Energy MSPs demand far clearer rules on fracking and wind-parc planning

Holyrood logoScotland’s draft national planning framework and policy lacks clarity on planning rules for onshore wind farms and unconventional gas, according to the Scottish Parliament’s Energy Committee.

In their final report, MSPs noted their concerns about the lack of information on how large areas of land identified as core wild land will affect wind farm development in Scotland. Currently, there is too much uncertainty on whether the designation of an area as wild land will prohibit economic development projects.

Fuller guidance to planning authorities on proposed developments for unconventional gas or ‘fracking’ should also be included in the final planning policy, said MSPs.

Many of these issues are set to be aired tomorrow (Tuesday) when the UK’s first public inquiry into controversial extraction methods for coal-bed methane gas opens (See ‘Fracking’, below).

The draft Third National Planning Framework (NPF3) and the Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) documents underpin the planning system in Scotland. The documents are currently being scrutinised by four parliamentary committees.

Murdo Fraser, MSP, Convener of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee,  said: “The Committee was disappointed not to be able to fully scrutinise the key policies that will underpin our planning system, particularly controversial issues such as the future siting of onshore wind farms and unconventional onshore oil and gas extraction.

“Scotland deserves a transparent and consistent policy that provides clarity for planners, developers and communities.

“The lack of clarity on how the Core Areas Wild Land Map is to be used together with ambiguity on the separation distance between communities and wind farms is causing uncertainty in the renewable energy industry and in communities where wind farms could be located. If Scotland is to stay on track to meet its challenging renewable energy targets then this must be urgently addressed.”

Dennis Robertson, MSP, Deputy Convenor, said “We welcomed the opportunity to hear from stakeholders, who held a range of different views on Scotland’s planning policy. In reference to energy, these views reflected the importance of a need for balance between achieving protection of wild land and releasing Scotland’s energy potential. In particular, the Committee heard concerns on wild land designation and asked for further guidance for planning authorities when considering proposals for onshore oil and gas developments. .”

“This has been a valuable opportunity to feed into planning policy and we look forward to debate on this next week in Parliament.”

In its report, the Committee has made the following points:


Core areas of wild land maps

While the Committee understands the reason for further consultation on this controversial issue, the timing of that has impacted on the ability of the Committee to hear the views of stakeholders on the Scottish Government’s proposed position on how the Core Areas of Wild Land Map is to be used. This has hindered our ability to scrutinise this area in full. The Committee recommends that for future National Planning Framework (NPF) updates and Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) reviews, all consultations and working group considerations should be completed prior to laying the draft framework so that parliamentary committees have all the necessary information to hand to scrutinise the government’s proposals.

The Committee recommends that the final NPF3 and SPP need to provide greater clarity on how the Core Areas of Wild Land Map is to be used in practice by planners to achieve the required protection for wild land in a consistent and transparent way. At the moment, there is too much uncertainty on whether the designation of an area as wild land prohibits economic development projects.

The Committee recommends that the final NPF3 and SPP provide a clear statement on whether or not the intention is that development can take place in areas identified as wild land in circumstances, where environmental constraints can be satisfactorily addressed.


Separation distances for wind farms

It is clear from the evidence we took that there are different interpretations of the term ‘community’ and uncertainty over how the term ‘wind farm’ will be interpreted. For example, how many dwellings are required to form a community and how large does a development have to be before it constitutes a wind farm? Consequently, the Committee recommends that the final NPF3 and SPP documents provide much greater clarity on these two issues.

The Committee welcomes the Minister’s commitment to reconsider the evidence received before making a final decision on the original proposal to increase the separation distance from 2km to 2.5km between wind farms and local communities. The Committee recommends that the Minister includes guidance in the final SPP on whether the separation distance is to be applied as a fixed boundary or whether flexibility can be applied by local planning authorities depending on the scale, size and number of wind turbines, the impact on topography and the levels of community support.


Development of unconventional gas and the technique of ‘fracking’

The Committee recommends that, in the interests of transparency, the final SPP should include an explanation of the different roles and responsibilities of the various agencies involved in the licensing and monitoring of unconventional gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing and that the planning policy outlines the consultation requirement for each process.

The Committee welcomes the Minister’s commitment to consider whether the application processes for unconventional gas extraction and the use of hydraulic fracturing fully involve the communities where the extraction could take place and recommend that both processes should be subject to the same level of community consultation.

As the possible sites for unconventional gas extraction are often located in urban areas, the Committee welcomes the Minister’s commitment to establishing a ‘buffer zone’ between these developments and local communities. We recommend that the Minister considers the evidence the Committee has received on the possible environmental, tourism and community impacts of such developments and confirms that the final SPP will have a robust separation distance and whether it will be a fixed distance or based on individual circumstances.[1]

Whilst we welcome the Expert Panel’s remit to provide “an independent, impartial evidence base on unconventional oil and gas extraction upon which to inform a robust policy position”, we are disappointed that this work was not concluded prior to the Committee taking evidence and that the Minister has not yet confirmed whether the Expert Panel would report within the 60-day parliamentary scrutiny period.

The Committee recommends that the final SPP provides fuller guidance to planning authorities when considering proposals for onshore oil and gas developments than at present, specifically taking into account the environmental and social impacts on communities.

Given the controversy and lack of understanding of the nature of unconventional gas extraction processes, the Committee recommends that the Scottish Government consider how SEPA and local planning authorities can work together to ensure that communities are adequately consulted on any applications for unconventional gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing and that the final SPP includes guidance on agreeing sufficient restoration processes.

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