The move threatens to complicate an already difficult permitting system, which last year saw only 25% of applications for wind farms approved by councils. Some warn that it is an attempt to kill off the onshore wind industry.
There are at least nine councils that have already introduced or are considering buffer zones (see map, right). Typically these say that no wind turbines are allowed within two kilometres of housing. Councils cite a variety of reasons, such as concerns over the impact of turbines on landscape, health, safety and noise.
The issue has been triggered by changes in the permitting system in England over the past year. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced in March, is supportive of wind power and renewables in general. It says local authorities should have a positive strategy to promote renewable energy. The framework was designed to streamline and simplify English permitting policy — by removing of hundreds of pages of national policy guidance — and to enable greater community involvement in the planning process.
Meanwhile, government rhetoric around "localism" — increased powers for local people to make decisions in their area — combined with the lack of central government guidance, has given councils the impression that they can develop their own policies on wind farms, including the buffer zones.
However, when considering an application, it is up to local politicians or planning inspectors to decide how much weight is given to these local policies. Since the national policy supersedes all other policy, the local policies are effectively invalid.
"We are concerned that this will become a national issue," says Gemma Grimes, director of onshore renewables at industry body RenewableUK. "At best it could be something that delays decisions on projects. At worst, it could stifle development."
Hugh Ellis, chief planner at think-tank the Town and Country Planning Association, warns: "This seems to be growing like wildfire. It is an attempt to finish off the onshore wind industry."
Paul Maile, a partner at law firm Eversheds, which is advising wind-farm developers on permitting laws, says the issue is making developers wary of submitting applications in the nine council areas. "In that way it's having the desired effect," he adds.
The policies are already causing delay and extra costs for developers. In Milton Keynes, RWE Npower Renewables has applications for two wind farms — the 24MW Nun Wood and the 15MW Orchard Way projects. Nun Wood was approved at appeal a year ago, but the council challenged the decision and the approval was quashed.
The application will be reconsidered at a public inquiry. Meanwhile, the council introduced, through the Supplementary Planning Document, a one-kilometre buffer zone. RWE is considering legal action against the policy. The delay has already cost it £0.5 million (€0.63 million), according to Wayne Cranstone, RWE's project director. It could also affect the Orchard Way project.
More seriously, this experience could put RWE off investing in onshore wind in England — where it has 194MW in planning, Cranstone says. The utility is hoping that the issue will be solved at appeal, although a date is yet to be set for this. But he warns: "We have a limited amount of funds available to develop renewable energy, so if it's more difficult to do in one place than another, we'll do it in another.
"We're not against localism, but if the council introduces policy that isn't in line with national policy, it will have the opposite effect," Cranstone adds. "People will feel they're not being listened to when, in actual fact, the policy is effectively not valid. It could bring the planning system into disrepute." he says. Milton Keynes Council did not respond to requests for comment.
RenewableUK fears that the public could be led to believe that wind farms have been banned in their local area when in fact the council had no legal powers to do this. It wants the government to introduce guidance to support the NPPF. "We want to point out the current areas where policy is silent and fill those gaps," says Grimes. But the government is reluctant to introduce extra guidance, she admits, as one of the main aims of the NPPF was to condense thousands of pages of planning policy into a single 50-page document.
A two-kilometre buffer zone is arbitrary, says Ellis. "You can't just say there's a health problem when there's no evidence," he says. "What's more, they can't just do it as a blanket policy, as that means creating a presumption against onshore wind. The idea that as a nation we're going to rule out onshore wind in this arbitrary way is probably one of the most irresponsible things I've seen in planning."
Maile agrees that there is no basis in planning law for imposing a blanket separation distance. Any restrictions on a wind farm should be decided on a case-by-case basis, for example to meet noise limits or if a view from a property is affected to an unacceptable extent. "To put an arbitrary distance doesn't take into account the specific nature of the site nor the development proposed. Different turbine types and sizes have different impacts," he says. "To apply a sweeping generalisation in such a way will ultimately defeat government energy policy and national planning policy."
England is a small, densely populated country. A ban on wind turbines within two kilometres of housing would rule out wind almost everywhere. There is currently no other type of infrastructure with such a threshold, except open-cast coal mining, which cannot be within 500 metres of a house.
The buffer zones have all been introduced by councillors from the Conservative Party. In some cases, the councils behind these policies overlap with areas whose members of parliament (MPs) signed a letter to David Cameron, the prime minister, in February demanding cuts to subsidies paid to onshore wind farms and changes to permitting rules that would make it easier for local people to block proposed wind projects.
A Conservative member of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK parliament, has brought legislation before parliament to introduce national minimum distances between wind turbines and houses, ranging from one to three kilometres for turbines between 25 and 150 metres high or more. As what is known as a Private Members' Bill, it has little chance of being enacted, but it could be encouraging the councils' actions. Rutland County Council's SPD says that the bill could result in national policy. "In the absence of such national guidance, this SPD provides local guidance on these matters."
Designed to deter
The areas in question are mainly in central England and most do not have a great deal of installed wind capacity. Maile thinks the councils are trying to put down a benchmark before many applications are submitted. "The way the technology has advanced over the past few years, there are sites in southern England that are now viable that weren't before," Maile says. "Councils know that developers are looking at them."
Ellis says: "If you're a local councillor and you hate wind, and so do all your constituents, you can put this policy into your plan and kick the can down the road for years. They don't care whether this sticks or not, it just about delay."