Clive Fagg: Positive steps to take the red tape out of going green

IN its Low Carbon Transition Plan, the Government has recognised that "most of Britain's 26 million homes are using energy inefficiently and wasting heat and power".

The UK was quick to become the first country to commit to legally binding targets for a 34 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020. However, as ever, the planning process has been perceived as one of the stumbling blocks to meeting those targets.

This system needs to be streamlined, suitable areas for energy development identified strategically rather than by piecemeal and, above all, development must become sustainable in all senses of the word, including a sound financial return.

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One key policy area is a move to make it easier for homeowners and businesses to install microgeneration systems. Microgeneration is defined as the generation of less than 50kW of electricity or heat using renewable sources such as wood, energy crops, solar, wind and geothermal resources.

Experience tells us that local planning authorities are generally supportive of such schemes. Indeed, the potential lifting of the red tape which surrounds planning applications will help to promote small-scale renewable energy development.

Most businesses in Yorkshire are motivated by the financial incentives on offer, but the schemes can also help to raise green credentials and reduce the financial risk of fluctuating energy prices by securing an independent supply.

But Yorkshire folk are canny, and will only invest in energy if the economics stack up. Incentives such as the "Feed-in Tariff" (FiT), due to be introduced in April 2010, have the potential to make the economics more attractive.

These incentives should kick-start interest for households and small businesses to look to reduce their individual carbon emissions and their energy bills and make a positive contribution to reducing the impacts of climate change.

Another advantage to small businesses and households is that carbon taxes will only apply to larger companies, defined as those using more than 6,000,000 kW hours per annum. To put this in perspective the average Harrogate household uses about 4,500kW hours per annum.

We are in a reasonably strong position to be leaders in low-carbon future technologies but infrastructure issues alone – such as improvements required to increase the capacity and capability of the electricity supply and distribution grid even for the current scale of plans for renewable developments – will require significant capital expenditure across the UK.

Last year, the Department for Communities and Local Government introduced new permitted development rights for householders, granting them the increased freedom to install some forms of renewable energy generation on their properties without the need to apply for planning permission within certain limits. The Government is now consulting on the possibility to extend these rights.

It was recognised at the time, there were some significant opportunities missed. This included the potential for small businesses (currently consuming up to 18 per cent of the UK's total energy consumption) to enjoy similar development rights to households.

Also, there is a need to realise the potential of proven technologies such as wind and biogas generation which was also considered to be a missed opportunity. With such high carbon reduction targets to achieve, opportunities need to be capitalised on.

The Government is keen to point out that the further relaxation of the planning rules would come with strict caveats about size, noise levels,

location and the visual impact on an area.

This includes measures to ensure that neighbours are not unduly affected by development by introducing separation distances and, quite rightly, stricter controls in areas recognised for their environmental quality such as conservation areas, national parks and world heritage sites.

As stringent as this may seem, it is important that a balance is struck between encouraging individuals to take steps to reduce carbon emissions and the need to respect the environment and community in which they live. The Government's carbon reduction drive should not compromise the very environment we are trying to protect and enhance.

In terms of payback, there are so many variables that affect the economics. However, choosing the right technology in the right place should be aiming to have a return or payback of three to six years. Obviously things like the FiT will have a positive influence on the payback periods. After payback this will be followed by up to 20 year's free electricity or heat.

Otherwise, just who would want to take on the risk?

Hopefully 2010 will see environmental planning pushed to the front of the policy agenda with microgeneration allowed to become a realistic and affordable way of making Yorkshire a greener county.

Clive Fagg is an environmental planning specialist at Carter Jonas.