Community Renewables: Onshore Wind

Earlier this summer Ambition Lawrence Weston (ALW) a resident-led charity and company received planning approval for a new community wind turbine at Severn Road, Bristol via their development company Ambition Community Energy C.I.C (ACE) led by project team David Tudgey & Dr Charles Gamble. The Landmark Practice has coordinated the EIA and provided landscape and ecology support, needless to say we were thrilled for our client.  You can read more about this scheme here.  We also made the papers!

The consent has generated no small amount of interest and, as a development team, we are keen to spread the word – although not without challenges, onshore wind development is possible.

The Onshore Wind challenge

A number of years ago, delivery of onshore wind experienced what is fair to call huge setbacks due to withdrawal of policy and financial support.  So does planning approval of the Ambition scheme represent a ‘change in the wind’?

Potentially the greatest policy barrier to development of onshore wind projects at the moment is the requirements that are set out in the 2015 Written Ministerial Statement (WMS, (HCWS42)), which is carried into the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF – footnote 49 to para 154b).  This sets two pre-conditions for onshore wind proposals:

  • That the site is identified as suitable for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan; and
  • That all identified impacts on local communities should be fully addressed following consultation.

Identification of sites in development plan documents: Some Local Plans do include for identification of areas for wind turbine development, and there is potential for communities that are developing Neighbourhood Plans to seek to identify suitable areas for this technology.

Addressing impacts on communities: Engagement with stakeholders at an early stage is key to identify any planning impacts that the scheme may have and ensure that these are fully addressed and that the proposal has community backing.

What we did

In the case of the Ambition turbine, the site was not located in an area allocated for wind energy development as such, but the area is identified as being suitable for renewable and low carbon energy installations.

As a community led development, ALW/ACE was very proactive in engaging with relevant consultees and the Local Planning Authority (Bristol City Council). In addition to comprehensive community engagement by ALW/ACE, pre-application advice was sought to gauge Council Officers views and identify key environmental and planning matters to be addressed by the application.

As the turbine was proposed to be located near to a site designated for its international value for birds (The Severn Estuary) an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was required and a formal Scoping exercise was undertaken which resulted in a ‘tightly scoped EIA that focused specifically on matters that relate to the nature conservation value of the Estuary.  EIAs shouldn’t include everything and the kitchen sink – your consultant should work hard for you to keep the scope focussed.

Following this EIA Scoping exercise a Planning Performance Agreement was entered into with the Council.  As part of the Agreement, Council Officers were consulted on the scope of work and preliminary findings which helped us to deal with any officer concerns upfront.  We also had regular update meetings with the Planning Case Officer and agreed a schedule for submission and determination of the application.  The last was vital due to a need to meet funding deadlines for the project. Furthermore, as I’m sure the project Planners at Pegasus would agree, the value of a well-informed Case Officer cannot be overstated as they will be asked questions by the planning committee and well informed answers can make or break this process.

The Natural England Discretionary Advice service was also engaged. Natural England is the Government’s nature conservation advisory body and given the proximity of the Severn Estuary European site its view was sought on the scope of the surveys and their findings.  We were very pleased that Natural England was happy with the scope of work that was undertaken and was satisfied that this showed that significant adverse effects on the European site and protected species could be avoided.

Whilst the planning application received its fair share of ups and downs along the way, the result was fantastic – a unanimous Committee decision to approve.  ALW is currently busy with procurement to get the approved turbine up and running.

So what did we learn?

Whilst the requirements of the WMS and NPPF are important in relation to onshore wind, they should not be seen as a bar to development. They are one (albeit important) material consideration amongst many others and should be weighed in the balance as part of the planning judgement. UK Legislation outlines a pressing need for implementing renewable energy schemes to contribute to legally binding obligations and many Local Planning Authorities have declared ‘Climate Emergencies.’

That said this element of the WMS and NPPF, does, however, stress the importance of the local picture and what developers can and should be doing at a local level with local communities to bring these projects forward.  Whether you are a community group, private developer or statutory body you should aim to bring your community with you – meaningful engagement is vital.

Sharing the lessons

Members of the ALW/ACE team, including Landmark, recently presented the Ambition Turbine case study to Agrores as part of its Onshore Wind webinar.    If you’ve the time you may wish to watch the full recording here.  For those more time constrained, our key take away messages are as follows:

  • Engage with the local community and other stakeholders – community support is very important (how is ‘community’ and ‘support’ defined? Excellent questions  – I highly recommend that you contact Dave Tudgey, project Development Manager to discuss);
  • When site finding, wind availability, grid connection and a willing land owner are key. It’s also important, however, to check for any relevant designations (whether supportive for wind or potential constraints) and relevant planning policy;
  • If budget is limited, carefully consider timing of assessments to inform turbine siting and scheme design and hit key survey seasonal windows where applicable;
  • If your projects is Screened by the planning authority as an EIA project, don’t despair, there have been many successful wind EIA projects, but be sure to manage the scope carefully to focus on key issues and manage costs;
  • Site design is an iterative process and this is a good thing. Be prepared to ‘microsite’ and record the process to demonstrate that you are responding to environmental and social considerations; and
  • Engage early with the local planning authority and keep planning officers updated – a well informed Planning Case Officer is invaluable.