The signs are that the government is going to make it much easier to install wind turbines, and other microgenerators, by removing the requirement for planning permission

Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, recently announced that Entec, the environmental and engineering consultant, had been asked to review the planning system with the aim of enabling small businesses to install microgenerators.

Its brief is to look at the barriers that inhibit the installation of small-scale renewable and low-carbon technologies and consider whether they could be classed as “permitted development”.

The UK generates between 2% to 5% of its energy from renewable sources and recent press reports have suggested that it is unlikely to meet the EU target of 20% by 2020. A leaked briefing paper prepared by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform suggests that reaching 9% will be a challenge.

Despite this, Malcolm Wickes, the energy minister, has recently stated that the government is on course to generate 15% of our electricity from renewable sources. Blears stated that between 30% and 40% of the UK’s electricity could be met by installing microgenerating equipment for all types of building by 2050. As a result, Entec’s review will be an important part of the government’s plans.

At present there is a degree of uncertainty as to whether permission is required for certain equipment, such as photovoltaic systems. However, wind turbines generally do require permission. In addition, planning authorities interpret the planning system in different ways and have different policy requirements. In essence applications currently need to be considered on a case-by-case basis, which gives rise to uncertainty and cost.

Accordingly, the inclusion of types of equipment within permitted development rights would provide greater clarity, and is likely to encourage the uptake of renewable energy.

Without wishing to pre-empt the Entec review, the proposed changes are likely to suggest that some equipment can be installed without the need for permission. However, there are likely to be certain safeguards relating to noise, visual impact, biodiversity, archaeology, conservation areas, listed buildings and cumulative impacts.

Blears stated that between 30% to 40% of the UK’s electricity could be met by installing microgenerators

Given that the review is focusing on small businesses, some criteria may be slightly more flexible, particularly in relation to wind turbines.

Despite these reviews, the government has appeared to be sending mixed messages on renewable energy. Press reports have suggested that it was seeking to axe what is known as the Merton rule. This provides that all non-residential development in the London Borough of Merton above the threshold of 1,000m2 will be expected to provide at least 10% of its own energy. It has also been adopted by other councils.

This 10% target was also referred to in the government’s proposed draft PPS on climate change, as well as the recent planning white paper. The pressure to abolish the rule appears to be coming from housebuilders who have argued for a national target.

However, Yvette Cooper, the planning and housing minister, has recently clarified that the Merton rule would not be scrapped and acknowledged that it has proved “a real incentive to provide local renewable energy and cut carbon emissions”. In addition, she stated that Merton rules must be sufficiently flexible to allow for off-site as well as on-site generators and that councils should also consider wider local carbon opportunities.

Cooper also stated that the upcoming proposed climate change PPS would support local strategies that included site (and area) specific targets and Merton-style rules, as well as area-specific targets where higher proportions of renewable and low carbon energy are feasible and viable.

In light of the above, Entec’s conclusions are eagerly anticipated. It is expected that once the review has taken place the government will amend the general permitted development order early next year to permit installation of certain types of microgeneration technology for both business and households without the need for permission.