Draft planning guidance aims to promote renewables

Draft guidance issued in November urges English planning authorities to "promote and encourage rather than restrict renewables." The document signals that Ministers may intervene if authorities' plans constrain development without sufficient justification, and also fleshes out requirements for regional renewables targets.1

In 1993, the Government issued a planning policy guidance note on renewable energy developments (PPG22) (ENDS Report 217, pp 35-36 ). It contained detailed information only for wind power schemes, with information on other renewables being added in a number of annexes in 1994 and 2002.

Two years ago, the Government's planning Green Paper announced a review of all planning policy guidance - and accepted the widely held view that PPG22 was out of date.

A draft of the revised guidance finally emerged from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in November. It is now dubbed Planning Policy Statement 22 (PPS22). The Scottish Executive released equivalent guidance in January.

The document received support from a wide spread of organisations. The British Wind Energy Association described it as "a positive shot in the arm" for developers facing "a lottery of inconsistent planning decisions across England", while the Renewable Power Association was also "very pleased".

The Council for the Protection of Rural England also broadly welcomed the statement, despite sounding a pre-publication warning that it could unleash a "devastating" expansion of wind turbines across beautiful areas.

Key points in the guidance include:

  • Promotion not restriction: The draft calls for local and regional policies "designed to promote and encourage, rather than restrict" renewables development.

    The wider environmental and economic benefits of all proposals should be given "significant weight" in planning decisions - substantially stronger wording than PPG22.

    Local authorities will have to set out criteria in their development plans which will be used in assessing renewables applications. Policies which rule out or constrain specific types of renewables should not be included in plans "without sufficient reasoned justification", the draft says. The Government may even intervene if the constraints "are too great or have been poorly justified".

  • Regional targets: PPS22 also fleshes out the Government's thinking on regional renewables targets, which did not feature in PPG22.

    In March 2000, the Government asked the English regions to assess the renewable energy potential of their areas and establish regional targets. The regions responded by setting targets using different measures, making their aspirations hard to compare and of uncertain significance in the planning process (ENDS Report 316, p 10 ).

    The draft guidance stipulates that targets should be expressed as a percentage of "total generation within the region" - although it does not spell out whether this means generation capacity or electrical output.

    Targets are required for both 2010 and 2020 - an interesting contrast to the Government's refusal to declare anything stronger than an "aspiration" for renewables to contribute 20% of UK electricity supplies by 2020 (ENDS Report 325, pp 19-23 ).

    Importantly, only technologies eligible for the renewables obligation can now count towards regional targets. This shift is likely to undermine several existing targets which are dependent on waste incineration.

    Regional planning bodies will be expected to monitor progress towards the targets. "The fact that a target has been reached should not be used as a reason for refusing planning permission for further renewable energy projects," the draft says. However, it does not make clear what weight should be given to the targets in the more likely eventuality that a region has yet to meet them.

    Regional targets "may" be translated into sub-regional targets "where appropriate" - a rather weak requirement given that some regions such as the south west are already drawing up county-level targets.

    The draft says it "may also be appropriate" to indicate how different technologies could contribute towards regional targets, but fixed targets for specific technologies should not be set. However, offshore renewables should be given a separate regional target. The potential for substantial offshore generation "should not be used to set lower targets for onshore projects."

  • Designated sites: Planning permission should only be granted in sites designed under the EU Directives on habitats and wild birds and under the Ramsar Convention where their integrity would not be "adversely affected", the draft says.

    In Sites of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserves, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Heritage Coasts, planning consent should be granted only where "the objectives of designation of the area will not be compromised by the development." Any significant impact should be "clearly outweighed" by the environmental, social and economic benefits.

    Planning authorities would be required to set out criteria-based policies setting out the circumstances in which particular types and sizes of renewable energy developments will be acceptable in nationally designated areas.

    Small-scale developments should be permitted within National Parks, AONBs and Heritage Coasts "provided that there is no serious environmental detriment".

  • Buffer zones and local designations:
    Authorities should not prevent development in "buffer zones" around designated areas - a clause which could ease consent for wind farms visible from within National Parks. In addition, local landscape and nature conservation designations should not be used in themselves to refuse planning permission for renewables projects.

  • Green belts: Developers will need to demonstrate "very special circumstances" - the same wording as in PPG22 - to support developments in green belt areas. Authorities should not give priority to locating renewables on previously developed land.

  • Companion guide: In a Commons statement on 5 November, junior Planning Minister Yvette Cooper said that the Government intends to publish a "companion guide" containing technology-specific information equivalent to the annexes of PPG22. Work on this will "commence shortly," she said.

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