Proposed Scottish planning policy changes could threaten renewable energy development, says expert

Out-Law News | 29 Jul 2013 | 4:26 pm | 2 min. read

The Scottish Government's proposals for a revised national planning policy could adversely affect the growth of renewable energy in Scotland, an expert has said.

Gary McGovern of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the revised draft Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) could send the wrong signal to investors due to its "disproportionate emphasis" on onshore wind at the expense of other forms of renewable energy.

"What the revised SPP could but doesn't say is causing almost as much debate as what it does," he said. "Although it talks about a 'broad mix of energy generation', there is a disproportionate emphasis on onshore wind."

"More information and clarity on policy direction in relation to other technologies such as biomass and hydro – which feature in the existing SPP – would be helpful. Investors will be asking themselves: is this a policy change or accidental omission?" he said.

The issue was one of a number of points raised by environmental and planning law experts at Pinsent Masons in their response to the Scottish Government's consultation on the draft SPP, which closed last week. In its submission, the firm also set out their concerns in relation to spatial planning proposals for onshore wind, including increased separation distances between new wind farms and cities, towns and villages.

The draft SPP was published for consultation alongside a third version of Scotland's National Planning Framework (NPF3) in April. The SPP is the Scottish Government's statement of policy on how nationally important land use planning matters should be addressed across the country. The new version of the SPP includes references to maps of Scotland's wild land for the first time, and deals with planning matters concerning wind farms. It is due to be finalised by the end of this year, while NPF3 is due to be adopted by 2014.

The draft proposes extending the separation distance between wind farms and cities, towns and villages from 2km to 2.5km; and stronger environmental protection measures where wind farms are proposed in scenic areas. This includes excluding wind farm from the 19% of Scotland covered by National Parks and National Scenic Areas.

McGovern said that although the draft proposals were "well-intended", they appeared to be a reaction to community concerns around the height of wind turbines and their visual impact and struck a "surprisingly negative tone" compared to previous policy.

"Existing national policy is framed more positively, with spatial planning promoted as a way to identify areas of greatest opportunity," he said. "However, it is equally clear that each wind farm scheme will be considered on its merits and there is flexibility in the right circumstances."

"The proposed policy would turn this on its head, with a stricter limit on distances and less flexibility. We would be interested to see any evidence base to suggest the size of onshore turbines has changed substantially in recent years, or that increasing the separation distance from 2km to 2.5km makes a significant difference to visual impact on settlements. Without evidence, we see no basis for altering the regime introduced in 2010," he said.

According to the submission, the measures proposed in the draft would result in a much increased area of Scotland being treated as "Areas of Significant Protection", within which there is an assumption against wind farm development. When combined with the lack of policy direction on other methods of renewable generation, this could discourage investors. Research published by Pinsent Masons earlier this year showed that Scotland is considered the most attractive UK region for investment in renewables over the next three years.

"There is no doubt that Scotland has a strong and global reputation for renewable energy development," McGovern said. "These proposals could have a significant impact and the Scottish Government is right to consult widely and must carefully consider the responses and evidence before finalising the SPP."