This is a critical reflection on how the Scottish planning system has managed planning for on shore wind so far and looking to the future. It's based on my presentation for the RTPI West of Scotland Chapter webinar "Meeting our targets in a time of climate crisis".
The decarbonisation agenda has many parts. On-shore wind electricity generation is the sector which has most actively engaged the planning system. Since the early wind farm proposals in the 1990s, planning approaches have evolved and matured.
According to Scottish Planning Policy (para 2):
"Planning should take a positive approach to enabling high-quality development and making efficient use of land to deliver long-term benefits for the public while protecting and enhancing natural and cultural resources."
Even that single sentence sums up the inherent tensions: the positive, enabling approach needs to be balanced against the need to protect and enhance.
This is typical of policy drafting, which tends to emphasise the balancing of competing factors, rather than making punchy statements of support. That approach enables supporters and objectors to claim that policy supports their case.
How well the planning system has delivered depends on your viewpoint on where the balance has landed. Wind farm companies may feel the positive approach is not always apparent, but objectors believe too many consents are being granted and the developments are not high quality. Detailed attention and debate is given to the potential impact on natural and cultural resources, but that is ultimately a matter of opinion, and opinions vary.
Energy policy sets targets for renewable energy. The Chief Planner's letter of 11 November 2015 avoided the planning system being dragged into lengthy debates on whether targets have been met, by stating:
"This does not place a cap on the support for renewable energy developments, including on-shore wind once the target has been reached"
Unlike housing, there are no sites allocated in development plans for wind farms. The SPP states that planning authorities should set out a spatial framework identifying areas that are likely to be most appropriate for wind farms, based on the 3 groups set out in the SPP: areas where wind farms will not be acceptable; areas of significant protection; and areas with potential for wind farm development.
Developers are generally content with these arrangements, but not every planning authority/ development plan complies with the SPP; developers also believe that some refinements are required, especially in light of the role of renewables in addressing the climate emergency.
Deciding consent applications
A planning officer summed up the difficulty: wind turbines are tall, and they move. That's why they are a very different form of development for planners to assess.
A whole new set of skills is required: for example, zones of visual influence (ZVI) in landscape and visual impact assessment (LVIA); impacts on bats and various species of birds; peat slide risk; and aviation radar.
The learning curve is obvious from the list of conditions imposed on consents, which have grown from just a few on early consents to long lists/ long conditions more recently.
Although approaches have matured, there remain tensions.
Developers often feel that the consenting process places too much weight on spatial planning tools. Even if a landscape capacity study says that an area does not have capacity for tall turbines, that is superseded by the comprehensive LVIA prepared as part of the site specific environmental impact assessment (EIA).
Information overload is an issue. Overly cautious approaches to provision of information can be taken by developers and statutory agencies. That causes delays.
The speed of technology innovation has been a particular problem for wind farm consenting, with consents based on turbines which were no longer commercially available by the time the consent was granted.
Although the Scottish Government policy framework is supportive of on shore wind (and renewables generally), there is no statement yet of whether the climate emergency should be given stronger weight in consenting decisions. There are instances of decision-makers suggesting that is premature:
"if there is to be a 'transformative change', as suggested by the appellant, this should be based on explicit government policy"
Much is therefore expected of the forthcoming national planning framework (NPF4). It will have to address the statutory requirement in the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 to net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045 – the current SPP was based on the (former) target of reducing those emissions by at least 80% by 2050.
But it is inevitable that the approach of balancing competing interests will continue, even if NPF4 adjusts the balance. New on shore wind planning guidance might also promote practical measures to improve the consenting process.
A ramping up of renewable energy consenting will be required. The draft shared policy programme published by the Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party has an ambition to deliver 8-12GW of additional installed onshore wind by 2030, which equates to an average of at least 1GW per annum. It is essential that additional resources are put into the planning system, which is already struggling, to cope with that demand.
More proportionate approaches are required, especially as existing wind farms approach the end of their working life and re-powering becomes an option. The current practice of granting time-limited permissions should be made more flexible, to facilitate life-extension and repowering. Does it matter how long a windfarm lasts if the decommissioning funds are in place to clean it up at the end of its life?
Procedures also need to be updated – the section 36 procedure dates back to the Electricity Act 1989, at a time when electricity was generated by base-load power stations owned by utility companies. It is unclear why there is a different consenting procedure depending on the generating capacity of a wind farm, especially as technology advances mean that a 50+ MW wind farm has less and less turbines. Would there be efficiencies if the Scottish Government's Energy Consents Unit decided all wind farm applications?
The automatic right to a public inquiry was removed several years ago for planning permission appeals; it is anachronistic that the local planning authority still has that right if a wind farm exceeds 50MW.
There is a specific procedure for varying section 36 consents: an equivalent should be introduced for wind farm planning permissions, to avoid the need for a full planning application. That would also resolve the practical difficulties caused by the Finnie decision.
Although planning approaches to on shore wind have matured, the planning system still needs the right tools to do the job: an up to date and clear policy; proper resources; and fit for purpose consenting procedures.