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David Mudie: Planning for Net Zero - Renewables

David Mudie is Area Planning Manager with The Highland Council and Chair of Heads of Planning Scotland - Climate Change, Energy and Resources Sub-Committee. The views expressed are his own.

It is incredible to think that 97% of Scotland’s electricity consumption is now produced from renewable sources; 71% of which is from on-shore wind. This is an amazing success story, in what has been a relatively short period of time. I am enormously proud of the part that our profession has played in getting to this point.

This achievement has not however been without its challenges or its critics. Concerns have been raised that the race to achieve it has national policy trumping local sensitivity with communities left behind by centralised planning decision making. While national planning policy has adapted over time to assist local authorities to better plan and to protect the most sensitive aspects of our environment, delivery has often been haphazard and contrary to community wishes.

Scotland's Energy Strategy and recently launched consultative draft Onshore wind - policy statement refresh 2021 reinforce the expectation that additional on-shore wind generation will be required to meet increasing demand. Yet as we look to the greater challenge of decarbonising heat and transport we should learn from some of the experience of renewables to date. I’m sure no one would dispute that the climate emergency should not be treated as a material consideration in considering planning applications for renewable energy development. However, the current approach to sustainable economic development, to achieve the right development in the right place and not to allow development at any cost, must continue to be a key policy aim. To my mind, this needs to involve our communities and be place based.

The Climate Change Plan sets out that to meet this challenge we require a co-ordinated approach.  The strategic planning of energy is the best way to bring forward the co-ordinated and integrated change that is necessary.  A whole system approach is required; one based on the infrastructure first principle. This change in the approach should bring developers, users, utility providers and owners together from a bottom up/community and area focus as well as the traditional national infrastructure perspective. Understanding options ahead of development allows systems, investments and construction to combine in an improved way. Alignment of policies and expected outcomes set out using stronger, more persuasive, language is required.

For heat, there is a clear opportunity to encourage a reduction in demand with less reliance on national infrastructure and enhance the opportunities already established with the Energy Efficiency Scotland programme. Ideally this should be achieved through a requirement on Local Authorities to produce Local Area Energy Plans that are integrated and/or developed in step with Local Development Plans.  

Local Area Energy Planning enables us to take an infrastructure first approach and look to opportunities presented by place. This can encompass technologies such as ground source and air source heat pumps, thermal opportunities from mineral workings, renewable sources of heat in rivers, sewers and the ground.  The focus need not be on creating integrated energy networks, such as district heating, where lack of density may affect viability. It need not necessarily be connected, since in some communities an off-grid solution might work best. The solution should rather be appropriate to its location.

Reduction in demand is also relevant to the discussion around decarbonisation of transport. Local Transport Plans integrated with Local Development Plans need to set out where active travel and public transport opportunities exist, locate development adjacent/close to new or existing public transport infrastructure, provide adequate capacity for EV infrastructure and support for alternative fuels such as hydrogen. Planning has a key contribution to make in changing behaviours.

With the intention of it becoming part of the Local Development Plan there is an opportunity for our 4th National Planning Framework (NPF4) to set out a consistent and strategic approach to climate change; including policy around the energy sector. It can set national priorities and targets that achieve local outcomes and assist in the overall goal of net zero. 

I am optimistic that the future policy direction set out with Scotland's 4th National Planning Framework Position Statement provides the framework necessary to deliver this. The draft National Planning Framework 4 (due this month) provides an opportunity for its detailed policies to pull the various strands together and assist our profession with planning a balanced net zero carbon approach to tackling the climate emergency with and for the benefit of our communities. We cannot afford to get this wrong and I’d encourage all of us to get involved.

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