Debbie Marriage, senior consultant at Parker Dann Town Planning Consultancy, discusses the industry's post-election priority to take the politics back out of planning decisions and offers some predictions for solar in 2015. She will be one of a number of expert speakers at the upcoming Large-Scale Solar UK conference in Bristol

What’s the single biggest challenge the UK solar industry is currently facing?

The end of RO for >5MW sites aside, the decrease in public perception of environmental issues, fuelled by a drop in media coverage, is a big challenge to the UK solar industry.

In a recent Guardian/ICM poll, when asked about the important issues facing the country, the environment was completely absent. With such a backdrop it’s easy for politicians to score points with floating voters by opposing controversial schemes.

This politicisation of decision making is more apparent in the on-shore wind industry, where in 2014 the Secretary of State overturned fifty turbines recommended for consent by his Planning Inspectors. The forthcoming General Election is worsening this trend. After May, the industry’s challenge is to engage politicians, media and public alike in evidence-based debate on solar, energy security and climate change.

What single piece of advice would you give to developers in terms of planning?

Understand the local context and how your solar farm fits in with the local authority’s stance towards renewables. A significant minority of local authorities don’t have up to date development plans in place, leaving decision makers relying heavily on national policy and guidance. We are seeing wide variations in the interpretation of the guidance, so a Planning Committee’s recent decisions provide valuable information on attitudes to solar farms locally.

Where there have been objections and refusal of schemes developers should investigate concerns of the local community and understand how your solar farm overcomes them. Rarely do Members object to the principle of renewable energy so finding the right site and putting forward a bullet proof case that is accessible and understandable is fundamental to planning success.

What new opportunities do you see opening up in the UK solar market?

The Infrastructure Bill, due for Royal Assent in March, includes a Community Electricity Right which could force developers to offer investment opportunities to community groups. Whatever mixed feelings the industry may have about this, if it becomes legislation we will need to embrace it. It has the potential to bring on board communities otherwise ambivalent – or worse – about solar farms. Including local stakeholders is an opportunity to garner support for planning applications and expand installed capacity nationally.

If there are more cuts in public spending we should see greater collaboration with local authorities seeking to install solar farms as an alternative to selling off land. Several local authorities are already working with solar developers to take advantage of the financial opportunities the industry can offer them, whilst simultaneously boosting their green credentials.

How do you see the planning landscape changing in the near future?

In the coming months we’ll see the DCLG publish its decision on increasing permitted development rights for non-domestic rooftop installations from 50kW to 1MW . This would replace an eight week planning application with a 28 day prior approval notification procedure.

Post the election, short of a Green or UKIP Party landslide we’re unlikely to see radical alterations to national planning policy on renewables. The Conservative Chancellor has promised more support for shale gas and nuclear, which is not good news and could seriously undermine the long term prospects for the UK renewables industry. 

In decision making, the slow pace of adoption of local plans will mean a continued reliance on appeal decisions for the interpretation of government guidance for large-scale solar farms.

Tweet us your prediction for the UK solar market for 2015/16!

Boom in <5MW sector and community schemes trump new Government ambivalence towards renewables as wholesale oil and gas prices rise…

What are you most looking forward to about Large-Scale Solar UK 2015?

Catching up with you all.

Who are you most looking forward to hearing speak at Large-Scale Solar UK 2015?

Ben Linscott, Chief Planning Inspector and Nick Boyle, CEO of Lightsource

What’s your favourite thing about Bristol?

Brunel and Banksy.

Debbie Marriage will be speaking at the Large-Scale Solar UK conference in Bristol, 28-30 April.