If you work in the renewable energy or planning sector, last week’s announcements will not have gone unmissed.
On Tuesday 5th September, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, published a Written Ministerial Statement on onshore wind development. An Updated National Planning Policy Framework (‘NPPF’) was also published.
In previous blogs, I have discussed the role of wind energy, its current policy framework and the Government’s appetite for change. As someone who is keen to become more climate aware, I provide thoughts on the policy changes; changes that can best be described as tinkering around the edges.
What are the minor policy changes?
In his Written Ministerial Statement, Michael Gove commented that the Government has consulted on a number of proposed changes relating to onshore wind. The Government continue to believe that decisions on onshore wind “are best by local representatives who know their areas”. They also recognise that policy needs to strike the right balance “to ensure that local authorities can respond more flexibly to suitable opportunities for onshore wind energy, contributing to electricity bill savings and increasing our energy security”.
The changes include:
Amending the planning tests for proposed onshore wind developments “to make it clear that suitable locations can be identified in a number of ways”.
Adjusting policy so that local authorities “can more flexibly address the planning impacts of onshore wind projects as identified by local communities” (on which they intend to publish further guidance).
In addition to this, the Government is “clear that local areas that support hosting onshore wind should directly benefit” and they have consulted on proposals for improved rewards and benefits, such as potential energy bill discounts.
So how do these changes play out in the Updated NPPF?
The Government has set out positive and good intentions with the above changes and certainly when we read the Statement, we awaited the Updated NPPF with bated breath. So how has the NPPF been updated and what will it actually mean for the planning process?
The NPPF (July 2021) set a clear policy framework for onshore wind. Paragraph 158 b) stated that “when determining planning applications for renewable and low carbon development, local planning authorities should… approve the application if the impacts are (or can be made) acceptable” except for the exemptions in Footnote 54; a proposed wind energy development involving one or more turbines. These should not be considered acceptable unless it is an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in a development plan and, following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has their backing. This is a negatively worded policy position which has put a near block on development.
The Updated NPPF now reads (it is a game of spot the difference):
In respect of new renewable and low carbon development, Paragraph 158 remains the same.
A new Footnote (Footnote 53a) reads:
“Wind energy development involving one or more turbines can also be permitted through Local Development Orders, Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders. In the case of Local Development Orders, it should be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been appropriately addressed and the proposal has community support.”
Footnote 54 reads:
“Except for applications for the repowering and life-extension of existing wind turbines, a planning application for wind energy development involving one or more turbines should not be considered acceptable unless it is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in the development plan or a supplementary planning document; and, following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been appropriately addressed and the proposal has community support”.
The NPPF also provides a new bullet point to Paragraph 158 (c). This states that “in the case of applications for the repowering and life-extension of existing renewable sites, give significant weight to the benefits of utilising an established site, and approve the proposal if its impacts are or can be made acceptable”.
A real change or just ‘hot air’?
Those people involved in the renewable energy and planning sector will have responded to the consultation on planning reforms at the start of this year (as did we) and were hopeful that national policy would be updated to positively plan for all forms of renewable energy as well as understand and reference the commercial backdrop to bringing forwards development.
Instead, the Updated NPPF retains the negatively worded policy. It includes ‘tinkered wording’ set in the context that wind energy developments should not be considered acceptable. An unfair hurdle. We discuss our thoughts below.
Looking at things holistically the changes are underwhelming when compared to the grand promise of last year. There is a real missed opportunity. Could the Government have waited and provided one wholescale update to national policy to reflect the importance of all forms of development, including housing, employment and renewable energy? They should come hand in hand. It would appear that a quick decision has been made with little understanding of the bigger planning picture. Does this rule out any more changes in the short or long term?
If we were to turn back the clock 10 months, people in the renewable energy sector were getting excited. The Government had released its growth strategy and recognised that it needed to address barrier to wind development by reducing the “unnecessary burdens to speed up the delivery of much needed infrastructure”. We have previously commented on what this might look like in previous blogs; everything from considering wind developments in the context of prevailing planning designations and a set of locational requirements (both geographically and in relation to grid connections), to what a material planning ‘hook’ might look like to achieve local community support. Instead, however the changes are minimal and, in our view, make no real difference in reality. The negative wording remains, and this means that new wind farms will not be considered solely on their planning merits.
Turning our attention to the revised NPPF wording, the new Footnote 53a states that wind energy can now be permitted through Local Development Orders (‘LDO’), Neighbourhood Development Orders (‘NDO’) and Community Right to Build Orders (‘CRBO’). These all grant permission for a specific type of development in local areas and a CRBO is a form of NDO which can be created by a local community organisation. The key message here is that they are all intended to involve or be brought forward at a local and community level. We have significant questions over whether this actually provides a more flexible policy position for commercially sized wind developments. As far as we are aware, there has been nothing stopping these orders coming forwards to date and if they need community support what actually changes? As we have previously suggested, what is needed is a joined up policy approach at a national and local level whereby sites are allocated, or identified for development (similar to all other forms of development) and where applications are decided on based on ‘planning merits’ and ‘planning balance’ by a local authority or Inspector.
There have been changes to the need for community backing. This is now referred to as “community support”. Planning impacts now need to be “appropriately addressed” rather than “fully addressed”. This is semantics and it is unclear as to what this means, whether in reality it does change policy and how it should be interpreted. What does community support look like, does it differ in each area and for each development? Earlier this year, Lichfields responded to the Government’s consultation on ‘Developing Local Partnerships for Onshore Wind in England’ on behalf of clients. We suggest that Local Plans should contain policies to encourage the use of community contribution payments as part of developer’s engagement with communities, maybe delivered through the Community Infrastructure Levy. The idea of discounted energy rates is not, at present, a matter than can be given weight as a material consideration in the determination of planning applications.
We will watch out for further guidance, a topic for a future blog maybe…?
Image Credit: Karsten Wurth, Unsplash