UK moves to boost local power of veto

UK: Legislation to overhaul the permitting system and devolve power from central government to local authorities may lead to difficulties in developing large-scale renewable energy projects in England.

The Localism Bill, published in December, is intended to give local people more say in how their communities are run. It removes permitting powers from regional control and grants local authorities the power to plan new developments. Final decisions will be put to the vote in local referendums.

The bill also confirms the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Committee (IPC), which decided on big infrastructure projects including wind farms over 50MW, restoring that power to government ministers.

According to industry body RenewableUK's latest state-of-the-industry report, the UK's local approval rate for wind by scheme fell to 55% for the year to October 2010 from 83% the previous year.

RenewableUK says that it hopes to work with the government to ensure that national renewable-energy targets are not compromised. It will propose a mechanism for joint working between local councils on key infrastructure projects. The body says it wants to ensure that communities see a clear benefit from hosting renewable energy projects. However, it could not provide details of how this would work.

Paul Thompson, policy head for industry body Renewable Energy Association, is sceptical about the benefits of more local involvement. "In the short term, devolving decision-making to the lowest possible level is likely to slow things down," he says.

The bill allows councils to instigate local referendums on permitting decisions. "Councils are allowed 12 months to organise a referendum. This is so that they can fit in with the cycle of local elections and could lead to more delays," says Thompson.

He also shares a widely held view in the sector that the bill will empower anti-wind farm groups to oppose new developments. New neighbourhood forums, comprising as few as three people, will be able to contest any permitting decision. "There is no requirement to prove you are local, which means that anyone who wants to organise a protest group can do so," he says.

Green energy provider and wind farm developer Ecotricity founder Dale Vince warns that the bill looks like "a potential nightmare for getting anything actually built in Britain", adding that the transition of power from the IPC back to the government minister for projects over 50MW would politicise permitting decisions on large projects. "I imagine we'll see lots of fast-tracked nuclear power stations, supported by subsidies by another name, and the refusal of a lot of wind farms," he says.

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