How applicants and communities are responding to new wind farm tests

The government has taken further steps to meet a manifesto commitment to 'halt the spread of onshore wind farms', but emerging evidence suggests that developers and communities are finding ways to navigate the tough new rules.

Onshore wind projects: a group of authorities are including wind energy zones in their emerging local plans
Onshore wind projects: a group of authorities are including wind energy zones in their emerging local plans

Ahead of the last year’s general election, the Conservatives pledged to "halt the spread of onshore wind farms", setting out a manifesto pledge to end new public subsidies and "change the law so that local people have the final say on wind farm applications". In recent months the government has been working to close central consenting routes for large onshore wind projects and to transfer decision-making powers to local authorities.

Secondary legislation brought forward in March amended the Planning Act 2008, removing onshore wind schemes with a generating capacity of more than 50 megawatts from the development consent order (DCO) regime and transferring decision-making powers to local authorities. Earlier this month, the Energy Bill became an act of Parliament, thereby amending the Electricity Act 1989, a consenting regime that was used for schemes over 50 megawatts before the Planning Act came into force.

Angus Walker, a partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, said that anticipation of changes to the legislative environment had already been "killing the onshore wind industry", adding that the updates to the law are now "almost the final nail in its coffin". Walker said that it would now be harder to gain consent for onshore projects in England and Wales, adding that making the decision on whether a scheme is approved would now be down to th­­­e local authority.

Last year, a written ministerial statement (WMS) issued by communities secretary Greg Clark outlined that local authorities should only approve wind applications if the development site is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in a local or neighbourhood plan. Following consultation, it should also be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed in the proposals, and that the scheme has therefore secured their backing, it said.

Gareth Phillips, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, said it would be difficult to demonstrate that the concerns of local residents had been addressed in instances where a local group is against the development. He added that changes to the subsidy regime meant that wind farms would generally need to be large in order to be viable without subsidy, as is the case in Scotland. "If it’s big, it’s less likely to tick the other boxes required in terms of being in a local or neighbourhood plan, and having local support. That’s why these changes have pretty much been the death knell for onshore wind in England and Wales."

Mark Worcester, a director at planning consultancy Turley, also said that the new legislative environment would make things more difficult for wind energy developers. "Under the DCO regime they benefited from the more favourable policy climate that was in the national policy statements for energy generally, and specifically for renewable energy. Now the starting point for determination of applications will be the relevant development plan, the National Planning Policy Framework and the associated Planning Practice Guidance. The WMS of June last year makes things particularly challenging."

Despite the concerns, some smaller wind projects have managed to navigate the tough new policy environment successfully. Earlier this month, Clark approved plans for a single turbine to the north-west of Hull, ruling that the planning concerns of the local community "have been addressed in the circumstances of this case". The decision letter added: "Accordingly, he considers that the transitional provision within the WMS is satisfied." The communities secretary also approved plans for a single turbine in Cumbria this week, again ruling that the planning concerns raised by residents had been addressed.

The WMS also appears to have had an impact on plan-making. Daniel Stone, project officer at the Centre for Sustainable Energy, said that there are local authorities around the country that are identifying areas that are suitable for onshore wind in their local plans, and also community energy groups that are looking at developing neighbourhood plans as the route to securing planning permission for onshore wind projects.

Councils that have drawn up draft policies to allocate areas as suitable for wind energy include Hull City Council, Eden District Council in Cumbria, and Torridge District Council and North Devon Council in north Devon. The two Devon authorities, which are jointly preparing a local plan, are proposing to include a policy that would identify the "full extent" of both districts as an area suitable for wind energy development.

Hull City Council’s preferred options document identifies all current and proposed employment land areas, all existing agricultural land, school sites and large open spaces as "potentially suitable" for turbines. Eden Council’s local plan (currently at examination) includes "suitable areas" on a policies map, covering a large swathe of the district.

Meanwhile, a neighbourhood plan that is currently being drawn up by a Cornish parish council includes a policy to ensure that future wind energy schemes are located in landscape areas capable of accommodating such development. The pre-submission draft of the Gwinear-Gwithian parish’s neighbourhood plan includes a map designating areas as potentially suitable for wind turbines.

Stone said: "Perhaps it’s not the absolute death of the wind industry. It’s a big challenge, absolutely. But I do think that a changed approach - a bit more of a conciliatory one - needs to be adopted, with developers accepting that if they are going to get planning permission for onshore wind projects, they really need to do it with a genuine mandate from their community."

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