United States

United States

The art of balancing planning priorities

The age old system of land management in Britain is failing to cope with wind development. While most people favour greater use of wind energy, the infamous planning process is preventing them from getting what they want. A mountain of rejected planning applications for wind plant testify to the system's inability to marry national need with local interests. This article finds that easing the deadlock does not necessarily require radical change.

As the wind industry awaits the outcome of the UK government review that will determine how renewables can supply 10% of the nation's electricity by 2010, the infamous British planning system -- a gauntlet through which all wind projects seeking building permits must pass -- remains the single, most intractable obstacle that could yet prevent wind from taking its rightful place at the forefront of Britain's renewable energy technologies.

The ongoing review -- conducted by the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) -- has reportedly already identified planning as a major threat to the government meeting its target for renewables. The review follows on the heels of the Trade & Industry Select Committee's report on Energy Policy in June. This called for reform of the conflict between the government's existing support for wind energy through its Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation policy (NFFO) and local planning processes.

Ministers have already indicated their awareness of the large numbers of wind projects that are being refused by the planning committees of local authorities the length and breadth of Britain. In June, Environment Minister Michael Meacher acknowledged that action needs to be taken on planning -- and added that Britain could learn from Danish experience. An early understanding of the potential conflicts between retaining the existing visual appearance of the Danish landscape and developing the country's wind energy resource led to the development of a series of guidelines for wind turbine siting in Denmark. At the same time, local government was made responsible for setting and meeting regional targets as its contribution to reducing Denmark's reliance on fossil fuel generation.

Although the planning issue has always been viewed as a substantial obstacle by British wind energy developers, the situation has never been as dire as during the last four years. This is particularly evident in the pattern of results from planning inquiries. Up to March 1994, 12 out of 18 planning appeals resulted in a favourable outcome. After that date, planning inspectors approved only four out of 18 applications -- all for smaller projects of seven turbines or less (Windpower Monthly, March 1998).

The picture for the bulk of planning applications is less clearcut. It was not until the second round of NFFO that projects really began to fall by the wayside (table). Of the 50% that did not complete on their contracts, most failed due to planning difficulties. NFFO-2, however, was characterised by a tight timetable for completion of projects, leading to some hastily prepared schemes and a sometimes cavalier attitude by developers to local consultation.

Matters improved by the third NFFO. A five year window to allow for development of projects, coupled with publication of the British Wind Energy Association's best practice planning guidelines, gave developers no excuses for anything less than a thorough approach to development. Yet out of 30 NFFO-3 planning decisions so far, at least 18 projects were refused at the first application. A further two were called in by the Secretary of State for Wales after local planners had given the go-ahead.

Even developers who have a policy of opting for less sensitive sites are having a hard time getting their schemes approved. WindProspect, a small Bristol based development company, has seen four of its seven NFFO-3 projects rejected at the local planning level. It successfully re-applied for one, and gained consent for two more after appeals. Yet it was the planning inspector's final refusal of its appeal for five turbines at Drigg in Cumbria that caused many in the industry to shake their heads in disbelief. The site at Drigg was next to a radioactive waste dump, near a beach affected by Ministry of Defence shelling and only four kilometres from the sprawling Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site. The case was highlighted in a British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) letter to Michael Meacher as an example of a poor quality planning decision.

Further south in Liverpool, Windcluster, in a collaboration with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, had a battle to install six turbines in an industrial dock area. This time it won the case at public inquiry. In West Sussex, Shoreham Port Authority was less successful with its application for a dockside wind farm. It lost its appeal to install 15 turbines within its busy industrial port area on the grounds of visual impact, even though the main issue discussed at the inquiry was noise. Ironically, permission was later granted for a 400 MW gas fired power station at Shoreham.

Extinct species

But the real victims of the UK's combative planning system are the genuinely small scale wind turbine owners -- now an almost extinct species: only one individual won a power purchase contract under the latest round of NFFO support. Lengthy planning battles are costly -- too much so for most small developers. What's more, they are also proving off-putting to larger interests. The costed delay is an important factor governing whether companies invest in wind projects, says Marcus Trinick of solicitors Bond Pearce, which specialises in wind plant planning. "It is a real disincentive to companies outside the UK that are familiar with rather quicker systems."

Trinick cites a proposed wind farm at Largie on the west coast of Scotland as being one of the UK's longest delayed projects. But more than four years on from the initial planning application, it is, thankfully, not typical. In England, a decision would be expected five months from the application, he says. If an inquiry is called, the planning process is extended for at least a further year -- or even 18 months if the Secretary of State is making the decision. In Wales, he claims, the whole process is quicker. "But in Scotland we are talking about geological timescales."

One of the most significant developments Trinick has witnessed over the years is the increasingly well funded and well organised anti-wind campaigns. Until around 1993-94, wind farm opponents confined their arguments to landscape and visual effects and noise, he notes. "What has happened since then is that the opposition have become much more sophisticated." This became apparent at the recent inquiries into wind farm planning applications at Helmsdale in Highland Region and "Cemmaes B" in mid Wales. "What the opposition has done in both cases is to bring evidence in relation to a whole raft of issues which we wouldn't have dreamt about up to 1994." These include horse riding, low frequency noise or vibration, property values and tourism. He points out that while some of the arguments are not directly relevant, they are emotive. For example, the prospect of homes allegedly decreasing in value due to a nearby wind farm can be more effective at mobilising opposition than either noise or visual effects.

No longer noise

Indeed, noise is no longer the contentious planning issue it used to be. This is thanks to recommendations produced by the noise working group. "They have been widely accepted by local authorities, they represent an accepted benchmark and they enjoy respect," says Trinick. "As a result, the noise issue has in reality evaporated."

For planners, maybe, but wind farm opponents continue to use noise alongside a barrage of misleading information to rally local opinion against wind projects. Many of these arguments are based on "facts" supplied by Country Guardian -- a single issue pressure group dedicated to fighting wind energy development. The group is well connected, with members of parliament and a bishop among its members -- not forgetting the vocal Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher and paid adviser to the nuclear industry. Some of the group's activists are also prominent members of a number of landscape organisations, most notably the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, which now campaigns for a blanket ban on all wind development in Wales.

How influential Country Guardian has been in countering individual planning applications is difficult to quantify. But it has introduced some issues that may not have otherwise occurred to planning officers, such as claims of interference with telecommunications, acknowledges the BWEA's Nick Goodall. Yet he fears Country Guardian is in danger of being attributed with too much credit for hindering wind development. "I think it is inevitable that we all need a bogeyman, and Country Guardian embody the worst misunderstandings about wind energy. But there can be no provable link between them and any rejections that occur."

At the heart of the issue

So why are so many schemes -- the good along with the bad -- being thrown out by planners? The failure of planning committees to stick to planning policy on wind energy is believed by the BWEA to be the crux of the problem.

This is not due to a lack of published guidelines for planners. The association points out in its letter to Meacher in March this year that the existing government planning guidance note, PPG 22, is still "up to date and pertinent" . Moreover, it adds that local authorities have followed the advice in PPG 22 and produced sound policies on wind development within their local plans. "The difficulty is not, and has not been, with the quality of national advice or, on the whole, with the quality of local policies," it says. "It is in the implementation of those policies that difficulties have arisen." In particular, the BWEA claims that planners are not striking the right balance, as advised in PPG 22, between the need for -- and benefits of -- wind energy, and local environmental impacts.

Planners are not the only ones at fault. Planning inspectors, who are appointed by the Department of the Environment, are also introducing more than a degree of subjectivity into their determinations. "They view wind energy in their decisions as just another development without taking into account the need for renewable energy and its benefits, and thereby failing to implement government policy," says Trinick. "It is very clear from the way some inspectors behave at public inquiries that they just don't like wind turbines, and that attitude comes through in their written decision."

What is needed from government is a clear explanation to planners of why renewable energy is necessary, what decisions have to be taken at local level and how they can best be taken, says Goodall. "You have to own the situation locally instead of always saying not in my back yard."

The BWEA has asked Meacher for a government statement reminding every local authority to take its share of wind energy. The association wants the statement, emphasising the perils of global warming, to be passed down through the planning system and sent to statutory consultees and other non-government organisations. The BWEA is backed by the Association of Electricity Producers (AEP), which has also seconded its calls for a clear direction from the minister reinforcing the messages in PPG 22.

Help on the horizon

Indications are that the wheels of government are turning on the issue -- but only slowly. A meeting had been arranged between Michael Meacher, planning minister Richard Caborn and energy minister John Battle, to discuss what could be done to improve the planning process for renewables. But the meeting has been postponed and will not now take place until this month, at the earliest.

Nonetheless, the BWEA appears confident the government will take the bull by the horns and tackle the planning issue. Failure to do so could lead to the embarrassment of not being able to meet its 10% target for the contribution of renewables to electricity supply.

Meanwhile, Trinick believes that if the government's 10% renewables aim becomes a policy, a shift is needed towards a local approach to planning for renewables, so that each area contributes to the national target. He suggests using Local Agenda 21 -- guidelines under which local authorities voluntarily contribute to implementing the Rio agenda -- to initiate and pursue local programs. "People will decide, based on resource studies, how much development of renewables, including wind, they are prepared to support in their area," he says. He claims the Agenda 21 process would concentrate minds and bring peer pressure to bear on those involved in the discussions. "It is a proper consensus process, and it is something that Denmark has been doing for years."

Trinick warns that under this solution, some of the best wind speed sites may remain undeveloped, because of their hilltop scenic beauty, while lower wind speed sites are preferred. "It is not perfect, but if the alternative is the process of attrition that we are seeing at the moment, it will be worth exploring. Local democracy in this country has hundreds of years' more experience than most European countries. We can use that experience, and use it to drive a revitalised renewables program."

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