Friday Messenger – Scottish planning policy framework – friend or foe?

Paul McCullagh is the CEO of Glasgow-based UrbanWind. With its headquarters in Glasgow, it’s a leading provider of renewable energy technology. Its highly experienced and knowledgeable team has undertaken more than 500 successful turbine installations across the UK. He writes here about Scottish planning…

Paul McCullagh UrbanWind
Paul McCullagh, UrbanWind

Whether you are a large scale developer or a small individual business you cannot escape the planning regime and its associated development control policies. It can be a key enabler or hindrance to development and associated economic growth. Hugely rewarding – or hugely frustrating.

The Scottish Government states that ‘The planning system is used to make decisions about the future development, and the use of land in our towns, cities and countryside.

It considers where development should happen, where it should not and how development affects its surroundings. The system balances competing demands to make sure that land is used and developed in the public’s long-term interest.’

The role of the Planning Officer is therefore recognised as not being an enviable one – with many aspects and competing views of different parties to consider as part of the determination process.

The Scottish Government also claim that ‘Scotland’s planning system has undergone the most significant modernisation in over 60 years. The overall aim is delivery of a planning service that is efficient, inclusive, fit for purpose and sustainable.’

In the renewable energy sector, particularly with small and medium development- then the question for me is has this view actually materialised into the live decision making process?

My view is that, in the renewable energy sector at least, there is still much work to be done to ensure that we have a planning system that is truly efficient and fit for purpose. A key element in this is ensuring that there is a transparent and clear alignment of strategic policy from the top down.

For example, the Government has set ambitious and challenging renewable energy targets for 2020.

A key enabler to this will be the efficient delivery of small and medium wind of which timely planning approval is a key enabler to deliver the necessary infrastructure and to attract the desired investor confidence and financial contribution to the sector.

Yet in practice, the reality is often a very different story.

For example, there currently remains a clear lack of necessary supporting local planning policy guidance which allows developers (and Planning Authorities) to make informed and confident decisions around appropriate siting choices for wind turbines.

This is absolutely key to ensure that much needed development occurs and progresses appropriately and in an acceptable timeframe to ensure that costs and benefits are controlled and materialised efficiently.

The availability of transparent local planning policy (which fully supports national strategy objectives) would be a huge and welcomed step forward which ensures that planning decisions are being made consistently on balanced and recognised planning grounds and removing the risk of protracted, emotional and inappropriate planning decisions.

This would be particularly welcomed in the small and medium wind space where there is an inconsistent and inappropriate lack of distinction being made between larger wind farm developments of multiple large turbines and individual small and medium turbine applications.

For example, the latter often being classified as a wind farm and disproportionately requested to prepare and submit the same level of Environmental Impact Assessment requests by some local planning authorities as for a wind farm.  This is unhelpful and misguided.

Concerns also remain around cumulative impact debate – does the addition of another single turbine in an area have a significantly detrimental visual effect?

Clearly defined and appropriate local planning policy guidelines would greatly assist with this.

An additional key concern remains the resource capabilities within the Planning Authorities. Current economic conditions and its impact on resource within local authorities is also a key factor to hindering development.

Without sufficient, appropriately qualified and trained planning resource in place then the system will simply grind to a halt. The growing time taken to approve planning permissions for singe turbine sites is clear evidence of this. In some cases this can be in excess of eight months.

This sort of delay not only severely impacts the ability to meet the desired Government renewable energy targets – but also significantly impacts the commercial viability of a project where the required supporting return on investment (needed to sustain the economic viability of the project) is very much time driven.

This is not acceptable and damaging to businesses. This is exacerbated by lack of clear planning policies as outlined above.

It is recognised that the Scottish Government is currently reviewing both its Scottish Planning Policy and its National Planning Framework – with outcome due in June 2014. The Scottish Government is urged not to waste this opportunity to provide a much needed overhaul of planning policy to provide greater transparency for developers looking to harness renewable energy technology and meet Government objectives.

It is sincerely hoped that the intended outcome to provide a “robust national basis for enabling development” will be materialised and realise at an individual local planning authority level.

This way the recognised growing appetite for renewable energy from Scottish companies, organisations and landowners looking to mitigate rising power prices and ensure their security of supply can be satisfied.

Renewable energy has the potential to create 40,000 jobs in Scotland, according to studies.

The Scottish Government wants Scotland to be a world leader in renewable energy. Earlier this year a report by Audit Scotland warned that achieving that goal came down to private sector investment.

A transparent and consistent planning policy framework – from national to local level is a key requirement to achieve this.

The new framework is an ideal opportunity for Scotland to walk the talk and make the fundamental changes that are needed to introduce a planning process that works for the benefit of the nation.

Everyone should understand that, regardless of how we produce energy, we need to ensure that, with the decommissioning of traditional fossil-fuel-fired power stations, the lights do not go out. This is a growing concern from business that see real issues in this area unless mitigation measures are in place that can be realised quickly and efficiently.




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