Following its manifesto commitment to “give local people the final say” on applications for onshore wind developments, the government has made controversial policy changes. Although these directly affect only the wind industry, they are important to the wider development sector because of their implications for the way in which other types of contentious development might be dealt with in the future.
The new policy prevents the grant of planning permission unless “following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and therefore the proposal has their backing.”
But it is far from clear what the new policy requires in practice. In particular, what does “fully addressed” entail, and what amounts to the requisite “backing” of local communities?
Does a developer merely have to offer evidence to demonstrate that local objections, when evaluated objectively on their merits, do not justify the refusal of planning permission? Or must it somehow be shown that local people actually support the project, or at least that objectors have been mollified by the developer’s responses?
The former would in practice add little to the current policy position, and would plainly fall some way short of the manifesto commitment.
On the other hand the alternative would be wildly inconsistent with the proposition that lies at the heart of the planning system – namely that development proposals should be dealt with on their merits by council planning officers or committees, acting objectively. And it would almost certainly lead to entirely acceptable developments being rejected for reasons that would traditionally be unsustainable on appeal.
Whatever the intended approach (the Secretary of State’s view will become clear in due course as cases are determined on appeal), Whitehall’s message is clear. Wind energy is a politically controversial technology and one whose proliferation the government cannot afford to be associated too closely with. In the circumstances, many will argue that to single out a particular development category in such a way represents an unfortunate politicisation of the planning system, and also that it sets a precedent for the comparable treatment of similarly contentious development types in the future. There is considerable force in such a proposition.