Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Out-Law Analysis 3 min. read

Government proposals for onshore wind community benefits half baked

New government proposals to increase the benefits offered to communities affected by onshore wind projects in England will fail to deliver without wider planning reforms.

The government’s consultation (20 pages / 233KB PDF), published earlier this month, seeks views on a number of suggested methods for how developers can improve community engagement, as well as examples of innovative forms of benefit and rewards that could be offered to the communities that end up hosting onshore wind farms.

One of the most eye-catching ideas floated in the consultation document is energy bill ‘discounts’ for affected households. In practice, schemes that bear this description usually involve a cash-back arrangement, in which developers pay cash, or vouchers, to an affected homeowner. This is either a fixed amount or paid on a sliding scale proportionate to the size of the homeowner’s energy bill.

In any case, these types of community benefit are unlikely to make a real impact on England’s development of onshore wind capacity while they remain “legally immaterial to planning decisions”, as the consultation correctly acknowledges. Counterintuitively, therefore, while community engagement and community benefits are considered important elements in the successful development of onshore wind, the latter cannot be taken into account when a local planning authority (LPA) decides whether a proposal should go ahead.

Phillips Gareth_May 2020

Gareth Phillips


Developers would, no doubt, invest further in community benefits if they were reassured that those benefits would be a material consideration in the planning decision

Frustratingly, the consultation makes clear that ministers have no intention of fixing this problem, stating that the government “wishes to keep this important safeguard in place”. But given the new emphasis now being placed on community benefits in policy, it cannot be right to continue to put them outside of the planning regime. That does not offer the certainty, or at least the reasonable prospect of consent, needed by developers to invest six-figure sums of money in securing land, securing grid connection, preparing a planning application and to offer meaningful community benefits. 

Developers would, no doubt, invest further in community benefits if they were reassured that those benefits would be a material consideration in the planning decision – even if it remained for the LPA to determine the weight it placed on the community benefit proposal. 

Community benefits are, in effect, a form of socio-economic enhancement. If environmental enhancement can lawfully be considered when weighing the planning balance, why not socio-economic enhancement too? Of course, in the past there has been concern about the perception of developers effectively ‘buying’ consent by offering generous community benefits. But there is also nothing to stop a developer proposing a disproportionate environmental enhancement package in the hope it sways the planning balance in its favour.

Ultimately, the entire planning process is open to public scrutiny. If members of the public feel undue weight has been placed on community benefits in the granting of planning permission, remedy is available through judicial review – itself another deterrent to abuse of process.

However, the consultation misses the point. It is another example of government creating the illusion of doing something to support onshore wind, without meaningfully doing anything. There is currently no strategic or detailed policy for onshore wind development in England. Since it was effectively prohibited by the planning reform in 2015, LPAs in England have not designated land for onshore wind, nor updated their local plans to include supportive policies.

Onshore wind remains outside the consent regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects (NSIPs) in the 2008 Planning Act and the underlying national policy statements for energy, despite calls from bodies including the National Infrastructure Planning Association to reinstate onshore wind to that legislation and policy.

The latest consultation reaffirms the government’s view that planning decisions for onshore wind should be taken at the local level by LPAs, and not centrally by the government itself. But this is inconsistent with the recent recommendation of the National Infrastructure Commission to reinstate onshore wind to the Planning Act, so that it is capable of being consented as an NSIP by the secretary of state for energy security and net zero, as is the case with other onshore generating technologies over 50MW in England.

While the decision making is obviously taken centrally under the NSIP regime, LPAs still have an important role in it, and so too do local communities. There remains ample opportunity for both groups to advocate their opinions, which the secretary of state must have regard to when determining the development consent application. Onshore wind should be reinstated to the 2008 Planning Act and given the level playing field other technologies enjoy.

Community benefits are relevant to most forms of development, not just onshore wind. If community benefits are to prevail, they should be put on a statutory and national policy footing so that they can be considered in the national and local consenting regimes for all forms of relevant development. The simplest way to do this is to consider them as part of environmental enhancements – enhancement of the human environment.

We are processing your request. \n Thank you for your patience. An error occurred. This could be due to inactivity on the page - please try again.