Wind Turbines: Planning Approval

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 14th April 2015.

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Photo of Ian Milne Ian Milne Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 14th April 2015

1. Mr Milne asked the Minister of the Environment how many planning applications for single wind turbines have been approved since 2005. (AQO 7932/11-15)

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The number of single wind turbine applications approved from 2005 to 31 January this year is 2,212. That is my Department's latest available provisional renewable energy information.

This figure is for applications approved and does not necessarily equate to the number of single wind turbines constructed and operational, as the Department does not hold information on whether the permission has been implemented. The figures may also include renewals of planning permissions and changes to existing approvals, and may, therefore, equate to fewer than 2,212 individual sites.

Applications for single wind turbines are determined by taking into account all relevant planning considerations — a wide range of factors, including the potential impact on public safety, human health, residential amenity, landscape and cumulative impacts. The details of each application, including site characteristics, locality and height of turbines, will differ. Therefore, each application is determined on its own particular location merits.

It is important that the right balance is struck between facilitating wind energy development in appropriate locations and protecting the exceptional quality of our natural environment. These are matters and issues that I considered in finalising the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS).

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I call Mr Milne for a supplementary.

Photo of Ian Milne Ian Milne Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle, mo bhuíochas leis an Aire go dtí seo. Thanks, Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Minister for his answer thus far. Minister, do you propose to set a threshold for single wind turbines in, say, each council area, or what means do you imagine you will set to control, if you like, the blight of single wind turbines in the countryside?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for the question and the supplementary. As the Member will be aware — as all Members will be aware, or should be aware — as from 1 April the vast majority of planning powers were transferred from my Department to the 11 new councils. While the Department will retain overarching planning policy responsibility, including the responsibility for planning policy statement 18 — or now the SPPS — and policy for renewable energies, it is only right and proper that councils will have a fair degree of autonomy when it comes to deciding what will work in their areas and what their areas need.

Therefore, I certainly do not have any intention of introducing a threshold or limit on the number of wind turbines that may be erected in any council area, as I would not have any intention of introducing a threshold for the number of houses in any council area. However, one threshold that does exist is that any renewable energy application over 30 MW will not be dealt with by the relevant council but retained centrally by the Department, as that would be deemed to be a major or regionally significant application given its scale.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Minister for an update on the finalisation of the SPPS.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Mr Eastwood for that question. The final draft of the SPPS was completed last month following extensive engagement with key planning stakeholders.

My aim is to publish the SPPS in its final form in the very near future, following Executive Committee consideration. When it is published in final form, the provisions of the SPPS must be taken into account in the preparation of local development plans by the 11 new councils, and will be material to all decisions on individual planning applications and appeals. It is very important that the SPPS be in place as soon as possible to provide the policy framework for the new two-tier planning system and, in particular, to enable the new councils to get on with the very important work of preparing their local development plans.

Pending its publication, the existing suite of planning policy statements and relevant provisions of a planning strategy for Northern Ireland shall continue to apply as a temporary arrangement.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

Getting back to wind turbines, can the Minister advise on whether there has been any progress on securing cooperation with NIE to get connection costs agreed early in the process so that people can see if they can go ahead?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that question. The issue of grid connection has been raised, largely by the industry itself, as a major problem, as it slows down the development of wind farms and single wind turbines. The Member will be aware that, while I have responsibility for planning, I do not have responsibility for energy. So, problems with, or associated with, NIE and grid connections would be better directed towards the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister the next time the Member gets the opportunity.

It is very important. Quite a number of wind farms in the system have received planning approval but have not been able to secure a grid connection. That skews our figures when we talk about meeting renewable energy targets, because, although one has received planning approval, there may be no realistic prospect of its being connected. So, I share the Member's concerns: it is something that we need to look at strategically.

In other jurisdictions — Scotland, for example — they do it the other way round: planning permission will not be awarded to a renewable energy project unless it has a guaranteed grid connection. That is something that we need to look at, and I will look at it in conjunction with the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister and others.