National Planning Framework 4 contains very supportive policies on renewable energy development. There was much speculation about the difference those policies would make. The Shepherds' Rig wind farm decision shows NPF4 can turn a potential refusal into a grant of consent.
Shepherds' Rig wind farm
Shepherds' Rig is a 70.2MW wind farm proposal in Dumfries and Galloway. Following an objection by the planning authority, the Ministers appointed reporters to hold a public inquiry.
Public inquiry report
The reporters' report was submitted to the Scottish Ministers on 6 April 2022. Crucially, that was several months before the publication of the revised draft NPF4 on 8 November 2022.
The report recommended refusal of the application - the significant adverse landscape and visual impacts would be greater than localised, adversely affecting the special qualities of a Regional Scenic Area, and key parts of the regional recreational resource.
The application had not been decided by the time the revised draft NPF4 was published. The Ministers therefore requested the reporters to reopen the inquiry to hear submissions from the parties on the implications of NPF4.
The reporters' supplementary report contains a different recommendation: they now recommended that consent be granted. It provides a rare opportunity to compare a pre-NPF4 recommendation, with a recommendation based on NPF4.
The adverse landscape and visual impacts were of course unchanged. However, the reporters concluded the proposed development now had very strong support in principle from national energy and planning policy; and its benefits, in particular its contribution to renewable energy targets, now clearly outweighed its significant landscape and visual effects.
Key points of difference arising from NPF4 mentioned by the reporters include:
- National policy has a clear expectation that more renewable energy proposals may be granted consent, focusing down on a tighter set of circumstances under which proposals would not be supported.
- In relation to local nature conservation sites and landscape areas, policy 4 makes it possible for social, environmental or economic benefits to outweigh significant adverse effects
- Although the proposed location would be out of step with the general pattern of wind farm development in this area, the existing pattern was developed under a policy framework which has been superseded, so the reporters no longer placed significant weight on that factor
In the original report, the reporters found that the significant effects on the area’s recreational resources should be given significant weight, to the extent that they outweighed the aims of delivering renewable energy.
In the updated policy context, they found that the proposal’s obvious contribution to renewable energy targets caused the benefits as a whole to clearly outweigh the significant landscape and visual effects.
The Ministers granted consent, on the grounds that the negative impacts are acceptable in accordance with NPF4 and in the context of the significant renewable energy benefits and the net economic benefits that the proposed development would bring in contributing to renewable energy and climate change targets.
This decision emphasises the amount of support that the Scottish Ministers consider NPF4 gives renewable energy development. It is truly a "gamechanger", as the Shepherds' Rig decision is about general policy principles rather than narrow points of interpretation. It shows NPF4 makes it much harder to justify refusing consent for a renewable energy development.