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United Kingdom

Cutting red tape on permitting -- Proposals of limited benefit

Reforms designed to cut delays in granting consent for large UK electricity generating projects have been welcomed by the wind industry. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is intending to streamline the notoriously cumbersome planning permit system in Britain and in particular cut the amount of time that energy projects are bogged down in the planning inquiry process.

The government announced its intention to change the planning rules governing power plants in its Energy Review in July. Reducing the time taken to consent large projects -- not only renewables but also nuclear -- will, it hopes, help the UK reach its greenhouse gas reduction goals. Under the new plans, local authorities have to register objections within set timeframes, planning inspectors will be set deadlines for producing their report after a public inquiry, the length of inquiries will be cut by allowing only summaries of evidence to be read out, while more issues will be dealt with through written evidence.

The state secretary for trade and industry, Alistair Darling, says the current system is too often dominated by delays and high costs. "We need a significant amount of new investment to keep the lights on and we want much of it to be low carbon. The country can't wait for it. We need a system that allows objectors to have their say, but that is also effective," says Darling.

The new measures, however, will be of limited benefit to the wind industry. They only apply to power plants of 50 MW and over in England and Wales, known as "section 36" development and permitted by the DTI. Most wind projects in England and Wales are smaller and are permitted by local authorities. In Scotland, home to most of the UK's larger wind projects, section 36 applications are decided by the Scottish Executive.

The British Wind Energy Association's Chris Tomlinson says the DTI's proposals are a welcome first step towards correcting faults in the planning system, but "this does need to be matched by complementary measures to speed up decision making at both local and section 36 level," he says.

Many thousands of megawatts of wind capacity are being unduly delayed in the planning system, the BWEA claims. Over 5% of UK electricity supplies are currently awaiting decisions on wind plant construction applications. Tomlinson warns that the onshore wind sector's rapid progress could grind to a halt unless a consistent level of planning decisions is maintained at the local level. "Targets designed to meet 10% of our electricity from renewable energy sources must be accompanied by targets for timely decision-making; one is dependent on the other."

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