In December, the UK Government announced its intention to relax the rules for onshore wind in England. The changes are part of the current consultation on the revised national planning policy and clearly show the government’s move towards making it easier for local authorities to approve new schemes where there is local support.
But with concerns from well-organised opposition groups about impacts, specifically environmental, how can developers work with communities to help shore-up onshore?
Understanding the audience
Development of onshore wind and the need for community engagement are inextricably linked. From site identification and planning to construction and operation, developers will need a deep understanding of local communities, businesses, landowners and public representatives in order to identify opportunities and manage concerns.
At the early stages especially, this means going beyond listening to the loud and active, and seeking out views from those seldom heard. Only through early, inclusive, and open conversations will developers build trust: the first step towards local support.
The good practice guidance by the government promotes wide ranging engagement, learning from best practice and use of digital engagement techniques, alongside more traditional methods. What’s important is that projects create a tailored approach to engagement, using digital and social media tools which meet the communities needs and step significantly beyond simply making project documentation available online.
Unlike most other significant energy projects, which follow prescribed consultation and engagement requirements outlined in the Planning Act 2008, the decisions on the onshore wind planning process in England will continue to be made at a local level.
Whilst we are expecting further details from government on how to show community support, it is clear that developers will be encouraged to put stakeholders and communities at the heart of the proposals. Through pre-application consultation and meaningful engagement, they will be asked to show they have not just recorded feedback, but willingly considered design changes including in the size and layout of projects.
Demonstrating regard for comments received is similar to the requirements of the Planning Act, but where the reviewer in that case would be the apolitical Planning Inspectorate which would make a recommendation to the decision-making secretary of state, the reviewer in this case would be the local authority, which would make a recommendation to its own decision-making planning committee. Local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate are very different kinds of organisations, with different perspectives, processes, political pressures, resources, and levels of scrutiny, so developers should be mindful about how these different contexts could affect the outcome.
Tailored but consistent
A localised approach to wind farms is already being delivered in Wales and Scotland. In Wales, onshore wind planning applications above 10MW are made directly to the Welsh Ministers under the Developments of National Significance (DNS) process. The policies around onshore wind focus on providing economic, social, and environmental benefits to the communities that host wind energy projects.
Over the border, Scotland’s parliament approved National Planning Framework 4 earlier this month providing updated planning policy, including guidance to ease renewable energy projects in the consenting process.
It seems across the UK, policy makers are moving to ease up the planning process for onshore wind whilst remaining committed to maximising economic and community benefits. With many developers working across the nations, a consistent approach to engagement would be beneficial to developers as well as helping local stakeholders better understand and engage with the planning processes. This consistency should be accompanied by tailored benefits which truly reflect local communities.
Develop the benefits with the community
As well as supporting the UK’s energy security and the nation’s net zero ambitions, onshore wind is one of the cheapest ways of generating low carbon electricity, and stands to benefit the regional economies by delivering green jobs and supply chain opportunities, as well as fitting into local authorities net zero strategies.
Beyond these wider benefits, it is common for such schemes to give financial, or in-kind, contributions to local communities. These voluntary arrangements from renewable energy businesses to neighbouring communities offer a structure through which communities can benefit directly by hosting much-needed renewables schemes.
This is often in the form of funds and in Scotland, as outlined in the Good Practice Principles, is in general of the value equivalent to £5,000 per installed megawatt per annum, index linked for the operational lifetime of the project. In the recent Net Zero Review Chris Skidmore recommended a framework on future community benefit and the government will be consulting further on how community benefits could work in England, but we can assume a similar model is likely to be put in place here.
Good, early community-orientated engagement can foster a collaborative approach to developing a community benefits package, and is an effective way to create bespoke, tangible benefits for a community, and build a solid platform on which to develop a symbiotic relationship with that host community.
With energy bills at the forefront of most people’s minds, developers may also see an increase in interest in shared ownership, with communities and private developers investing in, developing and operating projects together. Exploring this as an option early could be key to demonstrating an understanding of a community’s real-life challenges, and could help build local support.
As with all infrastructure, engagement doesn’t stop at gaining planning consent. Building a relationship during development will always help when projects move into the often more challenging construction period.
With a lifetime of 20-30 years, it is also important that the developers and operators engage transparently about their intentions; about repowering, decommissioning and life extensions as early as possible.
When it comes to success in onshore wind, the spotlight must be shone again on Scotland, where the industry has a capacity of 8.8GW and supports over 10,000 jobs, is contributing £2.5 billion to the economy.
Liberty One, part of BECG Group, has worked on over 1GW renewable energy projects, supporting clients with small scale turbine developments right up to some of the largest and highest profile projects in Scotland. The team’s success places a strong emphasis on active and ongoing consultation with the communities and stakeholders, working with stakeholders to address key issues, promote the tangible benefits of the proposals, seek support and work to help the proposal achieve consent.
Using this extensive experience, we are ready to support developers across the UK as they look to respond to policy change and help them to drive forward good practice and lead the renewables sector in community engagement.
BECG will soon by hosting an event about best practice engagement around on and offshore wind projects in the UK, hosted in Edinburgh. If you are interested and would like to know more please complete this brief form.