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Wind power: the onshore planning problems

Can the UK’s planning system deliver 14GW of onshore wind generating capacity by 2020?

As far as renewables go, onshore wind is an engineer’s dream.

More crucially, it is the stuff of banker’s dreams too. Of the many renewable technologies that the UK is likely to employ – offshore wind, tidal barrages, solar panels and biomass plants – to hit the EU target of producing 15% of total energy demand from renewables by 2020, onshore wind is the most established.

It is a proven technology, something which cannot be said for many of the other technologies, and as such should be a shoo-in for strong investment and development in the run-up to 2020.

Current government estimates say onshore wind generating capacity must be at 14GW, and offshore wind at 20GW, if the overall 2020 renewables target is to be hit.

Currently, the UK has 2.6GW of onshore wind generating capacity with another 772MW under construction. Another 3.4GW has received planning consent but has not yet been built, 1.9GW of which has been granted this year. This was highest planning approval rate ever, leading many in the UK wind industry to call 2008 “the year of consents”.

This total of 6.8GW is likely to become the UK’s onshore wind generating capacity within the next few years.

But more than the same amount again – a massive 7.1GW – of onshore wind projects is being held up in the UK planning system, and although plans to build 1.9GW of capacity have been approved this year, these approvals have largely been for major schemes like the 143MW Whitelee wind farm in Scotland.

There are also signs that the pace of expansion will slow as projects get smaller. All schemes above 50MW must be approved by the Department for Energy and Climate Change in England and Wales and the Scottish Government, with all schemes below this threshold considered by local planning authorities.

It is likely that this threshold will remain when the independent Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) is established by the Planning Bill, now going through Parliament.

This is being set up to fast track major projects. But it is also likely that most future onshore windfarms will fall below the threshold, and so will fall outside the IPC’s remit.

"We are going to be relying on smaller projects," said Eversheds planning partner and British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) board member Marcus Trinick, speaking at the BWEA’s 30th anniversary conference last week.

"As you get more projects there are issues of cumulative effect. The big cherries like Whitelee have gone."

The issue of cumulative effect – running out of wide open and remote spaces – means that smaller sites, potentially nearer homes, will be needed to hit the 14GW target for onshore wind, and places the government’s hopes of meeting the overall 2020 targets firmly in the hands of local planning authorities.

This may prove problematic. Since January 2006, 25% of all applications for windfarms smaller than 50MW have been delayed by slow or inconsistent decision making by local planners.

These factors have forced developers to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, in an attempt to speed up decision making.

Developers are being forced to seek decisions from the Planning Inspectorate because local officials are failing to make decisions within the statutory 16 week deadline for resolving such issues.

Second, inconsistent local decisions are leading to a high rate of planning permission refusals. The often expensive and time consuming appeals process is therefore becoming overloaded, further delaying decision-making.

Since January 2006 only 54% of 167 onshore wind farm applications have been consented at local level of which only 40% are in England.

This is significantly less than other major housing, office, retail and general industrial development which, when taken overall, achieve a 71% approval rate. Half of the 25% of wind farm applications which are determined at appeal are subsequently approved, equating to a total of 66% of local applications being approved since January 2006.

On average, decision-making is increasingly taking around two years.

These delays are all the more frustrating, says renewables developer Your Energy’s managing director and BWEA board member Richard Mardon, when most of the public supports windfarms.

"Ninety per cent of local people are either in favour of windfarms or don’t care either way,” he said, also speaking at last week’s BWEA conference.

"There's a well-formed protest network. Unfortunately it's always the vocal minority heard by the councillors, and they’re too easily influenced, and become heroes for saying ‘no’ to central government."

Councillors need to take ownership of renewable energy targets and they need leadership from central government on renewables policy if they are to avoid succumbing to the vocal minority, said Town & Country Planning Association chief executive Gideon Amos.

"One of the good things about the Planning Bill is national policy statements, where ministers can take a leadership role and then the planning system delivers those goals,” said Amos.

If ministers state, for example, how many onshore windfarms the UK needs and where, it would provide a clarity for councillors and local people to take ownership of the goals, said Amos.

“There’s a real opportunity for council leaders to pick up these targets and work with people to enthuse them that the council is going to have a strategy,” he said.

“Local leadership is really important.”

Unsurprisingly, given Scotland’s lead on renewables, cooperation on planning at local and national level is already happening.

“In Scotland over the last year we have established a concordat between Scottish government and local government saying ‘we are in this together’,” said the Scottish government’s head of energy consents Colin Imrie.

If councils in England choose to ignore such a collaborative spirit they should perhaps then be given a stark choice in order to meet the 2020 targets, said Amos.

"If councils don’t want windfarms, offer them a nuclear power station instead."

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