The Localism Act 2011 was regarded by many as a nimbys' charter with emphasis being placed on an increase in local participation, consultation and the creation of "neighbourhood plans" and "forums". Many in the energy sector have feared that this legislation and the "localism" concept will inevitably impact on getting planning permission for energy developments through the system.
The much awaited and debated National Planning Policy Framework has now been published. This scraps over 1,000 pages of Government planning policy guidance on a range of topics, including energy and renewables, replacing it with a 50+ page document. How is this going to affect energy development projects? During the consultation period for the Framework and the various drafts, many commentators claimed that the Framework would be a developer's charter. What will be the reality?
Over the preceding months there were many parties set on retaining the status quo in terms of preserving and promoting the countryside, heritage and Green Belt. They fought to have amendments made to the Framework. Some of those have been introduced in the final document.
Many pressure groups focused on the presumption in favour of sustainable development. All the excitement about the presumption is rather puzzling since in the reality, in many respects, the presumption has been in planning policy for many years. The publication by the Government of the Framework has identified the clear objective of assisting in kick starting development in the UK by placing the presumption at the heart of the planning process.
In terms of specific reference and guidance on energy in the Framework these are found in section 10 headed "Meeting the Challenge of Climate Change, Flooding and Coastal Change". More specifically paragraphs 93-98 encourage local planning authorities to support the move to low carbon energy and to encourage an increase in the use and supply of renewable and low carbon energy.
Local planning authorities are encouraged to provide positive strategies to promote such schemes. They are advised to design policies to maximise such developments and also to identify suitable areas for their location. Local planning authorities are to encourage and support community based energy initiatives.
The Framework stresses that local planning authorities should not require an energy developer to demonstrate an overall need for renewable energy and low carbon energy. Applications for such developments should be approved if the "impacts (of the development) are acceptable".
Note should also be taken of paragraph 113 of the Framework under the section headed "Conserving and enhancing the natural environment". Under this paragraph local planning authorities are encouraged to set criteria based policies against which proposals for any developments on or affecting protected wildlife or geodiversity sites or landscape areas will be judged. Therefore any energy development of, e.g. a windfarm, should consider this national policy and design a scheme to accommodate local planning criteria.
The Framework has a number of headline issues. Possibly the most important headlines for energy related development is the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the reemphasis on the importance of Local Plans.
The presumption in favour of sustainable development is the issue that prompted the most argument on the run up to its publication. The Government Minister indicated that this principle "should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan making and decision making". The Framework sets out broadly that this principle should apply to plan making and decision taking and identifying a number of guiding principles on sustainable development. No doubt there will be varying arguments on specific development projects by protagonists on different sides as to whether a development is sustainable or not. This will no doubt feature in many energy projects.
Greater emphasis is now placed on the Local Plan. There is now pressure on local planning authorities to ensure that they have up to date Local Plans. The Framework indicates that local planning authorities have 12 months from the date of publication of the Framework in which to bring adopted Local Plans into full alignment with the Framework. There are transitional arrangements and those Local Plans adopted since 2004 will have greater weight than others in the decision making process.
Therein lies a current serious problem – many Local Plans are not up to date. Recent statistics have indicated that only 42% of local planning authorities around the UK have a Local Plan which is adopted and up to date. Some areas such as Cornwall, East Sussex and Hertfordshire have little in the way of adopted plan coverage. The drafting and adoption of Core Strategies is way behind schedule in many areas. The Framework emphasises that a development that is sustainable and accords with an up to date Local Plan should be approved without delay.
Many local planning authorities will have Local Plans which are deficient in relation to energy related policies. Therefore it will be necessary for energy developers to lobby and consult with local planning authorities on specific policies that encourage such development. In the next 12 months it will be important to ensure that they make a positive contribution to those policies.
This will be especially evident for onshore windfarm schemes considering adverse press comments focusing on hostility in local communities towards onshore wind developments in the future.
A lot of campaigners feared that protection of the Green Belt would be relaxed. However, it is clear from the terms of the published Framework that Green Belt policy will not be overridden by a presumption in favour of a sustainable development. The Framework in a lot of respects, contrary to what many feared, has sought to emphasise protection of the Green Belt and open countryside. The Framework has its own section on Green Belt and as well as re-emphasising the protection of Green Belts, the Framework indicates that decision makers should recognise "the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside". It should be noted that this had been removed from earlier drafts of the Framework so the lobbyists may feel that they have achieved some recognition for their efforts on this point.
In terms of the countryside and the natural environment generally the Framework actually strengthens the old policies, reflecting the Government's commitment to the environmental aspect of sustainable development. Unfortunately for renewable energy developers the Framework makes the comment that "elements of many renewable energy projects will be considered as inappropriate development in Green Belt".
Going back to the Localism Act 2011 and its emphasis on "localism" and "neighbourhood plans", the Framework states that local authorities should consider suitable areas for renewable energy and low carbon energy sources etc. However, the increased focus on local consultation, it is feared by the energy industry, will only lead to more problems and delays in the system. Unfortunately studies suggest that the Localism agenda will simply give greater opportunity for local people to actually oppose renewable energy schemes. As many influential commentators predict, many applications will be refused due to local political pressure, despite an objective assessment indicating that a renewable energy scheme is sustainable and in accordance with local planning policy. An increase in planning appeals and high court challenges is inevitable.
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