Last Tuesday, the Conservatives launched an “Open Source Planning” green paper that proposes to “reinvigorate and reboot” the planning system should the conservatives win in the next election. The paper states that communities that agree to host wind farms will be able to keep the business rates the scheme generates for six years.
Similarly, in reference to building new houses, the paper states that developers may, in order to speed up the planning process, choose to “compensate nearby householders…in return for their support.”
Whilst change in the current planning system is essential if we’re to improve current levels of consent for wind farms at the local level, the Conservatives’ business rates idea is amongst several proposed financial incentives to “generate real cash for communities” and encourage the public to be more open to the idea of wind turbines or housing in their vicinity. But is financial motivation really the best basis for supporting a development?
As a company that manages public consultation on behalf of more than 30 renewable energy and property developers across the UK, an issue we’re frequently faced with from those in opposition to an application is that of money making and money offering. The latter, in respect of proposed wind farms, questions the notion of the community benefit fund, which is often offered by the developer as a way for the host community to directly benefit from the profits of a scheme. Such a fund is usually invested in improving local facilities or spent on local energy efficiency drives. However, sometimes wind farm opponents accuse developers as using the community benefit fund as a way to “pay off” the locals.
Surely the Conservative policy outlined in the Open Source Planning Paper only further supports this anti-wind argument? Of course the developer wants to make money from a scheme – wind development is a business, after all – but they’re so keen to make a profit that they’re willing to effectively pay locals to change their minds or keep their mouths shut?
Money really isn’t the key to increasing public acceptance of wind power. Whilst it may be a minority who do not support wind power, because they are often the most vocal party during the consultation process, it is their opinions and claims that grab headlines. So there is still some way to go to lift the general level of thinking surrounding wind power in this country. To offer compensation is like admitting that the thing you are developing is fundamentally negative i.e. the wind farm will spoil your view and will reduce the value of your home, so we’re going to compensate you.
The approach we should be taking to convince the small number who don’t want to see turbines in their area is that, now, wind farms are a necessity. Perhaps Ed Miliband was right to claim that objecting to wind power should be seen as “socially unacceptable.” Support (or at least acceptance) for wind power shouldn’t be based on money, it should be based on the reality of our current situation: we need a varied energy mix to help secure our future supply and we need to generate clean energy from renewable sources to reduce our C02 emissions.
Looking further into the future, would a policy that requires payment to host communities of wind farms lead to the creation of an incentive culture in planning in general? Will an application, regardless of nature, only be supported if an incentive is offered or, similarly, will proposals without an offer of money, however sound, face blanket objection from locals? How will the Conservatives define what type of development, renewable energy or otherwise, deserves community compensation?
If the Conservatives do come into power some work will be required to iron out the ambiguities in their Green Paper. For example, it is vague in its definition of “communities” so it is unclear as to who would be entitled to any such compensation. For example, would it be those who can see the turbines, live in the same parish, or district? Also, the requirements of national and local policies would need to be clearly communicated, as it seems that for some members for the community, money could quickly become the sole reason for support.
Jessica Topham is operations director at Consense. Consense manages community consultation for proposed renewable energy projects across the UK, U.S. and Australia, for over 30 clients including ScottishPower Renewables, Mainstream and Viking Energy. Jessica is responsible for the continued growth of the business within the renewables sector and beyond. She also manages a number of consultation projects, with work starting pre-scoping and continuing through the planning process to post-submission.