Sector hits age barrier

Timely guidance and model policies to help councils combat climate change coincide with continuing problems in gaining consents for renewables schemes.

Wind farms: application approval rate hampered by opposition
Wind farms: application approval rate hampered by opposition

Wind energy can be a turbulent issue at the best of times. So last month's warning that anti-turbine campaigns could cost England's economy £1.3 billion in delayed jobs, receipts and investment are hardly going to calm things down.

A study by energy research company GL Garrard sought to quantify the financial benefits of onshore wind farms to the English regions.

The headline figure covers job creation, increased business rates for local authorities and funds for community projects and is based on onshore wind farm developments currently awaiting planning permission.

The research was commissioned by RenewableUK ahead of its annual conference, where more inflammatory views were aired. Manchester-based public consultation firm IPB Communications claimed that older people are "blocking the building of wind farms for future generations" following a survey of attitudes among various age groups.

Among 16 to 34-year-olds surveyed, 86 per cent said they would back wind farm proposals near where they live and nobody under 24 would oppose a wind farm in their area. Conversely, just 61 per cent of over-55s would not object to construction of a wind farm near their home. Twice as many retired people opposed wind farms as those in employment.

"It is the younger generations who are going to have to live with the long-term consequences of climate change, so it is vital that they stand up and have their say now," contends IPB spokesman John Quinton-Barber.

"The opinions of older people seem to be taking priority when it comes to decision-making. The silent majority need to find their voice and make their views heard by councillors when it comes to renewable energy."

RenewableUK's annual state of the industry report, also launched at the conference, highlights further cause for concern for the wind energy sector. It highlights a fall in the approval rate for wind farms at the planning stage. Local authorities across the UK passed more than half of applications in 2008-09, but this fell to around one in three in 2009-10.

"RenewableUK's findings demonstrate the important role of wind farm and renewable energy investment in promoting economic growth as well as tackling climate change," says Town and Country Planning Association chief executive Kate Henderson.

"While onshore wind will not be appropriate everywhere, we must aim to build capacity and understanding in local communities and planning authorities to understand the urgency of the climate change agenda and the positive solutions available."

The hiatus since revocation of regional spatial strategies means councils need a stronger steer on renewable energy proposals, stresses Friends of the Earth (FoE) senior campaigner Anna Watson. "It is vitally important that the planning system is fit for purpose when it comes to renewable energy.

"If local authorities are given good guidance, there will be no reason to turn down appropriate renewable energy applications," she argues.

FoE is one of the leading lights in the Planning and Climate Change Coalition, which has just launched a guide to local action on the topic. It offers support to councils in the form of model policies on adaptation and renewable energy measures.

"It's a shame that RenewableUK chose not to be part of this, because the guidance is designed primarily for local authorities and local enterprise partnerships that want to tackle climate change and enable greater use of renewable energy," maintains Watson.

This guidance is timely, with the planning system in a state of flux and advisory bodies facing cuts. "On the face of it, the devolution of planning powers to local level is a welcome development, but it is important to ensure that these authorities are resourced to meet the challenge," says Stewart Lowther, managing director of energy consultancy Atmos.

"Cuts in advisory bodies such as Natural England mean that they have fewer experts to call on in reaching the right decisions on a case-by-case basis. That makes the whole planning process unnecessarily drawn out, painful and expensive for all concerned.

"There can be no doubt that the next phase of our energy infrastructure will involve more onshore wind farms. We need to make sure objectors and decision-makers alike are fully and accurately informed," Lowther adds.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England points to the state of the industry report finding that there are currently 189 wind farms in the UK that have permission but have not yet been built.

"Wind farms are capital-intensive in a risky market. Some of these projects have had consent for years, so it is unfair to say that the planning system has prevented wind farm development," a spokesman maintains.

"We are in favour of wind power in the right locations, where it doesn't harm views or sensitive landscapes. The planning system is supposed to improve development and ensure that it happens in the right places. Green industry is important, but it cannot just be placed wherever someone stands to make money from it."

RenewableUK chief executive Maria McCaffery acknowledges that aesthetic concerns may often be the grounds for refusal of wind farm developments.

"But they can also be seen as selfish concerns when considered against the tangible benefits that wind energy can bring, not only for the benefit of the environment but just as importantly for local jobs and funds for investment."

These benefits are ongoing for the entire lifespan of a wind farm, McCaffery emphasises. "By halting wind farm developments, campaigners are doing their local communities a disservice that no-one can afford in these difficult economic times."

Planning and Climate Change - Guidance and Model Policies for Local Authorities is available at www.PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.


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