Separate the politics from the policy – the Government is committed to onshore wind

This week the Department of Communities and Local Government published updated planning guidance for local councils on determining applications for renewable energy and low carbon infrastructure projects. The purpose of the new guidelines, set out in the DCLG publication ‘Planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy’, is to ensure that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override considerations about amenity, environmental protection and the visual impact of such developments.

The attempt to clarify policy on onshore wind has come about in response to a campaign which saw 100 backbench MPs write to the Prime Minister calling for a reduction in subsidies for wind farms and a rebalancing of the planning system against developers and in favour of local communities. Many Conservative MPs have been highly critical of onshore wind, repeatedly questioning the Government over its cost, its intermittency and perceived unpopularity in areas where the turbines are located.

Although the new guidance makes clear that the need for renewable infrastructure does not override environmental factors in determining planning applications, the reality is that the contentious “presumption in favour of sustainable development” was only one factor that planning committees needed to consider, and local councils have always had the power to reject wind farms on the grounds of visual impact and loss of amenity.

Equally importantly, while the revised policy statement is being has been interpreted as giving local people greater power to reject wind farm applications, the guidance states that councils should not unnecessarily reject such developments through inflexible policies such as a requirement for turbines to be located a minimum distance from residential homes. It sets out a list of material planning considerations that should be adhered to when determining applications for wind farms, which includes safety in relation to nearby buildings and power lines, noise impact, the impact of reflected light and loss of visual amenity.

This clarity is important since many councils have been caught out rejecting applications for wind farms on grounds that do not fall within the scope of relevant planning considerations, only to have these decisions overturned on appeal. A recent study shows that five out of six appeals against decisions to reject applications for wind turbines are upheld, at significant cost to the taxpayer.

One problem that onshore wind developers have faced is that visual impact and considerations about amenity are often subjective and are not considered uniformly across different local authority areas. The guidance provides a table with a set of standards that local authorities should use to assess landscape and cumulative visual impacts from wind turbines. It is hoped that this will lead greater consistency in the way that concerns about the visual impact of wind turbines are dealt with by planning authorities, since while being perhaps the most powerful argument against wind farms it is also the most emotive and difficult to quantify.

Earlier this summer, the Department of Energy and Climate Change published its response to a consultation on onshore wind and community benefits. While the policy changes contained in this response were seen as signaling a victory for campaigners against wind farms, like the DCLG guidance which followed it the announced changes merely seek to clarify the often inconsistent and arbitrary way in which councils determine applications for such projects rather than create additional hurdles for developers. More significantly, the Government has said that DECC will not seek to re-open discussions about the 0.9 ROC Renewables Obligation banding for onshore wind after 2014, suggesting that the campaign to reduce the financial support for onshore wind was unable to counter arguments put forward by the industry that wind power remains one of the cheapest and most efficient means of generating renewable energy.

Some investors have been reluctant to commit to onshore wind projects due to the hostility towards wind farms from MPs and the media, but those who operate in the world of local government will see that despite the bluster, the new guidelines are very similar to the previous ones and actually provide greater clarity for developers in terms of outlining what is necessary to get application through the planning stage.

As always, the smart operators in the renewables sector will ignore the politics and look past the spin and rhetoric to instead concentrate on the detail of policy – which in this case suggests that while onshore wind remains a bête noir of backbench opinion it is still considered by the government to be an important part of the UK’s diverse energy mix.

Carl Thomson