6 September 2022

Powering the UK: Balancing National and Local Agendas – Victoria Du Croz writes for EG

In the second article in a three-part series on energy supply, Head of Planning, Victoria Du Croz, discusses national targets, local planning and the importance of biodiversity net gain.

The government’s plan to increase the UK’s energy self-sufficiency is urgently needed, but it doesn’t account for the inherent conflict between national policymaking and local political pressures.

At the local level there is already significant competing demand for land, whether for the delivery of much-needed housing, logistics, social infrastructure or national infrastructure. Now added into the mix is the top-down strategy to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels, increase clean energy sources and decarbonise the economy, resulting in a push for renewable energy projects.

April’s Energy Security Strategy adds urgency to existing energy policy. It was preceded in December 2020 by the government’s energy white paper, Powering our Net Zero Future, which built in turn on existing policy commitments set out in the Ten-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and the National Infrastructure Strategy. Those documents set out the government’s vision of how the UK would make the transition to net zero by 2050.

While the cost-of-living crisis and increased scrutiny on gas supplies from Russia may have shifted the dial slightly in terms of local sentiment towards energy projects, there is a long way to go to deliver the wind farms, solar farms and supporting infrastructure to make the UK self-sufficient and net zero.

The government’s decision in early June to permit new drilling in Surrey to establish the size of a natural gas field highlights the tensions between local and national sentiment, with Surrey County Council having blocked the project twice in recent years. It also highlights the increasing conflict at national level as the government grapples with decarbonisation at the same time as trying to alleviate cost pressures for consumers amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

National need and local lobbying

Local decision-making and consultation are a vital part of the planning system. However, there is an inherent tension when the government insists on developments securing local support, while also pushing the delivery of key infrastructure that benefits the wider population.

In response to significant local opposition to onshore wind farms back in the 2010s, the government issued a written ministerial statement in 2015 preventing local planning authorities from granting planning permission for onshore wind farms unless the site was allocated as such in the development plan and local support could be demonstrated.

At the same time, the government also amended the Planning Act 2008 so that applications for onshore wind farms are determined under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 rather than under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Planning regime, owing to communities complaining that they felt excluded under the latter regime.

While this effectively killed off the delivery of onshore wind farms in some areas, in other parts of the country this tension has played out by local opposition being overruled and planning permission ultimately being granted. In the Scottish Highlands – albeit under a different consenting regime – local decisions to refuse wind farm applications have been overturned 40 times in the past five years, while secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy Kwasi Kwarteng has gone against recommendations from the Planning Inspectorate by granting planning permission for the multi-billion-pound Norfolk Vanguard Offshore Wind Farm.

A Politico poll from earlier this year indicated 72% of people would support new wind farms in their area, but query whether that support included residents located adjacent to such projects.

In the British Energy Security Strategy, the government states it will not amend the current planning regulations for onshore wind, in all likelihood meaning the 2015 written ministerial statement will remain in place. Instead, it will look to develop local partnerships for a limited number of “supportive communities who wish to host new onshore wind infrastructure”, with the incentive for the community of guaranteed lower energy bills. Given the current cost of living crisis, it will be interesting to see if such incentives mean there is competition to be one of the identified communities.

While the tide may be turning a little, objection from local communities is not going to blow over anytime soon.

Biodiversity net gain

Renewable energy, conservation and the environment have historically had a conflicted relationship. Often the sites that are seen as suitable locations for wind turbines and solar panels are those that are also species-rich. There have been cases of endangered birds being affected by wind turbine blades, as well as the ground intrusion and disturbance of building solar and wind installations.

In June 2022, there was a parliamentary debate on the location of solar farms owing to growing concern with them being constructed on greenfield sites. In response to the debate, the government confirmed it will consult on amending planning rules in England to strengthen policy in favour of solar development on non-protected land. However, given the reduction the cost of generating solar energy and the government’s commitment to a fivefold increase in solar energy generation, it is widely accepted that a considerable number (potentially 50%) of solar farms will need to be located on greenfield sites.

In the Environment Act 2021, the government introduced a biodiversity net gain target of 10% as a condition on all new planning applications. It can be considerably harder to deliver this level of net gain on solar developments located on greenfield sites, which are likely to have a higher starting level of biodiversity than brownfield sites.

In addition to the 10% uplift, there is an ongoing 30-year maintenance requirement for the biodiversity, which can be difficult to achieve in often densely packed solar farms. The ability for other developments to deliver biodiversity net gain off-site is likely to further increase competition for sites.

The case for cross-boundary co-operation

Who takes on responsibility for ensuring that sufficient energy projects are brought forward? Will local authorities be prepared to allocate sites for renewable energy projects? Where is the strategic direction to ensure that new wind farms and solar farms are being delivered in the numbers that are required?

The numbers are significant. To meet the government’s ambition for all energy to be from “clean sources” by 2035, offshore and onshore wind capacity would need to quadruple and double respectively. It is highly likely that some areas of the country will need to deliver most of the solar and wind farms the country needs. Wind and solar farms require significant space to generate the level of electricity the UK needs to meet its net zero targets, but sites that are deemed suitable often come up against other land designations, such as preservation of the green belt in the National Planning Policy Framework or areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The current duty to co-operate on local planning authorities when plan-making is set to be abolished through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, and there is a lack of clarity on how it will be replaced to ensure cross-boundary co-operation between local authorities.

Some in the industry have been calling for the return of the controversial regional spatial strategies, revoked in 2010, which aimed to bridge the gap between local planning issues determined by local planning policies and nationally determined policy aspirations.

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill introduces “national development management policies”, which essentially aim to take “general” development control policies out of local plans, with these set centrally instead. These national development management policies – expected to include green belt designation and heritage protection – will be given the same weight in decision-making as development plans.

Currently, planning applications under the 1990 Act regime are determined in accordance with the development plan unless material circumstances indicate otherwise. The Bill is proposing to strengthen this so that material circumstances must strongly indicate otherwise before applications can be granted if they depart from the development plan – and, in future, national development management policies. It will be interesting to see whether the nation’s energy security and net zero ambitions will be sufficient material circumstances to support sites not allocated in the development plan.

The resourcing challenge

It is widely recognised that planning departments are severely under-resourced. The government’s latest initiative to increase planning fees, unveiled as part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, is being billed as one way to help address this. But an uplift in application fees is by no means a panacea for the challenges that local authorities’ planning teams are grappling with owing to funding cuts over the years, including low staff numbers and a huge volume of work. A quick job search highlights the issues, with hundreds of vacancies listed for planning officers at local authorities.

Yet the government has signalled that planning will be sped up for solar, and both on- and offshore wind. Which specific mechanisms will be used to bring forward more sites and achieve quicker determination of planning applications remains to be seen. The government could place an obligation on local planning authorities to allocate sites, but that would need to happen within the local plan process and sites could take years to work their way through the plan-making system, especially given the necessary transition provisions before the Bill’s proposed amendments to development plans.

The wind is definitely blowing in the direction of renewable energy generation, but there is a long way to go before the UK is running on clean sources.

This article was originally published in EG (27 June 2022) and is also available to read here behind their paywall.

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