The government’s recent attack on onshore wind farms has been a long time coming, the Conservative manifesto having stated that in the event of an election win the party would end “new” public subsidy for them and let local people have the final say on wind farm applications.

Of course, ROCs aren’t “new” so the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) announcement to end ROC support for onshore wind a year early isn’t exactly a manifesto pledge, which makes it all the more shocking.

Ground-mounted solar farm developers should be particularly wary; if the government can single out the industry that generates renewable energy cheaper than any other technology for a mauling, despite the Conservative’s (other) manifesto pledge to “cut emissions as cost-effectively as possible” then all renewable technologies could be potentially in the firing line for further unexpected cuts to support mechanisms and changes to planning policy.

DECC’s new Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, made no hesitation in explaining to the press that DCLG’s Written Statement on wind farms (HCWS42, 18 June 2015) “will mean no more onshore wind farms without local community support”. Also widely publicised is the government’s pledge to remove large scale (>50MW) schemes from National Infrastructure Planning, the government agency responsible for examining planning applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects. Instead, all wind projects irrespective of size will be determined by local planning authorities.

All well and good if that’s what you want, but on close inspection I noted that the Written Statement confirms neither. It makes no mention of removing projects over 50MW from NIP, nor does it give local communities any more powers over and above those they have already to object to wind farm applications.

The DCLG Statement advises that when determining planning applications for wind energy development involving one or more wind turbines, local planning authorities should only grant planning permission if “following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and therefore the proposal has their backing”.

The inclusion of the wording ‘planning’ is the rub. Local planning authorities are already required by law to take the views of the local community into account when determining applications, but only concerns that are relevant to planning. Local councils must not allow themselves to be influenced by other considerations (for example, private interests) unless they really are relevant to planning. Nor does the statement prescribe how local planning authorities should assess the significance of local views for or against schemes when weighing the scheme “in the planning balance”.

This is not the same as Rudd’s assertion that there will be no more wind farms without local community support.  

It’s an important distinction and to me indicates that  at least in terms of how local communities engage in the planning application process  this Ministerial Statement proclaims nothing more than business as usual (not that business as usual has been particularly easy for the wind industry).

What of the other criterion the statement imposes upon wind turbine proposals, that “local planning authorities should only grant planning permission if the development site is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan”. 

As far as I am aware, no LPAs have identified suitable areas for wind development in their development plans although several LPAs have produced supplementary planning guidance providing assessments of landscape sensitivity to renewable energy plant. These rate different areas of a district according to how much renewable energy plant they can accommodate and are helpful tools for developers.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) notes at paragraph 14 that the presumption in favour of development means that where a development plan is silent on any matter the LPA must grant permission “unless any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted”. The NPPF is supportive of all renewable energy plant where adverse effects are, or can be made, acceptable.

No areas identified for wind in the development plan? Revert to paragraph 14. This too looks like business as usual. Or put it another way, a clever bit of spin.

The Written Statement certainly won’t make it any easier for wind developers. I predict a lot more of local people declaring “but the Minister said we don’t have to have this here”, leaving Planning Officers and Planning Committees with some explaining to do. There’s certainly scope for taking an LPA to task if an application is refused on the grounds of “weight of local opposition” alone.

So what’s all this got to do with ground-mounted solar farms? Straight after her gaffe in the House of Commons last week over wind farm developers’ right to appeal, Amber Rudd asserted that her government does not want large-scale solar either. One wonders if there’s anything substantial in the renewables cupboard she does like. Nevertheless, the solar industry should take heart in knowing that earlier this month DCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain said that his team believes this government has no interest in revisiting the NPPF. So at least for now, the presumption in favour of sustainable development remains in place, for all development – including wind and solar farms.

As this government gains more confidence I wouldn’t be surprised to see further announcements from DECC designed to appease the Tory shires’ suspicions of renewable energy. If there are, I would recommend reading the small print.