Planning matters

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Tipping the balance for green energy in the Green Belt
As solar farm developers continue to adjust to life after Government subsidies, there are many positive ingredients to indicate that the sector is here to stay. Investors continue to want to back the delivery of, and see the returns from, ground-mounted solar schemes; the capital costs and performance of the technology continues to improve whilst landowners - particularly of agricultural land - still see solar power generation as a way of achieving diversification in their rural businesses.What is working against the sector however, it seems, is the lack of availability of viable points of connection to the grid that have the capacity to accommodate the electricity generated. In the words of one of NLP’s solar farm clients, viable points of connection are becoming “as rare as hens’ teeth”. Identifying a viable point of connection is one challenge, another is then finding a site nearby that is capable of ‘plugging’ into it, whilst not being too sensitive to hosting such a significant feature as a solar farm in the landscape. This is where the planning challenges begin, particularly where the developer takes the big bold step of entering the Green Belt to explore site availability…The statistics stack against planning permission being granted for large scale ground-mounted solar farm developments in the Green Belt. In our involvement with solar farm proposals on Green Belt land, we often find the focus of local authorities is on why such proposals have been refused elsewhere (for example in Lancashire[1]) rather than looking at the particular circumstances of the proposal in front of them and bearing in mind the reasons why solar farm developments have already been found acceptable on Green Belt sites (such as at Arnold in Gedling[2], Watnall[3] in Broxtowe and at Bletchingdon in Oxfordshire[4]). A Green Belt designation undoubtedly adds a whole set of challenges which need to be addressed as part of the planning process for a prospective solar farm development. To this end, paragraph 91 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) recognises:“When located in the Green Belt, elements of many renewable energy projects will comprise inappropriate development. In such cases developers will need to demonstrate very special circumstances if projects are to proceed.”This policy is to be read alongside the cornerstone paragraph of the NPPF which sets the key principle for determining Green Belt proposals:“When considering any planning application, local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the Green Belt. ‘Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.” (paragraph 88)Often, when determining whether ‘very special circumstances’ (VSC) exist for ground-mounted solar schemes in the Green Belt, applicants and determining authorities tend to focus on the benefits of the solar scheme, essentially the level of contribution that the scheme will make to renewable energy supply, together  with other benefits that might include ecological enhancements, rural diversification and community contributions. However, focussing too much on the benefits, in weighing up whether VSC exist, can lead to an overly simplistic approach – the larger the MW energy generation, the greater the prospects of there being VSC.What we find, however, is that before looking at the benefits, it is equally (and probably more) important to establish the extent of harm on a site-by-site basis. Green Belt is not uniform and the contribution that one part of the Green Belt makes to the stated five purposes can be quite different to another part. The ability to screen and visually contain one site, in a way that is not possible in another location, is all-important when starting to consider whether the scales can start to be rebalanced away from the default position of the scheme’s inappropriateness because of its impact upon the openness of the Green Belt. Knowing  how much weight there is on the harm side of the scales leads to a better understanding of the ‘weight’ that the counteracting benefits need to have, sufficient enough to tip the scales and create the VSC.Here at NLP, we use a range of tools and services to analyse both the value of Green Belt sites and their vulnerability to “alien intrusions” (in the words of Greg Clark[5]) in the form of ground-mounted solar farms. We build up an evidence-based picture of the relative value of sites within a given search area, so as to assist developers both at site finding stage and in preparing alternative site assessments that national policy now seeks as part of the application determination process.We have seen considerable success in the methodical approaches that we have devised in assessing site suitability and the strength of case for VSC, with one local authority recently considering that NLP’s demonstrated absence of a more suitable site in the search area was, in itself, a contributing factor to there being VSC. Once we know we have a Green Belt site that touches lightly on the harm side of the scales (or certainly lighter than its neighbours) then we have a springboard from which to elevate the scheme, through the promotion of its wide-ranging benefits, into the realms of VSC.In recent months, NLP has successfully applied this approach and secured planning permissions for over 20MW of ground-mounted solar farms on sites in the Nottingham - Derby Green Belt. [1] Appeal refs. APP/P2365/W/15/3011997 (Tawside Farm) and  APP/P2365/W/15/3002667 (Butchers Lane)[2] Application ref. 2015/0862 (land to the north of Lime Lane)[3] Application ref. 15/00525/FUL (land off Long Lane)[4] Appeal ref. APP/C3105/A/13/2207532 (land at Rowles Farm)[5] Appeal ref. APP/H1840/W/15/3136031 (Rectory Farm)  

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What Next for Town Centre and Retail Development?
The stand-off between Unilever and the UK’s major food retailers in recent weeks brought some of the new challenges facing the town centre and retail sector into sharp focus and onto the front pages. The result of the June referendum on EU membership and subsequent fluctuations in the value of the pound will undoubtedly present further challenges over time, albeit challenges which can hopefully be overcome just as swiftly. However, even before the EU Referendum, the UK’s town and city centres were facing a number of challenges and continuing to evolve in response to changes in the retail and leisure market.NLP’s new research paper, What Next for Town Centre and Retail Development? - the latest in a series aimed at Supporting Scotland’s Growth - considers recent trends alongside future projections to identify those sectors and locations where opportunities for growth continue to exist.In Scotland, town centres have been subject to many of the same challenges as those experienced across the UK, with pressure on household finances and the rise of internet shopping changing the way that consumers shop and the way that communities use their local centres. The contribution which the retail sector makes to the Scottish economy cannot be understated, with nearly 10% of enterprises in Scotland being registered retailers, a figure that is notably higher than the UK average. Total consumer spending in Scotland is double and treble that of Wales and Northern Ireland respectively, and the sector is undoubtedly essential to supporting Scotland’s growth. Our latest research finds that expenditure on both leisure and retail-based GVA is forecast to increase by more than 20% over the next 15 years in Scotland, but that there is still a significantly lower level of provision of food-based leisure services than the UK average (12% compared to 16%). With town centres playing an increasing social role for communities in comparison to their historical focus upon retailing, there is evidently more scope for related social and leisure uses which will complement current retail functions.Projections in population growth and household expenditure illustrate significant regional variation in growth potential, with ‘centre regions’ – particularly Edinburgh - emerging as key locations and opportunities for further investment. This pattern is reinforced by the improving performance of certain Scottish centres in Venuescore’s retail rankings. It is of particular note that Edinburgh has the lowest level of shopping centre and retail warehouse floorspace per head of Scotland’s four major cities, with Glasgow close behind, yet both have significant population and household expenditure growth forecast.The national policy context exists for Scotland’s town and retail centres to thrive. With increasing emphasis on a variety of uses and the night-time economy, as well as Scottish Planning Policy’s proactive approach to the designation of commercial centres within local retail hierarchies, the conditions necessary and desirable for the continued diversification of town centres are in place.It is encouraging to see major new developments investment being planned or taking place in both Edinburgh and Glasgow city centres, and outwith the centres such as at intu Braehead in Renfrewshire, and at Chesser Avenue in Edinburgh. The outlook is positive and our research clearly points to there being significant potential for new or increased investment in the food and leisure sectors alongside retail in key locations. What is essential now is that local policy and decision-makers recognise these trends and plan positively for the future success of city and town centres.Click here for What Next for Town Centre and Retail Development?

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