Onshore wind projects must be given enhanced status within the planning system to speed up the UK’s race to net zero, a key body has insisted.
The National Infrastructure Commission called for the government to classify land-based turbines as nationally significant infrastructure amid a raft of measures to get renewable energy assets on stream more quickly.
This change in status would allow applications to be decided by the secretary of state rather than local authorities. Onshore wind installation has dropped by 80 per cent since its classification as nationally significant was removed in 2016, according to the commission.
“To deliver net zero and energy security, onshore wind, one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy generation, should be included in the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project system,” said the body’s report.
However, the commission added that this system itself needs radical change as the time taken for a nationally significant project to achieve consent had soared by 65 per cent over the past decade.
It now takes more than four years for the government to approve such applications, warned the study, which has been sent to chancellor Jeremy Hunt.
Recommendations to speed up this process include creation of a data-sharing platform to capture environmental information and development of a “library” of potential mitigations for unavoidable harm caused by infrastructure schemes.
By the end of this year, ministers should draw up a “framework of direct benefits” available to local people from big projects that have a national remit, the commission added. This could include “proximity-based payments” or “energy bill discounts” for those affected by a scheme.
A taskforce should also be created to monitor the overall performance of the nationally significant infrastructure planning system, the commission urged, and should be given “measurable targets” for reducing approval times.
Developers of critical projects should be forced to agree service-level agreements to fund statutory consultees with cost-recovery models, the report added, with financial consequences for breaking these deals.
“Improving the speed of the planning system for major infrastructure does not need to come at the expense of good decisions which take communities and the environment into account,” said the commission, which is chaired by former 2012 Olympic delivery chief John Armitt.
“Longer decision-making processes mean more uncertainty for communities. Similarly, inefficiencies in environmental data-gathering and mitigation design slow down the process but do not improve the environment.”
Energy UK deputy policy director Marta Krajewska said the planning system would play a “crucial role” in delivering the “transformational change” required to achieve net zero.
“The increasing delays we’ve seen in recent years threaten to undermine the government’s own targets for accelerating the production of domestic clean energy,” she added. “Bringing onshore wind into the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects system would demonstrate the government’s ambitions for onshore wind, putting it on a level playing field with other energy projects so that we’re making the most of our potential resources and delivering infrastructure that will enable willing local communities to benefit from new developments.”