A key question for renewables developers is: "How long will it take to get planning permission?". The recent Scottish planning performance statistics provide some guidance, but its usefulness is limited by various shortcomings in the data.
(The other question is "What are the chances of success?". We hope to discuss that in a future blog)
The statistics include planning applications for electricity generation projects up to 50MW, which in Scotland are decided by local councils.
Unfortunately the statistics are not broken down by technology. The average will therefore be influenced by decisions for solar projects, which are typically faster than for on shore wind.
Section 36 applications for projects over 50MW are not included in the statistics.
Projects between 20 and 50MW are classed as major developments; and below 20MW, as local developments. This classification has procedural implications, including whether the application is decided by officers using delegated powers, or by the councillors. Importantly, it affects whether the right of appeal is to a reporter appointed by the Scottish Ministers, or to the councillors sitting on the Local Review Body.
For timing, a key difference is that major developments require pre-application consultation (PAC). The planning application cannot be submitted until 12 weeks after the proposal of application notice (PAN) has been sent to the council. As that 12 week period is pre-application, it is not included in the statistics.
Major Electricity Generation Developments (20-50MW)
26 major developments were decided in 2020/21, 6 more than the previous year. In the last 9 years, the total number of decisions has varied between 18 and 32.
The average decision time is 29.3 weeks, just over a day slower than the previous year. That is approximately 7 months.
The usefulness of this statistic is unclear:
- the number of applications is very small, and might therefore be significantly influenced by the decision time for a single application.
- it is based on 13 applications. The other 13 applications involved processing agreements (which are non-mandatory). The document states that 7 of those met agreed timescales set between developers and councils, but gives no indication of those timescales.
- it presumably excludes applications which were appealed because of the failure by the council to reach a decision within the 4 month period (a deemed refusal appeal).
The average decision time of 29.3 weeks compares to 33.9 weeks for all major developments (after excluding a few exceptionally long-running applications). Electricity generation projects are the second fastest category, behind business and industry projects, which are determined in an average of 22.4 weeks. The slowest category is major housing developments (50 or more dwellings), which took an average of 38.7 weeks (excluding the few exceptionally long-running applications).
Local Electricity Generation Developments (<20MW)
There were 123 local electricity generation applications in 2020/21, 15 more than the previous year. The 108 not subject to processing agreements had an average decision time of 16.2 weeks, more than six weeks slower than the previous year. It is not clear to what extent these statistics include householder and other minor projects, which are likely to be less complicated and therefore quicker to decide than larger commercial schemes.
Impact of Covid/ longer-term trends
The 2020/21 reporting period is of course the year impacted by Covid-19 restrictions. It is notable there was no delay for decisions on applications for major electricity projects, but local ones were more than 6 weeks slower.
The longer-term trends are interesting:
- 2015/16 - significant speed improvement for major and local electricity applications – average broadly similar to the current reporting period
- Fastest years - 2019/ 20 for local applications, and the previous year (2018/19) for major applications
- Current average is roughly 4 weeks slower than the fastest years. For local developments, that might be explained by covid restrictions, but the slowing down for decisions on major developments pre-dates those restrictions.
Numerous factors influence how quickly planning applications are decided, and the statistics have shortcomings, but it is useful to have a rough indication that an application for a 20-50MW electricity generation project might take 7 months. It's a reminder that these applications are rarely decided quickly.
For major developments, it is good to see that covid restrictions have not caused delay, but there is room for improvement, to get back to the all-time low achieved in 2018/19. That could be challenging for councils, as planning applications for renewables are expected to increase in light of net zero targets.