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NPPF change won’t address onshore wind development ‘ban’, say experts

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A change to planning rules made by the UK government does not address the de-facto ban on onshore wind development in England that has been in place since 2015, experts have said.

Emma Reid and Gary McGovern of Pinsent Masons, who specialise in planning law and its application in the onshore wind sector, were commenting after the government updated footnote 54 in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). That move came in response to a group of Conservative MPs pursuing legislative amendments via the Energy Bill in parliament, with a view to easing the barriers to the development of onshore wind farms in England. Sir Alok Sharma, a previous government minister and the lead sponsor of the proposals, has agreed to drop the amendment following the government’s action, according to the BBC.

Planning reform in 2015 has effectively prevented developers from pursuing new onshore wind projects in England in subsequent years, despite there being support from the devolved administrations for onshore wind projects across other parts of the UK. The changes made to footnote 54 of the NPPF are designed to ease the restrictions in place, but Reid said the altered wording is “unlikely to do much to move the dial”.

The revised policy still requires local planning authorities, when determining planning applications for renewable and low carbon development, to, “approve the application if its impacts are (or can be made) acceptable”. Footnote 54 sets out the conditions that have to be met for development to be considered ‘acceptable’.

The revised footnote first provides that proposed wind farm projects must be located in an area where authorities have made provision for wind energy development – via their development plans or supplementary planning documents. McGovern said: “This first requirement is itself a substantial barrier to onshore wind and the tweaks make no real difference. In practice, few authorities proactively identify areas for wind farm development and where they do it is not for commercial scale, modern-sized wind farms, or not in optimal locations that industry would select having regard to wind speeds and grid connection, etc.”

Reid Emma October_2019

Emma Reid

Senior Associate

To truly unlock onshore wind development, policy changes will need to do more than play with the wording

The new footnote also states that planning permission can only be granted if, “following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been appropriately addressed and the proposal has community support”.

The previous footnote 54 wording required community-identified impacts to be “fully addressed” and referred to the need for “community backing” rather than community support.

Reid said: “To truly unlock onshore wind development, policy changes will need to do more than play with the wording.”

“The upshot is that the de facto ban on new onshore wind sites is likely to continue – the updated footnote 54 still states that new onshore wind proposals will not be acceptable as a starting point and the revised wording is unlikely to do much to move the dial,” she said.

McGovern added: “From an industry perspective, what is needed is deletion of ‘footnote 54’ from the NPPF. No more, no less. It can be done quickly, and it is equitable as it would put onshore wind on the same policy footing as all other renewable energy development. Community consultation is part and parcel of the planning process and impacts on communities are given proper consideration by decision-makers. There is no need for additional policy wording and requirements on community consultation.”

Reid said, however, that a statement made to parliament by Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, did at least provide a small measure of positive news for industry. Gove confirmed that it is not the government’s policy intention for individual or a small number of objections to constitute an absence of community support under the revised policy. Reid said this at least provides helpful guidance on how the revised policy is to be interpreted.

Last year, then UK chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced plans to change the government’s position in respect to onshore wind development in England. He committed the then government to updating onshore wind planning policy so that it aligns with planning policy for other infrastructure. However, Kwarteng was subsequently replaced as chancellor by Jeremy Hunt, and the prime minister who appointed Kwarteng, Liz Truss, was also replaced in office by Rishi Sunak. Prior to his appointment as prime minister, Sunak finished second to Truss in a Conservative party leadership contest that took place following the resignation of Boris Johnson. During that contest, Sunak pledged to prohibit the development of onshore wind in England.

Earlier this year, the Sunak government consulted on proposals to increase the benefits offered to communities affected by onshore wind projects in England. However, Gareth Phillips of Pinsent Masons, a specialist adviser on renewable energy projects, said the measures would fail to deliver without wider planning reforms.

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