Select Committee on Environmental Audit Memoranda


Memorandum from the Countryside Agency

  1.  The Countryside Agency is the statutory body working:

    —  to conserve and enhance England's countryside;

    —  to spread social and economic opportunity for the people who live there; and

    —  to help everyone, wherever they live and whatever their background, to enjoy the countryside and share in this priceless national asset.

  2.  We are pleased to have the opportunity of contributing to the Environmental Audit Committee's inquiry on renewable energy. Our submission addresses the first and last specific points raised in the Committee's call for evidence:

    —  levels of achievement so far and the current rate of progress; and

    —  the interaction of the planning system and the development of renewable sources of power generation.


  3.  The Countryside Agency supports the Government's objectives for renewable energy. Our role in addressing all aspects of sustainable development in the countryside obliges us to consider how and where renewable energy is developed. This gives us a role as a critical advocate of renewables, especially as most renewable energy schemes are likely to be built in the countryside. It forces us to consider how to maximise the benefits and minimise any disbenefits, to both people and places. These issues are vital factors to build into the support of renewable energy, and the planning criteria and conditions by which schemes are assessed.


  4.  Whichever mix of technologies might actually develop in the future, renewables must be integrated into the life and the character of the countryside. The benefits of this approach are:

    (a)  it means that renewables will contribute to sustainable development across the countryside, rather than detract from it;

    (b)  it will be a means of drawing many types of people and organisations into developing, influencing, and benefiting from renewables, because they feel comfortable with the proposed developments, are interested in getting involved and in taking some responsibility themselves;

    (c)  it will be a way of securing agreement for schemes from people, organisations and local authorities, so they are not protesters but participants;

    (d)  the developments work with the character of the countryside rather than against it.

  5.  To help achieve this integrated future for renewables, the following things need to happen:

  Market conditions need to encourage renewables to be linked to other developments rather than favour large schemes working in isolation. Indeed, trading arrangements which make no concessions for these wider interests and only stimulate bigger, more profitable schemes working in isolation, could be self defeating.

  Joint working: The ability of all key institutions—Parish Councils, local authorities, Regional Development Agencies, housing developers, hospitals, schools, waste recycling centres, saw mills, agriculture and forestry businesses—to work together in different arrangements to create the schemes, whether they are waste, biomass, solar, hydro, or wind related. This will need a policy commitment, and a spirit of innovation from these bodies. The forthcoming Community Renewables initiative (see below) which involves local and national co-ordination of the relevant institutions, provides an example of the joined up working required.

  Advice and training, aimed at the increasingly diverse range of people engaged in tackling all aspects of renewables, including the types of institutions cited above.

  Help for community level renewable energy schemes. By this we mean schemes, of any technology and of any size, which are conceived by members of local communities and which carry the support of other stakeholders because of their environmental sensitivity and because they can deliver benefits to the locality. They might involve conventional developers and suppliers for their finance and delivery. The Countryside Agency is collaborating with the DTI to set up and manage this national pilot scheme for community renewables, which will begin later in 2001.

  Bold policies in development plans and Regional Planning Guidance, which acknowledge the need for renewables, set a realistic framework for their development and clearly identify the criteria and conditions by which schemes will be approved.

  Methods for "sustainability appraisal" which help developers, planners, and other stakeholders to understand the different objectives of sustainable development and address them systematically. The Countryside Agency is currently working with the DTI's Energy Technology Support Unit to help devise such a methodology relevant to renewable energy.


  6.  The Countryside Agency believes that Government has to date relied too heavily on technical criteria for support of renewables and has paid insufficient attention to the wider conditions required to help devise and implement schemes. Paragraphs 7 to 14 below recommend additional criteria for government support to renewable energy.


  7.  By concentrating almost exclusively on their benefits in curbing climate change, renewable energy developments have paid less attention to the other objectives of sustainable development, notably "social progress" (such as the involvement of all stakeholders in influencing developments) other aspects of "environmental protection" such as countryside character effects and transport effects. In accordance with the Government's sustainable development strategy, renewable energy developments should not detract from these other aspects of quality of life, and should wherever possible contribute to them.


  8.  Market support has to have an eye to commercially viable options, but a sole focus on present viability will deny other opportunities for progress. If market conditions created by the forthcoming renewables obligation only nurture a limited number of mature technologies we will postpone the advance of other technologies, the range of circumstance in which they could develop and the benefits they could offer.

  9.  The lack of banding, or multi-tiered support, in the proposed renewables obligation will result in the advancement of a limited number of technologies, especially disadvantaging locally based schemes which can contribute to many aspects of sustainable development. This is denying progress on a wider range of emerging and early stage technologies and will limit the situations in which renewables can provide benefits for other objectives of sustainable development.

  10.  In light of the above factors we have recommended to the DTI that capital grants be available to promote renewables in three ways which meet overall sustainable development objectives more effectively. These are set out in paragraphs 11-15 below.


  11.  Onshore wind energy developments may be a significant component of the Government's renewables target, particularly in the early years. Conflict amongst stakeholders is likely to continue if financial pressures force these developments onto least cost and often sensitive sites. This point is recognised by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's 2000 report Energy: the changing climate. We believe that the regional targets and planning exercises should be strengthened by an explicit Government policy that directs onshore wind schemes onto less sensitive locations.

  12.  As an addition to the proposed renewables obligation, we recommend capital grants to provide an additional incentive for brownfield site wind energy schemes. By supporting wind energy on brownfield sites, such as developed and former industrial areas and urban fringe locations, the additional cost would be justified by wind energy's contributions to other economic, social, and environmental objectives in these areas. This issue is covered further in paragraph 16 below.


  13.  For the reasons set out in paragraphs 8 and 9 above, we believe the obligation must help to grow a range of technologies to fit a range of circumstances. In particular we urge the use of capital grants in relation to offshore wind, local biomass schemes and photovoltaics.


  14.  We believe there are strong grounds for offering capital grants for community based renewable energy developments of the type described in paragraph 5. Such community based developments could:

    —  cumulatively, make a modest but worthwhile contribution to the targets for renewables;

    —  demonstrate the relevance of renewable energy to people at a local level;

    —  help establish understanding and support for well conceived renewable energy schemes amongst the public;

    —  provide a range of economic, social, and environmental benefits for their host localities;

    —  involve a wide range of groups, institutions, and individuals in designing and developing schemes, creating a wider, active, constituency in renewable energy.

  15.  We believe the above factors are sound reasons for investing additional public money in renewables through capital grants, in tandem with the obligation.


  16.  The means of integrating onshore wind energy with the character of the countryside is a crucial challenge for the delivery of the Government's renewables target. In its advice to the regional planning exercises on renewables targets, the Countryside Agency is recommending the integration of onshore wind energy with countryside character objectives. This should lead to the following sequence for exploring sites for wind energy being set out in regional guidance and in development plans:

    —  First, a focus on "brownfield" sites—for example former industrial sites, old airfields etc. We would potentially include in this category areas adjacent to major brownfield land and some commercial forest sites. There may be scope for large scale schemes in these sorts of locations.

    —  Second, sites where wind schemes deliver economic, social, and environmental benefits to the host locality and are not very sensitive in terms of countryside character—for example sites at the edge of market towns and sites in the fringes of towns and cities. Wind schemes in these locations could help to regenerate a market town or a down at heel part of a city's fringe. They might also offer educational and visitor resources for a local audience. The Swaffham turbine is such an example.

    —  Third, sites which are more sensitive in relation to countryside character, generally speaking in the open countryside, but where conditions, such as limits on numbers and/or sizes of turbines, could make some schemes acceptable.

    —  And fourth, sites which are inherently most sensitive, where there will be a strong presumption against wind energy developments, although there may be scope for small scale schemes, if such schemes could be accommodated by the area's countryside character. These will tend to be the more upland, wilder tracts of land and stretches of Heritage Coasts. They are vital economic assets to the nation as well as the areas which are valued highest for their environmental and amenity values.


  17.  Better progress needs to be made on installing renewable energy in the short term, hence the need for targets for 2005 and 2010. However we believe that meeting these targets should not blind us to the need for much greater progress over the next 50 years and more. We should not just look at what is economically practical within a fixed 10 year horizon. We must be mindful of the opportunities for and consequences of renewable energy technologies well beyond 2010. We must not risk losing the huge challenge for renewable energy development in the longer term by driving through insensitive development to meet the 2010 target. If greater public support for renewable energy cannot be secured over the next ten years, the achievement of long term targets will be much more difficult, if not impossible. The measures set out here are our proposals for securing that public support.

January 2001

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