The Changing Winds of Planning Law


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– Catherine Caine (LLM Environmental Law and Policy, Newcastle University)

Wind farms have often managed to divide the nation. Whilst some view wind turbines as a clean solution to our energy sourcing problems, others regard them as a blight on our countryside. Both sides have fought their arguments with passion and rigorous debate. However, one undeniable fact running alongside the wind farm debate is that our need to mitigate climate change cannot be ignored. By agreeing to increase the proportion of renewable energy in the UK’s total energy consumption figures to fifteen percent by 2020, the UK has already made a commitment within the European Commission to change for the future. However, recent news indicates that a change in planning guidance could compromise the UK’s ability to meet such targets.

Following on from the Coalition Government’s Localism Act 2011, the focus on planning law has shifted towards a decentralised system whereby local communities are afforded the opportunity to have their say in local planning decisions. Within this, a general power of competence was afforded to local authorities to allow them to take reasonable action needed for the benefit of the authority, relevant area and residents. It is anticipated that upcoming planning guidance will allow local authorities and residents to have a greater say on whether or not wind turbines should be erected within their area. The announcement has created somewhat of a double-edged sword whereby local communities are capable of overriding national energy requirements by refusing plans to construct wind farms; however, increased financial incentives will be imposed to encourage local communities to consider wind energy. The Energy Secretary, Edward Davey, has stated that the announcement “will ensure that communities see the windfall from hosting developments near to them, not just the wind farm”.

The expected planning guidance will “see a five-fold rise in the benefits paid by developers to communities hosting wind farms”, with subsidies provided to the local communities that decide to include wind farms in their planning decisions. The wind farm company RES in Meikle Carewe near Aberdeen has demonstrated how a similar scheme can be of benefit to the local community with local residents receiving £122 off of their annual electricity bills. Interest in the scheme has been expressed in Bryn Llywelyn, Wales, with three-quarters of residents showing an interest in taking part in the scheme offered by RES. By providing a financial incentive to local residents for the construction of wind farms, it is arguable that wind farm development will begin to see a shift in popularity.

However, as well as providing a financial incentive to the communities that do wish to utilise wind energy, the planning guidance will also allow communities that do not wish to reap the benefits of wind energy to refuse wind farm development in their area. Many views on this aspect of the proposed guidance suggest that the reforms could in fact allow a nation of ‘NIMBYs’ (“not in my back yard”) to kill our future of onshore wind farms. The argument presented by Mark Prisk, Housing Minister, clearly states that the need to meet the UK’s energy targets does not justify “the wrong development in the wrong location.” However, the extent to which a community should have the right to determine the energy infrastructure of the UK can be called into question. Indeed, if the local communities surrounding some of our largest power stations had the opportunity to refuse their development on the basis of a NIMBY attitude, the energy infrastructure that the UK enjoys today would look dramatically different. It is well understood that nobody wants to suffer an eyesore in their area. However, without the eyesore, there can be no energy generation.

The anticipated planning guidance will not only have an impact on a local scale. With the potential refusal from local communities to tolerate onshore wind farms, the UK’s targets within the European Commission could also be affected. However, with the Coalition Government opposing attempts to set new renewable energy targets, opting instead to focus on a new decarbonisation target for 2030, it has been argued that the Government is refusing to commit to renewable energy through its preference for the use of shale gas. The anticipated planning guidelines reflect this non-committed approach from the Government towards the use of renewable energy as a main source of the UK’s energy.

Whilst the effect that the upcoming planning guidance will have on future wind farm developments in the UK remains uncertain – the fact that wind farms divide the nation, and are likely to continue to do so, remains undisputable.

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