It’s that time of year when we start having to turn the heating on again but, in the face of rising energy bills, the good news is that there has been a lot of activity in the area of renewable energy consents this quarter. For more on which, and other matters relating to national policy and legislation, and the key sectors in which we operate, read on below.
Planning application statistics – kicking off the quarter with a look back at the year before, the most recent planning application statistics (published by the Scottish Government at the end of July 2023) show that, in 2022/2023, the number of planning applications decided was lower than it generally has been in recent years, yet:
– the average time taken to determine local development applications increased to 11.5 weeks (2.4 weeks longer than pre-pandemic timescales and 3.5 weeks longer than the 8-week target); and
– while the average time taken to determine major development applications decreased to 39.5 weeks (down from 44.6 weeks in 2021/2022), this is still over twice the 16 week target.
Of course, these statistics are influenced by some outliers which, for various reasons, have taken significantly longer to determine and have pushed up the mean average, and a large proportion of applications are still decided within the target timescales. At the same time though, they clearly reflect the pressures that many planning authorities are facing, and the need for investment to ensure planning services continue to function efficiently.
NPF4 support for renewables – in an interesting case illustrating the effect of changes introduced by NPF4 for renewable energy related developments, an appeal against the refusal of consent for the 70.2MW Shepherds Rig wind farm in Dumfries and Galloway was allowed in August this year (appeal reference WIN-170-2005), despite Reporters having originally recommended refusal in April 2022. That was though before NPF4 was adopted and, having reconsidered the proposal against the policies of NPF4, the recommendation (and ultimate decision) changed to one of approval on the basis that NPF4 sets a general expectation that more renewable energy proposals may be granted consent, while also making it possible for environmental benefits to outweigh significant adverse effects on local nature conservation sites and landscape areas. This clearly has implications for how other applications for renewable energy development should be assessed in future, making it seem more likely that these will be supported.
NPF4 Policy 16 (Quality homes) – on the flip side of the impacts of the implementation of NPF4, our June bulletin touched on the Scottish Ministers’ call in of an appeal for residential development at Mossend in West Lothian (PPA-400-2147) on the basis that it raised national issues in respect of the application of Policy 16 of NPF4. Of relevance in this case is part f) of the Policy which sets out the circumstances in which proposals for new homes on land not allocated for housing in the Local Development Plan (LDP) may be supported, including where the delivery of sites is happening earlier than identified in the deliverable housing land pipeline. So, under the terms of NPF4, unallocated sites can only be released where allocated sites are being delivered too quickly. The appellants argued that in the absence of a “new style” LDP having been adopted, there was no deliverable housing land pipeline and hence this provision was not applicable. However, on 19 July 2023, Scottish Ministers dismissed this appeal on the grounds that there was nothing in Policy 16 to indicate that this would not be effective until a “new style” LDP is adopted and, with the Mossend application failing to comply with Policy 16, planning permission fell to be refused. In turn, any other applications for housing development on unallocated sites are also now likely to be refused, unless there are material considerations justifying approval contrary to Policy 16 (with that no longer including a shortfall in the 5 year effective housing land supply), or the Mossend decision is successfully appealed. On which, an application to challenge the decision in the Court of Session was lodged on 24 August, so all eyes will now be on what happens with that…
Scottish Government consultations – as soon as one consultation closes, it seems that another one opens, with one that may be of particular interest to anyone submitting or objecting to a planning application being that on Mandatory Training on Planning for Elected Members. In brief, the Scottish Government is intending to implement mandatory training on planning for elected members as part of a wider package of measures to improve the performance of the planning system as a whole, with members to be prohibited from carrying out certain specified planning functions (including the determination of planning applications) if they have not completed the training. This is important because elected members have a crucial role in the decision-making process within the planning system, but most do not have a planning background, and so it is hoped that training will help ensure they make decisions that are robust and sound in planning terms, and thus also improve consistently in decision making. The consultation asks questions around who should receive training and what the focus of that training should be, as well as how it should be delivered. So, if you are interested in how the democratic process for planning might be improved, we would encourage you to respond to this consultation by the deadline of 26 October 2023.
Faster consents for onshore wind – this month, the publication of the Programme for Government 2023 – 2024 saw the Scottish Government commit to speeding up the consenting process for onshore wind farms of 50MW or more, with the ambition being to halve the average determination time for such applications (which are made to the Scottish Government’s Energy Consents Unit under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989) to 12 months, as long as there is no public inquiry. Of course, this needs to be considered in the context of the current target of 50 weeks for section 36 applications to go through the inquiry process where required (as set out in Guidance Note 23), but it is hopefully a step in the right direction at least.
Renewable energy related developments – this quarter has also seen a number of notable renewable energy related developments approved, including:
– a £500 million underground pumped storage hydro facility, which is to be developed next to Drax Group’s existing Cruachan facility in Argyll and, by effectively doubling the site’s total generation capacity to more than 1GW, will enable the integration of more wind and solar power onto the grid;
– the first phase of a renewable energy powered hydrogen production, storage and distribution facility in Aberdeen, designed to deliver over 800 kilograms of green hydrogen a day (enough to fuel 25 buses and a similar number of other fleet vehicles), which will reinforce Aberdeen’s position as a pioneering hydrogen city; and
– particularly gratifying for us, a battery energy storage system with an installed capacity of up to 49.9MW, which is to be located close to the existing Fiddes substation, near Laurencekirk in Aberdeenshire, for which we secured consent on behalf of our client, One Planet Developments Limited.
Acorn carbon capture and storage project – August also saw Prime Minister Rishi Sunak grant the Acorn carbon capture and storage project at St Fergus Terminal near Peterhead access to a substantial funding pot, as long as it becomes operational by 2030. The announcement will support the project’s plans to store CO2 emissions in the North Sea and transform natural gas into blue hydrogen, said to be a critical part of both the UK’s and Scotland’s plans for achieving net zero, whilst also supporting economic growth through the development of a new energy industry. In terms of the ultimate environmental impact though, this will need to be balanced with the potential for increased emissions from burning gas to generate hydrogen from North Sea natural gases and from other sources.
Scolpaig spaceport – as regular readers will know, we have a keen and active interest in Scotland’s emerging space industry and, in particular, the development of our new spaceports. So, whilst construction on the Sutherland Spaceport (which we were involved in securing the planning consent for) and SaxaVord Spaceport in Shetland is now continuing apace, we were pleased to see that Scottish Ministers cleared the determination of Scotland’s third spaceport in Scolpaig, North Uist by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) in July. Each of the three spaceports has come with its own unique challenges, but they will all contribute to meeting the Scottish Government’s target of securing a £4bn share of the global space market.
On us – we have long been advocates of ensuring that the planning system works in the interests of all members of the community, including the business community. With that in mind, we are delighted that Maggie has played a part in the development of the British Chamber of Commerce manifesto for planning (Economic Growth: Planning for Business – 2023 and Beyond) which was published this month. The manifesto sets out how the Chamber believes a more effective and efficient planning system can boost business investment, sustainable economic growth and prosperity for all through, for example, ensuring that: local planning authorities are better resourced; there is more certainty and stability in planning policy; a more proactive approach is taken in planning for inward investment opportunities; and that action is taken to support net zero.
To find out how we can help with any renewable energy infrastructure or emerging technology related developments, or if you are a charity or community group looking for assistance, then please visit our website or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you would like sign up for email updates, please click here.
Thanks for reading!
Pippa and Maggie