.

Comment: the cumulative impact of wind turbine development, and any other form of development, has always been a material consideration. Wind farm developers are required to assess such cumulative impacts in their environmental impact assessments.

  • That local topography should be a factor in assessing whether wind turbines have a damaging impact on the landscape. It should be recognised that the impact on predominantly flat landscapes can be as great or greater than as on hilly or mountainous ones.

Comment: local landscape character has always been a material consideration when assessing the impact of wind farm proposals. Local planning authorities are encouraged to carry out local landscape character assessments. These should include an assessment of the landscape's capacity to accommodate development.

  • That great care should be taken to ensure heritage assets are conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance, including the impact of proposals on views important to their setting.

Comment: all new developments, including wind farm developments, are subject to the policy in the national planning policy framework which requires that impacts on heritage assets, including their settings, is given particular consideration. The statutory requirement that special attention be paid to such effects has been with us for many years.

Apart from indicating a hardening of attitude towards on-shore wind in response to political pressures, it is not clear what will change under the promised practice guidance. The description of the document as "practice guidance" indicates that existing policy in the framework and in the national policy statements for energy and renewable energy is not intended to change.

Although the practice guidance is still to be issued and will not change national policy for renewable energy schemes, the secretary of state has written to the chief executive of the planning inspectorate. Mr Pickles has asked him to draw the statement to the attention of planning inspectors in their current and future appeals. It is not clear what planning inspectors are to make of the ministerial statement. The fact that the correspondence has taken place, however, confirms that appeal decisions overturning locally based refusals lies at the heart of this latest ministerial statement.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has published a paper setting out the response to calls for evidence on community engagement and community benefits associated with on-shore wind farms. It also includes its examination of the latest UK on-shore wind costs. The conclusion, in relation to the latter, is that the current costs are not significantly different to those which informed the recent renewables obligations banding review.

In addition to promoting current best practice on pre-application consultation, DECC has indicated that it expects the on-shore wind industry to announce a revised community benefit protocol, including an increase in the recommended community benefit package in England from £1000 per MW of installed capacity per year to £5000 for the lifetime of the wind farm.

Many wind farm promoters are already providing community benefit packages at the proposed level. The DECC paper indicates that community benefit packages will be placed on a public register to make the system more transparent.

Those promoting on-shore wind energy schemes will already be aware of the need to separate the offer of community benefit packages from the planning case for the development. That separation is intended to be maintained by DECC.

The proposals announced today by DECC largely confirm the current practice in relation to community engagement and community benefits geared to long term environmental gains and discounted energy costs for local communities.

The industry will no doubt welcome the acknowledgement of that current practice and the placing of community benefit packages on a statutory footing.