The DCLG recently published its Planning Practice Guidance on Renewable and Low Carbon Energy. The Guidance seeks to strike a balance between making sure the UK will “have a secure energy supply, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow down climate change and stimulate investment in new jobs and businesses”, while at the same time not “override[ing] environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”. The Guidance’s publication is apposite as the newly released Digest of UK Energy Statistics shows that electricity generation from renewable sources increased by almost 20 percent during 2012 and now accounts for over 11 percent of all electricity generated.
The Guidance sets out planning considerations on buffer zones and community-led generation alongside policies on specific technologies such as hydro, onshore wind and solar farms. This detail suggests the new guidance is only in reference to well-established renewable technologies. However, while the title of the document also refers to “low carbon energy” it is not defined. Elsewhere in Government publications nuclear power and even gas-fired generation are included in the “low carbon” definition. Whereas nuclear developments will not come under the remit of local planning authorities – plants with an installed capacity of over 50MW are decided by the Secretary of State – with the advent of fracking in the UK, small-scale gas powered stations are likely to be developed. Therefore, when it is considered alongside the Government recent emphasis on the benefits of fracking, a reading of the Guidance could be that it will encourage the exploration of shale gas by expanding its market from a few large gas-fired plants to many smaller capacity ones.
Further vagueness in the renewables Guidance stems from its lack of definition or detail on what consideration or weight should be given to local communities’ views. This ambiguity appears similar to the Government’s recent response to the DCLG/BIS onshore wind consultation, where despite ministerial statements and press headlines around residents getting more say or even vetoes over development, there was no explanation as to how or when this would be implemented. So, notwithstanding the comments that “the views of local communities likely to be affected should be listened to” – a sentiment already acknowledged by local planning authorities – there is no concrete policy or instruction on how local planning authorities should deal with objections. And this, as recent anti-fracking protests show, is an area where guidance is increasingly needed.