The UK government has rejected an appeal by Welsh ministers to devolve certain decisions over energy to Cardiff, in its submission to the Silk Commission on further devolution of overall governing powers.
The Silk Commission is reviewing the powers of the National Assembly for Wales, and a call for evidence closed on St David’s Day, 1 March. The submission from the UK government forms part of this evidence.
Making the general case that there is no need for radical change, the Submission says that “on the whole, the Welsh settlement is satisfactory and works well in practice. We do not believe there is a case for radical change to the boundary of the settlement”
On energy, Westminster’s submission makes the case for keeping the “unified planning regime,” stating: “We consider that planning policy and decision making for major infrastructure in Wales should be viewed in a wider context”.
The appeal letter by the Welsh government asking for devolution of energy powers, originally sent in 2011, remains on its website, where it calls for introducing the same devolution arrangements that apply in Scotland and/or Northern Ireland, for all generation projects up to 100 MW.
But the submission from the Westminster disagrees: “We are at a crucial time in terms of the energy infrastructure of this country… The most important thing of all is that there should be a consistent predictable and streamlined method of consenting to energy. This is the message that we have taken from the industry itself.”
This is not the view from within Wales, however, which considers that devolution would be more attractive to developers and investors alike. Developers currently do not make proposals greater than 50 MW for the simple reason that obtaining consent is more complex, assembly members have said.
The administration argued in its letter that, since half of applications for UK onshore wind farms have been rejected in recent years, a decentralised approach with greater community benefits would be more successful. It argued that “locally-based projects with community part-ownership and profit-sharing”, are best achieved with a regional approach that has greater sensitivity to local concerns.
Devolution of consents has already occurred in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and Scotland is doing far better in terms of implementing renewable energy than England, with a goal of self-sufficiency in renewable energy in 2020.
Like Scotland, the Welsh government has ambitious targets for renewable energy and seeks to harmonise these with planning policy in the form of Local Development Plans.
There is also concern felt widely in Wales that decisions taken in London which override the concerns of residents in Wales about the positioning of large-scale upland windfarms “risks positioning some redevelopment as exploitative”, providing few jobs in Wales and little community benefit, and has turned some people against renewable energy.
As things stand, different bodies will be consenting different windfarms in the same area, including with reference to the overriding priorities determined by the Infrastructure Planning Commission. The Welsh government has been working with the Department of Communities and Local government to resolve the situation.
Many Welsh assembly members believe that the split competence in the consenting regime of Wales also does not help to create a predictable situation for investors.
This view was rejected in the UK government submission, which was agreed across all departments, including by the Lib Dems. It says, in contrast: “Developers welcome consistent planning policy and decision making to give them the confidence they need to make the very large investments required in, for example, new nuclear power stations at Hinkley and Wylfa, new connections with Ireland, and around £18bn of potential onshore network development by 2021.”
The assembly government had not asked for decisions over nuclear power to be devolved, however, recognising that they did need to be taken in Westminster.
The submission continues: “We consider that the current unified planning regime for England and Wales provides a stable platform for investment in major infrastructure both now and in the future.”
Warning against giving new powers to the Welsh Government, it states: “Changing the threshold from 50MW to 100MW could have a negative impact on energy and planning policy for major infrastructure and result in increased complexity in the planning system and less efficient, more piecemeal and more expensive development.”
The Welsh government has yet to formally respond. The next Commission meeting will take place on 12 April in Cardiff. It has reviewed the evidence that it has received, consisting of over 100 submissions, and will publish this on its website very soon. The Commission will report its findings by the spring of 2014.