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26 December 2022

UK Planning – Powering Ahead Or Digging Up The Past?

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Gowling WLG

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The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, agreed at COP27, emphasised the "urgent need for immediate, deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions…
UK Energy and Natural Resources
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The Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, agreed at COP27, emphasised the "urgent need for immediate, deep, rapid and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions...including through increase in low-emission and renewable energy".

However, as soaring energy prices continue to hit the headlines in the UK and across the globe, renewables have come back under the spotlight, with commentators questioning: whether it is right to have such a singular focus on renewables; whether fossil fuels should play a part in the energy mix; and whether current policies are going to deliver on the UK's climate commitments.

In the past few weeks, there have been some notable planning policy announcements and planning decisions in relation to renewable energy generation and fossil fuel use. Some of these developments have received a great deal of media attention, whilst others have slipped under the radar. In this article we look at some of those recent developments in relation to solar electricity panels, also known as photovoltaics (PV), wind and coal projects.

All aboard the solar express

On 6 December 2022, during the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee general business session, the Secretary of State (Rt Hon Dr Thérèse Coffey) spoke about a rumoured ban on the development of solar PV farms on grade 3b agricultural land – as had been floated by Liz Truss's Government.

The Secretary of State gave solar PV in the UK an overwhelming boost, expressing a desire for the UK to increase installed capacity from 14GW to 70GW with all the positive benefits for energy security that would bring. Dr Coffey made clear that moderate quality '3b' agricultural land could be used for solar farms.

Dr Coffey did note that her statement was not intended to be a planning policy made-up on the spot, and cautioned that she was "not suggesting that I want to put solar over every bit of 3b land by default". So whilst not opening the floodgates for all 3b land, the potential policy blockage was swept away.

During COP27 it was widely reported that France has passed laws requiring solar panels on large car parks exceeding 80 spaces, subject to certain exceptions. Diversifying disused or vacant sites for renewable energy is seen as the next step by many to facilitate an urban renewable energy revolution and the Government and local planning authorities across the UK will surely have noticed the positive press that the French proposals received. So, whilst we expect that Dr Coffey's statement will be music to the ears of solar PV developers, enabling them to plan their schemes with greater confidence, there may be further positive policy news in the coming months.

Onshore wind moratorium to be lifted?

In 2015, David Cameron's Government announced a moratorium on the development of new onshore windfarms in England. For various reasons, not least the changing attitudes of the general public and aging windfarms coming to the end of their operational lives and in need of re-powering, the moratorium is likely to be removed soon.

Amendments have been proposed to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, currently progressing through Parliament, which would affect the lifting of the moratorium. It is expected that the Government will set up a consultation on scrapping the moratorium on new windfarms starting in December 2022 to run until March 2023, with the National Planning Policy Framework updated to reflect the outcome by the end of April 2023.

Despite the relaxation of the moratorium, it is likely that obtaining planning permission for onshore windfarms will still be difficult – the bar will still be set high and many communities will likely mount vigorous opposition campaigns. But for existing sites in need of repowering, or extending, or sites where visual impact arguments lack substance, the relaxation is a very positive step. Since the moratorium was imposed, the UK has significantly increased its offshore wind capacity and the supply chain is mature and well-established, meaning that onshore wind is now one of the cheapest renewable energy technologies and could be readily scaled to meet the UK's net zero targets.

Coal for Christmas?

On 7 December 2022, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, granted planning permission for the first coalmine to be approved in the UK for thirty years, in Whitehaven, Cumbria.

Mr Gove stressed that the coal to be produced was not to be used for the generation of electricity, but is instead destined for the production of coking coal to be used for the production of steel. In his statement to the House of Commons, Mr Gove even reaffirmed that the Government did not consider that coal has any part to play in the UK's energy security strategy. However, the optics of approving a fossil-fuelled infrastructure project have resulted in some difficult headlines, particularly given the concerns expressed at COP27 regarding the use of coal.

The Government's decision to approve the Whitehaven coalmine may well be subject to judicial review challenge leading to a quashing of the decision - indeed a number of campaigners have indicated that they are considering this, and so it is difficult to predict the longer term consequences of the Whitehaven approval. It seems highly unlikely that new coal-fired energy projects would be consented in the UK, but there are still concerns regarding the UK's energy security, which underscores the need for peaking plant and energy storage more than ever

Analysis

After a slightly disappointing COP27 and the media furore regarding the Whitehaven decision, it might be easy to think that climate issues are slipping down the agenda. However it seems clear that with the Government's encouraging words for those wishing to develop onshore wind and solar PV assets, the future of land-based renewable energy is secure and we may see a mini-boom in the coming months as policy is formally adopted.

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