The Silk Commission, set up to consider possible changes to the powers of the devolved government in Wales, have recommended a new division of responsibilities between UK and Welsh Ministers as regards the consenting of energy projects (click here for their report). The Commission propose that “responsibility for all energy planning development consents for projects up to 350 MW onshore and in Welsh territorial waters should be devolved to the Welsh Government”. This would bring Welsh Ministers closer to parity with their Scottish counterparts in energy consenting: they have long complained that there is no good reason why proposed generating stations with a capacity of more than 50 MW should be determined by UK Ministers if they are Wales, but by Scottish Ministers if they are in Scotland. Although the proposal is not tied to particular technology types, sub-350 MW schemes are always likely to be renewables projects.
As in many parts of the UK, new renewable developments are not always popular in Wales. In Wales there have been particular problems as a result of the relevant Welsh Government planning policy document, TAN 8, which encouraged developers to focus their proposals for wind farms on a number of designated areas. So, in Powys, for example, a conjoined public inquiry is currently being held (on behalf of the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) into five proposed wind farms with a combined capacity of several hundred MW. As well as being unpopular with local residents, this kind of concentration of development in a given area presents major logistical problems for developers: the capacity of the road networks to cope with the large numbers of outsize loads that would need to be transported on them to build the wind farms is severely constrained in the largely rural areas involved.
Under the Commission’s proposals, Welsh Ministers would have to deal with the consequences of TAN 8 as decision-makers on individual applications. But UK Ministers have so far been very reluctant to give up their decision-making powers over larger Welsh wind projects, even though the objections to them are not confined to Wales itself: the proposed line of pylons that would carry power from mid-Wales wind farms to the Grid in England would pass through Shropshire and has excited plenty of opposition on the English side of the border. Whilst the Commission’s overall plan is for new primary legislation on Welsh devolution by 2017, they point out that the competence of the Welsh Assembly could be expanded by secondary legislation on a shorter timescale. However, it seems unlikely that any action will be taken that would result in Welsh Ministers, rather than the Secretary of State, determining the five Powys applications.
The Commission also recommend giving Welsh Ministers the power to approve “associated development” such as roads and substations as part of a development consent order for a “nationally significant” generating station under the Planning Act 2008. At present, absurdly, this can currently be done for English, but not for Welsh projects, meaning that the supposed “one-stop shop” provided by the 2008 Act for consenting complex projects is nothing of the kind in Wales.
In a politically charged area where there are probably no perfect solution, the Commission’s proposals deserve serious consideration.