Opportunity knocks – why the green lobby should celebrate, not attack, NPPF by Rolf Stein, CEO

Just a few months ago, the Government’s plan to reform and simplify UK planning regulations sparked huge public and political debate.  The proposed changes – set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – will dramatically reduce the amount of regulation attached to the planning process.  This is intended to boost development.   However, the issue has proved highly contentious, and two distinct ‘camps’ have formed.  The pro-environment camp, among them the National Trust, opposes NPPF on the grounds that it will encourage construction to the detriment of the environment.  On the other hand the pro-NPPF camp supports the changes, and sees opposition to it as economically backward.  As the end of March release date for the final version of NPPF draws near, there is a danger that the potential of planning reform will be forgotten as the debate becomes increasingly heated.  However, NPPF and the wider localism agenda can deliver both economic growth and environmental protection; the two goals are far from mutually exclusive.    

First of all, it is worth reviewing exactly what NPPF is all about.  In July 2011, the Government unveiled its proposals for a new planning system.  The new NPPF condenses 1,300 pages of planning regulations into one 52-page manual.  By simplifying the planning process, the Government hopes to provide a much needed boost to the construction sector and the wider economy. 

However, NPPF is not just a developer’s charter, pushing through construction at the expense of sustainability.  It forms part of the Government’s wider ‘localism agenda’ and is based on the principle that local communities should be able to decide what is in their best interests, independent of central Government interference.   Under the NPPF, local communities will be compelled to produce ‘Local Plans’ setting out priorities for development – or for conservation – in their area.  This commitment to localism is where the real potential of NPPF lies – for the green energy sector in particular.

Giving power back to local communities has massive potential for the expansion of green technology at a local level.  There is a clear appetite for such self-government.  Just this week, the village of Brookvale flipped the switch on a community-owned solar energy project.  The project, based around 40, 10kW electricity generating (PV) solar panels, will generate energy for local homes and provide an estimated income of £4,000 a year for the community.  There are numerous other examples of communities setting up local companies to fund green energy projects such as wind turbines or AD plants, which provide power and income for the surrounding area.  Hopefully, by giving communities space to set out their own priorities for development, the new planning regulations will enable more local green projects like this.

One area of green technology with considerable potential for growth is the waste-to-energy sector.  Efficient waste-to-energy technologies, such as Advanced Plasma Power’s (APP) Gasplasma® process, allow local communities to take the municipal and commercial waste they produce and transform it into clean energy and heat for local homes and businesses.  A community-based waste solution can often be preferable to a larger, regional or national project.  Large scale incinerators or landfills produce toxic emissions and are a blight on the landscape.  An APP Gasplasma® facility, on the other hand, occupies roughly the same space as a standard warehouse: it can be positioned, unobtrusively, on the edge of a town.  The facility then accepts the waste produced by the community and delivers renewable energy and heat in return.  It is hoped that by returning planning decisions to local communities, more small-scale, highly efficient projects like the Gasplasma® process will spring up across the UK.

Changes to planning regulations therefore offer a great opportunity to expand the UK’s green energy network.  For this reason, those who have criticised the NPPF on the grounds that it will harm the environment should perhaps reconsider their approach.  Green energy providers do much to protect the environment.  They reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, cut carbon emissions and, in the case of waste-to-energy, turn potentially harmful resources into clean energy.  If NPPF allows local communities to draw on renewable resources for more of their energy needs, then the green lobby should surely welcome it. 

On the other hand, there are those who support NPPF, but portray its opponents as ‘N.I.M.B.Y’s’ whose defence of the environment is itself an attack on economic growth.  This too is a short-sighted approach.  We must be wary of confusing opposition to uncontrolled development with opposition to development, full stop.   Any boost to the green energy industry, while welcome to environmentalists, will also deliver economic dividends.  Renewable energy production will decrease our reliance on expensive fossil fuels, reducing costs for businesses and the general public.  Moreover, green energy projects – especially those at a community level – provide jobs and income for local companies.  They also increase the UK’s skills base and put us as the forefront of international green technology.  Green energy projects deliver an excellent combination of environmental benefits and economic growth and, in supporting these projects, the NPPF deserves more praise from both sides of the debate. 

In conclusion, there is little doubt that when the final NPPF is published at the end of this month, there will be heated debate over whether or not it sets the correct balance between protecting the environment and boosting the economy.  Ultimately, this debate largely misses the point of reforming planning policy.  The NPPF will not in itself boost development or defend the environment; all it can do is enable local communities to make these choices themselves.  For this reason, it is vital that the tone of debate shifts away from mud-slinging and instead focuses on how different groups can work together to achieve the best outcome for all concerned.  The success of locally-driven green energy initiatives has shown that environmentalists and developers do not have to exist in a marriage of convenience; they can be happy bedfellows.  Hopefully NPPF will foster a new generation of local green initiatives to demonstrate how effective this relationship can be.

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