Turbulent times

15th June 2012


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  • Renewable ,
  • Stakeholder engagement ,
  • Energy ,
  • Local government ,
  • Engagement

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IEMA

Experts from Temple Group examine the ever-shifting local planning policy context for renewable energy projects

Earlier this year, energy secretary Edward Davey reiterated that the UK government was “100% committed” to its 2020 renewable energy target.

Given that current renewable output is around 3.3% of energy generated, the 15% target would mean the UK has to produce an extra 180,000 gigawatt hours of renewable energy by 2020 – the equivalent of 36,000 wind turbines or 46 million solar photovoltaic installations.

In reality, renewable electricity is expected to make up 50% of that renewable energy output, with the other half coming from renewable heat. Despite the significant expansion of offshore wind, the majority of renewable electricity (60%) is expected to come from onshore sources.

Meeting the 2020 target

So given the scale of the challenge, how do we get there? A firm understanding of what’s physically possible, given current or likely future technologies, is a logical place to start. This provides planners with a solid basis for setting local planning policy on renewable energy and helps to reveal opportunities that will best suit the area’s community, economic development and environmental priorities, whether those are plant biomass, energy from waste, wind, small-scale hydropower or microgeneration.

Over the years a number of studies on renewable resource potential have been undertaken, but because different assumptions and methodologies were used, they were not easily comparable.

With the aim of creating a consistent evidence base, DECC and DCLG published a methodology for renewable energy capacity studies in 2010. This was originally implemented by English regions and was then tailored and applied to provide results at individual local authority level. The devolved nations also assessed capacity using similar methodologies.

With the rise of the localism agenda and with the government seeking to revoke regional spatial strategies (RSS), the mechanism to cascade national targets to a sub-national level disappears, and local authorities are not obliged to take on this responsibility.

With the proposed abolition of RSS criticised as creating a “planning vacuum” by the House of Commons communities and local government committee, it’s been argued that local authorities need clear obligations to play their part in tackling these challenges.

The government claims the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) will provide this necessary direction.

The NPPF, introduced in March 2012, states that local planning authorities should have in place a “positive strategy” for the promotion of renewable and low-carbon energy, identifying opportunities for decentralised energy along with supporting community-led initiatives.

Policies should “maximise...development while ensuring that adverse impacts are addressed satisfactorily including cumulative landscape and visual impacts”. Local authorities can also identify “suitable areas” for renewables.

While we are yet to see how this will work at the local level, some authorities are concerned that a lack of a target setting or equivalent mechanism will make it difficult for officers to make the case for a proactive policy approach.

Identifying suitable areas has also faced criticism. The Renewable Energy Association, for example, highlights the risk that this could restrict deployment to an overly confined area. It argues that renewable energy developers are in the “best position to determine the location of projects” within the framework of a local plan.

In the meantime, developers are also getting used to changes in the decision making regimes, with major projects assented through the new Planning Inspectorate and other schemes decided by local authorities.

Successful development

Fundamentally, renewable energy developers are more likely to be successful by investing the time and working with communities and local authorities.

Hyndburn windfarm in Lancashire, which is currently under construction, serves as an example of a successful, though not universally popular, application. In 2010, the 12 turbine, 30MW capacity wind farm application was approved in 13 weeks – compared to a UK average of 26 weeks.

Success has been attributed to the developer’s proactive approach at the pre-application stage. The firm worked with the council from project inception and community engagement was facilitated through a dedicated website and public exhibitions. After an initial consultation the developer halved the size of the proposal. The scheme also made provision for an annual payment to a community fund via a local environmental charity, based on the energy capacity installed.

Moving forward

While the changing context for the planning of onshore renewable energy gives rise to many new questions, it also leaves the way open for local authorities to get onto the front foot to plan how renewable resources can best create opportunities for their community.

The following activities provide a starting point:

  • Making use of the renewable energy resource assessment/mapping studies conducted across England during 2010/11 – there is no need to start from scratch in putting a local evidence base together.
  • Harnessing mechanisms such as the Local Government Association’s forthcoming local commitment: “Climate Local” – a successor to the Nottingham Declaration.
  • Staying on top of the implications and opportunities arising from energy policy as well as planning policy developments (see figure 1).

For more information you can join the Local Renewable Energy Planning, Assessment and Deployment Group run by staff from Temple Group. It can be found at the Local Government Association’s Knowledge Hub.

Figure 1: Renewable energy policy horizon 2012/13

Renewable energy policy horizon

(bold indicates a change to national renewable energy policy)


This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

Erica Ward, Stephen Glenny and Claire Sorrin are all consultants and Chris Fry is operations director at Temple Group.

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