There is a pressing need to decarbonise the UK energy supply system. This will require more focused attention upon efficiency measures as well as a step change in the delivery of new renewable energy supplies. The timeline for the delivery of new capacity is short, driven by targets for emission reductions and renewable energy deployment set at the national and EU levels. Wind turbines, as a market ready technology suited to the UK’s bountiful natural wind resource, will need to be constructed rapidly both on and offshore to deliver new sustainable, renewable sources of energy. Over the coming 11 years up to 2020, the UK is anticipated to need to install a minimum of 1GW per year every year of onshore wind capacity, in order to meet its renewable energy target set by the European Union. This would in addition to 2GW of offshore wind per year every year until 2020, coupled with an anticipated expansion of bioenergy use and increase in tidal based energy production.
To accommodate the extra capacity on a tight timetable while remaining sensitive to social and environmental considerations will be a significant challenge. This report seeks to address one of the central environmental concerns – nature conservation. Other issues, such as landscape are important and need due consideration, but are not the focus of this work.
There are genuine concerns over the impact of poorly sited wind farms upon nature conservation, which need to be balanced against the desire to expand wind energy capacity rapidly. Here the land use planning system has a pivotal role. At present, planning systems for onshore wind are not always successful in guiding development to sites that are appropriate from a nature conservation perspective, at a pace of development sufficient to meet the demands of the next decade. Based on analysis of planning systems across the UK and in Germany, Spain and Denmark, certain actions have been identified that could: improve planning processes; help increase acceptance of onshore wind; take account of nature conservation concerns; and simultaneously accelerate the expansion of environmentally sustainable onshore wind capacity.
To create an effective planning system that respects nature conservation concerns whilst securing rapid onshore wind development, it is not simply a case of streamlining planning requirements – as some might argue. This study identifies a number of elements that need to interact successfully, to deliver these dual aims.
- Early engagement of stakeholders – The value of early gathering and dissemination of reliable and relevant information about wind power proposals, along with public engagement and debate need to be appreciated. Engagement of this kind helps to inform local actors, facilitates the avoidance of particularly sensitive sites and allows effective consideration of alternatives. This needs to occur as early in the process as possible.
- Clarity over nature conservation concerns – A prerequisite for appropriate decision-making is a clear understanding of both national and more local nature conservation concerns. These are not confined simply to protected areas. When the relative sensitivity of habitats and natural systems across a landscape is clearly communicated in spatial terms, understanding of the potential locations and their appropriateness for onshore wind is increased.
- Appropriate institutional resourcing and the retention of central pools of knowledge – In order to support the decision-making process and improve the consistency of understanding, sufficient specialist capacity is necessary. Skills and expertise in wind energy should be invested in and developed by national governments and agencies. Such expertise must be made accessible to local and regional planning authorities and communicated via detailed spatial guidance, which clearly supports appropriate site selection and project design for onshore wind developments.
- Being spatially explicit – Evidence shows that structured, spatially explicit and proactive approaches to onshore wind planning can play an essential role in enabling ambitious wind programmes to move forward. This process also creates a clear framework for debate, without which discussions can be repetitive and divisive dominated by responses to individual planning applications. Approaches that distinguish spatially the potential areas where development should be prioritised, restricted or avoided appear to offer invaluable clarity to developers and nature conservation groups.
- High quality environmental impact assessments – The impacts of onshore wind are highly location specific; assessment tools such as EIA and SEA, should offer a solid information base and a platform for stakeholder engagement supporting informed, transparent decision-making. The quality of an assessment is key; poor completion can lead to delay in the determination of planning applications and/or contribute to inappropriate decisions.
- Maximising local benefits from wind developments – Wind turbines can impact on the amenity value of local wildlife and features valued by local communities. Local support is essential for the successful roll out of onshore wind. Well conceived and planned wind farms can give rise to local offsite nature conservation benefits, if this is prioritised. Combined with mechanisms for delivering community ownership and direct and in-kind benefits for local communities, this can increase local acceptance and engagement in the renewable energy debate.
- Ensuring effective ongoing management – Site specific mitigation measures, sensitive ongoing management and reliable monitoring are key to ensuring that impacts are understood, risks are minimised and benefits maximised. Actions completed on individual wind farms must be adequately overseen by an environmental regulator; central government or their agencies should collate and make available monitoring results to provide a better understanding of the effectiveness of management techniques. This will have resource implications that need to be accepted as part of a new approach.
- Political will to deliver new onshore capacity – Evidence from Germany and Denmark, along with Scotland and Wales; demonstrates the importance of mobilising political will for the delivery of onshore wind development. Without this impetus otherwise potentially efficient planning systems become constrained. More responsibility for delivering national priorities needs to be transferred to the local level. One possible mechanism for doing this would be the development of regional and local targets for renewable energy and onshore wind development – overseen by central government – to ensure that greater investment in renewable energy becomes a reality across the UK.
A system that contains all these elements would represent a more robust and proactive approach to onshore wind development, whilst also offering the more thorough consideration of nature conservation concerns. The wider planning process now required should be more than simply a consent procedure for development but instead should: provide information to support decision making; generate strategic decisions about location; ensure effective oversight beyond the construction phase; and recognise the local impacts associated with delivering on a national shift in energy supply. None of the systems reviewed in the UK contain all these elements, although Wales and Scotland have recently made significant changes to their planning systems for onshore wind. England has a strong tradition in land use planning, but has yet to implement a forward looking, clear and robust approach to onshore wind; there is now a need, and with the development of the Renewable Energy Strategy, an opportunity, to do so.
To succeed, a more proactive system of planning for onshore wind will have to rely upon a broader acceptance by the public and decision makers that we must change the way in which we use and supply energy over the coming decade. The starkness of future energy choices and the speed at which we deploy renewable energy solutions must be clearly understood by all, and reflected in the decisions reached. Planning must be made a more effective tool to facilitate renewable energy development in the UK. This requires commitment by policy makers and an effort to win public support, along with effective policy measures promoting renewable development, and investment in the sector. On this foundation, there would be an onus on developers to bring forward appropriately sited and well conceived applications for development, which can then be shaped, improved and approved via an efficient and clear planning process.