Delivering on the green economy is top of everyone’s agenda in Northern Ireland and the region is well placed to benefit from investment in this sector. In representing a wide range of operators, Turley Associates has found that the process of navigating the regulatory regime can be particularly challenging despite the general goodwill towards the energy industry from most planning authorities. At present in Northern Ireland DoE Planning’s ability to deliver permissions in a timely way is being frustrated by the meagre resource allocated to the task. Unfortunately the size of the team responsible for processing renewable applications is disproportionate to the number of applications in the system. The priority afforded to clearing the backlog of older, sometimes poorly supported applications has also meant a lower priority for necessary pre-construction planning amendments or compliance processes which are critical to facilitate a timely start on a viable project. The frustration has been that even the highest quality application for the best site would have to wait.
For the first time in the sector this frustration with the process has manifested itself in a series of planning appeals for windfarm applications. The Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) responded positively to the proposition that these cases needed to be prioritised for economic reasons and pushed the cases up the scheduling list. Secure in robust planning, environmental and technical work, several appeals have been upheld but in recent times the PAC has also dismissed an appeal, reminding the industry that just like any other appeal, each case will be considered on its own merits. While this somewhat tempered the mistaken idea that Ministerial remarks in 2009 meant it was open season in AONBs, there is no reason to depart from the principle that these protected areas can successfully accommodate windfarms without compromising their special character.
In April 2011, the big increase in planning fees for windfarms fuelled the frustration for Northern Ireland operators. Industry leaders could just about tolerate the increase if English guidance on calculation was adopted and processing times improved. DoE Planning recognise the problem but, faced with its own budget problems as a result of falling fee income from applications, it is struggling to reallocate resources among teams within the Strategic Planning Unit. As the economy rebalances there are fewer major residential and mixed use applications being lodged so the hope is that resources will be reallocated to the renewables team.
New Minister for the Environment Alex Attwood is strongly committed to renewable energy as a means to grow the economy, as is the Executive. The sense is that the priority attached to growing the sector should result in a higher priority within DoE Planning and an associated increase in the resources allocated to the task. We have been encouraged by the willingness of DoE Planning to move the process on but we must be mindful that they have little control over the quality of applications and, until planning reform delivers within the wider review of public administration, a limited ability to exert full influence over consultees. Turley Associates is working with a client base and a consultancy team determined to select the most defensible sites and prepare the most robust applications ready for the day when this means a quick decision. In the meantime we continue to lobby for additional resources and work hard to navigate the system. We bring to the table our experience of planning for energy throughout Ireland and the UK.
|Ireland: Michael Gordon
|Ireland: Diana Fitzsimons
|Scotland: Neil Martin
England & Wales: Colin Morrison