UK: 459: When The Spinning Stops - Onshore Wind Turbine Planning Changes

Last Updated: 21 June 2013
Article by Angus Walker

Today's entry reports on the announcement to make changes to consideration of applications for onshore wind farms.

On 6 June, various publications were issued on the subject of planning for onshore windfarms.  You have to read all of them to understand fully what is proposed.  The main document is a 'consultation outcome' document relating to a 'call for evidence' on community engagement and benefits and costs of onshore windfarms.  This was accompanied by a press release and a written ministerial statement from Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP.

Despite the content of the publications, the perception in the news is a veto for local people, with headlines such as 'Residents given the power to kill off new wind turbines in move Tories claim will end controversial onshore developments' in the Daily Mail and 'Local communities are to be given more powers to block onshore wind farms, but also offered greater incentives to accept them, the government says.' from the BBC.

So what is the real story? Three things are proposed.

Introducing pre-application consultation

The Localism Act 2011 contains a section that introduces compulsory pre-application consultation for all large planning applications.  At the time the Act was passed it was expected that this would apply to residential applications for 200 units or more, or covering at least 4 hectares, and other developments of 10,000 square metres or more, or covering at least 2 hectares.  The section has yet to be brought into force for any type of application.

The first part of the wind farm announcement was that this section would be made to apply to 'more significant' wind farm applications.  These will still be sub-50mW ones, since those of more than 50MW must be consented under the Planning Act 2008 and are unaffected by that part of the announcement.

There is currently no sign that this section will be brought into force any time soon, but I suppose it might be accelerated so that it can apply to more-significant-but-less-than-50MW onshore wind farms.  The document doesn't even commit the government to doing this, though, just that it will 'look to' do so.

The nature of the pre-application consultation is much weaker than that under the Planning Act - the proposal must simply be brought to the attention of the majority of the people in the vicinity, and any responses must be taken into account when developing the project.  I sneakily thought at the time that you could leave out any significant local objectors to your project while still fulfilling the 'majority of the people' test, but that might not go down very well.

So that is indeed giving people more say over onshore wind farms, but it is nowhere near a veto over them.

Revised planning guidance

The second change is that new planning practice guidance on renewable energy will be issued this summer.  There will also be other new documentation: good practice guidance for those involved in onshore wind developments, a toolkit on evidence about the impacts of onshore wind, and examples of local policies on onshore wind produced by the Planning Advisory Service.

In a typical Pickles approach of giving early effect to new guidance, the statement says that it will state that

  • the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities
  • decisions should take into account the cumulative impact 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
  • local topography should be a factor in assessing whether wind turbines have a damaging impact on the landscape (i.e. recognise that the impact on predominantly flat landscapes can be as great or greater than as on hilly or mountainous ones)
  • 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

None of these is surely controversial, and it is hard to see how any of them is not already the case.  I will be interested to see what 'the planning concerns of local communities' entails when the guidance comes out, though.

Although the first point is presumably what has led to the 'veto' claims, it is really the other way round: the need for a windfarm will not act as a veto over local people's ability to object.  But surely it was ever thus.  The test in the Planning Act for at least 50MW windfarms is that consent should be refused if the adverse impacts outweigh the benefits.  The National Planning Policy Framework says that in the absence of local polices consent should be granted (for all planning applications) unless the adverse impacts significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, a stronger test but still not an automatic grant.  If there are local policies, then they will vary, and the government intends that they should be more informed and consistent.

More cash

The third change is that the recommended amount of 'community benefit' i.e. the value of a contribution from the developer to people in the vicinity, is to go up from £1000 per megawatt year to £5000 per megawatt per year, to make them more palatable.  This is a significant increase and will add to the cost of windfarms.  Industry body RenewableUK says that it may make some financially unviable, but nevertheless is recommending the increase to its members (or has 'agreed to recommend' it, which sounds a little more diffident).

All in all an interesting mix of measures that certainly don't all point away from onshore windfarms being built.  There will be greater say on a certain tranche of windfarms - those that are 'more significant' but 50MW or less - and planning guidance that will apply to all proposals, but less significantly to over 50MW ones, which have their own National Policy Statements.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Angus Walker
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