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Politicising the Planning Act is blowing in the wind

Wind sock

At the moment, any onshore wind farm with a capacity of more than 50 megawatts must use the Planning Act 2008 regime to be authorised. As a standard turbine has a capacity of around 3MW, that works out at 17 turbines or more.

Angus WalkerAccording to Wikipedia there are currently just two onshore wind farms in England with a capacity greater than 50MW – Scout Moor in Lancashire and Little Cheyne Court in Kent (although SSE's Keadby wind farm in Lincolnshire will be a third at 68MW when it becomes fully operational this summer). Since the Planning Act came into force in March 2010, another two applications have been made for onshore windfarms, both in Wales – Brechfa Forest West and Clocaenog Forest.
Recently, the government has made a couple of moves to make the authorisation of onshore wind farms more difficult – first, invoking the Localism Act power to require pre-application consultation on wind farms of more than two turbines or where one is more than 15 metres high (i.e. virtually all of them), and second, having communities secretary Eric Pickles extending the power he granted himself in October to call in wind farm applications for his own determination from a six-month period to 18 months.
Last month the Conservative Party issued a press release which says that if it wins the next election, it will scrap subsidies for onshore wind farms. However, the same release then goes on to say that a Conservative government would return decisions on onshore wind farms to local control – i.e. it would remove them from the scope of the Planning Act regime.

"I think this is the first time the Planning Act has been used as a political tool, but it probably won’t be the last"

I think this is the first time the Planning Act has been used as a political tool, but it probably won’t be the last. The proposal won’t have much effect given the small proportion of onshore wind farms that are above the Planning Act threshold, but it underlines the Conservatives’ ambivalence towards onshore wind – being officially in favour of it and unofficially against it. Judging by the timing, the election that the announcement is intended to influence is not next May’s general election but this month’s European Parliament (and local) election. 
It is interesting that the combined effect of taking onshore wind farms out of the Planning Act regime and then calling in applications when they are made to local authorities would be to transfer decisions on such projects from Liberal Democrat secretary of state Ed Davey to Conservative secretary of state Eric Pickles.
If a week is a long time in politics, a year is even longer, and we shall see what the parties’ manifestos actually say about infrastructure planning when the time comes.
Angus Walker is a partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell and specialises in planning issues. He blogs about the Planning Act regime on the NIPA website.

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