UK: Renewable Energy In Scotland And Planning – Challenges Ahead For Developers

Last Updated: 4 April 2008
Article by Murray Shaw

Until recently, the renewable energy debate has mainly focused on large scale projects including wind farms and wave energy projects. However, two significant documents have been published about development rights for domestic micro generation equipment and the need to reduce carbon emissions. Both indicate that the whole development industry will urgently need to address the issues raised. Murray Shaw explores the issues and points out that the brave may be able to take advantage of the challenges.

Scotland, both in policy terms and the provision of sources of renewable energy, has to a very large extent sought to lead the UK in relation to renewable energy.  Two further documents have emerged which are significant in that context.  The first of these is a discussion document about permitted development rights for domestic micro generation equipment while the second is a planning advice notice (PAN84) on reducing carbon emissions in new developments (which is intended to supplement the guidance in SPP6 on Renewable Energy published in March 2007).

The discussion paper confirms the commitment on the part of Scottish Ministers to promote a greater uptake of micro generation in real terms.  It is intended that there should be a review of permitted development rights generally as part of the changes in the planning regime.  The discussion paper in relation to that wider review probably will not emerge until the latter of 2008 or early 2009.  The early appearance of this paper seems to reinforce the importance that Scottish Ministers attach to this policy area. 

The consultation paper identifies the principal types of domestic micro renewable energy equipment as:-

  1. Solar water heating
  2. Solar electricity (photo-voltaic)
  3. Small wind turbines
  4. Biomass boilers
  5. Heat pumps
  6. Combined heat and power systems
  7. Hydro electric generators

Planning Permission And Issues

Under the current regime, most, if not all, types of micro generation equipment require planning permission.  This is seen as a disincentive both in terms of costs and unnecessary bureaucracy.  However, the consultation paper recognises that there are real issues which need to be addressed in relation to the installation of micro generation equipment and their potential impact upon townscapes in particular.  Issues are likely to arise in areas which are subject to specific policy designations such as conservation areas. 

The proposal in the consultation paper is that permitted development rights should be granted for a number of types of renewable energy equipment.  As with other permitted development rights however, the rights granted are subject to certain derogations to take account of potential impacts.  In particular protections are embodied for conservation areas and World Heritage sites.  There are also limitations upon the extent of roofs (for example) which can be covered by solar panels. 

Possibly the most controversial issues are likely to be the installation of wind turbines either on dwelling houses or as free standing installations – an issue that David Cameron has had difficulty with!  If a turbine is to be installed on a dwelling house, there are size limitations and planning permission will be required if any part of the wind turbine would be within 100m of a neighbouring dwelling house.  In effect, that means that planning permission will be necessary for most, if not all, wind turbines in towns.  There is a similar restriction in relation to free standing wind turbines albeit these are also subject to further and additional restrictions. 

It is quite clear that the Executive is genuinely exercised by how to implement micro energy projects without having an adverse reaction which may be counter productive.  It may be of course that the approach is an incremental one in the sense that as people become more used to (for example) domestic wind turbines, the restrictions on their installation may be relaxed.  The extent that they are used may equally depend upon economic issues – at the present time, the cost/benefit ratio is not that attractive, though obviously their use potentially brings other environmental benefits.

Reducing Carbon Emissions – Challenges For Developers

PAN84 builds on SPP6 by setting out the specific means by which carbon emissions in new developments will be reduced.  There is a degree of ambiguity about how this obligation actually arises.  Paragraph 36 of SPP6 (and of course it has to be recognised that both SPP6 and PAN84 are only material considerations in determining planning applications) identifies that Development Plans should set out policies on the provision of on site low carbon and renewable sources of energy.  The same paragraph however seems to indicate that in relation to developments with a cumulative floor space of 500 square metres or more, all future applications (i.e. those after March 2007) should incorporate on site zero and low carbon equipment.  There appears to be a tension between that and the expectation that this should be dealt with as part of the Development Plan process.

Be that as it may, there was no clear guidance about how this should be done and PAN84 seeks to fill that gap.  In fact it does not appear to refer to the Development Plan process in any great extent at all other than in the context of whether the Development Plan should seek to require reductions beyond that 15% threshold. 

This is likely to be an area of some controversy and/or concern.  A number of property organisations have already indicated they have concerns about the costs and practical benefits that result from these sort of proposals.  Renewable energy and carbon reduction comes at a cost.  PAN84 appears to be suggesting (following SPP6) that cost may not be a legitimate barrier to fulfilling the policy.  Both SPP6 and PAN84 recognise that technical constraints may affect the ability to meet the relevant targets on site but the proposal is in that event there should be some "off setting arrangement" to secure carbon savings elsewhere in the area.  PAN84 also recognises there may be other policy constraints:- "Whilst not specifically referred in SPP6, constraints may also be imposed by other material considerations, such as designations which require stricter management, for example built heritage designations; listed buildings or conservations areas".

It is interesting to note that this paragraph does not make any reference to other material considerations which may have a financial impact such as developer contributions, affordable housing and planning gain generally.  These may mitigate against the ability to secure carbon reduction on cost grounds.  It appears likely there will be interesting debates about whether, or to what extent, development can actually accept further and additional costs, particularly having regard to all the other issues which developers are now expected to address.

It has to be remembered that SPP6 and PAN84 are only material considerations.  Paragraph 48 of SPP1 records that development proposals which are in accordance with the Development Plan should be expected to receive planning permission.  If all the other boxes are "ticked", should planning permission be refused simply as a result of a failure to meet the requirements of either of these documents?  That may seem unlikely but clearly as and when specific policies are included in Development Plans, the requirement to secure carbon reduction principally by the provision of renewable energy will become much more robust.  In the meantime, the use of Supplementary Planning Guidance is identified as a possible interim solution. 

To date, the "debate" in relation to renewable energy has largely centred on large projects such as significant wind farms, wave energy projects and biomass plants.  The thrust of the emerging policy guidance is to seek to make the need to reduce carbon emissions and provide micro generation a much more immediate issue for all developers.  Given the other changes which are likely to come about (including further changes to the building regulations and the need to achieve acceptable and sustainable environmental buildings) clearly the whole development industry is going to have to address the issues identified in SPP6 and PAN84 as a matter of some urgency.  For those who are brave, there may even be commercial advantages in this.

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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