Thursday, 27 October 2011

Declining approvals

This 'article' from the BBC, which highlights an 'alarming drop' in the number of wind farm application approvals appears to have sparked a small debate as to the cause of the apparent decline in wind farm approvals. Some have noted that the source of the statistics has not been given, or the basis by which the numbers are actually compiled. I think the source of the statistics is quite easy to identify; this link will take you to the Renewables UK State of the Industry Report 2011 (SOI 2011). Unfortunately, SOI 2011 doesn't in itself explain the basis for compiling some of the statistics (ie, what constitutes a planning refusal, etc etc), but the numbers (according to the industry) are all there in black and white.

In a morbid sort of way, SOI 2011 is a fascinating document - packed full of statistics and projections. It does run to about 30 pages but is an easy read should you want the big, UK-wide picture.

Going back to those declining approval statistics, originally there was a disconnect between central and local government. Councils (or local government) were in some cases a little slow to establish policies and frameworks to support the Scottish Government's main objectives, and consequently I suspect some developments received rather more favourable treatment than they would now receive. In the meantime, the Scottish Government was busy moving the goal posts with regard to renewables targets whilst letting market forces decide the nitty gritty of their implementation rather than the councils. Then, the councils started to roll out their policies and frameworks. South Ayrshire Council have had broad areas of search for several years - but no actual applications under their direct jurisdiction to assess. Knoweside Hill and Breaker Hill are the first two to be (initially at least) decided by the Council. These two South Ayrshire applications were quite firmly judged within the context of local planning policies and clearly the national imperative was insignificant in comparison to the local detriment; so the recommendations were for refusal. Dumfries and Galloway have recently gone through a consultation phase with regard to establishing broad areas of search and an interim planning policy for wind farms. Now they have their policy, they are presumably judging applications against it. So, the original disconnect has gone and with it a perhaps the overinflated expectation of approval.

Now however, there is a disconnect between the developers and the councils; the developers continue to act as if relevant policies and frameworks still don't exist. The Councils have set the rules under which they are prepared to assist in achieving the Scottish Government's objectives. However, we continue to see developers starting, or continuing with development proposals that are not in line with published council policy. As a result, it should not really be a surprise to the developers if their applications are refused (or recommended for refusal). The message to me is clear - propose your developments outwith the now established policies and frameworks and your application may well receive a less than friendly appraisal.

Unfortunately, this could turn into a pretty ugly situation. Very few applications lodged with Central Consents are declined and if developers decide that the best way to get their projects built is to 'go large' and head off to Edinburgh for approval, the local representation provided by councils will fall largely on deaf ears and the national imperative will once again hold centre stage. That is something that could prove to be an absolute nightmare, since the Scottish Government will continue to set and change the overall policy, and will also be judge and jury on its' implementation.