We should have shouted louder

Simon Roberts on what we can learn from the new planning policy for onshore wind

24 June 2015

In a move that could have devastating impacts on the development of the UK’s cheapest renewable energy source, the future of onshore wind in England has been put entirely in the hands of local communities by the new Conservative government. From 18 June, new planning rules mean wind turbines should only get the go-ahead if they have been clearly backed by local people in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan.[1]

It’s tempting to say “about time too”, given the importance of involving people in meaningful public dialogue about the changes needed in their localities to meet sustainable energy goals.

And it’s tempting to say another “about time too” because for the last 15 years both the commercial wind energy industry and successive governments have largely ignored the need to nourish public understanding and consent for the energy system transition the country needs. Indeed, in that time, many developers have taken local populations and their consent for granted, eroding any sense of collective responsibility for enabling our energy needs to be met.

We’ve written about this before, most recently here – though we didn’t fully appreciate at the time that the absence of ‘meaningful public consent’ would open the back door to a Conservative Party manifesto pledge, now rapidly enacted.

But there are problems with this new ‘local decisions foremost’ approach which need to be addressed in full and quickly:

Firstly, the neighbourhood plans and local development plans which now hold complete sway over wind power must be obliged to explain, reasonably and explicitly, how that locality will make its contribution to the low carbon future that the UK has signed up to. Very few have done this to date.

Secondly, if you accept the logic of the ‘local decisions (reflecting national need) foremost’ approach then similar conditions should be extended to other energy developments, such as fracking. This would avoid further erosion of public confidence in the planning system and buy-in to energy system transition.

And finally, a significant programme is needed to (a) stimulate wider participation in neighbourhood planning (to make it more representative) and (b) support due consideration of these national issues.

The elevation of neighbourhood planning to this new dominant status has exposed the fact that this issue has received almost no attention from community energy and climate change activists  even though it shapes the future of the places where we live.

This is understandable; after all there are better ways to gain a sense of progress and impact than by sitting through several years of neighbourhood planning meetings with people who have a keener eye on process than on action, and with more parochial interests on their agenda. But it now looks like this may have been a miscalculation of how and where our futures were being shaped.

We have been trying to redress this balance in our Low Carbon Localism work. It’s clear now that (a) we didn’t shout loud enough about the importance of this issue and how it could best work in practice, and (b) we need to redouble our efforts to support people to make effective contributions on low carbon goals to their neighbourhood plans.

[1] See Communities Secretary Greg Clark’s written statement to Parliament on planning and onshore wind power (18 June 2015).

Photo: Green Alliance, reproduced with permission 

Stay up to date with our work - sign up for our fortnightly newsletter