To help meet government energy targets, planning hurdles for wind farms have been lowered. But will it work? 

In July, the UK government approved six fixed offshore wind projects, generating electricity for more than 7 million homes. This will be a major boost to the UK’s efforts to meet its net zero and energy security commitments. To help further with achieving the UK’s energy goals, the government has announced that the upcoming Energy Bill will be amended to cut the time it takes to get permission for offshore wind farms.

Zoe Stollard USE

Essentially, for priority cases where quality standards are met, the relevant secretary of state will be able to set shorter examination timescales for project approval due to an amendment to the Planning Act 2008. This planning reform underpins the government’s ambition of 50GW of energy from offshore wind by 2030.

For those involved in the extremely lengthy process of gaining approval for offshore wind projects, this will be much welcomed. The government hopes this measure will help reduce the time taken to get planning consent from up to four years down to just one year. This is a bold statement as the government does not have overall control of the full process. Even fast-track decisions will still be capable of being decided, referred to judicial review, quashed, and redecided.

The government hopes this measure will help reduce the time taken to get planning consent from up to four years down to just one year

Also, Rome wasn’t built in a day – these large offshore wind farms are classed as major critical infrastructure. Is it sensible to shorten the examination period on a project of this size, scope, and complexity – and is it achievable? If the same amount of information needs to be examined in a shorter timescale, it will probably be shoehorned into another part of the overall programme.

There is potential for increased work at earlier stages, as the developer will need to prepare its case to prove its fast-track viability, that quality standards are met. It is implied the quality bar may be raised. Some are therefore sceptical whether time will be saved overall, but it would be reasonable to suggest more work up front and higher quality standards could lead to cost savings further down the line.

There are also concerns as to whether everyone will still get their say in the shortened development consent process. There is a balance to strike between the need to secure our energy future and clean up our energy sector, while at the same time respecting local residents, other users of the sea and the impact on the environment, marine and bird life. The intention is not to shortcut these aspects, just to speed up the overall process. The impact of a new offshore windfarm on the environment and the community will continue to be considered throughout the planning process. This includes effects on bird and fish populations, electromagnetic radar interference, shipping and flight navigations, and general impact on the landscape.

Is it sensible to shorten the examination period on a project of this size, scope, and complexity – and is it achievable?

It will also still be essential for offshore wind farm developers to continue to place importance on public participation and bringing local people along on the project. Corner-cutting could result in later problems with discharging planning requirements and potential challenges. However, the overall ability to move more swiftly in developing our world-class offshore wind market could have a significant effect on the UK’s response to climate change.

Offshore wind is the largest source of renewable electricity in the UK and continues to grow. Wind farms are an important clean energy source for the UK, providing a considerable source of homegrown energy with minimal emissions. Fast-tracking planning consents aims to increase the resilience and reliability of energy systems across the UK, considering soaring energy bills and the threat to global power supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Planning consent is only part of the picture: power produced offshore needs to be brought onshore for us to use through a whole network of onshore connections which could be more co-ordinated. The government’s Offshore Transmission Network Review is looking into better structures to reduce technical issues in installing these windfarms, including bringing substation connections closer to the shore and building an offshore electricity interconnector to avoid the need to connect onshore. On a practical level, changes such as this will be essential for the UK to achieve net zero.

Offshore wind offers potential to considerably expand the UK’s renewable energy content. Because of its importance in achieving net zero and energy security commitments, the government has tried to address some of the barriers to offshore wind deployment. However, does this amendment to the planning process go far enough? The new fast-track process is a helpful step towards unlocking potential, but it only relates to the shortening of one section of the approval process, which is just one aspect of developing an offshore wind farm. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to make a significant difference.

Zoe Stollard is a partner in the construction team at Browne Jacobson