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Planning consent for renewable energy

Renewable energy developments usually require planning consent. Exceptions apply to small-scale developments, such as solar panels on domestic roofs with a capacity up to 50 kilowatt, which are covered by ‘permitted development rights’.

Some renewable energy developments, such as solar farms, biomass and waste combustion plants or hydropower, require consent either from the local planning authority (LPA) or from the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero depending on their size. The threshold is set out in Part 3 of the Planning Act 2008:

  • Developments with a generating capacity below 50 megawatts (MW) need planning permission from the LPA.
  • Developments with a generating capacity above 50 MW are considered ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’ (NSIPs) and require development consent from the Secretary of State.

Different rules apply to onshore wind farms and battery energy storage systems (BESS), which are decided by the LPA regardless of their size.

Planning considerations for renewable energy developments

Which planning considerations renewable energy developers take into account will likely depend on how relevant planning applications are decided. LPAs will determine planning applications for renewable energy developments in line with their policies set out in their local plan, unless “material considerations” indicate otherwise. A local plan sets out an LPA’s policies for the future development of its area.

One important material consideration is the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The NPPF states that the planning system should promote renewable energy developments and associated infrastructure:

The planning system should support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate, taking full account of flood risk and coastal change. It should help to […] support renewable and low carbon energy and associated infrastructure.

The NPPF also states that LPAs should not require “applicants to demonstrate the overall need for renewable or low carbon energy”. It advises LPAs to approve renewable and low carbon energy developments whose “impacts are (or can be made) acceptable” (paragraph 158).

Impacts of renewable energy developments

The government’s planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy sets out the general criteria that LPAs should take into account when assessing planning applications, including:

  • the cumulative impacts of developments on the local landscape and local amenity.
  • making sure that heritage assets are conserved “in a manner appropriate to their significance”.
  • giving “careful consideration” to proposals in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The guidance emphasises that the need for renewable energy does not “automatically override” environmental protections. Depending on their size and location, developments may need to undergo an environmental impact assessment and/or a habitats regulation assessment.

The guidance also contains information on specific considerations for different types of renewable energy technologies. For example, the government updated the guidance in August 2023 to encourage developers of battery energy storage systems consult relevant local fire and rescue service before submitting a planning application.

Siting of renewable energy developments

Where developers should site their renewable energy project is also guided by planning policies.

The government’s planning practice guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy states that there “are no hard and fast rules about how suitable areas for renewable energy [developments] should be identified”. It advises LPAS to take into account the potential impacts on the local environment and the views of local communities in considering which areas are suitable.

However, the NPPF generally guides development away from the “best and most versatile” agricultural land (paragraph 174) and states that many renewable energy developments are not “appropriate” development for Green Belt land except in “very special circumstances” (paragraph 151).

Different planning requirements for onshore wind

There are specific planning requirements for proposed onshore wind farms. The government’s NPPF sets out that LPAs should approve planning applications for onshore wind farms only if (footnote 54):

  • They are in an area identified as suitable in the local plan, a neighbourhood plan or in a supplementary planning document.
  • The planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been appropriately addressed and the proposal has community support.

The government updated these policies in September 2023, following a consultation. The Library briefing on Planning for onshore wind (October 2023) provides further information on these changes.

For proposed onshore wind farms that consist of more than two turbines or where the distance from the ground to the centre of the rotor of any turbine exceeds 15 metres, developers must also carry out a pre-application consultation with the local community. The government’s community benefits and engagement guidance for onshore wind provides further information on how developers can engage the local community.

Planning considerations for nationally significant infrastructure projects

Renewable energy developers must make applications for NSIPs to the Planning Inspectorate. It will carry out an examination of the project. The Secretary of State will then decide proposed NSIPs in line with policies set out in National Policy Statements (NPSs).

The overarching NPS EN-1 for energy (PDF) and the NPS EN-3 for renewable energy infrastructure (PDF), both designated in July 2011, currently guide decision-making on renewable energy developments that are NSIPs.

The government consulted on its proposed updates to the energy NPSs in 2021 and on further revisions in 2023. It set the aim of designating the updated NPSs by the end of 2023 in its Powering Up Britain strategy.

Relevant Library briefings

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