The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is an important piece of UK Government policy, which sets out various planning policies for England and details how these should be applied by local planning authorities. On 5 September 2023, the NPPF was updated further to a consultation which was undertaken earlier in the year on proposed amendments to NPPF, with a particular focus on potential changes to policy around onshore wind development in England.
For a long time, there have been calls throughout the energy industry to amend planning policy relating to onshore wind in England. It is notoriously difficult to obtain consent for onshore wind development in England due to ‘footnote 54’ of the NPPF. There have been repeated calls for footnote 54 to be removed entirely, and many hoped that the updated NPPF would do so, as this sets an incredibly high bar for consenting onshore wind developments and in practice essentially creates a presumption against onshore wind development.
Despite pressure from across the industry, footnote 54 has not been removed from the updated NPPF. It has been amended to read as follows:
“Except for applications for the repowering and life-extension of existing wind turbines, a planning application for wind energy development involving one or more turbines should not be considered acceptable unless it is in an area identified as suitable for wind energy development in the development plan or a supplementary planning document; and, following consultation, it can be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been appropriately addressed and the proposal has community support.”
The main change in footnote 54 is that supplementary planning documents can now be used to identify suitable areas for wind energy, as opposed to only development plans. This could potentially make it easier and faster for local authorities to allocate land for wind energy, as supplementary planning documents are less formal and more flexible than development plans. However, this still relies on the willingness and capacity of local authorities to do so, which may vary across the country. Further to this, planning impacts now only have to be ‘appropriately’ addressed rather than ‘fully’ and the proposal must have community ‘support’ rather than ‘backing’. These amendments are not anticipated to be substantive in practice, as there is no clear definition of who constitutes the affected local community or how their support should be measured or demonstrated.
A new ‘footnote 53a’ has been added to the NPPF, which states that “wind energy development involving one or more turbines can also be permitted through Local Development Orders, Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders. In the case of Local Development Orders, it should be demonstrated that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been appropriately addressed and the proposal has community support”. As with the amendments to footnote 54, it is not expected that this addition will have any change to the likelihood of consent being granted, as ultimately this does not alleviate the restrictions of footnote 54.
These updates will be disappointing for onshore wind developers, particularly given the support for other forms of renewable energy development that has been seen over recent years. The failure to remove footnote 54 means that NPPF maintains an incredibly restrictive approach to onshore wind development, despite the urgent need for renewable energy development in order to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and to address the current energy crisis. The NPPF still fails to provide clear and consistent guidance for local authorities and developers on how to plan and deliver onshore wind projects in a way that balances environmental, social and economic benefits.
In terms of support for renewable energy development more broadly, the updated NPPF does not go further than the previous iteration and the section of the NPPF on ‘Meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change’ remains broadly the same. There does appear to be slightly more recognition of repowering and extending the life of existing development, as an additional consideration for local planning authorities has been added at paragraph 158, which notes that “in the case of applications for the repowering and life-extension of existing renewable sites, give significant weight to the benefits of utilising an established site, and approve the proposal if its impacts are or can be made acceptable”. A new reference to re-powering has also been made in reference to proposed plans for renewable energy, which indicates that the government is keen to maximise existing renewable energy sites. Whilst this is important, in order to meet the crucial targets and to alleviate the energy crisis it will be essential to ensure a sufficient pipeline of renewable energy development as well as maximising the output and potential of existing sites.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether the amendments to footnote 54 really make a substantial difference in relation to consenting offshore wind development. Even with the slight opportunity for change given the inclusion of supplementary planning documents, this will only allow for progress if local authorities themselves take the steps to allocate more sites and will further depend on the interpretation of the rest of footnote 54 in practice. In terms of meeting net-zero targets and addressing the ongoing climate crisis, it is likely that the UK Government will face further calls for change as these amendments arguably do not go far enough and are unlikely to result in any significant improvement across the industry. This is in stark contrast to the position in Scotland, which has seen even stronger policy support for onshore wind and renewables since the adoption of its new planning framework (National Planning Framework 4) in February 2023, and has seen several major projects gain consent in recent months, including the 308MW Sanquhar II Wind Farm.