Bristol or Borneo? How are Biofuel planning applications decided?

posted 02.03.2010
Recipro would be interested to discuss your feelings on Bio-fuels. Specifically examining the  associated harm to the ecosystem and biodiversity. This is an extension on Mikes post from last week, but from a local point of view... in Avonmouth.

BBC News,Dave Harvey,Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Councillors on the North Bristol Planning committee face a busy Wednesday. A new house is being built in Sneyd Park, and they want to knock down some 'non-listed structures'. Bristol Zoo have a standard renewal request with construction costs for overflow parking on The Downs. Oh, and then there's Borneo's orangutans.

Yes, a rather unusual application for a new power station in Avonmouth has raised a massive debate covering the future of the Earth's rainforests and the protection of primates.

The officers' report for the committee today notes there have been 1,121 letters from the public, two of which are in favour. It's hugely complicated, and hugely fascinating. New technology that might bring us genuinely green electricity, or the latest piece of 'greenwash' from the bio-fuel industry.

The question is this. Should councillors, pardon the pun, give a monkey's for orangutans?

Council officers clearly don't think so, though their report puts it far more delicately. They've recommended approval of the plans. Here's why.

First, because this is a planning committee, not a climate change debate. Officers have exhaustively trawled the local government literature, and they conclude:

"... direct planning guidance for this type of development is provided within PPS22: Renewable Energy and its companion guide, PPS22, Planning for Renewable Energy, and advises that the production of the fuel source itself does not fall within the remit of the Local Planning Authority decision-making process.".

In other words, councillors must only decide if replacing this industrial relic with a new power station burning oil from palm trees or jatropha plants will spoil Avonmouth. As you can see, the site is not exactly a beauty spot at the moment.

"But but but but!" I can hear those 1,119 objectors cry, led by the Leader of the City Council herself, Barbara Janke. She wrote recently to Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband:

"There is a strong danger to biodiversity, as well as the knock-on effect of taking land out of food production and climate change implications of processing the fuels and shipping them across the globe."

Bristol is trying to win "Green Capital" status. The city is home to any number of ecological organisations, from the Soil Association to Sustrans and beyond. If this bio-technology is not sustainable, how can the city allow it on its own doorstep?

Officers, in the cool world of planning, note all the arguments and motions that have been passed in their report. But the killer argument is this. There already is a regulator for renewable energy, and it is not the planning committee's job to second guess.

"It is evident that if the Government are requiring Ofgem to assess sustainability issues in nationally significant schemes relating to the sourcing of biofuels that receive Renewable Obligation Certificates [ROCs], the same would also apply to smaller scale schemes that receive ROCs. On this basis, for local planning authorities to also consider sustainability issues in respect of the proposed development would result in significant duplication of assessment on issues which are clearly controlled through other areas of legislative control."

They are right, factually. Ofgem does police ROCs, which are the lifeblood of the green power business. Without them, new technologies like biofuel or offshore wind cannot make money. So the officers argue that since one hand of government is already checking the fuel source, there is no point every council in the land having their own opinion.

Will councillors agree with their officers? Who knows. But the temperature of this debate has been raised by Cllr Janke's comments. Her own colleague, Cllr Steve Comer who is on the North Bristol committee, recently cautioned her high-profile intervention.

"It is possible that our opponents will accuse us of being subject to 'whipping' next month when this comes before the Committee, and will(selectively) quote from the Leader's press release to do so.

The objection to this plant seems largely based on the source of the fuel that it might use once it is operating. I understand the objections, yet when it comes to planning we cannot use ... morality to reject the application, any refusal will have to be on clear PLANNING grounds."

If the house in Stoke Bishop awaiting 'non-listed demolition work approval' is yours, come prepared for a long wait before your application comes up.

Category: general, in the news, legislation