Weary of wrestling with planning restrictions, Ecotricity hopes new rules will truly streamline the system
Economist Kate Barker’s analysis of the state of the planning system should make good bedside reading for Ecotricity founder Dale Vince. Barker has been working to identify ways to “streamline” the land use planning system since last November, and has so far outlined a medley of problems, in her July report. Suggestions for change will come in due course. But after two decades of wrestling with that system Vince knows where he’d take it”¦
As it happens, Barker’s report singles out an Ecotricity project as an example of how the planning system can work well. The one when a single turbine went up at Ecotech in Swaffham, Norfolk, in 1999 and then locals asked for a second.
Yet, for that one positive experience, Vince has plenty of negative stories to flesh out his argument that planning works against his industry. Earlier this year, for example, Ecotricity finally succeeded in winning approval for a single turbine at Chewton Mendip, Somerset ““ after a hefty three-year process. A more recent victory saw permission granted for two turbines at Shipdham, Norfolk. That ended a five-year planning journey that was, says Ecotricity, “no less arduous or expensive than if we had applied to build a nuclear power station”.
For Vince the difficulties involved are typical of problems he has faced since he put up his first turbine in 1992. You might imagine that the government’s clear support for renewables today would have made it more straightforward. It was spelled out clearly three years ago, in a national planning policy, that councils must work to policies designed to “promote and encourage” renewable energy. But Vince says little has changed.
So how does this “˜system’ treat wind farms? A key point is that, while a new gas-fired power station, for example, is dealt with in Whitehall (because of its strategic importance), wind energy projects go through the same process as home extensions. It’s district council members that get to approve or reject them, although there is a right of appeal. That’s where the planning inspector ““ a government-appointed professional ““ gets involved. But in reality, says Vince, wind energy applications often stand or fall on the say so of parish politics, which is easily swayed by wind energy opponents’ arguments.
What he finds particularly ironic is that opponents of reform to the current system argue that “streamlining” would remove democratic rights, when in fact the status quo is as un-democratic as it could be. “You have elected people, who aren’t very skilful, ruling against applications that then go to a planning inspector. In the end these things are decided by a single, centrally appointed person.” The system also costs companies like Ecotricity dear, as they fight and re-fight the same battles at one district council after another.
Vince’s recommendation to Barker is simple; that wind energy be treated as a strategic issue and be passed up the system to at least county council level. “Wind energy is technical, complex and of strategic importance and district councils don’t tend to deal with issues like that,” he says.
Vince has a last thought for Kate Barker to ponder. The hefty cost of getting a project through the planning process is much the same for a single turbine or a dozen. That works against a project like Swaffham, which Barker saw as a model of good planning. “We have done great things with single wind turbines,” he says. “The public loves them. If we are driven to bigger projects just because of the cost of the planning process, then isn’t the system letting the public down?”
Julian Rollins is a freelance journalist and editor specialising in environment and countryside issues.
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