The UK’s biggest energy projects will no longer have to negotiate the obstacles of local planning authorities, following announcements made this week.
Instead, decisions will be made by an independent body, the Infrastructure and Planning Committee (IPC), which was this week given clear policy guidance from the Government about how to approach its future planning inquiries.
Crucially, this includes a maximum one-year time limit on decisions.
Announcing the guidance to MPs earlier this week, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband said the current system was characterised by ‘duplication and delay’.
‘In every area: onshore and offshore wind and other renewables, nuclear and clean fossil fuels; there will be people who wish to oppose specific planning applications.
‘While of course we need a process that can turn down specific applications, saying ‘no’ everywhere would not be in the national interest.
‘We need to significantly increase the rate of progress to meet our objective of 30 per cent of our electricity coming from renewables by 2020 [currently 5 per cent],’ said Miliband.
But rather than opening the door to a new era of renewable energy in the UK it is chiefly expected to benefit nuclear power. Two new plants proposed by EDF energy at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk are already on the IPC’s list of initial schemes to consider when it officially opens for business in March 2010.
Although there are some wind farm projects on the list as well, industry and environmental groups say renewable energy projects will be largely unaffected by the planning rule changes.
The IPC will only look at energy projects with a generating capacity of over 50 megawatts (MW) onshore and 100MW offshore.
But, say the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) and others, with nearly all onshore wind projects under that threshold, much of the renewable energy sector will be left facing the same planning difficulties as before.
‘If they had changed the threshold to the much more typical wind farm size of 25-30MW that would have made a massive difference,’ said Ecotricity founder Dale Vince.
‘If we can do all this for nuclear then why not wind? If any other sector had to go through the same planning process as wind we’d have no power plants anywhere.
‘The main problem is not the local planning offices but the local committees that oppose it, forcing a delay until it is appealed and then eventually gets Government approval,’ said Vince.
At the very least, says BWEA, the Government policy guidance should have set a legal time-limit on decisions. Even a one-year limit would have cut seven months off the average delay wind projects face.
But wind is not the only renewable option left out of the Government’s new policy guidance, which includes nothing on tidal (environmental impacts are still uncertain say officials), anaerobic digestion or hydro-power.
‘These are already coming up and being decided upon by local authorities and having an national policy statement could have been helpful to getting this decision approved,’ say the Renewable Energy Association (REA).
The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) has said it is concerned that fast-tracking planning rules for big energy projects like nuclear power is keeping the focus on ‘big-box’ national grid energy generation when what the UK needs is to start moving towards a decentralised energy system.
‘By investing in big box grid rather than local energy, you are fixing us in to something considerably less efficient for another generation,’ said SDC chair Will Day.
Friends of the Earth agreed.
‘They [the Government] have underestimated the potential of under 50MW electricity generation and of the contribution decentralised energy could make to the de-carbonising of the grid,’ said planning coordinator Naomi Luhde-Thompson.
‘The planning system needs urgent reform to enable this country to develop a low-carbon economy,’ she added.
Friends of the Earth also criticised the lack of carbon accountability in the remit of the Government’s new planning body.
‘The IPC’s guidance from Government does not include anything on carbon profiling, so in effect, there is no limit to the amount of fossil fuel projects it could approve,’ said Luhde-Thompson.
This has left environmental campaigners worried that as well as ignoring the majority of the renewables sector the new planning rules will give an easy-ride to nuclear power, a non-renewable source of energy.
‘Decision-making about where we get our energy from, and the long-term costs associated with nuclear, should be opened up to more accountability, not less,’ said Green Party leader Caroline Lucas.
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