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Analysis - UK onshore progress despite government community pledge

UK: Two thirds of appeals against onshore wind farm refusals in England have been approved despite a government pledge that communities would have more power to block applications.

Pickles... pledged power to communities
Pickles... pledged power to communities
Data from the Planning Inspectorate — which rules on appeals by developers against local councils refusing projects — show that nine out of 14 wind farms have been given the go ahead since 6 June. Back then, the Conservative minister in charge of permitting, Eric Pickles, said that the need for renewable energy would not "automatically override environmental protections and concerns of local communities".

At the time, many in the industry pointed out that the permitting system already takes protection of the countryside and local people's views into account. However, national media reported that the announcement amounted to a veto over wind farms for communities.

Letters from inspectors ruling on appeals confirm that Pickles' statement did not represent a change in policy. One regarding an application for a 9MW wind farm in Cambridgeshire, south-east England, said: "National policy has not been changed by the recent ministerial statements, and the approach to decision-making continues to require a balance to be struck between harm and benefit. This is addressed throughout the decision."

However, Pickles has personally taken over decisions on seven wind farm applications from the Planning Inspectorate. Six of these are in the constituencies of fellow Conservative Party politicians, all of whom have actively campaigned against the wind farms in question. The politicians include former energy minister John Hayes, who caused controversy last year when he said "enough was enough" on onshore wind. Final decisions on these appeals are yet to be made.

At the end of July, the government issued revised guidance for local councils on permitting for onshore wind applications. It states that they cannot specify blanket separation distances between homes and wind farms, but must look at applications on a case-by-case basis. At least nine councils were considering such policies.

Developer RWE Npower Renewables was at the centre of a high court case on buffer zones earlier this year after Milton Keynes council tried to introduce a two-kilometre distance between any wind farms and homes. The court ruled in the developer's favour but left the door open for other councils to introduce similar rules.

An RWE spokesman said: "This clearly shows that the way forward is – as it has always been – that impacts are to be judged on the site-specific merits of any individual scheme. We are sure that decision makers and planning inspectors will take note of this."

The guidance also states that councils should identify suitable areas for renewable energy to give greater certainty as to where development will be permitted. They should not have to give permission outside these areas when they judge the impact to be unacceptable.

"The expectation should always be that an application should only be approved if the impact is (or can be made) acceptable," the guidance states.

Maf Smith, deputy chief executive of trade body RenewableUK, said: "Following a long debate about onshore wind costs and benefits, we trust that this period of uncertainty for the industry is now at an end, and that we will see planning policy and guidance producing robust, objective planning decisions."

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