How a wind energy policy shift is affecting local plans and applications

Recently introduced planning rules requiring community backing for onshore wind turbines have prompted developers to withdraw schemes and are being considered in planning decisions and local plan examinations.

Scout Moor: council has approved extension plans
Scout Moor: council has approved extension plans

Just over two months after communities secretary Greg Clark imposed new planning requirements for onshore wind farm applications, the flow of new schemes coming forward seems to have dried up and some in the pipeline have been withdrawn. Meanwhile, local planning authorities are trying to assess the significance of the new rules as they assess applications.

The written ministerial statement issued on 18 June introduced new tests for onshore wind applications, requiring schemes to be on sites allocated in local or neighbourhood plans, and local authorities to consider whether proposals have community backing.

According to Paul Maile, partner at law firm Eversheds, the statement has increased uncertainty among developers about bringing forward new schemes. "The new planning uncertainties have meant that developers are holding back on bringing forward new schemes, or have actually abandoned schemes that are already in for planning," he said.

Yana Bosseva, planning advisor at industry body Renewables UK, points to the withdrawal of schemes by EDF Energy in Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire and by REG Windpower at Croft Bank near Skegness. She said the companies had cited the impact of the planning changes as instrumental in prompting them to withdraw their applications. "The government’s decision, also announced in June, to end the subsidies for onshore wind projects in 2016 – a year earlier than expected – is another factor affecting the developers’ decisions," she added.

Applicants deferring new schemes may be waiting to see the outcome of several planning appeals where the decisions have been delayed, Maile added. "The decisions, which were expected by early August, may clarify some of the immediate uncertainties about the interpretation of the statement," he said.

Andrew Fido, associate director in property firm Savills’ energy team, said that the greatest uncertainty concerned how the community backing test would be interpreted. Clark’s statement says that permission should only be granted if the "planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and the plans therefore have their backing".

The Planning Inspectorate has written to representatives from schemes now subject to a planning appeal asking them to demonstrate how they have secured community backing, Fido said. He added: "If one person has objected, will that be enough to convince local authorities and the minister that the scheme does not have local backing?"

Angus Evers, partner at law firm King & Wood Mallesons, points to a decision taken this week by Rossendale Borough Council in Lancashire, to approve a 14-turbine extension at Scout Moor, which straddles the border with neighbouring Rochdale. "The council emphasises that its judgement determines whether the developer has satisfactorily addressed local community concerns," explained Evers. "The officer’s report goes methodically through all the issues before concluding that the scheme should be approved."

Simon Trafford, a planner at Mid Devon District Council, said that in considering an application for a wind farm at Knowle Farm in Bideford in July, the ministerial statement was a factor, alongside the policies in the adopted local plan, that guided its decision. "The statement is only one document and doesn’t override the local plan," he asserted.

The requirement that new schemes should be on sites allocated in local or neighbourhood plans could in effect act as a moratorium on new schemes, suggested Richard Glover, partner in the planning team at law firm Squire Patton Boggs.

Glover says that he is not aware of any local plan that has sites allocated for wind turbines and asks what should happen in areas that have not adopted a local plan. Martha Grekos, partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, suggests that "until sites are allocated in a local plan which has been adopted, the new policy will effectively act as a presumption in favour of refusal".

An inspector examining Knowsley Council’s local plan has required the council to go out to consultation on amendments to the core strategy, according to a council spokeswoman. A note sent to the council in July by the inspector Martin Pike said that "the ministerial statement has implications for the soundness of the local plan, in that the plan contains a criteria-based policy that would permit wind energy development if its criteria are met, but the plan does not identify ‘suitable areas’ for such development".

In response, the council’s cabinet last week resolved to consult on modifications that would make clear that the plan’s policy does not apply to wind turbines, while in the long term it will consider allocating sites for turbines in a site allocations and development policies document.

Bosseva believes that new approaches to planning for wind turbines could emerge. She points out that some authorities, such as Preston City Council, are aware of the local benefits of wind energy and are looking to promote their own wind projects, with income to be reinvested in the local economy. She suggests that some developers may wish to initiate conversations with local communities and local authorities around identifying areas for new wind farms.

Tim French, head of projects at the renewable energy development firm RES, said that the company was working with Rutland County Council on a scheme. "The council identified areas where they wanted to concentrate wind turbines and the company has a scheme in one of them," he said.

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