The Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) have been revoked by the new coalition government on 6 July this year. Haydn Scholes, director of Wardell Armstrong’s renewable energy group, looks at the consequences.
So the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) have gone – revoked by the new coalition government on 6 July this year. But as a by-product of their abolition – whether this was ever intended or not – gone too are the renewable energy targets which were previously embedded in these strategies for regions and in many cases for their dependant sub-regional and local authorities too. Coming at the same time as the proposed abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the loss of planning delivery grants from central government, the planning environment has changed dramatically – and with quite possibly profound effects on the setting and achievement of renewable energy generation targets. Regional targets seemed to many like a good idea, enabling a wider view and scope than would ever be possible with individual authority targets alone. They were set following regional renewable energy resource assessments which provided a robust evidence base for the targets and regional renewables planning policies. The idea was that regional strategies would replace obsolete county structure plans and that every planning authority (districts, boroughs and unitaries) would produce a Local Development Framework (LDF) – which in turn would drive Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs) and Area Action Plans (AAPs) for localised and specific development. The problem of course is that most local authorities are still producing their LDFs, and that many of those who have produced them haven’t successfully taken their core strategies through to Examination in Public, predominantly because of issues and objections relating to housing targets rather than renewable energy. On top of that, quite a few authorities have recently merged into county wide unitaries and are having to start the LDF process again with a gaggle of disparate half completed sub-regional LDFs, and possibly some SPDs and AAPs to integrate into it. So with the removal of RSSs, precious little legislation at a local level yet in place and no new overarching policy from the government likely to be forthcoming until after the Autumn spending review, are renewable energy targets just another victim of the law of unintended consequences? Other than high level national policies such as PPS1 and PPS22, we’re left with a policy vacuum. The problem is compounded by a lack of money to do things properly because of austerity measures. In the absence of any overarching policy or renewable targets embedded in local planning guidance, another risk is a prolonged period of concentration on local interests and passing the buck, where everyone leaves it to someone else (including the local authority itself) to meet the targets. This all plays into the hands of the vociferous “anti renewables lobby” – people who don’t believe climate change is happening or that it is manmade. Then add to this the NIMBYs who recognised the problem but would rather it was dealt with somewhere else. Unfortunately, there’s a natural tendency for local politicians to listen to this minority of people who shout the loudest rather than the silent majority who know that renewable energy makes sense. But the real dangers of course lie in what happens if we continue without implementing high volumes of renewable energy and over rely on finite fossil fuel resources with all their attendant issues of climate change and energy security. At its starkest, the lights could go out. The common assumption is that when you flick a switch, on comes the electricity – just like water flows from a tap (although that’s another story). But as our older fossil fuel power stations life out and demand increases – despite the good work of our energy efficiency colleagues – the quid pro quo is that we will simply have to use new low carbon forms of power generation of all kinds, and that some or all of it will inevitably be in someone’s back yard. The key is to minimise the impact in every possible way and to make as much of it as possible renewable. Which brings us back to the targets. At the very least, renewable energy targets should be reinstated at a regional level and updated for 2020 – especially since the UK as a whole is only halfway towards achieving its 2010 targets and cannot possibly meet them now. And strong renewables targets will still need to be embedded in LDFs as a reliable driver to oblige planning authorities to take climate change fully into account, and give appropriate weight to renewable energy developments that help meet them. It isn’t too late. Let’s be generous and say that the law of unintended consequences has led to renewable energy targets being unintentionally abolished as part of the scrapping of RSSs. But for all our sakes they need to be restored – and soon. -ends- About Wardell Armstrong Wardell Armstrong (www.wardell-armstrong.com) is a leading independent engineering consultancy specialising in environmental development and management. With a strong heritage dating back more than 170 years, the firm is today helping to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges like renewable energy generation, waste management and environmentally responsible mining. Wardell Armstrong provides wide-ranging renewable energy experience – covering wind, biomass, waste to energy, geothermal, hydro, wave, tidal and solar energy projects. Wardell Armstrong supports local and regional government organisations that need assistance with their sustainable energy strategies and carbon management plans. The firm also offers advice and practical support to utility companies, energy project and land developers, landowners, venture capitalists, smaller businesses and farm scale operations.