Change to planning policy boosts Scottish renewables projects

Gary McGovern, Partner and planning and environment specialist at Pinsent Masons

There is growing evidence that changes made to planning policy a year ago are having a material and positive impact on the ability of onshore wind developers to obtain consent for their projects in Scotland.

The fourth version of the national planning framework (NPF4), which took effect on 13 February, provides a strengthened need case for onshore wind projects and enhances the weight given to combatting the climate crises by decision-makers over other factors that can weigh against consent being granted – including concerns raised about the visual impact of wind farms or their effect on local landscapes.

The policy change has already resulted in the consenting of several projects that would not have been approved under the old policy and supports developers that are now exploring other sites that may have previously been considered unlikely to obtain consent.

The revised policy also applies to “repowering’ projects”, where developers upgrade wind turbines at an existing site to increase generation capacity or efficiency, in a further change that makes it easier for the UK to hit its renewable energy targets in the years ahead.

While Scotland compares favourably to England as a jurisdiction for onshore wind development, in some projects Pinsent Masons has advised on in Scotland over the years, we have seen how decision makers considered local amenity factors to weigh more heavily than the national need to build onshore wind generation capacity to meet national renewable energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

Wind farm refusals are almost always based on landscape and visual or residential amenity concerns, which are highly subjective in nature. Under NPF4, however, the dial has shifted and decision makers are obliged to give significant weight to the global climate and nature crises when considering all development proposals.

The new policy materially strengthens support for all forms of renewables development, including wind farms. In particular, larger wind farms – over 50MW installed capacity – are now categorised as “national development” and are therefore regarded by government as developments giving rise to benefits of national importance.

The practical impact of the change in policy is demonstrated by two projects that had been heading for refusal – the Clashindarroch II Wind Farm in Aberdeenshire and the Shepherds’ Rig Wind Farm in Dumfries and Galloway – but which were given the go-ahead last year.

In two further cases, the positive impact of NPF4 on the planning balance for onshore wind was confirmed with a government reporter saying “the new policies do ratchet the need case upward” with regards to a Highland wind farm, while another reporter noted there had been a “tangible shift in planning policy” with regards to a project in Dumfries and Galloway and East Ayrshire.

Overall, care is still needed in site selection and appropriate design mitigation – NPF4 energy policy will not automatically or always trump all other factors. However, the overwhelming policy picture is positive for onshore wind development in Scotland. That is especially so when compared to the position in England where the corresponding national policy continues to serve as a de-facto ban on such projects.