Political tensions over the planned expansion of the UK’s onshore wind energy sector have intensified further, after it emerged Planning Minister Nick Boles has called for local communities to be “put in the driving seat” when wind farm applications are considered.
According to a report in the Telegraph, Boles, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Planning, wrote to fellow Conservative MP and Energy Minister John Hayes late last month, calling for local communities to be given more power over the development of onshore wind farms.
The letter, dated 20 December, criticised the approval of onshore wind farms when they have been opposed by local communities, and warned there was “no excuse for building wind farms in the wrong places”.
Just days before, Boles had said in the House of Commons that wind farms should be located at least 1.4 miles from residential properties.
The letter comes as the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is consulting on plans to boost the benefits that communities located near onshore wind farms receive, and the intervention will be seen as the latest in a series of attempts by the Conservative half of the coalition to slow the development of new onshore wind farms.
Boles warns some communities feel the government is “riding roughshod over their concerns” when a wind farm is approved by the planning inspectorate.
And he goes on to criticise the process that enables the planning inspectorate to review an application if it has been rejected by local councillors.
“Proposals allowed on appeal by planning inspectors can be bitterly resented,” Boles wrote. “We need a package of measures that can command broad public support which is consistent with our emphasis on local and neighbourhood planning which puts local communities in the driving seat.
“We should be quite clear that local communities and their accountable councils can produce their own distinctive plans to help shape where developments should and should not take place.”
Jennifer Webber, a spokeswoman for trade association RenewableUK, warned that such a move would send “shockwaves” through the entire energy industry and pose a serious threat to the UK’s wider infrastructure strategy.
“The Localism Bill represented a massive overhaul of planning to rightly engage communities closer with development in their area,” she told BusinessGreen. “RenewableUK supported the Bill, and felt it struck the right balance.
“Further revisiting of the planning system so soon, however, would risk much-needed economic growth from development, and such a radical change as removing a developer’s right to appeal would risk sending shockwaves throughout the entire infrastructure development industry.”
Recent polls reveal wind farms are widely supported, with two-thirds of people consistently signalling support for the technology. However, pockets of trenchant opposition remain and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is concerned high profile campaigns against wind farms could start to erode support for a technology that is deemed essential to meeting the UK’s renewable energy targets.
Webber added that in some instances, the final planning decision on wind farms is passed up to the planning inspectorate because the council has been unable to reach a decision, rather than outright rejected the proposals.