Sian Thomas examines whether local authorities have the capabilities necessary to assess renewable energy applications subject to environmental impact assessment (EIA)
The UK government has placed planning at the centre of its ambitions to create a sustainable future. Recent reforms are designed to streamline the process while giving communities greater involvement in decision making.
At the same time, the government has set a target to deliver 15% of the UK’s energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020 as part of its package to reduce CO2 emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.
Applications are monitored by DECC to gauge progress against the targets. Table 1 (see below) details the number of renewable energy applications in planning currently – many of which are subject to EIA – those that have been refused and those with consent but not commissioned.
Currently there are 499 applications awaiting determination, wind farm applications providing the majority share.
Table 1: Renewable energy development in the UK
|Status of applications (As of May 2012)||England||Northern Ireland||Scotland||Wales|
The installed capacity of renewables in the UK has increased more than tenfold since 1999, from around 880MW to more than 9,500MW in 2012, and with a further 24,900MW consented.
However, the average time taken for determination across all renewable energy types is 52 weeks, compared to the statutory timeframe for EIA developments of 16 weeks.
Certain renewables attract more public interest than others (for example windfarms), with increasing numbers of applications subject to EIA being refused.
Research by RenewableUK reveals that in 2010/11 42% of all onshore wind farms were refused planning permission at local authority level, an increase of 19% from 2005.
The current determination period for onshore wind applications is approximately 144 weeks, considerably more than the average for renewable energy projects. However, at appeal, 51% of those projects were approved in 2010/11.
R-UK also reports that the average size of a consented onshore wind project had reduced in size, with an average capacity of just above 7MW.
The fall in the number and average size of projects being consented is evidence of local authorities’ preference for smaller schemes and may perhaps also indicate that developers consider them less risky.
This is problematic when you consider that wind energy has been positioned by policymakers as the most technically and economically viable technology for meeting renewable energy targets.
An impossible task for planners?
The planner’s skill lies in evaluating the EIA and coordinating responses from consultees and interest groups. They ensure that sufficient reliable information is available to enable a balanced decision to be made. It is for the planning committee to make the planning decision when in possession of the best available information.
As shown above, there has been a massive increase in the number of applications for renewable projects, and those subject to EIA are frequently complex and lengthy. Furthermore, increasing amounts of regulation, much of which is open to interpretation, does not make planners’ jobs any easier.
Local authority planners are often lacking internal resource and specialist skills to deal with the technical attributes of a renewable energy scheme, and have little budget for consultant advice.
Planners, many of whom have no experience or training in renewables, can feel pressurised into meeting strict performance management regimes, and to prioritise local opinion over policy and the quality of scheme.
In our experience there is significant variation between local authorities in terms of their workloads and their application of the development control procedures. For example, the quality of screening/scoping opinions and recommendations are wildly different depending on an officer’s experience.
There is considerable difference in the resources available to officers, with some having a significant budget to consult externally on technical issues whereas others have next to nothing.
The conduct of the planning committees also varies; many have prioritised local opposition to the visual impact of schemes over the assessment outcomes and the need to deliver energy security in contravention of officer recommendations. Central government needs to address these inconsistencies as they can restrict efforts for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Currently, many planners do have the capabilities to determine renewable energy planning applications and greater resources and training should be made available to those who require them.
There is a clear need for positive and proportionate decision making and an improved understanding of the responsibilities of all involved.
Applicants need to actively engage planners to help them understand the complex impacts and effects of their projects. Meanwhile, councils need to show leadership and recognise their wider role in supporting emissions reductions.
Finally, the government must allocate councils with the resources they need to deliver on this realisation, as endorsed by the committee on climate change in their report: How local authorities can reduce emissions and manage climate risks.
This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.
Sian Thomas is the planning and EIA manager at Dulas