Is it fair to blame councils for the lowest ever approval of wind energy?
I sat, spluttering swearwords screen-wards at the horror before me: a dataset underpinning my #BigEnergyDebate article for The Guardian had not only morphed into a pastel-coloured spreadsheet fit for Microsoft’s determined efforts to simplify existence; it had miraculously shrunk in size by 45%. 3,000 renewable energy planning applications shouldn’t disappear without explanation1.
This reminded me of the frustration I felt with almost every local council and community project I developed and delivered for central government. Goal posts and the laws of physics (or at least community and sustainable energy sectors) moved with the speed and logic of my cat Kiki.
Deadlines, processes, funding allocations: everything was moveable when a senior Government officer or politician stuck their oar in. Round pegs were now expected to fit perfectly designed square holes. Despite mine and others’ best efforts, the round pegs were jabbed forcefully through, followed by futile project evaluations. Lesser beings would not get away with such flippant design alterations.
Local councils’ refusal is a symptom: the causes of a halving of wind approval rates runs deeper
Whilst my article helped inspire Green Tinking, the title wasn’t my first choice2. Some councils make the right decisions, but others’ councillors are succumbing to their vocal voters, driving forwards their own agenda or kowtowing to the Tories’ top-brass view of onshore wind.
I and many others might like to lay the blame at the feet of councillors who have blocked wind farm applications, but it’s not that simple. There are other, more cloak and dagger factors playing a role.
The slashing of planning guidance to the meaningless mediocrity the NPPF represents has blindfolded local councils. They no longer have a rulebook to judge applications. Instead, more and more will look for inspiration from Eric Pickles’ shocking record of refusal. Last season’s fashion was visual impact, but now objectors’ weapon is the nearest listed building citing historical harm.
Austerity cuts have reduced local councils capacity to spend time on planning applications; and overstretched or removed sustainability officers, who previously had informed and educated their colleagues and councillors on the merits of wind energy.
We, or those who don’t vote in local elections, are also to blame. With greater local turnout, local politicians would not need to be scared of vocal locals’ voting power or negative publicity. Nor would they so willingly flaunt their constituents’ opinions.
The First Division of Windy local councils
Carrying on the theme of my last blog post, I’d planned to create a premier league of sustainable energy statistics, allowing easy comparison between local council areas.
Until I’ve heard from DECC or their newly appointed consultants Eunomia, the premier league will have to wait. For now, using the data2 I used in the Guardian article, I’ve created the First Division: a list of the top twenty windy councils’ key stats.
Footnotes and a final nod to data
The First Division of windy councils were selected based on them all having over 100MW of onshore wind proposed in their area. Each was assigned a score based on the approved MW per 100km2, then multiplied by the population density (as dwellings diminish the potential resource).
- The data underpinning my article’s analysis of approval rates is from The UK Renewable Energy Planning Database. On accessing it in January 2015, the number of unique records had dropped from when I’d last accessed it from 7,459 to 4,109. I have since found the database only records installations over 1MW; covering most wind farm applications requiring planning permission.
- My chosen title was “Why do planning approval rates for wind power no longer match public opinion” (67% of people favour onshore wind).
- I downloaded an extract of the old Renewable Energy Planning Database in November 2013. I carried out my analysis and uploaded this alongside the complete raw dataset here: http://goo.gl/VcdyUA