Cities Team Researcher
The climate benefits of renewable energy are well-known. The government has set targets for increasing offshore wind generation, but the UK needs more onshore wind and solar too. Onshore wind sites must be allocated through the planning process alongside other land designations in Local Plans.
Stroud District Council has put carbon neutrality by 2030 at the heart of its plans for the area, including a focus on renewable energy. National planning policy doesn’t support onshore wind, but Stroud District Council is taking a proactive approach. It is encouraging new wind and solar installations by identifying opportunities in the area as part of its Local Plan, though these areas of potential are still subject to other policies included in the Plan.
Renewable energy growth is explicitly linked to carbon neutrality in the authority’s most recent Local Plan.
Delivery policy ES2 outlines criteria for the development of renewable schemes, including:
Identifying all land in the district with the technical potential for renewables was a key aim of the policy. Doing so ensures that onshore wind proposals are compliant with National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) without limiting the future potential for onshore wind.
The NPPF sets very specific restrictions on wind development. It dictates that wind energy projects should not receive planning permission unless they are in an area formally identified as suitable by a local or neighbourhood plan. Wind proposals must also have the full backing of communities – a higher bar than is set for other developments, including fossil fuel extraction. This has resulted in few Local Plans proactively allocating sites for onshore wind. Site suitability is more flexible for solar than for wind.
In order to comply with the NPPF, Stroud District Council made sure it would have evidence to back its policy. In 2019 it commissioned the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Land Use Consultants to assess renewable energy opportunities within Stroud, including various scenario models up to 2040.
The result was a survey of all the potentially viable sites in the district. This functions as a technical evidence base underpinning the local plan. Without this assessment, the crucial policies map included in the local plan would not have been possible, significantly limiting wind expansion.
Some sites need special consideration – proposals within the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Severn Estuary will be considered, but only where the benefits of the development can demonstrably outweigh its harms.
The council can now legally boost both standalone wind and solar generation in the district, subject to public examination and inspection.
Stroud’s renewable energy resource assessment noted that, as of June 2019, about 12% of energy produced within Stroud was from renewable sources. The council’s 2030 Strategy Master Plan, adopted in 2021, sets out the context, rationale and approach for tackling climate and ecological challenges. One of the strategic goals included in the Master Plan seeks to at least treble the proportion of renewable energy generation within the district from the current level of 12%.
For each type of renewable energy, the assessment identified what schemes (both community-owned and commercial) currently exist across the district, and what projects have received approval for future development.
The assessment identified 7 ground-mounted solar projects that had either received consent or were already installed, with a total capacity of at least 68.4MW.
The assessment found Stroud has little capacity for hydropower, though historically the Stroud Valleys were powered by watermills. There may be limited opportunities for hydro-electric schemes in and around these mills.
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Cross-party political consensus
Stroud District Council is governed by an alliance of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green councillors, all of whom backed the focus on renewable energy in the Local Plan.
The council’s Strategic Head of Development Services was also highly enthusiastic and had the detailed knowledge of the ins and outs of the National Planning Policy Framework to make the expansion of renewables in Stroud feasible.
From 2017 onwards the council worked with Stroud Youth Council on the local plan. Young people made clear that renewable energy was a key priority for them.
Partnering with the youth council was a deliberate decision by the council to develop the skills of Stroud’s future leaders, with a view to ensuring long-term consistency in decision-making.
Community support and demand
Stroud District Council received several queries from parish councils wishing to explore opportunities for community renewable energy generation, inspired to support the council’s 2030 ambition. Support for the policy was also demonstrated during the consultation process for the Local Plan. Policy ES2 encouraging renewable energy received just one formal objection – much lower than for many other proposed policies.
Overall, Stroud had significant demand for renewable energy generation at all levels – from councillors to directors and officers, to communities and young people.
One of the biggest employers in the district is Ecotricity, a renewable energy generation company that builds wind turbines and solar panels. Stroud therefore has existing local assets that would facilitate the expansion of in-district renewable energy generation while also creating jobs for local people. Although this is a big asset for Stroud, most other local authority areas will have local renewable energy companies (at least fitting solar panels).
Stroud’s renewable energy resource assessment provided an essential evidence base to enable the council to update its Local Plan policy to maximise space for renewables – and especially onshore wind – within the constraints of the National Planning Policy Framework. As a result, Stroud District Council is confident that it has met all the legal obligations required for its ambition to improve the prospects for wind development in the district.
Stroud District Council invested in commissioning the renewable energy resource assessment, which cost £20,000. Occasional input from council officers, particularly the planning strategy team, was necessary during the development of the assessment. Planning officers continue to analyse feedback on new policies and discuss possible modifications, with potential for future updates to evidence bases such as Stroud’s renewable energy resources assessment.
The council has three full time climate officers and a budget allocated to facilitate its drive towards carbon neutrality by 2030, but consideration of carbon neutrality is present across council services. The council has also worked with the board of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty regarding the landscape impact of wind energy proposals.
Besides this, updating Local Plans is a statutory requirement for all local authorities. The work to ensure that renewable energy allocation was woven into the Local Plan did not incur any unexpected financial costs during the writing of the plan.
National policy is still unhelpful – but can be changed
Stroud developed its strong policy despite the unhelpful policies in the NPPF, but reform at national level would help all councils to boost onshore wind sites.
In July 2021, the UK government published its revised National Planning Policy Framework. Campaigners and commentators hoped that the existing barriers to wind would be removed, but this did not happen. The rules permit the continued extraction of coal if benefits ‘clearly outweigh’ impact, and the limitations on onshore wind remain.
Very few local authorities have functional policies for onshore wind, and this is likely to remain the case without change in the National Planning Policy Framework. Gathering the necessary evidence to justify suitable sites for renewable allocation is resource intensive, so this legal requirement is absent in many councils’ Local Plans, largely ruling out wind.
The second requirement – that wind developments have full local backing – is a discouraging influence on developers and sets a high bar that few applications overcome.
The ability of ambitious local authorities like Stroud to meet carbon targets that go beyond the national 2050 deadline is constrained by the lack of planning policies that facilitate, not hinder, renewables.
Reform of planning at a national level is necessary and councils should be proactive in seeking reform when the National Planning Policy Framework is reviewed (expected again in 2022).
Restrictions will vary in different locations
Further barriers for other councils might include the proximity of potential sites to national parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, green belts or other ecologically important sites (though Stroud’s example shows these can be appropriately accounted for). Sometimes tensions arise between increasing renewable energy generation and conservation concerns. Finding solutions to these is important, which will be facilitated by dialogue with stakeholders and robust evidence about any risks in sensitive locations
Urban areas may have less available land for standalone renewable energy generation and may need to impose minimum distance restrictions to houses for wind turbines. Community engagement will be important and sometimes roof mounted solar may be a better solution in urban settings.
To find out more, contact Stroud’s planning strategy team – email@example.com
Stroud’s draft Local Plan is available here, and the Renewable Energy Resources Assessment here.
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