Highlights of the SPEL conference 2017

This year’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference, held in Edinburgh’s COSLA building, focused on Anticipating and preparing for change and covered a range of topics from the impact of Brexit on planning and environmental law in Scotland to how planning and planners can help tackle the growing housing crisis. Delegates were given the opportunity to reflect on the challenges for planning and environmental law in Scotland as well as the great opportunities the next few years may present to the profession.

Bringing the planning profession together

The conference provided an opportunity for professionals from across the planning and law professions to come together to discuss some of the key challenges to their profession going forward. While Brexit was high on the list of discussion topics, the possibilities for reform, and the opportunities for practitioners to learn and share their experiences and knowledge with one another, for what is now the 26th year of SPEL, continued to be at the heart of the conference discussions.

Is planning fit for purpose?

Chaired by Stuart Gale QC, from event sponsors Terra Firma Chambers, the conference was opened by Greg Lloyd who addressed the issue of the “distinctiveness” of the Scottish planning system, asking the question, “Is planning fit for purpose?” In the context of Brexit and with the benefit of years of planning knowledge, Greg discussed the performance of planning and how its modernisation is equipping planners to deal with challenges in the future.

The Rt. Hon Brian Wilson, former UK energy minister, spoke next on the challenges energy targets are posing not only for environmental lawyers and practitioners but also for planners. He discussed how the drive to achieve energy targets both in renewable and traditional energy generation needs to be tackled as much by planners as environmentalists and politicians. He also highlighted the need to meet the growing demand for energy by helping to reduce energy use and tackle wider socioeconomic issues relating to energy in Scotland.

Brexit – the impact on planning

The morning session was brought to a close firstly by Laura Tainsh from Davidson Chalmers who spoke about the intricacies, expectations, challenges and potential opportunities for environmental law and practitioners in Scotland following the UK’s decision to leave the EU. She highlighted the importance of ensuring that the essential elements of environmental law are retained within any future UK or Scottish legislation and that a system is created which provides an opportunity for robust scrutiny and maintenance of standards, specifically in relation to the consistency of application. She also discussed some of the ways in which existing principles and policies can be future proofed. Following on from Laura, Robert Sutherland gave an overview of recent developments in community right to buy in Scotland.

The morning session also included a case law roundup which reviewed and discussed recent significant cases including: RSPB vs Scottish Ministers (2017); Douglas vs Perth and Kinross Council (2017); and Wildland ltd vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

Delivering new housing

The afternoon opened with a panel session, where speakers tackled the million-dollar question of whether planning reform will assist in the delivery of new homes to help tackle the growing housing crisis. Speakers from Renfrewshire council, the University of Glasgow, house builder Taylor Wimpey, and Rettie & Co. discussed a range of topics from barriers to the delivery of homes and infrastructure, to the setting of national housebuilding targets, as well as the challenge of building the right sort of housing, in the right place at the right cost, and the role of local authorities in meeting housing need.

The afternoon session included a second case law roundup which saw review and discussion of recent significant cases including: Taylor Wimpey vs Scottish Ministers (2016); Angus Estates (Carnoustie) LLP vs Angus Kinross Council (2017); and Hopkins Homes Ltd. vs Scottish Ministers (2017).

The role of planning in driving inclusive growth

The conference was closed by self-professed “economic agitator” Ross Martin, who discussed the role of planning more widely within Scotland’s economy and its role as an agent for driving inclusive growth. He stressed the need for planners and other related professionals to look at the “bigger picture” when it comes to planning, using the system as the engine for growth and development, rather than as a barrier, and challenged those in the room to think creatively about how planning can play a role in strategic, but inclusive growth in Scotland going forward.

Some of the key points of discussion to come out of the conference were:

  • Planners, and planning lawyers need to recognise the importance of the wider social and economic context on their decision making, even if that decision only relates to one single building
  • Brexit is providing a lot of uncertainty and raising a lot of questions about the future of planning and environmental law in Scotland and the UK as a whole, but it may provide an opportunity for practitioners to take the lead and shape the system in a way that better suits current needs
  • There is scope and appetite, following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, to create a specialist planning and environmental law court to help scrutinise decisions and fill the void left by the EU in terms of accountability and implementation of environmental law, practice and strategy going forward

SPEL Journal is a bi- monthly journal published by the Idox Information Service. The journal is unique in covering all aspects of planning and environmental law in Scotland. Each issue contains articles on new legislation, significant court cases, expert comment on key planning appeals, government circulars and guidance, ombudsman cases and book reviews. SPEL deals with matters of practical concern to practitioners both in the public and private sector. Please contact Christine Eccleson at christine.eccleson@idoxgroup.com if you are interested in learning more about the journal or our subscription rates.

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Is the sun setting on the UK’s onshore wind industry?

 

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In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative Party made a clear promise:

“We will halt the spread of onshore windfarms”

Soon after winning the election, the Conservative government followed through on this commitment, introducing three key changes concerning onshore wind in England and Wales:

  1. New planning guidance was issued stating that onshore wind farms must be sited in areas “identified as suitable for wind energy in a local or neighbourhood plan”, and that any objections from local communities to proposed developments must be “fully addressed”.
  2. Energy secretary Amber Rudd announced the phasing-out of renewables subsidies, with onshore wind subsidies ending a year earlier than planned, in April 2016.
  3. The government’s 2015 Energy Bill (England and Wales) included a measure to devolve powers to determine major onshore wind farm applications (with a capacity of more than 50 megawatts) to local authorities.

Onshore wind in context

Since the construction of the UK’s first commercial wind farm in 1991, onshore wind energy has grown to become the country’s largest source of renewable energy generation. With more than 8GW of operational capacity, onshore wind accounted for 11% of the country’s electricity last year, reaching a record 17% in December.

An Office for National Statistics survey reported that, in 2014, about 3,000 businesses were operating in the onshore wind sector, which employed 6,500 people across the UK – 3,000 in England, 2,500 in Scotland, and 500 each in Wales and Northern Ireland, generating £2.8bn.

Renewable UK, which represents the wind and marine energy sector, argues that onshore wind is an environmentally-friendly and cost effective form of energy:

“A modern 2.5MW (commercial scale) turbine, on a reasonable site, will generate 6.5 million units of electricity each year – enough to make 230 million cups of tea.”

In recent years, higher capacity turbines and improvements and reductions in installation, operation and maintenance costs have made onshore wind more economically attractive. The European Wind Energy Association claims that onshore wind is now the cheapest form of new power generation in Europe.

Responses to the policy changes

In its manifesto, the Conservative Party acknowledged that onshore wind makes a meaningful contribution to the country’s energy mix, but observed that onshore windfarms often fail to win public support, and are unable by themselves to provide the capacity that a stable energy system requires. The government has since underlined that there is no longer any need for subsidising onshore wind and that the £800m in subsidies added about £10.00 to an annual household energy bill.

An article in The Economist agreed that subsidies for renewables were too generous and pointed out that onshore wind is an unreliable energy source. This was echoed by former environment secretary Owen Paterson, who said:  “There is absolutely no place for subsidising wind – a failed medieval technology which during the coldest day of the year so far produced only 0.75 per cent of the electricity load.”

However, environmental campaigners, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Jonathon Porritt, argued that scrapping support for wind turbines, rather than phasing them out, would increase the cost of meeting carbon reduction targets, or increase the risk of missing them. This, in turn, they said would lead the UK to pursue more expensive decarbonisation options, resulting in additional costs to consumers.

Meanwhile, energy companies warned that the policy changes had made some renewable power projects “uninvestable”.  In October 2015, the Financial Times reported that one renewable energy company had scrapped nine onshore wind projects in England in the previous four months, halting investments of more than £250m. The company said it had instead switched its investments to projects in the Netherlands and Germany.

In Scotland, which has 61% of the UK’s onshore wind capacity, the Scottish Government has stressed that it continues to support onshore wind and other sources of renewable energy. In December 2015, Scottish chief planner John McNairney wrote to Scotland’s heads of planning explaining that the administration has not changed its stance on onshore wind farms or energy targets.

The planning changes

With regard to the planning aspects of the policy reforms, the Royal Town Planning Institute questioned the need to enable major wind farm projects to be decided locally, given that local planning authorities already have final consenting power for onshore wind farms under 50 megawatts, which make up the majority of applications.

In July 2015, Planning Resource reported that the policy was already having an impact. Kieran Tarpy, managing director at planning consultancy Entrust, said that within days of the new guidance being announced one council had refused a planning application based on the need for community backing. He predicted that the policy changes would have a “dramatic impact” on the number of proposals going into the system.

However, last month, Planning Resource reported that some local authorities, including councils in Hull, Cumbria and Devon, have drawn up draft policies to allocate areas as suitable for wind energy.

The UK government may still be committed to halting the spread of onshore wind farms, but it appears that rumours of the death of onshore wind have been exaggerated.

Energy infrastructure: a heated debate

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Image: Hugh Venables, via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons License

A country’s energy infrastructure is its central nervous system.  Gas and electricity transmission lines, power stations and renewable energy, are the drivers of economic development, as well as keeping our homes light and warm.

But in recent years, a growing sense of urgency has surfaced regarding the future of the UK’s energy infrastructure. Concerns about lack of investment in new power stations have fuelled media reports voicing fears about the challenges of keeping the lights on.

The headline writers may be guilty of some exaggeration, but their concerns are not without foundation. Forecasts by Ofgem, the UK’s energy regulator, indicate that the country’s energy margin (the difference between energy generation supply and peak usage) could fall from 6% at the peak of winter demand in 2014-15 to a possible low of less than 2% just a year later.

And just yesterday, National Grid was in the news with a warning that its capacity to supply electricity this winter will be at a seven-year low due to generator closures and breakdowns.

In stark terms, a report, published this year by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) set out the state of the UK’s energy infrastructure:

“Significant quantities of the UK’s existing electricity generation capacity are expected to be retired soon, with major implications for security of supply unless the conditions to attract investment in new generation are provided. This situation is expected to be further exacerbated as the use of electricity for transport and residential heat increases demand.

And that’s without taking the unexpected into account. The recent serious fire at Didcot power station in Oxfordshire was just the latest in a number of incidents affecting power supply this year. Fires put two power stations in Shropshire and Yorkshire out of action, and four nuclear reactors have been taken offline until at least the end of the year for safety reasons. At the same time, plans for the next generation of gas-powered stations have yet to be enacted, and uncertainty surrounds the commercial viability of new nuclear energy capacity. Added to this complex mix is the contentious issue of fracking, which we focused on in a recent blog post.

For some, the answer to the energy gap lies with renewables, in particular wind power. Proponents argue that large-scale deployment of wind farms offers dual benefits: generating increasing amounts of energy, as well as minimising the effects of climate change.

A report, published earlier this year by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) explored the implications of increasing the amount of wind energy on the electricity system. While acknowledging that large wind turbines have an impact on local communities, the RAE indicated that the installed capacity of wind could more than double to around 26GW, providing around 20% of electrical energy consumed. That might seem like a tall order, but figures from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) show that in 2011 9.4% of UK electricity came from renewable sources, up on 2009, when just 6.7% of electricity was renewable.

Others are not so sure about the impact of renewables. Recently, former Environment Secretary of State Owen Paterson called for the ground-breaking Climate Change Act to be scrapped. He claims that the targets in the Act for cutting emissions are unachievable, too costly and will not provide the UK’s energy requirements:

“In the short and medium term, costs to consumers will rise dramatically, but there can only be one ultimate consequence of this policy: the lights will go out at some time in the future. Not because of a temporary shortfall, but because of structural failures, from which we will find it extremely difficult and expensive to recover.”

Instead of investing in wind power, Paterson argues, the UK should be looking at four alternative policies: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors and demand management.

As the energy debate heats up at national level, some local authorities are taking their own initiatives. Security of energy supply is of great concern to Southampton, a city keen to address strategic priorities, such as tackling fuel poverty, sustaining public services, generating economic development and reducing city-wide carbon emissions.

And so, Southampton City Council has taken a leading role in collaborating with other local authorities to build capacity through local energy generation schemes, large-scale energy efficiency works and local energy networks. The investment shows how seriously the council is taking energy resilience.

At the same time, along with local councils in six countries, Southampton has been a key partner in the European Union’s Leadership for Energy Action and Planning (LEAP) programme. LEAP aims to share expertise among partners to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, and increase the use of renewable energy.

Measures such as these are relatively small in scale, but they might prove crucial as we head into another winter.


 

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on a range of environmental issues. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Low-carbon transitions and the reconfiguration of urban infrastructure

A new approach to electricity markets: how new, disruptive technologies change everything

Power blackouts in the information age: the impact on emergency services

Is there a future role for coal? (Energy supply)

Taking the lead in a low-carbon future (low-carbon redevelopment in Southampton)

When the lights go out (threats to energy infrastructure)

Crossed wires (energy infrastructure for property developments)

N.B. Abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.