Earlier this month, the Department for Communities and Local Government released 'Community Benefits for Onshore Wind Developments: Best Practice Guidance for England'. The guidance is relevant to all onshore wind developments, including those falling within the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime under the Planning Act 2008.
The guidance recognises that; "communities hosting renewable energy play a vital role in meeting our national need for secure, clean energy and it is absolutely right that they should be recognised and rewarded for their contribution".
Previous Government guidance relating to onshore wind and renewable technologies has been supportive of community involvement in the process, whether through community control of a benefits package or through ownership (or part ownership) of the renewable infrastructure. The DECC Community Energy Strategy published earlier this year is also consistent with this approach.
With this aim in mind, DCLG's Best Practice Guidance sets out guidance in relation to the nature of community benefits which are identified as "an important way of sharing the value that wind energy can bring with the local community".
The aim of the guidance is to; "help communities in England to better understand the opportunities available to them from community benefits and help communities, developers and local authorities in England to:
- tailor community benefit packages to suit individual local communities' needs;
- be flexible in approach, to enable the best outcomes to be reached, for all involved, over time; and
- identify innovative solutions which can differentiate businesses in the market and put places on the map."
The guidance shows developers how community benefits should be considered throughout the whole of the planning and consenting process from the feasibility stage to the operational stage (including case studies and checklists). The six overarching principles to be applied throughout the process are that community benefits packages should be:
In particular, constructive engagement will involve parties engaging in a positive manner, involving and considering a wide range of stakeholders (inclusive) it is also the principle that benefits should be unconditional is important; benefits packages should not be offered dependent on support from a community or on a grant of planning permission.
The guidance related to the planning phase is very clear on the established principle that "community benefits are not seen as relevant to the deciding whether a development is granted planning permission." Benefits should be seen as separate from the planning process and should not be taken into account by local planning authorities when determining an application for development. A community benefits package is distinct from a section 106 agreement (planning obligation) in that a s106 agreement is; "used to mitigate the impact of a development that would otherwise be unacceptable in planning terms." There are specific statutory tests that planning obligations are required to meet before being sought.
This guidance references the DCLG Planning Practice Guidance for Renewable and Low Carbon Energy published in 2013 stating that; "Local planning authorities may wish to establish policies which give positive weight to renewable and low carbon energy initiatives which have clear evidence of local community involvement and leadership".
In our view, this latest guidance document reinforces the message highlighted in a number of previous government guidance documents that communities should be heavily involved in the development of renewable energy projects in both the development of proposals and the development of a community benefits package.. At Zyda Law, we have always advised our clients in relation to the development of an inclusive, timely and transparent community benefits package in accordance with this guidance.
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