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The sustainability of importing biomass: a splinter in the planning works?

“The sustainability of importing biomass to generate electricity is not a material planning consideration. Discuss.”

Students of planning law preparing for any pre-Christmas exams might do well to reflect on this question. It is certainly vexing minds in Wales following the Assembly Government’s announcement in March 2010 that it would support the use of biomass to generate electricity on the basis of a 50:50 split between imported and indigenous feedstock supplies. No judicial review was sought in time of this policy, but that has not stopped objectors challenging individual schemes for biomass-fuelled power stations on the basis that the importation of feedstock is inherently unsustainable. Does not the principle of sustainability require biomass to be combusted at source? It is not uncommon in recent inquiries for a week of the inquiry timetable to be dedicated to hearing evidence from objectors on the topic, particularly where schemes would involve the importation of biomass from countries such as Canada, Latvia and South Africa, which have established woody biomass supply markets. This is notwithstanding the Assembly Government’s recent indication in its draft proposals for a new chapter on renewable energy in Planning Policy Wales (3rd edition) that “the sustainability of the sources of biomass fuel are not planning considerations” (para. 12.9.5).

There is, as yet, no equivalent statement of this principle in any planning policy for England, but in deciding to grant planning permission for a biomass station at Avonmouth Dock in March this year, the Energy Secretary made several observations which, it might be said, set a clear direction of travel for future policy in England also. Noting the UK Government’s intention to introduce sustainability standards for biomass in the UK following recommendations made by the European Commission, the Energy Secretary was:

“satisfied that further information on the sustainability of biomass fuel to be used in the operation of the generating station is not required before determining the application. He is content that what is proposed by the Company is in line with current government policy and that mechanisms beyond the planning system would ensure that the station is operated in a way that conforms to any new Government policy in this area. The Secretary of State therefore considers that biomass sustainability is not a ground for refusing consent and has decided that it would be appropriate to include conditions limiting the use of biomass to certain biomass certification schemes.”

Last month, DECC completed a statutory consultation on a draft Renewables Obligation Order 2011 which seeks to introduce “mandatory sustainability standards” for biomass as forecast in the Avonmouth decision letter. Subject to the responses received to the consultation, DECC is aiming to implement these changes on 1 April 2011.

On the basis that the planning system does not generally seek to duplicate or compete with alternative schemes of regulation (the separation of the planning and permitting regimes being a helpful analogy), it might be said that established practice favours the Avonmouth approach. However, calls by objectors persist and there is, as yet, no published decision by an Inspector expressing agreement with the Avonmouth approach in light of imminent policy developments in this area. I will post any updates in that respect on this blog.