The government has told councils in England to set renewable energy targets for schemes. But what policies do they already have in place? A survey this week reveals all.

You may be able to tell a wind turbine from a solar panel, but the world of renewable energy and microgeneration can be a difficult place to navigate. That’s why the Town and Country Planning Association has conducted a survey of local authority on-site renewable planning policies, launched this week, to get a snapshot of current practice in England.

There is no national policy to ensure on-site renewable energy targets on developments are consistent across the country. Clients and housebuilders are left frustrated that each local authority sets its own standard for on-site microgeneration. “We need a consistent national approach,” says John Slaughter, external affairs director at the Home Builders Federation. “Local authority initiatives are not integrated into a national policy framework. It creates a certain level of disorder.”

Last month, planning minister Yvette Cooper urged all local authorities to include on-site renewable energy measures in their local development plans by rewording the controversial PPS22 planning policy, relating to renewable energy. In a statement to parliament, Cooper said the government now “expects” (as opposed to the previous “encourages”) all local authorities to put in place on-site renewable energy policies. This was a victory for the TCPA, which hoped the survey would bring about this result.

The results of the TCPA survey, gathered before Cooper’s announcement, show nearly 60% of respondents – 212 out of a total of 387 councils replied – have a policy adopted or in draft form. A further 22% are considering adopting a policy and 20% had nothing in place at all. The survey showed that the percentage of on-site renewable production varied but the average was 10% renewables production, such as in Southwark and Milton Keynes (see “Carbon tax”, below).

However, a number of councils have set far higher targets. North Devon has adopted a policy of 15% renewables or higher (for 50 or more residences or 1000 m² for other developments) and Barking and Dagenham is considering at least 20% renewables for developments greater than 2000 m².

Future renewables targets are also ambitious. Kirklees council in West Yorkshire is considering whether to adopt a 30% renewables policy in five years’ time. Leicester council has agreed to an annual increment of 1%, starting from 10% this year.

Yorkshire and Humberside and London have the highest numbers of local authorities with renewables polices in place, but the study reveals geographical location and the economic circumstances of the area do not appear to influence the take-up of the policy.

A recent study by the London Borough of Merton (see “The Merton Rule”, below) shows that the growing number of councils putting renewables policies in place is likely to create an annual market for micro-renewable technologies of about £650m, compared with the current market of £30m.

The government intends to include the stronger-worded PPS22 in the new planning policy supplement on climate change due out later this year. This key measure is expected to have a major impact on planning policies by requiring that location and design of new developments should also promote the reduction of carbon emissions.

Robert Shaw, sustainable development policy officer at the TCPA, says this could have a huge effect on the way developments take place. “It’s a real opportunity to do a great deal in a relatively painless way,” he says. “There could be region specific carbon reduction targets, which would have an incredible impact.”

The world of renewables may have your head in a spin now, but be warned – this is just the beginning.

Carbon tax in Milton Keynes

In January this year, Milton Keynes council launched the UK’s first ever “carbon tax”. If a scheme is not carbon neutral, developers building there are charged £200 for each tonne of carbon dioxide it produces – equivalent to about £500 per house.

This “contribution” is paid as a one-off section 106 contribution to the Milton Keynes Carbon Offset Fund. The money spent on reducing carbon emissions, including making existing buildings more energy efficient and renewable energy projects.

Martin Davies, the planning officer responsible for the tax, thinks the initiative will be picked up by other councils. He says he will be reviewing this policy and it is quite possible the contribution will go up.

The money put into the MK Offset Fund, which is managed by the Environment Agency, is match funded by outside sources.

The Merton rule

The “Merton rule” is the groundbreaking planning policy, pioneered by the London Borough of Merton, requiring the use of renewable energy on site to reduce annual CO2 emissions in the built environment. Following the publication of PPS22 in 2004, Merton was the first to formalise the government’s renewable energy targets in its unitary development plan, setting the target for the use of on-site renewable energy at 10% for all major developments in the borough. The first project to comply with this was completed in June 2005 in Mitcham, using micro turbines and solar PV. Hundreds of local authorities look set to follow Merton’s lead, which will impact all major development projects throughout the UK.